‘The Ones that Disappeared’ – Zana Fraillon

I first came across Fraillon when I read The Bone Sparrow for the 2017 Carnegie Awards. Here we have another novel where the author takes on the voice of the dispossessed: three street kids-Miran, Esra and Isa.

We don’t know the exact details of their home lives, but these three could be any child kept in poverty and forced to work for criminal gangs. The children are kept in a locked-up home, forced to tend the marijuana plants and harvest the drug ready for sale. They are beaten, slowly being poisoned by the chemicals used in the process and under constant threat that they might be used elsewhere or turned onto the streets when they outlive their usefulness. One can only imagine the heartache their families might endure as they believe their child has been taken abroad to be educated, and they’re not heard of again. And they’re the lucky ones, as many of these kids will come from war or other terrible experiences and have no family.

These three have to run after an accident ruins the crop they were tending. Miran is taken by the police – the police they have been trained not to trust – and their life on the run means Esra and Isa are in constant fear of being found by their ‘owner’. Determined to find Miran, the children never lose hope.

This is a bleak read. The story behind what we’re being told is truly upsetting, and told through the childrens’ eyes their story becomes even more touching. They should not be facing these experiences.

Perhaps to offset the bleakness of a story about human trafficking we get the character of Skeet, a young boy who’s as lost as they are but who does have potential to help. There’s also the David Almond-esque magical character of Riverman who looks out for the kids and helps them on their quest.

Not an enjoyable read in terms of content, but beautifully told and very very necessary.

Thanks to NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for my review.

‘Beck’ – Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff


Going into this I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Early reviews on the Carnegie Shadowing site seem to be focusing on the inappropriateness of this novel for teen readers, and the concerns over the graphic nature of the abuse experienced by the main character. Looking beyond these comments I learned that Peet had been inspired to write this after reading something about the historical abuse of children sent to Canada and Australia. Of course it’s not going to be all sweetness and light!

With something of a heavy heart I set myself to read this. Oh, how I was doing this book a disservice.

The opening part gives us, very tersely, the background to Beck and immediately makes it clear that this is a boy who was not going to get a good deal in life. I read with a sense of detachment of his early years in the orphanage in Liverpool. Beck gives little comment on this, and the decision to not write this in first-person means we don’t have to go too deep into the emotions/thoughts of the character though it’s all too clear how he’s feeling. I was disgusted by the way in which these boys were packed off to Canada and the lack of care and compassion shown to them.

As part one focuses on the historical element of Beck’s story we cannot shy away from the time he spends with the Brothers. From early on there are hints of bad things happening, and the little details suggesting the abuse experienced by many of the boys indicates the scale of this horror. A number of reviews express concern at the graphic nature of the bath scene where Brother Robert attempts to seduce Beck. I confess to reading this feeling very uncomfortable, and my relief when Beck fought back was chillingly quashed moments later when we were categorically told the results of him not complying with events. An event that will linger long in the memory but, however uncomfortable it made me, it is fact and a truth that deserves to be told.

Watching Beck as he journeys through life was bleak. He is not treated well, and on the rare occasions he is shown love and compassion events conspire to make him feel that he cannot trust anyone. It was a sobering thought that the criminals he encounters are actually the people who treat him most kindly.

When Beck is finally discovered by Grace they appear to have little in common. Over time, they establish a close bond and this attempt to provide Beck with some redemption was welcomed by me. I certainly didn’t read this section feeling that their intimacy was unwelcome. If anything, the fact that someone who had experienced such pain and misery could still find it within themself to love was inspiring.

Peet – and Rosoff who completed the novel after his death – are favourites to win this year’s award. By the comments on the Shadowing site there’ll be lots of students denied the chance to read this and form their own opinion of it. That is a shame. It’s a tough read, without a doubt, but there’s a lot to admire in this.

‘Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth’ – Frank Cottrell Boyce

Sputniks Guide to Life on Earth

A rather typical Cottrell Boyce story, full of good-humour and also packing an emotional punch that seems rather at odds with its cover.

In this story, short-listed for the 2017 Carnegie Awards, we follow a young boy called Prez. Prez is being fostered by a larger-than-life family as his grandfather is suffering from dementia and cannot look after him any more. Whether Prez is unaware of this or in denial about it is not immediately clear, but he is a boy who is having a tough time of it.

This background to Prez’s story immediately warms us to him, but then things take an unexpected twist when Sputnik arrives on the doorstep of the Blythe family. Sputnik, to everyone else, looks like a dog but to Prez he reveals himself to be an alien come to Earth as part of a mission to find ten things to recommend about Earth in order to save it from part of a galactic tidy-up. What follows is utterly fantastic, but tremendous fun that will certainly appeal to younger readers.

There are some wonderful comic scenes – Sputnik interfering with the toy lightsaber and turning it into a weapon of destruction, and the ‘break-out’ of a busload of young offenders were amongst my highlights – and yet increasingly coming to the fore is a focus on the relationship between a  young boy and his grandfather, two like-minded souls who have to come to terms with their shifting relationship.

While I don’t see it as a winner for the Carnegie – it seems to be in the wrong age-group for the intended audience – this was a surprise hit.

‘Railhead’ – Philip Reeve


I picked this up as it was on the short-list for 2017 Carnegie Awards. There’s been a fair amount of criticism over the choices for this year, so I’m curious to read those on the list and see why they’ve been selected (having read a lot of the nominations and been surprised not to see some on the final list).

This is a book that I can’t help but feel doesn’t do itself justice. The cover and blurb very strongly hint at its sci-fi/cyberpunk style, and I don’t think it screams ‘read me’ to teen readers. What a shame for those who don’t bother to pick it up!

In ‘Railhead’ – the first in a trilogy – Reeve creates a world where humans are no longer bound to Earth, and are able to move from planet to planet by passing through gateways while travelling on sentient trains. Those who travel in this way (railheads) form something of a unique community, and not all seem so keen to allow such travel to take place freely.

‘Railhead’ tells us the story of petty thief Zen Starling. He is one of the aforementioned railheads, and from the start it is strongly suggested that there is more to him than meets the eye. When we are initially introduced to Zen and his family his selfishness was clear to see. This is the boy who himself says he will always choose the winning side, but there is something admirable about him. As we see him get caught up in something we don’t fully understand it takes a while to get answers, but we soon come to realise there’s a whole lot more going on here than we first thought.

The style of the book is eminently readable, and the characters – though quite selfish and unlikeable – do act in ways that I couldn’t help but warm to. The depiction of the futuristic world was incredible, and I have to admire the way Reeve actually got me to care about what are, essentially, machines – whether that was the trains (including the Thought Fox, about which I could see myself having nightmares), the creepy Hive Monks or the wonderful Motoriks! I really liked most of the main characters and the sense of threads coming together as I progressed through the story was immensely satisfying.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I felt this really held a mirror up to many of the advances/concerns of our world and will encourage readers to consider their views on a number of topics. Going into this with fairly low expectations, I am pleasantly shocked by how much I enjoyed this story. So much so I’ve ordered book two!

‘The Marvels’ – Brian Selznick

The Marvels

When I ordered this from my local library I really did not know what to expect. First impressions – and I’m being honest – were that it was VERY heavy, but that it looked beautiful with the gold trimmed pages and the intricate design on the front cover.

The story begins with almost 400 pages of pictures. They are wonderful illustrations, but it did make me nervous as it is so different to the usual thing I read.  However, from the opening pictures – where we see young Billy Marvel shipwrecked and his rescue – I was entranced. This is the kind of thing that you could return to time and time again, and not tire of looking for further details as you become more familiar with the story. Watching the history of The Marvels unfold before my eyes was intriguing, and I was rather sad when our story turned to 1990 and the prose section.

For those who admire the illustrations I can imagine this section – focusing on Joseph Jervis running away to London to visit his mysterious uncle – will be off putting. However, unravelling the mysteries of Albert’s story and the links to the earlier part of the book were immensely satisfying.

As soon as I finished this I felt I’d spent time with something truly wonderful. It was a real work of art, and I was most intrigued by the afterword, where the author reveals the source of this story. I’ve never heard of Dennis Severs before reading this, but I feel compelled to read more about his amazing home.

This didn’t make it onto the shortlist of the 2017 Carnegie Awards, but it is on the Greenway Awards shortlist and is a book that I can see finding itself a place on my bookshelf in the near future.

‘A Seven Letter Word’ – Kim Slater

A Seven Letter Word

While I’d enjoyed Slater’s debut, ‘Smart’, the protagonist was not necessarily one that people easily warmed to. With Finlay Macintosh Slater has created a young character who has plenty to admire, without him coming across as irritating.

It’s been a couple of years since Finlay’s mum disappeared with no explanation. His stammer has got worse since her disappearance, and he is being bullied at his new school. Finlay’s dad is barely holding things together and we can see he is struggling to support Finlay as he deals with his own feelings. It would be all too easy to paint Finlay as a victim, but – as in life – there’s a lot of positives to him, and it’s a case of him starting to recognise those strengths.

Finlay, though he struggles with speaking, is actually a genius at Scrabble. He ends up involved with his school Scrabble club and, through a number of very convenient factors, ends up forming new friendships, learning about himself and even getting his happy ending (of sorts).


‘Cuckoo’ – Keren David


As a child soap star, Jake is used to everyone knowing his name and following his every move. One day his character goes up to his bedroom and, six months later, still hasn’t been seen or heard from. Nobody is quite sure what is happening, but then real life takes over and becomes far more dramatic than any story-line Jake has been involved in previously.

Told in an interesting format, we are given the script for a project that Jake decides to post on YouTube in order to give his view of events. As the main protagonist in the story, we’re never certain to what extent Jake is biased in his account, and the comments from other characters does suggest strongly that there is more to the story than Jake is telling us.

The novel focuses on Jake’s deteriorating relationship with his family and shows the ease with which somebody can lose their comfortable life. We are shown Jake dealing with life on the streets, but he falls on his feet and ends up becoming friends with an elderly recluse who just happened to be a great actress.

If I’m entirely honest, this felt rather disjointed and like there was too much going on at one time. Though I enjoyed the general idea, I do wish that David had resisted the urge to give Jake the Hollywood-ending.

‘The Other Alice’ – Michelle Harrison

The Other AliceFrom the moment I saw this cover, I was intrigued. Even without knowing it was by Michelle Harrison, once I read the outline for this story I was desperate to read it.

Midge has always loved his sister Alice’s stories, but he’s acutely aware of the hold they have over her. Alice has always been adamant that a story cannot be left unfinished, and when she has been unable to resolve a story, strange things have happened.

When Alice goes missing, Midge is convinced that the answer lies somewhere in her writing. Her notebook has gone missing, but Midge – along with a curious cast of characters from Alice’s own stories – are determined to find her and help the characters work out their ending.

What follows is a skilful blend of magic and horror, full of riddles and an almost grotesque cast of characters that will haunt your imagination for a long time after you close the pages of the novel. Recommended for readers above 9 years, I think this will also appeal to anyone who loves stories and writing.

I’m not sure if this will make it past the nominations stage for the Carnegie 2017 Awards, but it’s definitely one I’d recommend.

‘Twenty Questions for Gloria’ – Martyn Bedford

Twenty Questions for Gloria

Gloria was missing for over two weeks, and nobody had any idea where she was. All they knew is that she was likely to be with Uman, a new boy in the area who seemed to have a hold over Gloria.

There’s no getting away from the fact that Gloria is an incredibly selfish character, who really seems most naïve in some ways. She is suffering from a state of perpetual boredom, and is clearly struggling to feel loved in a family where her brother has left for university and her parents are busy with their own interests. It’s little surprise that when Uman comes along she falls quite heavily for him. He’s different, doesn’t want to do the same things as her friends and has a strong sense of self-confidence that must be very appealing for a young girl who is so full of self-doubt.

When we first meet Gloria she is sitting with her mother in a police interview room, about to speak with the police about where she has been for the last fifteen days. Slowly, we are told some of the details about how she and Uman arrived at the decision to leave their homes and what they did during the time they were away. Gloria’s parents and the police seem convinced that Uman manipulated her into running away, but Gloria’s story denies this.

Throughout the story I have to confess to thinking how immature the two main characters were. Simply using ‘big words’ doesn’t make you clever, and the issues that they face when they are hiding out reveals clearly just how ill-equipped they are for looking after themselves.

There are hints throughout that there is more to Uman’s story than Gloria is told; we never get a satisfactory answer to this. This had the potential to be a great story – sadly, it never quite got there in my view.


‘All of the Above’ – Juno Dawson (published as James Dawson)

all of the above

‘All of the Above’ is one of those books that I wish I’d been able to read as a teenager as Dawson has such a distinctive voice, exploring some of the concerns you might face with candour. That said, it isn’t exactly comfortable reading. I picked this up as it’s on the nominations for Carnegie 2017, but all I could think was I’ll never get this into our school library!

When Toria moves to the back of beyond she imagines hiding out until school finishes. What she gets instead is a rather unusual group of new friends, and some interesting experiences.

There is a small warning on the back about strong language, but exploring sexuality and showing teenagers drinking/drug-taking means this is going to be one of those novels that will get some het up about the content rather than focusing on its relevance. There is a knowingness to this that could be off-putting, and I sensed some editorial judgements that led to a real conflict. The word ‘f***k’ was starred throughout the novel, yet other terms that might be considered more derogatory were used without concern and printed in full. I’d be interested to know the background to this decision, but I did feel it painted a somewhat skewed picture of this group of teens. 

Ignoring those reactions, the story itself was compelling for what it showed us about the friendships within it. Toria veers between self-obsessed drama queen and painstakingly shy – but her hesitancy and discomfort in her own skin was very real. Polly is a force to be reckoned with; not always likeable but eminently lovable. Beasley was a guy that had you rooting for him to get his happy ending. Daisy…think I’m in love! Her struggle was dealt with sympathetically, but without it all being too saccharine. Nico could have been a character to loathe, but he’s a good guy who just happens to not be the one for that moment.

While there were bits I was less keen on – the whole crazy golf setting became wearing – I felt Dawson captured well that sense of self-doubt. This was a novel that bravely shows sometimes people get it wrong, and that’s okay.