‘The Last Samsara’ – Kristen Ciccarelli

In the beginning, there was the Namsara: the child of sky and spirit, who carried love and laughter wherever he went. But where there is light, there must be darkness—and so there was also the Iskari. The child of blood and moonlight. The destroyer. The death-bringer.

From its opening lines where Asha lures the dragon by telling it a story, we are in fantasy territory and it is compelling stuff.

From childhood Asha has lived with the old tales about the Namsara and the Iskari. They cost her mother her life, and Asha knows she cannot ever let anyone know she continues to tell them in spite of her father’s edict banning them. Yet, as her country’s Iskari, Asha is forced to hunt dragons and do what she can to prove herself good.

As the opening in a series we know there’s a much grander scope to this tale. However, for the first instalment we are given plenty to entertain us.

We watch Asha struggle with her sense of duty; we have the background of the country’s turmoil; there’s the callous Jarek, to whom Asha has been pledged; we have a developing romance, some truly inspiring relationships and…dragons.

I wasn’t totally convinced when I saw the cover that I would like this. Thankfully, it entranced me from the start and I cannot wait to see how Ciccarelli continues this tale.

‘The Taste of Blue Light’ – Lydia Ruffles

 

Since I blacked out, the slightest thing seems to aggravate my brain and fill it with fire’

These are the things Lux knows:
She is an Artist.
She is lucky.
She is broken.

These are the things she doesn’t know:
What happened over the summer.
Why she ended up in hospital.
Why her memories are etched in red.

‘The nightmares tend to linger long after your screams have woken you up …’

Desperate to uncover the truth, Lux’s time is running out. If she cannot piece together the events of the summer and regain control of her fractured mind, she will be taken away from everything and everyone she holds dear.

If her dreams don’t swallow her first.

There’s no doubt about it that this contemporary YA read – due to be published in early February 2018 – packs a powerful punch.

Initially, Lux was not a character to feel empathy with. Her unwillingness to engage with things and people made her hard to care about. The environment in which she cloisters herself is alien to many of us.

Yet as the story progressed I found myself falling under a spell. Desperate to know what happened, we do get answers, and they are far more topical than we might expect. All along I had an idea in which way the book was heading (which wouldn’t have been awful), but Ruffles goes for something much bolder and braver…and it pays off.

This is one book I feel it’s best to know little about before reading. It is not immediately seeking to attract your attention, but it sneaks up on you. Once I’d closed the pages I was desperate to read it again.

‘The Wren Hunt’ – Mary Watson

The hunt for the wren is a traditional Irish event, taking place in late December, which is thought to symbolise the sacrifice of the old year in readiness to welcome in the new.

In this novel, an assured debut, we focus on the fight for survival of two ancient groups – augurs and judges – and the young girl born of both groups who is to decide their fate.

Initially, I have to say this was a puzzling start. I was not sure who Wren was, how she was connected to events or even what kind of book this was. However, the writing style totally drew me in and I felt that we learned of some of the key events through the eyes of our main character which allowed us to truly empathise with her.

The story drew heavily on folklore and the fantasy elements of this entranced me. The development of our main character will surely be enough to captivate most people and I was more than a little surprised by the themes and ideas that ran through this.

Though I have read that there is a second book due – and it should provide us with a satisfying link to what we see here – this is one of those rare books that you would not feel hard-done by if it remained a stand-alone. It’s also a story that I think would be one I could read again and still delight in.

A huge thank you to the publishers Bloomsbury, the author Mary Watson and a NetGalley for allowing me the chance to read this prior to publication.

‘The Nowhere Girls’ – Amy Reed

At a time when we can easily see some of the awful comments attributed to one of the most powerful men in the United States revealing his derogatory attitude to women and when the #MeToo campaign is sharing more and more disturbing stories of how women are treated, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is one of those books that everyone should be encouraged to engage with.

The Nowhere Girls. A group of young women, from all spheres of life, who come together to try to combat the toxic culture in their hometown.

New girl Grace is unsure how to fit in. As the only child of devout Christians their life has been in upheaval as their old church community was resistant to having Grace’s mum as a pastor. She wants to stand for something, but is so unsure of herself at the start of the novel. Grace finds herself making a rather unusual choice of friends at her new school, and when she learns that the girl who used to live in her home was forced to leave school after accusing three star footballers of rape she is determined to make a stand.

Along with Grace we are told the story from the points of view of Rosina and Erin. Each have their own concerns that impact on their lives, but their voices were pretty authentic. I was particularly fond of Erin who was a character you couldn’t help but root for.

As the Nowhere Girls movement gathers force we see the impact it has on some of the key players in perpetuating this slut-shaming culture. Small steps initially, but there is a hint of light at the end of the tunnel.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this relatively happy ending would not happen in real-life. I was repulsed by some of the characters (intentionally I think) and really irritated by the complacent and, at times, combative attitudes of those who have the power to tackle such institutional sexism.

With explicit scenes featuring sexual violence this will not be an easy read, but it’s a sadly necessary one. My biggest gripe with this was the relentlessly happy ending that, for me, belies the battle that many in such a situation will face. However, that doesn’t detract from the need for novels such as this to encourage young men and women to consider how they can truly make a difference.

‘Brightly Burning’ – Alexa Donne

The gravity stabilizers were failing again. I glanced up from my sketchpad to see globules of liquid dancing up from my drinking glass. They shimmered red, like droplets of blood, though I knew it was just cherry-flavored nutri-drink. Dammit, that’s my protein ration for the day wasted.

A sigh escaped me, and resignedly I stowed my drawing tablet and stylus in the drawer under my mattress. They would be calling me any minute.

A moment later, right on time: “Stella Ainsley, please report to Area Twelve.” The speaker crackled and popped, as it had done for years. I’d tried to fix it, but on a ship as old as the Stalwart, there was only so much you could do.

With this extract from the opening chapter of Donne’s debut, due for publication in May 2018, we can see this is no ordinary retelling of Jane Eyre.

From the moment I saw this on NetGalley I have to say I was curious about how it would work. There’s a few differences in order to fit the futuristic space setting, but it’s quite faithful to the original text.

Seventeen year old Stella is determined to not end up an engineer the rest of her life. With her space home looking close to the end, her choices are limited. When she gets a post as governess on board the much better-equipped Rochester we know exactly where this is going.

Many of the expected events are there. It was good fun to spot the links (while not being too precious about the adaptations made to fit the new setting) and I could see this appealing to teens with no sense of the source material, as well as being a bit of fun for those who know what’s coming.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this prior to publication.

‘Piecing Me Together’ – Renée Watson

Thank you to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this.

In the sense that it explored race/identity it reminded me of The Hate U Give, but this focused also on our narrator, Jade, learning about who she was and how to feel comfortable in her skin.

A scholarship to a predominantly white school leads to our narrator feeling stuck in the middle. Too black for school; too white for home. When she’s signed up to participate in a mentoring program she starts a pretty tough process learning about what’s important to her.

Lots of questions raised about identity and the role race plays in our lives, and it was done in such a way that I think is pretty relatable on some level.

‘The Hazel Wood’ – Mimi Albert

‘Alice in Wonderland’ for contemporary readers seems to be the consensus of some early reviewers. Like Stephanie Garber’s ‘Caraval’ this is a novel that looks like it will inspire extreme responses. With a lyrical prose style, some dark content and a sustained use of the absurd, this book will either appeal completely and be devoured in one sitting, or you’ll admire parts of it but be left generally non-plussed.

I was completely smitten!

Alice has never met her grandmother, a reclusive writer, but her short book of fairy tales is a literary phenomenon. The stories surrounding the writer and her mysterious Hazel Wood estate hint at strange events. The only things Alice knows for certain is that her mother, Ella, is determined she will never go there and that she has spent her life moving from place to place hiding from the strange things that follow them.

One day Ella goes missing. Alice becomes convinced that the odd characters she sees have something to do with it. Mysterious letters arrive for Alice, but nobody can help her. With the aid of super-fan, Finch, Alice resolves to make her way to Hazel Wood and learn for herself the truth about the Hinterland.

Nothing could prepare her – or us – for what she learns.

Having been declined for an ARC from the American publishers of this book I thought I was stuck waiting for my copy to come in February. Then Penguin UK came to my rescue…I can’t wait to read it again, which I think is the surest sign of a book finding its mark.

‘Time Bomb’ – Joelle Charbonneau

A story about trying to find your place, and working out just how far you’ll go to make people accept you for who you are.

This is a tense read, which will thrill and captivate readers. With a cast of six key characters there is someone you are likely to identify with.

Charbonneau starts by introducing our cast. We get to see them all before the action starts: Diana (the senator’s daughter/perfect student); new girl, Cas (about to start a new school after being bullied); Palestinian-American Rashid (conflicted about his place in society); class nobody Z (who has been coping with his mother’s death and is about to be evicted at the start of the novel); Frankie, star football player and Tad, the mixed-race gay student who is a little closer to Frankie than people realise. They each have their dark secret and issues that impact on their daily lives. They each are desperate to be recognised for who they really are. But only one of them is desperate enough to cause chaos at their school.

While it seems slow and rather cumbersome to introduce us to so many characters and switch between them throughout the novel, it’s a useful tactic to keep us guessing about just who has done what and where it will end up.

A bit like some of those 80s movies the group who seem to have little in common end up stuck together when a series of bombs hit their school. They have to work together to try and survive, and to determine just how desperate each of them is to make their mark.

It was quickly apparent who was likely to be responsible for the events, but this was a tense read as we watch the teenagers struggle with themselves and their situation. It doesn’t end happily for everyone, but for those who do survive we get a flash of how it impacts on them.

‘The Truth and Lies of Ella Black’ – Emily Barr

I’ve loved the other books by Emily Barr that I’ve read, but this didn’t quite work as I’d hoped.

The premise sounds great.

Seventeen year old Ella has a perfect life. There’s hints of a dysfunctional personality when she refers to herself as Bella (Bad Ella, the one who says what she really thinks) and some details that are given to make more credible what is revealed later. One day she is taken out of school and whisked off to Rio by her parents. There she makes some pretty startling discoveries, and it launches a rather incredible series of events.

Ella seemed a little caricatured initially, and this split personality is part-explained later but it doesn’t really fit together. Once in Rio she doesn’t really push for answers, being more content to pursue the hot American staying in her hotel. Of course, they fall in love and he supports her in spite of the kind of chaos that would have most people running a mile! There’s a few near misses, but nothing too awful happens and Ella just happens to bump into kind-hearted characters who all help her out.

I can’t understand why so many reviewers have said they didn’t finish this, but it isn’t a particularly believable story and there isn’t enough detail about the characters of most interest to me.

Still, thank you NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

‘Lucky Girl’ – Amanda Maciel

Thank you to publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication. A hard-hitting and topical read, that will probably appeal to teen readers.

Rosie is one of those girls it would be easy to hate. Pretty and popular, she is used to using her looks to get what she wants. Initially, she seems shallow and quite unlikeable and definitely not a good friend to Maddie. However, Maciel tries to show there’s more to Rosie than people realise.

After her best friend returns from a summer in Spain, Rosie is jealous of her new relationship. Sadly, she ends up in a situation she can’t control and feels alone after she is assaulted by her ex. There’s no graphic description of the assault, and alongside the current media focus on sexual harassment it’s important to get teen readers exploring just what constitutes assault. Sadly I think there’ll be many teen readers who will recognise what happens to Rosie as an all-too-familiar story, and all too many who will think Rosie is wrong to question what happens to her.

Sadly, the novel felt like a powerful idea that didn’t quite work out. I personally felt I got too side-tracked by the plots surrounding Sophie’s relationship with her sister, and her friendship with Alex. Throwing in a best gay friend story felt like too many bases were being covered to really explore any in depth.