YA Review: A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars by Yaba Badoe

jigsaw of fire and starsThe Premise: fourteen year old Sante is a member of a traveling circus, adopted by Mama Rose after being washed ashore as a baby. Sante was the sole survivor of the sinking of a ship carrying migrants and refugees and remains haunted by the idea of her lost people even years later. Arriving in Cadiz with her adopted family and the circus, Sante encounters trouble in the form of figures from the past and a deep web of corruption and crime.


Thoughts: A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is a wildly original novel and something really different in YA. The juxtaposition of Sante’s past as a refugee and the tragedy of her lost family with the modern day issues of human trafficking and forced prostitution which arise later on create something quite shocking and very hard-hitting. In combination with this, there are varying kinds of magic realism within the novel too; Sante is literally haunted by the ghosts of those who didn’t survive the shipwreck, and she has strange psychic powers. It’s ambitious for Badoe to combine these realistic and magical features into one narrative, although it is also quite confusing; I sometimes felt like I was reading two books spliced together and it was occasionally difficult to keep track of everything that was happening.

For some reason, I’ve read a handful of novels set in and around circuses this year, and, as in the others, I really enjoyed the descriptions of Sante’s act and the rest of the troupe’s performances; although these bits didn’t use magic, there was something really special about the descriptions that made it easy to feel absorbed into the action. The risks involved in the circus performances are reflected in the sense of danger seen throughout the novel, as Sante and her friends take on the sex traffickers who threaten a newfound acquaintance. The book certainly conveys a sense of danger throughout, particularly in the sections that see Sante in direct conflict with the villains.

In Conclusion: A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is an ambitious, diverse and challenging novel, the like of which I’m really pleased to see in YA. It’s vastly different to anything else being marketed at teens and also features plenty to engage an adult reader. I found it a little too free-wheeling, with dramatic plot events preventing me from fully caring about the characters, which is a shame given the seriousness of the subject matter. It’s definitely an interesting and intriguing book though, and one which is worth looking up.

YA Review: This Book Will (Help You) Change the World by Sue Turton

this book will help you.pngThe Premise: Award-winning journalist Sue Turton explains the political system that rules our daily lives while also pointing out its flaws – and empowers readers to change the status quo. Disrupt the system from within by joining political parties or inspire change through protest. Either way, this guide shows you how to avoid fake news, triumph in debates and grab the spotlight so your campaign can change the world.

Thoughts: a short but informative read, This Book Will (Help You) Change the World takes its reader through a range of useful primers on British politics and how the system works, from voting registration to the ‘first past the post’ principle to lobbying, with a shedload of detail along the way. Turton explains a lot of reasonably complex information in an accessible way; there were a few explanations which I found a little confusing (and I’m a 34 year old with a borderline obsessive interest in politics) but, having had many political discussions with teenagers over the past two year, I feel confident in saying this book will prove a useful tool in helping young people to become better informed before casting their own votes. Turton is relatively neutral, giving an overview of the system rather than specific policy, although, overall, I would say the book is more left-leaning, which fits with what we’re led to believe about voter habits in the UK in 2017.

From how the system works, Turton moves on to establishing how an individual can effect change, from joining a political party to starting petitions or lobbying an MP. Again, it’s stuff a politically-engaged adult would know, but invaluable for a teenager who has, perhaps, become more engaged with recent events in UK politics.

One last note; according to the blurb, the finished book will feature “hilarious tongue-in-cheek illustrations from activist-illustrator Alice Skinner;” disappointingly, these weren’t included in the e-ARC I read but it’s a great idea to include visual breaks in a non-fiction book for young people, so I’ll be on the look-out for a finished copy of the book to check these out.

In Conclusion: a whistle-stop tour through the UK political system and how it can be changed and improved, this is a really good read for any teenager with an interest in politics, or even an adult reader lacking the background knowledge to engage fully with current events. It’s a short read too, providing just enough information to spark or develop an interest.

YA Review: Invictus by Ryan Graudin

invictus.pngThe Premise (from NetGalley): Farway McCarthy was born outside of time. With nowhere to call home and nothing to anchor him to the present, Far captains a crew on a dangerous mission into the past. When he collides with Eliot – a mysterious, secretive girl, whose very appearance raises questions about time itself – Far immediately distrusts her. But he must take a leap of faith, following Eliot on a race against time, if he is to protect everything he’s ever loved from disappearing forever…

Thoughts: in the interests of full disclosure, I will hereby announce that I adored this book. Although, as I have frequently bemoaned, I don’t usually understand time travel, I absolutely love to read about it and the thought of Ryan Graudin – author of Wolf by Wolf, one of my favourite books of the last few years – publishing a book in this genre has had me giddy for months. Invictus doesn’t disappoint. The book gets off to a blistering start, with Farway’s mother in ancient Rome and accidentally giving birth outside of time (a concept I love), before heading 17 years into the future  to see Farway trying to graduate from time travel school. Or, as I like to think of it, the thinking reader’s Hogwarts. The pace is really fast and there aren’t any lulls as the book progresses, but somehow there’s no sense of things being rushed. If you’ve read Wolf by Wolf and Blood for Blood, you’ll know Graudin is a genius at managing loads of action alongside emotional developments, relationships you care about and fascinating backstories, and Invictus is no different. The plot is very sci-fi in ways I won’t explain because they would spoil it; it’s all very cool.

Invictus combines a few of my favourite things; aside from time travel, it almost seems like a space-set novel too, because of how much time is spent aboard the amazing-sounding time travel craft. The crew’s adventures throughout time mean that the book also contains lots of fun and impeccably researched historical details too; I particularly liked the way every detail of how this would work had been thought out, for example with the ship being crammed with historically accurate outfits fit for every era. The book only adds to the idea that time travel would be the coolest thing ever.

I loved the characters too and the rapport between Farway and his crew is both touching and very funny. The banter between those aboard the Invictus is a really entertaining part of the book and their close bond gives the dramatic bits real emotional import. Also they have a pet red panda, which is my main ambition in life.

In Conclusion: Invictus is everything I want in a book; it’s fun and exciting, with a wildly inventive plot (that actually makes sense – not always true in time travel stories), filled with fascinating characters and zingy dialogue. My only disappointment with the whole thing is that it’s a standalone book rather than the start of a series. I can’t wait to read what Graudin writes next.

Review: Another Fine Mess by Helen Epstein

another fine mess.pngThe Premise: In this powerful account of Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni’s 30 year reign, Helen Epstein chronicles how Western leaders’ single-minded focus on the War on Terror and their naive dealings with strongmen are at the root of much of the turmoil in eastern and central Africa. Museveni’s involvement in the conflicts in Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, and Somalia has earned him substantial amounts of military and development assistance, as well as near-total impunity. It has also short-circuited the power the people of this region might otherwise have over their destiny.

Thoughts: perhaps a slightly weird choice for my holiday reading, but a really captivating and absorbing one. I have a deeply held fascination with African history and politics, and Another Fine Mess is an extraordinary exploration of both. The combination of the seemingly unbelievable events and Epstein’s vibrant and propulsive style makes this an excellent read.
Prior to reading this, my knowledge of Uganda was limited to recent LGBT oppression, Idi Amin and Joseph Kony’s horrific actions in recruiting child soldiers. Thanks to Epstein, I can now also be outraged and horrified by Yoweri Museveni, Ugandan President since the 1980s and a leader of such low morals and high corruption that it’s supremely awful every time you remember he’s a real person and not an overblown fictional character.
Epstein’s main focus here is the enabling and supportive actions of the US, whose questionable approaches of providing aid without checking where it ended up while doing nothing to ensure the democratic process is followed have allowed Museveni, a leader widely believed to have had rivals murdered and rigged elections, to systematically deprive his citizens while lining his own pockets. It makes for genuinely shocking reading. Additionally, Epstein shows how much of the chaos of modern African history has been influenced by the US, either through action or inaction, firstly as a means of scoring points against the USSR during the Cold War and, more recently, in an effort to stifle radical Islamism in Sudan and beyond. It’s mindblowing. Epstein’s broadening focus also means other nations’ troubled recent histories are discussed, giving the reader a better grasp of Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda and the DRC too. While the fact that any of these awful things is possible makes no ethical sense to me, Another Fine Mess helped me to get my head round some issues which had previously confused me, like the terrible Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the chaotic wars fought in Zaire/DRC.

In Conclusion: a niche book, I suppose, but a fascinating, eye-opening and comprehensive one. Epstein brilliantly guides the reader through some incredibly complex political machinations, always bringing it back to the effects on ‘real’ people. I was enthralled by this book and I highly recommend it to readers with an interest in the history, present and future of the East African region.