YA Review: Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

things a bright girl.pngThe Premise: Teenage Suffragettes! What more could you possibly need to know?

Thoughts: I am so happy that this book has been written; I’ma big fan of YA novels that consider the experiences of teenagers in important historical periods, and Sally Nicholls’ choice of early 20th century London and the Suffragette movement is enthralling.

I found the depiction of the 3 central heroines both educational and entertaining. My favourite was privileged Evelyn, who joins the Suffragettes primarily as an act of petulance, rebelling against the parents who won’t let her go to Oxford and would prefer her to practise being an obedient wife. Working class Nell represents the opposite end of society, sharing a 2 room home with 5 siblings and her parents, as well as questioning her sexuality. The third protagonist is May, following her mother on Suffragette marches and peace initiatives from a life of relative comfort.

The level of historical detail here is excellent, with relevant references to real-life figures like Sylvia Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison neatly woven into the narrative. Aspects of the Suffragettes’ struggle, particularly hunger strikes and their effects on the body, are well-used, adding both depth and horror to the description of how the vote was finally gained. I found the representation of the fight for Votes for Women really compelling.

Inevitably, as it’s a historical novel set in that period, World War I comes along and ruins everything; aside from the terrible impact on each of the main characters, this has an effect on the story too, as the fight for women’s rights falls to the wayside. Obviously this is historically accurate (and I also learned new things about how the Suffragettes contributed to supporting families left behind as husbands and fathers went off to fight) but I missed the strong feminist outlook of the book’s first half.

In Conclusion: Overall, I strongly recommend this book, both to teen and adult readers. It offers a fascinating perspective on a turbulent and crucial period of history, as well as being extremely well-written and, when appropriate, highly entertaining.

YA Review: Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence

indigo donut.pngThe Premise: (from NetGalley) Seventeen-year-old Indigo has had a tough start in life, having grown up in the care system after her dad killed her mum. Bailey, also seventeen, lives with his parents in Hackney and spends all his time playing guitar or tending to his luscious ginger afro.

When Indigo and Bailey meet at sixth form, serious sparks fly. But when Bailey becomes the target of a homeless man who seems to know more about Indigo than is normal, Bailey is forced to make a choice he should never have to make.

Thoughts: as with her YA Book Prize-winning debut, Orangeboy, Lawrence has crafted a story that is simultaneously topical, hard-hitting and emotive, with the character of Indigo and her traumatic backstory. Indigo’s a really compelling character, battling the rage that bubbles inside when she’s picked on at school (on a side note, are there seriously teenagers who bully someone about their murdered mum? Like, actually? I really want to believe that this is artistic licence).  Her relationships with her foster mother and foster brother are sweet without being cloying, which is right for a character as prickly as Indigo. Her love of Debbie Harry and Blondie was another aspect of the character that really appealed to me, and it’s this which sparks the friendship between Indigo and Bailey.

Bailey’s sections of the story have plenty of intriguing material too. The contrast between Indigo’s life and Bailey’s affluent, supportive parents is stark and plays an important part in highlighting the various injustices Indigo has been exposed to. I didn’t care about Bailey quite as much, but his privilege in contrast to Indigo’s troubles probably makes this inevitable. The addition of the homeless man with a weird amount of knowledge about Indigo’s life adds impetus to the plot, and leads to satisfying revelations at the end.

In Conclusion: Patrice Lawrence gets it right once again, with another YA novel that explores race and class and their continuing impact on teenagers’ lives in 2017. Her writing is vibrant but uncompromising, making Indigo Donut a compelling read.


Review: I’ll Be Home for Christmas

i'll be home for christmasI’ll Be Home for Christmas is a collection of short stories by UK YA authors, raising awareness of homelessness, as well as cash for Crisis, the national homelessness charity; £1 from the sale of every copy will go to the charity. Aside from having laudable and excellent intentions, the anthology is a really good read, with not one dud amongst the stories collected.

The stories here can be broadly divided into two categories; the ones that cover ‘standard’ YA fare like relationships, parental divorce and friendships, and those which take a more imaginative approach to the theme of ‘home,’ like Marcus Sedgwick’s wonderful If Only In My Dreams, which is set in space, and Julie Mayhew’s fairy tale-esque story of a young girl with an over-protective father. Homelessness, obviously, is a key theme, with Benjamin Zephaniah, Kevin Brooks and Lisa Williamson approaching the topic from different, but equally affecting perspectives.

There are authors here whose work I already admire, like Williamson and Holly Bourne, and some with whose work I was previously unfamiliar, like Sita Brahmachari and Tom Becker. Others, like Zephaniah, are authors whose previous writing hasn’t really engaged me, but his poem, Home and Away, opens the collection and is superb, deftly using simple language to tell a powerful story. I really enjoyed Non Pratt’s story, Ghosts of Christmas Past, in which a teenage boy and his mum have to live with his nan after his parents’ divorce. It’s sweet and touching without being sickly, and it made me want to read more by Pratt.

The strongest contributions here, for me, were those by Sedgwick, Becker and Brahmachari; Claws, Becker’s spooky Christmas story about a cursed village had me intrigued and terrified, while Amir and George, Brahmachari’s tale of an orphaned refugee trying to take part in a public speaking contest, was perfectly pitched and had me wanting to give hugs to fictional characters. Melvin Burgess’ story, When Daddy Comes Home, predictably, was the strangest, told from the perspective of the deranged son of a disgraced Prime Minister; the fact that this was sandwiched between Christmas, Take Two, Katy Cannon’s story of a teen’s first Christmas with her new step-family and Julie Mayhew’s dreamlike story of ogres and towers, The Bluebird, really shows the strength and diversity of the collection. Each story here is distinct and unique, following the themes of style of the writer’s other work but clearly different from everything else in the book.

I read an eARC of I’ll Be Home for Christmas but I’ll definitely be buying a paperback when it comes out; even as I read, I was thinking of ways to use the stories at school and I know I’ll want to read them again. The collection has definitely given me some new authors to look up.

Review: Blame by Simon Mayo

blameIn case you’re thinking that every possible dystopian idea has already been written about, think again. Simon Mayo’s Blame imagines a society in which the relatives of criminals can be tried and imprisoned in the absence of those who actually did the crime; this means prisons full of people who haven’t actually done anything, which, you’ll be amazed to learn, is not a universally popular system. Through the eyes of Ant, a teenage ‘heritage crime’ prisoner, we are taken behind the bars of Spike, a London prison in which families are locked up for the relations’ arsons, armed robberies and embezzlements. Funnily enough, Ant is not a big fan of the system which has her and her younger brother, Mattie, locked away for something they didn’t even do, and Blame is focused mainly on the ways in which she fights the system, which escalate as the story progresses. It’s kind of Prison Break for adolescents.

Ant is a suitably spiky heroine; there’s a bit of a “chosen one” cliche running through the story, but it’s based on her determination and leadership rather than magic powers or anything, so her role as a figurehead for a revolution is convincing. Mattie is much younger and less savvy, but he is no sap and the relationship between the brother and sister is touching in a non-sentimental way. It’s hard to fully get to know the other characters in amongst all the action, with only Max, Ant and Mattie’s foster-brother, really getting enough focus for the reader to care about him.

The idea of heritage crime is interesting and I was intrigued when more details were dripfed into the novel; although there were a few gaps which made the concept a little less convincing, it’s easy to imagine this kind of scapegoating, particularly in a pos-Brexit Britain still battling the ridiculous idea that immigrants are the source of all evil. Mayo realistically depicts the hostility towards the “strutters,” as well as the right-wing rhetoric of the authorities in feeding that ill-feeling. In my never-ending struggle to find books I can use as my answer at parents’ evenings when I’m asked what boys should be reading, I feel like Blame is one answer to that question; it’s loaded with action, with no let-up in the rioting, chasing, punching and shouting. When reading action-packed books like this, I do sometimes wish everyone would just sit down and have a rest and a biscuit or something, although apparently this isn’t much of a possibility when you’re on the run from the law. All the frenzied running about was a little bit much for my delicate, character-development-loving brain, but it’s certainly not boring. The last quarter, in particular, is excellent, as well as a bit horrific.

Blame is an exciting YA read, with loads of action and an engaging premise. Mayo has come up with a scenario which is just believable enough to instil a tiny bit of fear in the reader’s mind. It’s definitely something I’ll be recommending to the teenagers I teach.