YA Review: Girlcott by Florenz Webbe Maxwell

girlcott.pngOne of my big passions in reading is finding reasonably obscure YA novels, especially diverse ones that also come under the heading of historical fiction. In Girlcott, I found something to satisfy all these needs.

Set in the Bahamas in 1959, Girlcott tells the story of a real-life boycott which was aimed at ending racial segregation. Our main figure in the story is sixteen year old Desma, who is looking forward both to her birthday celebrations and the scholarship which will give her a chance to achieve her dream of becoming qualified as an actuary. But when the mysterious Progressive League announces a boycott of cinemas as a protest against the segregation that negatively impacts the black population, Desma finds her plans derailed in more ways than one.

In some ways, Girlcott is a little frustrating; the politics in the background are intriguing, but Desma, initially anyway, is only concerned about whether her birthday party will go ahead, which irritated me until I remember that she’s a teenager so it’s quite likely that her feelings would be shared by any other nearly sixteen year old anywhere. Her early self-centredness makes her gradual understanding more effective too, as she quickly learns the significance and necessity of what the Progressive League is doing.

There are some very effective sections in the book. The one which has stuck with me the most since reading concerned Desma and a local white family for whom she had babysat, and who are keen for her to come and work for them as a nanny. Early in the novel, Desma turns down this offer, but has to do so delicately to avoid causing offence, even though it is her who should be affronted by a suggestion that doesn’t take into account her potential. It’s an eye-opening episode, for both Desma and the reader.

Girlcott is a pretty slight novel – it took me less than a couple of hours to read – but it packs a punch by using real-life but little known events that have topical value even now. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for more varied YA, particularly those with an interest in history.

YA Review: Satellite by Nick Lake

The Premise: Leo, Libra and Orion are counting down to the day they can go home. Of course, having been born and raised on a spaceship, they haven’t ever actually been ‘home’ to Earth, so it’s a complicated situation made more so by government secrets, unexpected twists and messy family relationships.

Why you should read it: Satellite is an excellent YA sci-fi, with emphasis on the ‘sci’ part. The beginning, with the action set on board the spaceship, is hugely detailed without ever becoming too much. I’m no scientist and I can’t pretend to have understood all the science exposition, but I was never less than intrigued by it. The story develops superbly too; I was worried that I’d lose interest once the action moved Earthwards, but Lake’s plot is twisty and turny enough to keep any reader enthralled. I lap up space-set novels anyway, but I was no less interested when the setting became more familiar. 

There are lots of absorbing elements to the plot, my favourite of which was the complex family dynamic between Leo and his astronaut mother and retired astronaut grandfather. There’s so much bubbling beneath the surface in these relationships that I was very much intrigued. 

And, once again, space. SPACE! 

Be warned: the narrative, from Leo’s PoV, is written in a sort-of text-speak, without certain punctuation marks and with abbreviations like “c” for “see”. To begin with, I will admit to having found it quite irritating (I’m an English teacher, okay? It’s in my nature to want to add capital letters), but stumbling across a blog in which Lake explained his decision along with his predictions for the future of punctuation helped me to accept it as a necessary part of the narrative. So don’t be put off by the style: if I can deal with it, I reckon you can too.

Read this if you liked: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James, Illuminae by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman

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: 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.