The Call by Peadar O’Guilin

When David Fickling Books are publishing a new title, it’s something to take note of. The publishers have released the last two year’s best books for me (The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, and Unbecoming by Jenny Downham), so I already know that their calibre of YA is pretty high. So when The Call came to me, I was very curious indeed – A YA horror/thriller with deep roots in traditional Irish folklore? I’m in…

The Call

Set in a desolate Dystopian Ireland in a world where all teenagers must survive The Call – 3 minutes and 4 seconds in which they will be transported to the hellish Grey Lands to fight for their lives against the twisted and beautiful Sidhe (pronounced “Shee”) people – the malevolent fairies of legend who where banished there thousands of years ago by the descendants of the modern day people of the Emerald Isle. Time moves differently in the Grey Lands, and 3 minutes becomes 24 hours there, whilst the Sidhe hunt their prey – and if you’re lucky you’ll be transported back at the end unharmed. If you’re lucky they might only kill you. But the Sidhe like to play with their victims if they catch them early enough… Twisting human flesh into grotesque art. If you’re unlucky, what they send back might not resemble anything human at all. Nessa, the story’s main character, is at a training college that educates and prepares the nation’s teenagers for The Call. No-one expects her to survive – there’s no way, not after polio ravaged her legs as a child. She can barely run without the aid of crutches, and the Sidhe won’t let her take anything like that with her. Her death is a certainty, and everyone knows it. Except Nessa – Nessa is going to prove them all wrong…

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Despite such twisted writing, he seems so nice!

Talk about PACING. I’m a pretty slow reader (it bugs me a lot), but I flew through The Call in about a week, which is not bad going for me. Peadar expertly pulls the story along by using short, punchy chapters, each one ending on just the right hook to pull you into the next one. It’s these choppy chapters, filled with action and mystery which keep the book pounding along through its story, combined with the way he jumps from Nessa’s plot to the short, often violent lives of those Called to the Grey Lands. It’s these little snapshots of the brutality of the Sidhe realm that up the tension for the characters left behind, and as they are Called one by one, the pressure becomes monumental on those who remain. Peadar also uses a Clive Barker-esque feel of horror in his writing, by twisting the familiar to make it unsettling or outright upsetting (in the way all good horror should be), and the punishments and the games of the Sidhe are wonderfully creative and horrifically dark and cruel. The Grey Lands themselves are a suffocating alternate world which the author describes in scant, disturbing slices, but it’s the bleak and ruined Ireland that really feels the darker setting of the two. Only 1 in 10 teenagers survive The Call, making the country a crumbling ruin of what it once was. The adults are strained, hopeless and desperate, and the teenagers range for confident and arrogant to nihilistic, and the clashing this creates makes the characters really stand out – none more so than Nessa. A physically disabled protagonist in a YA novel is virtually unheard of, and one in a fast paced survival horror is even rarer. Nessa might even be the first, to my knowledge. Her resolve and quiet determination are at odds with the usual “strong female character” trope that we see so much in the genre. She has fears and hopes, loves and hates. She isn’t an unstoppable badass – she’s a girl who everyone else has written off already, and the bitterness of a life being told she’s as good as dead quietly weaves its way through her actions.

The Call uses mythology and modern horror ideas to create something really unique and absorbing. As someone with no knowledge of the Sidhe and Irish folklore, I’d love the backstory to be investigated a little more and fleshed out – perhaps in a sequel…? I’ll be the first in line…

Thanks For Reading,

D

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The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgewick

The Ghosts of Heaven is a hugely ambitious and original work of YA fiction, and it’s been languishing on my shelf for a good long while. Last month, I finally got round to giving it a try – and two days later I was done, having read one of the best books I’ve ever read.

The Gorgeous Hardback Cover

The Gorgeous Hardback Cover

Told through four different stories, the book channels different characters and time periods in each quarter, all linked through a theme of spirals. We open of the dialogue sparse pre-history tale of a nameless teenage girl, part of a hunting party who use shapes painted on cave walls to summon good luck and strength to aid the hunt. The second story tells the tale of a girl accused of witchcraft, and a quiet country village under the grasp of a tyrannical reverend. The third quarter is a tense story of a psychologist and his highly intelligent patient in a cliff side Insane Asylum. The final story in the book is set in the far-flung future, aboard a sleeper ship filled with dreaming people destined to colonise a new planet, and follows a solitary sentinel who watches over them in a lonely vigil as their ship spirals through space.

This Book. Seriously, I cannot begin to describe how swept up in these four interwoven narratives I was. The first quarter, told eerily through fractured stanzas that bounce along poetically, is filled with hope and bitter-sweet melancholy. The second is stiflingly oppressive, painfully and blisteringly unfair, whilst the third is so wonderfully windswept and Gothically HP Lovecraft, unfolding with a spiralling sense of madness and chaos. The final quarter is a cold, uneasy science-fiction tale that pulls through the whole story and links each narrative together, like a needle and thread spiralling through four patches of fabric to create one whole blanket.

The Paperback Jacket

The Paperback Jacket

Sedgewick is such an outstanding writer – each story has its own feel and style, but they’re all part of a greater whole, and it’s done with such clever skill that flows naturally. None of the stories feel discordant with the others, despite their massive differences in time periods. Plus, the four parts of the book can be read in any order, giving a different experience depending on how you read it. It’s honestly mind-blowing, and by the time you get to the last quarter it all starts to pull together in a way that staggers you. The Ghosts of Heaven is a book that I’m going to return to again and again, a perfect balance of genres, filled with twisting unease and suspense, reading flawlessly and beautifully. It evokes something wonderful just remembering it.

Thanks for Reading,

D

If The Ghosts of Heaven takes your fancy, you can pick it up here.

Eden Summer by Liz Flanagan

Whenever Phil Earle over at David Fickling Books asks if I want a proof of something, I know I’m going to be reading an outstanding YA Novel. The publishing house is responsible for heavy hitters like The Art of Being Normal and Unbecoming, so it goes without saying that their books come with emotional depth and intelligence, and Eden Summer is a perfect addition to their roster.

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Jess’ best friend Eden is missing. Ever since her sister died, Eden’s behaviour has become more and more erratic and unstable, and over the Summer Jess and Eden’s boyfriend Liam have been trying desperately to keep her head above the waters of grief. But now she’s missing, and Jess and Liam have no idea where she’s gone. Her behaviour has been deeply concerning, but is there something deeper and darker going in Eden’s past? And Jess has her own past trauma to work through as well… Can anything ever be truly normal again for the three teenagers?

Eden Summer is a stunning début, weaving themes of guilt and regret with an honest and beautiful friendship between its main characters. Eden is a whirling mess of emotion and chaos, and the way she gradually falls in on herself whilst pushing desperately outwards creates a tragic character arc to follow. Inside she’s blackness but on the outside she’s frantically grasping to all the things she thinks will make her better. Her progression mirrors Jess brilliantly, as Jess goes from fragile and skittish to resourceful and determined. In a way, Eden’s disappearance is a catalyst to help her face her own past and start to mend the wounds that affect her psyche. I think the most enjoyable character in the book is the setting though – Liz manages to use a much less known part of the country (Yorkshire) to create a sense of drama and bleak desperation to the plot, and she does it with knowledge and passion.

Eden Summer uses beautiful language to create a lyrical sense of unease and tension, which pushes the plot along, accelerating as it goes, and Liz’s use of flashbacks creates a wonderful discord between happier memories, chaotic memories and the harrowing present day. It’s through these flashbacks that we slowly unravel the darkness of each character’s backstory, and the fragments of secrets are revealed. The book really reminded me of Tanya Byrne’s Follow Me Down, and it’s an excellent thriller with vibrant, emotionally driven characters and a superbly written backdrop for it all.

Thanks for Reading!

D

Eden Summer is published this July. You can pre-order a copy here.

The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This month’s Waterstones Book of the Month is an absolute joy of a début novel from a bright new talent, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, who has already made a name for herself through her work as a poet and playwright.

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The Girl of Ink & Stars is the tale of Isabella, the daughter of a cartographer forbidden to travel outside of the small island village Gromera, which she calls home. Through her father’s maps and stories, Isabella dreams of a world she’s never seen and yearns for a chance to follow in his footsteps; to map the island she lives on and to see the world across the sea. When her best friend, the Governor’s Daughter Lupe, goes missing into the forests that border the village, Isabella is determined that she is the only person equipped to find her – relying on her study of maps and stars to track Lupe accurately and swiftly. It’s outside of the safety of her home that she starts to understand why the rest of the island has always been out of bounds, and starts to realise that the stories and myths that she grew up with might be a lot closer to home than she first realised.

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Good lord do I love a good map in a book.

This book is traditional children’s storytelling at its very best. Isabella is shot through with powerful curiosity and courage, and Lupe is filled with confidence and determination, and the two of them are the perfect two sides of the coin to Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belacqua, and through them the story is given its sense of whimsy and wonder, as well as its pace and tension. The Governor is another highlight as a character too – his motives being shadowy and complex, morally grounded if muddier in their execution. The real main character of the book though, is the Isle of Joya itself – a beautifully tragic and richly imagined home filled with myth and folklore that pulls so much from ancient stories of warrior princesses, crazed demons and dizzying labyrinths. The way the island is described – its history, the lack of animals, the grey and ashen trees and strange empty villages – all create a real sense of age and melancholy that counteracts the story’s two main characters and creates a battle between hope and fate that weaves into words, underlying the narrative.

Kiran’s skill as a poet shines through the way the story is told too, filled with rich language and lyrical passages that make it seem as though the story and the setting are singing as your work through it, filling the whole plot with a sense of magic, wonder and beauty. Plus, the book is simply sublime as an object, with gorgeous pages dotted with golden illustration, a striking choice in font style & colour and an absolutely beautiful fold out map that serves as a jacket (which I actually squealed at upon first seeing) – it really reminded me of the first time I picked up a copy of The Hobbit, and the feeling of ancient, deep world building you get from looking at something so beautifully crafted.

The Girl of Ink & Stars is the magic of J.K. Rowling and Diana Wynne-Jones wearing the adventure pyjamas of Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell. It’s exactly the fun and feel a future classic Children’s novel should have, and I utterly adored it.

Thanks for Reading,

D

P.S. You can pick up a copy at your local Waterstones, or on the website HERE.

Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

The “What’s it About?” bit

Caddy longs for something to happen in her monotonous, boring life. Going to a private all-girls school, she’s the high achiever who never gets in trouble and always does as she’s told, and she envies her best friend Rosie, who goes to a regular school, hugely. She longs to the spontaneous girl, the one that people talk about, but she doesn’t even know how. There’s a new girl at Rosie’s school though, and she’s about to shake things up – the enigmatic Suzanne, beautiful and confident, is all of the things that Caddy isn’t, and Caddy soon starts to worry that this enigmatic new friend is going to steal away her Rosie. So she sets about uncovering the mysteries that brought Suzanne to them, but what she discovers is more complex than she expected, and as she and Suze become closer, the lines between right and wrong start to blur.

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The “What I thunk about it” bit

ARRRGH THIS BOOK IS PERFECT. So perfect. I almost don’t know where to start. The characterisations are perfect – I related especially well to Caddy, the one always so eager to be good and to do the right thing, who messes things up when all they want is to do what’s best for someone else. Her earnest good nature, as well as her unravelling frustration at the pressures of the world around her, make her character arc wonderfully complex and easy to empathise with, too. Suzanne is so accurately written, though. It’s hard to write a character like her without portraying too much romance in her tragedy, but Sara has managed to make her sadness and her mania mix to create an intoxicating girl with many layers. Suze’s self-awareness lends her character a darkness, too, because she always knows just what she’s doing, and is always the first to acknowledge that she’s messed up, and while she might do some reckless, dangerous things, it’s impossible to hate her. Rosie straddles the line between the two of them, sharp and sarcastic, but with fiery love that burns through everything she does. She’s strident, certainly, but level headed, and her ability to call out some of the more reckless behaviour makes her an unlikely voice of reason. I also really enjoyed that she stood up for herself when she thought something was wrong, and she was perfectly willing to let others make their own mistakes. The book has an excellent group of supporting characters as well, with realistically portrayed parents (a rarity) and two excellent older siblings.

Beautiful Broken Things tackles some massive issues, and manages to do so with stark honesty and gentleness, which is what makes it such a triumph. But it also looks at the subtler ideas that come with growing up – conformity, friendships and fear of abandonment, and works those quietly into the story while the bigger arc is going on. Ultimately the book just kept me utterly glued to it, and every spare second I had was spent trying to fit another few pages in, because the pacing is so superb that the whole thing has that out of control feeling of certainty about it. You can feel the building anticipation of tragedy straight off the bat, and the way it’s hinted at throughout keeps you gripped by the story, like it’s woven hooks into your heart and brain, and each chapter ends leaving you absolutely aching to know what’s going to happen next, even though the horrifying twists feel like they’re going to emotionally break you into pieces.

A stunningly powerful début novel that I cannot recommend enough – Sara Barnard’s Beautiful Broken Things is a superb addition to the UKYA pantheon, sitting perfectly alongside other emotional driven contemporaries like Trouble or All of The Above.

Thanks, as always for reading.

D

P.S. Beautiful Broken Things contains some triggers based around abuse, self-harm and suicide.

The Sleeping Prince by Melinda Salisbury

Melinda’s debut, The Sin Eater’s Daughter, was last year’s best selling UKYA debut – a tragic mix of dark fantasy and rich romance that I thoroughly enjoyed. Shot through with a twisted “princess in the tower” idea, but much more sinister, the book hinted at a larger, older and fully fleshed out universe that I was really eager to get more from, always bleeding into the edges of the story but not quiet showing itself. Yeah, well The Sleeping Prince steps it up a gear or five.

Another hypnotically beautiful cover.

Another hypnotically beautiful cover.

Following a new set of characters in a different part of the world, and shortly after the events of the first book, The Sleeping Prince is the story of impoverished apothecary Errin Vastel – the sister of the first book’s character Lief. She lives a meagre life, scraping together potions to sell on the black market to attempt to keep herself fed and with a roof over her head. With her father dead, and her brother away working to try and bring in some extra coin, Errin has to support not only herself, but also her mother, whose rapidly deteriorating mental health is starting to become more and more taxing – and dangerous. War in Lomere, with the mythical Sleeping Prince soon starts to spill across the border and threatens to shatter Errin’s already unstable world, and soon she finds she has no choice but to flee her home with her mother, relying on the help of one of her customers – the mysterious and enigmatic Silas, who she has been selling potions and poisons to. She’s never even seen his face, as he stays constantly cloaked and shrouded in darkness. But who else can she turn to? As the Sleeping Princes army starts to murder and burn its way across Tregellan she must flee, and if the officials found out about her mother’s conditions they’d lock her away in an asylum. Errin can’t lose the only member of family she has left.

ALL BOOKS NEED A MAP.

ALL BOOKS NEED A MAP.

If I ever had one thing that I struggled with in TSED, it was a heavy romantic plotline – it’s not my usual thing. The Sleeping Prince moves in a very different direction though, examining the rapidly unravelling threads of a family in complete crisis. Errin is a brilliant lead, resourceful and smart, she’s filled with fear and doubt, but she constantly pushes through with the weary determination of someone who has nowhere else to turn. Her world, and the underhanded desperate measures she takes to survive make her feel a much rougher and more worldly main character than Twylla, filled with shades of grey and a ruthlessness that fills her decisions and actions with a manic sense of drive.

Where the first story is the slow burning tale of political subterfuge, book two is an out and out war novel, and it pulls absolutely no punches. Melinda uses the plot to examine the true horrors of war in a fantasy setting, but she never lets it be viewed through a rose-tinted lens. The horrifically brutal war crimes of the Sleeping Prince are told through hushed, terrified rumour, and the painfully close-to-home treatment of Lomere’s refugees that Errin sees on her travels is a stark echo of current events. The whole book is driven forward with the frantic pace of an invasion, with the swirling out of control sense of being just one person swept up in something so huge and impossible to fight against that the whole book is beautifully chaotic.

I stole this photo from Mel's website but it's okay. She thinks I'm all right.

I stole this photo from Mel’s website but it’s okay. She thinks I’m all right.

The Sleeping Prince was everything that I wanted the next step in this saga to take – it builds on the rich mythology that clearly Salisbury has been developing for years, and it ramps everything up to eleven – the drama is more dramatic, the violence more visceral and animated, and the characters are more ambiguous, cut-throat and determined. This is a world at war, with characters desperate for survival and success, and a story filled with so many twists and dead drops that it’s breathlessly compelling.

Well done, Melinda, you terrible, beautiful Queen.

All hail!

D

P.S. You can follow Melinda on Twitter here, and you should because she’s a wonderful human.

One by Sarah Crossan

One is one of those books that it seemed everyone was raving about last year. It’s been on my tbr pile for ages as one of those “Oh I really need to get around to reading that!” Books. Well I devoured it in two sittings – It’s an outstanding novel. Believe the hype.

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Grace and Tippi are twins. Conjoined twins, in fact – they both merge into one single body below the waist. Life as conjoined twins is hard though, especially in America, where health care eats up most of their parent’s income. Eventually, home schooling stops being an option for the twins, and they have to attend a regular school. It’s a huge transition for them, but as their father’s alcoholism increases, and their sister spends more time at the local dance studio, the twins are desperate to get out of their stifling home atmosphere. School presents a huge amount of challenges, but Grace and Tippi soon make two great friends and start to settle into a new life full of possibilities. As money becomes more of an issue, they need to decide whether or not to let a documentary crew into their sheltered lives – to let millions of people become a part of their daily struggle to be a part of the world. Will it be worth it, to help give something back to their family who have sacrificed so much for them?

One is something else. In the scale of YA novels, it’s something very special and totally different. The contrasting personalities of Grace and Tippi work brilliant together – Grace is soft, a reader and a deep thinker, where Tippi is brash and outspoken, and the two of them balance each other as the story examines what it means to truly never be alone. Their extended family is vibrant and damaged, difficult to read about but utterly engaging and real; and their school friends Yasmeen and Jon are fantastic – flawed but so honest and blazingly fierce, and the way they take the twins under their wing is inspiring and heart warming.

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One of the things that makes this book stand out so much is the writing style, though. Told using poetic stanzas in short, dramatic and lyrical chapters, the whole book flows from Grace’s mind in haunting broken verse. At points it’s aching, and at others it bounces like a song, all the while creating a huge emotional charge like an electrical storm within the narrative. The use of metaphor, of Grace’s quiet observations on the world around her, makes the book an absolute joy to read, and really makes it stand out in the YA sphere by introducing such a captivating combination of poetry and prose.

One is uplifting, outstanding, and made me cry buckets. I strongly urge people to give it a try, it’s something totally unique and special.

Thanks for Reading,