“The Challenge” by Tom Hoyle

After Ben’s best and only friend Will disappears, everyone suspects he’s been murdered. However, no one has found his killer. A year passes by, and Ben is left to grieve his friend alone. Everyone else has moved on, but Ben hasn’t forgotten Will and he isn’t eager to make any new friends. That is, until the twins show up.

Even though the twins are the new kids in town, everyone likes them immediately. And when the twins prevent Ben from being bullied, and allow him into their inner circle, Ben falls under their spell too. With the twins, Ben is finally accepted and when the twins let Ben into an online game, Ben is eager to compete. Even when the challenges become more dangerous than ever.

“The Challenge” is the perfect book for you if you like reading about creepy events in small towns and friendships that are based on coercion. That is to say, this book is a thriller with high stakes. Ben shifts into a character that makes some challenging decisions (get it? challenging decisions?) that will shape him forever. I definitely couldn’t put this book down.

The book leads you towards the ending the entire time, and even still the ending is not what I expected. The ending was unsettling and I’m not sure I fully understood it and agreed with it. However, it wasn’t a let down like some endings. Really made you think.

“Boy 23” by Jim Carrington

“Boy 23” is a strange dystopian sci fi thriller. The boy in question, Jesper has only known the four walls of My Place, a comfortable room with his pet squawk and a screen where he interacts with The Voice. He has never met another human being. He has never left My Place. This is the extent of Jesper’s experience.

Until one night, Jesper’s abducted and abandoned in a forest and forced to run for his life. The Voice claims that he’ll meet him somewhere far, far away. But can Jesper trust The Voice? Why was he kept in My Place? Who can he trust?

This book is a quick read. There’s a lot of interesting information about the setting and Jesper’s adaptation to the real world. There’s other points of view in the novel, however none of them were as strong as Jesper’s. I liked the science behind the story, as well as the unusual setting. However, I didn’t understand how all of the character’s viewpoints came together in the end.

 

“The Bone Witch” by Rin Chupeco

This book had an epic fantasy feel where the world building is intense and distinctly different. Tea is a girl whose magical powers differ from the norms. Instead of being able to harness the elements to do her bidding, she can raise the dead. She discovers her powers when she raises her older brother from his grave. Despite the centre of this book being rather grisly – my husband took one look at the title and went “are you reading that isn’t it scary?” – this book is really pretty tame compared to what’s on the YA shelves these days. Even though death is present, Tea’s brother gets to come back as a shadow from his early demise.

Then, Tea is forced to move away from her family for her training under an older bone witch, where she learns how to become an Asha. Asha are some sort of witch and geisha hybrid and although how the women entertain the men besides clean music and dancing is never divulged, I began to wonder “Are they prostitutes?” Again, this wasn’t revealed and the book is very clean, but due to the gendered nature of the work I was unsure.

This book moves slowly and the description is dense and detailed. Usually this would be con for me, however I enjoyed living in this strange world for a few days. I inhale books, so it was nice to encounter one that took me more than a night to read. Since there are two narratives at once – an older, stranger, more sinister Tea and a younger, apprentice Tea it was interesting to wonder when the two narratives will converge. I found it hard to keep track of all the various kingdoms and cultures, however something about the book just works.

Perhaps it’s the idea of a heartglass, where people wear their hearts on a necklace with their emotions for all to see. Perhaps it was the world of the ashas and Tea starting her apprenticeship as a servant which reminded me of a newfangled “Spirited Away.” Perhaps it was the creepy nature of Tea’s powers which could bring skeletons to life from the earth. Perhaps it was the suggestion of romance with a prince. I’m a huge sucker for romances with princes.

Anyway, “The Bone Witch” is a highly original fantasy. I look forward to seeing how the series will conclude.

“The Cage” by Megan Shepherd

When Cora wakes up in an usual landscape with a group of teenagers – none of whom she’s ever met before – she is determined to solve the mystery. However, what she finds out she could’ve never anticipated. The teenagers are kept as test subjects in a human zoo. As for their captors… well… they aren’t exactly human.

This book has a lot going on and I’m not exaggerating when I say it is one of the most well-thought out sci fi YA novels I have ever read. There’s some pretty “Lord of the Flies” dynamics going on between the teens in captivity. Although everyone’s on the same page at first and wants to escape, various factions and alliances develop over time. I also really enjoyed the dialogues about ethics and purpose. What is the essence of humanity? How can you convince another being about your apparent intelligence and what rights you deserve if they are convinced otherwise?

Although the science in this book was somewhat fantastical at times, it was grounded in some pretty stable discussions about experimental conditions where the teens tried to figure out exactly what was going on. And the characters had substance. Cora has a pretty intriguing back story that isn’t divulged right away and is linked without her knowledge to one of the boys in “the cage.” She isn’t just some flat action hero advocating for justice.

The back of this book really advertises Cora’s romance with her captor and although this is a factor, this book really achieves so much more. I found the teenage interactions to be much more interesting than the so-called romance. This isn’t “Twilight” with an alien folks. This is a physiological discussion of exploiting living creatures as resources. Although there is a fair discussion about what makes humans tick, there is a clear parallel with how humans treat other living creatures on our own planet as well.

The one complaint I’d have is about the ending. Since this is the first book in a series, obviously not everything will be resolved. However, I would’ve liked something to be tied up, instead of being left with a collection of loose ends. Although I must admit, I’m happy to read the rest of the series to see what happens next.

“Caraval” by Stephanie Garber

Scarlett has always longed to attend Caraval, a far away week-long magical performance that occurs once a year. However, she and her sister live on a far away isle with a controlling and abusive father and Caraval remains an impossibility. Until the impossible finally happens.

The sisters receive an invitation in the mail. They manage to escape their home and travel to the island with the help of a sailor. However, as soon as they reach the show, Scarlett’s sister vanishes. It soon becomes to Scarlett that her sister’s disappearance is this year’s theme for the show. This performance gives the audience a choice: they either watch or participate in the show. For Scarlett the choice is obvious. She has to participate to help her sister.

It isn’t easy.

Scarlett has to find her sister in the chaos and magic of Caraval. She has to decide who to trust and what is fabrication and what is real. She has to question what she desires out of life and how to achieve it.

This book had many strengths, the strongest perhaps being Scarlett’s character development. The Scarlett at the beginning is drastically different than the Scarlett at the end of the novel. Her decisions during the plot change her at a pretty fundamental level and it was fascinating to watch her grow.

However, undoubtedly fantasy fans will be drawn to the world-building in “Caraval,” which is also excellent. Think about the unpredictable and wondrous atmosphere of a theme park and then add in a healthy dose of magic and mystery and then raise the stakes with the threat of losing someone you love. The descriptions in “Caraval” accost the senses with sound, with colour, with vibrancy. It’s a world that is both dangerous and intriguing.

Even though “Caraval” has a cast of relatively few characters, the interactions between the characters are well done. Scarlett’s love interest will satisfy the need for romance. And Scarlett’s bond with her sister, even though her sister remains missing for much of the book, is complex and real.

“Caraval” is a fun read with lots of cliff hangers. You won’t regret it.

 

“Carnival of Souls” by Melissa Marr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melissa Marr’s books are twisted, violent, and unpredictable. After “Wicked Lovely,” I wasn’t sure if I was prepared for “Carnival of Souls” and after reading it, I must conclude indeed I wasn’t indeed. A new world of daimons and witches completely swept me off my feet.

The beauty of Marr’s style is she is able to build worlds that have unusual magic and social norms. It’s actually the social norms that govern her fantasy worlds more than the magic. The norms affect what relationships the characters are able to have versus what relationships they desire. The caste system of the daimons impacts friendships, romances, and alliances in unexpected ways.

Many people are forced to work together and usually the relationship isn’t entirely positive. Someone usually is working the system to their own benefit, and the reader is left wondering how the character’s choices will impact the plot. A Hunger-Games-like battle to the death in the daimon world certainly raises the stakes.

Of course, Marr grounds her fantasy world with a link to the human world as well. One of the characters is a human girl who’s been adopted by a witch father and is aware of witch customs. Her true identity has been hidden from her, and she spends most of the book trying to work it out. However, she is also important to the daimon world as well. Her witch father has taught her to fear daimons and she has to decide which world she belongs to.

Although the girl in the human world should’ve been the most relatable, I found her the most frustrating. She assumes a passive role through most of the plot and although this isn’t entirely her fault, her obedience does turn her into a weak character. I look forward to seeing how she grows during the rest of the series.

 

 

“Gilded Cage” by Vic James

“Guided Cage” is a fantasy book with an intriguing structure. I’m still thinking a lot about it even after turning the final page.

The story follows two families in an alternative Britain. One is a family of commoners without magical ability. The other is a family of magically skilled aristocracy. When the common family is forced to serve their ten year sentence of labour in the household of magically skilled aristocracy, their worlds overlap. And when one of the common children is separated and forced to work in a brutal labour camp, he has to decide whether to fight or accept the system.

The two families with their differences are fascinating. Especially since the story is told from multiple points of view. And when I say multiple points of view I mean multiple. Each chapter is told in third person limited, but which person you get to follow through the story is not obvious and switches a lot. Be prepared for intense cliffhangers where you have to wait many chapters to return to the character’s viewpoint you desire! However, Vic James pulls this off well and I found the different viewpoints added to the story.

This is a highly plot driven novel between the settings of the aristocratic estate and the labour camp. In some sense the overall plot is more focused on how the two groups – the magical elite and the commoners – interact, instead of character-character interactions. However, the macro doesn’t entirely overtake the micro.

There are strong and complex character-character interactions as well. The elite character Gavar with his creepy hold over the commoner child Daisy in addition to a rather tense and unpleasant relationship with his financé comes to mind. This character has a lot going on. Silyen is equally as strange with his creepy magical powers and unclear alliances. However, I found the girl in the labour camp Renie to be more unbelievable. Also the romance in the book (between who I shall not say) wasn’t very swoon-worthy.

Overall, I really enjoyed this read. I wish the ending wasn’t as open as it was, but since this is a trilogy I look forward to reading the rest of the series and learning more about the characters.

5 Gorgeous Children’s and YA Novels Written Solely in Verse

Yes, novels for middle grade and YA audiences written solely in verse! Forget the horrors of long epic poetry, these novels are easy to read with language that flows simply and beautifully in a unique narration style. Each poem contributes to the overall plot, although often they are suited for stand-alone works as well. This trend in kid lit is small, but catching.

1) “Audacious” by Gabrielle Prendergast

Raphaelle is a strong willed girl with a Catholic background. She falls in love with Samir, a Muslim boy. Can their romance overcome their different cultural backgrounds? When Raphael’s art project challenges how society society views women, it comes with some unexpected consequences for Raphael and the people around her. This novel deals with some pretty mature topics and is more for the YA crowd.

 

 

 

 

2) “Inside Out and Back Again” by Thanhha Lai

A semi-autobiographical work about a family of Vietnamese refugees and their trip to the US and their subsequent adjustment to the new culture. This book is suitable for younger readers and the writing is beautiful.

 

 

 

 

 

3) “Red Butterfly” by A.L. Sonnichsen

A book about a orphaned girl with a disability living in China and her illegal American mother who adopts her without proper documentation. This is a story of a girl between cultures who is neither Chinese nor American and is forced to live in hiding. It is also a story about discovering the true meaning of family.

 

 

 

 

4) “Blue Birds” by Caroline Starr Rose

This is the story of two girls who meet in 1587. One girl is from England and has settled in the new world in Virginia. The other girl is from the Roanoke tribe. Even though the two girls don’t share a common language, they become close friends. However, tensions between the native people and settlers become high and their friendship is threatened.

 

 

 

 

5) “Capricious” by Gabrielle Prendergast


Raphaelle is back. This time she’s trying to navigate having two boyfriends among some unusual family dynamics. Definitely YA.

“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This August I had the pleasure to hear Angie Thomas speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Her novel, “The Hate U Give” has been first on the New York Times best sellers list for 29 weeks in a row (last time I checked) and is the most outstanding YA novel for 2017. In fact, this novel has the makings of a classic and I wouldn’t be surprised if it became mandatory reading for high school English class.

When Starr’s childhood friend Khalil is shot by the police after a party, Starr watches her friend die before her eyes. The novel follows Starr and her family in the weeks after the incident and explores whether the officer who murdered Khalil is held responsible for his crime and whether true justice is served.

This novel provides a voice for black Americans and describes their experiences of racism. It has been called the book about the “black lives matter” movement. Before I read this book, I didn’t really understand this movement. I didn’t doubt that police brutality was a thing for a second. However, I didn’t really understand how corruption in the police force effected disadvantaged individuals and communities to the extent I do now.

“The Hate U Give” is eye opening. It is a difficult uncomfortable read, because it deals with painful topics that exist all too well in today’s world. It is a book that promotes empathy and change.

During Angie Thomas’s keynote speech at the Melbourne Writers Festival, she discussed how art can promote change – perhaps even by changing the world. She talked about the teenage audience and how writing books for them can influence how young people think and influence how they’ll vote further down the road. In this sense, YA books are so, so important for promoting cultural change.

After hearing Angie’s speech, I realised that as a YA writer, I had a responsibility to my audience to represent the difficulties of the world fairly and accurately, but also to suggest how it might improve. I also appreciated how Angie didn’t put down YA fiction in escapist genres. She agreed that escapism was important and that there were parallels between escapist worlds with our own.

If you haven’t read “The Hate U Give” I suggest you strongly consider it. It is well written and raises relevant issues to today’s society. It definitely provokes the reader to think well and hard about these issues as well.

5 Things I Learned about Writing from Reading Maggie Stiefvater’s “Raven Cycle Series”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before I read “The Raven Boys” I’d been in a terrible writing slump, where I was working away at my draft in a dull monotony. I’d forgotten why I liked reading. I’d forgotten why I liked writing. And then, when I read the first page of the novel I was hooked on the entire series. Stiefvater is a master of her craft and you can learn so much about what makes a novel work by reading it.

1) The opening lines are brilliant. Stiefvater chooses to start each book with a prologue, and although there is plenty of conflicting information out there of whether to prologue or not, this choice works so well for her novels. The prologues set the mood for the novels and serve as seductive promises of the intrigue to follow.

Take the first sentence of “The Raven Boys.”
Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.

BAM. The reader needs to know more. How can someone tell Blue with certainty that she will kill her true love? And why so frequently? And will this even happen? If so, how? And more importantly, who IS her true love anyway? Does she have a true love yet?

The rest of the prologue expands this theme and by the end, the reader is committed to reading the rest of the book. The entire series answers the questions raised by the very first sentence of the book.

The first sentence of the second book in the series, “Dream Thieves” is equally as brilliant.
A secret is a strange thing.

Simple, but effective. In this prologue, Stiefvater breaks into an essay of the different kinds of secrets and how they apply to one of her characters. It. Is. Amazing. The theme of secrets immediately brings intrigue to the novel and promises that the reader will understand her characters like no one else will.

Which leads me to the next point.

2) The books are incredibly character driven. Forget about flat sucky characters that drift around aimlessly and only jump to the plot because the author tells them to. Stiefvater’s characters have so much depth they seem like real people. Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Blue have their own hopes and fears, secrets, families, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Although Noah isn’t as well developed, that’s for other reasons.

In each of the books, the personal motives of each of these four characters are made perfectly clear. Each of them is different. Each of them drives the plot in their own way. And the way they interact together is magical. So much yes.

By the end of the series, I felt a physical ache inside that I would be leaving the characters behind forever. It felt like losing old friends. Fortunately, Stiefvater’s writing a new book about Ronan so I won’t have to say goodbye just yet!

3) The brand of magic is distinct, unusual and kind of quirky. The magic doesn’t fall into typical YA fantasy clichés and is refreshing. Obscurely Old Welsh Kings in the Virginia Hills and Lee Lines are awesome. The novel revolves around Glendower’s burial, a king whose refreshingly not Arthur of the famous legend. There’s an arcane historical element, which I loved and the Latin never gets old.

However, the medieval historical magic doesn’t make this a dry read. In fact, Stiefvater balances this unusual topic with aspects the YA readership loves. Namely one girl hanging out with four hot private school boys in cool cars exploring the countryside. What high school girl doesn’t want to do that? If there’s some weird magic going on, why that’s just a bonus.

Basically, the reader doesn’t have to like history to like this book. The history just sort of slips in.

4) Stiefvater has a clear, concise way of writing. Nothing rambles. Every sentence has a purpose and leads to the next one. The descriptions usually highlight character or the setting and use the perfect words to do so.

I learned so much just by checking out how she starts each of her chapters. There are three main ways she does this:

a) A opening sentence telling you the character and the setting where the action will take place for the scene.
e.g.: Gansey woke in the night to find the moon full on his face and his phone ringing (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 9).
Clearly, the character is Gansey.
The setting is at night and the reader probably can assume that he’s in his room at Monmouth since he just woke up.

b) A topic sentence that reveals an aspect about the character or setting we’re going to follow for the chapter, almost like the start of an essay.
e.g.: Mornings at 300 Fox Way were fearful, jumbled things (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 3).
This is a topic sentence about setting.
Or
e.g.: Blue wouldn’t really describe herself as a waitress (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 6).
This is a topic sentence about character.

c) Or she starts the chapter with Dialogue, often asking a question.
e.g: “Mom, why is Neeve here?” Blue asked (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 13).

The first two ways demonstrate how to start a scene without ambiguity. It’s helpful to be precise and tell us who, what, where, and why as quickly as possible. Ways b and c also promote intrigue for the reader. These three ways to start a chapter work well.

5) Authentic dialogue. Each character has a way of speaking that’s uniquely their own and showcases their personality. I’ve read before that for good dialogue, the tags aren’t entirely necessary. You should be able to tell without tags that there are different people conversing. Stiefvater’s dialogue definitely meets this goal.

Also, the dialogue is humourous. This in turn, makes the characters more likeable even if they are difficult people.