“A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars” by Yaba Badoe

I haven’t read a magical realism book since Isabelle Allende’s “House of Spirits” in high school, which was a fan favourite with our grade eleven class due to the copious amounts of sex in it. Well, sorry to disappoint, but “A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars” is a magical realism novel without copious amounts of sex. But you should totally read it anyway, because it deals with some heavy themes and the writing is gorgeous. (How’s this for an intro? Sorry, I did really like this book.)

“A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars” starts with a shipwreck of migrants and refugees from Ghana. The sole survivor is Sante, a baby, who is found floating ashore in a treasure chest of her people. Fourteen years later, the story then follows Sante’s life as a member of a circus containing people of all races and nationalities. Despite being orphaned, she’s managed to find her family. However, the dead from the shipwreck are calling on Sante to avenge her people.

This novel deals with a lot of tough issues, such as sex trafficking and murder of refugees in a pretty matter of fact way. And despite the matter of factness, there is a lyrical quality to the writing with symbolism, dreams, and strange magic from the spirit world. There are universal themes of identity and family and belonging running through the entire plot line. In addition, the relationships between Sante and her adopted siblings Cobra and Cat are fleshed out and feel real. Essentially, “Jigsaw of Fire and Stars” is chock full of good stuff and has a unique voice.

Even a few weeks after reading it, I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that people sank a ton of ships containing many, many people and their families just to collect some insurance. It is both horrific and tragic. Even a few weeks after reading it, I’m still wondering how Badoe managed to write so beautifully about something so terrible. Amazing and thought-provoking.


“The Potion Diaries” by Amy Alward

I fell in love with this book the minute the princess of Nova’s love potion turned indigo instead of pink. There’s a lighthearted, whimsical feeling in the details right from the get-go. The princess poisons herself with said indigo potion instead of her crush, and causes a national crisis by falling in love with herself. And now Samantha (Sam) Kemi, an alchemist’s apprentice, is summoned with the rest of the kingdom’s alchemists to compete to find a cure.

Sam has to travel the world to find ingredients for this cure, from the deepest jungles to the highest mountaintops. The world-building in exotic locals and the mythical ingredients from plants to animals always felt well-developed and real. In fact, after reading this book before bed, I sank into a dream full of unusual pink-tinged winged creatures in the forest where Sam found the eluvian ivy. The settings stick with you for awhile.

I also enjoyed the competition between Sam, an alchemist trained in the old ways, and the ZoroAster megapharma company with their synthetic, modern compounds. It reminded me of “Witchworld” by Emma Fischel, which has a similar conflict between ancient and modern magical technology. Of course, in “The Potion Diaries” the conflict wasn’t black and white, mainly because of Sam’s wish to try out the modern laboratory of her rivals and the CEO of ZoroAster’s hot teenage son who greatly admires Sam himself.

“The Potion Diaries” blends magic and romance in a competition that lets one girl try to prove her abilities and help her country. It’s a great read.

“The Problem with Forever” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Mallory Dodge has difficulty speaking up. In fact, Mallory has trouble speaking at all. Her early childhood experiences in foster care conditioned her to stay quiet, unnoticed, and out of sight. Now Mallory has been living with loving and understanding parents for years where she has been homeschooled. However, she wants to go to college. And to test whether or not she is ready for the crowds and noise and people at college, she is trying out her senior year at the local high school.

This would be hard enough for anyone, but it gets harder. On Mallory’s first day of class, she encounters Rider Stark, her friend and protector from foster care. All the memories Mallory’s suppressed start coming back and she feels drawn to Rider immediately because of their shared past. Can Mallory cope in the challenging high school environment? Can she learn to speak up and face her past? And will Rider help her or hold her back?

This is a book that deals with a lot of sensitive, tough issues. It takes a hard look at the failings of the foster care system, child abuse, and the disparity between the rich and the poor. And yet it is hopeful. The book starts with Mallory in a pretty good place. She’s escaped the abuse, she’s living in a place of privilege, and she has a second chance to rewrite her story and grow. Of course, her scars remain. Why wouldn’t they?

Also, a strong current of attraction between Mallory and Rider drives the plot. Will they become romantically involved or won’t they? Will Rider also manage to escape poverty and believe in himself?

This novel reminded me strongly of Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor and Park” because it deals with very similar issues. It also shares a central conflict, telling a story of a romance between two teens with families in very different classes and how their families respond to their relationship.

It made me consider: Why are people (including me, obviously) attracted to these stories? They are difficult reads. They aren’t escapist. They take a hard look at the problems in the world around us, and some of these problems undoubtedly the reader will have faced or are facing, or people close to them have faced or are facing.

Basically, the conflict and issues in this story gets up close and personal. It doesn’t matter where in the novel the reader sees themself. They may relate to the privileged house of Mallory’s adoptive family, or the meets-the-basic-needs-but-still-full-of-love house of Rider’s current foster family, or the worst case scenario house of the foster family from Mallory and Rider’s past (I sincerely hope not). The reader will see themself in the story somewhere. And yet, no matter which class the reader relates to, everyone has the opportunity to fall in love. It’s human. Love conquers borders, classes, races, everything. Love conquers all.

Because in the end, it’s what everyone wants the most: to love and be loved. And, as Armentrout quotes from “The Velveteen Rabbit,” everyone wants to be real as well.

Stories that deal with this message and show that despite all the troubles in the world that love can still exist, well. Those are powerful stories. And somehow they are the most hopeful.

Minor Characters Aren’t Reference Manuals!

There’s a common character trope that I often read in middle grade and young adult novels. The smart minor character who knows everything. And I mean EVERYTHING.

Let me give you an example. This example obviously doesn’t exist in a real novel, but it should give you an idea of what I mean. So, we have a character. Let’s call her Geraldine. Now twelve-year-old Geraldine is really smart. So smart she has a photographic memory and she can memorize everything, including plenty of pointless and not so pointless trivia. Geraldine is usually a friend or ally of the main character and isn’t the star of the show.

So the main character and Geraldine and the rest of their gang are on a boat, and they need to navigate to the treasure buried at the bottom of the sea. How ever will they figure out what to do?

Cue Geraldine.

Geraldine knows all the polar coordinates (she memorized them one afternoon while she was still in diapers) and how to read the stars, so she can navigate them from any point of origin to a mysterious South Pacific island. When the characters finally arrive at their destination thanks to Geraldine, they have to scuba dive down to the treasure chest on the ocean floor. But don’t worry, Geraldine will know exactly how deep they have to go within 10 meters to the bottom to avoid getting the bends. And when they reclaim the treasure chest, and the volcano explodes on the island, Geraldine will conveniently know that the melting point of gold is 1,064 °C  so that the main character knows to dip the chest back into water to save the Magical Golden Amulet of Scubadoobadoo before it is destroyed.

Okay. So maybe like some kids, Geraldine has some obsessions. She is obsessed with the ocean, with geography and maps, and maybe chemistry too to explain her knowledge of melting points. Maybe Geraldine gets nervous and can’t perform physical feats and her nerd glasses break under pressure – all the typical nerd character flaws.

However, besides Geraldine’s not-so-random obsessions that totally serve the plot and nerd character flaws that are totally cliché, she has no personality. There is no reason for her to be friends with the main character – they have nothing in common. She most certainly does not tell jokes. She never makes mistakes, unless she forgets to round to the proper significant figure in her calculations. She doesn’t serve an emotional purpose that connects with any other characters besides the author telling us point blank that they are friends.

This is because Geraldine isn’t a character, she is a reference manual.

“But Geraldine was integral to the plot!” you cry.

No, no, Geraldine was not.

When Geraldine navigated the crew to the island, she could be replaced by a GPS.

When Geraldine knew the dangers of the bends and the melting point of gold, she could be replaced by Google, an encyclopaedia, or a text book.

If Geraldine made a calculation (like how fast the boat could travel in a harsh wind or something), she could be replaced by a calculator.

Characters like Geraldine don’t just serve as some means for main character to achieve their goal. Characters, even minor ones, have their own purpose and goals in the plot. Maybe they want romance. Maybe they want the Magical Golden Amulet of Scubadoobadoo for themselves, muahahaha. Maybe they don’t even want to be there, but they have to be or else the main character will use the Magical Golden Amulet of Scubadoobadoo to enslave their family.

Please notice I’m not saying that smart kids and teens don’t exist. Some kids and teens DO have photographic memory. And some smart kids and teens without photographic memory CAN memorize an obscene number of facts. However, they have other aspects of their personality as well.

Because smart, bookish, nerdy characters are people too! They have passions besides facts they’ve memorized. They have failings. They connect to others. Sometimes they also like things that are incredibly mainstream like popular radio, or cute animals, or reality TV, or epic Youtube fails. They don’t just nerd, nerd, nerd all the time. They don’t.

So, if you must have a character that can recite pi to fifty decimal places, just remember, they are more than that. They are a human being with their own wants and desires, their own strengths and flaws. And if you can replace your character with a GPS, a smart phone, an encyclopaedia, a calculator – whatever – they aren’t fully fleshed out as a character yet. Find out what makes them tick besides your need for the main character to have a walking, talking reference manual. Please. Your readers will thank you.

Kiersten White’s “Paranormalcy” Series

I really enjoyed “And I Darken” and “Now I Rise” from Kiersten White’s recent series, “The Conqueror’s Saga.” In fact, I needed more of White’s writing now. I couldn’t wait for book 3 of “The Conqueror’s Saga” to come out.

Fortunately for me, White has written more books. I gravitated towards her “Paranormalcy” series and read all three books ridiculously fast. Since I read her newest series first, I expected the characters in “Paranormalcy” to be dark and disturbing and the world to be immensely detailed and historical. However, “Paranormalcy” is a completely different beast. Actually, I was glad to read something lighthearted and bubbly for once. Sometimes the darkness in the books I read gets to me and it was a great contrast to meet Evie, the star of this series, who loves boys, pink, and kicking paranormal butt with her taser.

The dialogue throughout the series was hilarious. Evie is both girly and awesome. Too often I meet the female character who is determined to be so tough that she loses her femininity. This is such a common trope these days, it gets tiring. Evie is a great example of how there is nothing wrong with being a girl and liking girl things. She shows that being a girl does not contradict being strong.

Even though the “Paranormalcy” series is cheerful and pokes fun at common paranormal tropes in YA (cough, cough, vampires, cough, cough), it still deals with serious themes. Evie’s faerie ex-boyfriend definitely has some issues with consent and boundaries. These themes play throughout the books, but don’t get too heavy and in-your-face. And, although the evil, sexy faerie trope has definitely made its mark on the YA shelves, “Paranormalcy” is different enough to enjoy. I thoroughly did.

“Daughter of the Burning City” by Amanda Foody

I’m not sure what it is about YA fantasy books taking place during carnivals, but I’ve been reading a lot of them lately. There’s something seductive about a dark dangerous carnival where magic thrives and mysteries abound. In the past little while I’ve read Stephanie Garber’s “Caraval” and Melissa Marr’s “Carnival of Souls.” So what makes “Daughter of the Burning City” different from the others?

First, the magic in “Daughter of the Burning City” is more subtle perhaps than other fantasy books. The heroine Sorina has an unusual power of illusion-work. Although other people in this novel’s carnival have more flashy kinds of magic such as mind reading and fire abilities, the main focus is on Sorina and her illusion-work which allows her to create illusions that are people with their own personalities. These people become her family. Since this kind of illusion-work requires a lot of skill, Sorina doesn’t ever create a family member in the novel. Her family shows up in the novel already made. Instead of magic, most of the plot revolves more around the mystery, which we’ll get to later.

Another thing that makes “Daughter of the Burning City” stick out is that Sonia’s family is really, really bizarre. There is a life-like tree man, a dude with fingernails growing out of his head, and a half-fish half-man. Together with Sorina, they form a Freak Show. Even though the characters are grotesque and unusual, they are given fairly likeable personalities, although admittedly the tree man doesn’t have much to say. Because he’s a tree. These characters are unlike any that you’ve ever seen before.

The final component that differentiates “Daughter of the Burning City” from other carnival YA fantasies is the plot. When one by one, Sorina’s family members are murdered, Sorina needs to find the killer to protect them. In itself this isn’t that groundbreaking, however the way in which the killer is found is pretty unique. Sorina enlists the help of Luca, a gossip-worker. Although some twists were easy to pick up on, one of most major twists in the novel I did NOT see coming and it was a biggie. Amanda Foody has an unusual creativity that makes this novel worth a read even if you’ve read other carnival YA novels. It’s exciting and mysterious and I’ve never read anything quite like it.

“Rebel Mechanics” by Shanna Swendson

“Rebel Mechanics” takes place in an alternate history where British magic prevents the American Revolution from ever occurring. Verity Newton arrives in New York to find a job as governess and winds up working for one of the most powerful magical families in the city. Concerned about toeing the line in such a household, she discovers that not everyone in the family is as they seem. Although this magical family has held power for years, many members sympathize with the rebels, a group in the city reliant on engineering and machines instead of magic.

Verity finds herself swept away by the rebel group she encounters in the city. She agrees with their cause to bring equality to the non-magical people and decrease reliance on magic. It also helps matters that Verity starts falling for a rebel inventor. But will her magical employers mind the company she’s keeping? Although some of them are opened minded, Verity isn’t sure if they’ll be opened to all her secrets.

This book had a rollicking steampunk feel. The characters wore strange clothing and made quirky inventions and had unusual gatherings. As a reader you can’t help but like Verity who struggles as a bookish outsider to New York. I love authors who make their characters avid readers – a sure way help the readers of their own books identity with their characters! Although I caught many of the plot twists before they happened, a quite a few of them I didn’t see coming.

Swendson does a good job creating morally grey situations where the truth is stretched with good intentions and characters who seemed likeable display their dark sides. In all, “Rebel Mechanics” is a fun read.

“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.


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.