YA Review: Crooked Kingdom

Title: Crooked Kingdom
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 5/5

With the second book in the Six of Crows Duology, we’re back in Ketterdam for the fallout from the events of Book One. It’s hard to review this instalment without giving away spoilers for both books, so I’ll keep my comments as general as possible!

Like Six of Crows, this is an intense read. Complex, long, and full of twists, the plot is exciting and never predictable. There are some extremely perilous moments, and some reveals that had me catching my breath. As the action heats up, each chapter ends on a cliffhanger as the point of view jumps to another character and another thread in the story. This is a serious page-turner!

As the story intensifies, so do the relationships between the characters. Everyone has a history, and everyone has secrets, complicating their abilities to form friendships and romantic attachments. The friendships that are formed are that much stronger for overcoming these obstacles, and the romances are that much more fragile and dangerous.

Family is a strong theme in Crooked Kingdom, with parents, siblings, and children acting as incentives, protectors, and obstacles for the central characters. This is a more introspective book, examining relationships between and beyond the main characters, and digging deeper into their home territory.

The central characters feel more developed in this follow-up story. This is partly because the reader has met and followed them through a dangerous adventure in Six of Crows, but also because they are asked to step up their commitment to each other, and to their cause. Everything feels more dangerous, and more personal, than in the first book. This is partly the result of working more closely together, but also the result of working in their home city. The city almost feels like another character in the story, and another member of the gang.

Ketterdam, the setting for the first part of Six of Crows, feels more real and more developed in Crooked Kingdom. The city, with its gangs, merchants, and districts of rich and poor, is one of the stars of this book. The world-building is fantastic – I could smell the canals and the sea, and feel the wind on the rooftops. I could sense the difference between the gangland areas and the respectable districts, and feel the fear and awareness of the characters as they navigated the streets and canals.

I found the third-person past-tense narration distancing in the first book, but I found it less of a problem in the sequel. This is partly because of the intensity of the story and the setting, and partly because reading both so quickly in succession gave me time to adjust to the author’s writing style.

I gave Six of Crows four stars, but I’m very happy to give Crooked Kingdom a five-star rating. The unpredictable plot, the constant danger and tension in the story, the more rounded characters, the cliffhangers, and the incredibly vivid setting, all came together to produce an emotional, immediate reading experience. This is a highly satisfying conclusion to the duology, and one that stayed with me after the last page turned. If you like your fantasy dark, and your world-building strong, head to Ketterdam and allow yourself to be drawn into the story. You’re in for a treat.

Have you read Crooked Kingdom? What about the other books in the GrishaVerse? What did you think of the story, and the setting? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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Wishing Shelf Award Finalist!

We are so excited to announce that Battle Ground is one of the finalists for the 2019 Wishing Shelf Book Awards!

YA readers in eight schools in the UK read the book, and marked it higher than 30/40 with reference to its style, theme, editing, and cover.

A huge THANK YOU to all the Wishing Shelf readers who gave such wonderful feedback on the book – we’re so pleased you enjoyed the story!

Battle Ground (Book One of the Battle Ground series) is available in paperback and Kindle editions, and is free to read on Kindle Unlimited.

YA Review: Six of Crows

Title: Six of Crows
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

Six outcasts, a lot of money, and a dangerous plan come together in Leigh Bardugo’s thrilling fantasy heist story. Set in Ketterdam, a city based loosely on 18th century Holland, the beginning of the book introduces the characters, the mission, and the Grisha – practitioners of specific types of magic kept as indentured servants by rich merchants. As the plot moves forward, the backstories of the characters are introduced in flashbacks and storytelling, and the world beyond Ketterdam is revealed.

There’s a lot going on in this book! We learn about the politics of Ketterdam, from the gangs on the streets to the the Merchant Council that runs the city. There’s the recruitment of the team for the jailbreak and the heist, the backstories of the characters, the journey to their target, and the histories of the relationships between the members of the team. There’s the single-minded determination of the group’s leader, and the constant questioning of loyalties and motivations. For YA, it’s a complex and relatively long book, and it demands – and repays – close and attentive reading.

The characters are well-drawn and distinctive, with their own secrets and grudges, and reasons for joining the team. The plot is detailed and interesting, with enough twists to keep the reader guessing all the way to the end. The world is beautifully imagined, with constrasting countries and cultures adding danger and tension to the story.

I enjoyed the book, and I enjoyed the adventure, but I didn’t connect with the characters as much as I wanted to. The book is written in third person past tense, and I found myself wanting some first-person narration, to really feel as if I was under the skin of the person I was reading about. The author head-hops, with each chapter told from the point of view of one of the characters, and while this is essential to the story, I found the lack of a first-person connection distracted me and distanced me from the more exciting parts of the book. That’s a personal preference, though, and this story is told with skill, depth, and sympathy for the central characters.

It’s a neat, complex, and satisfying story, and the ending sets the scene for the second book. Luckily it’s already on my shelf …

Have you read Six of Crows? What about the other books in the GrishaVerse? What did you think of the story? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: With the Fire on High

Title: With the Fire on High
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

Emoni is Seventeen. She juggles school and work with taking care of her two-year-old daughter, and while she doesn’t feel supported by the father of her child or his family, she has her grandmother on her side. Emoni’s passion is cooking, and she dreams of being a chef. When she cooks, people fall in love with her food, and they swear she adds a touch of magic. Her dishes bring back wonderful memories for the people who eat them, and often move them to tears.

When a Culinary Arts course starts running at her school, Emoni signs up, but the discipline of the professional kitchen threatens to stifle her creativity. Will a class trip to Spain being her closer to her dreams, or will her friendship with the new student in the class distrct her from her responsibilities – and her talents?

This is an inspiring story. Emoni has many reasons to give up on her dreams – from the judgement of her classmates during her pregnancy to the demands of raising a child while studying and working to help pay the rent on her grandmother’s apartment, and the reality of learning to be a professional chef. She already knows she can cook, but she fails assignments because she adapts and improves the recipes. The teacher wants her to learn the basic rules, and doesn’t give her credit for her talent. Anyone with a gift for creative subjects will understand Emoni’s frustration with her teacher, and with the restrictions of a structured course. She is being asked to become a beginner in a subject at which she already excels, and while there are good reasons for learning the rules, it feels liek a rejection of her abilities.

I understood. I cried. I laughed with Emoni and her friends, and I smiled when her family showed their support. Emoni is a wonderful character – determined to own her responsibilites, determined not to be ashamed of her daughter, and utterly determined to follow her dreams. It’s a rollercoaster story, and there isn’t a neat, happy ending, but Emoni’s confidence and determination carry her through her challenges.

There’s a lot of love in this book: Emoni’s emotionally charged recipes; her tough, supportive grandmother; her best friend who knows exactly what to say; her love for her daughter; and her relationship with her own absent father. There’s love for culture and heritage, for food and traditions, and for community and family and friends. It’s a feel-good read with depth and spice – just like Emoni’s cooking.

Have you read With the Fire on High? What did you think of the story? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: The Base of Reflections

Title: The Base of Reflections
Author: A E Warren
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

The Base of Reflections isn’t published as YA, but it is entirely YA-compatible, so I am very happy to review it here!

What if humans created a superior species using genetic engineering? What if Homo Sapiens were then held responsible for the damage to the planet, and forced to make reparations? And what if we used genetic engineering to bring back extinct species – including Neanderthals?

The Base of Reflections picks up the story from Book One’s cliffhanger ending, taking the characters into new territory as they discover more about the world they have grown up in. Where The Museum of Second Chances explored one of the four settlement bases, this book gives the reader a wider view of the world, physically and politically. There’s a new Point of View narration, following a group of Neanderthals and humans from a different base, and the narrative is split between various characters in different locations. Each thread of the plot shows the reader new aspects of the wider society, raising the tension and the risk for all the characters.

The question of right and wrong, and how to tell the difference, is a theme that runs through both books. Close to the end of Book Two, there is a wonderful conversation about power, leadership, and corruption, as two characters try to decide on the right course of action. There is a tension between following the rules, and doing the right thing, and it is interesting to see how each character reconciles the choices they make with their personal loyalties, and the expectations they have grown up with.

The wider cast of characters in this book means that the story is not focused entirely on Elise and her experiences. The characters from Book One continue to develop and grow, alongside the new Neanderthals, Sapiens, and genetically enhanced humans. I was fascinated by the Neanderthal characters – by the effect on them of their experiences as museum exhibits, by their relationships with each other and with their Sapien and enhanced friends, and by the development of their beliefs and motivations throughout the book. This is a really intersting series, and I’m looking forward to reading Book Three!

Have you read The Base of Reflections? What did you think of the story? And what about the world AE Warren has created? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: The Museum of Second Chances

Title: The Museum of Second Chances
Author: A E Warren
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

The Museum of Second Chances isn’t published as YA, but it is entirely YA-compatible, so I am very happy to review it here!

What if humans created a superior species using genetic engineering? What if Homo Sapiens were then held responsible for the damage to the planet, and forced to make reparations? And what if we used genetic engineering to bring back extinct species – including Neanderthals?

Book One of the Tomorrow’s Ancestors series introduces a world where unaltered humans are treated as manual workers, and denied luxuries as punishment for their destruction of the natural world. Teenager Elise is determined to move out of her manufacturing job, and her life changes when she is hired to work as a companion to one of the Neanderthals in the museum in the base where she lives. Her task is to spend time with him and make sure his life as a glorified zoo animal is interesting, while ensuring that he only has access to technology and food from 30,000 years in the past. Elise learns quickly that her job is not as straightforward as she hoped, and that there is more going on in her base – and in the museum – than she realised.

Elise is a sympathetic and engaging character, and right from the start I cared about her story. She is surrounded, at home and at the museum, by a cast of well-drawn and interesting colleagues, neighbours, and family members. I particularly liked her relationship with the museum nurse as it developed through the book, and her relationship with her brother. My favourite character has to be Kit, the Neanderthal she works with. His grudging acceptance of her companionship grows into something more as she finds ways to bend the rules, and make both their lives more interesting.

The ending is a cliffhanger, so I’m glad I bought Book Two!

Have you read The Museum of Second Chances? What did you think of the story? And what about the world AE Warren has created? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Sentinel

Title: Sentinel
Author: Joshua Winning
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

Cover at for Sentinel

Young Adult urban horror/fantasy set in and around Cambridge? Yes please!

The blurb on the back of Book One of the Sentinel Trilogy promises ‘unconventional heroes, monsters, murder and magic’, and the story doesn’t disappoint. Fifteen-year-old Nicholas Hallow’s world is turned upside-down when his parents are killed in a train crash. A letter from his father to an old friend sets out what should be done if anything were to happen to his parents, and Nicholas finds himself uprooted from his home and placed in the care of a godmother he knows nothing about. Chased by evil entities he doesn’t understand, and with his future decided by adults who refuse to explain the danger he faces, Nicholas attempts to find his own answers. Will he find the truth, or will the demons find him first?

Sentinel is a fun read. There are dramatic scenes that explode vividly from the page like sequences from a film, and quieter, more reflective sections that give the reader a chance to get to know Nicholas, and the people around him. The constant refusal of the adults to explain anything to Nicholas becomes more frustrating for him as the story progresses, and while this frustration is shared by the reader, it serves a chilling purpose at the end of the book. Nicholas is relatable as a grieving, powerless teenager, attempting to understand the secrets that define his life, but it is the supporting characters who bring colour and depth to the story. Sam, the elderly friend of the family, and Liberty, in particular, provide the book’s unconventional heroes, and the principle antagonist is absolutely delicious in her evil scheming.

The settings for the story are well drawn, and the scenes set in Cambridge are fun to read if you are familiar with the locations. The sequence at the Fitzwilliam Museum felt very close to home, and the descriptions of Midsummer Common provided a solid real-world anchor for Nicholas’s experiences. There are hat-tips to Narnia (I counted three), an interesting system of magic, symbols, and folklore, and a house that felt like a character in its own right.

Judging by the ending, things can only get more exciting in Book Two!

Have you read Sentinel? What did you think of the story? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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Post-Brexit Dystopia

“Hey, Toph!”

A woman with short pink hair opens the kitchen door, noise spilling through from the room across the hall.

“Hey, Trish.” I give her a smile.

She walks into the kitchen and pours herself a glass of water, leaning against the work surface to drink it.

“Hard at work?”

I shrug. “Exams.” Trish rolls her eyes.

“I wish they’d leave you alone. Let you get on with learning instead of this constant testing.” I can’t help smiling. I’ve never found a subject that Trish couldn’t turn into an argument.

“What’s today’s torture?”

“History.”

She shakes her head. “Don’t get me started, Toph. It’s all lies – don’t forget that!” She puts the empty glass down, her black sleeve riding up to show the tattoo on her wrist – twelve stars in a neat circle, with a broken heart in the centre.

(Making Trouble: freebook.tallerbooks.com)

Thank you!

A huge THANK YOU from Taller Books to everyone who has supported, promoted, and enjoyed the Battle Ground Series. It has taken two years, two months and nine days, but all five books and the prequel novella are now out in the wild.

At risk of sounding like an Oscar winner, there are some people we need to thank. Our proof readers, without whom Ketty wouldn’t have her own story, Bex’s journey in Book Four would be considerably less interesting, and the typo count would be so much higher. Our beta readers, who calmed our nerves, and whose suggestions made the books more polished. Everyone at YALC who encouraged us and provided a platform to promote Book One. Jericho Writers, NaNoWriMo, and everyone who gave us advice on writing and publishing the books. Our designer, Medina Karic, who worked with our rough sketches to produce such gorgeous eye-catching covers. Former colleagues, who encouraged Rachel to start writing when she suddenly had time on her hands. The Book Club, for showing us how fantastic YA can be, and all our local writers, for encouragement, support, book signings, and mornings in the Waterstones cafe.

And a huge THANK YOU to our readers, for taking a chance on an indie author, and for all your wonderful feedback. Thank you to everyone who has posted a review, tweeted about the books, made Instagram Stories and sent us photos of our books in their hands. It all means more than we can say.

Thank you.