YA Review: Wonderland

Title: Wonderland
Author: Juno Dawson
Edition:
Paperback
Rating:
4/5

A retelling of Alice in Wonderland with a transgender narrator and a cast of rich kids enjoying sex, drugs, and murder at London’s most exclusive party.

Alice is trying to fit in at her very expensive girls’ school. She’s the first transgender girl at St Agnes, and outside the staff room no one is supposed to know. She’s also the daughter of a successful novelist, so her New Money background sets her apart from the Old Money heiresses in her classes. When her friend Bunny goes missing, Alice discovers an invitation to Wonderland among her belongings. With no idea what she is heading into, and armed only with a credit card and a designer disguise, Alice uses the invitation. She throws herself down the rabbit hole and into an exclusive Old Money world where anything can happen, and the usual rules don’t apply.

Wonderland is an extravagant party. Alice feels like an outsider from the start, hiding behind her disguise and trying to look as if she was invited. People keep judging her on her outfit, trying to work out who she is and whether she is on the guest list, and she constantly invents lies to justify her presence. As she explores the party, always looking for Bunny, Alice meets some familiar characters – a top-hatted boy at a drug-laced tea party, twins who spike her drink and try to assault her in a hot tub, another gatecrasher dressed as a cat who keeps turning up when she needs help, and the Red Queen, who controls everything at her own private party.

Alice’s anxiety about being discovered as an imposter in Wonderland parallels her anxiety about being outed at school. The tricks she plays at the party – with clothes, her avoidance of questions, and avoiding detection – mirror the measures she takes in real life to keep anyone from questioning her gender. Alice is right to be concerned – Wonderland is a dangerous place, and her secrets are not as safe as she believes. But Wonderland is also a place of freedom from everyday rules, and Alice finds acceptance as well as threats at the party. The two consensual sexual encounters in the book affirm her gender, and demonstrate other people’s acceptance of the body she is trying to change. Her partners are kind, attractive, and attracted to her, even when she feels self conscious and out of step with her physical appearance.

This retelling of a familiar story as a fable about identity, navigating written and unwritten rules, and finding your value when other people want to exclude you. It is an effective use of the Alice in Wonderland concept, with the dream-logic of the original mirrored in the drug-fueled, alternative reality of the party. Alice is an engaging narrator – smart, funny, and determined to claim her place in the world without apologising for who she is. It’s a refreshing, affirming read, with a relatable transgender narrator and positive portrayals of characters of a range of genders, sexualities, races, and class backgrounds. Like Alice after the party, I’m still trying to process everything that happened, and how I feel about it. There’s a lot going on here, and the themes will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt as if they didn’t fit in. A feel-good book about assault, discrimination and murder? Anything’s possible when you fall down the rabbit hole …

Have you read Wonderland? What did you think of the story? Do you think it worked as a reimagining of Alice in Wonderland? 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: Bearmouth

Title: Bearmouth
Author: Liz Hyder
Edition:
Paperback
Rating:
4/5

Newt is one of the Bearmouth boys, living and working deep underground to mine coal for the Master. It’s hard to make a living in the mine – Newt has to pay for boots and candles, and send money home to his mother. He can’t afford the cost of the trip to the surface, so he’s stuck underground with his work team. The boys and men who share his dorm are his Bearmouth family, looking out for each other in a dangerous environment, and keeping each other’s secrets. Thomas takes care of the younger boys, and teaches them to write – and this allows Newt to tell his story.

Bearmouth is a book about friendship, loyalty, identity and rebellion. So far, so YA – but it is Newt’s distinctive voice that sets this story apart. The book is written in first person present tense, and narrated using Newt’s attempts at phonetic spelling. As with any phonetically transcribed book, the first few pages are hard to engage with, as the reader attempts to find the voice behind the unfamiliar words. Thanks to the skill of the author, and a careful balance between misspelled words, expressive dialect, and the cadences of Newt’s storytelling, it doesn’t take long to tune in and hear the narrator’s voice as you read.

It’s a captivating voice. Newt is good at his job, and he tries hard to learn his letters with Thomas, but there is so much he doesn’t understand. There is pressure on the Master to open up more of the mine and produce more coal, which makes Bearmouth a dangerous place to live and work. As the realities of his world come into focus through the events of the story, the injustice that is obvious to the reader becomes clearer to Newt and his friends.

The book doesn’t pull its punches. There are scenes of violence, and scenes that hint at the constant threat of violence that surrounds Newt and his work team. There are deaths and disappearances, mining accidents, fights, and abuses of power. Newt’s dorm feels like the only place of safety in a mine full of violent men, and this danger draws the reader into the story.

This is a captivating story, engagingly told. The reader can’t help but sympathise with Newt, and the actions he takes in order to survive. Stick with the first few pages, and you are rewarded with Newt’s unique voice and growing understanding of the world around him. Follow Newt into the dark, and you’ll be cheering him on as the danger closes in.

Definitely worth a read.

Have you read Bearmouth? Did you enjoy the story? What did you think of the Newt’s narration? 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: Steel Tide

Title: Steel Tide (Seafire #2)
Author: Natalie C Parker
Edition:
Kindle
Rating:
5/5

I’m so pleased I headed straight to the second book in the Seafire trilogy as soon as I finished Book One. After a brief pause for Caledonia to recover from the events of the final pages, the story is off and running again, and I avoided my book hangover by diving straight back in.

Caledonia thought she was protecting her ship and her all-female crew when she sent them away. She refused to involve them in her personal mission of revenge against an old enemy, but when the smoke clears she needs to find them again. Reuniting the family she has built for herself will be dangerous, and she needs the help of new friends to bring them back together. She needs to ensure their safety, and she needs to continue the fight against Aric Athair and his ruthless pirates. And then there’s the problem of the boy she allowed onto her ship. Who is he, and can he still help her to find someone she thought she had lost? Caledonia must convince new friends and old enemies to work with her against Aric, gambling the safety of everyone around her on promises she’s not sure she can trust.

This is a fantastic follow-up to Seafire, throwing Caledonia and her crew into danger again, and raising the stakes in the battle against Aric. Secrets are revealed, alliances are made in unexpected places, and Caledonia is forced to chose between her conscience and her crew. She’s still a fascinating morally grey character, and this book pushes her into darker actions and darker decisions. She continues to be supported by her loyal crew – characters she loves and cares about, and risks everything to protect.

This is another addictive book, and I read it in a single day. I can’t believe I have to wait until November to read Book Three in the series! I’ll be thinking about Caledonia and her crew until the next book is in my hands. This is a story that will stay with me long after the final page, and I’m already wondering how dark the author is willing to make the ending of her trilogy. I can’t wait to find out!

Have you read Steel Tide? 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: Seafire

Title: Seafire
Author: Natalie C Parker
Edition:
Paperback
Rating:
5/5

How has it taken me so long to find this book? Pirates, rebels, sea battles and survival with an awesome all-female crew – I loved it.

Caledonia Styx is the leader of a crew of girls who fight back against Aric Athair’s ruthless pirates. It feels as if everyone else on the seas and islands he controls has given up. They hand over their children to fight for him in exchange for their own lives. They keep his fleet supplied with everything he needs in order to keep themselves safe. Challenging his power would risk their lives, their homes, and their families, so they keep their heads down and survive instead.

But Caledonia has already lost everything – her family, her home, and her safety – to Aric’s pirates. She has built a crew of young women like herself, with nothing left to lose but each other, and she is determined to bring Aric down. Attacking his food barges, and the supply of the drug he uses to control his recruits, has hurt his operation enough to gain his attention. Her crew is a target for every ship under his command, and when she sails into a trap set by the pirates she is forced to reassess her attitude to Aric – and to his recruits. Will she break her own rules to save an enemy? Will she risk her crew for the sake of one of the pirates she fights, and for the information he offers?

This is a perfectly balanced story. Aric and his pirates are unquestionably bad – cruel, ruthless, and power-hungry. Caledonia is fighting for people like herself, and for a world where the pirates don’t abuse their power, and don’t control the sea. She is engaging Aric’s forces on their terms, fighting and killing if she has to, while remaining loyal to the crew she commands. She is certain of her mission and she feels responsible for the lives of everyone on her ship. Her aim is not to defend other people – her aim is to disrupt Aric’s operation and see an end to his power. She might be fighting for the good guys, but she’s a morally grey character – and that makes her a fascinating protagonist.

Add in her wonderful female crew, her ship with its intriguing technology, adventures on sea and on land, and her troublesome prisoner, and you have the ingredients for a gripping, fast-paced, addictive story. I couldn’t put the book down, and when I turned the final page I headed to Amazon immediately to download Book Two.

Have you read Seafire? What did you think of Caledonia’s 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: Loki: Where Mischief Lies

Title: Loki: Where Mischief Lies
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Edition:
Hardback
Rating:
4/5

Who was Loki before he became the character we know (and love!) from the Marvel Avengers films? What were his formative experiences? Mackenzi Lee gets to play with the family dynamics of a younger Loki, Thor, Frigga, and Odin in Where Mischief Lies, and it is evident that she is having a lot of fun in the process!

This is an engaging romp through Asgard and the Nine Realms, and Midgard in the shape of nineteenth century London. Dropping the god of mischief into a world that knows the myths and legends of his family but doesn’t believe in magic provides a perfect excuse for misunderstandings, unreliable bargains, new friendships and inevitable betrayals.

Loki’s task in London is to investigate a series of magical murders, with the help of a mysterious secret society. He’s already upset that Thor is proving himself to be the statesman and future king in the family, while he is sent to Midgard in disgrace. When he discovers the truth behind the secret society, and behind the murders, he has to decide whether his loyalties lie with Odin and Asgard, or with himself and the relationships he chooses.

This is an interesting glimpse behind the scenes of a character most readers will know from the Avengers films – untrustworthy, unpredictable, and out to cause mischief. The author is careful to show us who Loki was before he embraced this role – the jealousy of his relationship with Thor, his desperation to prove that he should be king instead of his brother, and his alienation in Asgard as he is required to subdue and hide his magical abilities. It’s a story about rejection, and being made to feel bad about who you are – and it’s story about redemption, and taking pride in your own strengths, even if your family wants you to follow a more conventional path. It’s a story about finding yourself and shrugging off the expectations of others.

And it’s a story about Loki, my favourite character from the Avengers story, who Mackenzi Lee brings to life beautifully on the page.

Have you read Where Mischief Lies? What did you think of Loki’s 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 Upper World

Title: The Upper World
Author: Femi Fadugba
Edition:
Kindle
Rating:
3/5

The Upper World is an intriguing time travel story that doesn’t quite stick its landing. The book combines ancient philosophy with hardcore maths and physics to explore the relationship between matter, energy, and perception. It takes the Socratic idea of the ‘Upper World’ – a place beyond our everyday experience where, if we can reach it, we can perceive time and space from the outside and find a deeper understanding of the workings of the universe. The characters use this knowledge to attempt to change the past, with unexpected consequences.

It is the characters who hooked me into the story. Esso is a believable teenager, navigating the gangs and complex loyalties of his South London comprehensive school alongside the expectations of his teachers and his West African mother. Fifteen years into the future, Rhia is juggling her unreliable home life in foster care with her ambition to become a professional football player. When she meets the maths and physics tutor her foster mother hired to help with her GCSEs, she finds herself diving into complex concepts – relativity, energy, and time travel. But why does Dr Esso think these ideas are important, and what, exactly, does he want from her?

The structure of the story builds the tension between the characters and the events they are trying to change. Esso’s present-day chapters alternate with Rhia’s future experiences. We know from early in the book that teenage Esso is heading for a dramatic, gang-related punishment, and as the story progresses he does everything he can to avoid disaster. In the future, Dr Esso’s interest in time travel starts to make sense, as Rhia begins to understand who she is, and her connection to her tutor’s past.

Rhia’s foster sister provides an effective sounding board for her theories, and the genuine friendship between the girls provides a contrast with teenage Esso’s companions – a group of boys who would rather taunt each other than show weakness. Esso’s relationship with his classmate Nadia allows him to demonstrate a softer side to his character, and her pivotal role in the story develops across both timelines. Both Esso and Rhia are sympathetic characters, and I found myself heartbroken alongside them when the plot twists and injustices kicked in.

While the climax of both stories is extremely well written, I wasn’t convinced by the plot leading up to the final moments. While I enjoyed the idea of weaving Einstein’s theories and the philosophy of Socrates and Plato into a YA time-travel narrative, the plot stretched the science and the philosophical ideas beyond breaking point, and this threw me out of the story.

I’m aware that I am not the target audience, and that I have read (and wrestled with the concepts of) a lot of time-travel stories. For YA readers with less exposure to maths, physics, science fiction, and the various fictional theories of time travel, The Upper World may well provide a gripping and satisfying read. If you don’t mind a bit of hand-waving and magical thinking with your real-world physics, this is an exciting story with clever twists, interesting ideas, sympathetic characters, and convincing real-world settings. If that sounds appealing, don’t let my review put you off!

The Upper World will be published on August 19th. Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read The Upper World? What did you think of the story? Did the science keep you hooked? 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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The day after …

This the Taller Books team today. It’s been an amazing weekend of #AtHomeYALC events, and now we need to sleep off the exhaustion . . .

Massive thanks to Josie Jaffrey and AE Warren for joining Rachel for the self publishing workshop! You can still catch the 20-minute rundown of essentials for Indies on YouTube.

Hopefully we’ll be back in London for YALC 2022 – come and visit us on the Taller Books stand! It’s a brilliant event. Just make sure you bring book money, comfortable shoes, and plenty of strong bags for your book haul …

See you there!