YA Review Roundup: 2020

We reviewed 38 YA and mid-grade books on the Taller Books blog in 2020! Here’s the roundup – click through to read the full reviews, and use the comments to tell us about your favourite reads from last year.

Sentinel – Joshua Winning
4/5
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.
Full review.

With the Fire on High – Elizabeth Acevedo
4/5
Seventeen-year-old Emoni 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.
Full review.

Six of Crows – Leigh Bardugo
4/5
Six outcasts, a lot of money, and a dangerous plan come together in Leigh Bardugo’s thrilling fantasy heist story.
Full review.

Crooked Kingdom – Leigh Bardugo
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.  
Full review.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Getting Lucky – Mackenzi Lee
5/5
Short, sweet, and really rather lovely, this is the continuation of the story of Monty and Percy, which begins in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue.
Full review.

This Vicious Cure – Emily Suvada
4/5
The final book in the ‘Mortal Coil’ trilogy. The action is back, the stakes are higher, and there’s a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. Emily Suvada brings us another breathless page-turner to conclude her innovative dystopian trilogy.
Full review.

Night Swimming – MT McGuire
4/5
A short, mailing-list-exclusive introduction to the K’Barth stories by MT McGuire. Short enough to read in one sitting, but detailed enough to introduce the central character, the setting, and the humour of the series.
Full review.

Foul is Fair – Hannah Capin
4/5
A revenge thriller for the #MeToo generation, this book is uncompromising. From the calculating actions of the abusers to the absolute destruction dealt out by the central character and her loyal friends, the plot is unwavering in its drive for payback and revenge.
Full review.

The Lady’s guide to Petticoats and Piracy – Mackenzi Lee
5/5
At last – the sequel to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue! Monty and Percy are back, but this time the narrator is Monty’s sister, Felicity.
Full review.

Rose, Interrupted – Patrice Lawrence
5/5
Seventeen-year-old Rose is not at home in London. She’s used to the unbending, patriarchal rules of her tight-knit religious community, but when her family is excluded from the sect, she has to figure out the new rules by herself.
Full review.

Viper – Bex Hogan
5/5
I know I have a soft spot for pirate stories, seafaring tales, and strong female protagonists, and ‘Viper’ brings all these things together with some vividly described settings and plenty of action.
Full review.

Erinsmore – Julia Blake
5/5
A Narnia-inspired Portal Fantasy, ‘Erinsmore’ follows two sisters as they unwittingly cross into the land of Erinsmore on their way home from a family holiday in Cornwall. Arthurian legends and modern-day teenagers clash as the sisters uncover the history of the world they stumbled into – and the one they left behind.  
Full review.

A Heart So Fierce and Broken – Brigid Kemmerer
4/5
I enjoyed A Curse So Dark and Lonely, the first book in the Cursebreakers trilogy, but I loved A Heart So Fierce and Broken. This is the middle book of a trilogy – a notoriously difficult book to write – and it is more compelling, more interesting, and less predictable than the first.
Full review.

Internment – Samira Ahmed
4/5
Layla is a typical American teenager, sneaking out of the house to meet her boyfriend, and finding time to complete her homework. But Layla is a Muslim, and in her America, the President didn’t stop at banning people from certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the USA. Layla’s life is turned upside down when she and her parents are given ten minutes to pack and leave their home, and taken to an internment camp with other Muslim Americans.
Full review.

Venom – Bex Hogan
4/5
Marianne, the Viper, is married to Prince Torin, but after the wedding, nothing goes according to plan. Marianne finds herself on the run, finding enemies she didn’t know she had, and discovering which of her friends she can trust.
Full review.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder – Holly Jackson
4/5
An exciting murder mystery story, and a fun read. The clues are in the text, but as each piece of evidence is revealed, the list of suspects keeps growing.  
Full review.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – Suzanne Collins
5/5
A new Hunger Games book was always going to be high on my list, and I pre-ordered this from Waterstones to make sure I had it on publication day! Definitely worth a read – but make sure you’ve read the Hunger Games trilogy first.
Full review.

The Short Knife – Elen Caldicott
4/5
Britain has been deserted by the Roman Empire, and invaded by Saxons. Mai’s father tells stories about the Roman soldiers who kept the British people safe, and about the towns they left behind, but Mai’s world is different. There is danger in the towns, and danger from the Saxon invaders. Mai learns the power of the invaders when an encounter with three Saxon men changes her life, and the lives of her family, forever.
Full review.

We Are Not Yet Equal – Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden (Non-fiction)
5/5
The YA adaptation of White Rage by Carol Anderson, We Are Not Yet Equal takes Anderson’s interpretation of the causes of systemic racism in the USA and makes it accessible to a teenage audience – and to anyone who has not taken an American high-school history class.
Full review.

Restore Me – Tahereh Mafi
4/5
The first book of the second trilogy in the Shatter Me series only covers a few days of action, but – wow – it’s an intense few days! The Shatter Me series is an addictive literary drug, and this book doesn’t disappoint.
Full review.

Defy Me – Tahereh Mafi
4/5
I was pleased to discover that the sequel to Restore Me picks up the story from the final scene of the previous book, and introduces Juliette’s best friend Kenji as a third narrator. The three viewpoints allow the complexities of the plot to be explored while the characters are in different locations, piecing together different parts of a conspiracy that threatens to tear Juliette and Warner apart.
Full review.

Cover of Imagine Me by Tahereh Mafi

Imagine Me – Tahereh Mafi
3/5
The final book in the Shatter Me series is fast paced and action packed, as expected. The narration is split between Juliette and Kenji, which allows different characters to follow different paths through the story, and again gives the reader an outsider’s view of Juliette and Warner.
Full review.

Unite Me – Tahereh Mafi
3/5
This is a tiny, expensive paperback featuring two short stories that link to the first three books of the Shatter Me series, along with the contents of Juliette’s journal.
Full review.

Find Me – Tahereh Mafi
4/5
Another tiny, expensive paperback with two short stories linked to the Shatter Me series – this time from Kenji’s point of view.
Full review.

The Black Flamingo – Dean Atta
5/5
This is a beautiful book. Yes, it has a gorgeous cover and lovely illustrations – but the beauty is in the language, the characters, and the story.
Full review.

Vicious Rumer – Joshua Winning
4/5
This book should probably come with a violence warning – it begins with a torture scene, narrated by the person doing the torturing, and it’s an amazing setup for an uncompromising story and a fascinating character. I was hooked from the first line.
Full review.

Camp – L.C. Rosen
4/5
The second YA novel from the author of Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) is another sex-positive story of LBGTQ teens as they negotiate life, love, and sex for the first time. It’s an inspiring story with an important message about tolerance and expression – for LBGTQ teens, and for everyone else.
Full review.

Everless – Sara Holland
4/5
In Sempera, time is magically bound to the blood of every person, and payment is made in the form of blood iron – days, hours, and years. The rich amass centuries of life while the poor struggle to survive, bleeding themselves to pay for rent and food.
Full review.

How It All Blew Up – Arvin Ahmadi
4/5
A clever take on a coming-out story, How It All Blew Up follows eighteen-year-old Amir as he comes to terms with his sexuality, and wonders how to tell his Iranian-American Muslim family that he’s gay.
Full review.

The Secret Commonwealth – Philip Pullman
4/5
It’s a while since I listened to the audiobook of La Belle Sauvage, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Secret Commonwealth. The ending of La Belle Sauvage tied in neatly with the beginning of Northern Lights, and The Secret Commonwealth picks up Lyra’s story after the His Dark Materials trilogy.
Full review.

The Poet X – Elizabeth Acevedo
4/5
This is a powerful book about finding your voice in a world that wants you to be quiet, and finding your path in a family that expects you obey and conform.
Full review.

Full Disclosure – Camryn Garrett
3/5
This quiet story of a boy, a girl, and her HIV caught my eye because it offered a positive view of living with the virus.
Full review.

Harrow Lake – Kat Ellis
3/5
I don’t normally read horror, by when I read the first couple of chapters of ‘Harrow Lake’ in the 2019 Penguin Box Set YA sampler, I was hooked. There’s a great twist at the end of the book, and a punch-the-air moment as the story comes together – but it’s not quite enough to give a satisfying conclusion to Lola’s experiences.
Full review.

The Night Country – Melissa Albert
4/5
I read The Hazel Wood in 2018, so I’ve been waiting a while to read the sequel. The Night Country drops the stories from The Hazel Wood, with their magical powers and repeated trauma, into present-day New York. This is a very effective sequel to a highly unusual book, and I’m very glad I picked it up.
Full review.

Holes – Louis Sachar  
4/5
This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read forever, and I’m glad I did. It’s a fun book, cleverly written, with an offbeat and playful feel.
Full review.

Deeplight – Francis Hardinge
4/5
Fourteen-year-old orphans Hark and Jelt scrape a living on the streets of Lady’s Crave, one of the islands of The Myriad. Life on the islands used to be dominated by the gods – giant sea monsters who swallowed ships and fought each other in the surrounding waters. But the gods are dead, and their bodies yield powers beyond the imaginations of the islanders.
Full review.

Darkness, Be My Friend – John Marsden
5/5
Book Four in the Tomorrow series continues the story of seventeen-year-old Ellie and her friends as they strike back against a foreign invasion of Australia. This time they have help from the New Zealand army, but they quickly learn that their new friends can’t guarantee their success, or their safety.
Full review.

Black Ice – Julia Blake
5/5
Buckle up – this one’s a wild ride! Think you know the story of Snow White? Think again. This is a fairytale with a difference: kick-ass female leads, dark family secrets, evil plots, a dose of magic, a sprinkling of romance, fabulous parties – and epic airship battles. Hold on to your corsets and goggles, and prepare to fight for House White!
Full review.


What did you read last year? What would you recommend to other readers of YA? Use the comments to tell us about your five-star 2020 books!

YA Review: The Girls I’ve Been

Title: The Girls I’ve Been
Author: Tess Sharpe
Edition: Paperback ARC
Rating: 5/5

Probably my favourite read of the last twelve months, this book has everything. A fast-paced, thrilling plot; interesting, engaging characters; a clever and intriguing back story for the protagonist; and some genuine, how-are-they-going-to-get-out-of-this peril.

The setup is simple. Nora is seventeen. She’s spent most of her life helping her con-artist mother to target rich criminal men in a succession of scams, but now she’s trying to live a normal life with her sister. By page two of the book she finds herself held hostage in a bank heist, along with her best friend (and ex-boyfriend) Wes, and her new girlfriend Iris. She’s used to running cons with her mother in charge, and there’s always a plan and an escape route – but there’s no plan for escaping from the bank, and nothing in place to protect the people she cares about.

The bank heist turns into a battle of wits between the men with guns, and Nora and her friends. There’s a running tally at the start of each chapter of the plans that have worked or failed, and a list of the items they’ve collected that might help them, building the tension as the story progresses. Running alongside the chapters set in the bank are flashback chapters detailing the scams Nora has taken part in, and the girls she’s had to become to con the targets.

Nora’s experiences as the smiling Rebecca, demure Samantha, religious Hayley, smart Katie, and athletic Ashley have taught her how to read other people, how to understand what they want, and how to manipulate them. They have also taught her to be brave, daring, and protective of her friends. If she can figure out what the bank raiders are looking for, maybe she can save herself and the other hostages.

There isn’t a wrong step or a weak chapter in this book. The danger keeps coming – both in the bank chapters and the flashbacks – and Nora needs all her experiences and determination to stay calm, and look for a way out. Without the flashback chapters, the bank heist would be an exciting story. Without the bank heist, Nora’s backstory would be harrowing and traumatic. Bringing the two plotlines together is a genius move, keeping the reader’s attention on Nora while the hostage situation plays out around her. Both plots are utterly gripping, and together they build Nora’s complex character, explaining who she is and how she got there.

I loved every minute of this book, and I couldn’t put it down. I’m going to be recommending it everywhere!

The Girls I’ve Been will be published on January 26th. Thank you to Hachette for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read The Girls I’ve Been? What did you think of the story? Did you find yourself sympathising with Nora? 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: When The World Was Ours

Title: When The World Was Ours
Author: Liz Kessler
Edition: Kindle
Rating: 3/5

I’m not sure how to review this book, which follows three friends during the Second World War. Leo, Max, and Elsa live in Vienna, and when the book opens in 1936 they have no idea how the next few years will change their lives and their relationships. Leo and Elsa come from Jewish families, while Max’s father is a high-ranking Nazi officer. The book guides the reader through the slow process of dehumanisation of the Jewish characters, alongside an ordinary boy’s journey into fascism. There’s nothing new here if you’ve seen ‘Schindler’s List’ and read around the subject, and I was disappointed that I didn’t feel more connected to these characters as they grew up, and grew apart.

The protagonists are nine years old at the beginning of the novel, and Leo and Elsa’s first-person narration understandably feels more like a mid-grade story than a YA novel. I hoped that their voices would change and develop as the story moved through the next nine years, but the language remained at the mid-grade level even while describing the horrors of the Holocaust. It is an odd juxtaposition, reading graphic scenes about concentration camps and the Hitler Youth, spelled out with such simple words. It might help some readers to identify with the characters, and keep them connected to the three happy children from the first chapter, but I found it alienating and lacking in emotional impact. Leo’s story is based on a real-life event, which I found genuinely moving when the author explained this at the start of the book. However, when this was translated into a fictional setting, I couldn’t connect with the characters at all.

It is possible that this approach will work well for a YA audience coming to the subject for the first time. The characters feel young throughout the story, even when terrible things are happening, which gives them an innocence and a connection to younger readers that I may have missed. The book doesn’t shy away from showing the inhumanity of the Nazi regime – there is a content warning at the start – and maybe this is the right way to tell these stories. Knowing the subject of the book, I wanted to be moved. I wanted to feel something for the characters, and understand how it felt to have their lives transformed over such a short time. I was disappointed, but I can see that for a younger audience this could be a very powerful read.

When The World Was Ours will be published on January 21st. Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read When The World Was Ours? What did you think of the story? Did you find yourself connecting with the characters? 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: Lore

Title: Lore
Author: Alexandra Bracken
Edition: Kindle
Rating: 4/5

The gods of ancient Greece walking the streets of Manhattan, a seven-day Hunger-Games style fight to the death, and the descendants of Greek heroes warring against each other to harness the powers of the gods – this book has all the ingredients of a gripping urban fantasy, and I couldn’t put it down.

Lore is the last survivor of the House of Perseus. She’s opted out of the fighting between rival families, and she’s trying to live a normal life in present-day New York City. But Zeus is punishing the gods, sending them into the mortal world once every seven years to kill or be killed, and Lore is about to find herself dragged back into the fighting.

For one week every seven years, the gods can be killed, and their killer takes on their powers. All the families want a god on their side, so everyone is hunting, and everyone is hunted. The author doesn’t pull her punches – this is a violent book with plenty of blood and gore. The stakes are high, for the gods and the hunters, and Lore’s involvement puts her in serious danger.

She’s a great protagonist. Strong, intelligent, and fiercely protective of the family she’s built for herself. When we first meet her, she’s fighting in an illegal underground boxing match, finding the weakness in her male opponent, pushing her advantage, and playing to the crowd who are betting on the result. Her strength is physical as well as emotional, which gives her the advantage she needs. As a teenage girl surviving alone, the other houses have discounted her from the fight, and she’s going to need all her strength to prove them wrong.

She has the support of her best friend Miles, who knows nothing about her background. Add in her childhood training with the House of Achilles, a mysterious benefactor, an injured god, and the return of someone she thought was dead, and Lore’s plans to survive the week take a dangerous turn. The story unfolds alongside flashback chapters, filling in important details as necessary.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the plot isn’t always clear. Lore and her group of supporters make plans to trap gods and trick their rivals, but the story feels repetitive as plan after plan is thrown off-course by the warring factions. It’s not always clear what they are trying to achieve, and why they make their decisions. The complexity of the setup can be off-putting at times. Trying to remember which characters are allied with which families and which gods is not always easy, and while there is a list of people and their affiliations, it’s at the end of the book, so I didn’t notice until I had finished reading!

It’s an exciting, constantly moving story. I’m a fan of urban fantasy, and this ticks all the boxes: supernatural fights in recognisable New York locations, high stakes, a reluctant hero, and real danger for the characters and the residents of the city. It’s an inventive idea and an engaging story. Definitely worth a read.

Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read Lore? 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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Happy New Year!

Image: Vladislav Murashko / Pexels.com

Happy New Year from Taller Books!

It feels great to say goodbye to 2020, and there is plenty to look forward to in 2021! We’ll be publishing a tie-in novel in the Battle Ground Series, and a book of Battle Ground short fiction. We’re close to a final draft for both books, and we’ll be putting together a publishing schedule over the next few weeks.

We’ll be reading and reviewing more YA books this year! You’ll find all our reviews here on the blog, and cross-posted to Goodreads.

We’re really excited to bring you new books and new reviews! Watch this space – we’ll keep you up to date with our plans and our reading.

If there’s a YA book we should be looking out for in 2021, let us know and we’ll try to review it!

Here’s hoping that 2021 is a better year for all of us. ❤️

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas from Taller Books!

We know Christmas is going to be strange this year, but we hope you manage to find joy and warmth and light. We hope that you and yours are safe and well, and that the book-shaped presents under the tree are all for you. 😄

A friend sent Rachel this Christmas sweater, and it is perfect. She’ll be wearing it all day, on Zoom calls with friends and family, and hopefully making people smile.

Wherever you are, and whoever you’re with, very best wishes for a wonderful day! 🎄📚❤️

(If you’re on our mailing list, check your inbox for an exclusive Christmas gift! If you’d like to join our mailing list, head to freebook.tallerbooks.com)

YA Review: Black Ice

Title: Black Ice
Author: Julia Blake
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 5/5

Buckle up – this one’s a wild ride! Think you know the story of Snow White? Think again. This adventurous fairytale retelling begins with the attempted murder of Princess Snow, heir to the throne of House White, and builds the drama from there. Instead of seven dwarves, the protagonist’s companions are the last seven survivors of the Dwarvian people, living in secret in the Great Forest. There’s a steampunk theme to the story, but technology, and the magic that powers it, is forbidden in the Kingdom of House White – a rule enforced by the powerful Contratulum. Princess Snow is the only person standing between the Contratulum and absolute power, and she’s going to need all the help she can get to claim the throne.

The Dwarvians are engineers with magic in their blood. They are masters of forbidden technology – and they know how to build airships. Snow might stand a chance after all …

This is a fairytale with a difference: kick-ass female leads, dark family secrets, evil plots, a dose of magic, a sprinkling of romance, fabulous parties – and epic airship battles. Hold on to your corsets and goggles, and prepare to fight for House White!

Black Ice is published as adult fantasy, but it is suitable for a YA audience.

Have you read Black Ice? 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: Darkness, Be My Friend

Title: Darkness, Be My Friend
Author: John Marsden
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 5/5

Book Four in the Tomorrow series continues the story of seventeen-year-old Ellie and her friends as they strike back against a foreign invasion of Australia. This time they have help from the New Zealand army, but they quickly learn that their new friends can’t guarantee their success, or their safety.

I adore the Tomorrow series. I love Ellie’s narration. I love the characters, and the setting. I love the relationships between the school-friends-turned-fighters, and the way they develop through each book. I love the bravery of the teenagers, and their creativity in standing up to the people who have invaded their country, their town, and their homes.

Hiding out in the bush and launching guerrilla attacks is the only way for Ellie and her team to resist the invasion, but sneaking into their heavily guarded town, even under the cover of darkness, is far from safe. Darkness, Be My Friend brings the group into increasingly dangerous situations, with revelations about the state of the town, the strategic importance of the airfield, and the fates of their families. Expect heart-stopping scenes, real danger, and adrenaline-pumping excitement as the teenager’s daring plans meet the reality of strangers in their homes, and enemy soldiers on the streets.

There are obvious parallels between these books and my own Battle Ground Series, but I only started reading the Tomorrow series after my books had been written. I love reading John Marsden’s take on teenagers as reluctant fighters, and the characters’ practical approach to making a difference against the invading forces. There are three more books in the series, and I’m trying to decide whether I want to binge-read them all now, or save them so that I don’t have to say goodbye to Ellie too soon!

Have you read the Tomorrow series? What did you think of Darkness Be My Friend? 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: Deeplight

Title: Deeplight
Author: Francis Hardinge
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

Fourteen-year-old orphans Hark and Jelt scrape a living on the streets of Lady’s Crave, one of the islands of The Myriad. Life on the islands used to be dominated by the gods – giant sea monsters who swallowed ships and fought each other in the surrounding waters. But the gods are dead, and their bodies yield powers beyond the imaginations of the islanders. Hunting for godware is a dangerous profession, and when Jelt convinces Hark to help him dive to search for fragments they can sell, their lives are changed forever by their discoveries.

‘Deeplight’ is a gripping adventure story, set in a world that feels real and dangerous. Hark is a believable protagonist, and it is easy to sympathise with his dilemmas. He wants to build a better life for himself, but he can’t resist being drawn again and again into his best friend’s risky schemes. Hark and Jelt have been each other’s families for so long that Hark finds it impossible to walk away, and both boys pay the price for his decisions. Add in an engaging cast of supporting characters – ageing priests, ruthless gangs, strong women, and a genius scientist with questionable morals – and you have the ingredients for a nail-biting story. Part fantasy, part dark folklore, and part atmospheric horror, the book delivers chilling revelations, surprising plot twists, and touching moments of friendship, along with a spine-tingling sense of wonder.

A highlight of the book is the treatment of its deaf characters. Loss of hearing is a common injury among the Myriad’s under-sea scavengers, and deaf islanders are honoured for their bravery. Many of the characters in the book speak using sign language, and their status means that hearing characters learn the signs in order to communicate with them. Sign language is presented as a standard method of communication, and while characters from different islands are described as having regional accents, the signs also have regional variations. The author consulted members of the National Deaf Children’s Society, and the result is a diverse, inclusive narrative where no one feels like a token character, the use of sign language is seen as a strength and an honour, and everyone is important to the story.

Have you read Deeplight? What was your favourite part 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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