YA Review: Camp

Title: Camp
Author: L. C. Rosen
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 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. Randy has been attending Camp Outland every summer for years. It’s the only place where he can be entirely himself alongside his best friends, and he loves performing in each year’s musical production.

But Randy has a problem. He’s fallen for the gorgeous Hudson, but Hudson only has eyes for straight-acting boys. Randy reinvents himself as Del, choses the sports option instead of musical theatre, and sets out to make Hudson fall for him. It’s a daring plan, and Randy’s friends are worried when they see him pretending to be someone he’s not.

In spite of all Randy’s efforts, secrets, and heartbreak, this is a feel-good novel. His relationship with his friends is just as important as his relationship with Hudson, and they are a supportive and inclusive group. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, nonbinary, and asexual teens work alongside each other to create theatrical productions, sporting events, and memories. They look out for each other, and look after each other, no matter who they are and how they present themselves to the world. Randy is a sympathetic protagonist, and the supporting characters are well drawn, believable, and distinctive.

The book tackles issues of identity, authenticity, and self-discovery in unexpected ways. It champions self-expression and finding out who you are, while sounding a note of caution about looking after yourself in the real world. Not everyone has a supportive family away from Camp Outland, and not everything that happens at camp can happen safely at home. Like Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts), this is an inspiring story with an important message about tolerance and expression – for LBGTQ+ teens, and for everyone else.

Have you read Camp? What did you think of the story? Did Randy/Del do the right thing? 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 Black Flamingo

Title: The Black Flamingo
Author: Dean Atta
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 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.

When I picked it up I didn’t realise it was written in verse, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The main character’s voice drew me in from the start, and the use of verse and stand-alone poems provided a powerful short cut into his emotional experiences. The descriptions, the storytelling, and the supporting characters are all handled with an extremely light touch, but the words are carefully chosen and the images and experiences are vivid and clear.

This is a book about identity – discovering and claiming the right to express who you are, while navigating the complex demands of family, friends, and the colour of your skin. With a Greek mother and a Jamaican father, Michael struggles to find his place in a world that finds him too black, not black enough, or not Greek enough. His disappointment when his mother refuses to buy him the Barbie he so desperately wants for his sixth birthday sets the scene for the story, and begins his journey of self-discovery.

It’s a quick read, but it follows Michael through school and on to university, spotlighting important events to tell his story. His experiences as a gay, mixed-race teenager are sometimes heartbreaking, and sometimes heartwarming, but all of them contribute to his need to find and define himself. When he joins the Drag Society at university, he finally has the chance to bring all his experiences and influences together, and the freedom to be fully himself.

When Michael takes to the stage as the Black Flamingo, his costume, poetry, and interaction with the audience bring together everything he has experienced, and everything he has learned. After a lifetime of finding himself defined by other people, the freedom – and the permission – to present himself in his own way feels absolutely inspiring.

The Epilogue, a poem called ‘How to Come Out as Gay’, repackages the message of the book in a few lines, reinforcing the idea that there is no right way to be yourself, and that only you can figure out who you are, and what you want to show to the world. It’s an empowering, emotional end to an empowering and emotional book. Highly recommended.

Have you read The Black Flamingo? What did you think of the story? What did you think about Michael’s journey, and the poem at the end? 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: Venom (Isles of Storm and Sorrow #2)

Title: Venom
Author: Bex Hogan
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 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.

The sequel to ‘Viper’ begins with a beautiful wedding, but just when you think the story is about to take a break, and give the characters a chance to reflect, the action kicks off and doesn’t let up. Marianne is in trouble, relying on friends and strangers to keep her safe while she finds out more about the Western Isles, and the magic she spent time researching in book one. The temptation to learn more takes her back to the West, where her competing loyalties lead her into danger – and to some surprising discoveries.

There is plenty of action in ‘Venom’, and plenty of excitement. Marianne encounters politics, power, and temptation, along with friendship, and fear for the people she loves. Every decision she makes brings heavy consequences – and without a clear plan she makes mistakes, and hurts the people she hoped to help. She’s still a strong protagonist, but this is an emotional journey through deception, myth, and the loyalty of friends.

To say that the book ends on a cliffhanger would be an understatement. When you turn the final page, you’ll need comfort food, and a plan to survive until the release of book three in April 2021!

I can’t wait …

Have you read Viper and Venom? What did you think of the story? Did you prefer the adventures of the first book, or the darker action of the second? And what about that ending? 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: Collision (Phobos #3)

Title: Collision (Phobos #3)
Author: Victor Dixen (translated by Daniel Hahn)
Edition: Paperback, Hot Key Books
Rating: 3.5/5

The sequel to Ascension and Distortion (reviewed on GoodReads) left me alternately cheering and shouting at the page. A great plot, a relatable central character, and some serious tension – brought down by a plot point I couldn’t accept, some terrible science, and an ending that left too many elements unresolved.

I’ll start with the positives. Collision continues the story from the first two books, picking up from the final scene of Distortion and exploring the consequences of the betrayal that marked the climax of Book 2. The twelve teenagers who took part in the speed-dating reality TV show on their way to Mars in Ascension are living in the Martian base, married, and working to extend the base to accommodate the contestants from Season 2. Faced with the revelations from the end of Distortion, the colonists have to decide how to respond, and how they want their new Martian society to develop. As they consider their actions, they are all aware that their decisions will set a precedent for the future running of the base.

Meanwhile, on Earth, their support network is under threat. The portrayal of the powerful antagonist becomes even more extreme and cartoonish, provoking international hostility, and putting the future of the colony at risk. There is deception on Earth and on Mars, and everyone is hiding something. As the secrets are uncovered, and the truth threatens lives on both planets, the stakes are raised for a nail-biting conclusion.

There is less of the body-shaming and sexism in Collision than in the previous books, which made it easier to read without shouting at the pages. The story moves on from the excitement of the speed-dating to the realities of long-term relationships, and long-term Martian settlement. There are serious clashes and disagreements between the colonists, and serious consequences – but there are also opportunities for them to stand together and defend each other when faced with unreasonable demands from Earth. The terrible science is back, but I was happy to ignore the details in order to follow the story. My major complaint is with the betrayal that ends Distortion and begins Collision. I could not bring myself to accept the severity of the confession – not at the end of Book 2, and not as the consequences played out in Book 3. I found that I had to ignore my doubts, and accept that the characters felt betrayed – even if I couldn’t see why. Once I accepted the premise, the plot kept me engaged. I cared about the characters, I cared about the story, and I cared about the mounting threats to the mission.

Which makes the ending so much worse. Collision kept the story exciting and engaging for a hefty 723 pages. It kept me interested, and it kept me reading. But on page 723? The story doesn’t end. One section of the story draws to a close, but nothing is resolved. The beliefs of the Mars cult, introduced in Collision, are unexplored. The illness of one of the colonists remains undiagnosed and incurable. The final page is the setup for a sequel.

And there’s the problem. There is a sequel, if you’re reading in French. Phobos 4 tells the next part of the story. The blurb is on the French publisher’s web page, and the book has 4.5-star reviews on GoodReads – but it hasn’t been translated. On the back covers of all three books published in the UK, there are images of the first three books, suggesting that the series is a trilogy.

It isn’t. So – Victor Dixen, Daniel Hahn, and Hot Key Books – we need Phobos 4! I may have a love/hate relationship with the Phobos books, but I need to know how the story ends! It’s that, or I polish up my A-level French and see how much I can read without a translation. Wish me luck …

Have you read the Phobos series? What did you think of the story – and what did you think of the ending? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)

Title: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)
Author: Philip Pullman
Edition: Audiobook
Rating: 4/5

It’s ages since I read ‘His Dark Materials’, so I was concerned that I wouldn’t remember enough about the story to engage with the first book in the prequel trilogy, ‘The Book of Dust’.

I needn’t have worried. The first chapter introduces most of the story’s main elements (including La Belle Sauvage, the canoe of the title). The differences between the modern world and the world of the story are introduced gradually, and act as reminders if you’ve read the later books, or gentle worldbuilding for readers new to the series. The fantastical elements of the story are introduced and explained through the characters and their conversations, so nothing feels like an infodump.

The protagonist is eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead, whose life revolves around working at his parents’ inn in Oxford, helping the nuns in the priory across the river, exploring the river in his beloved canoe, and going to school. He’s an engaging character – curious, serious, and more at home in the adult world than with his school friends. He maintains his canoe, helps the caretaker at the priory with carpentry and repairs, and helps the nuns with their work, always quick to learn and apply his skills.

And he needs those skills. When a catastrophic flood hits Oxford, Malcolm’s adventure begins. With realistic and fantastical elements, and Pullman’s trademark critique of organised religion, the book builds to a tense climax. The links to ‘His Dark Materials’ become evident during the story, and by the final scenes the connection between the trilogies is clear.

It’s a good story – slow to build at first, but always interesting. There are moments of intense action, and moments of fear and danger, but most of the book focuses on Malcolm, his resourcefulness, and his relationships with the people around him. I’m looking forward to Book 2.

I listened to the story as an audiobook, so I should mention the narration. Michael Sheen is a fantastic narrator, capturing the day-to-day activities of Malcolm’s life while bringing an intense sense of drama to the exciting parts of the story. I don’t usually buy audiobooks, but I really enjoyed listening to Malcolm’s adventures over breakfast every morning. I’m planning to have Michael Sheen read the sequels to me as well!

Have you read La Belle Sauvage? What did you think? How would you rate it? And how do you think it compares with ‘His Dark Materials’? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and let us know what you think!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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