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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Two Great - and Very Different - #UKYA Series

Whether you're a fantasy fan or a lover of gritty contemporary, I have just what you need today. I also have a bit of a confession: Blogger ate today's post, so I am taking the opportunity to repost a couple of reviews from a while ago to spread the love for some lovely UKYA. Both these books are fabulous examples, and both are the first in a series.

First up, we have the wonderful Firebrand by the amazing Gillian Philip. Two further titles in this series, Bloodstone and Wolfsbane, are now available, and there will also be a fourth. There is a lot of love in the blogosphere for Firebrand's antihero protagonist, Seth MacGregor (who also flirts a lot on Twitter).

Here's what I wrote back in January of 2011:
This story is narrated by Seth, who is one of the most engaging characters I've ever come across (and as a lifelong avid reader and an English teacher, I have read a fair few books!). His voice is pitch-perfect, revealing his flaws as well as his strengths, and endearing him to us as we follow his journey from the Sidhe world into the Otherworld (our version of the world).

Seth's background is difficult at best - unwanted by his mother and unacknowledged by his father, he is nevertheless capable of love and loyalty, almost despite himself. This love is largely directed to his half-brother Conal, whom we see him preparing to shoot at the book's opening, to save him from being burnt as a witch. Following this exciting episode, we are taken back to the long chain of events that leads to this point, to arrive there again about halfway through the narrative. The brothers' relationship is realistic and touching in its depiction of male affection, including the trading of insults and jibes.

This is a gripping adventure story in a fantasy setting with its fair share of twists and turns, but it is the characters that steal the show. I'd strongly recommend this to readers of 12 plus - and will certainly be lending it to my 12 year old. There are references to sex, but they are subtle enough for younger readers to miss, while the novel's grand sweep and the masterful characterisation is more than sufficient to engage adult readers.

From an entirely different angle, we also have the taut thriller When I Was Joe from the marvellous Keren David. The trilogy which begins with this novel is now out in its entirety, so you don't even have to wait to see how it all ends! 

Here are my thoughts from May 2011:
The central voice of Ty is definitely a key strength of this book. He narrates the story, gradually sharing more of what happened 'that day', and regularly revealing his feelings (albeit not always deliberately). He is a sympathetic character and you are desperate for things to go well for him, but at the same time he is a realistically drawn teenager. This means his choices aren't always the best ones, and there are some wonderful moments where he clearly doesn't grasp the subtleties of what is going on around him. A sentence that sums up the delightful 'teenageness' of him for me is:
'Yeah,' I say and she says, 'You know, Ty, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' which is pretty amazing because I would have thought that Maureen'd be way too old to have even heard of Kanye West.
The story is pacey; helped by starting after the incident that ruptures Ty's world, which means the truth of what he saw is delivered in a tantalising trickle throughout the novel. And there are fantastic twists. At one point, I did such a sharp intake of breath that the woman next to me on the train was laughing at me!

At the same time as dealing with this big central incident that drives the story, the bulk of the novel is ultimately about fitting in and being accepted. Ty's life is complicated by having to move to a new area and live as someone else. This gives the author lots of scope to explore 'normal' teen stuff like negotiating friendships and romantic/sexual feelings, together with all that angst about who or what is 'cool'.

The novel deals with the important issue of knife crime (as well as at least touching on other issues affecting teens, such as bullying, identity, relationships, self harm, attitudes to different kinds of families), but it isn't an 'issues' novel, it's an engaging story which happens to highlight some issues. This is the perfect way to address issues for this audience: teens (no scratch that, people) run a mile from preachy books. This novel will get them thinking because it will have first engaged them with Ty and his specific and personal situation and concerns.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this post! I'm already a huge fan of Keren David's books and loved When I Was Joe/Almost True (haven't yet read third book) and Gillian Philips books are ones I've been thinking about reading lately and haven't yet gotten around to. I'm feeling excited to give them a chance in the near future after reading your thoughts on them!


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