SARAH’S REVIEWS

The Light in Everything by Katya Balen

This is a heartfelt story about making room for new friends, family and happiness in your life. The story that Balen tells  is so full of love but also shows the mixed emotions of children so brilliantly and their views of the big world that they do not always fully understand. 

We follow the lives of two children, Zofia and Tom, who could not be more different, as they try to have their families blend together, with a baby on the way. When their parents meet and their lives change forever, the two must try to understand each other while they are also trying to understand their own emotions at the same time. Tom loves his Mum very much and wants to see her happy, but he is scared that the past will repeat itself and is incredibly anxious that the past will also find him. He will not let this fear make way for positive changes. Meanwhile, Zofia does not want to share her dad with anyone else and her fear of having to share him and losing their bond shows itself in anger and frustration. 

Katya Balen does a phenomenal job of showing a child’s emotions and how, just like adults, sometimes they need help to understand them. The subtlety that Balen uses to highlight children’s mental health is wonderful and her writing pulls at the heartstrings. It is beautifully told with tenderness and care. This sensitive story about stitching a new family together is something to be read by both children and adults.

Blood to Poison by Mary Watson

This book, rooted in South African history, shows female anger as resistance to centuries of mistreatment against women and the ever present racism that exists in today’s world. Watson brings in such a wonderful fantastical element to parallel the real world and its history, creating a story that thrums with magic and excitement as the main character, the 17 year old Savannah, hunts for explanations and justice. 

This has everything a teen book should have, and more. It is a coming of age story that has all the hiccups that teens face in daily life and the self-discovery that comes with growing up. However, it also has witches, curses, and a lick of darkness to keep things interesting. 

A mesmerising, unputdownable and gripping novel that lets a young woman come to grips with who she is and lets her find her voice.

Never Did the Fire by Diamela Eltit

Never Did The Fire gives an insight into an unnamed Latin American country’s violent past and the legacy that it left behind to this day. Eltit brings to light the sacrifices that people made, and still make, when they become revolutionaries against an oppressive political regime.

The novel, which is beautifully translated, shows a very un-English experience and a life still wholly entangled in the politics that existed years before. By telling the story of a woman questioning her sense of self and what she used to be before the mental and physical pain of the burden of being a revolutionary, Elitat evokes the sense of loss and trauma that is left behind for decades after the events in history have taken place.

The characters and their story show what it means to fight for survival, even after the fight is over.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson 

The beautifully written story of two young black people who fall in love had me highlighting paragraphs and stopping to catch my breath on a regular basis. The poetic prose is something to be savoured and taken time over.

At its core the book is about what it means to be a Black British male living in a society that sees you to be synonymous with danger, squeezing you into a box they have created but in which you do not fit. All the while it also celebrates black art, creativity and thought – with the spotify playlist created to go alongside the reading an amazing extra touch.

Nelson writes in the novel: ‘rather than asking what is your favourite work, let’s ask, what continues to pull you back?’ This book pulls me back and I cannot stop thinking about it.

Hex by Jenni Fagan

Although this book is short, it packs a punch and will certainly leave a weight on your heart. Fagan shows the hysteria that society can turn to when they do not understand something in its entirety and how they will create an enemy out of the innocent to try to avoid the truth.   

 Hex tells the tale of Geilis Duncan, a 15 year old girl in 1591, who is hanged for being accused of being a witch. Geilis waits in her prison cell beneath Edinburgh High Street for the sun to rise on the day of her execution. As she waits for her time to come, a young girl visits her from the future. Fagan uses the long waiting night to allow Geillis to have her voice, and side of the story, heard.  Meanwhile, her visitor offers comfort and friendship in her final hours.

At times, this was not an easy read and you come away from this novella with a sadness that was not within you before. However, this does not mean you should not read it. It simply means it is one that you will not forget. Fagan brilliantly weaves past and present together, showing that the women of our time have more in common than we think with those from the past. Although 400 years on, some things have still yet to change and the injustices of today just shrouded in a different guise. This story shows the ripples of the past that are still felt today. Hex is a wonderfully written, absorbing novella that will stay with you for a long time.

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angela Boulley

This amazing book will have you on the edge of your seats. It is a thrilling page turner but also a heart wrenching education about Native American traditions, history and the lack of justice that indigenous women receive.

Eighteen year-old Daunis is caught between two conflicting family histories and with her mixed heritage she has always felt an outsider in both strands of her community. Her father was Ojibwe while her mother is white. However, when both strands are caught up in the same string of crimes, it is Daunis who goes undercover to help try to end the cycle of violence. Combining her knowledge of the ice-hockey world, that her community revolves around, and the indigenous traditional medicine and culture, Daunis is able to start to unravel the case.

Boulley tackles some tough subjects throughout but does so in a way that educates and enlightens her readers. She has written a fast-paced thriller but also a cultural story and a coming of age tale. A tale of love between individuals and within the Ojibwe community.  This is a book that goes beyond the classic “whodunnit” but leaves you feeling as though you are not ready to say goodbye by the time the last page creeps up on you.

Content Warning: It contains drug use, racism, murder, and sexual assault.

Like A Charm by Elle McNicoll

A brilliantly fun children’s book that has an adroable and fantastic heroine. Ramya, who is proudly neurodivergent, does not fit in and would rather do things her own way rather than what the adults tell her to do. Then, after her grandfather opens up a whole new world of hidden folk to her she must fully embrace who she is, trust her insticts and help the unseen side of Edinburgh.

Full of heart, magic, creativity and loveable characters, Elle McNicoll has written another tremendous adventure for children and adults alike.

Humankind by Rutger Bregman

Throughout history, there has been the assumption that humans are fundamentally selfish by nature. However, Bregman goes through the events in history used to back up this pessimistic assumption and disproves it; by seeing things from a different perspective and removing that overbearing negativity pinned against the human race, he shows that humans are fundamentally kind.

Drawing on philosophy, psychology, genetics, evolution and much more, this book makes you rethink your beliefs about society and what you have consumed through the press and history books. It is wholly refreshing to get proof that we should have faith in humanity and look for the innate kindness existing in all of us because cynicism is an elective theory, not a definitive one.

I learnt an incredible amount from this book. This book was my life raft while drowning in the sea of this current global pandemic and all the cynicism and negative information that accompanies it. This is the healthy dose of optimism that we all need.

Quite by Claudia Winkleman

A very light-hearted and refreshing book written by a woman with such self-assurance, on all things from squirrell etiquette to the brilliance of winter, that it will delight you and make you smile through every chapter.

This is the paper version of that over-enthusiastic friend who gives you advice even though you did not ask for it, but you still take it all onboard and thank them for it, because you know that one day it will come in handy.

The Shadow and Bone Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo 

The orginal trilogy in Bardugo’s Grishaverse does not disappoint. I cannot recommend only one, so here I am, recommending the whole trilogy to get you started.

This series is action-packed, full of fascinating characters and has you wishing it would never end. In this installment of the Grishaverse, we follow Alina Starkov, a young girl who discovers she has a wealth of unqiue power, and her battle against The Darkling, who is out to take over the whole kingdom.

The universe built by Bardugo is one that you want to escape to. Her writing brings all her characters to life and as you close the final page of each book, you find yourself reaching for the next, so as to be with those characters once again.

These books are mostly decent and relatable enough for teen audiences but are also complex enough for adult readers. The series has rightly cemented a place for itself in the YA fantasy genre. If you enjoy this series, the following duologies are on par, if not better.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

This is an exceptionally written novel that tells the story of the lasting impact of the Vietnam War on the young narrator’s family as they struggle to recreate their life in the United States, hoping for a better future.

Little Dog writes a letter for his mother that will never be read, as she is illiterate, focusing on recounting his adolescence and childhood. He looks at inherited family trauma brought over from the war and past abuse, noticing how it can be passed down through generations. As he writes to his mother, he juxtaposes the abuse, trauma, and dislocation with the love, discovery and beauty he finds along the way. As Little Dog writes, he tries to find explanations and uncover who his mother truly is but he also writes a letter of self-expression from a boy who struggled to find his footing for a long time.

Although the narrator writes of his struggles of being caught between two languages, this novel is written so lyrically and beautifully; describing these struggles in such a tantalising way that you get sucked into a different world completely. It shows that once you master language, it can take you anywhere, it creates bridges between us and those we care about, it helps you to process and to create. To master language gives us a newfound power.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

This book shows just how important sleep is for us, how it can effect every single part of our lives if not gotten enough of. The reality is that most of us will skip sleep for a lot of things but Walker does not beat around the bush when telling us that this is extremely harmful to our physical health and mental health. Sleep is the thing that keeps our minds healthy, it is what, if not given enough of, impairs our productivity, our creativity, our heart’s health, our metabolism, our memory saving, and so much more. The bottom line that Walker makes you unable to ignore is: The less sleep you get, the shorter your life.

Although this book does make you uncomfortable at the thought of how little sleep you might give yourself, it also gives you ways to remedy this. Some of these remedies I had tried before but without fully understanding HOW it was helping. This book not only gave me ways to get more shut eye but also explained why these things were to be used. Walker helps you understand why you might be a morning person or a ‘night owl.’ He explains the broader societal problems when it comes to our sleep needs and he also tells us how our sleeping patterns change as we age.

If you need to know anything about sleep or are struggling to sleep yourself, this book will help. Although being very scientific, it is still very readable. If nothing else, it will show just how important getting enough sleep is.