Themes emerging from this selection include seizing the day, making history and developing survival strategies.
Starr, the inspirational narrator of Angie Thomas’s passionate and uncompromising The Hate U Give (Walker £7.99) has two identities as a young black woman, one of which fits more easily into life at her almost entirely white private school. Having witnessed the death of her two best friends makes Starr older than her years, and her regular teenage path of dating, basketball, studying and sleepovers is dotted with landmine-like dilemmas. Should she speak out about the latest shooting by a police officer? Should her family move to the suburbs? Can they stay true to their community and escape the worst effects of gang culture? Can her white boyfriend ever really understand her life? Starr and her many readers will keep asking the big questions.
Beyond the Wall (Walker £7.99) by Tanya Landman has similar preoccupations of institutionalised oppression, retribution and uneasy alliances, set two millennia earlier. This gripping tale, aimed at a mature reader, of the captives’ rebellion that frayed the edges of the Roman empire in AD4, investigates the perilous position of women at every level of society, with frankness about sexual abuse and violence. Cassia is an escaped slave Briton who depends for survival on Marcus, a maverick Roman nobleman. Together, they develop the long-game patience and subterfuge they need to reach freedom north of Hadrian’s Wall, then give up what they have gained and do it all again.
Cassia and Marcus have a modern sensibility while credibly belonging to their ancient world, which fosters our connection to the deep past.Margot and Me by Juno Dawson (Hot Key £7.99), a family drama set in the not-so-far-away 1990s, leads to profound insights into our relationship with history when Fliss illicitly reads her grandmother Margot’s second world war diaries. Margot was once much like her granddaughter: a bright, bossy, fashion-conscious young Londoner adjusting to life in rural Wales after a catastrophe. She charts the small-town racism and homophobia that shocks Fliss 50 years later, when anti-LGBT-bullying policies are yet to be invented, along with social media (Fliss’s interactions with her new friends take place in refreshingly real time, and the fashions and foibles of the 90s will seem intriguingly quaint to today’s teens). An account of Margot’s personal losses make the wartime death toll real to Fliss, while the wise but spiky grandparent finds it easier to build bridges on paper than in person.
History is all relative, and unfathomable, to 17-year-old Flora in The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr (Penguin £7.99). In this eerie, thoughtful suspense story, Flora breaks all the rules for surviving with anterograde amnesia. She can retain memories for only a few hours, has the life skills of a 10-year-old (the age when her condition developed) and is confined to her home town by protective parents. Yet she travels towards the Arctic Circle in search of a boy who kissed her on a beach, drinks too much beer and runs out of medication, while the endless summer light intensifies her lack of boundaries. As she lurches into constant new adventures, the reader’s full understanding of her predicaments adds to the tension.
In The Memory Book by Lara Avery (Quercus £7.99), Sam has too much knowledge where Flora has too little. She is fully aware of what she will lose to her terminal strain of dementia, including her new relationship, university and her imagined “future Sam”, for whom she records scenes from her last year in a highly addictive narrative voice. “Present Sam” and her struggling family become more vibrant on the page even as her world appears to shrink, and gaining clarity about her past helps her to create a future in unlikely circumstances.
Complex but believable family dynamics, and a rocky road to self-knowledge, can also be found in Lisa Williamson’s witty and touching portrait of an embittered, sarky middle child and her apparently high-achieving siblings. All About Mia (David Fickling £10.99) gets the reader on Team Mia even while we long to halt her inner self-destructive express train.