YA Book Prize 2021 shortlist reviews
It’s been a few weeks since we uploaded our YA Book Prize 2021 shortlist reading vlog and discussion videos, so it’s about time I actually reviewed each of the ten shortlisted titles. I’m going to do these alphabetically, so feel free to scroll down if there’s a specific review you’re looking for! I have reviewed a couple of these titles previously: I will share my reread thoughts with you, but I will also put a link to my original review if you’d like to check that out as well.
Without further ado, let’s talk about this year’s #YA10.
And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando – 4.5 stars
I first discussed And the Stars Were Burning Brightly in a #10in20 review post during Blogtober. My thoughts on And the Stars Were Burning Brightly didn’t change much upon rereading it, so I won’t spend too long talking about it with you today.
This is an impactful debut novel which tackles the subject of cyberbullying. I think it’s a brave subject for a debut novel, and is one which Jawando is highly passionate about. She shares in an author’s note at the end of the story that Al’s tale is loosely based on the bullying which she experienced earlier in her life. I think it’s very inspiring that she’s taking such a horrific experience and trying to do good with it.
That being said, something about the eventual reveal doesn’t ring true with me. I can’t go into details without ruining the plot of the story, but it’s something which I had a problem with the first time I read the story, and still didn’t like the second time around (even if I could understand the inclusion a bit more). That’s the only thing stopping me from giving this story 5 stars, but I’ll definitely be carrying on with the second book in the series when it’s finally announced.
A Snowfall of Silver by Laura Wood – 5 stars
Why did no one tell me that A Snowfall of Silver was the companion novel to Laura Wood’s A Sky Painted Gold? I loved that book when I read it as part of the YA Book Prize shortlist back in 2019, and if I’d known A Snowfall of Silver was a companion novel I would have picked it up as soon as it was released.
A Snowfall of Silver stands out from the rest of the books on the shortlist because it’s very cosy. The story follows a girl called Freya as she runs away from her home in Cornwall, heading to London to become a star. Freya gets an in with a theatre troupe quite easily, and soon finds herself travelling around the country as part of the wardrobe department.
This was one of my favourite books on the shortlist, because it was a refreshing palate cleanser after some of the heavier issue-based novels. That being said, it still had a great moral about following your dreams and not being afraid to change the direction you’re aiming in if something better suited to you comes along.
Reading it on one of the hottest days of spring was an interesting choice, as it features a heck of a lot of snow (and an overnight stay in one of the theatres when the troupe gets snowed in!), but even though it wasn’t a seasonal read I still loved it. I’m probably going to end up rereading it towards Christmas, because I read it quite quickly and I would like to be able to savour Freya’s story.
A Snowfall of Silver wasn’t my winner, but it has made me extremely excited to read Laura Wood’s Under a Dancing Star.
Cane Warriors by Alex Wheatle – 3 stars
As someone who doesn’t read a lot of historical fiction, I knew I was going to struggle with Alex Wheatle’s Cane Warriors. Set in 1760, this novel fictionalises the events of Tacky’s War (also known as Tacky’s Rebellion): a slave uprising in Jamaica which lasted for three months.
However, I struggled with this one for unexpected reasons. My main issue with Cane Warriors is that it feels incomplete. The novel follows a boy called Moa, who is the youngest member of the slaves involved in Tacky’s rebellion. The story starts the night before the uprising begins, and ends when the rebellion ends, intensely focusing on the events which occurred in those three months. This means that the reader only meets Tacky after the rebellion has started, making it hard to understand how he has persuaded his companions to follow him, or to see what an inspirational leader he is.
Meanwhile, the ending feels unfinished. Although the rebellion is over, it feels as though Moa’s story is only just starting. I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if we had a bit more build up at the beginning, and followed Moa further.
That being said, the breakneck pacing did make it impossible to put this book down, and I did read it in a sitting. It’s under 200 pages, so if you’re looking for a historical YA novel which focuses on a lesser known event in history, this will be the perfect book for you.
Eight Pieces of Silva by Patrice Lawrence – 4 stars
Eight Pieces of Silva follows Becks, whose sister Silva goes missing after their parents fly off on their honeymoon. Becks is annoyed – Silva is supposed to be looking after her, not disappearing without a trace and refusing to pick up her phone. To get to the bottom of where her sister has gone, Becks is forced to venture into Silva’s room – strictly forbidden territory – where she finds a mishmash of clues which help her unravel the mystery behind Silva’s odd behaviour throughout the past few months.
I’ve read all of Patrice Lawrence’s novels so far, but something always stops me from absolutely loving them. In the case of Eight Pieces of Silva, it’s an unsatisfactory ending which could have had a much bigger impact. I loved the first half of this novel and was unable to put it down, because it reads like a murder mystery (without a dead body). If you’re a fan of Truly, Devious or A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder, this is definitely one you should pick up. However, the ending just fell flat and was more a fade to black than an explosive resolution.
That being said, I do love the fact that Patrice Lawrence always gives her characters such vibrant and memorable personalities. Becks is a lesbian and she’s obsessed with Black Panther and K-Pop: the passion she feels for her fandoms is so easy to relate to, and I was thrown back to my own teenage days filled with posters covering my walls.
Good Girl, Bad Blood by Holly Jackson – 4.5 stars
This was my second time reading Good Girl, Bad Blood, and I enjoyed it even more second time around. I wasn’t sure if that would be the case, because this is a mystery novel and I could remember quite a lot about the way the story played out, but it was fun to spot the subtle breadcrumbs being dropped very early in the book.
If A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder wasn’t so brilliant, Good Girl, Bad Blood would have probably been a 5 star read. As it was, I decided to settle for 4.5 stars because it’s just not quite as powerful as the first novel in the series. That being said, I loved the way that Holly Jackson foreshadowed the plot for book two during the first installment in the series. It makes me excited to see how things will play out in the final book in the trilogy, As Good As Dead, when it’s published in August.
It’s not possible to say much about this one without ruining the events of book one, but I will say that if you’ve read the first book and you’re currently sleeping on the sequel, hurry up and grab a copy!
The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff – 2 stars
The Great Godden was the book on the shortlist which I felt most apprehensive about reading. Unfortunately, my misgivings proved correct, as this was my least favourite book on the entire YA Book Prize shortlist. In fact, I’m wondering whether 2 stars might have been too generous of a rating for this novel.
The concept of The Great Godden is a clever one. The book is narrated by an unnamed, genderless character, who shares the story of their summer holiday being rudely crashed by the Godden brothers – grandsons of Hollywood royalty – and the upheaval that occurs.
However, I just didn’t buy the fact that the main character’s gender was supposed to be open to interpretation. Some of the ways that they speak – particularly the fat-shaming, derogatory comments directed towards their sister – feel like ones which would only come from a female viewpoint. Meanwhile, the protagonist’s parents call them “Darling” at multiple points and this also doesn’t feel masculine in the slightest. I might be wrong, as it is all open to interpretation. However, having read this with my partner, he said that he didn’t believe that the portrayal was remotely masculine either, which detracted from the androgynous, gender non-specific narrative.
As I mentioned, there is also a lot of casual fat-shaming in this novel, which was highly unnecessary. There’s also the use of a biphobic trope – one of my least favourite tropes of all time – and that was the final nail in the coffin for my enjoyment of this novel.
Even though I didn’t enjoy The Great Godden, I still think it might end up becoming a modern classic. The way that is it written feels as though it’s crossing the bridge between YA and literary fiction, and I can imagine this one appealing to both teen and adult readers alike. This is the end of the road for my relationship with Meg Rosoff: this is the third of her books that I’ve read and I haven’t enjoyed any of them, so I won’t be picking up any more in the future.
Hold Back the Tide by Melinda Salisbury – 5 stars
Hold Back the Tide was the winner of our personal YA Book Prize award, because both Sean and I absolutely loved it.
Melinda Salisbury’s first standalone YA novel is set in the Scottish highlands during an unspecified time in history, and it’s captivating. When the story begins we meet Alva, who shares her rules for living with a murderer: certainly one way to kick off your book with a bang!
However, all is not as it seems. Hold Back the Tide quickly develops into a supernatural mystery with a unique creature the likes of which I’ve never seen before.
The first 100-150 pages are unputdownable, so make sure not to start this book before bedtime or you’ll be in for a very late night. In fact, try and put aside a decent chunk of time to get through this one, because Alva’s haunting story will hook its claws into your heart and you won’t be able to concentrate on anything else before you know how the story finishes. It takes a lot for a book to make me cry, but I was blubbing at the end of this one.
If you’re a fan of atmospheric YA mysteries such as those by Shea Ernshaw, Melinda Salisbury will quickly become your new favourite author.
Loveless by Alice Oseman – 4 stars
This was my second time reading Loveless by Alice Oseman, and I enjoyed it more second time around. Although it wasn’t my personal YA Book Prize winner – you’ll hear about that book in just a second – I was convinced that Loveless was going to win, and it deserved the prize more than any of the other books on this shortlist.
Alice Oseman’s fourth full-length novel tells the story of Georgia, who is getting ready to go to university. Georgia has never been in a relationship, and she starts to fixate on this after being mocked at a party for having never been kissed. Georgia’s convinced that she’s going to find true love when she goes to university, but it doesn’t take long for her to realise that that might not be her dream after all.
Loveless is the first YA novel I’ve read which openly discusses terms like asexual and aromantic on the page. Georgia’s investigation into her sexuality is bound to help a lot of teenage readers, whether those who are asexual or aromantic or those who have friends who identify with either of those sexualities. Oseman’s novel does a great job of normalising a sexuality which is still misunderstood. In fact, the first International Asexuality Day was celebrated on April 6th THIS YEAR! That, more than anything, shows how essential Loveless is.
I did have some issues with Loveless (primarily that the university setting doesn’t feel authentic, and I wanted that aspect of Georgia’s life to be fleshed out a little bit more), but I appreciate this book and will be recommending it to everyone for a long time. I’m just hoping that this signals a change in mindset and that more asexual characters will be seen on the page soon.
Melt My Heart by Bethany Rutter – 5 stars
Melt My Heart by Bethany Rutter was my personal YA Book Prize winner. This book tells the story of Lily Rose, a girl who isn’t ashamed of the fact that she’s fat and wishes society would stop judging her for her size when she’s happy as she is. This isn’t helped by the fact that her skinny identical twin Daisy is constantly commenting on her own weight. How is Lily meant to ignore Daisy’s comments when they’re identical in everything but size?
Lily accidentally gets into a relationship with the boy Daisy’s been crushing on all summer. However, her relationship with Cal doesn’t give her the intense butterflies and swooning feelings she’d been expecting. Is that just because she’s hyped up the idea of a relationship in her mind, or because Cal might not be the one for her after all?
The bisexual representation in Melt My Heart is stunning. I also loved the discussions surrounding higher education: whether you should go to university just because it’s what everyone else is doing, or whether you should take a risk and forge a path which will suit you better. It’s so nice to have a character turn around and say, “Hey, actually, university might not be right for me!”, especially after reading Loveless (which is set at a university) and Good Girl, Bad Blood (as Pip discusses heading off to university in September). Not going to university is a legitimate choice, and it’s the choice which I made. If I’d read this book when I was younger, I would have felt a lot more confident about my decision!
Melt My Heart is a new favourite of mine, and I’m looking forward to reading Bethany Rutter’s No Big Deal soon.
Wranglestone by Darren Charlton – 3 stars
Last, but certainly not least, we have Darren Charlton’s debut novel, Wranglestone.
Wranglestone is a post-apocalyptic novel centred around a group of survivors who live out on islands in the middle of a lake. The lake offers a great natural defence during the summer months, but when the lake starts to freeze the Dead are able to walk across it, and safety becomes a distant memory…
Unfortunately, protagonist Peter is extremely naive, and he accidentally endangers the lives of his fellow Lake-Landers when he puts his trust in a stranger. The leaders come down hard on Peter, deciding that he needs to grow up and start contributing more to their community fast. Thankfully ranger Cooper is on hand to help, and it doesn’t take long for their friendship to develop into a romantic relationship.
I definitely seem to be in the minority by not absolutely loving Wranglestone. I found the setting atmospheric, and loved the idea of these islands which are a haven of safety in the warmer months but are completely different during the winter. I also really cared about the characters of both Peter and Cooper, and found the development of their relationship to be very authentic.
Sadly, something about the writing style just didn’t work for me. At times Wranglestone reads as more of a teen book because of Peter’s naivety. However, there are also overly long sentences and convoluted descriptions which feel as though they’re edging into the literary fiction genre. It is a strange contrast, and it consistently threw me out of the story, causing me to reread sections over and over again to fully understand what was going on.
Even though I had problems with certain aspects of Charlton’s writing style, I’m still looking forward to reading the sequel, Timberdark, when it publishes next year.
And that’s it for this year’s #YA10. This was a very strong shortlist, and possibly my favourite overall. I’m already looking forward to making my 2022 predictions: with so many 2020 releases pushed back which are finally being released this summer, there are a some stellar UKYA releases arriving within the next few months.
If you’ve read the YA Book Prize 2021 shortlist, let me know your personal winner down in the comments.
Thank you for checking out these reviews, and I’ll see tomorrow for another Top Ten Tuesday!