Beyond the Wall by Tanya Landman review – brutality and hope in Roman Britain

Chases and cliffhangers abound in an excellent YA novel about a 14-year-old slave girl escaping sexual exploitation

What was it like to be a slave in the Roman empire? Pretty grim, according to Tanya Landman’s excellent YA novel set in fourth-century Roman Britain. Well, of course, you might say – how could deprivation of liberty and hard labour be anything else? But as we soon discover, there was something even worse in store for many slaves, particularly the young, vulnerable ones – sexual exploitation.

Fourteen-year-old Cassia is a slave on the estate of Titus Cornelius Festus, a rich, powerful Roman and a nasty piece of work. He tries to rape her, but she fights him off and goes on the run to nearby Londinium. There she is saved from being recaptured by the enigmatic Marcus Aquila, a young Roman only a few years older than her. But is he a true ...

Dragon’s Green review – this tale of a magical education is a cracker

In her first book for children, Scarlett Thomas conjures up a mobile-free ‘Otherworld’ where plucky Effie Truelove takes on the forces of darknessDragon’s Green is the first book for children by Scarlett Thomas, whose adult novels include The Seed Collectors and The End of Mr Y. Of course, doing well in one kind of writing doesn’t guarantee success in another. Many good writers for adults have tried their hand at stories for children only to fail, and vice versa. But I’m pleased to report that this opening volume of a fantasy trilogy is a cracker. Fantasy stories live or die by the worlds they create, and this one provides a fairly standard “magical” background. A realm of magic (“the Otherworld”) is separated from the everyday world by a porous boundary, and good and bad sorcerers (“the Guild” and “the Diberi”) struggle against each other for mastery of both. But ...

Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman review – love, loss and green-eyed monsters in space

This spectacular space mission, inspired by Othello and Star Trek, goes boldly where few YA titles have gone before Things are not going too well for Olivia (“Vee”) Sindall at the beginning of Malorie Blackman’s latest epic novel. She and her brother Aidan are the only survivors on a starship heading back to Earth, the rest of the crew – including their parents – having been wiped out by a killer alien virus three years before. So there is loneliness and grief to deal with, as well as the everyday problems of space travel. They are also being pursued by a species called the Mazon, whose sole reason for existence seems to be to terminate with extreme prejudice Vee and her brother and any other humans they can lay their tentacles on. Then Vee manages to upset the Mazon even more: she sabotages their ships on a mission to rescue the ...

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman review – strong characters, important themes, terrific writing

This fast-paced, 18th-century tale of racism and family origins shows the genre at its best Carnegie winner Tanya Landman’s excellent YA novel gets off to a cracking good start. The year is 1752, the setting is the West Country, and when we first meet the main character, teenager Caleb Chappell, he is helping his father Joseph put on the Punch and Judy show that earns them a living. Yet within a few pages Caleb’s life seems to have been utterly destroyed – his father is falsely accused of theft, then swiftly tried and condemned to death, leaving Caleb to fend for himself. That is no easy matter, especially as Caleb has two big problems: he can’t do the Punch and Judy shows without Joseph, so he is instantly plunged into poverty, and he is mixed race. His white father had always done his best to stand between him and the unconstrained racism they encountered almost every day. ...

The Door That Led to Where by Sally Gardner review – a time-travelling Dickensian saga

A huge cast and a complex plot make for an original tale about how adults fail young people

Sally Gardner must drive her publishers to distraction: no sooner have they worked out how to market one brilliant book than she delivers another that is just as brilliant, but totally different. All they can do is throw their hands up in despair, make sure the phrase “genre-busting” is prominent in the blurb, and wait for the inevitable prize shortlisting.

The Door That Led to Where is described as a “fast-paced mystery novel”, but that’s only the half of it. It is also part modern YA family story, part Dickensian saga and part time-travel fantasy, with a huge cast, a complex plot and a commentary on the failings of adults in their dealings with the kind of kids who – as Gardner put it in the dedication to her Costa- and Carnegie-winning ...

A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig review – an instant Christmas classic

A reindeer named Blitzen and a rather distinctive hat … this Christmas tale could soften even Scrooge

I have to confess that I’ve never been a great fan of Christmas, or as it’s known in our house, The Monster That Ate the Last Third of the Year. It’s mostly the rampant consumerism I object to, but I’m also a little wary of the annual crop of new Christmas stories, and sometimes wonder why anyone bothers. Surely it’s all been said in a few classics – Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?

Thus it was with the beady eye of a pre-redemption Scrooge that I began to read Matt Haig’s Christmas tale, the story of 11-year-old Nikolas, whose nickname is Christmas because he was born on Christmas Day. Nikolas lives with his woodcutter father in a timeless, fairy-tale Finland, a bear having killed his mother years before. ...

My Name’s Not Friday by Jon Walter review – a superb teen novel about slavery and religion

With his tremendous feel for character, Walter vividly captures the events that unfold on a Mississippi plantation during the American civil war

It isn’t often I’m left lost for words, but that’s the way I felt when I finished reading this superb YA novel. I thought making a list of its good and bad points might introduce some balance: but its virtues are many, and the only flaw I could come up with is so minor as to be hardly worth mentioning – I’m not keen on the title. In the end I realised I had only one option, so forgive me while I gush shamelessly.

Virtue number one: Jon Walter’s courage in tackling a subject such as slavery. The story is set in the deep south during the American civil war, most of the action taking place on a Mississippi plantation. It’s familiar territory, and therefore difficult to write about ...