Originally published in 1968, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin (Folio Society, £29.95) still resonates today, thanks to its timeless themes of self discovery and true friendship.
The hero, Sparrowhawk, shows great promise as a wizard from an early age, but when trying to raise the dead he releases a terrifying evil into the world. From an arrogant and proud apprentice, he becomes a chastened survivor and then the hunter of the terrible spirit he has released. This beautiful gift edition is illustrated by David Lupton and features a foreword by author David Mitchell. A Christmas present to treasure, for old-time fans and newcomers alike.
Carnegie Medal winner Jennifer Donnelly’s These Shallow Graves (Hot Key, £14.99) is a thriller set in 1890s New York. Jo Montfort has her whole life mapped out for her: marry an eligible bachelor, have children, attend society balls. When her father is killed, supposedly while cleaning his own gun, Nellie Blye admirer Jo can’t rest until she discovers the truth about his death. Infuriatingly handsome newspaper hack Eddie offers help, though he has his own motives for investigating the case. As Jo and Eddie delve deeper into the Montfort’s family history, Jo learns that life is a good deal dirtier than she ever thought possible. She also has to choose between telling the truth, which may ruin her family, or lying and continuing her comfortable life. As in Donnelly’s A Gathering Light, her strong-willed heroine doesn’t accept the path that society has chosen for her. Engrossing and enlightening, the period detail is vividly evoked, and you’ll pine to spend more time in Jo’s inspiring company despite the 500 page length.
We get closer to the present day with Danny Weston’s Mr Sparks (Andersen Press, £7.99) set just after the end of the First World War. When Owen’s father doesn’t return from the front and his mother is sent to an asylum he has to live with his cruel Aunt Gwen, working in her drab Welsh seaside hotel. Mystery arrives with a foreign guest carrying an unsettling piece of luggage – the ventriloquist’s dummy, Mr Sparks. Like a wonderfully sinister Pinocchio, Mr Sparks is looking for a younger puppet master in order to escape. This is dark-hearted fun, macabre mischief and seriously spooky storytelling. Danny Weston’s previous novel, The Piper, is shortlisted for the Scottish Children’s Book Awards 2016, and any fans of that will love this.
In Claire McFall’s modern-day Black Cairn Point (Hot Key, £6.99) Heather is infatuated with Dougie. So when he invites her and some other friends on a birthday camping trip to the beach, she can’t say no. But when the friends find a burial cairn and take a strange amulet from it they apparently wake a murderous, malevolent spirit and the trip ends in tragedy. A year later, Heather is in a psychiatric institution desperately trying to prove her innocence and sanity. The only person who could back up her unbelievable story of an evil, murderous creature is Dougie, but he has been in a coma since those dreadful events at the beach. The other friends from the trip – Martin, Darren, Emma – are all dead.
The double narrative of “now” and “then” is expertly handled, convincingly conveying how the trip has changed Heather from a carefree teenager to a horribly damaged soul. Never less than gripping, constantly surprising, and with a truly shocking finale, this book book proves yet again that McFall is one of the most fearless voices for YA fiction in Scotland.
Set in the distant future, Philip Reeve’s Railhead (OUP, £9.99) comes as part of a new trend in YA which earlier this year saw brilliant releases such as Paul Magrs’ Lost on Mars and SF Said’s Phoenix: space opera. Zen Starling, forced into a life of petty thievery to support his family, rides the trains through K-gates - mysterious wormhole-like tunnels connecting the planets of Reeve’s stunningly realised universe. When Zen is summoned by the infamous and enigmatic outlaw Raven, it’s money that motivates him to rob a train, but it’s the developing love for the Motorik servant girl Nova which keeps him involved. Like a stellar-set Western, the adventure never lets up. Reeves has a vast and inventive imagination and perhaps this book could act as its own wormhole, introducing new readers to genre classics such as Dune, Banks’ Culture novels or Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.