Contemporary Catch-Up // All of the Above and The Square Root of Summer

In which I attempt to catch up on some of the best (and worst) releases which have slipped my scheduling net. Contemporary is one YA’s busiest genres, so I’ll be tackling these through the medium of (relatively) quick reviews. And probably snark.

alloftheaboveAll of the Above by Juno Dawson
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: September 1st 2015
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased

When sixteen-year-old Toria arrives at a new school, she finds herself caught in a storm of exam pressure, new friends and doubting if she’ll ever fit in. Funny, foul-mouthed Polly – the coolest and weirdest girl Toria’s ever met – and her cohort of fellow outsiders take Toria under their wing, but with loyalties tangled and secrets being kept, fast friendships may hit the rocks even faster. Thrown in Toria’s crush on the irresistible lead singer of a local band set for stardom, and she may find that love and friendship have a funny way of going round in circles…

Eventful, outrageous and biting, All of the Above is practically bursting with character: between artistically talented newcomer Toria, fierce but secretive Daisy, bolshy pack leader Polly, awkward Beasley, book-mad Freya, uber-cool musician Nico, permanently-entwined-and-coolly-disinterested Alex and Alice, and of course, Geoff the cross-dressing squirrel, readers are from the off confronted with a colourful cast of teenagers – and the knowledge that some of these friendships will not survive the book. Polly, Daisy and Nico were the stars of the ensemble for me, but the story itself is championed by heroine Toria.

Chatty, frank and uproariously funny, Toria’s narration was one of my favourite things about the book. Brutally honest and littered with pop culture references, it both keeps you reading and packs a punch. Toria’s experiences as a biracial British-Punjabi teenager only occasionally influence the plot but inform her forthright (“Brompton-on-Sea isn’t exactly a cultural melting pot”) and warmly wry (“Worst. Hindu. Ever”) voice. It is through Toria’s humour and  Dawson captures the chaos of teenage experience.

Arriving at Brompton Cliffs, Toria finds that the year which follows is one torrid whirlwind of sexual confusion, startling revelations and surprisingly bittersweet heartbreak. Relying on the base ingredients of the YA tradition – opening with an arrival in a new place, focusing on friendship drama and coming-of-age issues – Dawson adds few twists to the general formula, but packs the book with themes relevant to modern audiences: mental health, sexuality, alcoholism, break-ups, make-ups, strained family relationships, music, hormones.

There’s so much going on in this book. It’s like an episode of Hollyoaks, only better written. This style does have its drawbacks, however. There are moments where the book fails to charm and where plot gets lost in the muddle. The prose is so busy rushing around that it’s difficult to feel many of the tough subjects tackled have been explored as deeply as needed (it’s not an easy read for some issues and requires a trigger warning) or to imagine some of the central relationships, built as they are on hastily-constructed speed-paint foundations, will last beyond the pages.
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Fans of Alice Oseman’s Radio Silence, Liz Kessler’s Read Me Like A Book and Lisa Williamson’s All About Mia will find this lively, if occasionally overbusy, contemporary companion appeals. Funny, sharp, and distinctive. 

27420164The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter-Hapgood
Publisher:
Macmillan
Publication date: May 5th 2016
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC

Reeling from the twin heartbreaks of a summer ago – the loss of her grandfather and a tough break-up – Gottie is lost and busy burying herself in equations.  

Until Thomas comes home: former boy next door, former best friend, former everything. And until Gottie starts to experience strange blips in time. They take her back to last summer – back to all she should have seen then – where she must navigate grief, world-stopping kisses and the space-time continuum as she tries to reconcile her first heartbreak with her last.

The Square Root of Summer had plenty of potential and no small amount of pre-publication hype. The premise is a collection of things which regularly appear in YA – summer timeframe, tough break-up, bad ex-boyfriend, the boy next door, a struggle with loss – with the added complication of mathematics-laden time travel. Its contemporary framing has echoes of Emery Lord, Amy Zhang and Kasie West, but for me the rest of the book didn’t click.

Unfortunately, the book’s writing style is baffling. And I say this as someone who is all for unusual and striking contemporaries! One moment it’s classic contemporary, the next it’s confused, clunky and completely unenjoyable. Choppy prose weighed down by jargon made it difficult to invest in Gottie’s time travel adventures or the passion for science which litter the novel. The writing style is idiosyncratic, disjointed and jarring, with irritatingly short paragraphs and sentences – all admirable attempts at toying with convention, and perhaps they would’ve worked in the hands of a more skilled or experienced storyteller, but it just doesn’t work here.

This book is, for want of a better phrase, all over the place. The suspension of disbelief, not to mention the supposed romances on which so much of the book hinged, just wasn’t persuasive. The characters are forgettable, the pacing is uneven and the plot is submerged in inexplicable jumps from scene to scene. For a character-driven novel, the individual or intersecting emotional stories must be compelling, but here it’s like someone threw vaguely-contemporary-shaped spaghetti at a wall and decided to write a book out of what stuck. IT MAKES NO SENSE.

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I just didn’t enjoy this one. A summer read which fails to live up to its potential. If you’re looking for an unusual writing style in contemporary, expert hands like Sarah Crossan or Jenny Valentine are still your best bet.

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The Sleeping Prince by Melinda Salisbury // flights of fancy turn ferocious in this fantasy sequel

Hello and welcome to a review in which I am reunited with fantasy fiction! After a not-inconsiderable flirtation with contemporary and a dash of magical realism, I’ve finally gotten around to reviewing the second book in Melinda Salisbury’s storming UKYA trilogy. And because I am not a fan of jumping into series reviews unannounced, you can read my review of the first book here.

27281393Author(s): Melinda Salisbury
Publisher:
 Scholastic
Publication date: February 4th 2016
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Ever since her brother Lief disappeared, Errin’s life has gone from bad to worse. Between caring for her sick mother and scraping together rent money by selling illegal herbal cures, she doesn’t have time for the war against the vengeful Sleeping Prince, woken as if from a terrible fairytale – but when her village is evacuated, she finds herself caught in a mythical conflict she never asked for. Desperate and homeless, the only person she can turn to is the mysterious Silas, a young man who buys her deadly poisons and won’t reveal why he needs them. 

Then Silas, like her brother, vanishes, and Errin decides she must save herself, and her mother, alone. Journeying across a kingdom on the brink, what she finds may force her to make icult choice and shatter everything she thought she knew about her world.

Set in the same stark and treacherous world as that of her débutMelinda Salisbury’s much talked about fantasy follow-up sets itself the twin challenge of satisfying fans of the first book and introducing a largely new cast of characters. It reads quite like the opening book in a series – for me it was less static and even a little more inventive than its predecessor – but readers will certainly benefit from the world-building and set-up imparted by The Sin Eater’s Daughter.

A long way from the austere confines and murderous royalty of the now-fallen kingdom of Lormere, teenager Errin faces poverty and strife in the shady village of Almwyck. Abandoned by her brother, desperately seeking a cure for her sick mother and with the wrath of the newly reawakened Sleeping Prince looming, Errin will do what it takes to survive, even if that means selling illegal herbal remedies and risking persecution to make ends meet. Errin is level-headed, determined and not afraid to get her hands dirty. There’s a perhaps somewhat inevitable sense that she’s been designed to contrast with Twylla, the more passive heroine of The Sin Eater’s Daughter, but whatever the motive, it works: Errin is a heroine full of tangible vigour and is likely to appeal.

There is something of the air of a folk-tale about The Sleeping Prince, and it is archly deliberate. Salisbury’s distinctive writing style – neat, compact and relatively minmalist for the genre – lends itself to the eerie overtones of folklore and superstition, including the vast and vehement quest of the titular prince, a well-conjured (and semi-undead) villain. A kind of Pied Piper meets Sleeping Beauty mash-up, the mythology of the novel is symptomatic of the fact that while little here is shockingly original, it doesn’t have to be: the skill and shrewdness with which Salisbury blends the familiar and the fantastic is enough to cement the place of what is one of the most unique recent series on the UKYA shelf. (Basically, if you’ve ever asked yourself the question “What would the Sleeping Beauty story be like if Aurora were not a princess but a prince? And also MANIFESTLY EVIL?!” this is the book for you.)

When her village is evacuated to make way for soldiers but she daren’t risk leaving with a mother prone to the cruel rages and red eyes of a semi-mythical affliction, Errin turns to the mysterious Silas, a hooded young man who buys her poisons and never reveals his face (though she thinks she saw the end of his nose once when he laughed)Silas is a complex character – one of the best in the novel – at once both apparently kind and incredibly enigmatic, a real puzzle for the reader, and I liked that. One of my favourite things about the book, about any good book, is the ability of the writer to prompt questions from the audience almost before they even realize it themselves. The Sleeping Prince is packed with twists, turns, tensions, treachery, secrets, schemes, betrayals, bust-ups, revelations and, of course, revenge. The pace is a little uneven and some of the secondary characters are flat, but the plot absolutely keeps you guessing.

There are hints at a romance, but plot takes precedence and, particularly importantly if you’re not a fan love triangles, there’s not a whisper of a ménage à trois. It’s not the most cheerful of reads, which is perhaps why the book ends on a rather hilarious acknowledgement (“And finally, Javert. I did not forget you. I did not forget your name”). I was a bit bemused by the fact that several returning characters display such notable yet unexplained changes in personality and these relatively short books are ultimately too tightly-packed to satisfy my love of sprawling high or epic fantasy. However, the twists keep coming to the final page and the stakes are certainly high for The Scarecrow Queen, so if you liked the first book, this will be right up your alley.

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For fans of Uprooted by Naomi Novik, This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab and the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, this sequel is a relatively short but plot-packed take on folktale-fantasy UKYA, with a vicious villain and plenty of twists among its highlights.

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Following Ophelia by Sophia Bennett // contemporary queen proves a dab hand at art-inspired historical fiction

Today on the blog, I take a look at Sophia Bennett’s latest! (what do you mean I haven’t reviewed Love Song yet I AM TOTALLY ON TOP OF MY REVIEW SCHEDULE).

33256865Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher:
 Stripes
Publication date: 9 March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

London, 1857. Young scullery maid Mary Adams has swapped her old-fashioned Kent village for the grandeur – and grime – of Victorian London.

But it’s only when she sees John Everett Millais’ depiction of the tragic Ophelia that this new world opens up for her. Caught in the irresistible circles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, where passionate young painters break the rules of art, dress, and society, she finds herself drawn to a host of new friends and heart-pounding capers. To survive in London’s high society, she reinvents herself as Persephone Lavelle, but even as rumours abound about the mysterious new face of London’s exciting art scene, she will learn that keeping secrets in the glamourous city is not as easy as it seems. And if she must choose, what will she sacrifice for who she wishes to be – and be with? 

Known for her chatty, ultra-modern YA – from fabulous teen fashion début Threads to brilliant bastion of boyband lit Love Song – Sophia Bennett’s first foray into historical fiction is pleasantly accomplished. Colourful, descriptive and neat, her prose here perhaps lacks the laugh-out-loud, natural feel of her contemporary work, but displays a remarkable shift to suit the genre.

This is accessible teen historical fiction for fans of Catherine Johnson, Julia Golding and Jacqueline Wilson. In fact, I couldn’t help feeling as I read that this book was everything I would’ve liked, but never quite obtained, from a Jacqueline Wilson historical if hers were not so simplistically or formulaically aimed at younger audiences: there is a richness, a patience, a stylistic satisfaction to Following Ophelia that simultaneously makes the novel engaging and refuses to underestimate readers. Bennett takes some fairly familiar ingredients (young maid, Victorian London, a well-to-do family, a secret world where class lines blur, a possible romance) and spins a story with just enough pluck to keep you reading.

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Mary Adams has one foot in the busy drudgery of life as a scullery maid and another in the tantalising escape of Pre-Raphaelitism, where rash and gifted painters are enraptured by her red hair and pale face, seeing her not as a changeling or curse but as a potential muse for great works. Finding herself drawn to talented young artist Felix, they embark on Hades and Persephone: the painting that will win him renown and free her from servitude. Mary’s secret life as Persephone sees her in cahoots with the vivacious Kitty and her scandalous brother Roly (“the most dangerous man in London”), while her everyday existence is brought down to earth with a bump by the seemingly antagonistic Annie, mysterious acquaintance Eddie, and the plight of her cousin Harriet. As the stakes get higher Bennett brilliantly takes the opportunity to explore issues involving agency, class, sexism, and lack of education. A particularly interesting look at the relationship between artist and model makes for a book which has its themes woven superlatively between escapades.

The book’s premise caught my eye because of the art, and it held my attention because of it. The discovery of the Pre-Raphaelite movement turns Mary’s narrative to glorious technicolour, and brings out the shine in Bennett’s prose. It may occasionally feel as if everything is a little too beautiful, but with entertaining cameos from some famous artistic figures – Hunt, Rossetti, Millais – and glittering insight into London’s high society, readers will be swept away by an eventful plot which cleverly segues from grimy servants’ quarters for glamourous parties sometimes within the space of a single chapter. Solidly, though not exceptionally, researched, the book glosses over some darker issues of Victorian Britain but has moments of real skill and has sequels in the pipeline, making it both an enjoyable read and a worthy recommendation for 11-14s.

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Remarkably accomplished, eventful and enjoyable historical fiction with an interesting cast and some deliciously vivid description. I’m particularly excited to learn that this is the first in a series.

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CELTIC REVIVAL: recommending (recent-ish) Irish YA

So you’ve heard all about Irish authors bursting onto the YA stage of late, with their award wins and their YALC appearances. You’ve read books by Eoin Colfer, Louise O’Neill and Moïra Fowley-Doyle. But what to read next? Where’s the rest of it? And did Irish YA even exist before 2015?

In answer: it did! As for what to read next and finding the rest of it, we’ve got you covered. I’ve chosen fairly recent (read: 21st century) releases here, but I may do another post with older reads or upcoming releases. If you’re new to Irish YA: welcome! No, no need to take off your shoes. Cup of tea? 

(And yes, Irish YA has pretty much always been this bleak. Irish children’s and early teen fiction is madcap stuff. Then YA is all like BAM. Hormones. Adolescence. Darkness. Eyeliner.)

25613853If you liked Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden (a tale of orphans, an ancient order of knights who keep comic-book style monsters at bay, and a boy with the unlikely name of Denizen Hardwick – reviewed in more detail here), you’ll like…

Death and Co. by D.J. McCune

If this was American YA, Death and Co. would be a high-concept, big budget action adventure in the style of Rick Riordan or Maggie Stiefvater. Instead, this Northern writer’s début takes a more down-to-earth approach.

17313512For generations, Adam’s family have been tasked with guiding the newly deceased into the afterlife. It’s a role his brothers are happy to fulfill. They, like their father Nathaniel, feel a sense of responsibility in bringing peace to the departed. Adam, on the other hand, would rather be at school with his friends than upholding a supernatural duty and has trouble even keeping his breakfast down when faced with the prospect of coaxing souls into the light. But the Lumen rules are clear: follow in the family footsteps, or consider yourself no longer a part of the family at all. A page-turning urban fantasy from Hot Key Books.

6609851If you liked Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It or Only Ever Yours (two hard-hitting, headline-grabbing titles which tackle tough topics and have female leads), you’ll like…

Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd

Holly is sick of being in care – of social workers and too-nice foster families, of her nagging school and being stared at – but as far as she knows, she’s stuck there. Until she finds the wig. Long, flowing blonde locks transform her, and Holly becomes Solace: a girl so mouthy, daring and fearless she’ll run away from care and hitch-hike h7509075er way back to Ireland, where she hopes her mother will be.

Siobhan Dowd’s novels remain striking and sharp long after you’ve read them. Holly is an unreliable narrator, refusing to acknowledge the false hopes she’s woven into her memories of her mother and her life before social services stepped inbut her story is her own. A Swift Pure Cry is probably closer to O’Neill’s stark examination of social and cultural conditions which litter Ireland’s recent history, but it’s also one of Dowd’s more famous books, and while Solace is gut-wrenching and gritty, it’s perhaps a little more accessible.

23346358If you liked Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s The Accident Season (a spellbinding, shimmering story full of strange magic, evocative prose and characters who keep secrets even from themselves – I’ve also reviewed this one and already want to know more about Fowley-Doyle’s next book), you’ll like…

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

Who knows where the time goes? There never seems to be enough time in Kinvara, or anywhere else in Ireland for that matter. When J.J.’s mother says that what she really wants for her birthday is more time, he decides to find her some. But where to look for more time in a world which seems to have less and less of it to spare? A talented musician with a mystery to solve and a penchant for stumbling into places of ancient magic, J.J. soon finds himself tangled up in a tale as old as time – in a place where time stands still. 

1500903A welcome exception to the usual so-bleak-you’ll-need-ice-cream-and-a-Netflix-binge-to-recover rule. The New Policeman (which isn’t really about a policeman) is a gorgeous, intricate piece of storytelling. It embraces lore and magic with generosity and wit. It’s interspersed with traditional music and it’s one of the best depictions of Irish myth and folk tales I’ve seen in young adult fiction. This book’s mischievous trickster god Aengus is probably my definitive Aengus, to be honest, and Thompson’s portrayal of The Dagda (he’s like, the boss god of Irish mythology’s godly cohort, the Tuatha Dé Danann) is pretty spot on, too. There are two compelling sequels: The Last of the High Kings and The White Horse Trick. One of my favourite books on this list.

27861590If you liked Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan (a searingly written, visceral take on a tough subject narrated by sharp-tongued, angry teenager Ces, who longs to be a tattoo artist), you’ll like…

Flick by Geraldine Meade

A fast-paced contemporary which focuses on a teenager who, like her friends, is caught up in school, family, and boys – except not boys, because protagonist Felicity, 9489814known as Flicklikes girls. It’s not quite as dark as Needlework (which, while a well-told relatively short read, definitely warrants a trigger warning) but it has the same boundary-pushing intent. Fans of Emma Donoghue and David Levithan may find this book is up their alley. It’s been a while since I read this one, but on a sparsely-populated shelf, this exploration of identity and sexuality is a title worth noting.

29908200If you liked One by Sarah Crossan (a heartbreaking, bittersweet, award-laden verse novel about sisterhood, friendship and loss from one of the most elegant voices in YA verse fiction), you’ll like…

Illuminate by Kerrie O’Brien

While not strictly YA, this collection from one of the most lauded young poets on Ireland’s contemporary poetry scene echoes some of the themes of loss, grief, love, separation and self-expression found in One. It’s more abstract and intransigent than plot-focused books like coverThe Weight of Water or her more recent collaboration We Come Apart, and embraces more traditional forms than Amanda Lovelace’s The Princess Saves Herself In This One. Written in spare, sometimes haunting verse, if you’re looking to expand your poetic repertoire beyond teen fiction or assigned reading lists, Illuminate may be the book for you. And besides, look at that cover! SO PRETTY.

And there you have it: your guide to exploring more Irish YA (and MG, and poetry). Have you read any of the books on the list? Have you added any to your TBR?

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All About Mia by Lisa Williamson // second book syndrome? Not a chance

I finally got to read All About Mia by Lisa Williamson! (What? I have a very busy TBR). I’ve now read five of my most anticipated reads of the year (and about to start a sixth), which I am totally pleased with. Anyway, on with the review!

326157251Author(s): Lisa Williamson
Publisher:
 David Fickling Books
Publication date: 2 February 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

One family. Three sisters.

Grace is the oldest and a straight-A student. Audrey is the youngest, a future Olympic swimming champion. And Mia? Mia is the the mess in the middle.

Mia is wild and daring, great with hair and selfies, and probably more popular than both her sisters put together – though these are not attributes appreciated by her parents or teachers. When Grace makes a shock announcement, Mia is almost relieved: finally someone else will bear the brunt of her parents’ high expectations and constant nagging. But instead, it’s Mia whose life spirals out of control – boozing, boys and bad behaviour – and who might put at risk the very things she loves the most.

From the author of one of 2015’s breakout débuts – The Art of Being Normal, a contemporary which won critical acclaim, garnered serious award credentials and swept many into the clamour of a new UKYA favourite – comes one of my most anticipated reads of 2017: Lisa Williamson’s rambunctious, remarkable second novel, All About Mia.

I loved the premise of this book. It’s just the kind of chunky, get-stuck-into-it contemporary UKYA I’ve been looking for. It has such a strong, big-hearted feel: it’s down-to-earth, chaotic, candid and entertaining. I think ‘realistic’ is a very overused word when it comes to YA, but if interesting characters, believable struggles and strong writing count, then All About Mia fits the bill.

Sixteen-year-old Mia Campbell-Richardson is sandwiched between Cambridge-bound Grace (‘Mother Teresa in a blazer’) and future Olympic swimmer Audrey (occasionally known as Nemo). Mia, however, isn’t academic or sporty, doesn’t have any kooky hobbies, and hasn’t got a clue what she wants to do with her life. She may be a selfie queen and the undisputed leader of her friends, but inside she feels constantly shown up by her high-achieving siblings. Where Grace and Audrey excel, Mia fails spectacularly; where her parents plaster her sisters’ successes all over the walls, Mia gets a handful of embarrassing photographs and constant reminders of the trouble she’s caused. When straight-A student Grace comes home early from her gap year and drops a bombshell, Mia hopes that her now-not-so-perfect sister will get the comeuppance she deserves – the kind of reprimand she’s been used to for years. But her parents’ ire is conspicuously absent, and what’s worse, Mia finds herself on a downward spiral that can mean only one thing: trouble.

This character-driven novel is at turns fun, frank and vivid. With their parents finally about to marry after a twenty-year engagement, Grace’s life turning upside down (and boyfriend Sam taking up what little space there is left in the house), Audrey adapting to strict training under a new coach and Mia muddling her way through one disaster after another, you could say that the Campbell-Richardson household is a little bit busy. These core characters are vibrant, flawed and brilliant, and I’d definitely read a spin-off about Audrey.

Messy, mouthy Mia is a force to be reckoned with. Resigned to being the family disappointment, her struggle to be seen in the shadow of her overachieving sisters is written in a deeply empathetic way. Williamson doesn’t underestimate her audience, either: it’s the reader who will notice first that Mia’s behaviour is immature and attention-seeking, but also the reader who will first empathise with her. Shallow and impulsive, she does some unlikeable things, but particularly in the early half of the book, her heart’s on every page. I loved some of the little details: her passion, her intelligence, Miss Linden’s belief in and kind words for her making all the difference.

In a move which should please YA fans looking for reads without a romance-orientated plot, Mia doesn’t have a love interest. However, this ploy is perhaps taken a little too literally as all of Mia’s romantic and physical experiences are unhealthy and the book is far more sex-negative than sex-positive. Secondary relationships for Mia’s loved-up parents and sister Grace with boyfriend Sam bring a touch of warmth and buoyance – though as we see both through Mia’s cringing perspective one can’t help but feel there’s a bit of ‘ick’ to them!

Unfortunately, the friendships which appear in Mia’s life needed more depth. Authors like Sara Barnard and Holly Bourne have set the bar high when it comes to friendship in recent YA, creating resonant, genuine platonic relationships between their prose teenagers, and what’s more, pointing out that many YA friendships which have come before have been cursory at best. The first half of the book is engaging and often hilarious but the second half is weighed down by unnecessary plot points and scenes which drag before a dramatic and satisfying climax finally breaks through and the book gets back on track. All About Mia shines brightest when the tight-knit, loving, ever-so-slightly dysfunctional Campbell-Richardsons take centre stage.

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Messy, outrageous, vivid and engaging, All About Mia boasts a brilliant premise and some great flashes of humour. A solid cast and a satisfying style are marred only by a few duff or unnecessary turns of plot. A blistering and lively contemporary standalone ideal for fans of Trouble by Non Pratt, All of the Above by Juno Dawson or Lobsters by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison.

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a pair of reviews // even more magical realism

22317526Author(s): Cathryn Constable
Publisher:
 Chicken House Books
Publication date: 5 January 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): magical realism
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

When Livy is accepted at Temple College – a school for the very brightest, and the oldest in London – no one is more surprised than she is. Though she’s always felt different, she doesn’t seem to quite fit in at Temple College, either.

Recently, Livy has become more and more drawn to the roof of the school, climbing fearlessly among its towering stone angels, where she can be alone, and has the strangest desire to fly. But her behaviour has been noticed by others, for whom the ability to defy gravity is magic which could be a possible reality… and involves a secret they’ll do anything to discover.

Five years after the release of her much-lauded children’s fiction début The Wolf Princess, Cathryn Constable follows up with a novel full of things to like: mysterious adventures, crumbling but atmospheric old buildings, hints of potions, concoctions and alchemy, tantalising tendrils of magic. Plain, uncomplicated prose accommodates moments of wonder and almost lyrical description – and perhaps could have accommodated a little more of it – in a story which unfolds like the ripple of billowing fabric in the wind.

Thrust into a school where stone Sentinels perch on the roof and the history of its founder seems to lurk wherever she goes, Livy is struggling to fit in and deal with the loss of her childhood best friend. The timelessness of traditional school stories, embodied here by the centuries-old Temple College with its stiff uniforms, stained glass windows and soaring towers, is tempered by the occasional nod to modernity and, more successfully, the presence of Livy’s family, especially little brother Tom. Constable’s skill works best when displaying Livy’s explorations, Tom’s boundless energy and one of the mysterious relics of Temple College’s eerie past.

Constable tackles some fairly serious themes in the book, but unfortunately there’s not quite enough time spent on the most pressing of them to say they’ve been adequately explored. As ever with novels aimed solidly in the middle of the children’s fiction section, the characters aren’t exactly realistic (including the secondary cast of children themselves), but then that’s not the point. I’d recommend Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers more readily, but there are plenty of discoveries, secrets and flights of fancy to fill the adventure.

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Fans of Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers and Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars will find atmospheric though not ground-breaking fare with Cathryn Constable’s The White Tower. Straightforward and, at its best, suitably elegant. 

33782743Author(s): Nigel McDowell
Publisher:
 Hot Key Books
Publication date: 9 March 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): magical realism, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Luke Mountfathom is the son of Lord and Lady Mountfathom, keepers of a great House where the wrong door could take you to a far away land and strange animals appear to stalk the grounds at midnight. The house is his home – but it is also the headquarters of the Driochta, a magic-weaving group of poets, artists, politicians and activists charged with keeping the peace across the land. They have many powers – have mastered Mirror-Predicting and Smoke-Summoning and Storm-Breaching – and a final ability: that of Mogrifying; taking on a unique animal form.

But Luke’s idyllic existence at Mountfathom appears in danger. Word reaches them of a people with a wish for independence, a rising discontent and scenes of violence that even the Driochta cannot control. But what seems like a  quest for freedom involves a greater darkness than the rebels can know – and it draws Luke’s irretrievably into the fight. And when things quickly spin out of control for the Driochta, it is up to Luke, his cat Morrigan and his best friend Killian to worm out the heart of the evil in their land. 

For fans of Debi Gliori, Dave Rudden and Moira Fowley-Doyle, The House of Mountfathom is as eclectic as such a multifarious description would suggest: its melting pot of magical realism, historical fiction and action adventure is close to boiling over, it’s so stuffed. It’s got spells, shapeshifters, soldiers, servants, poets, priceless treasures, tradition, rebellion, wallpaper that comes alive, orchards, inexplicable powers, political tensions, class struggle, and room upon room of strange and wondrous workings. All that’s missing is the kitchen sink, and even then I’m sure Mountfathom has one somewhere.

The novel is populated by a vast array of characters, naturally named things like Findlater and Vane-Temple, theirs is an eccentricity in keeping with the most bizarre elements of the world concocted around them. The book never lingers too long on any of them which leaves some a little flat – the most interesting, like Lord and Lady Mountfathom, seem like they have oodles more to add than Luke’s viewpoint allows for. By far the most striking feature of the book, however, is the writing style. Its distinctive, choppy prose is forceful but evocative: jewel-like visuals and precise metaphors lurk in lopped off sentences and juddering lists. This may wear a little thin after fifty pages or so and a rather confusing narrative will occasionally not so much challenge readers as baffle them – more focused description and fewer jumpy paragraphs would give the storytelling a necessary steadying – but the story is strong.

The addition of historical fiction has some mixed results: on the one hand it’s a unique and bold decision, but on the other it can be a little jarring when the transition doesn’t quite work. However, this unusually complex pursuit of the genre – for example the fact that the Mountfathoms are aristocracy occupying a complicated position in historical events – is emblematic of an ability, aided by flashes of humour and lightning-quick points of reference, to appeal to an audience of children and adults alike.

The final novel by late writer Nigel McDowell, The House of Mountfathom’s shines best in its playful use of magic and wonder. It deploys magic spells and creations with reckless abandon. The impossible lopes about the House and its rolling grounds with the self-assured freedom of pure childlike imagination. There are streaks of dark to the book’s villains and themes, but it’s the fantastic and strange that the young fan will re-read this book for.

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An inventive and sometimes dark caper told in playful, idiosyncratic language, The House of Mountfathom is a vivid children’s novel, overflowing with magic and the fantastic. Pacy and chaotic, its meld of magical-realism-historical-adventure can seem a little overbusy, but has moments of real punch. 

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We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan // a verse novel with grit and verve

25310356Author(s): Sarah Crossan, Brian Conaghan
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 9 February 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): verse, contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Acclaimed authors Brian Conaghan and Sarah Crossan join forces to tell the story of Nicu and Jess, two troubled teens whose paths cross in the unlikeliest of places.

Jess and Nicu are from different worlds. Tough city girl Jess doesn’t trust anyone, hiding the violence of her home life behind a mask of arrogance and disillusion. Nicu has emigrated from Romania and is struggling to find a place in his new home. When they meet, what starts out as an unexpected friendship turns to romance as the two bond over their painful pasts and hopeful futures. But with their worlds catching up to them, will they be able to save each other, let alone themselves?

I was lucky enough to read quite an early copy of this book, and let me tell you: it was worth the hype. (And you know how I feel about hype). Compelling, gritty and a little devastating, We Come Apart somehow emerges from the thunderous rumblings of pre-release anticipation with both surprises up its sleeve and writing that lives up to expectations. Crossan and Conaghan, already at the top of their game as individual writers, prove once again why they are critically acclaimed Carnegie and Costa winners respectively and reveal that collaboration has indeed sparked something new in their repertoire. With a keen sense of story and an eye for detail, this dynamic dual narrative is a back-and-forth of fearless proportions. It is unflinching, engaging, sharp and occasionally, totally heartbreaking.

We Come Apart is is helmed by two tour-de-force leads with distinctive verse voices. Jess is a gobby, streetwise London teenager turned truant who feels fed up with school and with adults who try to tell her what to do when they can’t – or won’t – see what’s right in front of them. Nicu, on the other hand, is what you’d call “a good egg.” He is naive, kind, straightforward, and big-hearted, but lives in a life, bound by the confines of culture and the traditions of family, in which it is difficult to be so. Both long for understanding, friendship and freedom. Both discover it, at least for a while, in each other. In a novel where every word is up for scrutiny, their presence dominates and leaves the rest of the cast for dust.(Nicu is an easy favourite. He will be everyone’s favourite).

This book is striking partly because Jess and Nicu’s story at first seems like one that doesn’t belong in poetry. This is poetry with shoplifting, criminal records, peer pressure, community service, and class in. It explores immigration, racism, prejudice, and clashing cultures. It features characters who experience disenfranchisement, distrust, and domestic violence. But is is also rarely about those things: instead it is often about friendship and strength and kindness and hope. It’s about loyalty and betrayal and realizing that, for better or worse, everyone has a choice when it comes to who and what they want to be. There is a sense that it is very deliberately saying to readers, “Look what we can do with poetry. This story belongs in poetry, too.”

For an audience often forced to stare at stanzas until their eyes fall out or the carefully-highlighted exam-worthy words lose all meaning, We Come Apart will be a bit of a shock, but it’s a worthwhile read. It may, in the hands of an open-minded gatekeeper, find favour in classrooms and library recommendation shelves or even persuade the skeptical that poetry is, every now and then, more than daffodils, metaphors and toffs with nothing better to do than write melodramatically about their feelings or the weather. (The Daffodils, by the way, was probably about the French Revolution). And of course, there’s plenty to satisfy the seasoned YA reader, too, including a page-turning pace, a handful of plot twists, and an effective narrative style.

The book is not without fault – it could use more heart or humour, the verse isn’t perfect, and, often bleak and far more bitter than sweet, it’s a difficult read, so it’s probably not the best to choose if you’re looking for something cheery. There are stereotypes, it may be triggering and it’s problematic. But that’s kind of the point, because the story is certainly strong: Conaghan and Crossan have set out to take the unpoetic, the sometimes unpleasant, and prove their ability to give it poetic form, and in that they have succeeded. As with many verse novels it’s quite a fast read, but it’s not easily forgotten. Fans of Phil Earle, Keren David and Benjamin Zephaniah will find an ideal recommendation in this poetic turn. Expect to see it up for multiple awards this year.

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Sharp, unflinching and well-written, this novel-in-verse marks a milestone collaboration for Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan. Moments of hope and friendship litter the bittersweet story of Jess and Nicu, two very different but very human characters. 

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