A Shiver of Snow and Sky by Lisa Lueddecke // an impressive, icy fantasy debut

Today on the blog, I’m diving in to some YA fantasy…

32602009Author(s): Lisa Lueddecke
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: October 5th 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

On the frozen island of Skane, the sky speaks. Beautiful lights appear on clear nights, and their colours have meaning. Green means the Goddess is happy and all is well. Blue means a snow storm is on the way.

But red is rare. Red is a warning.

Seventeen years ago, the sky turned red just as Ósa was born, unleashing a plague that claimed the lives of hundreds of villagers, including her own mother. But when she sees for herself a night sky turned crimson, this time she decides she must find a way to stop the onslaught before lives are lost again.

A Shiver of Snow and Sky is one of those books I’d been intending to read for ages. I think it probably got a bit snowed under in the blizzard that is October in publishing, but when I did finally manage to pick up a copy, I found a fantasy so atmospheric and engrossing I had to go and put a scarf on while reading it.

Long ago, Ósa’s people were chased off the mainland by a monstrous enemy, the Ør. For generations, they have eked out a living on the inhospitable island of Skane, at the mercy of sudden snowstorms and half-frozen seas. When a plague outbreak threatens, seventeen-year-old Ósa sets out to find the Goddess in the mountains and ask for her help. She leaves behind her bitter father and sister, who have resented her ever since her mother died soon after childbirth, and her closest friend Ivar, a rune singer who can read the ancient words of their ancestors. Ahead of her there is great danger, but it is a path to hope.

Lueddecke’s worldbuilding is straightforward and evocative. Skane’s wind-chilled plains, snow-covered forests and hunkered-down villages seep off the page. Certain details – the runes, the caves, the fishing, the clothes – are particularly memorable. And the plot is so elegant. Ósa has a clear goal. Her story has clear structure. There’s one big twist in a handful of smaller twists. It was music to my review-hardened ears. Lueddecke’s writing style is rangy enough to handle action sequences and more thoughtful stretches. To encompass simpler (“Cold was an unforgiving intruder”) and more elaborate moments (“It would be the kind of storm the sky would have warned us about, if it hadn’t been bleeding red”; “A loneliness that made me better acquainted with myself”).

A Shiver of Snow and Sky is the story of determined, serious Ósa, but it also returns to the village and an equally focused but more willingly open Ivar as their community prepares for oncoming danger. The shift from first to third person is initially a little jarring, but it really works once it settles in. What begins as a grounded fantasy actually embraces myth and magic in an intensifying fashion, and while it’s relatively short for a fantasy, in the early stages it still exquisitely draws out its pacing. It savours some of its time on the page.

What’s more, the book feels original, not because of the innovation of its parts – associating the constellations with myth is common across human history, the room sequence is reminiscent of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,  the whole vibe is very North-of-the-Wall Game of Thrones – but because of the deft way they’re put together. The book is light on the romance, but squint and even in the freezing temperatures of Skane you could probably see it as a slow-burn. I had a few qualms – the characters could have been more developed, it was a bit grim for my tastes at times, I could take or leave the incidents with the giants, a female friendship for Ósa would have been a welcome addition, and there are some loose ends which look set to remain untied given that the next book is a prequel – but otherwise, this is a pretty great fantasy début.

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A Shiver of Snow and Sky is evocative, atmospheric and elegantly plotted. One of the best young adult fantasy books I’ve read so far this year.

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I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman // a sharp, serious take on teen fame and fandom

Today on the blog, another addition to the phenomenon that is boyband lit in YA…

34325090Author(s): Alice Oseman
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 3rd May 2018
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

For Angel Rahimi, there’s only one thing that matters: The Ark, a teenage pop-rock trio. The Ark’s fandom has given her everything – her dreams, her place in the world, a sense of belonging. 

Jimmy Kaga-Ricci owes everything to The Ark, too. He’s the frontman of one of the world’s most famous bands – but recently, his gilded lifestyle has started to seem more like a nightmare. 

That’s the problem with dreaming – eventually, inevitably, real life arrives with a wake-up call. And when Angel and Jimmy are unexpectedly thrown together, they will discover just how strange facing up to reality can be.

Having written this discussion post on the trend, I still occasionally poke my head round the door of boyband lit – and I Was Born For This really piqued my interest. A contemporary from the perspective of both fan and boyband? A hijab-wearing fangirl and transgender boy as narrators? A super striking cover? Consider me intrigued.

I’ll admit right off the bat that I really didn’t like Alice Oseman’s début novel, Solitaire (there’s a reason we use the term ‘in exchange for an honest review’!). But not every book is to everyone’s taste, and when I spotted this premise, I figured it was worth giving a shot. Perhaps there is something to the idea that publishing’s emphasis on make-or-break débuts is at best dubious, because I enjoyed this standalone (Oseman’s third) much more than I expected. There’s a vast improvement at play here. I Was Born For This is, in many ways, absorbing and dynamic and nuanced.

Angel is a devoted fan of The Ark. She’s the conspiracy theorist to her friend and fellow fan Juliet’s cutting romantic, though they both spend hours hypothesising and shipping ‘their’ boys: handsome Lister, lyricist Rowan, and lead singer Jimmy Kaga-Ricci. Jimmy is Angel’s favourite – charismatic, elfin, perfect. In less than a week, she’ll be going to their meet-and-greet and seeing them perform live, and then she’ll be happy. Won’t she?

Unbeknownst to Angel, the band’s skyrocketing public fame is overlapping with a downward personal spiral. Jimmy feels surrounded by grabbing hands and unseen dangers. Rowan’s relationship with his girlfriend, who he’s had to keep secret from the press, is suffering. Lister’s drinking is becoming a problem. Their manager wants them to a sign a new contract so they can break America, and that means hitting the road for years. This is all Jimmy’s ever wanted. Isn’t it?

Oseman nails her hook in I Was Born For This. Fuelled by Angel and Jimmy’s distinct alternate narration and plenty of interwoven, character-focused subplots, it makes for compelling contemporary. The short timeframe is intense and chaotic, but it is mostly engaging and readable – the book gets you on side and I read it in one sitting. By turns glitzy and serious, Oseman’s straightforward prose takes a sharp, unromanticised look at boyband culture, wealth and fame. Angel and Jimmy are two of the more likeable characters in a flawed, imperfect cast, which includes multiple LGBTQ+ characters. The best – certainly the most well-rounded – character was sweary, ambitious, vibrant Bliss, though Jimmy’s kind-hearted grandfather Piero should get a nod too.

I Was Born For This is an unexpectedly thematic book. It explores modern fandom, the perils of idealisation, and what happens when obsession blinds people to their own potential. Sometimes it’s subtle as a spider’s web and sometimes it’s about as subtle as being hit over the head with a frying pan, but both are, to be fair, effective in their own way. I was particularly surprised by the prominence of different faiths and prayer. There’s a Joan of Arc motif (taken a bit out of context, but still) and an attempt to explore fandom as a kind of substitute for or relative of religion. There’s only one minor romance in the book, but I actually didn’t notice until I’d finished, as Oseman finds plenty to mine from friendships and family relationships.

Admittedly, there are too many rhetorical questions in the latter half where an author could be attempting to provide answers, and for a book all about bands and music, we hear more about The Ark’s fame than the music behind it. Some major incidents happen and are then never explored again, probably due to a constrained timeline. Even when highlighting fandom’s positive effects, on balance the book is still ultimately fan-negative. The dialogue is stylised and, along with the many social media references, will mean the book will date quickly. Its confused closing stages see characters kept in close proximity for inexplicable reasons. However, I can see what Oseman was trying to do, and if you’re looking for boyband lit that keeps you reading while getting its thinking cap on, this may be the book for you.

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The fame, fandom and boyband lit of Zan Romanoff’s Grace and The Fever meets an unravelling of flaws reminiscent of Sara Barnard’s Goodbye, Perfect in this gripping, diverse contemporary standalone. Busy, serious and biting, I Was Born For This isn’t without fault, but I appreciated its surprisingly thematic approach and fast-paced alternate narration.

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Interview: Lauren James talks science fiction, romance and what she’ll be writing next

Today on the blog, I’m delighted to be hosting author extraordinaire and cool human Lauren James! As you know, I think her books are fabulous and recommend them CONSTANTLY, so it was about time we did an interview. My questions are in bold, while Lauren’s answers are in plain text marked ‘LJ’. 

unnamed-3Lauren James was born in 1992, and graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2014, where she studied chemistry and physics. She started writing in secondary school because she couldn’t stop thinking about a couple who kept falling in love throughout history. That story became The Next Together, a debut novel which sold when she was 21.

The Next Together was described by The Bookseller as ‘funny, romantic and compulsively readable’ and was longlisted for the Branford Boase Award, which recognises outstanding novels by first-time writers. The Last Beginning, the sequel to The Next Together, was named a top LGBT-inclusive book for toung adults by The Independent. She has written two shorter stories in the series, Another Together and Another Beginning. Her third novel, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, was inspired by a space-based university physics assignment. She is published by Walker Books in the UK, by HarperCollins in the US and in translation in five other countries around the world.

Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She remains a passionate advocate of STEM further education – all of her books feature scientists. She has written for the Guardian, Buzzfeed and The Toast. You can find her on Twitter at @Lauren_E_James or her website, where you can subscribe to her newsletter to be kept up to date with bonus content and new releases.

Hi Lauren! Thanks for joining me on The Paper Alchemist today. You’ve got three books out on shelves, another out this year, and always (so it seems!) a draft or secret project on the go. How do you manage to juggle so many – often very different – projects?

LJ: I do have a ridiculous number of projects on the go! It’s because everything is always at different stages and I find it hard to wait for feedback or edits from a whole range of different people, so I start up something new in the meantime. It works out quite well, because there’s always something different to work on. I’ll send off an edited book and pick up drafting a new book, then go back to editing, etc. I think I’d find it quite difficult to work on more than one novel at a time though – I’d get scenes muddled up!

23266378The Next Together was your first novel. What do you still love about the book? Is there anything you feel you’ve gotten better at in writing since that first step into YA?

LJ: I think I’ve got better at everything since The Next Together. When I think back to writing that book, it was so difficult in every way – I was basically teaching myself to write and edit as I went. If I wrote it now it would be a very different book. But I’m really proud of what I managed to do with the concept as a complete writing novice. It launched my career, and it’s likely I’d never have been brave enough to try to write full time if I hadn’t got a book deal at that point in my life, when I was still at university, so I have a lot to be grateful for! I really love the chemistry between Kate and Matt, and their sense of humour and tenderness. It still makes me laugh when I reread parts.

24550848In The Next Together and The Last Beginning, Katherine and Matthew and Clove and Ella get along well with each other – they’ve got quite realistic and healthy relationships (despite everything time travel throws at them). Is this something you intended to focus on from the start?

LJ: I really hate when romance novels have characters who seem to genuinely dislike each other. I love a good enemies-to-lovers trope, but when characters bicker constantly and don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company, with lots of misunderstandings even when they’ve started dating, it doesn’t feel romantic to me. A partner should be your best friend, first and foremost. Otherwise what’s the point? So for me, in every book I write, I want to create really solid relationships where the characters are equally important to each other, even if the romantic tension was taken away and it was purely platonic.

You primarily write sci-fi, though several of your books have elements of historical fiction and contemporary romance, too. Are there any genres you haven’t tried or explored yet that you’d like to write?

LJ: I’d love to write a contemporary YA set at university. And a superhero book. And a regency romance with magic. And a middle grade about animals. And, and, and – I want to write everything! Hopefully I’ll be given the chance!

the_loneliest_girlIn The Loneliest Girl In The Universe, protagonist and space ship captain Romy has never set foot on Earth. If you had to explain some earth objects or activities she’s never experienced but only have heard of in theory, what do you think she’d find the strangest and what one would she most enjoy?

LJ: I think swimming would be something she’d enjoy, though it would still be strange after a lifetime of water being such a precious thing. I think a swimming pool or hot bath would blow her mind – imagine floating for the first time!

I think walking down a crowded street would probably be the strangest, as she wouldn’t know how to deal with all the people. Is she supposed to talk to them? Where are they all going? Are they looking at her? It would be tough.

You’ve spoken before about how you once felt compelled to read hyped-up or mainstream YA and struggled a bit to love reading when forcing yourself to do so. If you had to pick three underappreciated books you think YA fans would love (or that might get them out of a reading slump!), what would they be and why?

LJ: I used to, yes, but once I stopped myself reading anything because of the hype, and just read for enjoyment again, I’ve not had a reading slump since!

34593693The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein: I’m a huge fan of thirties detective novels like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, and this is a perfect spin on that – there’s murder, rich people living frivolously, dogs, Bronze age marine archaeology, bisexual characters exploring both sides of their sexuality, castles, cross-dressing cabaret shows, TREASURE-HUNTING, pearls, buried treasure (did I mention the treasure?) and river trawling. I’m so into it in every way. This is a great read for YA fans who want something a bit unusual.

Monsters by Emerald Fennell: A dark upheaval of the middle grade novel, with children who may or may not be serial killers. It’s not one for children, but it’s very Enid Blyton all the same.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor: For a YA fan wanting to branch out into some sci-fi, this is a short novella that gives a perfect taste of Black Panther style afrofuturism. It’s about an African tribal girl who travels to a different planet to study maths at uni. Her dreadlocks are TENTACLES. Enough said.

Your books all have multimedia sections: articles, postcards, powerpoints, blog entries, chat messages, and in The Loneliest Girl, fanfiction. How do you approach writing these pieces (and do you have a favourite individual one)?

LJ: I’m not gonna lie, these are so tough. It’s really hard to come up with new formats I haven’t done before! It takes a lot longer to make them than writing normal prose, but they’re so interesting that I would never get rid of them. They’re some of my favourite parts of the books, and I think they’re quite enticing, especially for younger readers.

I often make lists of possible media while I’m drafting – leaflets, architectural proposals, posters, post-it notes – and when the book is complete I’ll go back through and see where those things might fit into the story. Usually they don’t cover things already written about in the text but give more background to the world to make it seem more real. And anything that’s  funny gets priority. 😉

My favourite is probably this one from The Next Together. I must have written it about six years ago now, but I still find it hilarious. I remember it was one of the first times when I was still in the early stages of writing that I realised “Wait, I might actually be funny.”

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As well as being a writer, you’re also a qualified scientist™, an ambitious baker, and the resident human to several very excitable dogs. Is there anything you can’t do?! (And, for the fans, what are you working on at the moment?)

LJ: Hah! There’s so much I can’t do. I’m terrible at driving, for a start (don’t ask me to go on a motorway). I think it’s important to do other things besides writing, because otherwise all you have to write about is writing, you know? I’ve just finished edits on my next book, which comes out this autumn, about the last boy and girl born after humanity stop being able to conceive (the title/cover haven’t been revealed yet but you can add it here on Goodreads). I like to travel as much as possible, and I’m always going to exhibitions and museums – you never know where inspiration might strike.

Thanks again to Lauren for a fabulous interview – if you enjoyed it, feel free to comment down below!

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Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier // pacy, plot-efficient YA fantasy

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing a book that made it onto my most anticipated reads of 2018 list!

30339493Author(s): Makiia Lucier
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH)
Publication date: 10th April 2018
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (duology, #1)
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Nineteen-year-old Elias is a royal explorer, a skilled mapmaker, and the oldest friend of the new king of del Mar. Soon he’ll embark on an expedition into uncharted waters – the adventure of a lifetime. Then a long-ago tragedy comes back into the light.

The people of St. John del Mar have never recovered from the loss of their boy princes eighteen years ago. But when two maps surface, each bearing the same hidden riddle, troubling questions arise. What really happened to the young heirs? And why do the maps appear to be drawn by Lord Antoni, Elias’s father, who vanished on that same fateful day? Drawn into a web of secrets, Elias will have to use his wits and guard his back. Some truths are better left buried – and an unknown enemy lurks at every turn.

In an effort to read more fantasy this spring and find a new-to-me author to try out amid a crop of familiar names and big sequels, I was pleased to pick up Isle of Blood and Stone soon after I included it on my most anticipated YA reads of 2018 list. I really liked the premise – lost royalty! mapmakers! explorers! an island kingdom! a mystery! – and, I am delighted to report, there’s much about the book which lives up to that appeal.

Page-turning, smartly written and consistently intriguing, Isle of Blood and Stone centres on cartographer Elias’ search for his island’s long lost princes and the father he never got the chance to know. The plot is pacy, well constructed and for the most part believable, with plenty of twists I didn’t see coming. This is historical fantasy with only the lightest of emphases on the historical, but plenty of action and just enough worldbuilding – the spirit-soaked forest, the blue indigo fire, the network of islands – to keep you reading.

I particularly enjoyed the focus on mapmaking and the glimpses of the workings of a fantasy society – not just dependent on chosen ones or magic wands, Cortes is a city that relies on trade and signing letters and superstition. There are emissaries, apprentices, navigators, merchants,  coin-counters. Even the tax collector gets an interesting, if brief, flash of story. The latter is one of the book’s occasional nods to female characters in unusual positions of power, an idea that could have been explored even further.

Elias, Ulises and Mercedes make for a suitable trio of leads: the stubborn but caring mapmaker, the world-heavy young king, the sharp and defensive emissary. A busy supporting cast made the book vibrant, from the forbidding Commander Aimon to the mysterious Brother Francis. The lively and watchful Reyna, who wants to be a mapmaker like Elias, is a stand-out. She was just the start of one of my favourite features of the book: families and kids in a fictional world that otherwise leans rather heavily on the storytelling trope of the orphan or dead parent. It would have been pretty standard for Elias’ mother Sabine, for example, to become an outcast widow, but instead she’s remarried. As well as honourary sister Reyna, Elias has younger half-siblings Nieve, Lea and Jonas, and a positive stepfather figure in jovial Lord Isidore.

There’s a romance built on friendship for Elias and Mercedes, too. The book doesn’t really go for extraneous scenes, however, and while the implications are that they’ve known each other for a long time, building up the giddiness and warmth of romance would have pleased here. Indeed, that’s probably the only major gripe I have with Isle of Blood and Stone: it needed just a little more description, a little more romance, a little more exploration – even if that would mean slowing down. The writing style isn’t elaborate or noticeably quotable, and the cast probably aren’t the most memorable in fantasy, either.

However, the story as a whole is satisfying and gripping. The blurb makes it sound somewhat dark but the tone and style are often approachable. Once you get past the first few chapters, the story really flies by (around 260 pages, at least in my Netgalley edition). If you’re looking for YA fantasy that’s not quite as time consuming as books by Laini Taylor or Sarah J. Maas, this could be an alternative for you. There’s a sense of (no spoilers) multiple endings and chasing things up for several characters, but there’s room for more adventure in the sequel. I’m hoping that provides an opportunity for a little more worldbuilding depth and richnesss – Why are there sea serpents? What’s with all the saints? What are all these other fictional lands mentioned like? – to be explored.

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The islands and cartographers of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at the End of Everything meet the pacy YA fantasy of the likes of Lori M. Lee and Sara Raasch in Makiia Lucier’s first foray into the genre. It has some pitfalls, but I read it in one sitting and it’s full of twists. 

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Interview: Jenny McLachlan talks Wuthering Heights and writing teenage romcoms

Earlier this month, I reviewed Jenny McLachlan’s Truly, Wildly, Deeply – you can read all about it here – and this week, I’m delighted to host Jenny on the blog for an interview! My questions are in bold, with Jenny’s answers in plain text marked JM.

ujyeymoe_400x400Jenny McLachlan did English at university as an excuse to spend time reading, and fell into secondary school teaching for much the same reasons, only this time with more funny teenagers. Amid all this, she got married, travelled the world, had two children, went swimming in the outback and was chased by an angry elephant (and a pack of dogs), though not necessarily in that order. Her first book, Flirty Dancing, was published by Bloomsbury in 2014. It was followed by three sequels, known as the Ladybirds series, and her first standalone, Stargazing for Beginners, in 2017. She is represented by Julia Churchill at A.M. Heath.

36178510Hi Jenny! To start with, if you had to entice a new reader to pick up Truly, Wildly, Deeply using fifty words or less, what would you say?

JM: When Annie starts college she knows that the freedom she craves is within her reach. But then Fabian appears (all six foot two of him) and turns her carefully controlled life upside down – and spinning towards the Yorkshire moors…

All of your books can be considered funny contemporary fiction for younger teens. What draws you to this particular kind of YA?

JM: I began writing this type of YA because the students I taught at a secondary school were always asking me to recommend funny ‘realistic’ books. There weren’t a huge amount around – at the time, there was a trend for quite serious issue-led stories for teens – so I decided to write one. It helped that I can vividly remember being a teenager and it was a time in my life that was full of comic potential. Also I was a shy teenager. I spent a long time watching my peers, unwittingly conducting research for my future books!

Truly, Wildly, Deeply’s protagonist Annie not only has a disability but is half Greek, while love interest Fabian is Polish. Did you always intend to feature heritage and culture in the book? And more broadly, how did you approach research?

JM: My previous books have featured a range of young female protagonists that I hope my readers can identify with. They’re all romantic comedies, and I wanted to write a rom-com where the lead character was disabled, but where the plot did not revolve around her cerebral palsy.

As a privileged able-bodied woman writing about a disabled teenager, I was aware that I must question all my decisions about Annie. Of all my characters she is the one who changed the most during the planning and writing process. For example, when I planned the book, Annie used a wheelchair because although she could walk, she was self-conscious of how she looked. But as I started writing, this struck a false note. Annie is confident, witty, and challenging. Being embarrassed of her walk didn’t sit comfortably with her character, plus this was an assumption I had made as an able-bodied person that fed into the comforting ableist notion that ‘normal’ is desirable. Before I began to write the book, I spoke to teenage girls who have cerebral palsy, read books written by disabled women – articles and fiction – and watched films made by teenage vloggers who have cerebral palsy.

Fab was inspired by a student I once taught. He wasn’t Polish, but he did move to the UK from another country in Europe and, like Fab, he appeared exceptionally confident and happy in his own skin. My sister-in-law is Polish so I was able to quiz her about being a teenager in Poland (basically it’s the same as being a teenager in the UK!), Polish food and weddings. I asked her a lot about the weddings!

28502699Your début Flirty Dancing and its sequels focused on four girls. Truly, Wildly, Deeply features one key female friendship (Annie and Hilary) but noticeably more boy-girl friendships (Annie and Jim, Oli, Mal, and Jackson). How and why did you go about focusing on those friendships in particular?

JM: I think this was because Truly Wildly Deeply begins when Annie starts college. Starting sixth form was the time when my friendship group changed and I made a lot of friends who were (very funny) boys. I loved this time of my life and I seemed to laugh all the time. Like Annie, I finally felt able to be myself. It’s a shame girls and boys sometimes drift apart as friends during secondary school. I think all-girl friendship groups can be a bit intense!

Annie and Fabian are in some ways very different teenagers – Annie is witty and defensive, Fab is exuberant and generous – but the building of their relationship, and finding common ground, is central to their story. What was your favourite thing about writing their romance?

JM: For a romance to work, you need two characters who are particularly appealing to the reader, and a very good reason for why they can’t get together. Every romance is a basically a version of Cinderella and a lot of the interest for me is seeing how far I can manipulate the genre. Fab’s love of romance and Annie’s suspicion of it is at the heart of the story. Annie and Fab’s romantic journey was particularly fun to write because right from the start they are clearly drawn to each other, but never at the same or the right moment.

One of the big debates in Annie and Fab’s English class is over Wuthering Heights – specifically whether the book should be considered sweepingly romantic or dangerously volatile. Where do you fall on the argument?! (I personally am Team ‘Heathcliff Can Get In The Bin’…).

JM: When I read Wuthering Heights as a teenager I was Team Heathcliff all the way! I somehow glossed over the terrible abuse he dished out to characters. Rereading it as an adult, I’m much more aware of both Heathcliff’s shockingly cruel treatment of his wife and the abuse he suffered as a child. But annoyingly, I’m going to sit on the fence with this one, as I think Wuthering Heights’ brilliance comes from Heathcliff’s complex and contradictory personality; Emily Bronte’s ability to make the reader love and hate him at the same time is fascinating.

Annie’s mother has commendable taste in television. Did you find that copious amounts of research was necessary for this particular story detail…? 

JM: Annie’s mother’s taste in television is closely aligned to my own. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a man in a big floppy shirt standing on a cliff. It should be noted that my husband comes from Cornwall, although he does not own any big floppy shirts (yet).

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And finally, can you tell us anything about what readers can expect from you next (or failing that, what’s next for any of the characters in the book)?

JM; I can tell you what happens next to Annie and Fab: Annie takes Fab to meet her nan in Greece. Can you imagine?! Unfortunately there are no plans to put this holiday in a book, but it all exists in my head! Recently I’ve been working on something completely different and it’s been a lot of fun to write.

And there you have it! Thanks to Jenny for the fabulous interview – if you enjoyed it, feel free to comment down below!

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Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain // début leaps – and sticks the landing

Today on the blog, we’re taking to the trapeze with this début novel…

ftipsAuthor(s): Kelly McCaughrain
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 1st March 2018
Genre: contemporary
Category:
upper MG, teen fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: own
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Teenage twins Finch and Birdie Franconi are stars of the flying trapeze. Circus tricks are practically in their blood.

But when Birdie suffers a terrifying accident, Finch must team up with the geeky new kid, Hector, to create an all-boys double act and save the family circus school. Teetering on the high-wire that is school social hierarchy while juggling the demands of family, first love and facing up to who they are is a lot for two confused clowns to handle. Will their friendship, and the circus, survive?

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds was another of those pleasant surprises in my spring reading this year. It’s again from that spot between fiction for older children and for early teens (11-14s), making it particularly suited to those looking to take more steps into the YA section. There was a spate of circus books in YA in 2017, but they all seemed to have a supernatural – Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Pack by Kate Ormand – or dark thriller edge – Show Stopper by Hayley Barker, even Flight of a Starling by Lisa Heathfield, which is also about a trapeze double act and a new acquaintance who alters two siblings’ lives – but with Flying Tips for Flightless Birds, Kelly McCaughrain manages to draw together both storytellers’ evident fascination with the circus and a much-needed lightness of touch.

When trapeze artists Finchley and Bridget Sullivan are in the air, they become Finch and Birdie Franconi, the latest in a long line of circus performers, including high wire walkers, barrel riders, jugglers (and one very health and safety conscious dad). While their ancestors flung themselves over Niagara Falls and travelled the world, their parents have opted to run a circus school just outside Belfast – though it still means having a mother who can tightrope walk, a little brother who wants to be a fire eater and a foul-mouthed grandmother, Lou, who used to walk across the ridges of roofs to freak out the neighbours.

Birdie and Finch have inherited a taste for daring. They dress flamboyantly and find themselves subconsciously juggling nearby objects during everyday conversation. But with Birdie starting to wonder if there could be life outside the circus and Finch struggling in her absence, they are believable. New boy Hector is enthusiastic but clumsy; at first the student of a reluctant Finch, his friendship becomes invaluable, and I really liked the exploration of their changing relationship. Elsewhere in the cast, there’s Freddie, known as Py (“Fire dancer, fire juggler – you name it, I’ll put lighter fluid on it”) and Janie, a foster kid and aerialist who’s so good at dangling from reams of silk she finds it calming.

McCaughrain’s prose is straightforward and fairly unshowy, though she conjures evocative details – the thrill of heights, the calluses on circus performers’ hands, even sitting in the safety net beneath the trapeze to get your breath back – and handles setting with subtlety, focusing on the circus warehouse as an adopted home for its eclectic residents. Finch’s narration cleverly interspersed with distinctive blog posts from Birdie, and there are moments of incisiveness (“Be that as it may” is “adult for ‘whatever'”; there’s “something lonely about an empty spotlight, like a big white hole in the world”). One of her major themes is what it means to stand out, but she also touches on things like found family and school struggles. She balances not-unrealistic elements of homophobia with quite a sweet coming-out story, too.

On the downside, there’s little urgency or pace to an already fairly standard plot, though it revolves around what you’d expect to be quite an urgent matter, that is, trying to save the circus school from closing. Some of the conflict gets resolved with very little action from the protagonists. I would’ve liked there to have been more actual trapeze scenes in the first half – we often hear more about it than see it take place – and there’s almost no character depth or development to Birdie and Finch’s other siblings, leaving them effectively faceless for the length of the book.

However, the most surprising feature of Flying Tips for Flightless Birds for me was its sense of humour. That was what kept me reading, whether it was in lively asides (“We’ve put a lot of effort into taming Jay, but we think it’s unfair to do it to more intelligent creatures”), mining humour from strife (“the only difference between a playground punch-up in Year Eight and one in Year Eleven is that everyone’s a bit taller and has better hair”), or quips in dialogue (Finch’s parents on marriage: “Ah, crap, I knew there was something we forgot to do.” “Do you think we should return all those gifts?”). It livened up the prose and turned this solid début into a really enjoyable one.

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Flying Tips for Flightless Birds is unexpectedly funny, often enjoyable and, at its best, oddly moving. This is a début which juggles the sweet and the sombre, and is ideal for 11-14 readers. I’m intrigued to see what McCaughrain writes next. 

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YA Shot Blog Tour // An Interview with Karen Gregory

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m playing host to YA Shot panellist Karen Gregory.

YA Shot is an author-run, one-day book festival for children and teens held in Uxbridge, London. Founded by Alexia Casale, the third annual YA Shot will be held on Saturday 14th April 2018. This year’s line-up feature authors such as Holly Bourne, Lauren James, Samantha Shannon, Katherine Webber, Chris Russell, Cecelia Vinesse,  Sita Brahmachari and more. You can find all the details on YA Shot (including the full list of panels) or buy tickets, whether for yourself or as a gift for young people from the local area, here.

As ever, my interview questions and mildly excitable contributions are in bold or occasionally [bracketed], while Karen’s answers are in plain text and marked KG. 

mb4ma8vv_400x400Karen Gregory is the author of YA novels Countless (Bloomsbury, 2017) is out now and Skylarks (Bloomsbury, forthcoming, May 2018). A graduate of Somerville College, Oxford, she’s a project manager by day who’s become adept at writing around the edges (strong coffee and a healthy disregard for housework help). She wrote her first story about a mouse called Bantra at the age of twelve, then put away the word processor until her first child was born when she was overtaken by the urge to write. She lives in Wiltshire with her family and is represented by Claire Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge & White.

A: We’ll start with one of my favourites: what drew you to YA?

KG: Great question! I think it was a mixture of several things. Your teenage years and early twenties are such a visceral time, when you’re encountering new things and learning how (and how not) to deal with them, while trying to figure out who you are and your place in the world. It’s such a rich area to explore. I don’t think those challenges necessarily go away as you get older; many people continue to struggle with big questions throughout their lives, so perhaps it’s also that which draws me to YA. And of course, there are so many brilliant YA authors out there, which I find massively inspiring!

Speaking of fellow YA authors, you’ll be chairing panellists Sara Barnard, Orlagh Collins and Tamsin Winter in talking literature and living well with mental illness at YA Shot. How did you get involved with the event? For readers who are unfamiliar, can you tell us more about it?yashotblogtourbanner1

KG: Sure! YA Shot is a day-long festival in Uxbridge, London, celebrating UK YA and Middle Grade fiction. It supports readers through partnerships between authors and local schools and libraries, includes the UKYA Blogger awards and runs blogger and vlogger workshops, and this year has a theme of human rights. I actually had tickets to go last year and then tonsillitis (my nemesis) intervened, so I was delighted to be invited to be one of around fifty authors taking part this year.

Like a lot of UKYA, your début novel Countless dealt with some serious issues and hard-hitting themes. Do you think YA writers have a duty of care to their readers in how they approach issue-driven stories?

KG: It’s a really tricky area. I do believe YA writers need to be mindful of their intended audience. At the same time, it’s important not to patronise readers and to recognise that awful things do happen in some young people’s lives. These stories need to be written too.

In terms of Countless in particular, given the subject matter I was concerned about the potential for the portrayal to be harmful to vulnerable people. I worked hard through the editing process to try and ensure there weren’t things in there which didn’t need to be for the story, for example specific numbers around weight and calories. I felt it was important to try and show the incredibly difficult emotions and thought processes around Hedda’s illness. I hope I got the balance right, but I’m always learning.

What did you hope teen readers would take from Countless when they’d turned over the last page?

KG: I’m going to sound incredibly cheesy here, but I guess I hoped readers would take away the sense that even for the most seemingly intractable problems, there is the possibility of change and hope that things can be different in the future. And that love, especially learning to love yourself, is a powerful and healing force.

Of course, for some authors it’s hard to turn over that last page on a book – are you the kind of writer who feels the book is done once you’ve finished writing or editing, or do you wish you’d done anything differently?

KG: I’m a ‘prise it out of my hands’ sort of writer! There are always things I want to change and it can be really hard to let something go. However, there comes a point in revising and editing where you’ve taken the book as far as you can. I try to remind myself that as long as I know I’ve put in as much work as I could and written the best book I’m capable of, then in the end that has to be enough. Eventually you need to let the book go, or you’d never write anything else!

If you had name three of your favourite YA books from the last year, what would they be and why?25310356

KG: Argh, this is a very cruel question as I read so much amazing YA last year! I think I’d choose We Come Apart, by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan. It’s about Nicu, a recent immigrant to the UK from Romania, and Jess, who is from a chaotic and disadvantaged background. I loved their story, which is told in alternating perspectives and in beautiful free verse. Jess in particular has really stayed with me since I read the book.

[A: I’ll second this recommendation – you can read my review of this bittersweet book here on the blog!]

KG: I also loved Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows. It’s a slight cheat as I got it for Christmas and actually read it this year, but it was a 2017 release so I think it counts. Set during the English Civil War, it’s a mixture of historical fiction, magical realism and mystery. Hardinge has one of the most unique voices out there and this book completely sucked me in.

I’m thirdly going to pick a book which is technically MG, but can be read by all ages: Tamsin Winter’s Being Miss Nobody. Main character Rosalind has selective mutism, and the book follows her as she struggles to literally and metaphorically find her voice during her first year at secondary school. It’s an incredibly warm book with a big heart – it had me crying towards the end.

dv_sgdsumaavf-qAnd finally, what can readers expect from you next? Can you tell us anything about your new book?

KG: Yes – I’ve got a new book out in May called Skylarks, which is about figuring out how to stand up for what you believe in and looks at social justice, the poverty gap and activism. It’s set in a fictionalised area of the Marlborough Downs and the occasional real skylark does make an appearance! I so enjoyed writing it and I’m really looking forward to sharing Joni and Annabel’s love story.

The YA Shot Blog Tour runs from 1st March to 12th April. be sure to check out the other stops, which will feature author interviews, guest posts, giveaways and other delightful stuff!

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