Event Round Up: We Love YA! DeptCon at ILFD

As you can see from my past event round-ups, DeptCon has become something of a staple in the Irish YA scene.

“But Arianne,” you whisper, aghast, “doesn’t DeptCon usually take place in… October?”

Yes, it does! This year, however, there was SURPRISE appearance from the DeptCon squad with their summertime We Love YA! event as part of the ongoing International Literature Festival. There were three panels plus signings, and I was lucky enough to attend (and bring back all the deets for you).

“Writing myself into this country”: Muhammad Khan, Emma Quigley and Mary Watson talk ‘New Voices’, chaired by Shane Hegarty 

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L-R: Shane Hegarty, Mary Watson, Emma Quigley, Muhammad Khan

The first panel, themed around the idea of ‘New Voices’, featured three debut YA writers (though Watson is an award-winning South African writer for adults, The Wren Hunt is her first book for teenagers). Hegarty’s questions drew answers on inspirations, writing routines, what they’d be working on next, and more.

Muhammad Khan’s biggest influence has been his time as a maths teacher and tutor in a school where most students are from BAME backgrounds. His students contributed to drafts of what became I Am Thunder, inspiring everything from Muzna’s shyness to the fact that he had the book’s cover artist thicken her eyebrows so that they’d be suitably “on fleek”! He decided to tackle themes like radicalisation and racism in YA partly because of the UK government’s Prevent strategy, which he realised was causing students to clam up in case their questions or experiences got them into trouble. His advice for young writers: “Write a book that you want to write…. don’t follow trends, because by the time you finish your book that trend will be over”. He’s currently working on another contemporary featuring different characters, exploring toxic masculinity ‘through the eyes of a very gentle boy’.

Emma Quigley’s début Bank (out from Little Island Books) is the comedy-drama story of a group of teen boys who decide to start money-lending to classmates, only to make a series of increasingly risky investments as their plans begin to unravel. Quigley wanted to write about friendships between teenage boys but also ended up mirroring twenty-first century financial crises. She spoke about how her son was a reader who often said his friends weren’t – she wanted to write something that would appeal to that drop-off point of readership, and Bank actually sounds really exciting! It was also revealed that her son wrote the tagline for the book: “Lunch money just got serious”!

Mary Watson became fascinated by the Irish tradition of the wren hunt – in which a real or stand-in wren is chased and hunted on St. Stephen’s Day (the day after Christmas Day) – after moving to Ireland from South Africa. She wanted to write a book that she could only have written here, even though The Wren Hunt is technically a fantasy or magical realism novel, full of “quiet magic, everyday magic”. She cited Diana Wynne Jones as an influence and spoke with real feeling about the wealth of African literature that doesn’t always make it to mainstream audiences in the Anglosphere. Watson’s was the only book I’d read of the three before the panel, but I think the discussion did its job because by the end of it I was so intrigued by I Am Thunder and Bank.

“The nineties were dull as dishwater”: Brian Conaghan, Derek Landy and Katherine Webber in ‘Nerd Alert!’, chaired by David O’Callaghan

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L-R: Katie Webber, David O’Callaghan, Brian Conaghan, Derek Landy

Most literary festival panels (naturally) focus on the literary side of life, but this panel was more about pop culture and what it meant to three writers growing up. They talked about the extent to which you can make pop culture references in a book but otherwise concentrated on beloved films, TV and music. There was a lot of love for the ’80s, but most of the ’90s  love was for Webber’s Wing Jones, which is set in 1996 Atlanta – read more about it here!).

Katherine Webber can quote much of Clueless; Conaghan made an impassioned speech on behalf of Grease and declared his belonging to a small global cult following of its much-maligned sequel; Derek Landy apparently owns half the prop department of multiple comic book adaptations, including the original Superman costume and cape. Katie credits Sailor Moon (only half-jokingly) with piquing her interest in Asian culture – she later studied Japanese, then Chinese, and moved to Hong Kong to study. Conaghan was into eternally cool bands, while Webber is an unashamed pop fan.

The conversation returned to literature to discuss favourite childhood books. Katie loves A Wrinkle in Time so much that it featured in at least three different ways at her wedding (shoutout to husband and Sam Wu co-writer Kevin Tsang for highest number of cameo mentions), while Landy commented on the past dearth of YA which once meant going straight from children’s books to crime fiction. Perhaps most interestingly, Brian Conaghan was frank about the fact that he was 17 when he first read a novel and had a reading age of 12 when he was 16, partly due to lack of access to a library or books at school. I so admired Conaghan’s work on We Come Apart and really appreciated someone pointing out that not all readers or writers come to books in the same way.

“I always felt like a changeling. I never felt like I belonged”: Louise O’Neill and Deirdre Sullivan talk ‘Dark Fairytales’, chaired by Elaina Ryan 

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L-R: Elaina Ryan, Louise O’Neill, Deirdre Sullivan, wearing ‘Repeal’ gear

There was something of a uniform for this event on feminist retellings of fairytales. Both Louise O’Neill and Deirdre Sullivan have recently released fairytale retellings: O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks takes on The Little Mermaid, while Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine is a collection of twelve short stories which draw on not just The Little Mermaid but fairytales like Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty (you can read more about the book here!).

This was the only panel in which the authors were asked to read from their books, which was a fantastic way to introduce or reintroduce the audience to the stories in question. It was O’Neill’s first time reading from The Surface Breaks at an event (she read a scene featuring a character called Sadhbh, a name she insisted on because “the English find it very confusing and I find that very amusing”).  Tangleweed and Brine is almost like prose poetry, making it chillingly effective when read aloud. Both books are quite dark – but that’s because, as O’Neill and Sullivan pointed out, the source fairytales are also quite dark. The Little Mermaid’s original ending at the hands of Hans Christian Anderson, for example, is incredibly unsettling.

There was plenty of talk about that most famous of fairytale strains, the Disney film, but it’s not all bad – there was definite agreement that movies like Frozen and Moana have appreciably feminist moments (in Elaina Ryan’s immortal words on Moana: “she seems like good craic”). And indeed, it is the complicated, sometimes sanitised history of the fairytale that seems to provide such scope for feminist reinterpretation, as both Louise and Deirdre would write another fairytale retelling if they had the chance. O’Neill would love to get her hands on Beauty and the Beast, while Sullivan would like to pair the ‘earth and water’ theme of Tangleweed and Brine with another collection on what I thought would just be ‘air and fire’ but was actually termed the far more poetic ‘breath and ember’.

So there you have it! Did you attend this edition of DeptCon? Have you read any of the books mentioned? Are any of them on your TBR?

 

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Blogging Resolutions // Spring Update

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m checking in with my blogging resolutions for the year!

“…but Arianne,” you whisper, “we didn’t see a post about New Year’s blogging resolutions….”

AHEM. This may be true. But in my defence, I had drafted one! The timing simply didn’t work out, so I’ve decided to up-cycle the post with a spring and autumn check-in, framing my summer check-in with my most anticipated reads of 2018 (you can read that list here, or see how I got on with one of the books from that list, Makiia Lucier’s Isle of Blood and Stone, here!) Without any further ado…

1. Do more interviews. I am rocking this resolution, ngl. Regular interviews were one of the things I felt was lacking on the blog in 2017, but so far in 2018, I’ve interviewed Sophia Bennett, Karen Gregory (as part of the YA Shot blog tour), Jenny McLachlan and Lauren James!

2. Read more five-star books. Having only given one five star review rating (for Jenny McLachlan’s Truly, Wildly, Deeplyso far this year – oops! – it’s clear that I really need to work on this one! But note that I said ‘read’ and not ‘give’ more five stars – I’m not one for too much hype, so this resolution means choosing to spend time on reading for pleasure and picking up books I really think I’ll love, including backlist titles and re-reads.

3. Write more concise reviews. An ongoing battle! I say ‘concise’ as I’m not trying to write ‘short’ reviews, just effective ones. It’s important to me that I’m constantly trying to improve on my blog, and finding the most precise way to articulate my thoughts on a book really appeals to me from a critical standpoint. I’m super pleased with the length of my reviews so far this year – most have been somewhere in between the length of Lauren James’ The Loneliest Girl In The Universe and Sara Barnard’s Goodbye, Perfect – though I’m still always tempted to talk about EVERYTHING I love about a book!

4. Comment more on other blogs. I think I’m doing okay on this one! I’ve definitely upped my blog commenting this spring – it’s good to let other bloggers know when you’ve enjoyed their posts!

5. Come up with at least one original feature. It may seem that this resolution has fallen flat as a pancake, but I actually have two original features in the works! I’ll be trialling both soon.

Did you make any blogging resolutions this year? How have you fared with them? Let me know down in comments!

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Unconventional by Maggie Harcourt // charming, fan-respectful YA

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m catching up on contemporary. This was actually supposed to be a mini-review but there are just so many things to like about it (though it’s still technically a little shorter than usual)! *shoves thousand-word reviews out of shot with foot*

32820770Author(s): Maggie Harcourt
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 1st February 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Lexi has grown up helping her dad with his events business. She likes to stay behind the scenes, planning and organising. Then teenage author Aidan Green – messy-haired and annoyingly charismatic – arrives unannounced at the first convention of the year, and Lexi’s life is thrown into disarray.

In a flurry of late-night conversations, mixed messages and butterflies, Lexi discovers that some things can’t be planned. Things like falling in love…

You may have seen Maggie Harcourt’s Unconventional on my list of seven major YA books I accidentally hadn’t yet got around to reading last year. You’ll be pleased to hear I read it soon afterwards – and what’s more, Harcourt’s Theatrical made it onto my list of most anticipated books for 2018 partly because of its own premise and partly because I enjoyed Unconventional so much. I have a signed copy, too, which is an added delight.

This contemporary is full of fun, fandom and geeky friendships. It’s a book that says it’s okay, even brilliant, to be passionate about things, and it embraces the peculiar microcosm that is fan culture. It’s light but never vapid, and it’s written in suitably straightforward, chatty prose. It’s set at a convention – or to be more accurate multiple conventions – a great choice for a standalone, and written with the knowing, tell-tale nods of a seasoned con-goer. Lexi’s frantic behind-the-scenes scramble is all lanyards and emergency errands, so it’s not glamourous at all, but it serves to make starrier moments stand out.

One of those starrier strands is the romance. Lexi and Aidan’s first love romance is nerdy, cute and builds patiently. Lexi is smart and capable but uncertain about what she wants to do with her life, while Aidan is at first a little prickly but soon reveals himself a worthy love interest. You absolutely believe that there’s a story for them after the book ends. I also liked the sound of Piecekeepers, Unconventional’s high concept urban fantasy book-within-a-book – it’s almost enough to make you want to read more of it!

Elsewhere, Lexi has imperfect but ultimately positive relationships with her parents (her mother lives with her French girlfriend and her father is, to Lexi’s initial reluctance, about to marry his long-time partner). There are plenty of friendships too, like with best friend Sam and fellow convention stalwarts Nadiya and Bede, from which lots of humour emerges. The plot is character-centric, right down to inter-convention rivalries, and though there are some cool scenes – rooftops, a wedding, a handful of multimedia additions – it could have been a little stronger. Some of the background characters are flat, the story requires some suspension of disbelief and a scene or two more set outside the convention circuit would have been helpful. If you can make it through the slow first half, however, Unconventional makes for quirky, enjoyable contemporary YA. If you liked Geekerella by Ashley Poston or The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, this is the UKYA contemporary for you.

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Unconventional is fun, fan-respectful, well-written contemporary YA fiction. Light but never airy, it has a nerdy, almost slow-build romance and makes for a neat, memorable standalone. Hugely enjoyable. 

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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.
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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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