Songs About A Girl by Chris Russell // the latest addition to boyband YA

25782883Author: Chris Russell
Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books
Publication date: 28 July 2016
Category: YA/MG
Series or standalone?: Series
Genre: contemporary
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Charlie Bloom is happiest behind the camera and out of the limelight. But when she’s asked to take photographs for music sensations Fire&Lights, she can’t pass up the chance.

Catapulted into a whirlwind of music, ardent fans and scheming paparazzi, Charlie soon realizes that a life on tour isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s far more to the boys of Fire&Lights than fame, but even an expensive backdrop can’t hide the strain being put on their friendship. As bickering bubbles and rivalries simmer, Charlie is drawn to gorgeous, damaged frontman Gabriel and boy-next-door bandmate Olly Samson – but they’re the least of her problems when she stumbles on a mind-blowing secret, hidden in the lyrics of their songs…

Songs About a Girl is the latest addition to a phenomenon which has come to be known as boyband lit. For the uninitiated, boyband lit seeks to capitalise on the popularity of boybands, particularly among teenage girls, by merging the out-of-reach daydreams of fandom with the skill of the professional pen. You heard it right, boyband fans: Larry fanfic is making its way to a bookshelf near you!

Sort of. Larry fanfic is a bit niche for mainstream YA, so for now the central paradigm for boyband lit requires a heroine – usually a teenager, always ordinary, often not hugely  into fandom (it’s more useful for when they need to form coherent, non-starstruck sentences later on) – to run into a famous band in a way which distinguishes her from the screaming masses – by tripping over right in front of them, by being able to see them as people etc etc – before discovering that one of them is likely the love of her life. For added drama there may be a love triangle, or she’ll be the shoulder to cry on as the bandmates reveal all their deepest secrets (if this sounds cynical, it’s because well, I am. But I have good things to say, too. As long as boyband lit respects teenage girls and continues to twine the skills of solid storytelling with the concept of the genre, then it’s fine by me. I am large, I contain multitudes…)

Likeable heroine Charlie has a family, school problems, backstory and is a good, but not perfect, photographer; her life doesn’t stop just because she’s met a vaguely handsome boyband. There are subplots, social struggles and mysteries to be solved. It helps that I like this book’s title: it’s simple, straightforward and most importantly sounds like an actual album. (I wasn’t quite sure why at first, but then I played Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane all through writing this review.)

Songs About a Girl is driven by a fairly basic plot, and I found I’d guessed a major twist early on, but it’s all very dramatic. Friendly Olly and bad boy Gabriel are touted as the book’s big stars but Yuki and Aiden get considerable time on the page too. Back at school, Charlie faces the highs and lows of friendship with Melissa, who’s definitely hiding something from her, and taunts when her involvement with Fire&Lights hits the schoolyard as well as the gossip columns. There are revelations and betrayals (including when one of the boys opens the door to Charlie and it seems he’s been leading her on while HAVING A FLING WITH A FAMOUS PERSON!). One twist had me like this: 

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Unfortunately, most of the characters are two-dimensional. Charlie is sixteen, but the book is aimed at a younger audience, certainly in terms of tone and unchallenging prose. Russell strives to at least blend realism with the admittedly unlikely premise of a teenager being plucked from obscurity to become an eyewitness to the fracturing relationships behind the nation’s favourite band, but there’s certainly some sanitisation of band life and fame. The book doesn’t deal with issues brilliantly or in depth; the dialogue isn’t great; the novel as a whole lacks sharpness and the intuitive, natural style of books like London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning or Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. However, There are two sequels planned and the book ends on a cliffhanger which should keep readers on their toes.

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Songs About a Girl isn’t amazing, particularly as it has a plain writing style and a fairly basic set-up, but it’s easy to keep reading this short, page-turning take on boyband lit.

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On The Other Side by Carrie Hope Fletcher // sweet, saccharine sort-of magical fiction

Author: Carrie Hope Fletcher
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Publisher:
Little, Brown/Sphere
Publication date: 14 July 2016
Category: adult fiction
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Genre: contemporary, magical realism, chick lit
Source: Lend
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Evie Snow has lived a long, full life. She’s had eighty-two years to find her place in the world. When it comes to finding her place in the next, however, there’s an unexpected complication. 

Evie’s reached the door of her own private heaven, but it won’t open.

To open the door, Evie will have to unburden her soul of the secrets weighing it down – secrets she’s kept for over fifty years. Transformed into her twenty-seven-year-old self, Evie’s journey of a lifetime will see her revisit events and people she thought she’d lost forever – and come face-to-face with a love she thought she’d left behind long ago.

On The Other Side is cheerful, romance-focused easy reading with the occasional serious undertone. Looking back on a life that was full but not without sacrifice, Evie Snow remembers above all Vincent Winters, her lost love, her what-might-have-been, her once-upon-a-time. It’s clear that there must be a reason younger Evie married a man named Summers instead. It’s a saccharine sweet, and idealised, romance; in terms of content, it’s all very PG. While released as an adult book, On The Other Side’s straightforward style, short chapters and character-driven plot make it clear the aim is to appeal to a wide audience.

Fletcher is known as one of the brighter, more sincere faces of generation YouTube, but On the Other Side also bears the hallmarks of her day job (as the West End’s Éponine and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Truly Scrumptious), if not literally then subtly, because, first things first, the story is there. Live theatre, particularly musical theatre, regularly seeks to make the impossible plausible, whether it’s singing a rebellion, flying a magic car, quintet-ing a gang war, defying gravity, the entirety of Cats, giving America’s favourite fighting Frenchman the fastest rap in living memory or just throwing fairytales at the stage to see what sticks. Musicals are aware that you’ve already suspended your disbelief by committing to a story where even ordinary information is delivered with synchronised key changes and the occasional good old-fashioned mid-sentence falsetto. This is the kind of suspend-your-disbelief story background Fletcher is coming from as she draws on magical realism – from semi-magical birds to talking heart trees – and gives this novel a feeling of wistful unreality.

Evie is an easy heroine to like. There’s perhaps an element of self-insert fiction here (Evie has blonde curly hair, brown eyes, an emerald-green coat and a noticeably hopeful outlook) but it’s pretty harmless. The book’s secondary characters don’t leap from the page. Overlong character descriptions do little more than introduce cardboard cut-outs from which sage advice, monotonous dialogue or unexplained villainy will leak. There is however LGBTQIA+ representation (specifically bi and pan rep).

If it’s the promise of dipping into Evie’e past that has you intrigued, however, then you should know that even going back fifty-five years, this book isn’t set in any distinctive era. There’s a sense that it’s meant to be quirky or disconcerting, but it’s a tricky idea to pull off. In this case it leaves the reader with the sense that it was perhaps simply more convenient not to have this summer release (cleverly timed to coincide with the start of the school holidays) held up by months of historical research. The placement of relics like sexism and arranged marriage alongside modern conveniences like mobile phones and skinny jeans seem out of place, off-kilter. It’s a shame too, as I was looking forward to a book with the good-cheer-in-tough-times feel of Call the Midwife or maybe the snazzier sixties-in-Australia equivalent Lovechild. On The Other Side misses an opportunity for richer storytelling here.

Unfortunately, the writing style isn’t as polished as it should be. It’s full of excessive adverbs, vocal clichés, unnecessary repetition, and tell in place of show. It’s heavy-handed, almost as if it’s afraid to leave many details to the reader’s imagination. You know that writing style you had when you were just starting out and your idea was good, but everything still came out in stiff dialogue and great lumps of exposition, single-spaced Arial size 12, one long run-on explanation from start to finish? And that writing style was totally fine, because you were learning as you went along and almost everyone falls into the tropes and traps of early aspiring fiction anyway. That’s essentially what you’ll find in On The Other Side, and to a well-read audience it will be distracting. It’s the writing style of someone who has potential, but is still telling the story the way their early-writer self would. If it’s well-developed, make-your-eyes-widen-with-awe prose you’re after, you won’t find it here – yet.

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Simple, straightforward and saccharine sweet, On the Other Side is a charming, if uneven, fiction début. It’s warm and well-meaning, but a solid premise gives way to a writing style that needs work.

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The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson // so full of sunshine it’ll give you a tan

17838528Author: Morgan Matson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 3 May 2016
Category: YA
Genre: Contemporary
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I was kindly sent a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

From college dreams (good grades, summer programs, med school) to great friends (level-headed Palmer, movie-mad Sabrina, emoji-fluent Toby), Andie has always had it together. The only child of a Congressman with a reputation to protect and the media spotlight to withstand, she can’t afford not to. But when political scandal sees her father locked out of office and her pre-med summer plans go down the drain, Andie is faced for the first time with finding out what – and who – she loves when she doesn’t have to be the person the world expects her to be. Ideal for fans of Sarah Dessen, Rainbow Rowell and Jenny Han, this is the story of a girl who finds that, for once, the unexpected may just be the best thing that’s ever happened to her.

There’s a lot I’ve been asking for from YA in The Unexpected Everything. It has a strong plot which keeps momentum right to the last pages (and I liked the ending, too). Dogs who survive until the end? Dozens of them. Cameos from some of Matson’s best-loved characters? Several. Teens in long-term, committed relationships? Check. Pizza, happiness, scavenger hunts? Check. Teens who get to be positive and driven and are anything but apathetic? Check. A heroine whose intelligence, kindness and ambitions are celebrated? Check.

The book’s romance is cute and quirky. It’s in natural moments that Andie and the bashful, bookish Clark find each other. It won’t win awards for hottest romance of the year, but the string of choices and coincidences – if Andie’s father hadn’t been rocked by political scandal, leaving her to pick Maya’s job offer off the noticeboard at the diner; if Clark hadn’t agreed to house-sit that summer; if he hadn’t called for help wrangling a giant Pyrenees; if that same giant Pyrenees hadn’t been ill and given them the chance to remedy a disastrous first date – which bring them together lead to a relationship you can see lasting. Tom and Palmer are also a great example of the fact that not all teen relationships need to be insta-love will-they-won’t-they romances.

Unfortunately for a novel with ‘unexpected’ in the title, the book is a little predictable. It’s slow to start, the setting is generic, the pacing needed to be tighter, and I guessed twists early on. Tired tropes (like break-ups just to add some unnecessary obstacle to a relationship) seem thrown in because they ‘have’ to be, not because they need to be. Friendship  takes pride of place, though I occasionally found myself wishing for more laughter and messiness from it (sometimes you really just need writers to remember that being a teenager also often means being a shambles). This book has characters trying so hard to be perfect it’s like they’re not talking to each other in any real way. However, Matson does take time to explore Andie’s rebuilding of her relationship with her dad, a politician who’s spent so much time working that their lives are practically on different planets, and fans of Rainbow Rowel will appreciate excerpts from an in-world Game of Thrones-style book series. 

The Unexpected Everything has a lot going for it, but I don’t think I’d quite appreciated the impact of storytelling light and shadow, of books as rippling and hypnotic as the open sea, before I read this contemporary. Opening this book was like looking at the sun. Or possibly a tanning bed. It’s just a blast of heat, so intent on roasting your retina to let you see anything. It doesn’t reach into your heart or leave you awash with highs and lows – though it benefits from Matson’s competent pen and it still makes for a satisfying read.

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Generous, warm and packed with sun, The Unexpected Everything is a page-turning read, longer and chunkier than you’d expect. It’s full of things I’ve been looking for in YA, and while it’s not perfect, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable four-star read.

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Welcome! And other cheesy greetings

Hi! I’m Arianne. Reader, blogger, all-round bookish hard-working glass-half-full kind of person. The Paper Alchemist is a book blog (a place full of snarky reviews and other features I haven’t finished writing yet) but you can also find me on Twitter.

Things to know about me:

I blog about young adult and children’s fiction. You can find out more about that here. Some recent bookish favourites include:

  • Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard
  • Am I Normal Yet? & How Hard Can Love Be? by Holly Bourne
  • The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle
  • And I Darken by Kiersten White
  • Love Song by Sophia Bennett
  • A Darker Shade of Magic & A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab
  • Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas
  • The Next Together by Lauren James

These books, you guys. I just. I CANNOT

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I’m Irish. My accent is not incomprehensible, but I do have a reasonable wariness about walking into fairy forts.

I own a cat with one eye. He likes purring and curling up in a perfect circle, but is otherwise possibly the least playful cat on the planet, on account of his only having one eye giving him licence to be Stoic and Aloof. If he was human he would be the scarred, shadowy type whose gritty backstory must only be revealed for dramatic plot reasons.

A quick list of things I love (I love a lot of things. I think it’s important to say when you love something or someone, and am very vocal about this): 

  • History
  • Dragons
  • History but with dragons
  • Musicals
  • Harry Potter (Although my Hogwarts house is still up for debate.)
  • Dresses with pockets
  • Sarcastic livetweeting
  • Girls supporting girls (Positivity! Badass ladies doing awesome things!)

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Anyway, actual posts to come soon. And definitely more capital letters flailing. Look, I even have a sign-off graphic! (Thanks to excellent human Zoë Bestel for making me look vaguely professional in this regard.)

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