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.

Throw in friendship disasters and the realities of her own life, which haven’t gone away while she’s been hanging out with the most famous boys in the country, and Charlie finds herself caught in a tug-of-war between what she’s always known and what might one day be.

Songs About a Girl is the latest addition to a phenomenon which has come to be known as #boybandlit. For the uninitiated, #boybandlit seeks to capitalise on the popularity of boybands, particularly among those most passionate of fans, teenagers, specifically teenage girls, by merging the ever-so-slightly-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 boybandlit requires a heroine – usually a teenager, always ordinary, often not hugely interested in catchily-named fandoms (it’s cooler for when they need to form coherent non-starstruck sentences later on) – to run into the most famous band on the planet 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 (alas, it seems it is too soon for polyamory to have kicked in). 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 to her.(If this sounds cynical, it’s because well, I am. But I have good things to say, too. I am large, I contain multitudes…)

 Songs About a Girl starts out by following some of these tropes, but there are twists and turns which take it off the beaten track. Charlie has a family life, school problems, backstory and a clear motivation: she’s a good, but not perfect, photographer who wants to get better at what she does. Her life doesn’t stop just because she’s met a vaguely handsome boyband. There are subplots, social struggles and mysteries to be solved. 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. 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 reading the book and writing this review.)

It’s driven by a fairly basic plot which sees secrets unravel and Charlie’s world turn upside down, and I have to say, it’s more page-turning than you’d expect. It’s occasionally predictable, and I found I’d guessed a major twist early on, but it’s all very dramatic. There are revelations and betrayals galore (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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Charlie’s a likeable heroine. Friendly Olly and bad boy Gabriel are touted as the book’s big stars but Yuki and Aiden, who’s Irish, get considerable time on the page too. Back at school, Charlie faces the highs and lows of best 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. The book’s portrayal of band life is a definite strength. It’s occasionally sanitised for a young audience, but it’s full of details and 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. There are two sequels planned and the book ends on a cliffhanger which should keep readers on their toes.

Unfortunately, the characters are mostly two-dimensional. Charlie is sixteen, but the book is aimed at a younger audience, certainly in terms of tone and unchallenging prose. It doesn’t deal with issues brilliantly or in depth, which makes some of its scenes problematic. The dialogue isn’t great; it 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.

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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 #boybandlit.

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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, good life. Full of optimism and not without sacrifice, 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.

Before her days were filled with the sounds of children, grandchildren and a constant, humming ache for something that could never be, there was only one sound she wanted to hear: the sweet melody of a violin. Back then, she imagined a different future. Before, there was Vincent.

On The Other Side is charming, easy-to-read stuff. It has a remarkably similar plot device premise to Nothing Tastes As Good by Claire Hennessy (reviewed here last week and also released on 14th July, though I read the ARC in May) – they’re both narrated by characters who are technically ghosts completing tasks related to their old life – but that’s where the similarities end. Where Nothing Tastes as Good is dark, snarky and focuses on the struggles facing teen girls, On The Other Side is cheerful, romance-focused reading with the occasional serious undertone.

Vincent Winters is Evie Snow’s lost love, her what-might-have-been, her once-upon-a-time, but as complications unfurl, it’s evident that there’s more to the reason Evie Snow married a man named Summers instead. It’s a saccharine sweet, if idealised, romance, which sweeps the rest of the plot into its embrace. 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.

If it’s the promise of dipping into Evie’e past that has you intrigued, 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, and  in this case leaves the reader only 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 love history, including historical fiction and drama. 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.

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 welcome LGBTQIA+ representation (specifically bi and pan rep).

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 and like many débuts indicates an author who hasn’t yet learned that it’s sometimes better to leave a few details to the imagination than rush it all out into two pages. 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 particularly 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, though a solid premise gives way to a style that needs a lot of 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.

Friendship takes pride of place in The Unexpected Everything. I occasionally found myself wishing for more laughter and sheer messiness – sometimes you really just need writers to remember that being a teenager also often means being a shambles, where 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, they are supportive of each other. Add in a dash of drama and the occasional showdown, and it makes for a satisfying read.

There’s a lot I’ve been asking for from YA in this book. 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.

Matson takes 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. Fans of Rainbow Rowel will appreciate excerpts from an in-world book series and a touch of Game of Thrones-style fantasy fiction. The book is longer than you’d think and while that’s great if you plan on spending hours reading at the beach, the story as a whole would benefit from tighter pacing. A lack of diversity and LGBTQIA+ characters may also put off readers looking for more unusual contemporary YA.

Unfortunately for a novel with ‘unexpected’ in the title, the book is a little predictable. It’s slow to start, and it doesn’t have the flow you’d expect from a writer of this calibre. I guessed twists early on. At times, tired tropes (secrets, pushing people away, 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. The setting is generic – like those towns you get in board games, all stick people and carbon-copy storefronts, there’s little that stands out.

This novel has a lot going for it, but I don’t think I’d quite appreciated the impact of shadow, of books as rippling and hypnotic as the open sea, before I read The Unexpected Everything. Opening this book was like looking at the sun. Or a tanning bed. It’s just a blast of heat, too 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. Enjoyable, but not a favourite. 

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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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