Reviewing the YA Book Prize Shortlist (Part 2)

yabookprize

photo courtesy of @yabookprize

Today on the blog, following in the footsteps of many a YA movie of the last ten years, we come to the second part of a what should’ve been one post as I attempt to review every book shortlisted for this year’s YA Book Prize (let’s hope it’s more Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows than Twilight: Breaking Dawn). You can read the first set of reviews – for Beautiful Broken Things, Chasing the Stars, The Graces, How Not to Disappear and Paper Butterflies – here.

25699515Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence

Marlon never wanted anything to do with his brother Andre’s world of gangs and drug running, but when he’s implicated in the death of fellow teenager Sonya, it seems like he has no choice. Orangeboy’s set-up is quite similar to Crongton Knights (crime, family strain, a protagonist with only one parent living and an older brother who is too close to those aforementioned gangs for comfort) but differs in execution: pacy, tense and with a slightly older lead, it’s contemporary with a thriller edge. I didn’t realise it was a thriller until I’d already started reading it, as it’s not usually my cup of tea, but it’s designed to be gripping. Lawrence continually plays with the reader’s expectations as Marlon is sucked into a breakneck downward spiral, thrust from being a nerdy kid who keeps to himself into a life of knives, drugs and violence. He makes terrible decisions while trying to protect his family and absolve himself; his essentially good nature won’t stop readers from yelling in frustration at the page. Undoubtedly one of the most talked-about titles on the list, this début’s trajectory has been studded with award nominations: longlisted for the Jhalak Prize and shortlisted for the Costa as well as the YA Book Prize, if I were a betting woman I’d consider this one of the most likely choices for overall winner.

31567282The Call by Peadar O’Guilín

This fantasy-horror-dystopian by Irish author Peadar O’Guilín (pronounced padder oh gill-een) was mentioned by approximately 93% of the blogosphere in the weeks surrounding its release, but as horror is probably my least favourite genre, it was one of the books I was most wary of on this list. I met Peadar after a pun-tastic panel at a event last year (you can read more about the convention here) but even then got my sampler signed for a friend as I knew the book would be too horrific for my tastes. However, I decided that if I was going to review the shortlist, I was going to review it in its entirety. And while I still don’t intend to add more of the genre to my reading, I will say that its elements of fantasy and mythology are fascinating, heroine Nessa is gritty and gutsy, and the pace is practically relentless, making for a fast read. I would’ve liked it to be more mysterious or eerie instead of gruesome and gory, but fans of Victoria Schwab’s This Savage Song and Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts may find it’s more their kind of thing. It’s not a book I enjoyed, but a win for O’Guilín would mean an Irish author has won every YA Book Prize to date, which would be brilliant – and perhaps make more people sit up and take notice of the recent outpouring of awesome Irish YA!

30133870The Monstrous Child by Francesca Simon

First of all: can we talk about this book’s cover? Continuing the trend of blue and dark-tone covers being up for this award, the sketchy, sweeping scope of its design is absolutely eye-catching, and is a little reminiscent of Patrick Ness’s Jim Kay-illustrated A Monster Calls. Unfortunately, the cover turned out to be one of only a few highlights of the book for me, as we just didn’t get on. I was expecting a kind of Rick Riordan meets Debi Gliori take on Norse mythology, perhaps both dark and tongue-in-cheek, and in some respects, that’s what the book is – but in others, it failed to spark. There’s potential in taking on a goddess of the underworld as a protagonist, but Simon’s attempt at turning YA led her to undermine the possibilities of Hel’s character. Rather than letting her own this weird and wicked predicament, Simon makes her petulant and whiny, which would be fine if there was any well-structured character development, but there really isn’t. I think this one was more critically acclaimed than reader acclaimed – it received a fair amount of print coverage and was up for the Costa – so of course it may still claim the prize, but such a bumpy transition to YA writing didn’t work for me.

25883016Riverkeep
by Martin Stewart

Finally, an outright fantasy on the shortlist! Another one with a vividly-painted cover, I’d heard a lot of praise for Riverkeep before I read it. Named for the tough but unenviable position of those who tend a treacherous river by fishing out its dead, this is the story of Wulliam, who will one day take his place among them. Of course, like any good fantasy hero, he longs for anything but becoming the next Riverkeep. Unluckily for him, his inheritance is accelerated somewhat by his father’s apparent possession by a dark spirit. A quest to find the sea monster who can free his father, save Wull from his Riverkeep fate for a little while longer, and generally secure happy endings all round ensues. Also like any good fantasy, however, things don’t quite go to plan. Populated by characters with names like Tillinghast, Mix and Remedie, a whole host of eccentric and sometimes morally ambiguous figures turn up in this adventure, though I would’ve liked more female characters. The pacing is a little uneven and the writing style never quite endears, but there’s some terrific world-building, from the darkly conjured depths of the Danék to the harsh industrial edging of the world around them, from the smallest details of clothing and food to the overarching mythology of its mythical beasts.

29767084Crongton Knights by Alex Wheatle

This contemporary contender is the second YA title from prolific multi-genre author Alex Wheatle and has already scooped the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize. Fans of Wheatle’s Liccle Bit will recognise characters and a distinctive style in this technically-a-sequel, but it stands fairly well on its own. Set on the fictional South Crongton estate, young teenager McKay takes up the story as he battles the tensions of his family’s heavy debt, the dangers of gang culture, and the disastrous consequences of a well-intentioned, if misguided, mission to help a friend. Wheatle juggles serious, tough subjects and a surprisingly funny narrative voice which is slowed only by the intense and persistent use of invented slang – which a) has the effect of making you realise how ridiculous slang must sometimes sound and b) ultimately gives rise to prose you’ll either love or hate. Peppered with the risk of violence and sexism, Wheatle has the skill to explore his themes to an extent, but much of the book is taken up with the heart-pounding escalation of McKay’s madcap, perilous adventure.

So there you have it – the lowdown on this year’s YA Book Prize shortlist! What do you think of the books on the list? Which ones have you read? Are there any others you would’ve liked to have seen nominated?

nametag2-fw

Contemporary Catch-Up // This Beats Perfect by Rebecca Denton and Countless by Karen Gregory

33135198Author(s): Rebecca Denton 
Publisher:
 Atom
Publication date: 2 February 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Amelie Ayres has impeccable taste in music: Bowie. Bush. Bob. So when she finds herself backstage watching one of the most famous boybands in the world perform for thousands of screaming fans, she expects to hate it – after all, The Keep are world’s most tragic band. She has to admit, though, that feels a sort of respect, not (obviously) for their music, but for the work that goes in to making them megastars. And when lead singer Maxx is not dressed up like Elvis and/or a My Little Pony, he is actually rather normal, with creative struggles not too dissimilar to her own.

But then a photo of her backstage makes her a subject of global speculation, and suddenly the world needs to know #Who’sThatGirl? for all the wrong reasons.

Immaculate is a concept. Flawless is fake. But just sometimes music, and hearts, can rock a perfect beat.

As someone who has kept an eye on boyband lit in YA fiction, I’d hoped this book would be an admirable addition to a sub-genre which is often fun, engaging and appealing to modern audiences. Unfortunately, I was left disappointed by a book which wastes its potential and, worse still, trivialises a style which has been so cleverly adapted in contemporaries like Sophia Bennett’s brilliant Love Song.

Teenage singer-songwriter Amelie Ayres, visiting her sound engineer father, finds herself backstage at the gig of one of the biggest boybands in the world – the only problem is, she has zero interest in the peppy pop and flashy outfits that have made them famous. She’s surprised by what it’s like to meet the boys behind the band, but when one of them snaps a selfie with her, the rumour mill goes into overdrive. Caught up in the world of the band whether she likes it or not, Amelie must navigate jealousy, paparazzi, hints of romance and her own stage fright if she’s to find where she truly wants, or needs, to be.

Unfortunately, the most interesting elements of this plot – the pressures of fame, behind-the-scenes figures, exploration of the sometimes-manufactured nature of boybands, possibilities for complex characterisation – are lost in a soup of bad dialogue, flat characters and poor prose. There is far better writing out there in YA than appears in this book. This Beats Perfect is patronising, vapid and full of the pseudo-dialogue that would half make you think the author had never actually heard a real teenager speak. It underestimates and undervalues its intended readership, insulting their intelligence and inadvertently making a mockery of the passion which is poured into fandom and musicianship.

The interest in music that’s supposed to make Amelie stand out quickly reveals itself to be music snobbery of the worst kind, transplanted onto a protagonist presented as knowing and somehow superior to other girls (and you know how much I dislike the ‘I’m not like other girls’ trope) but who is ultimately incredibly immature, particularly considering she and her friends are supposed to be sixteen. I liked Amelie’s interest in music production and there was potential in her relationship with her family, but Denton does a disservice to real teenagers in her stilted characterisation and in not being able to make her mind up about what the book is trying to say.

2stars-fw

I wanted to like this one, but This Beats Perfect wastes its potential and fails to deliver the intelligent and complex depictions of fandom, passion and music teenage readers deserve. Sophia Bennett’s Love Song and Jenny McLachlan’s Flirty Dancing are more enjoyable alternatives.

34299826Author(s): Karen Gregory
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 4 May 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

When Hedda discovers she is pregnant, she doesn’t believe she could ever look after a baby. The numbers just don’t add up. She’s young and still in the grip of an eating disorder that controls every aspect of her daily life. She’s even given it a name: Nia. But as the days tick by, Hedda comes to a decision: she and Nia will call a truce, just until the baby is born. 17 weeks, 119 days, 357 meals. 

Karen Gregory’s début novel is a story of love, heartache, and how sometimes the things that matter most can’t be counted.

I find books like this one – serious, relentless, grotesquely eerie – difficult to rate mainly because while I appreciate the effectiveness of the point the writer is trying to make, my star ratings are influenced by enjoyment, and I did not enjoy this book. Torn between the vice-like grip of her eating disorder and the desire to keep her daughter strong, teenager Hedda is engaged in a narratively violent struggle with the anorexia she calls Nia.

Countless is gritty, efficient and reminiscent of work by Melvin Burgess, Nick Hornby and Clare Furniss. It’s peppered with difficult choices, old habits and skewed relationships, with some characters failing while others step up to the plate. There’s unexpectedly kind neighbour Robin, honest fellow new mother Lois, Hedda’s distant, critical and painfully unforthcoming parents, her perfect, detached sister Tammy, and, never too far away, the reminders of the protagonist’s eating-disorder existence. It’s not a terribly diverse book, but YA readers looking for books without a romance may find the focus on character, topical issues and Hedda’s personal journey works for them.

Gregory explores themes of love, self-esteem, family breakdown and flashbacks to the weird world of ED units, where Hedda and her fellow sufferers go ostensibly for treatment but wind up building toxic friendships and becoming locked in some bizarre race to be thinnest, sickest, cruellest. She writes with both immense empathy and unflinching characterisation, but the book is undoubtedly triggering and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who has had or come into contact with real-life eating disorders. Moments of hope and Hedda’s unquestionable love for daughter Rose are really the only features that make reading a book that might be gripping if it weren’t so chilling possible.

2stars-fw

A mix of Jacqueline Wilson’s Dustbin Baby, Nick Hornby’s Slam and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, this is a brutal, almost raw rendering of hyper-contemporary YA, dominated by its theme of eating disorders but somewhat salvaged by its empathy and the depth of Hedda’s feeling for Rose. Not an enjoyable or an easy read, and not one I’ll be leaping to recommend.

nametag2-fw

Girls Can’t Hit by T.S. Easton // funny, feel-good teen fiction

29102795Author(s): T.S. Easton
Publisher:
 Hot Key Books
Publication date: 20th April 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Fleur Waters never takes anything seriously – until she turns up at her local boxing club one day, just to prove a point. She’s the only girl there, and the warm-up alone is exhausting, but the workout gives her an escape from home and school, and when she lands her first uppercut she feels a rare thrill. Determined to improve, she goes back the next week. And the next. And the next.

Her overprotective mum can’t stand the idea of her entering a boxing ring, her friends don’t really get it either, and even her ever-polite boyfriend George seems concerned by her growing passion for the sport. But Fleur is learning that sometimes, you have to take a chance on yourself, and that sometimes the best things in life can come from unexpected places.

Well-written and hugely enjoyable, Girls Can’t Hit was one of the best surprises of this year’s spring UKYA for me. Straightforward, energetic and light-hearted prose makes for a fast read which is by turns warm and serious, entertaining and absorbing. Fleur’s story takes her from a reluctant new recruit to the first one out slapping posters on the walls when the local boxing club needs her help. Hers is a tale of friendship, boxing, skipping, food, bad driving, vintage costumes, more food, Friday movie nights (including Rocky marathons, natch), a collection of gangly ginger limbs, dodgy restaurants, battle re-enactments, defying expectations, and of course, finding your passion.

Scattered with pop culture references and entirely suitable description, fans of Sarra Manning, Holly Bourne, Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison will each find something to like here. And not to sound like Tom Jones off The Voice, but I loved the tone: pitched somewhere between teen fiction and YA, it’s deliciously, brilliantly funny. Filled with moments of sharp wit and wry observation, Fleur’s sense of humour and touches of sarcasm permeate her voice and shine when multiple characters get together. I love a carefully done YA comedy, and this book just flows. As clever as it is chatty, it had me laughing out loud and I loved it.

gch3.PNG

Stubborn, hard-working and always ready with a quip, Fleur is an irresistible heroine. She’s determined, committed, and undergoes the kind of character development which is based on finding out more about oneself, rather than losing who you are. I liked her ambition, her lively characterisation, her active pursuit of her goals. She does things, wants things, makes mistakes and cares for those around her. She may even be one of my favourite contemporary teen fiction heroines of the year so far.

Fabulous, passionate and flawed best friend Blossom is wonderfully drawn while the gangly, awkward, kind-hearted Pip even gets an arc of his own (somehow involving Normans, Saxons, steampunk, time travel and sword-waving). npretentious supporting characters may only be described in a few throwaway lines, but most are sketched just enough for it to work. Fleur has a tricky but close relationship with her Mum and Dad, while boyfriend George is pleasant (or at least he is until the break-up caused by his inability to accept Fleur’s newfound skill and THEN HE IS DEAD TO ME). Also, I totally ship Fleur and Tarik. They’re so good together and I want to see MORE OF THEM.

gch2.PNG

And it’s surprisingly feminist! Toeing the thin line between trenchant support and affectionately mocking (“It’s not a gateway drug to the patriarchy, it’s a custard cream”), the book’s feminism ranges from ardent (Blossom) to promising (Fleur) to thematic (portrayals of casual or institutional sexism met with noticeable examination and admitted realism). There’s awareness of feminist issues, recognition of the importance of talented, conscientious female role models and appreciation of the feeling of belonging a girl-positive feminism brings to characters, and real-life teen girls, like Blossom and Fleur.

gch

Fleur’s discovery of boxing and other sports makes her a force to be reckoned with not just physically but mentally, as she finds a level of self-belief, resolve and courage she never knew she had. The descriptions of her boxing are almost enough to make you want to take up the sport, but at the very least will see you noticing the book’s encouraging approach. Fleur has to work at her sport to get better and improvement is seen as an achievement in itself. Easton touches on its dangers and injuries, and has characters point out its embedding in violence and toxic masculinity, but primarily focuses on its positive effects for Fleur. There are a few missteps in unclear background characterisation and scene choices, but otherwise I raced through Girls Can’t Hit.

4hstars-fw

Satisfying and clever, this is terrifically funny, affectionately feminist, feel-good teen fiction featuring great friendships, marvellous tone and a sporting twist. An unexpected addition to my favourite reads of spring 2017. 

nametag2-fw

The Paper Alchemist does Pop Culture // Doctor Who series 10 episode 1 review

Today’s blog post is something different – a chance to indulge in my Doctor Who fandom! I don’t know if I’ll review the rest of the series, but it’s been so fun to write tumblr_oogw7angze1qf5tr5o1_500this one. 

It’s that time again: The Doctor has a new companion, a theme tune you could recreate with only the contents of a slightly dodgy dishwasher is ringing out and the BBC’s Saturday evenings are full of aliens once more. Peter Capaldi’s hair, accidentally suffused with several years’ worth of timestream ether, has exploded by at least 238%, and his Doctor seems to have softened around the edges, too: gone is the harsh, gloomy turn which appeared in much of his previous series’ self-recrimination, replaced by a kindlier, more eccentric figure. He’s just as prone to sudden leaps and occasional melancholy but perhaps willing to engage in a little more silliness and gusto. A poignant moment comes when he uses time travel to provide an emotional Bill (Pearl Mackie) with pictures of the mother she lost. He and Mackie bounce terrifically off each other – and it is Mackie who really shines here.

A rather rudimentary plot in which the Doctor and Bill are essentially chased across the universe by a semi-sentient puddle is mere scaffolding, an excuse to give this new acquaintance a chatty introduction. When it comes to companions, modern Who always works best when taking the ordinary and putting them into the extraordinary. Jenna Coleman’s plucky, much-maligned Clara suffered because no-one could decide what she was supposed to be, the promising Impossible Girl concept which saw her as everything from feisty governess to cheeky schoolteacher losing momentum as explanations became convoluted or individuality was sidelined in favour of perfunctory dialogue and exposition. As it stands, Moffat has taken what must seem like the only logical step and tried to forget any of it ever happened, but for fans the memories remain strong.

Thus Mackie’s Bill is less a breath of fresh air and more a bracing lungful, like being pushed out of a sauna into the Finnish snow in the nip. Inquisitive, gobby and wide-eyed, Bill isn’t afraid to ask the hard questions (“It’s like a… kitchen! A really posh kitchen. What happened with the doors though, did you run out of money?”) or ogle a bit when she finds herself in a time-travelling policebox helmed by a man with a penchant for extravagant outerwear. The message is clear: Bill is like us, only funnier.

Some lush camerawork and cinematography wraps an adventure in which The Doctor and Bill brave university essays, mysterious baths and unwitting villain Heather (Stephanie Hyam), who was looking a bit Jack at the end of Titanic (THERE WAS ROOM ON THE DOOR) after being thoroughly soaked by an alien oil slick. As they took refuge in a conveniently placed TARDIS (“The assembled hordes of Genghis Khan couldn’t get through that door, and believe me, they’ve tried,” remarked Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor in Rose, followed promptly by a more brusque “Now shut up a minute”), Bill alternated between deadpan and brassy, deftly played by Mackie when the Doctor couldn’t seem to understand her working-class origins and inability to enrol at St. Luke’s. Throw in such mainstays as jabbing buttons, running, unnecessary Daleks, a fairly constrained timeslot, and more running, and series ten announced itself with the kind of oomph some Who fans haven’t seen in years.

For long-time Whovians there were Easter eggs a-plenty, from nods to twenty-first century companions Clara (mind-wipes and familiar music) and Rose (chips, even Bill’s general bolshiness) to classic Who throwbacks including a glimpse at some disco-meets-Masterchef  white-clad Movellans and perhaps most interestingly, several weighty glances at a framed photograph of the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, alongside another of River Song (archaeologist, wanted criminal, escape artist, the Doctor’s sometime-wife, and general badass). Despite occasional references – David Tennant’s “Donna, I’ve been a father before” after coming face-to-face with Jenny in The Doctor’s Daughter among the most heart-wrenching – to a past family life, The Susan Question has been rarely addressed in modern Who, and it’s one I’d love to see explored and finally answered. Capaldi, who is set to take his leave at the end of the current series, certainly has the grit and gravitas to pull off the look of a man confronting questions of family and loss. Could there even be more to it? Could Susan have more of a story to tell?

Small details and key teasers for the rest of the series litter the episode. The Doctor’s magnificently decorated office and university professorship should feature again as he protects a suspiciously alien-looking vault beneath the university, while Nardole’s continued presence seems like something of a misguided afterthought unless there are bigger plans in store. Bill joins River, Captain Jack Harkness, Madam Vastra and Jenny (not Jenny the Doctor’s clone-daughter, but a sword-wielding Victorian ladies’ maid who has a bit of a thing for lizard women from the dawn of time) and even Clara (who definitely had a fling with Jane Austen) as well as Class leads’ Charlie and Matteusz in the pantheon of canonically LGBTQ+ Who characters. The Doctor muses that she may see one-time crush Heather again with all of time and space at their disposal, but I’d rather see the rest of the series explore a more substantive relationship for her.

tumblr_oogp1utje31u4r6fqo7_500

For an episode that was somewhat light on actual plot ‘The Pilot’ packed quite a lot in. It even managed to gently poke fun at itself – whether in Bill’s “I know you’re not exactly a sci-fi person,” or her questioning of the usual TARDIS explanation: “It’s hidden itself as a box with ‘pull to enter’ on the front?” There were sparks of liveliness and awesome in this series opener that I didn’t expect. I hope it’s a sign Who will continue to deliver.

nametag2-fw

Reviewing The YA Book Prize Shortlist

yabookprize

phoro courtesy of @yabookprize

Today on the blog, I review the first half of the YA Book Prize 2017 shortlist! I set myself the challenge of reading the entire list – whether through new purchases, the library or my review pile – a little because I think that’s what shortlists are partly for and because it’s helped me work on short reviews, but also to give you all the details! First, some thoughts…

  • The shortlist features a mix of genres, but contemporary has, not unexpectedly, come out on top with five titles (Beautiful Broken Things, How Not To Disappear, Paper Butterflies, Orangeboy and Crongton Knights).
  • Adventure and mythology make their usual appearances, but I was surprised to see no historical fiction. The closest is probably How Not To Disappear, which delves into some of the letters and recollections of heroine Hattie’s great-aunt Gloria.
  • I was also surprised to see two technically-dystopian books shortlisted, but significantly both have major elements of other genres (The Call is fantasy-horror and Chasing the Stars is science fiction), perhaps reflecting the fact that pure dystopia really isn’t what teen readers are going in for anymore.
  • There are three débuts on the list: Beautiful Broken ThingsOrangeboy and Riverkeep. That’s compared with four in 2015 (Trouble, LobstersOnly Ever Yours, and Half Bad) and just two (The Art of Being Normal and The Sin Eater’s Daughter) in 2016.
  • This is a first-time nomination for all of the authors on the list. Louise O’Neill, winner of the inaugural YA Book Prize, remains the only author shortlisted twice.
  • Irish YA also gets a look-in this year! It’s so pleasing to see the recent outpouring of (much-improved and engaging) Irish children’s and teen fiction rewarded. I wrote more about Irish YA you might like here. 
  • The shortlist is diverse (five books feature protagonists of colour, three of them by BAME writers, two have disabled protagonists, and several deal in some way with mental health and sexuality). More so in terms of authorship than the recent Carnegie shortlist (which you can read more about, from people who know more about it, here and here) but less so than the Jhalak Prize (which was created specifically to recognise writing by authors of colour and saw the wonderful Girl of Ink and Stars on its inaugural shortlist).
  • For publishing nerds like me: with three shortlistings each, publishers Penguin Random House and David Fickling Books are tied for most all-time nominations.
  • Most strikingly, dark and blue-toned covers seem to be the key to being shortlisted this year! Only Orangeboy’s cream-and-colour concoction defies the trend.

25437747Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

Beautiful Broken Things is, in many ways, a love story – it’s just not the love story you’d expect. Quiet, clever Caddy longs for a Significant Life Event to make her teenage years more interesting, but she is about to find that sometimes, the most significant thing in life can be a friend, and those courageous – or foolish – enough to love her. Authentic, heart-shattering and disarming, this is a book which takes pleasure in the little details: in small joys, in sunflowers, in baking, in hilarious (realistic, and occasionally drunken) texts. Barnard’s second novel A Quiet Kind of Thunder is perhaps even more brilliant (it’s my forerunner for next year’s YA Book Prize) but I’d love to see this one win, if not because I’m quoted in it (you can read my reviews here and here), then for the prominence it gives to one of the most powerful and underrated of all loves: heartfelt female friendship.

28693621Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman

OTHELLO! IN SPACE! So reads every press release for the brilliant Malorie Blackman’s latest, and it joins a plethora of YA retellings that claim descent from Shakespeare. Having read Othello, I was intrigued to see how Blackman would handle a retelling when I picked this up in the library. Chasing the Stars’ alternate narration follows siblings Aidan and Olivia, known as Vee, who are travelling back to Earth after surviving an epidemic onboard their spaceship, and Nathan, rescued while travelling in the other direction. Unfortunately, it’s overly long and what Blackman takes from Shakespeare’s original play – fanatical jealousy, raging suspicion, misogyny, and a severe case of insta-love – turn out to be pretty much the worst things to put in the book for me. I found the melodramatic, unhealthy relationship at the centre of the novel undermined its twisty sci-fi mystery-dystopia set-up. Fans of Katie Khan’s Hold Back the Stars or Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s These Broken Stars (I’m sensing a bit of a theme…) might be more suited to this.

25365584The Graces by Laure Eve

Laure Eve was a terrific panellist at DeptCon last year (I wrote about the panel and Laure’s amazingly cool hair here), so her stylish approach to The Graces comes as no surprise. Definitely in the running for UKYA’s most hyped book of 2016, for a time The Graces, and its eye-catching cover, was all anyone in the blogosphere could talk about. Mysterious and richly written, this is a contemporary-pseudo-thriller wrapped in prose like incense. Unreliable narrator River introduces the reader to the beautiful and enigmatic Grace siblings, Summer, Thalia and Fenrin, who are rumoured to be witches by her small town. It’s River who becomes the most obsessed of all, ingratiating herself into their lives with dramatic consequences. However, among others things this novel’s dragging pace, unrealistic and unwieldy dialogue and sizeable dose of the “I’m not like other girls therefore I hate other girls” trope made it a less enjoyable read for me.

28383390How Not to Disappear
by Clare
Furniss

For fans of Juno Dawson’s Margot and Me and Jenny Downham’s Unbecoming, this tale of mouthy teenagers, ardent friendship, hard truths, family strife and unreliable exes is classic contemporary UKYA from start to finish. Teen pregnancy is a fairly well-travelled YA road – Non Pratt’s Trouble was nominated for the first YA Book Prize – but clever, hapless, sometimes overly loyal Hattie is more Holly Smale’s geeky Harriet than Pratt’s gobby Hannah, and it’s the weaving of her modern story with that of her elderly great aunt Gloria which makes How Not to Disappear really stand out. It’s quite a serious book but there are some brilliant dashes of warmth and humour and I loved Hattie’s chatty, sharp, charming emails. I spent most of the book wanting to punch her charismatic, self-centred friend-turned-love-interest Reuben in the face. He’s a scene-stealing character, but he’s a terrible human being. Hattie deserves better – way better. After a strong début with The Year of the Rat, Furniss’ second book was also longlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal. 

34031732Paper Butterflies by Lisa Heathfield

In Electric Monkey’s first YA Book Prize shortlisting, one of the more difficult reads on this year’s shortlist, Paper Butterflies, is unflinching, harrowing and harsh, flecked rather than brimming with hope. Split into two intertwining timelines – ‘Before’ and ‘After’ – it tells the story of June, who finds an escape from her suffering at the hands of her vindictive stepmother and stepsister through her friendship with Jacob, also known as Blister, and his family. June’s relationship with Blister is reminiscent of Holly Bourne’s short story in the UKYA anthology I’ll Be Home for Christmas, but its new, bright colourful cover is thematically deceptive. A trigger warning for themes of horrific abuse means this isn’t one I’d recommend on the basis of its shortlisting alone; it isn’t exactly a book to enjoy, but may be your kind of thing if you have the stomach for writers like Louise O’Neill and Tanya Byrne, or indeed Heathfield’s début novel Seed. Paper Butterflies works best when it’s building extraordinary and immediate empathy not just for but with June, showcasing her voice and agency both within and beyond struggle.

What do you think of (the first half of) this year’s YA Book Prize shortlist? Are there any other books you’d like to have seen included?

nametag2-fw

Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton // a strong sequel for sassy (and sandy) fantasy

Today on the blog, I’m (finally) reviewing one of the most exciting UKYA fantasy releases of the year – though it is a sequel, so there may be spoilers! If you need a recap, I reviewed the first book in the series, Rebel of the Sands, here.

31574408Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Publisher:
 Faber & Faber
Publication date: February 2nd 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: NetGalley
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Teenage gunslinger Amani Al-Hiza has escaped the dead-end desert town of Dustwalk only to find herself caught up in a rebellion held together by an enigmatic prince and a handful of extraordinary Demdji.

Thrust into the most dangerous place for a revolutionary in their war-torn kingdom, Amani is trapped in the sultan’s palace, far from the source of her magic and from those she cares about. With unlikely enemies as well as unexpected allies lurking around every corner, she must do whatever it takes to help end the tyranny of the sultan’s rule. Or the rebellion, and the hope it brings her people, will be snuffed out at the cold and pitiless hands of a tyrant – father to her rebel prince, a man who would slay his own family before giving up the throne.

For Amani, freedom is blood and sweat and sand. It means friendship forged in fire and the tantalising possibility of a life with mysterious rebel Jin. If they can make it out of the war for Miraji alive, and bring a new dawn to an old desert.

Rich, exciting and enthralling, Traitor to the Throne – the second book in what is rapidly becoming one of current UKYA’s most dramatic and action-packed fantasy series – is a commendable follow-up to last year’s Rebel of the Sands. This brisk but immersive foray into the world of Miraji – where rough wild west meets mysterious desert sands and long-hidden magic abounds – sees heroine Amani once again elbow-deep in fighting for her freedom and that of her people.  Hectic, pacy and bursting with plot, it’s driven by sparky bravery, simmering revolution, outrageous treachery, daring rescues, thrilling escapes, surprise re-appearances, and more powerful magic than ever before, and I was gripped from start to finish.

Tough, courageous, reckless and not afraid to get her hands dirty, the badass Amani crowns a cast of ragtag rebels, menacing enemies and palace spies. Among my favourites were well-written newcomers Sam and Rahim, royal prince turned noble rebel Ahmed and returning warrior Shazad, whose acerbic skill and general ferocity have been joined by fantastic flashes of friendship and loyalty. Amani’s love interest Jin also returns, though Hamilton is forced to squeeze their romantic moments into the unlikeliest of narrative places – and of course there are tempestuous tiffs and tricky complications to consider. The secondary cast is overbusy and difficult to keep track of even with the help of a character list. Hamilton resists the temptation of the traditional book two love triangle, however, and I am absolutely intrigued to see how intense the finale may be after such a fizzing installment.

Ideal for fans of Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen and Kiersten White’s And I Darken, this undoubtedly feels like the middle book of a trilogy but is still full of twists (some I guessed and some I didn’t), and if you haven’t read Rebel of the Sands, it’s well worth doing so. In world-building that is efficient yet sweeping, Hamilton takes the opportunity to show more of the creations she’s spun, from Miraji’s neighbouring nations to the sumptuous and treacherous palace. Opening with a jump in time allows for the avoidance of some second book pitfalls, but sacrifices potential emotional power and resolution.

I would’ve liked more description in the prose as it’s become noticeably more punchy and dialogue-heavy, with, dare I say it, almost too many quips? The first half is basically a bunch of teenagers trying to take over the desert armed only with sarcasm and quick comebacks, which while awesome, doesn’t make for the most substantial of reading experiences. Occasionally the series’ wild west element is forgotten amid the unquestionable glitz and glam of magic, but then that magic is beguiling – and if anything, it leaves the reader longing for more. Particularly pleasing is the weaving of folk-tales and myth-style storytelling into the high-stakes, highly entertaining plot.

4stars-fw

One of the best UKYA fantasy fiction offerings of recent years, Alwyn Hamilton’s tales of rebellion and magic, though not flawless, are pacy and full of action. Dramatic, exciting and unputdownable. I really enjoyed this one.

nametag2-fw

Contemporary Catch-Up // The Hate U Give and When We Collided

Today on the blog it’s more contemporary YA (and I continue my battle with writing reviews that are actually less than a thousand words long), including one of 2016’s shiniest and one of 2017’s most talked-about!

25663637When We Collided by Emery Lord
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: April 7th 2016
Series or standalone?: standalone

Jonah is the kind of boy Vivi never expected to want.

Vivi is the kind of girl Jonah has never given himself time to love.

In an unflinching story about new love, old wounds, and the summer that paints their lives in vivid technicolour, Vivi and Jonah find that when you collide with the right person at just the right time, it can change you in all the ways you don’t expect.

As full of joy as it is of sorrow, this is a tale of family and food and love and sunshine and struggle. It is both generously written and incredibly bittersweet, and I was unexpectedly swept away by its frank and vividly unfurling story. The first Emery Lord book I’ve ever read, it’s taken me so long to review it her next book is already almost out – but if you haven’t read this yet, it’s absolutely worth doing so. For fans of Sarah Dessen and Sara Barnard, this is an energetic and memorable character-driven contemporary with enough plot and drive to feel satisfying.

Stubborn, sincere, sweet and hardworking, devoted brother Jonah is doing what he can to keep his family together after personal loss and during unspoken absences: keeping his family’s restaurant afloat, caring for his young siblings, running himself ragged. Bright, colourful Vivi is a whirlwind of cheer and exuberance, and longing to forget that which has been dealt to her, finds herself whisking a rather bewildered Jonah off his feet. Both are fabulously well-realised, at turns flawed and wonderful, characters: I liked Vivi, but particularly loved Jonah. Lord displays a deft hand in constructing secondary characters, too, whether in Verona Cove’s residents or, among my favourites, Jonah’s siblings.

Told in keen alternate narration, Jonah’s sturdy, big-hearted look at a precarious family contrasts sharply with Vivi’s gregarious but sometimes unpredictable enthusiasm. The latter is notable for its skilled and carefully-constructed illustration of rapid and reeling experiences of bipolar disorder. If you’re looking for YA that gives depth and resonance to the often lacking summer romance device, this is absolutely the book for you. Occasional missteps in twists, dialogue and narration – there’s a touch of instalove, the broader setting is a little forgettable (though the beach scenes are always a plus) and there are some details here and there I wasn’t a fan of – mean it falls short of being a five-star read, but there are moments when it comes close.

4hstars-fw

When We Collided is sweeping, vivid and punchy. I love recommending this one. Such a fantastic read. 

32613366The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: April 6th 2017
Series or standalone?: standalone

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised, and the posh suburban high school she attends an hour away.

The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed friend, Khalil, by a police officer, and – in a novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement – she finds herself struggling for justice, clinging to hope, and fighting to be heard.

First things first: this is probably the hypiest book is the history of YA hype (and you know how I feel about hype). It débuted right onto the NYT bestseller list, already has a movie deal (with YA book-to-film-adaptation darling Amandla Stenberg set to play Starr), has at leas eight starred reviews from pillars-of-trade-reviewing like Kirkus, and has had more coverage in the months leading up to and just after release than I’ve seen for some UKYA books all together. If books were rated on buzz alone, well, there are some pretty happy marketing and publicity folks who can afford to take a holiday after this (and let’s face it, they might need a holiday after wrangling all those platform strategies, press releases and interviews…!). I was actually offered this book for review, but as it’s already out here in Ireland (I know!) I decided to pick up my own copy (shoutout to the lovely Jacq, whose recommendation bumped it up my always-toppling TBR).

Frank, sobering and often dark, this is a tough read told in forthright yet energetic style. Protagonist Starr’s voice is passionate, warm and distinctive, and readers will quickly be rooting for her. In a thematic, subplot-packed book, her struggles are often as internal as they are external: as well as seeking justice and the media circus which follows Starr’s witnessing of her friend’s death, there is exploration of her self-censorship at her posh secondary school, the impact of violence and trauma on a community, and the extent to which teenagers can be activists. The writing style isn’t spectacular, on occasion turning unwieldy, but a strong and present family dynamic – including Starr’s parents, siblings Seven and Sekani and some of her extended family – anchors the book brilliantly.

Authentic, empathetic and deeply entrenched in a rich series of experiences, The Hate U Give plunges the reader into its story with unapologetic momentum. Its stylistic immediacy coupled with its sharp examination of race and systemic inequality pitches it somewhere between Nicola Yoon’s frothy, current The Sun Is Also A Star and Malorie Blackman’s seminal (and still unparalleled) Noughts and Crosses, ensuring it will both land on most-recommended lists and crop up in classrooms under the auspices of particularly on-the-money teachers. The romance is lacklustre, uneven pacing makes it too long for a contemporary and it should be noted that the book is almost completely America-centric with little regard for goings-on in the rest of the world, but Starr’s tale has more vigour and outspokenness than most of John Green’s books put together. It’s weighed down only by a few duff or clunky emphases, and would be a great choice for listening to on audiobook. I It’s not an easy read – but then it’s not designed to be.

4stars-fw

For fans of Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence, Wing Jones by Katherine Webber and Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, this powerful début novel is sure to continue making waves both sides of the Atlantic. 

nametag2-fw