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.
Orangeboy 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.
The 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!
The 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.
Riverkeep 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.
Crongton 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?