The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor Book One) by Jessica Townsend // pleasingly fun and utterly immersive

dfp1adkuqaaos5lAuthor(s): Jessica Townsend
Publisher: 
Hachette/Orion Children’s Books
Publication date: 12th October 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): fantasy, adventure
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Quotes from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Morrigan Crow is cursed. Born on the unlucky day of Eventide, she’s blamed for all local misfortunes from hailstorms to broken hips. Worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die on the next Eventide – until, that is, a strange and remarkable captain named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black smoke-hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he offers her the chance to escape her draughty, unwelcoming manor and enter an unpredictable but magical city called Nevermoor.

Jupiter believes Morrigan could contend for a place in the city’s most prestigious organisation: the Wundrous Society. If she can pass four difficult and dangerous trials, she will have a chance at a future full of strange adventures. But there are hundreds of children with extraordinary talents in Nevermoor, and as far as Morrigan is aware, she hasn’t got a gift anyone would want. Morrigan will need to discover more about who she is, and more importantly, who she could be – or she’ll have to leave the city and confront her fate, once and for all.

Having only recently read Katherine Rundell’s terrific historical standalone The Explorer, I was itching to dive into more new children’s fiction  – but whatever I expected when I picked up this book, it probably wasn’t something quite as wonderful as Nevermoor. It took me a few chapters to get into it, but once I had, I raced through it in a couple of hours. This is charming, utterly immersive stuff.

As Eventide draws near, the last thing cursed eleven-year-old Morrigan Crow expects is for a magical and magnificently dressed Captain called Jupiter North to offer her a chance to escape the fate she thought she’d been resigned to long ago. Exciting and rhythmic but not overstuffed, the plot is one of discovery and cleverly placed detail. It doesn’t reinvent the literary wheel but almost every page features something interesting or memorable. Townsend’s use of familiar tropes, like the whisking away of a downtrodden child hero to a secondary world or the appearance of an unconventional pseudo-father figure, is highly effective. There are requisite foes in a compelling conflict with a Big Bad called The Wundersmith and some lesser enemies made at a very intense garden party. While the final showdown is a bit anticlimactic (it’s cut short and the stakes don’t quite make an impression), there are some suitably spooky, atmospheric moments in the build up which show the shadowy side of the Republic and even of the otherwise glittering Nevermoor.

It is in worldbuilding that this book really shines. Startlingly inventive and entertaining, the sheer imagination and delight at play is astonishing. There are hints at the workings of a broader fantasy world – it is, for example, run on Wunder, a mystical medium few truly understand, and opens in the gothic ‘Great Wolfacre’ – but much of the novel spills over with inexplicable and varied magic simply because it can. Because it’s fun. There’s a logic and yet an immense expressiveness to it. There are rooms that redecorate themselves for different occupants; carriages built like nimble metallic spiders; shadows that can wander on their own. Violinists who pickpocket entire audiences while playing; a clock with a sky for its face. Fireblossom trees and mesmerists and snowhounds and a gigantic talking cat.

Plunged into a city where the impossible seems positively ordinary, self-effacing, black-clad Morrigan is startled to realise that it is a place in which she might be able to feel she belongs. The Hotel Deucalion is full of colourful, eccentric characters. The charismatic, gregarious Jupiter North was undoubtedly my favourite, but trouble-making dragon rider Hawthorne was a close second. Even minor characters like Martha and Dame Chanda have their moments. One of the finer details of the book is that many of the core cast feel like they could be the hero of their own story, and one imagines there are thousands of untold escapades just waiting to spill from the mysterious Wundrous Society (“Tales from the Wundrous Society” is totally the title of a short story spin-off collection).

The best of the book’s prose comes from its descriptions (“Days of splashing in the sun-drenched Jasmine Courtyard pool gave way to balmy nights of ballroom dancing lessons, barbecue dinners and long lounging sessions…”, “an enormous rose-coloured chandelier in the shape of a sailing ship, dripping with crystals and bursting with warm light”). The writing is fairly undemanding, but it’s accessible and surprisingly funny (“the first day of Morningtide, Spring of One, Third Age of the Aristocrats. Weather: chilly but clear skies. Overall city mood: optimistic, sleepy, slightly drunk”). I would’ve liked a positive female friendship for Morrigan or more useful guidance from Jupiter rather than seeing her be kept in the dark, but these are small quibbles. A lack of hugely expansive explanation leaves this one feeling very much like a series opener, but then it is a story readers will likely be thrilled to return to. There is such tremendous potential in this energetic, appealing piece of storytelling.

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Vivid, imaginative and surprisingly funny, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow is a dazzling children’s fiction début. 

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Wing Jones by Katherine Webber // big-hearted but bittersweet

25909375Author(s): Katherine Webber
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 5th January 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Wing Jones has worshipped her older brother Marcus for as long as she can remember. Good-looking, popular, and the star of the football team, Marcus has made an asset of the Ghanaian-Chinese heritage that makes Wing stand out. 

Then a drunk Marcus gets behind the wheel of a car after a party. With Marcus in a coma, Wing is tormented at school for his mistake and haunted at home by her grandmothers’ grief.  

Unable to sleep, Wing finds herself sneaking out to run on her school’s empty track. When Aaron, Marcus’s best friend, sees her running, he recognizes that her speed and skill could get her spot on the track team – and maybe even a shot at a coveted sponsorship. Wing can’t pass up the opportunity to train with her longtime crush and to help pay Marcus’ medical bills, but can she handle being thrust out of Marcus’s shadow and into the spotlight?

One of my most anticipated reads of the year, it nevertheless took some time for me to get around to reading Wing Jones (more detail on that in my July reading check-in here). However, perhaps some distance from the hype (and you know how I feel about hype) was a good thing. It allowed a book I’d otherwise heard plenty about to spring a few surprises. It took me a while to get into the narrative as I found the writing style in the opening chapters very jerky and jagged, but rather like a runner finding their form, when the book hits its stride, it simply glides. Written with charm as well as drive, it’s gorgeously cinematic and would make for an awesome book-to-movie adaptation.

Wing Jones is, in many ways, typical ‘all-American’ YA: not only in setting, slang and sports, but in its petty high schoolers, crushing-on-older-brother’s-best-friend device, and familiar overarching formula. The added ingredients are of identity (Wing is biracial) with a dash of magical realism (her personal talismans, a lioness and a dragon, clearly represent the dual aspects of her heritage). Wing faces racism at school, but she’s proud of her heritage and her grandmothers, Granny Dee and LaoLao, are consistently present. If you’ve read Sarah Dessen’s Saint Anything, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give or Robyn Schneider’s The Beginning of Everything, you’ll recognise scraps of the story here.

When Wing’s star football player brother causes a car crash under the influence, her world is thrown into chaos. All she wants to do is run and run until her problems are far behind, so she does. Soon she’s running on an empty school track every night, wearing out her Converse and waiting for the sun to come up. What’s more, she’s good. She’s fast. It’s in running that Wing finds something that feels totally hers. The descriptions of running in the book are grounded yet spectacular, even soaring (“with my dragon on one side and my lioness on the other, I stretch my legs out, as my feet hit the track, heel-toe, heel-toe”), notably in the first third when it’s just Wing, the night and the track. Accidentally revealing her speed creates a flood of pressure and expectation (and paves the way for improbably swift success), but it also gives her a sense of purpose and, importantly, belonging, as she joins an athletics team and makes positive female friendships, particularly with warm, self-assured sprinter Eliza and her girlfriend Annie.

I was surprised by how much I loved the book’s romance. As swoonworthy as it is sweet, t’s probably one of the  top YA romances I’ve read all year. Aaron and Wing’s dynamic was built on actually spending time with each other (you’d be surprised how many YA romances aren’t!), and even with a requisite dose of drama, it’s a well-played and supportive relationship. A mix of fizzy first love and deep, realistic companionship, it’s been ages since I’ve read a YA relationship quite so delicious as this. Wing – brave, lost, angry, kind, big-hearted – grows a lot during the book, and the romance grows with her.

I was also surprised by Webber’s dextrous handling of character expression. Several secondary characters were a little two-dimensional on occasion – the book could’ve used more backstory – but her subtle understanding of the core cast was terrific. This is a deceptively hard-hitting novel, but it makes Wing’s elation all the more moving. I expect the mid-90s setting and elements of magical realism (Wing’s lioness and dragon appear to her in moments of need, but it’s never really explained in any way. Are they elaborate metaphors? Imaginary friends? Is she hallucinating?!) will be a deal-breaker for some, but a few unnecessary scenes aside, it’s an interesting twist in a hugely bittersweet book.

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Bittersweet yet charming, Wing Jones is big-hearted, cinematic, satisfyingly driven YA. A top-notch romance and vivid running scenes are among the highlights as a choppy start gives way to a book that really hits its stride.

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Books To Read In Autumn

We’re well and truly on the way to autumn, so today on the blog, I thought I’d look at some of my favourite books to recommend in autumn! Rather than going for a theme like 2017 autumn/winter books or curriculum-assigned reading, I’ve chosen books that feel autumnal to me, whether through style or content (eerie fantasy, say, rather than beachside contemporary) or simply being a sensory reader (it’s definitely a thing!).

27281393The Sleeping Prince by Melinda Salisbury

So maybe it’s a little unorthodox to start a recommendation list with the second book in a trilogy, but hear me out. The Sin Eater trilogy is solid UKYA, but for me the eerie, folk-tale touches to The Sleeping Prince marked the point where Salisbury really began to flex what she could do in terms of voice, villains and style. The titular Sleeping Prince is a chilling, semi-undead creation, a kind of Pied-Piper-meets-Sleeping-Beauty mash-up, and probably one of the best (or should that be worst?) villains I’ve read of late (there’s lots more about the books in my reviews here). There’s also a strain of the book that includes what seems suspiciously like lycanthropy. Moreover, this  is a book which just feels autumnal to me: like cold stone, crunched leaves, ginger biscuits (don’t ask), air with just a little drizzle in it, discovering the art of alchemy isn’t lost after all, etc.

23592175The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

This one isn’t so much for the book’s weather as its spooky, surprisingly dark feel. I’d heard a lot of praise for The Lie Tree before I read it, but somehow didn’t expect it to be such a distinct historical thriller – it’s smart, thematic and has splashes of the otherworldly (not least in the much-lauded quality of the writing), but it’s most certainly a historical mystery. Set in Victorian England, it follows fourteen-year-old Faith Sanderly in a complex mix of problem-solving, gothic twists and frustration at gender roles (there’s even a rebuke of the ‘not like other girls’ trope: “Faith had always told herself that she was not like other ladies. But neither, it seemed, were other ladies”). Of course, everyone else has already hyped it enough before me!, but it’s a top recommendations out there for that border between upper children’s and young adult fiction.

35688988Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

This collection of (bear with me) twelve feminist fairytale retelling short stories was released just a few weeks ago from Little Island Books and is ideal autumnal reading. Witchy, subversive and lyrical, it’s fairly dark but is another top-notch addition to the fabulous Deirdre Sullivan’s back catalogue, and a particularly unique addition to this year’s Irish YA. If you liked Amanda Lovelace’s The Princess Saves Herself In This One or are intrigued by Louise O’Neill’s upcoming Little Mermaid retelling The Surfaces Breaks, this should tide you over (additionally, the cover looks fabulous surrounded by ivy and potion ingredients flowers). You can read more about Sullivan’s books, and others like it, here. 

16068905Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

All my recommendation so far have been a bit on the dark or at least slightly fantastical side, so I’ve gone for something a little lighter and more down-to-earth here. Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl is a gorgeous, unhurried, almost cosy contemporary, which begins during protagonist Cath’s first semester (think falling leaves, darkening weather, cute sweaters) at college. It’s warm as a well-worn scarf and sharp as a pair of six-inch stilettos, and though it’s been out for a couple of years, it’s still one of the best portrayals of fandom I’ve seen in YA. If you haven’t made time for Cath, Reagan and Levi (oh, Levi) in your contemporary reading, this is one you need to add to your list.

29080992Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

The Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries are one of those series you know is relatively recent but which seems like it’s been around for ages. It has that classic but accessible touch which makes it appealing to kids and brings something older readers or adults can appreciate, too. The quintessential English boarding school setting – where pupils call teachers ‘mistresses’ and ‘masters’, learn Latin and get up to hijinks – fits autumn, but added adventures, mysteries and a historical time period make it stand out. The storytelling style plays on the Sherlock Holmes and John Watson dichotomy, with narrator Hazel relaying events in her notebook while partner-in-crime (solving) runs headfirst into trouble. Cacklingly funny as well as cleverly written (who doesn’t want an excuse to use words like ‘dashing’ and ‘canoodling’ more often?!) the first book in the series, which opens in October 1934, is worth opening up if you haven’t tried it yet.

23346358The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle

If there’s any recent YA book that’s ideal for reading and re-reading every autumn, it’s Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s The Accident Season. Come October, seventeen-year-old Cara and her family – including her mother, older sister and ex-stepbrother – board up the windows and hide the sharp implements in preparation for the Accident Season, a month in which mysterious and dangerous things seem to constantly befall them. A spellbinding magical realism standalone, it’s full of tarot cards, masquerade balls, fortune-telling, dreams, hallucinations and hazy, stylish prose. If you’re looking for an atmospheric autumnal read, this is absolutely the book to go for. Fowley-Doyle’s other book, Spellbook of the Lost and Found, is set during summer, but it does have a bonfire, and is totally worth picking up too – it’s definitely one of my go-to book-pushing reads of the year!

What will you be reading this autumn? Have you read any of the books on this list? Chat below or on Twitter!

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Street Song by Sheena Wilkinson // rags-to-riches-to-rags-again

34111364Author(s): Sheena Wilkinson 
Publisher:
 Black & White Publishing
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

After winning a glitzy TV talent show and becoming a teen pop sensation – under the particularly embarrassing stage name ‘RyLee’ – eighteen-year-old Ryan’s life has spiralled into addiction, media scrutiny, rehab and a floundering career. 

His stepdad, self-appointed architect of the RyLee brand, wants him in school, and under his thumb. But when their arguments reach boiling point, Ryan finds himself fleeing his old life, his failed career, and his dysfunctional family. When he meets witty guitar-player Toni, the opportunity to start fresh seems too good to pass up. Before long, he’s arrived in a new city, joined Toni’s band, and reinvented himself. But has he really outrun his past? And what kind of future can there be for a washed-up has-been with secrets to keep?

One of a string of 2017 titles from Scotland’s newest YA imprint – including a recent contemporary from Did I Mention I Love You author Estelle Maskame and hot-topic début The Jungle by Pooja Puri – Street Song is the latest standalone from Northern Irish writer Sheena Wilkinson. One of Ink Road Books’ more experienced early signings, I interviewed Sheena on the blog last year as part of UKYACX (and even got a glimpse into the book that would become Street Song). The resulting book isn’t a million miles from what I expected then, as Wilkinson, true to form, takes a tough but vigorous look at contemporary Belfast through the eyes of a teenager.

The premise of the book is remarkably reminiscent of Keren David’s latest UKYA effort, Cuckoo (you can read my review here): teen boy deals with fame, family breakdown, hostile relationships, and a career on a downward spiral as he is finds himself homeless and struggling to make a living, meeting an unlikely handful of both helpful and shady characters along the way. A few key features – acting is replaced with music, an experimental style is replaced with more predictable form – mean that they read just differently enough, though if you’re looking for something completely original, you won’t find it here.

In trying to outrun his fortune-hungry family, one-time teen star Ryan winds up running into cool, plucky musician Toni. She doesn’t recognise him from his cringe-worthy days on reality television, but she does recognise his musical ability. He needs a place to stay, she needs a decent guitarist for her band, and so the unlikely pair embark on a rocky road lined with musical jams, setbacks, mistakes, and the possibility of romance. He may be living in a hostel and be busking for his bread, but for the first time in his life Ryan is playing the music he’s always wanted to play.

Throw in no-nonsense Polish bass player Marysia, some work-in-progress song lyrics, Billy the cat, and a handful of solid but by no means iconic characters – I particularly like Toni’s pragmatic but supportive mother – and Wilkinson creates a novel which is at its best when caught up in the joys of music and the unrivalled potential of a band’s early days. While I found the idea that Ryan would agree to enter a battle of bands – Backlash – a bit surprising given his belligerent history with music competitions, it’s a standard plot device for a rags-to-riches (or in this case rags-to-riches-to-rags-again) tale.

Page-turning and surprisingly absorbing, Street Song is a relatively quick read which balances the unpredictability of busking on the streets, with its good takings, bad takings, inclement weather and cityscape feel with interesting character dynamics, driven plot and a vibrant musical thread. Ryan’s struggles with manufactured identity, addiction, and the fallout from fifteen minutes of fame take up much of the book, but I was most intrigued by Toni and Marysia. I really liked their friendship and would’ve liked to have seen even more of it. I’d almost go as far as to say I’d read a sequel to this book, if only to see where the choppy waters of music and relationships take the headline trio.

Street Song is one of those strange books that seems both gritty and occasionally glossed over, as the backdrop of a protagonist living hand-to-mouth amid some dodgy characters is met with an oddly-paced narrative in which the worst happens to others before being essentially brushed aside, and the fact that the audience is aware that Ryan is keeping a secret a luxurious existence he left behind, the likes of which working-class Toni and Marysia hardly dare dream of. I’d definitely recommend a trigger warning for serious content which appears to heighten tension and then seems almost forgotten about. RyLee’s fans, primarily women and girls, are referred to as ‘RyLeens’ and are usually dismissed or treated with dismay, so if you’re looking for more positive portrayals of teenagers and fandom, you’re better off with Sophia Bennett’s Love Song or Maggie Harcourt’s Unconventional – and I’m still waiting for a classic piece of girlband-focused fiction from contemporary YA.

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An interesting, if gritty, take on fame and misfortune from one of Northern Ireland’s most notable YA writers. For fans of Keren David’s Cuckoo, Katie Everson’s Drop and Leila Sales’ This Song Will Save Your Life. 

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Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence // infatuation and the issue novel

33786522Author(s): Patrice Lawrence
Publisher:
 Hodder Children’s Books
Publication date: 13 July 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Bailey is seventeen, mixed race, and spends all his time playing guitar or tending to his luscious ginger afro. Fellow teenager Indigo is new to London, having grown up in the care system. When they meet at sixth form, sparks fly. But when Bailey becomes the target of a homeless man who seems to know more about Indigo than Bailey does, they may find themselves in over their heads as well as head over heels… 

The second book from Costa nominee and YA Book Prize winner Patrice Lawrence (I reviewed the entire 2017 YA Book Prize shortlist, including Orangeboy, here), Indigo Donut is another fast-paced contemporary, this time with the overtones of, rather than an overt debt to, a thriller. There didn’t seem to be much talk about the book prior to publication – I didn’t even know Lawrence had another book coming out until about two weeks before it was released, and just days to publication that totally striking cover wasn’t on Goodreads. You’d think a carefully-planned summertime marketing or publicity campaign would’ve shaped something Indigo-specific out of the Orangeboy swamp. (…you know you’ve been in publishing too long when…)

With Indigo Donut, Lawrence tackles issues of class, social issues, foster care and dysfunctional relationships in the vein of Phil Earle and Tanya Byrne. She pays particular attention to Indigo’s anger and violent outbursts, which she believes are an unavoidable family inheritance. Much of Indigo’s attitude stems from her desire to keep anyone she cares about – like latest foster parent Keely, who seems like she’s going to stick – ‘safe’ by allowing herself to be sent away from them. Bailey, on the other hand, is more naive and far more middle-class, with his own room full of guitars, which spells trouble for his infatuated crush on Indigo as he tries to protect her and gets involved in a pretty dubious quest on the orders of a homeless alcoholic. There are lots of revelations and secondary themes, from friendship and ‘found family’ to drug abuse and violence.

The spiky-naive dynamic between Indigo and Bailey is unusual and interesting for YA. The moments which focus on them as characters and individuals are the book’s best, but with the basic premise difficult to invest in, it may leave readers scrambling to find a foothold. You keep reading to discover what happens to the characters, but the pieces that make up the novel aren’t enjoyable. I was reading an advance copy, but it seemed almost rushed, like there were whole sentences or chapters missing which would have better built the narrative. It’s dialogue-heavy and covered in slang, which will undoubtedly cause it to date quite quickly, and it’s not for younger readers. The prose is very jerky and undeveloped, lacking the richness of description and warm pacing that make a top-notch contemporary.

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Gritty, fast-paced and dynamic, Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut confronts class division, the care system, and social issues. This second novel is at its best when focused simply on the titular Indigo and puppy-eyed crush Bailey. The prose is jerky and needed more description, but fans of Orangeboy will find things to like here. 

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