Everything All At Once by Steven Camden // a punchy, poetic week in the life

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing some POETRY.

40193883Author(s): Steven Camden
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 12th July 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

One week. One secondary school. Hundreds of teenagers. Forty-two poems.

Zooming in across a cast of characters over the course of just five days, this collection illuminates a kaleidoscope of teenage moments. From fitting in, finding friends and falling out, to lessons, losing out and losing it, to worrying, wearing it well and worshipping from afar. 

There is a mythical dream tied to writing poetry aimed at young adults, and that is to make poetry cool. Such is the raison d’etre of acclaimed spoken word poet Steven Camden’s second book for young people of the year, Everything All At Once. It’s splashed all over the book: in the shouty cover, in the slang, in the Stormzy references. There must be a powerful pull to the promise of glory that would follow if you were the one who solved, once and for all, that strange equation, defined the inscrutable, ever-shifting property that is cool poetry. If you were to convince a whole target audience, who often only encounter poetry when it seems blunted into some kind of torture device – modern but laid out for dissection in revision materials and examination papers, important but deliberately pulled from the dustiest book on the shelf – that actually, poetry can be relevant and enjoyable.

Set at a busy, mutable comprehensive – the message clearly that it could be any school, anyone’s school  – the book presents a cross-section of quickly-sketched characters, from year sevens to school-leavers (“Funny to think / I was ever / that small”). Some names recur. Some figures aren’t named. Many appear, at least identifiably, for only one poem, as in the case of Yusuf, who pretends not to speak French well in order to better fit in, despite his mother being from Toulouse. The work flits from one poem to the next, one perspective to the next, usually in first person. As if to further say: look, you could write this. A football match can be worthy of a poem. Even if you’re no good at exams or like to make things with your hands. You could read poetry, too. 

From the ordinary (“Shauna said that / Leia said that / Jordan said it’s over / He changed his status yesterday / before he even told her”) to the startling (“a gaggle of mad daggering laminate features”), the poems are energetic, rapid-fire, staccato. As it strives to capture the bizarre microcosm that is secondary school society, the language is often mundane and the imagery sometimes vague, but I imagine it sounds great out loud. Hurtling along at a breakneck 128 pages, some of my favourite pieces included “Vending Machine”, “New Guy”, and “Parting Thought”.

Everything All At Once is more of a novel-in-verse than a collection, but there isn’t much of a plot, it can sometimes be tricky to follow, and it doesn’t delve that deeply into any of the themes or issues it raises. I’m not sure that it will transform poetry, either, given its very school setting, its try-hard nature. It will go down well in classrooms or workshops; it will certainly fit projects like Sarah Crossan’s ‘We Are The Poets’ laureateship. It probably won’t have the ‘organic’ feel of contemporary poets like Rupi Kaur or Amanda Lovelace whose digital, personal strategies persuade audiences, especially young women (who are somewhat sidelined in favour of a majority-masculine cast here) that subversive poetry, cool poetry, occurs outside the school gates, but it’s a fast-paced, dynamic effort.

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For fans of Sarah Crossan, Phil Earle and Benjamin Zephaniah, this novel-in-verse delivers on its premise. It lacks plot, but there are some energetic poems within its pages.

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Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy // an exciting tale of skyship exploration

lt’s time for some more marvellous middle grade with this latest review…

375947291Author(s): Vashti Hardy
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: March 7th, 2018
Category:
children’s, middle grade
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

When Arthur and Maudie Brightstorm receive word that their famous explorer father has died in an attempt to reach South Polaris, the last thing they expect is for him to also be accused of breaking the Explorer’s Code by trying to steal fuel from his competitors on the journey.  

Unable to believe it, the twins answer an ad seeking crew for a new southern expedition in the hope of piecing together the truth and salvaging their father’s reputation. As the winged skyship Aurora sets sail, the twins must keep their wits about them and prove themselves if they are to restore the Brightstorm name. But what answers await them in the perilous unknown?

Readers alight in a world of sky-ships and expeditions in this plucky adventure. An eye-catching blue-and-gold cover peels back to reveal a plot with plenty of vigour and an accessible, effective writing style. While it touches on some big themes like loss and letting go, Brightstorm’s cartoonish villains and exciting set-pieces should go down a treat in the hands and classrooms of readers aged 8-11.

As twins Arthur and Maudie Brightstorm set off to discover the truth about what happened to their explorer father, they inadvertently enter into the very same race to the bottom of the world on which he vanished. Maudie has a knack for engineering – so much so that she built and maintains Arty’s prosthetic arm – only matched by the twins’ penchant for getting themselves into sticky situations. They face a variety of ghastly ne’er-do-wells out to crush their spirit, but receive a helping hand from young sky-ship captain Harriet Culpepper, larger-than-life cook Felicity, disgruntled butler turned second-in-command Welby and sapient pets Parthena and Queenie. Where there’s a race, there’s a rival, and the crew of Maudie and Arthur’s adopted sky-ship The Aurora must also face-off against the ominous and influential Eudora Vane, captain of the sky-ship Victorious. 

Hardy’s world-building is straightforward but fit for purpose. Arthur and Maudie’s quest takes them from the crowded streets of Lontown through the arid, wild-west deserts of the nearest continent into the cold reaches of the unknown South Polaris. They meet kings and bandits and (in my favourite addition) galloping thought-wolves. Hardy enriches the exploration angle with nods to nature and some vivid action sequences. I probably would have given it five stars if not for parts of the bittersweet ending, but there is terrific series potential to what otherwise works as a standalone début. Arthur, Maudie and Harriet could easily helm a whole trilogy of sky-ship escapades.

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For fans of Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll and The Boy Who Went Magic by A.P. Winter, Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm is an accessible, Victoriana-lite fantasy adventure set in a straightforward secondary world.

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Love Songs and Other Lies by Jessica Pennington // boyband lit book won’t trouble chart-toppers

35034369Author(s): Jessica Pennington
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: 28th April 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Two years after a heartbreak worthy of a rock song, Virginia Miller is looking forward to a carefree summer. Her friends just landed a spot on a battle-of-the-bands bands reality show, and Vee is joining them for her dream internship. 

Then she learns she’ll also be sharing the tour bus with Cam. Her first love. The cause of that first heartbreak. Now she’s dodging cameras and her ex, who has secrets the show’s producers would kill to get their hands on. What’s more, she’s starting to wonder if their breakup anthem deserves a new ending…. 

Love Songs and Other Lies is a quick YA contemporary clearly going for the ‘American summer read’ approach. It appeared sporting the hallmarks of boyband lit – a phenomenon I’ve written about here and here – and I decided to see what’s being done with the genre across the pond, given that much of what I’ve read from it has come from UKYA.

Vee’s been the songwriter behind her best friend’s band for most of her teenage life, and when Logan’s band wins a spot on a battle-of-the-bands reality TV show, she gets pulled along for the ride – only to come face-to-face with Cam, her heartbreaker ex-boyfriend, who’s been called back into the band at the last minute. Cam is determined to win her forgiveness, but as the story of his secret is slowly unravelled and the competition gets more intense, it looks like things are going to get messy for the both of them once more.

This début has got music, mystery, and the added intrigue of the close-quarters setting. It’s told in dual timeline alternate narration, revealing how Cam and Vee fell for each other the first time around while also following a bitter reunion over the battle of the bands. It takes some getting used to, but showcases a bit of narrative ambition, which I liked. Reminiscent of Sarah Dessen or Emery Lord’s When We Collided, Cam and Vee’s first romance is enjoyable and heady, full of one-on-one moments and beaches at midnight. Vee’s friendship with Logan and the other band-members is interesting, too. The book deals with some intense stuff – fame, heartbreak, loss – and I was drawn into the pages by that unexpected level of intensity.

However, once you’ve closed those pages, the feel of the book is less captivating; it’s one of a modish, fleeting contemporary which doesn’t delve deep into exploration of theme or character. Most of the relationships don’t have depth, the secondary characters are thinly sketched and the prose is dialogue-heavy. The reader sees very little of the actual battle of the bands. Increasingly unbelievable decisions result in correspondingly unbelievable, too-easy, undeveloped successes. The ending could have been braver. There are so many warm, rich, thoughtful, well-written takes on this genre to be found elsewhere – Love Song by Sophia Bennett, Remix by Non Pratt, I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman – that this one became forgettable.

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This contemporary has its heady and intriguing moments, but it just doesn’t compare to the more accomplished additions to boyband lit on the shelf.

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The Song Rising by Samantha Shannon // a strong sequel in a complex supernatural saga

Today on the blog, I’m catching up on some (you might want to sit down for this) adult science fiction and fantasy! As it’s the third book in the series, there may be a few spoilers but I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum!

28433405Author(s): Samantha Shannon
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: March 7th, 2017
Category: 
adult, crossover
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Paige Mahoney has risen to the dangerous position of Underqueen, which gives her rule over London’s criminal population. But with vengeful enemies still at large, including the lethally dangerous Jaxon Hall, the task of stabilising a fractured underworld has never seemed so challenging.

Scion are closing in on the clairvoyant community, determined to quell rebellion before it spreads. And their next step could spell the end for Paige’s bid for freedom before it has even really begun… 

I caught up on the third book in Samantha Shannon’s seven-volume high-concept science fiction and fantasy saga earlier this spring. Series opener The Bone Season had a blockbuster premise, while The Mime Order made effective use of what was essentially a murder mystery plot. However, these books are dense, their stories long, the wait between them even longer, and any faltering in pace or efficacy risks the reader’s attention wandering. The Mime Order ends on a pretty intense sequence, but by the time The Song Rising came around, it was one of the only dystopian series I was still reading – the strong presence of fantasy elements like clairvoyance give it just enough of a cross-genre feel – and it could have been make or break.

A clairvoyant with the rare ability to dreamwalk – to leave her own body and enter the subconscious or dreamscape of others – Paige Mahoney has risen from criminal mollisher to the rank of Underqueen, overthrowing her old boss Jaxon Hall in the process. But Paige wants something Jaxon didn’t. She’s mobilising London’s unnaturals into a rebellion against Scion, the all-seeing anchor which has spent centuries feeding clairvoyants to otherworldly beings known as Rephaim. Hers is a ragtag collection of voyants, from longtime friends Nick and Danica to the battle-hardened Ognena Maria. They’re joined by several Rephaim sympathetic to the cause, including the ever dark and enigmatic Warden. With Scion closing in, they’ll need to destroy the latest piece of clairvoyant-hunting technology in order to give their rebellion a chance.

It’s fortunate, then, that The Song Rising showcases some of Shannon’s best work yet. Her writing is clear and more assured than ever before. Solidly constructed and smartly plotted, with admirably tight pacing and a compelling conflict, it thrums with action, from high-octane escapes to the series’ most dramatic finale yet. Its motifs of rebellion are fierce and evocative. There’s plenty to like, from inventive names and slang to intriguing details that will surely take root and reappear in later books. Also, shout-out to seeing more of Paige’s Irish heritage – there’s even use of Irish and the Scottish equivalent Gáidhlig! Needless to say I’d like to see more of that in the sequels.

There are the requisite elements of the supernatural, but there’s notable elaboration in setting and world-building, too. Paige discovers a world north of London, one of grimy slums and ancient cities and even snowy wilderness. For the first time in this series, there’s a sense that there’s a world beyond the one Paige knows to explore. It’s finally possible to see the scope of this saga, and I’m intrigued to see just how big and bold Samantha Shannon will make it.

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A strong addition to to Samantha Shannon’s name-making series, with an enthralling, pacy plot and a vivid, action-packed finale. Surprisingly unputdownable. 

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