Contemporary Catch-Up // All of the Above and The Square Root of Summer

In which I attempt to catch up on some of the best (and worst) releases which have slipped my scheduling net. Contemporary is one YA’s busiest genres, so I’ll be tackling these through the medium of (relatively) quick reviews. And probably snark.

alloftheaboveAll of the Above by Juno Dawson
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: September 1st 2015
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased

When sixteen-year-old Toria arrives at a new school, she finds herself caught in a storm of exam pressure, new friends and doubting if she’ll ever fit in. Funny, foul-mouthed Polly – the coolest and weirdest girl Toria’s ever met – and her cohort of fellow outsiders take Toria under their wing, but with loyalties tangled and secrets being kept, fast friendships may hit the rocks even faster. Thrown in Toria’s crush on the irresistible lead singer of a local band set for stardom, and she may find that love and friendship have a funny way of going round in circles…

Eventful, outrageous and biting, All of the Above is practically bursting with character: between artistically talented newcomer Toria, fierce but secretive Daisy, bolshy pack leader Polly, awkward Beasley, book-mad Freya, uber-cool musician Nico, permanently-entwined-and-coolly-disinterested Alex and Alice, and of course, Geoff the cross-dressing squirrel, readers are from the off confronted with a colourful cast of teenagers – and the knowledge that some of these friendships will not survive the book. Polly, Daisy and Nico were the stars of the ensemble for me, but the story itself is championed by heroine Toria.

Chatty, frank and uproariously funny, Toria’s narration was one of my favourite things about the book. Brutally honest and littered with pop culture references, it both keeps you reading and packs a punch. Toria’s experiences as a biracial British-Punjabi teenager only occasionally influence the plot but inform her forthright (“Brompton-on-Sea isn’t exactly a cultural melting pot”) and warmly wry (“Worst. Hindu. Ever”) voice. It is through Toria’s humour and  Dawson captures the chaos of teenage experience.

Arriving at Brompton Cliffs, Toria finds that the year which follows is one torrid whirlwind of sexual confusion, startling revelations and surprisingly bittersweet heartbreak. Relying on the base ingredients of the YA tradition – opening with an arrival in a new place, focusing on friendship drama and coming-of-age issues – Dawson adds few twists to the general formula, but packs the book with themes relevant to modern audiences: mental health, sexuality, alcoholism, break-ups, make-ups, strained family relationships, music, hormones.

There’s so much going on in this book. It’s like an episode of Hollyoaks, only better written. This style does have its drawbacks, however. There are moments where the book fails to charm and where plot gets lost in the muddle. The prose is so busy rushing around that it’s difficult to feel many of the tough subjects tackled have been explored as deeply as needed (it’s not an easy read for some issues and requires a trigger warning) or to imagine some of the central relationships, built as they are on hastily-constructed speed-paint foundations, will last beyond the pages.
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Fans of Alice Oseman’s Radio Silence, Liz Kessler’s Read Me Like A Book and Lisa Williamson’s All About Mia will find this lively, if occasionally overbusy, contemporary companion appeals. Funny, sharp, and distinctive. 

27420164The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter-Hapgood
Publisher:
Macmillan
Publication date: May 5th 2016
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC

Reeling from the twin heartbreaks of a summer ago – the loss of her grandfather and a tough break-up – Gottie is lost and busy burying herself in equations.  

Until Thomas comes home: former boy next door, former best friend, former everything. And until Gottie starts to experience strange blips in time. They take her back to last summer – back to all she should have seen then – where she must navigate grief, world-stopping kisses and the space-time continuum as she tries to reconcile her first heartbreak with her last.

The Square Root of Summer had plenty of potential and no small amount of pre-publication hype. The premise is a collection of things which regularly appear in YA – summer timeframe, tough break-up, bad ex-boyfriend, the boy next door, a struggle with loss – with the added complication of mathematics-laden time travel. Its contemporary framing has echoes of Emery Lord, Amy Zhang and Kasie West, but for me the rest of the book didn’t click.

Unfortunately, the book’s writing style is baffling. And I say this as someone who is all for unusual and striking contemporaries! One moment it’s classic contemporary, the next it’s confused, clunky and completely unenjoyable. Choppy prose weighed down by jargon made it difficult to invest in Gottie’s time travel adventures or the passion for science which litter the novel. The writing style is idiosyncratic, disjointed and jarring, with irritatingly short paragraphs and sentences – all admirable attempts at toying with convention, and perhaps they would’ve worked in the hands of a more skilled or experienced storyteller, but it just doesn’t work here.

This book is, for want of a better phrase, all over the place. The suspension of disbelief, not to mention the supposed romances on which so much of the book hinged, just wasn’t persuasive. The characters are forgettable, the pacing is uneven and the plot is submerged in inexplicable jumps from scene to scene. For a character-driven novel, the individual or intersecting emotional stories must be compelling, but here it’s like someone threw vaguely-contemporary-shaped spaghetti at a wall and decided to write a book out of what stuck. IT MAKES NO SENSE.

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I just didn’t enjoy this one. A summer read which fails to live up to its potential. If you’re looking for an unusual writing style in contemporary, expert hands like Sarah Crossan or Jenny Valentine are still your best bet.

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a pair of reviews // Vendetta and Inferno by Catherine Doyle

As some of you may know, Catherine Doyle’s Mafiosa (the final book in her Blood for Blood trilogy) comes out VERY SOON, so I thought I’d do a quick recap-review of Vendetta and Inferno before reviewing the finale! Both of these are adapted from my pre-release reviews, which you can read here. Enjoy!

24638201Vendetta by Catherine Doyle
Publisher:
Chicken House Books
Publication date: January 1st 2015
Genre:  
contemporary, crime
Category:
YA

When it comes to revenge, love is a dangerous complication.

When five brothers move into the abandoned mansion in her neighbourhood, Sophie Gracewell’s life changes forever. Irresistibly drawn to bad boy Nicoli, Sophie finds herself drawn into a criminal underworld governed by powerful families. But with a fierce rivalry raging between two warring crime families, falling in love is the deadliest thing Sophie could do. As the boys’ dark secrets begin to come to light, Sophie is confronted with stinging truths about her own family, too. She must choose between two warring dynasties – the one she was born into, and the one she is falling in love with. When she does, blood will spill and hearts will break.

Thrilling, explosive and dangerous, Vendetta is young adult fiction’s answer to The Godfather. Its pastel cover design may have you thinking this is just another love story, but Vendetta is complex, brutal even, with a plot that twists and turns like a skater on an ice rink. Throw in a mystery and a forbidden romance, and it’s no wonder Catherine Doyle is being hailed as an original new voice in teen fiction.

The writing in the book is seriously good. It’s super stylish: detailed yet straightforward, illustrative yet practical. It catches your attention but more importantly, it holds your attention. I saw some of the twists coming, but the adventure itself is undeniably addictive. If you can stick with the early chapters, you’re in for a real treat. Vendetta is just the injection of adrenaline recent UKYA needed.

Set on the outskirts of Chicago, it feels American without becoming overbearing. It pays homage to iconic gangster movies of the 20th century, but make no mistake, it has its feet firmly planted in the present day. The characters at the core of the story, Sophie and Nic, are incredibly human, and it keeps you reading. Sophie is a narrator I can see a lot of readers identifying with, while of Nic’s four brothers, Luca seems already to have won hearts and left fans swooning. Sophie’s best friend Millie is also tremendous fun, but even more than that, she feels real. All too often best friends in YA are flat or forced to fit tropes, but I can’t wait to see more of her in the later books.

However, it would be wrong to say Vendetta features the most realistic of romances, as most people would (and should!) run a mile the second they realize their potential suitor was actually a member of one of the most notorious Mafia dynasties on the block — and that’s not even starting on the link between horrors of Sophie’s past and that of the Falcones, either. When I say there’s brutality in this book, I mean there is a lot of brutality in this book. Bloodshed for the Falcone brothers is not only normal, but compulsory, and unfortunately, heroine Sophie is not immune to the danger of that reality. I don’t usually advocate age ratings on books, but I’d probably recommend this one for readers aged 14+.

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If you’re searching for a début that doesn’t hold back, look no further than this explosive tale of forbidden love, thrilling danger and Italians swearing great storytelling. Fiercely original, page-turning and well-written. 

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Inferno by Catherine Doyle
Publisher:
Chicken House Books
Publication date: January 7th 2016 
Genre:  
contemporary, crime
Category:
YA

Romeo and Juliet meets The Godfather in the second installment of Catherine Doyle’s Blood for Blood series.

Sophie’s life has been turned upside-down, and she’s determined to set things right. Nic won’t give up on their love, but it’s Luca’s knife she clutches for comfort. Then another Mafia  clan spoils the fragile peace – and with her heart drawn in one direction and her blood in another, Sophie’s in deeper than ever.

Catherine Doyle’s début novel was a real statement: a full-throttle collision of first love, family ties and ferocious blood feuds, written with surprising skill and remarkable confidence. Inferno has a different feel. It’s darker, edgier and more dangerous. This time, the skill is as sharp as a knife, and the confidence comes armed to the teeth.

Sharp, sensational and utterly addictive, Inferno plunges headfirst into a story overflowing with drama. Bound by omerta and lucky to be alive, Sophie is seeing the dark side of Cedar Hill everywhere she goes, and with a rival Mafia clan baying for blood and a feud stirring once more, the secrets of the Falcone family threaten to leave carnage in their wake. There is romance in the book, but it definitely takes a backseat to thrilling chases and heart-pounding discoveries. Luca may be hot and Nic may be the boy who first caught her eye, but with danger lurking in every shadow, first and foremost I think I ship Sophie with survival!

Best friend Millie is the only character in the book with any common sense, bringing much-needed light relief to an otherwise heavy drama with her resourcefulness and humour, while the introduction of secondary characters is handled well. The Falcone brothers are still great characters, but they’re terrible people. This series isn’t about loveable rogues or even moral ambiguity. Much has been made of Vendetta’s star-crossed romance and sizzling quintet of Mafia brothers, but as ever there is more than meets the eye to this story. There’s a sense that Doyle’s focus has shifted to revealing characters – for better or worse – for who and what they really are.  The world of the book is sick and twisted, and the characters do some pretty unforgivable things; it really isn’t for the faint of heart. You’d think the trilogy couldn’t possibly get any more explosive than this, but Doyle will undoubtedly ratchet up the tension for the series finale.

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Dark, defiant and utterly engaging, Inferno is an electric, unputdownable read. It’s Romeo and Juliet meets The Sopranos (with the emphasis on The Sopranos) and not for the faint of heart: it reads like a gut-punch and remains one of the most unique YA series on the shelf.

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A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston // a retelling in need of a bit more pace

252441111Author: E.K. Johnston
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s/Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: 20 October 2015
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

This lush reimagining of A Thousand and One Nights weaves out of Scheherazade’s well-known origins a different tale to the one we usually hear. Not wishing to lose anyone else to the monstrous Lo-Melkhiin, its heroine decides to take her sister’s place as his next bride so that she may save her life. Her kingdom is trapped in a nightmare which can only be ended with hope, courage and dreams of a kingdom peaceful once more, where each is free to choose their own future. 

A Thousand Nights tells the story of a girl who weaves whimsical tales not just for herself but for all those she has left behind. The love in this book is that of sisters, families and their people. Shrouded with illusion, spilling over with myth, and crowned by magic, its blend of genres – fantasy, adventure, magical realism, pseudo-historical fiction – creates a shimmering and surreal quality: every word is carefully chosen, every page a step further into a spell. It has a stunning cover, too: a luxurious swathe of deep purple, spun with gold, pink and blue.

Even more surreal is the idea that most of the book’s cast are not given names. Much of our heroine’s family is referred to only be their relation to one another, and readers may be put off by this lack of individuality. Even the heroine of the story – resourceful, self-sacrificing, and finding herself wielding an eerie, strange kind of magic in the face of oncoming wrath and war – never names herself. We are left with only an imprint, an afterimage, of the person she is striving to be. It’s hard to put a protagonist on your list of favourites when she’s not given a name. However, I liked the focus on stories, particularly those of women. A Thousand Nights makes a case for the idea that just because we don’t know a heroine’s name doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell her story.

Lavish imagery and constant metaphors are characteristic of a distinctive writing style which is at its best beautiful, but at its worst cloying. It verges on purple prose and it’s not the most engaging style; it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. A dramatic finale is well-earned, but the plot is meandering, occasionally dull, and, perhaps due to the characterisation, is easy to lose interest in. For me, there was always just something off about it, the absence of that indefinable ingredient which takes books from ordinary to extraordinary. For a more action-packed alternative, try Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton or The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi.

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Lush  and lyrical, A Thousand Nights is a story of the nameless, of the unknown heroine, and acts of bravery and adventure which have been lost to time. Delicate and well-spun as a tapestry, it’s vagueness and slow pace are, however, major drawbacks.

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a pair of reviews // (mostly) marvellous middle grade

Today on the blog, I catch up on some middle grade I’ve been meaning to review for ages – this time, with plenty of action-adventure (and darkly-toned covers).

25613853Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden
Publisher:
Puffin (PRH)
Publication date: April 7th 2016
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Genre:  f
antasy, paranormal
Category:
MG/YA

An action-orientated series opener with a hero by the unlikely name of Denizen Hardwick, Knights of the Borrowed Dark borders that line between upper middle grade and younger YA. It reads rather like a comic book, its pages splashed with gaping cliffs, flashes of lightning and lurking henchmen.

Clearly written and sometimes humourously self-aware, its straightforward prose must stretch to encompass Denizen’s rocky beginnings, high-octane chase sequences, and of course, the mysterious order of knights who are revealed to protect the world from monsters. The book is full of ghastly orphanages and enigmatic acquaintances, though I would’ve liked more thoughtful exploration, several characters could’ve been better developed and it runs the risk of casting all odd-looking caricatures as villains. Perhaps drawing on the influence of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the book drifts a little too much toward being a burlesque of every gothic trope known to fiction, but with plenty of “but how do we get boys reading?!” appeal and blockbuster backing, this planned trilogy will likely go far.

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Knights of the Borrowed Dark takes familiar ingredients of unremarkable-boy-turns-unlikely-hero fiction and mixes them with the heightened atmosphere of the almost-gothic – a kind of Rick Riordan meets Lemony Snicket recipe – to create an accessible fantasy début, though it doesn’t avoid all the pitfalls of its genres.

25995832The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands
Publisher
: Puffin (PRH)
Publication date: September 3rd 2015
Source: NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction, fantasy, mystery
Category: MG

I read this book in 2015, and when I was looking for titles to add to my review list I couldn’t believe I hadn’t already reviewed it! I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. The Blackthorn Key is clever, sophisticated and completely engaging historical fiction. Brimming with mysteries, puzzles, codes, potions, clues, danger and friendship, it holds the reader’s attention and while it generally favours adventure over detail, it’s doesn’t fall into the upper MG trap of being too simple – it’s both challenging and exciting stuff.

It’s 1665 and fourteen-year-old Christopher Rowe is in busy, bustling London, apprenticed to a master apothecary. Benedict Blackthorn is teaching him the delicate balances and steady hands required to handle and create powerful medicines, potions, even weapons – but when mysterious accidents begin to befall the city’s apothecaries and scholars, Christopher finds himself torn from the shop he’s come to know as home with only a dire warning and a page of cryptic clues at his disposal. As they uncover secrets and the net of jeopardy closes in, Christopher and his best friend Tom must decipher a plot as pacy as it is intriguing. Unfortunately, some of the characters read like cardboard cut-outs – and I particularly would’ve liked to see more complex roles for the female characters, who are reduced to minor, stereotypical background moments in a book which, with all its alchemy and adventuring, has no excuse not to feature well-realized female leads.

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An awesome, though definitely imperfect, apothecary adventure. Action-packed and easy to read with a clever, engaging mystery-solving quest at its core. 

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