Love Song by Sophia Bennett // fun, feel-good, well-written boyband lit

27396059Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 7th April 2016
Category: YA, teen fiction
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone (so far)
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

A million girls would jump at the chance to meet world-famous boyband The Point, but Nina’s not one of them. She’s the new assistant to the lead singer’s diva fiancée, and she knows it’s going to suck. She quickly learns that being with the biggest band on the planet isn’t as easy as it seems: behind the scenes, the boys are on the verge of splitting up. Tasked with keeping an eye on four spoiled teenage rock stars, Nina’s determined to stick it out – and not fall for any of them…

You guys, I’ve been trying to review this book for AGES. I really liked Sophia Bennett’s first historical fiction novel, Following Ophelia, which published in March. I loved Threads and The Look. But even I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Love Song. Fun, refreshing and fabulously feel-good, it’s accessible but irresistible. An effective, clear-cut writing style makes a world of touring, gossip columns and guitars seem believable and multi-faceted. Bennett is undoubtedly one of the most reliable writers of quality teen fiction of recent years, and Love Song is certainly the best boyband lit book I’ve read (I wrote a whole post about the trend here). So far it seems to be a standalone, but I’d definitely read a sequel or a spin-off.

When Nina accidentally finds herself hired as an assistant and dragged on tour with The Point, the last thing she wants is to fall for one of the band’s members – and none of them look like boyfriend material when they’re throwing pizza at the wall or feuding with each other backstage. But her practical demeanour is noticed by Windy, their manager, and she ends up accompanying them on a songwriting trip at a vast, dilapidated country pile, where she slowly starts to realise that there is more to these teenage idols (“Three of Seventeen’s ‘Ten Hottest Humans’ were asking to enter my bedroom”) than meets the eye (“bad morning breath, a shared Led Zep obsession, and a surprising fear of bats”, for instance). But even with Nina and Jamie growing closer, mishaps seem to lurk around every corner.

Love Song shines most when the trappings have been stripped away and it’s just Nina and the boys in the old tumbledown house. The story is engaging, clever and funny (I forget how funny it is when I’m not reading it, which may be why it’s such a great re-read) with a brilliant setting in Heatherwick Hall. The romance between Nina and Jamie is sweet, though I’m more of a Declan fan myself. Capable and laidback, the newest bandmember (filling in for George, who winds up in rehab) may not have the lead-singer appeal of Jamie, and Connor has too much ego for most people to stand for more than five minutes, but someone’s got to shout-out the ginger multi-instrumentalist. Minor characters include Nina’s sister Ariel, chef Orli and a friendship struck up with cool, affable latecomer Issy.

Some would say that boyband lit is wish fulfillment, to which I would say: of course it is. The genre almost certainly has its roots in fan fiction, which exists, ultimately, for enjoyment. To see that kind of audience-focused storytelling spill in some way into YA is surely a good thing. YA should be a place where teens, especially teen girls, can enjoy themselves and what they’re interested in. Of course, there are some trade-offs – the romance here is decidedly PG, elements of the plot may be a touch unrealistic or melodramatic, the family plotlines needed to be handled better, and a book about a fictional band is never quite as on-the-button as the casual observer might expect – but there are also tremendous gains. The story benefits from skillful editing, character depth, a strong narrative arc, and Bennett’s experienced pen.

Bennett interrogates the tropes of this hybrid genre, such as unquestioning admiration of rockstar love interests. She avoids the one-dimensionality of cardboard cut-outs who give up everything for a flawless, empty life by giving down-to-earth Nina dreams of her own, namely in photography. Ariel, who unlike Nina is a fan of The Point, gives this fictional fandom a humanising touch, sidestepping the tendency of some boyband lit, and cultural impulses generally, to degrade or homogenise teen girls in fandom. In someone else’s hands, Nina would probably be linked with Angus, but instead of the bad-boy-who-needs-saving angle, Bennett opts for a healthier relationship. There are still obstacles and a little too much miscommunication for my liking, but Nina isn’t there to fix Jamie. When he treats her poorly, she doesn’t stand for it, and what’s more, they have things in common. Jamie and Nina both cried the first time they heard a certain classic rock song, which perhaps says more about their emotions than anything else in the book. The Point’s lyrics aren’t great, but in the absence of actual music, it’s conjuring an atmosphere that counts. Love Song is full of strummed chords and session musicians, and it makes for some terrific contemporary UKYA.

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Love Song is a warm and clever exploration of music, passion and a bit of teen wish fulfillment. I really can’t emphasise enough how enjoyable it is to read and re-read. This is deliciously feel-good, well-written stuff. It may have a straightforward premise, but Bennett really delivers. This is one of her best books yet. 

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Reviewing the YA Book Prize Shortlist (Part 2)

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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?

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Reviewing The YA Book Prize Shortlist

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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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The Sleeping Prince by Melinda Salisbury // flights of fancy turn ferocious in this fantasy sequel

Hello and welcome to a review in which I am reunited with fantasy fiction! After a not-inconsiderable flirtation with contemporary and a dash of magical realism, I’ve finally gotten around to reviewing the second book in Melinda Salisbury’s storming UKYA trilogy. And because I am not a fan of jumping into series reviews unannounced, you can read my review of the first book here.

27281393Author(s): Melinda Salisbury
Publisher:
 Scholastic
Publication date: February 4th 2016
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Ever since her brother Lief disappeared, Errin’s life has gone from bad to worse. Between caring for her sick mother and scraping together rent money by selling illegal herbal cures, she doesn’t have time for the war against the vengeful Sleeping Prince, woken as if from a terrible fairytale – but when her village is evacuated, she finds herself caught in a mythical conflict she never asked for. Desperate and homeless, the only person she can turn to is the mysterious Silas, a young man who buys her deadly poisons and won’t reveal why he needs them. 

Then Silas, like her brother, vanishes, and Errin decides she must save herself, and her mother, alone. Journeying across a kingdom on the brink, what she finds may force her to make icult choice and shatter everything she thought she knew about her world.

Set in the same stark and treacherous world as that of her débutMelinda Salisbury’s much talked about fantasy follow-up sets itself the twin challenge of satisfying fans of the first book and introducing a largely new cast of characters. It reads quite like the opening book in a series – for me it was less static and even a little more inventive than its predecessor – but readers will certainly benefit from the world-building and set-up imparted by The Sin Eater’s Daughter.

A long way from the austere confines and murderous royalty of the now-fallen kingdom of Lormere, teenager Errin faces poverty and strife in the shady village of Almwyck. Abandoned by her brother, desperately seeking a cure for her sick mother and with the wrath of the newly reawakened Sleeping Prince looming, Errin will do what it takes to survive, even if that means selling illegal herbal remedies and risking persecution to make ends meet. Errin is level-headed, determined and not afraid to get her hands dirty. There’s a perhaps somewhat inevitable sense that she’s been designed to contrast with Twylla, the more passive heroine of The Sin Eater’s Daughter, but whatever the motive, it works: Errin is a heroine full of tangible vigour and is likely to appeal.

There is something of the air of a folk-tale about The Sleeping Prince, and it is archly deliberate. Salisbury’s distinctive writing style – neat, compact and relatively minmalist for the genre – lends itself to the eerie overtones of folklore and superstition, including the vast and vehement quest of the titular prince, a well-conjured (and semi-undead) villain. A kind of Pied Piper meets Sleeping Beauty mash-up, the mythology of the novel is symptomatic of the fact that while little here is shockingly original, it doesn’t have to be: the skill and shrewdness with which Salisbury blends the familiar and the fantastic is enough to cement the place of what is one of the most unique recent series on the UKYA shelf. (Basically, if you’ve ever asked yourself the question “What would the Sleeping Beauty story be like if Aurora were not a princess but a prince? And also MANIFESTLY EVIL?!” this is the book for you.)

When her village is evacuated to make way for soldiers but she daren’t risk leaving with a mother prone to the cruel rages and red eyes of a semi-mythical affliction, Errin turns to the mysterious Silas, a hooded young man who buys her poisons and never reveals his face (though she thinks she saw the end of his nose once when he laughed)Silas is a complex character – one of the best in the novel – at once both apparently kind and incredibly enigmatic, a real puzzle for the reader, and I liked that. One of my favourite things about the book, about any good book, is the ability of the writer to prompt questions from the audience almost before they even realize it themselves. The Sleeping Prince is packed with twists, turns, tensions, treachery, secrets, schemes, betrayals, bust-ups, revelations and, of course, revenge. The pace is a little uneven and some of the secondary characters are flat, but the plot absolutely keeps you guessing.

There are hints at a romance, but plot takes precedence and, particularly importantly if you’re not a fan love triangles, there’s not a whisper of a ménage à trois. It’s not the most cheerful of reads, which is perhaps why the book ends on a rather hilarious acknowledgement (“And finally, Javert. I did not forget you. I did not forget your name”). I was a bit bemused by the fact that several returning characters display such notable yet unexplained changes in personality and these relatively short books are ultimately too tightly-packed to satisfy my love of sprawling high or epic fantasy. However, the twists keep coming to the final page and the stakes are certainly high for The Scarecrow Queen, so if you liked the first book, this will be right up your alley.

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For fans of Uprooted by Naomi Novik, This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab and the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, this sequel is a relatively short but plot-packed take on folktale-fantasy UKYA, with a vicious villain and plenty of twists among its highlights.

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Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton // an accomplished, action-packed fantasy adventure

249340651Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Publisher:
 Faber & Faber
Publication date: February 4th 2016
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

She’s more gunpowder than girl—and the fate of the desert lies in her hands.

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mystical beasts still roam its barren wastes, and rumour has it that somewhere, djinni still practice their magic. But there’s nothing mystical or magical about Dustwalk, the suffocating town talented sharpshooter Amani can’t wait to escape from.

When she meets the mysterious, devastatingly handsome Jin at a shooting contest, she figures he’s the perfect escape route – but in all her years spent dreaming of leaving home, she never imagined she’d gallop away on a mythical horse, fleeing the murderous Sultan’s army, with a fugitive who’s wanted for treason. And she’d never have predicted she’d fall in love with him… or that it would lead her to secrets that could alter the face of her world forever.

Rebel of the Sands is at once rough-and-ready, tooth-and-nail action adventure and intriguing epic fantasy. It has the bite of a merciless desert and the guile of a magic-laden kingdom.  The vivid collision of two very different worlds – the tough, gunslinging wild west in which Amani has fought to survive meets the ancient, mysterious realm of dangerous power and receding magic she’s rarely seen with her own eyes – is undoubtedly the most distinctive feature of this series opener. A highly-anticipated addition to UKYA, I first read it last year and it’s a solid début, with a fabulous cover to boot.

Led by the inimitable Amani, it stars a ragtag collection of heroes, rebels and, of course, lots of villains. Amani is kickass and courageous but her recklessness and smart mouth have a tendency to get her into trouble, particularly when she’s assuming the role of the Blue-Eyed Bandit. She’s a fitting lead for the book but there’s a definite sense that she has a long way to go from here in terms of development. Other notable cast members include the friendly, somewhat reluctant rebel Bahi and the unreliable, sometime-enemy Noorsham. My favourites, however, were the mysterious, charming Jin (love interest, prince, often on the receiving end of the Bandit’s barbs) and the strategic, brutally efficient warrior Shazad, who probably has a heart there somewhere, though she keeps it well hidden, at least at first, from the rebellion’s newcomer Amani. Unfortunately, the minor characters are a little harder to distinguish, as Hamilton seems to rely more on the reader remembering them by their abilities than by their individual personalities.

This is action-packed fantasy of the fairly short variety; it’s high impact, flash-bang, relatively contained stuff. If you’re a fan of Sarah J. Maas-level flowing prose and rich backdrops, you won’t find them here. It’s written in quite a concise style, with just a touch of the quips, sarcasm and verbal sparring YA readers will love overflowing where you might expect more lavish descriptions or ponderous musings. I would’ve liked more world-building beyond that which is established by this surface skirmish with Hamilton’s undoubtedly inventive Miraji, but if you’re looking for a fast, highly visual fantasy début which is light on techniques that sometimes slow down epic fantasy, like complicated histories or meandering detail, this punchy, cinematic alternative may be for you.

The plot is strong, too, with plenty going on and enough twists that it’s very difficult to review without giving away a whole sandstorm of spoilers. High stakes and an unravelling series of complications take Amani’s tale from mere escape to all-out rebellion. Hamilton expands Amani’s narrative horizons in familiar fantasy style as this kickass heroine finds herself reluctantly drawn into a fight for her kingdom. The climactic battle has a particularly pleasing sense of scale.  Its focus sometimes gets muddled and the pacing is occasionally uneven but the plot and intrigue keeps you reading.

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Striking, dramatic and memorable, this action-packed fantasy adventure sees a clash of two worlds woven together by magic, mirage and plenty of plot. It’s not without fault and it’s not the deepest of epics but it’s a well-contained, highly readable début. 

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