The Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries by Robin Stevens // cracking kidlit capers

29080992Today on the blog, I’m doing something a little different – a series review!

Publisher: Corgi
Category: children’s
Genre(s): mystery, historical fiction
Source: Purchased, library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Deepdean School for Girls, 1934. When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their very own secret detective agency, they struggle to find mysteries to investigate (unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie).

Then the science mistress, Miss Bell, is found dead in the gym. Hazel thinks it a terrible accident, but when she and Daisy return to the scene five minutes later, the body has disappeared. Now they know a murder has taken place – and there’s more than one person at Deepdean with a motive. The Wells and Wong Detective Society has its first real mystery, but do Daisy and Hazel have the skills to solve the clues and the crime?

Robin Stevens’ début children’s book slotted in to the UKMG shelf like it had always been there, and no wonder, for there’s a deliberately classic feel to Daisy and Hazel’s escapades. Nods to famous writers like Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle – observant, gung-ho Daisy serves as the series’ Sherlock, while Hazel, who narrates their cases in her notebooks, becomes its Watson – are backed up by knowledge of the genre and well-planned plots. There’s a sense of familiarity to the structure and trappings of each book, but Stevens’ throws in plenty of red herrings and, importantly, enough detail to push readers to think, to stretch them a little bit. Complex feelings of friendship, belonging and identity are certainly recurring themes, and with two more books slated for the series, they’

It was the distinctive style and voice of Murder Most Unladylike that struck me most. I’d heard praise beforehand but it’s still unexpectedly charming and funny (“I thought at first it was a torture device,” remarks Hazel on discovering eyelash curlers. You and me both, Hazel). I loved that some details went straight over Hazel’s head but meant more to the reader – it’s a mark of a really clever children’s writer. I guessed the solution fairly early on, but its boarding school setting, historical slang, and bunbreaks make for an atmospheric crime-solving caper. Daisy and Hazel are imperfect young characters (in Daisy’s case partly due to a lack of awareness of her own faults) and I would’ve liked their friendship to be a bit more equal, but it’s a cracking opener. Also, this is the book that introduced us to Head Girl King Henry, which is a frankly brilliant nickname.

29235345Arsenic for Tea moves from Deepdean to the crumbling country pile of Fallingford (Daisy is, after all, the Honourable Daisy Wells, daughter of Lady Hastings and scatter-brained Lord Hastings). A compelling mystery ensues when a much-disliked guest at Daisy’s birthday party appears to have been poisoned. The confinement of the grand house is a standard mystery device; for Daisy, it raises the stakes of finding the culprit and highlights some already tricky Wells relationships. The tumbledown grandeur of Fallingford makes for a terrific backdrop (there’s something of the Old Professor’s House to it, maybe a whiff of P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings or Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle, though thankfully not too much of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle). While Hazel also comes from a wealthy background in Hong Kong, she’s a relative outsider to the idiosyncratic customs of England’s upper classes, which occasionally provides a dose of more dispassionate observation. Notable inclusions: Bertie’s Pre-Hipster Ukulele-Playing, Lord Hastings’ terrific “Daughter! Daughter’s friend!” line, and Uncle Felix generally.

23479358First Class Murder is Stevens’ homage to Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express. When a bloodcurdling scream leads to the discovery of a murdered passenger and a missing ruby necklace, Daisy and Hazel are faced with their first locked-door mystery. Despite a promise to give up sleuthing, Hazel and Daisy can’t help but try to crack a case when they see one. True to form, all the adult passengers – including a magician, a spiritualist, an heiress and more – seem to have secrets (and a reason to try to obstruct meddling teenagers, some more sourly than others). The Orient Express is described in suitably plush detail and noteworthy newcomers are to be found in fellow teenage detective Alexander and super-cool Miss Livedon (who also appears in a very spoilerific manner in the previous book). Three books in, Stevens’ prose is still engaging. I leave here an image of Kenneth Branagh’s mustache in the upcoming remake of the Christie original so it may be seared into your eyes:

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27030027Jolly Foul Play sees Daisy and Hazel return to Deepdean, and at this point it must seem like trouble is following them around like a particularly dogged haunting, for lo and behold, there’s another murder. Now fourth formers and up against a horrid new batch of Big Girls, this is the most challenging book for Daisy and Hazel’s relationship. Hazel is becoming more self-confident, whereas Daisy has always been the dynamo; by book four, you’re really sensing that they need to check the imbalance. We get to see them navigate more of their friendships with Alexander and with fellow boarders Kitty, Lavinia and Beanie (and her outrageous climactic villain-wrangling). If I had to pick a least favourite of the books, it would probably be this one (I want Daisy and Hazel to be happy! I’d like to see them solving more non-fatal crimes!), but they’re all pretty solid and Stevens continues to twine themes with clue-solving. The series’ covers are so striking too, especially side-by-side.

29979535I’m beginning to think setting really is right up there in Stevens’ forte, because the wintry Cambridge of Mistletoe and Murder is amazing. There are so many delectable details: the old buildings, the Chelsea buns, the secret society of rooftop climbers (reminiscent of Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers). The mystery is a real corker, with not one but two linked crimes and a plethora of suspects, and it was here that I really noticed how much Stevens’ prose and skill have improved; I would’ve liked a tiny bit more humour but there’s a level of mastery of her form here. She notes the disparity between the extravagant men’s colleges and the underfunded women’s colleges, and illustrates how much harder the fictional Amanda has to work than any of the male students, including Bertie, just to be accepted. Hazel’s growing sense of identity (“It really is not rude to exist, whatever anyone else says”) is touched upon when she meets students Alfred Cheng and George and Harold Mukherjee. Hazel has some romantic inklings in the book (she, like Daisy, is now almost fifteen) but Stevens foregrounds plot. I am also a decided fan of Aunt Eustacia. This one is pacy, fantastically twisty and really keeps you guessing.

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Distinctive, clever and memorable, the Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries are detective stories which will appeal to fans of children’s fiction of all ages. Lively leading ladies and well-written, often funny prose meets sharp pacing and careful plotting in one of the best ongoing series for older children on the shelf. 

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36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You by Vicki Grant // true love, tropical fish and other pressing enquiries

35698625Author(s): Vicki Grant
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 19th October 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
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

Two random strangers. Thirty-six questions to make them fall in love.

Hildy and Paul each have their own reasons for taking part in a PhD studen’ts psychology study on love and relationships (in Paul’s case, it’s the forty dollar reward). They must ask each other thirty-six questions, ranging from “What is your worst memory?” to “If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?”

By the time they’ve made it to the end of the questionnaire, they’ve laughed and cried and lied and thrown things and run away and come back again. They’ve also each discovered the pain the other was trying so hard to hide. But have they fallen in love?

A straightforward, eye-catching hook led me to pick up 36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You after a brief sojourn from contemporary fiction. I wasn’t expecting much as I’d heard very little about the book beforehand, but then I do like to open up new books away from the hype, and I was surprised to soon find myself racing through this one. Engaging, entertaining and hurtling along at a brisk pace (it clocks in at around 280 pages), it tells the unfolding story of two strangers who turn up for a study which asks whether a close relationship can be manufactured through a series of intense, highly personal question-and-answer sessions. Bubbly, loquacious overtalker Hildy is eighteen and curious about the potential of the study, while artistic, taciturn teenager Paul is, at first, only there for the money.

Sizeable chunks of 36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You are told in transcripts, texts, messages and other epistolary additions. It became my favourite thing about the book. It relies heavily on dialogue – something I’m not always a fan of, particularly if it comes at the expense of description, as happens here – but in this case it’s pleasingly deliberate, effective and realistic. It’s sharp (“That was a ten-second cover-up of a thirty-six part docudrama”) and often funny (“You have very good emotional antennae” “I love it when you talk dirty, but could please just finish your answer”). Hildy and Paul have a sparky dynamic which ranges from emotional to witty to furious to solemn; they’re remarkably expressive given that when you take away descriptors or adverbs most authors would, at least initially, flounder, but Grant takes it in her stride (it was only after reading the book that I discovered she’s also a screenwriter, which probably contributes to this). The prose sections are fairly unexceptional, but lo and behold, a book that shows just how much you can get done without dialogue tags!

 

LOOK AT THEM, IN ALL THEIR DIALOGUE-TAG-FREE GLORY. Significant sections of the book are told in texts and messaging, too, and FINALLY, the first YA book I’ve read for ages that gets teenage textual voices right. It’s not cringe-worthy or overly stylised, instead taking cues from character (Hildy is all long sentences and correct capitalisation; Paul is lowercase and fine with shortening the occasional word) and punctuation, or lack thereof (“hey! watch it with the !!! someone could lose an eye”).

This is undoubtedly character-driven contemporary. Hildy and Paul are interesting and, particularly in Paul’s case, intriguing enough leads to keep you reading. For a book that seems to be about romance, there is relatively little of it in swoony Stephanie Perkins or sweet Sarah Dessen terms. It’s definitely an opposites-attract relationship, with spiky back-and-forth (“normally I’d challenge you to a duel for the insult but I’ve got the sniffles”) and a touch of the bad-boy exterior, but there’s a sense that they matter to each other (“You’re just the way you’re supposed to be”) which is a tricky balance to pull off. You’d be surprised how many other YA romances don’t have their characters spending any time actually getting to know each other, and if there’s one thing you can say about Hildy and Paul’s story, it’s that they certainly do.

Family drama, a last-minute dash to find each other and an unusually prominent tropical fish are thrown in for plot. Hildy’s well-off family life has been ruptured by a startling revelation – a subplot I ultimately wasn’t delighted by, though it’s cleverly only hinted at for much of the book and provides a twist for Hildy and Paul’s first date – with her brother Gabe and friends Max and Xiu making up most of the secondary cast. The psychology study, which isn’t conducted in any believable way in the first place, isn’t followed up much in the latter stages, so if you picked up the book for that, you’ll be disappointed. It looks like there’ll be illustrations in the final edition, though they’re not in the advance copy, which is a shame as illustrated YA is a really fun concept. The book’s ending is fairly sudden and completely lacking in resolution, and there are too many stereotypes in its characterisation. However, despite their differences – and despite the book’s abrupt ending – the reader is invited at least theoretically to hope for Hildy and Paul’s opposites-attract romance.

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A surprisingly funny, fast-paced contemporary with a solid hook and some great dialogue, though the ending is rather abrupt and it lacks the spark of truly brilliant YA. If you like books by Keris Stainton, Emma Mills or Sarah Mlynowski, you may find something to like here.

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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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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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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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