The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay // an outstanding historical novel

My run of children’s fiction reviews continues on The Paper Alchemist today – with even more historical fiction!

39903894Author(s): Hilary McKay
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 20th September 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Clarry Penrose and her brother Peter live for their summers in Cornwall. They stay with their grandparents and run wild with their older cousin, Rupert. But normal life resumes each September, with boarding school for Peter and Rupert, and for Clarry, a dull return to an echoing old house and a father who doesn’t want her. 

Even worse, the shadow of a terrible war looms ever closer. When Rupert goes off to fight at the front, Clarry feels their skylark summers start to slip away from them. Can Clarry’s family survive this fearful war? And will any of them be the same when it’s over?

Modern publishing is obsessed with the next big thing; with flash-in-the-pan fads and blockbuster bestsellers and instant Hollywood movie deals. There is such pressure on the make-or-break debut, particularly in YA, that there hardly seems room for thinking about writers as people who may continue to exist beyond that first nerve-wracking publication day. One wonders if the likes of Sir Michael Morpurgo, who wrote seventeen books before War Horse, his most famous title, or Dame Jacqueline Wilson, who wrote dozens of books before The Story of Tracy Beaker, would be given the time to build a long-term career if they were to debut in today’s publishing landscape.

Hilary McKay certainly got out well from the starting blocks – her first novel The Exiles won the 1992 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize – and has nudged awards from time to time since – in 2002 the first of the brilliant Casson family books, Saffy’s Angel, won the Costa, then known as the Whitbread Children’s Book Award. Her books have meant a great deal to many readers. And, in a testament to writers being allowed to hone their craft, it is in her third decade of writing for children that she has created one of her best books to date.

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The Skylarks’ War is an old-fashioned tale, written in distinctive, almost idiosyncratic prose. It is a coming-of-age story in the truest sense of the word. It follows an extended family of characters for years, from childhood to early adulthood, like Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle or Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks. Cheerful, bright Clarry is at its heart. There’s also bad-tempered, slowly-flourishing brother Pete, grammar school girl turned nurse Vanessa, and loyal, ungainly Simon. And then there’s Clarry’s favourite, her charismatic, reckless cousin Rupert (“Having endured the desertion of his parents, a Cornish winter when a gale was so strong it blew him off the cliff, a Christmas of scarlet fever and innumerable years in compulsory education, he was assumed to be indestructible and allowed to do what he liked”).

As historical fiction, The Skylarks’ War straddles a complex era in which the Edwardian period gave way to the First World War, and in which the young were faced with changes and horrors once unimaginable to their firmly Victorian parents and grandparents. It grapples with ideas of education, ambition, patriotism, trauma, and vibrant hope. I particularly liked the intense exploration of family dynamics and the use of letters. There are a few inelegant touches – an instance of (a heavily implied) ‘bury your gays’ trope, some Irish stereotypes – but on the whole it is a vivid, detailed, unputdownable novel. The book’s most astonishing achievement is its multifariousness: it has moments of appalling devastation and breathless high spirits, no-nonsense practicality and emerging aspiration, frosty distance and, finally, joyful warmth.

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Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War is multi-faceted, vivid and gut-wrenching. A historical novel reminiscent of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers. 

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Into The Jungle: Stories for Mowgli by Katherine Rundell // an immersive re-imagining

Spoiler: this almost-reboot wins over a cynic (though to be fair it is written by one of my favourite children’s writers of all).

38812918Author(s): Katherine Rundell
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 20th September 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Everyone knows the story of Mowgli, the wild boy who leaps from the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 classic The Jungle Book. But what about the stories of those around him?

What of the mother-wolf who raised Mowgli as her own? What of Bagheera, the elegant and mysterious black panther, or Baloo, the good-natured bear with a fondness for honey? What of the elephants and the shrewmice and all the creatures in between?

Mowgli is hungry for their stories, but as he listens, he learns that there has, perhaps, only been one constant in the life of the jungle: danger. There have always been animals like Shere Khan, and the great ape with red eyes who lives on the mountain…

Katherine Rundell is no stranger to the wild. She braved the Amazon rainforest to rapturous applause with Costa-winning 2017 children’s novel The Explorer. Here Rundell turns her attention to another vivid and intrepid adventure, this time set in India among some very familiar names indeed. It’s certainly a handy commission between original creations, a useful siphon for a little excess exuberance. It seems Rundell wasn’t quite done with the jungle after finishing The Explorer. 

Or perhaps the jungle simply wasn’t done with Rundell.

For the world of Into The Jungle is intoxicating and fiercely alive. In its stretch of wonder you can almost hear the rustling undergrowth, the bristling insects, the argumentative birds. There are landscapes conjured here from the rough Seoni hills to the open plains where the snake stream meets the elephant pool.

The book is framed as a series of stories being told to Mowgli. We hear that before she was wolf-mother, Raksha was a courageous pup. We meet a young Bagheera and a young Baloo. Kaa gets a human-centric escapade and even a jerboa named Jolt makes the overmighty aware of the creatures at their feet. Rather cleverly, these stories are then tied up in an overarching adventure which gives the novel a little more punch.

Into The Jungle has more time for female characters than its forebear, though it leaves any explicit criticism or acknowledgement of Kipling’s complex post-colonial reputation firmly in the author’s note. After all, this is a project set to coincide with further pop cultural versions of the 1894 original, including Disney’s live-action Jungle Book sequel and Netflix’s Mowgli. This is not a radical reinterpretation of a Victorian monument, but it is not saccharine, and it is very well-written. I am continually astonished by Rundell’s ability to immerse the reader. Her prose is expressive (“his spine rose and fell like a mountain range”; “the jungle at night shone gold and silver and deep-water blue”), and effective even in moments where you barely notice it. It’s a rare writer who can make you forget you’re only reading.

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Acclaimed children’s writer Katherine Rundell squares up to Rudyard Kipling in the vivid, immersive and energetic Into The Jungle. 

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The Lost Magician by Piers Torday // genre-hopping storytelling with some subversive twists

Today on the blog, it’s time for more children’s lit!

40126361Author(s): Piers Torday
Publisher: Quercus Children’s Books
Publication date: 6th September 2018
Category:
children’s
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

They may have survived the Blitz, but when Simon, Patricia, Evelyn and Larry step through a mysterious library door, it is the beginning of their most dangerous adventure yet.

There they discover the magical world of Folio, where an enchanted kingdom of fairy knights, bears and tree gods is under threat from a sinister robot army. The many stories of the Library are locked in war, and the children’s only hope is to find their creator – a magician who has been lost for centuries… 

Piers Torday’s The Lost Magician emerges from the same school of fiction that recently produced Patrick Ness’ Release and Katherine Rundell’s Into The Jungle. It is a writing back to a classic, even canonical, work in the form of a novel aimed at a young audience. While Ness took on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Rundell squares up to Rudyard Kipling, Torday tackles C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. 

In terms of critical acclaim, Torday certainly has clout. His first novel for children was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Award and nominated for the Carnegie Medal, while its sequel won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Not content with merely interrogating one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, Torday also takes the opportunity here to explore themes of war, knowledge and the power of the written word.

There are nods to Narnia everywhere. Four children go to an old house, the home to a professor, to escape the effects of the Second World War. The youngest child stumbles into a magical world, which seems a bit choosy about when it can be accessed, and is not believed by their older siblings. Smaller allusions are scattered throughout the book. Larry, Evelyn, Patricia and Simon even share the same initials as the Pevensie siblings.

But it is not a retelling. Rather than a landscape of perpetual winter full of talking animals and Turkish delight, the reader is greeted with a subversive and surprising note which casts a niggle of doubt over the entirety of the magical proceedings which follow. The world of Folio is a sprawl of larger-than-life fairytale figures (ironically in the case of Tom Thumb) and vaudeville villains. Torday’s bold, brash approach draws on a wild variety of characters and styles, allowing the Three Bears to appear in the same chapter as a War of the Worlds-esque amassing of the forces known as Unreads. The core, rather unsubtle conflict is between sides known as Reads (who represent a rich tradition of human storytelling), Unreads (robots who prefer the concrete and abhor imagination) and Never Reads (the most dreaded of all).

For me, The Lost Magician was a little didactic and the genre-jumping occasionally jarring, but it’s a book many will extol. I liked the book most when it was rooting itself in historical fiction. It teases out familial relationships and acknowledges details sometimes not seen elsewhere, like dyslexia not being a barrier to love of storytelling. For all its outlandish technicolour, the prose was perhaps at its best when at its simplest and most grounded: “It was a kind of manor house, of which there were many in that part of the world, and to the children it just looked very old and very smart. The stone was honey coloured, blazing in the afternoon sun, and there were roses clambering up the side…”

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Piers Torday’s interrogation of a children’s classic combines magic and adventure with subversion and a swirl of historical fiction. It’s not the most subtle of books, but will find fans among children and adults alike (and have more clued-up readers wondering, “Which one is supposed to be Jesus?”). 

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Save The Date by Morgan Matson // Matson delivers with multifaceted rom-com YA

Today on the blog, it’s my time for my now-biennial Morgan Matson contemporary YA review…

34839193Author(s): Morgan Matson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 14th June 2018
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Charlie Grant’s older sister is getting married this weekend at their family home. For the first time in years, all four of her older siblings will be under one roof, and Charlie is desperate for one last perfect weekend, before the house is sold and everything changes. Making decisions about things like what college to attend and reuniting with longstanding crush – all that can wait. 

The only problem? The weekend is shaping up to be an absolute disaster.

There’s a dog with a penchant for howling, a house alarm that won’t stop going off, and a papergirl with a grudge. A storm seems bent on drenching everything. The justice of the peace is missing. The band will only play covers. The guests are all crazy. And the wedding planner’s nephew is surprisingly, distractingly cute.

Over the course of three ridiculously chaotic days, Charlie will learn more than she ever expected about the family she thought she knew by heart.

Morgan Matson is one of the most consistent names in that particular style of big-hearted, aspirational contemporary USYA which includes the likes of Sarah Dessen’s Lock and Key and Stephanie Perkins’ Lola and the Boy Next Door. Big houses, chunky sunglasses, handy hobbies, memorable grand gestures – it is the subgenre in which YA is at its glossy, irresistible peak. I liked Matson’s The Unexpected Everything – about a teenager whose summer plans are derailed by her politician father’s career, complete with dog-walking, scavenger hunts and a fictional fantasy book-within-a-book – but when I heard about Save The Date, it immediately became one of my most anticipated reads of 2018. I’ve been waiting for a romantic comedy premise like this in YA.

Charlie Grant is the youngest of five siblings, and as the only one still living at home, she can’t wait to finally have her brothers and sister back under one roof, even if only for a weekend. I loved that the most prominent relationships in the book were those of Charlie and her siblings. Danny, the oldest, has always been Charlie’s favourite brother; he can do no wrong in her eyes. Linnie, with whom Charlie once shared so much of her life, is about to get married in the backyard (though her fiancé, Rodney, has been around so long he’s already an honourary member of the household). JJ, the irresponsible middle brother. And then there’s Mike, closest in age to Charlie, who hasn’t spoken to her for almost a year.

Charlie was collateral damage in Mike’s colossal fall-out with their parents (a college professor and a comic strip creator respectively), and when he unexpectedly turns up for the wedding, she is forced to confront the rupture of her beloved family head-on. There are other disasters plaguing the wedding preparations, too. To name just a few: the power’s out, the groom’s tuxedo is missing, the wrong band has turned up, and the wedding planner has done a runner. The only upside: her last-minute replacement has brought along his teenage nephew, the cute but ever-so-slightly awkward Bill (when was the last time you heard of a YA love interest named Bill?!).

In between all this, there’s the frankly inspired inclusion of illustrated extracts from Grant Central Station, the comic strip Charlie’s mother loosely bases on the family’s life. There are a few missteps – the narrative can by turns feel slow, repetitive and overly long, the themes can get a bit clouded amidst some increasingly eyebrow-raising chaos, and I would’ve liked a little more cathartic payoff – but what sets Save The Date apart is its lived-in feel. From the family home for which Charlie has tangible affection to the bouncy, back-and-forth dialogue, Save The Date offers a satisfying taste of what the thinking teen’s romantic comedy-drama can do.

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Sarah Dessen’s Once and For All meets Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door in Morgan Matson’s warm, intelligent contemporary standalone about a chaotic wedding and a complicated, close-knit family. 

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My Heart Goes Bang by Keris Stainton // confident, chaotic contemporary UKYA

Today on the blog, it’s time for more summer contemporary…

9781471406829Author(s): Keris Stainton
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 28th June 2018
Category:
YA
Source: Purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Lou, Issey, Liane, Ella and Paige are determined to make the most of their second year at uni. They want to have fun, but will have to focus on work. They have no time for relationships. Except with each other. And even then, there’s tension between Issey and Liane, and none of them know Paige that well.

When they find a magazine article with a list of men they should date before they’re 21 (Someone who’s been on telly? Check. Someone who’s got tattoos? Check) they vow to complete the list by the end of the year. In fact, some of them set about it with a lot more enthusiasm than they do their studies … but will any of them end up with a full house? And as secrets spiral out of control, will their friendship survive intact?

If you’ve ever asked for more female friendship in YA, or more YA with multiple LGBT characters, or more frank treatment of sex in YA, or more YA set during university, then Keris Stainton (professional 1D fan by day, fiction author by night) may be writing the books for you. In fact, she may have written the book for you, since My Heart Goes Bang contains all of those things – and more. I picked up my copy at YALC this year (in fact it was the first book I bought at the entire convention) and read it within days (it became my go-to reading on the tube).

My Heart Goes Bang is the busy, messy story of five close-knit housemates, including overworked Paige (who’s trying to hide the fact that she’s behind on her bills), straight-laced Ella (who’s trying to hide that her beloved brother is in a world-famous band), and middle-class Liane (who’s trying to hide from her overbearing gallery-owning mother). Theirs is a year of intense friendship and casual flings, but among the more memorable moments are a sweet romance between Ella and Nick and the characters’ exploration of orientation (the girls open up the magazine list to include LGBTQ+ relationships). The writing style, meanwhile, is lightning fast and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Stainton’s prolific backlist stretches from teen fiction (like Emma Hearts LA) to adult women’s fiction (like If You Could See Me Now), with My Heart Goes Bang slotting, in terms of content and style, between last year’s upper YA One Italian Summer (you can read my review here) and 2015’s new adult contemporary Counting Stars. There’s plenty of sex, swearing and drinking, very much drawing on stereotypes of the uni experience. With all the drama Stainton throws at them, it’s little wonder lectures are the last of these girls’ worries. The book isn’t perfect and with so many characters I find I remember more of what happened than who it happened to, but other elements, like the group chats and nods to boyband lit, help make this exuberant contemporary UKYA.

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For fans of Non Pratt’s Truth or Dare, Sarah Mlynowski’s Ten Things We Did (And Probably Shouldn’t Have) and Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s Freshers, Keris Stainton’s My Heart Goes Bang is messy, character-driven UKYA. Short, sharp and fizzy with female friendship. 

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Event Round-Up // YALC 2018

You heard it right, folks: this year, I attended London’s Young Adult Literature Convention!

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Though it was my first time attending YALC, I’ve been book event-ing long enough to have picked up some key tips:

  • It was 30+ degrees that week so light clothes, water and a fan were a must
  • Bringing your own food is useful (to save you the queues and expense of trying to find lunch in the venue and/or Kensington)
  • Wear comfy shoes (unless you’re in cosplay in which case… no pain no gain?)
  • Plan to do SOME things but not EVERYTHING (so you’re not rushing from one workshop/panel/signing to another or feeling disappointed if one runs over and affects your next event) and your day will be all the better for it.

I attended on Saturday. I had a dress with pockets, books to get signed, and I was ready to go (with a friend in tow with whom I could fangirl, obviously). There was so much going on – Tomi Adeyemi had a signing during the sci-fi panel, Lindsay Galvin had a launch party I didn’t get to, I forgot to bring All About Mia for the Lisa Williamson signing – and it was impossible to be in two places at once, but here’s what I did get up to…

10am: Growing Up In The Past, with Frances Hardinge, Keren David, Laura Wood and Lucy Adlington

We arrived about twenty minutes after this historical fiction panel had started, which was a shame, but at least meant a) we arrived after the entrance queue had dissipated and b) we had time to meander! We browsed, got a look at the layout, and, spotting that her signing queue was just winding up, I met Keris Stainton. I babbled because I’d only just got there and my coherent sentences were still somewhere on the Underground, but Keris is so nice and My Heart Goes Bang, her latest book, was my first purchase of the day (given that we’d only been there for fifteen minutes, this did not seem to bode well for my wallet). I also started another theme for the day which was FORGETTING TO TAKE PHOTOS.

Also, when I was perusing publisher stands, I was almost IMMEDIATELY introduced to another Irish person (shout-out to Roisin at Hot Key).

11am: Careers in Publishing with Chloe Seager, Alice Natali, Lucy Richardson and Sarah Stewart

Of all the agents’ arena talks of the day, Careers in Publishing was the one I most liked the sound of (I’ve never seen any similar panels specifically for YA and kidlit here in Ireland). I appreciated the variety of roles represented: Chloe Seager is an agent and author, while Lucy Richardson is in publicity at HarperCollins, Sarah Stewart is in editorial at Usborne, and Alice Natali is in translation rights at ILA. They spoke about the day-to-day (publicists are people-facing and usually extroverted) and things people find surprising about their jobs (you don’t have to speak multiple languages to work in rights).

The panel also spoke about how they got into publishing; commonalities seemed to include having a degree (though not always in English Lit) and working in different departments to get a foot in the door, but there was also acknowledgement that some people need full-time jobs rather than unpaid internships. There were shout-outs for things like Penguin’s paid internships, the Society of Young Publishers, and Ink Road Books, Edinburgh’s shiny new YA imprint. I like to make myself ask one at every event I go to, so when it came to the Q&A I asked what the panellists thought about the prospects of the publishing industry moving beyond London, as that’s such a hot topic at the moment. It was also fab to see a professional, industry-focused panel entirely made up of women.

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L-R: Chloe Seager, Lucy Richardson, Sarah Stewart, Alice Natali

12pm: Lunch and signings

In the interest of taking my own advice, this hour was essentially free, so I ate and then popped along to see Sara Barnard (one of the most genuinely lovely humans in YA, if not the world) and meet the fabulous Non Pratt (I’d remembered how to speak in sentences at this point and was able to talk about how much I love her difficult second child Remix)I also dropped by Ink Road to see my friend and newly-minted publishing professional Sarah, and, of course, take part in their Harry Potter in Scots quiz.

1pm: Amongst the Stars, with Samantha Shannon, Becky Chambers, Lauren James and Sasha Alsberg 

This was the panel my sci-fi mad bestie was most excited about, so it was one that we absolutely had to get to – our only mistake was heading in with about five minutes to go only to find the seating almost full. Luckily we found half-decent seats from which to hear a calm and collected Samantha Shannon ask some great questions, Becky Chambers extol the benefits of having come from a scientific family and Lauren James combine effervescent fangirling with real sci-fi knowledge. There was some controversial talk of pop culture icon Star Wars being science fantasy rather than science fiction, which my friend and I had just been discussing days earlier, but let’s not mention the war(s)…

This panel was the scene of an Irregularly Scheduled Momoa Moment, as he appeared through a nearby door to a ripple of delight from the audience….

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Panel L-R: Samantha Shannon, Becky Chambers, Sasha Alsberg, Lauren James

2pm: Samantha Shannon signing

Ah yes. This was the longest queue I had to wait in, and I was probably still in the first third or so. The line stretched back behind us that I heard later that they cut off the queue and sent people away, rather than giving tickets as they did near the front. Bloomsbury had announced a proof giveaway for Samantha Shannon’s 2019 book, The Priory of the Orange Tree, and well done that publicity team – the lure certainly worked!

While waiting I managed to get a bite to eat, drop in to the fab Lauren James’ signing line, visit some more publishers including Chicken House Books where I met publicist Jazz and a surprise Kiran Millwood Hargrave (I would have brought my books if I’d known – it’s YALC, not MGLC!), and bump into book blogger and #boybandlit creator turned kpop stan Sal, after ages trying to spot her red shoes!

When I finally got to meet Samantha Shannon, she was absolutely (you guessed it) lovely. I’d lugged my massive copy of The Bone Season all the way over from Ireland, and got to chat about my favourite moments of The Song Rising (you can read my review for more info here!). It can be tough for readers and writers (and fans of anything really) when signing queues are so long, and it really seemed that she was taking the time to talk to everyone – as fresh and polite as if she’d only been there for twenty minutes, rather than an hour and a half (though if you’re interested in events with big-name authors but more laidback signings, maybe DeptCon is for you…)

4pm: Loud and Proud, with Simon James Green, Josh Martin and Keris Stainton

This panel was informed, fun and undoubtedly the funniest of the day. Simon James Green, the moderator, writes funny fiction for the slightly younger end of the teen spectrum (you’ll no doubt recognise the cover of Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never), while Martin writes fantasy and Stainton is an experienced writer of fiction from to teen to adult. They talked about personal experiences, the issue of identity, the difference between UK and USYA, and a whole plethora of LGBTQ+ recommendations from current YA, including shout-outs for Alice Oseman and Becky Albertalli. There was also another sighting of a Lesser Spotted Jason Momoa, which caused a bit of a stir…

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L-R: Keris Stainton, Simon James Green, Josh Martin

I think there were a couple more events after this, but we had to get going. I took notes at the workshops and panels, but I’m convinced I’ve forgotten some details – trips to Waterstones, the vibrantly decorated publisher posters and stands, people I met, cosplays I saw (including a TINY Wonder Woman), prize draws entered… Still, I’ll end this here on my swag haul – it’s probably on the small side for YALC, but I did have a luggage allowance to consider…

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Did you go to YALC? What were your favourite panels? Do you think there need to be more YA book events outside of London? Let me know in comments below!

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Theatrical by Maggie Harcourt // a starry behind-the-scenes standalone

SURPRISE: I still blog! Totally didn’t accidentally not post anything for a whole month just there. MOVING ON. Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m reviewing one of my most anticipated reads of the year!

34615412Author(s): Maggie Harcourt
Publisher: Usborne
Publication date: 28th June 2018
Category: 
YA
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Seventeen-year-old Hope is happiest out of the spotlight, working backstage at her local theatre, so she can’t believe her luck when she lands a top internship on a major new production. However, with a Hollywood star in the lead and his young understudy upstaging Hope’s heart, it seems unlikely that her life is going to stick to the script.

Hope has to prove she’s got what it takes. But with a big secret and so much buzz around the show, she’s soon struggling to keep her cool… 

Theatres are places of terrific dichotomy, where an elegant, even plush front of house usually gives way to a backstage of cramped spaces, utilitarian corridors, and bustling crew. This labyrinth of the personal and professional shimmers with storytelling possibility. Fortunately for young adult fiction fans like me, Maggie Harcourt is interested in the behind the scenes of things. 2017’s Unconventional is an access-all-areas pass to a frantic scramble of lanyards, pineapples and emergency errands, set against a backdrop of meeting rooms, cavernous convention venues and teen friendship. Contemporary standalone Theatrical dives behind the curtain at a theatre, but begins in a draughty rehearsal space, with a production still in an unpolished state.

The legs paddling furiously beneath the surface to keep the swan afloat in this case include skilled deputy stage manager Amy, restrained assistant director Nina, and big-shot actor-director Rick. Exuberant makeup and wardrobe intern George provides Hope with a bit of teenage company backstage, though family takes something of a backseat as Hope tries to keep her internship a secret from her chilly older sisters and harried parents – including her costume designer mother, Miriam, whose reputation threatens to overshadow Hope’s determination to prove herself.

Hope is a Bridget Jones-style heroine who regularly tunes out of important conversations and is somehow late to everything, but she’s likeable and driven (“They knew everything about what was going on in the theatre and everyone in it… like it was part of them and they were part of it and you couldn’t separate them. Like they belonged there. And listening to them, I suddenly couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else”). Quiet love interest Luke is not the play’s lead – that’s fictional Hollywood heartthrob Tommy Knight, with whom Hope also has an interesting relationship – but a hardworking understudy. Their romance is sweet and slow-building, with a handful of sweepingly romantic scenes (“It’s a goodbye, and a hello; an I know you and I don’t and I want to know you“).

Starry yet grounded, I have been waiting for a YA book that takes on theatre as warmly as this. I had a few minor qualms: one unnecessary trope, a few forgettable characters, Hope’s formative theatre the Square Globe being mentioned but rarely seen, the first half occasionally feeling agonisingly slow, and repetition of the blueness of the love interest’s eyes, which to be fair, is also a characteristic of Kiersten White’s The Chaos of Stars, a book I really enjoyed. And there’s so much to enjoy about Theatrical. Harcourt’s writing has moments of absolute seamlessness. The second half of the book is pacy and dramatic. Genuine love for the theatre and its world spills from the page. There are even cameos, the most obvious being that the play at the heart of Theatrical is a stage adaptation of Unconventional’s book-within-a-book, Piecekeepers. I’m a big fan of its little details, from superstitions (never say the last line of the play in dress rehearsal) to chapter divisions and act titles (“Act One, Scene One”; “Audition”). I’d read a sequel – and will certainly be keeping my eyes peeled for Harcourt’s next project.

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For fans of Sophia Bennett and Stephanie Perkins, this book makes behind the scenes seem like the place to be. Theatrical is intelligent, satisfying and full of detail, and will sweep you off your feet.

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