Haunt Me by Liz Kessler // more contemporary fiction but with (slightly less snarky) ghosts

30322601Author: Liz Kessler
Publisher: Orion Children’s Books
Publication date: 6 October 2016
Category: YA
Genre: contemporary, paranormal(ish)
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Erin wants to face the future.
Joe is desperate to remember his past.

Arriving in a seaside town with her family for a fresh start, Erin finds herself in a new house and a new school – a new life.

When Erin meets fellow teenager Joe, they’re drawn together by a love for poetry and a feeling of shared connection neither of them has experienced before. There’s just one problem: Joe is a ghost, stuck in the home his own family have recently left.

As secrets threaten to spill and the past catches up with them, it comes down to the ultimate question… would you trade love for life itself?

Already an accomplished and prolific author for children, Liz Kessler made a strong début in young adult fiction with 2015’s Kirkus-starred Read Me Like a Book. Her straightforward prose and focus on teen life return here, with one notable addition: ghosts.

Years of torment at school have left Erin curled firmly into her shell, but with her parents hoping the sea air will do her good and a sociable sister who blossoms wherever she goes, she’s trying to forget the life she’s left behind. Yet she finds herself drawn to perhaps the only person she’s ever met who carries the same weight of pain she does. Tied to a place and a life he can barely remember, recently deceased teenager Joe is more accidental spiritual loiterer than eerie spectre, but readers will have to stick with Kessler’s novel to discover why he became, and remains, a ghost in the first place.

But where Joe is stuck in the past, struggling to piece together what happened and why it’s resulted in his apparent abandonment at the house a whole new family has just moved into, Erin is trying to escape hers. Throw in a rugged seaside backdrop, acquaintances who may not be all they seem, and a chance encounter with Olly, once the most popular boy at school – and Joe’s brother – which leaves her with ever more secrets to untangle, and Erin quickly finds that her fresh start may not be as simple as expected. All three are in many ways on a search for peace, for resolution. The book is more thematic than plot-driven but there are plenty of questions to be answered, revelations to be heard and dramatic conclusions to be played out. 

Kessler tackles issues with vigour, including grief, addiction, and particularly painfully, a portrait of a teenage girl destroyed by the most cruel and remorseless of creatures: other teenage girls. Some themes are less well handled (there are mentions of mental health issues like anxiety which are basically forgotten about halfway through the book) but there’s a stark quality to the book’s approach which slots right in to the UKYA shelf.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t have the power to match up to its premise. The story is difficult to root for and difficult to invest in. The writing isn’t fantastic, faltering in dialogue and in the unrealistic reactions of characters to several plot twists. I’m used to suspend-your-disbelief YA but it takes more skill than this to pull off such an ambitious concept. Even worse, the book is creepy – and I don’t mean spooky-noise-wh0-you-gonna-call creepy, I mean that-is-a-seriously-unhealthy-relationship-and-y’all-should-probably-not-do-that creepy. To start with it had me like this:

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And by the end I was like this:

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knew the concept was reminiscent of the heyday of paranormal YA but I didn’t realize it’d be taking on a similar penchant for ultimatums and insta-love too. The prose around Joe and Erin’s relationship is forced and full of uninspired, declarative clichés. And let’s just be super clear, YA: a girl withdrawing from her entire life to spend time with a boy her family and friends can’t even tell exists (and when they do it’s because his ‘uncontrollable’ frustration has turned him into a poltergeist) is NOT A ROMANCE. The same girl then being presented with an alternative love interest in the shape of that boy’s brother, who she is only connected to because of a ghost and who she spends much of the book resenting anyway, is also NOT A ROMANCE. After the originality and thoughtfully crafted exploration of Read Me Like a Book, Haunt Me’s reliance on heteronormative clichés I thought we’d thrown out ages ago alongside vampires and rules-for-YA-romance-circa-2007 is disappointing. 

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An issue-driven novel for fans of Drop by Katie Everson, The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss and Nothing Tastes as Good by Claire Hennessy. Read Me Like a Book remains Kessler’s better work.

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Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall // short, serious YA (and some Wonder Woman fangirling…?)

29566743Author: Louise Gornall
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 7 July 2016
Category: YA
Genre: contemporary
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I was kindly sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Every day Norah wakes up in a quiet house on a quiet street, and every day she prepares for battle with the combined forces of agoraphobia and OCD. Years of struggling with illnesses that seem much stronger than she is have left her weary and increasingly resigned to the confines of a life where the sky is a glimpse through a window and the world is always out of reach.

When groceries are left out on her porch, Norah can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. The sweet, funny boy next door just caught her fishing for groceries, because of course he did. And just like that: Norah has a crush. But love can be tricky even when your life can fit the rose-tinted lenses of a Hollywood romance – and what about when it can’t?

The set-up of Under Rose-Tainted Skies may be simple – it tells the story of a girl, a boy, and the agoraphobia which throws a bit of a spanner in the works when it comes to conventional romance – but it’s also nuanced. Short, serious and just sweet enough to temper its heavy subject matter, Under Rose-Tainted Skies will undoubtedly please readers calling for more young adult fiction which tackles teen mental health head-on.

Stepping back to look at the story as whole, you’ll also find (in no particular order): red lipstick, passed notes, inconvenient birds, fumbled French, bad movies, and one unusual protagonist. Whatever kind of narrator you were expecting for Under Rose-Tainted Skies, Norah probably isn’t it. Frank, fearful, foul-mouthed and morbid, she won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but she’ll have readers rooting for her faster than they expect. Blunt, arresting and distinctive, Norah’s voice is not confined.

The romance between Norah and Luke, in contrast, is quite sweet. There’s a lightness to it which lifts the prose long enough to keep you reading, but it doesn’t go unblemished by the seriousness of Norah’s situation. Luke is kind, funny, and while he makes mistakes, he cares about her – though I definitely felt like there was a touch of that scene in the new Wonder Woman where a curious and wide-eyed Gal Gadot sees Chris Pine on the beach and is like, “This is the first man I have ever seen, yes, good, I like him, I shall not kick his ass today, I will keep him” to the way the Norah falls in love with essentially the first teenage boy she claps eyes on.

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(Sidenote: I am more excited for the Wonder Woman movie than is probably warranted, that line in the trailer “what I do is not up to you” I NEARLY FELL OVER it’s amazing)

But then maybe Norah is as strong as Wonder Woman, too: Norah, after all, has the persistent ability to contend with a brain which often works against her. There’s exploration of a teenage relationship in which serious issues and boundaries have to be dealt with early on, and while it’s tame in terms of content, that’s sort of the point. Under Rose-Tainted Skies strives to show a relationship in which two teenagers care about each other while scaling back the usual step-by-step of contemporary romance to fit its heroine’s needs. It’s a book that makes you cheer when they get to hold hands – for Luke and Norah, it’s a real triumph.

And in a move that will delight many with an interest in mental health-focused teen fiction, this book states pretty emphatically that love does not cure mental illness. Luke is Norah’s light in the dark, but he’s not a knight in shining armour, swooping in to show that mental illness can be fixed with a bit of starcrossed love or the quirk of an expressive, sculpted eyebrow.

The story may even have benefited for a little more of Luke, as it’s cast is more short film than blockbuster-sized. Norah and her mother are close and she has a positive relationship with her therapist which just about counterbalances what can come across as the book’s harsh judgement of other female characters. The writing style still needs work, as it relies on uninspired plot contrivances, the ending is rushed and poorly explored, and in a not-uncommon occurrence for a début, the plot is as simplistic as its structure. It lacks the warmth of polished, get-stuck-into-it contemporaries like Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door or Holly Bourne’s How Hard Can Love Be? It’s set in America though there’s no particular reason for it to be. It requires a trigger warning (self-harm) and it’s not always the most enjoyable of reads given its heavy theme.

Of course, it’s no secret that the best thing in, and perhaps the point of, this book is its raw, honest approach to mental health. It’s the reason it’s being recommended, the reason it’s being read. Much of what can be said about Under Rose-Tainted Skies’ approach to mental health has already been said, but it’s still worth mentioning. Norah’s distinctive voice and validated perspective aside, it notes her worries about medication and therapy and how an emotionally healthy support system – without caveats, without take-backs, without impatience disguised by tolerance – can be invaluable. There’s an unexpected physicality to the prose, specifically in the case of its emphasis on Norah’s awareness of her body and of how what many would assume is a purely psychological experience is in fact a highly physical one. Descriptions of place and colour may be a little lacklustre, but more internal descriptions, like those in which Norah relates what her agoraphobia kicking in does to her legs or limbs or brain, are visceral and incredibly specific. Descriptions of her body’s reactions to fear are more suggestive of a relentless mind-body rugby match than anything else. It’s not perfect, but it’s stark, unflinching stuff.

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A sensitive and defiant portrayal of a teenage girl’s complex relationship with the world, her brain and the boy who makes her wonder if she’ll ever be able to navigate both.

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London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning // fast, funny suspend-your-disbelief stuff

26177619Author: Sarra Manning
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 2 June 2016
Category: YA
Genre: Contemporary
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Told over the course of a single night, London Belongs to Us follows seventeen-year-old Sunny in a mad dash across London as she juggles a race for romantic retribution with herding grumpy French boys, wingwomaning for her roller-derbying best friend, and her sudden discovery of what is probably best described as gumption. Think of it as a reverse Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight: not twenty-four hours in a new place with a soulmate, but twelve hours in our heroine’s dodgy, decrepit, dazzling city as she faces a life where first love is rarely last love at all.

When her boyfriend is caught kissing another girl, known wallflower Sunny sees her night fall to pieces around her. At first sure that it was just some kind of mix-up, her race to find answers becomes one of mishaps, detours and chance encounters with unexpected allies. From Crystal Palace (so far away from civilisation you can’t even get the Tube there) to Clapham, Soho to Shoreditch, Mayfair to Muswell Hill, Sunny’s escapades plunge the reader into a London so vivid it spills from the page. Manning whips the city into a vibrant, dizzying, living, breathing place. Whether you love London or you struggle to understand just why anyone would bother, this book is a giddy, sensationally energetic story.

It’s so good at whirl-winding about, in fact, that it foresees your raised eyebrow at the string of maybe, possibly, slightly unrealistic twists, turns and coincidences which allow Sunny to zigzag across London in search of the boyfriend who thinks he can get away with cheating on her and says, I know. Look, have another late-night takeaway, maybe some RuPaul’s Drag Race, take your mind off it. Now that’s better, isn’t it? Oh, look! A dance sequence! It’s joyous, suspend-your-disbelief stuff.

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More than anything, London Belongs to Us is unexpectedly, brilliantly, bitingly funny. Its humour is effortless, sharp and clever, an offshoot of the story rather than the point of it. If you’re looking for a book which evokes madcap out-all-night teenage escapades without the Hollywood shimmer, this is the book for you: pacy but down-to-earth and full of good humour. Sunny, a proud resident of the affectionately-termed People’s Republic of Haringey, provides the kind of snark and commentary only teens can master. Sprinkled with lists, pie-charts and chatty introductions to different parts of London, the prose is solid, if slightly too reliant on old-fashioned texts (in 2016 reality, the whole thing would probably go down on Snapchat, but where’s the fun in that) and a little too busy jumping from one chaotic scene to the next.

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Manning’s skill lies in making even the most fleeting of touches count, whether it’s on family ties, feminism, pride in multicultural identity, sexual orientation, gender politics or any other part of everyday life for modern teens. Even the book’s hints of a potential romance are left tantalisingly out of reach. Manning saves her power for the punch of a showdown, and it’s a cracking formula. I’d love to see more YA with such distinctly story-focused style and flair.

Sunny’s quest is a decidedly buoyant one, despite the rough-around-the-edges reality of her city. It sees her coming face-to-face with all kinds of characters, from bolshy doorgirls to handsome, grumpy French boys (Vic and Jean Luc Godard, who I’m pretty sure was named after a filmmaker), whose air of mystery is somewhat punctured by their bickering and perhaps, a kind of loneliness far from home. There are even cameos from the cast of Manning’s acerbic Adorkable, including the brutally frank Jeane and the rather more laidback Michael (plus his poetry-inspiring cheekbones). Sunny’s single-minded pursuit of justice sees her on the brink of losing friends who would rather be crashing on the sofa at 3am on a Saturday night, but there are moments of strong friendship and great loyalty (except from OMG Martha, who’s probably just still in it for the drama).

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Fierce, fast-paced and fantastically fun, London Belongs to Us is ideal for fans of Holly Bourne and Karen McCombie. It’s a delightfully dramatic, astonishingly incisive and incredibly satisfying caper, as full of sarcasm as it is of emotionally powerful showdowns. Highly recommended.

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And I Darken by Kiersten White // ambitious, enthralling alternate history

25324111Author: Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi Children’s/Delacorte
Publication date: 7 July 2016
Category: YA
Genre: alternate history, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: Series
Source: I was kindly sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

No one expects a princess to be brutal.

In the perilous courts of fifteenth century Europe, there’s only one person Lada Dragwyla can rely on: herself. Abandoned by their father and used as pawns in a distant conflict, Lada and her brother Radu know their new home in the Ottoman empire is more prison than palace. Survival, let alone revenge, appears a slim possibility – but then Lada is no ordinary princess.

Lada has a thirst for power, but first she must find a way out of danger and back to the throne she believes is rightfully hers. A skilled warrior and a sharp tactician, even friendship with the sultan’s son, Mehmed, cannot quell Lada’s dreams of home – or her ruthless heart. Soon, however, Lada will find that the tangle of intrigue and suspicion which surrounds her is more complicated than she thinks.

A sweeping, elaborate alternate history with a ferocious cast, And I Darken is Kiersten White’s most ambitious project yet. I’m a fan of The Chaos of Stars, her entertaining, sometimes gorgeously written tale of starcrossed love, sunny San Diego and mythological sass. It’s a Stephanie Perkins meets Rick Riordan standalone with a great heroine. Also, when I reviewed it this happened:

(I JUST REALLY LIKE BOOKS OKAY AND SOMETIMES THIS MAKES VERY WORDY AND FULL OF FEELS also I’m doing my best to make this review one that, while enjoyable, will not provoke sobbing??)

YA is full of retellings, and still the premise behind And I Darken could make you do a double-take: it’s the reimagined what-might-have-been story of a genderbent Vlad the Impaler. It’s an idea most would never imagine as YA. It almost shouldn’t work – but somehow, it does. The writing style is detailed but familiar, weaving strong plot, page-turning intrigue and an interesting cultures into a novel which is both busy and clearly just the beginning of an epic saga. Throw in twists, turns, betrayals, lush backdrops and a well-written central trio, and this is enthralling historical fantasy.

It’s rare that a writer’s work matches up so fervently to their premise. To pull off its demanding hook, And I Darken has to commit to the possibilities of exploring alternate history. Kiersten White doesn’t underestimate her audience, but doesn’t assume they’ll invest in the idea either, and the result is bold but careful storytelling. By the end, you’ve forgotten Lada is supposed to be anyone but herself.

Lada is vicious, audacious, and prepared to do whatever it takes to save her own skin. She’s angry, blunt and spirited. I wrote that The Chaos of Stars’ Isadora is the kind of person you’d want on your side in a fight, but Lada is a completely different kettle of fish. She’s the person you’d want to be as far away from as possible in a fight, because she’s probably there to beat you. She’s brutal, though perhaps not quite as heartless as she thinks she is. She longs to see her childhood friend Bogdan again, has her curiosity piqued by new acquaintance Mehmed, and while she treats her brother Radu with the long-suffering sighs of someone fed up of her charge falling over and needing her to right them again, she does love him. Radu is the sun to her shadow, a welcome narrative relief who reveals secrets of his own. Mehmed is young, just finding his way around power, and may find that crossing Lada is a mistake not many would be brave enough to make.

There is a lack of positive relationships between Lada and other women, at least initially. Lada’s mother is written off almost immediately and the women of the Ottoman harem meet with her derision. White seems to notice this about a third of the way in, however, and while the book stops short of having Lada form deep, lasting female friendships, there are important female characters: power-hungry Huma; savvy, cynical Mara; bouncy, optimistic Halima; beautiful, coy Nazira. There are LGBTQ+ characters, several of whom I’d like to see more of in the sequels (which look set to be darker than this opener, but there’ll have to be happiness in there somewhere…)

The pacing is slow and while the first half is solid, the second half meanders in spite of action sequences. There are so many subplots they seem to merge together, hazy and hard to untangle. The jam-packed secondary cast can be difficult to keep up with and as the book tends to jump from place to place, I would’ve liked more vivid description to conjure the many scene changes. Fortunately, the book’s satisfying, unusual take on history was more than enough to keep me reading.

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And I Darken is fantastic historical fiction. Compelling, detailed and full of drama, it’s a challenging and unusual read with a ferocious heroine and an accomplished narrative voice. I’d love to see more YA take on ideas as ambitious as this. One of Kiersten White’s best books yet.

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Cuckoo by Keren David // an unusual foray into the fringes of YA fiction

25458775Author: Keren David
Publisher: Little, Brown/Atom
Publication date: 4 August 2016
Genre: contemporary
Category: YA
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Jake Benn is a teenage actor. Or at least he was.

Made famous as a familiar face in the nation’s most popular soap opera, Jake’s character went upstairs to his bedroom six months ago and hasn’t been seen on-screen since.

Now everything is crumbling around him: his mother reveals they’ve spent all his money, his father is charging unannounced into auditions, he can’t get a straight answer from his agent, no-one can get a straight answer from Market Square’s producers, and tensions are through the roof. At breaking point, he seeks escape at friends’ houses and, more and more often, on their sofas each night, but couch-surfing is a lot less glamourous when you’ve got nowhere else to go. As his life goes from bad to worse, Jake starts to feel like a cuckoo in every nest.

From the acclaimed author of When I Was Joe and This Is Not a Love StoryCuckoo is a novel about what happens when teenagers fall through the cracks, and finding unlikely solace when home is the least welcoming place of all.

I loved Keren David’s Salvage – the warm, engaging, dramatic tale of Aidan and Cass, a brother and sister separated by adoption and facing their own struggles at a time when their lives come twining back together – so of course I had high expectations for her latest novel. Her books are all about being lost and being found in some way, and in that sense Cuckoo is no different – though it is, simultaneously, very different. While she retains a trademark incisive approach to tough themes and hefty storylines, this book’s format is her most unusual yet.

Smart and unflinching, Cuckoo is written as transcripts from a web series, with chapters as episodes complete with comments and only minimal scene description. It may be a divisive technique, but if you stick with it there’s plenty to get your teeth into, from acting insights to social issues to the appearance of unexpected allies. For fans of Alice Oseman’s podcast-riddled Radio Silence or Claire Hennessy’s unusually-told Nothing Tastes as Good, this is an intriguing read.

Keren David sets herself quite the challenge in conjuring Jake’s story without the tools usually at an author’s disposal. Plot and character details have to be slipped into a narrative where almost all of the story is told to camera. It reads quickly and holds the reader’s attention. It presents the audience with a wide range of issues and challenges the audience to keep up with dialogue devoid of tags. It manages to create a distinct voice for at least some of its many characters and there’s frankly brilliant use of Shakespeare.

Lack of description and the general implausibility of the storyline (for example that people would agree to star in some twisted recreation of recent events in the protagonist’s life), however, make for a read which is both difficult to visualise and to invest in. Keren David attempts to ground the book with gritty realities, such as homelessness and the unreliability of work as an actor, but a bizarre mix of Jake’s unwillingness to actually explain what’s happening to him to anyone he knows and the unrealistic reactions of people around him leave the reader unsure whether this book is surreal or too real. The book is so full of issues which can’t be examined fully through the medium of dialogue alone that many are simply dropped in or not explored at all. The ending is rushed and there aren’t many characters to actually like, though the story is page-turning.

Perhaps this experiment in style has come from David’s role in turning Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery into a musical, but if Cuckoo resembles any of her previous books, it’s When I Was Joe. It’s hard-hitting, direct and leaves you wondering how much of the real story you’ve seen. Jake has a tinge of the unreliable narrator, but then so too do the characters who pepper the pages around him. An eclectic cast sees Jake meet many characters who wouldn’t be seen in the high-school-prom-dates-and-the-occasional-supernatural-event side of teen fiction. This book takes its pick of characters who fall through the cracks, and it’s particularly well done in the case of Marguerite Morgan, an elderly lady whose infirmities hide an illustrious past in acting and directing and who leaves even teenage characters in the dust when it comes to the sharp tongue stakes.

Cuckoo is a strange book. It’s not an easy read structurally or thematically, and it’s not exactly light-hearted, though there are elements of hope. It’s a book that will depend very much on the individual: for some, the fact that there’s no romance will appeal, while for others, the off-kilter style won’t provide enough detail to make it enjoyable. For others still, thinly-disguised parodies and homages – Market Square is Eastenders, Dame Edie Lombard evokes Dames Judi Dench and Helen Mirren – will pique interest. For me however the novel lacked the narrative warmth and generosity which makes good contemporary YA such a fan favourite.

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Serious, bold and a bit perplexing, Cuckoo asks a lot of its readers. It’s unusual format doesn’t work seamlessly, but it’s sure to stand out in UKYA this year. A tough but page-turning read.

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Songs About A Girl by Chris Russell // the latest addition to boyband YA

25782883Author: Chris Russell
Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books
Publication date: 28 July 2016
Category: YA/MG
Series or standalone?: Series
Genre: contemporary
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Charlie Bloom is happiest behind the camera and out of the limelight. But when she’s asked to take photographs for music sensations Fire&Lights, she can’t pass up the chance.

Catapulted into a whirlwind of music, ardent fans and scheming paparazzi, Charlie soon realizes that a life on tour isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s far more to the boys of Fire&Lights than fame, but even an expensive backdrop can’t hide the strain being put on their friendship. As bickering bubbles and rivalries simmer, Charlie is drawn to gorgeous, damaged frontman Gabriel and boy-next-door bandmate Olly Samson – but they’re the least of her problems when she stumbles on a mind-blowing secret, hidden in the lyrics of their songs.

Throw in friendship disasters and the realities of her own life, which haven’t gone away while she’s been hanging out with the most famous boys in the country, and Charlie finds herself caught in a tug-of-war between what she’s always known and what might one day be.

Songs About a Girl is the latest addition to a phenomenon which has come to be known as #boybandlit. For the uninitiated, #boybandlit seeks to capitalise on the popularity of boybands, particularly among those most passionate of fans, teenagers, specifically teenage girls, by merging the ever-so-slightly-out-of-reach daydreams of fandom with the skill of the professional pen. You heard it right, boyband fans: Larry fanfic is making its way to a bookshelf near you!

Sort of. Larry fanfic is a bit niche for mainstream YA, so for now the central paradigm for boybandlit requires a heroine – usually a teenager, always ordinary, often not hugely interested in catchily-named fandoms (it’s cooler for when they need to form coherent non-starstruck sentences later on) – to run into the most famous band on the planet in a way which distinguishes her from the screaming masses – by tripping over right in front of them, by being able to see them as people etc etc – before discovering that one of them is likely the love of her life (alas, it seems it is too soon for polyamory to have kicked in). For added drama there may be a love triangle, or she’ll be the shoulder to cry on as the bandmates reveal all their deepest secrets to her.(If this sounds cynical, it’s because well, I am. But I have good things to say, too. I am large, I contain multitudes…)

 Songs About a Girl starts out by following some of these tropes, but there are twists and turns which take it off the beaten track. Charlie has a family life, school problems, backstory and a clear motivation: she’s a good, but not perfect, photographer who wants to get better at what she does. Her life doesn’t stop just because she’s met a vaguely handsome boyband. There are subplots, social struggles and mysteries to be solved. As long as boyband lit respects teenage girls and continues to twine the skills of solid storytelling with the concept of the genre, then it’s fine by me. It helps that I like this book’s title: it’s simple, straightforward and most importantly sounds like an actual album. (I wasn’t quite sure why at first, but then I played Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane all through reading the book and writing this review.)

It’s driven by a fairly basic plot which sees secrets unravel and Charlie’s world turn upside down, and I have to say, it’s more page-turning than you’d expect. It’s occasionally predictable, and I found I’d guessed a major twist early on, but it’s all very dramatic. There are revelations and betrayals galore (including when one of the boys opens the door to Charlie and it seems he’s been leading her on while HAVING A FLING WITH A FAMOUS PERSON!). One twist had me like this: 

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Charlie’s a likeable heroine. Friendly Olly and bad boy Gabriel are touted as the book’s big stars but Yuki and Aiden, who’s Irish, get considerable time on the page too. Back at school, Charlie faces the highs and lows of best friendship with Melissa, who’s definitely hiding something from her, and taunts when her involvement with Fire&Lights hits the schoolyard as well as the gossip columns. The book’s portrayal of band life is a definite strength. It’s occasionally sanitised for a young audience, but it’s full of details and strives to at least blend realism with the admittedly unlikely premise of a teenager being plucked from obscurity to become an eyewitness to the fracturing relationships behind the nation’s favourite band. There are two sequels planned and the book ends on a cliffhanger which should keep readers on their toes.

Unfortunately, the characters are mostly two-dimensional. Charlie is sixteen, but the book is aimed at a younger audience, certainly in terms of tone and unchallenging prose. It doesn’t deal with issues brilliantly or in depth, which makes some of its scenes problematic. The dialogue isn’t great; it lacks sharpness and the intuitive, natural style of books like London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning or Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins.

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Songs About a Girl isn’t amazing, particularly as it has a plain writing style and a fairly basic set-up, but it’s easy to keep reading this short, page-turning take on #boybandlit.

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On The Other Side by Carrie Hope Fletcher // sweet, saccharine sort-of magical fiction

Author: Carrie Hope Fletcher
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Publisher:
Little, Brown/Sphere
Publication date: 14 July 2016
Category: adult fiction
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Genre: contemporary, magical realism, chick lit
Source: Lend
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Evie Snow has lived a long, good life. Full of optimism and not without sacrifice, she’s had eighty-two years to find her place in the world. When it comes to finding her place in the next, however, there’s an unexpected complication. 

Evie’s reached the door of her own private heaven, but it won’t open.

To open the door, Evie will have to unburden her soul of the secrets weighing it down – secrets she’s kept for over fifty years. Transformed into her twenty-seven-year-old self, Evie’s journey of a lifetime will see her revisit events and people she thought she’d lost forever – and come face-to-face with a love she thought she’d left behind long ago.

Before her days were filled with the sounds of children, grandchildren and a constant, humming ache for something that could never be, there was only one sound she wanted to hear: the sweet melody of a violin. Back then, she imagined a different future. Before, there was Vincent.

On The Other Side is charming, easy-to-read stuff. It has a remarkably similar plot device premise to Nothing Tastes As Good by Claire Hennessy (reviewed here last week and also released on 14th July, though I read the ARC in May) – they’re both narrated by characters who are technically ghosts completing tasks related to their old life – but that’s where the similarities end. Where Nothing Tastes as Good is dark, snarky and focuses on the struggles facing teen girls, On The Other Side is cheerful, romance-focused reading with the occasional serious undertone.

Vincent Winters is Evie Snow’s lost love, her what-might-have-been, her once-upon-a-time, but as complications unfurl, it’s evident that there’s more to the reason Evie Snow married a man named Summers instead. It’s a saccharine sweet, if idealised, romance, which sweeps the rest of the plot into its embrace. In terms of content, it’s all very PG; while released as an adult book, On The Other Side’s straightforward style, short chapters and character-driven plot make it clear the aim is to appeal to a wide audience.

Fletcher is known as one of the brighter, more sincere faces of generation YouTube, but On the Other Side also bears the hallmarks of her day job (as the West End’s Éponine and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Truly Scrumptious), if not literally then subtly, because, first things first, the story is there. Live theatre, particularly musical theatre, regularly seeks to make the impossible plausible, whether it’s singing a rebellion, flying a magic car, quintet-ing a gang war, defying gravity, the entirety of Cats, giving America’s favourite fighting Frenchman the fastest rap in living memory or just throwing fairytales at the stage to see what sticks. Musicals are aware that you’ve already suspended your disbelief by committing to a story where even ordinary information is delivered with synchronised key changes and the occasional good old-fashioned mid-sentence falsetto. This is the kind of suspend-your-disbelief story background Fletcher is coming from as she draws on magical realism – from semi-magical birds to talking heart trees – and gives this novel a feeling of wistful unreality.

If it’s the promise of dipping into Evie’e past that has you intrigued, then you should know that even going back fifty-five years, this book isn’t set in any distinctive era. There’s a sense that it’s meant to be quirky or disconcerting, but it’s a tricky idea to pull off, and  in this case leaves the reader only with the sense that it was perhaps simply more convenient not to have this summer release (cleverly timed to coincide with the start of the school holidays) held up by months of historical research. The placement of relics like sexism and arranged marriage alongside modern conveniences like mobile phones and skinny jeans seem out of place, off-kilter. It’s a shame too, as I love history, including historical fiction and drama. I was looking forward to a book with the good-cheer-in-tough-times feel of Call the Midwife or maybe the snazzier sixties-in-Australia equivalent Lovechild. On The Other Side misses an opportunity for richer storytelling here.

Evie is an easy heroine to like. There’s perhaps an element of self-insert fiction here (Evie has blonde curly hair, brown eyes, an emerald-green coat and a noticeably hopeful outlook) but it’s pretty harmless. The book’s secondary characters don’t leap from the page; overlong character descriptions do little more than introduce cardboard cut-outs from which sage advice, monotonous dialogue or unexplained villainy will leak. There is however welcome LGBTQIA+ representation (specifically bi and pan rep).

Unfortunately, the writing style isn’t as polished as it should be. It’s full of excessive adverbs, vocal clichés, unnecessary repetition, and tell in place of show. It’s heavy-handed and like many débuts indicates an author who hasn’t yet learned that it’s sometimes better to leave a few details to the imagination than rush it all out into two pages. You know that writing style you had when you were just starting out and your idea was good, but everything still came out in stiff dialogue and great lumps of exposition, single-spaced Arial size 12, one long run-on explanation from start to finish? And that writing style was totally fine, because you were learning as you went along and almost everyone falls into the tropes and traps of early aspiring fiction anyway. That’s essentially what you’ll find in On The Other Side, and to a well-read audience it will be particularly distracting. It’s the writing style of someone who has potential, but is still telling the story the way their early-writer self would. If it’s well-developed, make-your-eyes-widen-with-awe prose you’re after, you won’t find it here – yet.

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Simple, straightforward and saccharine sweet, On the Other Side is a charming, if uneven, fiction début. It’s warm and well-meaning, though a solid premise gives way to a style that needs a lot of work.

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