If Birds Fly Back by Carlie Sorosiak // summer contemporary fails to soar

34327163Author(s): Carlie Sorosiak
Publisher:
 Macmillan
Publication date: 29th June 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

Linny has been living life in black and white since her sister Grace ran away. When she witnesses the return of a cult writer and movie legend long presumed dead, she’s certain it’s a sign. Surely Álvaro Herrera can tell her why people come back – and how to bring her sister home?

Sebastian is in Miami seeking his father, a man whose name he’s only just learned. An aspiring astrophysicist, he can tell Linny how much plutonium weighs and how likely she is to be struck by a meteorite. But none of the theories he knows are enough to answer his questions about why his father abandoned him. 

As Sebastian and Linny converge around the mystery of Álvaro’s disappearance and return, their live turn to technicolour – but finding the answers to their questions might mean risking everything that matters.

If you’ve looked at any summer most anticipated list this year, you’ve probably seen mentions of If Birds Fly Back. Another one for the YA-in-2017 hype train, I was intrigued by its premise – teen girl tries to track down her runaway sister by investigating celebrity disappearances, including that of a Hollywood figure, and collides with a poetic, aspiring scientist along with the way – and figured it would be a pleasant early summer read. The concept is somewhere between Nina LaCour’s Everything Leads to You and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star (my review of which you can read here) but unfortunately that which made those books readable – charm, flashes of gorgeous prose – was lacking here.

Perhaps the most significant factor was the writing style. It’s choppy, jerky and totally off-putting. It really reminded me of Harriet Reuter Hapgood’s The Square Root of Summer (my review can be read here) which I didn’t enjoy either, though if you’re a fan of Reuter Hapgood, this book, also a Macmillan title, may be more your kind of thing. The book starts in media res and it’s so jumpy and confusing I had to check I hadn’t accidentally missed the first chapter of the ARC. The first half of the book is much of the same, with the prose leaving readers scrambling to catch up and get even a basic sense of who the characters are. I have high expectations for contemporaries – not least because there are so many of them in current YA – and if a novel doesn’t bring its A-game, whether that be in beautiful prose or new twists, I’d rather use precious reading time elsewhere.

However, the second half of the book shows improvement. Once the prose is settled in, and stops rushing about so much, the emotional stakes become clearer. Linny, short for Marilyn, is desperately seeking answers to her older sister’s disappearance even as her parents become ever more restrictive, while Sebastian, raised by a single mom who refuses to answer questions about his father, is searching for the man who has shaped his life by absence. Stronger pacing and greater dramatic tension make the book’s conclusion far more gripping and powerful than its opening.

There were some stylistic details, like Sebastian’s scientific explanations, which I really like, and others which are hit-and-miss. Linny’s screenplay is interesting, but very little seems to actually happen in it, and it could have been far more dynamic. The mysterious Álvaro lacks the charisma described by many of the characters and the setting sinks into sun-bleached staleness. The secondary cast could’ve been more developed and the romance is fairly predictable. Ultimately, Sorosiak fails to make If Birds Fly Back stand out from the crowd.

2HStars.fw

For fans of Adi Alsaid, Nicola Yoon and Harriet Reuter Hapgood, this contemporary’s premise contains potential but a jerky writing style and unsurprising plot mean it fails to soar.

NameTag2.fw

The Girl’s Guide To Summer by Sarah Mlynowski // a rare mishap from Mlynowski

31199783Author(s): Sarah Mlynowski
Publisher:
 Orchard Books
Publication date: 15th June 2017
Category: YA/NA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: series (possibly? maybe? idek)
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Nineteen-year-old Sydney has the perfect summer mapped out. She’s spending the next four and half weeks traveling through Europe with her childhood best friend, Leela. Their plans include the Eiffel Tower, eating gelato, and making out with très hot strangers. Her plans do not include Leela’s cheating ex-boyfriend showing up on the flight to London, falling for the cheating ex-boyfriend’s très hot friend, monitoring a delicate home life via texts, or feeling like the rope in a friendship tug-of-war.

As Sydney zigzags through Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands and France, she must learn when to hold on, when to keep moving, and when to jump into the Riviera…wearing only her polka dot underpants.

An experienced author of fiction for both adults and teens, Sarah Mlynowski can usually be relied upon to deliver fun, funky novels with a familiar, highly readable style. And in many ways, such traits are true of The Girl’s Guide to Summer (titled in some countries as I See London, I See France). It’s entertaining, fairly light-hearted and clearly designed as an untaxing, read-while-you-hold-a-brightly-coloured-drink-with-a-tiny-umbrella-in-one-hand beach read. The premise is straightforward and will appeal to the summer YA crowd. For fans of Luisa Plaja and Deb Caletti, it’s an absorbing and modern (namely in its persistent references to things like Instagram, which will no doubt see it quickly become dated) new release.

When long-time best friend Leela’s unexpected break-up sees her offered a spare plane ticket and the chance to backpack around Europe for a month, teenager Sydney, who hasn’t taken a break from her studies or from being her mom’s carer in years, can’t resist. Unfortunately, Leela’s ex-boyfriend Matt has decided to go backpacking anyway, and within days it becomes clear that they have unfinished emotional business of the tongue-tennis kind to take care of, leaving Sydney to play gooseberry – or get to know Matt’s mysterious (and, as she frequently reminds us, surprisingly hot) friend, Jackson. What unfolds is the story of a girl learning to navigate new continents, secret romances, thorny relationships, and the London Tube with, shall we say, varying levels of success.

The Girl’s Guide to Summer is frothy, sometimes even funny, stuff. Organised, put-together Sydney is there for her friends and family, whether that’s guiding drunk friends to the bathroom or checking up on her mother from thousands of miles away, but with temperamental Leela veering from loved-up to heartbroken at the drop of a hat and constantly placing demands on her attention, readers will likely feel she’s allowing herself to be pulled about a bit too often. Both meet other backpackers on their travels, including some particularly exuberant Australians, but I would’ve liked to have seen a more balanced, mutually beneficial friendship take up the core of the book. Her resident Paris friend, Kat, also gets plenty of time on the page but where emotional depth should appear alongside her confidence, she’s defined mostly by Sex and the City levels of brassy materialism. Sydney’s romance with outgoing, handsome Jackson, meanwhile, is certainly aiming for swoony – but one can’t help feeling it’s a little shallow, as after some initial back-and-forth Sydney spends most of the book specifying only her attraction to him while meaningful conversation is glossed over.

And, perhaps most crucially, while this book is being marketed as YA, specifically to Mlynowski’s YA audience, it is not YA. It’s something resembling NA (the once-popular ‘New Adult’ category), with a touch more added for some attempt at a half-hearted transition. There’s heavy drinking, drug use and (apparently in place of taking more than one or two opportunities to explore themes in a thoughtful, interesting way) a scene entirely set at a live sex show in Amsterdam. The protagonists’ travels around Europe rely on super generalised stereotypes, the relationships lack depth, serious themes aren’t particularly thoroughly handled and the ending is completely rushed, leaving little room for wrapping up details or any narrative conclusion.

3hstars-fw

For fans of Keris Stainton and Deb Caletti, The Girl’s Guide to Summer is entertaining but ultimately ill-categorised. I expected more from the author of Ten Things We Did (And Probably Shouldn’t Have) and Don’t Even Think About It. 

NameTag2.fw

Release by Patrick Ness // a tale of two (rather off-kilter) halves

Author(s): Patrick Ness31194576
Publisher:
 Walker Books
Publication date: 4th May 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary, supernatural
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

Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant boss, and unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart.

He has two people to keep him sane – his new boyfriend Linus and his best friend Angela – but over the course of a single day, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing his life into chaos. Meanwhile, lurking at the edges, something unearthly and unsettling is set on a collision course with Adam and his town. A day of confrontation and transformation will not be without sacrifice – yet in spite of everything he has to let go, Adam may also find freedom in release.

Patrick Ness – a man with his fingers in a number of metaphorical pies when it comes to writing and creating for young people – is clearly enjoying being YA fiction’s genre-hopping answer to Neil Gaiman. Even a short list of his pursuits includes two Carnegie medals, two movie deals, the top spot in writing and creating Doctor Who spin-off Class, a plethora of awards, near-innumerable newspaper inches, and a string of well-received books. His cherry-picking of projects has made itself clear in novels like More Than This, The Rest of Us Just Live Here and now an attempt to bring Virginia Woolf’s formidable Mrs Dalloway to a modern teenage audience.

Perhaps because of this freedom to choose projects that might never get off the ground in the hands of a newly signed writer, Release is a novel which basks in its own literariness. There are nods to Woolf everywhere, from the wholesale borrowing of structure or events to more subtle references which should please those who’ve read the original without becoming too unwieldy for those who haven’t. Judy Blume’s Forever is also said to have been an influence. The writing style itself echoes with familiar characters of Ness’ YA: predictable rhythm, unflashy description, serious tone, the occasional moment of light-heartedness, though it’s denser and more formal than usual.

For fans of Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera and The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, the core of Release is protagonist Adam’s struggle with identity and orientation in the face of small-town mindsets and his religious, intolerant parents, who subscribe to views even they know are out-dated. Confrontation of Adam’s experiences gives the novel emphatic dramatic weight. Ness navigates implicit repression, outright rejection and other difficult topics with consistent dexterity. He places the venom of Adam’s preacher father alongside the exhilaration of his relationship with Linus and the fearless acceptance of best friend Angela – one of the best and most underrated characters in the book. Complicated characters litter the novel, with only the occasional flat note or slip into the one-dimensional among the secondary cast.

By turns bleak and busy, harsh and hopeful, Adam’s story is accompanied by a rather less effective supernatural sideplot. Essentially, a so-called queen, a faun, a murder, drug abuse and unanswered questions get turned into the kind of eerie-mystery-possibly-a-ghost-story. The reader is aware that it’s supposed to illuminate some deep and meaningful parallel to the contemporary plotline, but it’s so disparate I found it detracted from the more successful parts of the book. If you’re going to write contemporary magical realism, you’re better off really going for it, as in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys or Moira Fowley-Doyle’s spellbinding The Accident Season.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but perhaps more fitting here is Oscar Wilde’s variation on the phrase: “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Because while Release is solid, it’s not earth-shattering. In fact, the prose is sometimes, well, boring. I’m not sure that an attempted reworking of one of Virginia Woolf’s most complex books by a middle-aged white dude was something YA needed. Adam’s navigating of relationships, identity and sexual orientation sits firmly in the tradition of foregrounding the G in LGBT in teen fiction, while elements of the book designed to make it seem unique – reinterpretation of a classic, a supernatural undercurrent – don’t mesh the way they should. A Monster Calls remains Ness’ best work.

3Stars.fw

An ambitious offering from the ever-versatile Patrick Ness, who is clearly punching for the literary side of critical acclaim with this Mrs Dalloway-inspired novel. Unfortunately, a misjudged supernatural subplot and prose that dulls more than it shines leave this effort curiously askew.

NameTag2.fw

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord // outstandingly thoughtful, feel good YA

32799280

Author(s): Emery Lord
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 1st June 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

Lucy Hansson was ready for the perfect summer with her boyfriend, working at her childhood Bible camp on the lake. But when her mom’s cancer reappears, Lucy falters – in faith, in love, and in her ability to cope.

When her boyfriend ‘pauses’ their relationship and her summer job switches to a different camp, this time for trouble kids, Lucy isn’t sure how much more she can handle. Thrown into a world of broken rules, close-knit coworkers and relentlessly energetic third graders, she attempts to regain her footing while keeping her Sundays with her mom to herself. But she’s not the only one with secrets, and she may find that in the summer she thought she needed it least, her new world – and the people in it – could be what she needs most. 

The Names They Gave Us is a considered and highly engaging exploration of the summer one confident but somewhat sheltered teenager’s world is turned upside down surprises and endears at every turn. It’s character-driven but delivers on plot as well as premise. It’s warm and heartfelt, but also serious, thoughtful and, occasionally, heartbreaking. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, but it really blew me away. I gave Lord’s last book quite a high rating (you can read my review of When We Collided here), but I’m glad I left room for just a little more for this standalone.

Capable, put-together Lucy finds herself completely thrown by the recurrence of her mother’s cancer and by her dependable, upright boyfriend’s subsequent checking out of their relationship. When an old friend seeks an emergency replacement for a counsellor who quit at the summer camp across the lake, Lucy agrees at her mother’s request. At first feeling both out of place and way out of her depth, Lucy must navigate a new world where kids who have seen too much could do with someone on their side. Kind, accepting, hard-working Lucy is a well-realised protagonist. She does her best in the face of challenges and is slowly realising she is in a place where it is okay to feel as she does – angry, conflicted, afraid, guilty for the chinks showing in her once-dutiful armour – and what’s more, where new friends and unexpected allies will feel it with her.

Among them are fellow counsellors like friendly Anna, guarded Keely, and outgoing Tambe, each with histories and complexities of their own. Best of all, however, is the bespectacled, lively, flaweed Henry Jones. Their romance is realistic, passionate and honest. Lucy and Jones actually spend time together and get to know each other – their shared talent for music and equal devotion to the kids of camp are particular highlights – turning theirs from sweet romance to gorgeous relationship in a way that soars. I liked Lucy trying to figure out her young chargers, too, whether by teaching shy Thuy to swim to giving Nadia a shoulder to lean on. Vibrant, diverse and individual, these characters leap from the page.

The Names They Gave Us is filled with the requisite moments of plot and drama, secrets and revelations, humour and heartbreak. Frank, compassionate and incredibly empathetic, the vivid portrayal of its characters’ multifarious, and sometimes traumatic, experiences is exemplified by Lord’s unabashed confrontation of themes as varied as grief, sexuality, and religion. The immense sensitivity with which Lord depicts faith allows her to capture both Lucy’s belief and struggles. This is YA with present parents in the shape of Lucy’s funny, loving mom and open, good-natured pastor dad, and with fabulous, imperfect friendships, too. The ending is quite rushed and abrupt, and the prose style is a little choppy, but the book is absorbing from start to finish. A worthy choice for what is, at the time of writing, only my second five star rating of the year.

5stars-fw

I adored this book. For fans of Sara Barnard, Sarah Dessen and Jennifer E. Smith, this is feel-good, heart-rending contemporary. The characters are fantastic, the romance well-written and the story sweeps you away. Emery Lord is improving with every book she writes.

nametag2-fw

One Italian Summer by Keris Stainton // chatty contemporary is as bubbly as it is bittersweet

Today on the blog, I review what should be one of many shiny summer reads this year!

31322309Author: Keris Stainton
Publisher:
 Hot Key Books
Publication date: 4th May 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: NetGalley
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Milly loves her sisters more than anything. They’re her best friends and closest confidants. Their annual trip to Rome – full of food, family and fun – should be all she can think about. But this holiday is different. The city still holds its familiar charms, but it’s been a year since their dad died, and it’s left a gaping hole in their lives that none of them know how to fill.

With grief still raw for all of them, Milly is facing the additional awfulness of having to see Luke again. Gorgeous Luke, who she made a total fool of herself with. What’s more, things between Milly, her sisters and their mum are rocky. Leonie is tempestuous and unpredictable, Elyse is caught up in her new boyfriend, and Milly just doesn’t know how she fits in any more. Over one Italian summer, can Milly find a way back to the life she once had? Or is the person she once was gone for good? 

Bittersweet and bubbly, Keris Stainton’s latest contemporary is a solid addition to this year’s crop of summer UKYA. I was engrossed from the start. Keris – who remains the only UKYA author I know who could convincingly be known by a mononym – returns to charming, big-hearted form with One Italian Summer. Fans of Emma Hearts LA and Jessie Hearts NYC will find her conjuring of a world-famous city has just the right romantic comedy touch. I would’ve liked a little more detail or a stronger sense of Milly and her family’s years-long familiarity with the city, but for a fun, fast literary mini-break, it just about works.

There’s lots to enjoy in this book: delicious food, family weddings, late-night parties, sunny weather, delicious food, busy streets, an LGBT subplot, even more delicious food. The writing style is chatty, frank and funny, with plenty of cheeky, laugh-out-loud moments. The family dynamics are rich and realistic, with room for both familiarity and tension. The characters are on the whole well-realised, flawed and distinct.

ois2

For as long as she can remember, teenager Milly and her sisters have spent a little bit of every summer in Rome with their parents, extended family and a cohort of friends. A wedding should make this trip the happiest ever – but still recovering from the loss of her dad, Milly isn’t sure anything can ever be the same again. She’s practically given up on college dreams, her mum works all the time, Elyse can’t wait to move out of home and in with her boyfriend, and Leonie is about to throw a curveball (natch). One Italian Summer may seem as light as a Victoria sponge but it is infused with the tang of heartache, perhaps more so than expected. The touristy hustle-and-bustle of Rome is tempered by the profundity and anchorlessness of loss. Its emotional core is never far from Milly’s narration. A tricky, and by no means always successful, balance between solemnity and messy reality makes for a summer contemporary with a serious side.

Close-knit, natural and devoted, the relationships which underpin the novel are particularly fantastic. They establish so much depth in such a short time. Elyse, Leonie and Milly are well-written individually, but they’re best when they’re together. From nicking each other’s food to collapsing face-first on each other’s duvets on bad days, they’ve got absolutely no sense of personal space and I loved it. There’s also a great dynamic with their cousin Toby and aunt Alice. I would’ve liked more prose description or extra plot, but if these relationships are the architecture of the book, then One Italian Summer stands on firm foundations.

ois

Milly feels her face flush even thinking about Luke, her cousin’s handsome best friend and the boy they’ve known for so long he’s become a regular face during their Roman holidays. Convinced she’s made an irreparable fool of herself in front of the friendly, laidback boy of her dreams, Milly’s romantic stumblings are painfully awkward and totally relatable. Stainton negotiates ideas of love, lust, consent and sex-positivity with only the occasional error, and I think Lauren James got it right when she described Milly as thirsty – because, oh boy, is she into Luke. She’s basically got “I want to lick his face” floating above her head in giant neon letters. Like with the book itself, there’s nothing hugely original or ground-breaking here, but it’s an enjoyable read. There are mistakes and misunderstandings, but I liked the way the relationship ultimately played out. There’s added romance with the soon-to-be-married Alice and Stefano, and while I don’t think we were supposed to like suave, good-natured Italian Stefano more than Luke, we all know he’s true love interest of the book, really. Stefano earns one of the stars here all by himself, to be honest.

4stars-fw

Sunlit and chatty, funny and bittersweet, One Italian Summer marks a return to form for Keris Stainton. A considerable improvement on previous release Counting Stars, there’s a warmth to this contemporary, and particularly its core relationships, which just about balances its weighty emotional subplot. If you like Lisa Williamson or Luisa Plaja, this one’s for you.

NameTag2.fw

Contemporary Catch-Up // This Beats Perfect by Rebecca Denton and Countless by Karen Gregory

33135198Author(s): Rebecca Denton 
Publisher:
 Atom
Publication date: 2 February 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Amelie Ayres has impeccable taste in music: Bowie. Bush. Bob. So when she finds herself backstage watching one of the most famous boybands in the world perform for thousands of screaming fans, she expects to hate it – after all, The Keep are world’s most tragic band. She has to admit, though, that feels a sort of respect, not (obviously) for their music, but for the work that goes in to making them megastars. And when lead singer Maxx is not dressed up like Elvis and/or a My Little Pony, he is actually rather normal, with creative struggles not too dissimilar to her own.

But then a photo of her backstage makes her a subject of global speculation, and suddenly the world needs to know #Who’sThatGirl? for all the wrong reasons.

Immaculate is a concept. Flawless is fake. But just sometimes music, and hearts, can rock a perfect beat.

As someone who has kept an eye on boyband lit in YA fiction, I’d hoped this book would be an admirable addition to a sub-genre which is often fun, engaging and appealing to modern audiences. Unfortunately, I was left disappointed by a book which wastes its potential and, worse still, trivialises a style which has been so cleverly adapted in contemporaries like Sophia Bennett’s brilliant Love Song.

Teenage singer-songwriter Amelie Ayres, visiting her sound engineer father, finds herself backstage at the gig of one of the biggest boybands in the world – the only problem is, she has zero interest in the peppy pop and flashy outfits that have made them famous. She’s surprised by what it’s like to meet the boys behind the band, but when one of them snaps a selfie with her, the rumour mill goes into overdrive. Caught up in the world of the band whether she likes it or not, Amelie must navigate jealousy, paparazzi, hints of romance and her own stage fright if she’s to find where she truly wants, or needs, to be.

Unfortunately, the most interesting elements of this plot – the pressures of fame, behind-the-scenes figures, exploration of the sometimes-manufactured nature of boybands, possibilities for complex characterisation – are lost in a soup of bad dialogue, flat characters and poor prose. There is far better writing out there in YA than appears in this book. This Beats Perfect is patronising, vapid and full of the pseudo-dialogue that would half make you think the author had never actually heard a real teenager speak. It underestimates and undervalues its intended readership, insulting their intelligence and inadvertently making a mockery of the passion which is poured into fandom and musicianship.

The interest in music that’s supposed to make Amelie stand out quickly reveals itself to be music snobbery of the worst kind, transplanted onto a protagonist presented as knowing and somehow superior to other girls (and you know how much I dislike the ‘I’m not like other girls’ trope) but who is ultimately incredibly immature, particularly considering she and her friends are supposed to be sixteen. I liked Amelie’s interest in music production and there was potential in her relationship with her family, but Denton does a disservice to real teenagers in her stilted characterisation and in not being able to make her mind up about what the book is trying to say.

2stars-fw

I wanted to like this one, but This Beats Perfect wastes its potential and fails to deliver the intelligent and complex depictions of fandom, passion and music teenage readers deserve. Sophia Bennett’s Love Song and Jenny McLachlan’s Flirty Dancing are more enjoyable alternatives.

34299826Author(s): Karen Gregory
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 4 May 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

When Hedda discovers she is pregnant, she doesn’t believe she could ever look after a baby. The numbers just don’t add up. She’s young and still in the grip of an eating disorder that controls every aspect of her daily life. She’s even given it a name: Nia. But as the days tick by, Hedda comes to a decision: she and Nia will call a truce, just until the baby is born. 17 weeks, 119 days, 357 meals. 

Karen Gregory’s début novel is a story of love, heartache, and how sometimes the things that matter most can’t be counted.

I find books like this one – serious, relentless, grotesquely eerie – difficult to rate mainly because while I appreciate the effectiveness of the point the writer is trying to make, my star ratings are influenced by enjoyment, and I did not enjoy this book. Torn between the vice-like grip of her eating disorder and the desire to keep her daughter strong, teenager Hedda is engaged in a narratively violent struggle with the anorexia she calls Nia.

Countless is gritty, efficient and reminiscent of work by Melvin Burgess, Nick Hornby and Clare Furniss. It’s peppered with difficult choices, old habits and skewed relationships, with some characters failing while others step up to the plate. There’s unexpectedly kind neighbour Robin, honest fellow new mother Lois, Hedda’s distant, critical and painfully unforthcoming parents, her perfect, detached sister Tammy, and, never too far away, the reminders of the protagonist’s eating-disorder existence. It’s not a terribly diverse book, but YA readers looking for books without a romance may find the focus on character, topical issues and Hedda’s personal journey works for them.

Gregory explores themes of love, self-esteem, family breakdown and flashbacks to the weird world of ED units, where Hedda and her fellow sufferers go ostensibly for treatment but wind up building toxic friendships and becoming locked in some bizarre race to be thinnest, sickest, cruellest. She writes with both immense empathy and unflinching characterisation, but the book is undoubtedly triggering and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who has had or come into contact with real-life eating disorders. Moments of hope and Hedda’s unquestionable love for daughter Rose are really the only features that make reading a book that might be gripping if it weren’t so chilling possible.

2HStars.fw

A mix of Jacqueline Wilson’s Dustbin Baby, Nick Hornby’s Slam and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, this is a brutal, almost raw rendering of hyper-contemporary YA, dominated by its theme of eating disorders but somewhat salvaged by its empathy and the depth of Hedda’s feeling for Rose. Not an enjoyable or an easy read, and not one I’ll be leaping to recommend.

nametag2-fw

Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton // a strong sequel for sassy (and sandy) fantasy

Today on the blog, I’m (finally) reviewing one of the most exciting UKYA fantasy releases of the year – though it is a sequel, so there may be spoilers! If you need a recap, I reviewed the first book in the series, Rebel of the Sands, here.

31574408Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Publisher:
 Faber & Faber
Publication date: February 2nd 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: NetGalley
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Teenage gunslinger Amani Al-Hiza has escaped the dead-end desert town of Dustwalk only to find herself caught up in a rebellion held together by an enigmatic prince and a handful of extraordinary Demdji.

Thrust into the most dangerous place for a revolutionary in their war-torn kingdom, Amani is trapped in the sultan’s palace, far from the source of her magic and from those she cares about. With unlikely enemies as well as unexpected allies lurking around every corner, she must do whatever it takes to help end the tyranny of the sultan’s rule. Or the rebellion, and the hope it brings her people, will be snuffed out at the cold and pitiless hands of a tyrant – father to her rebel prince, a man who would slay his own family before giving up the throne.

For Amani, freedom is blood and sweat and sand. It means friendship forged in fire and the tantalising possibility of a life with mysterious rebel Jin. If they can make it out of the war for Miraji alive, and bring a new dawn to an old desert.

Rich, exciting and enthralling, Traitor to the Throne – the second book in what is rapidly becoming one of current UKYA’s most dramatic and action-packed fantasy series – is a commendable follow-up to last year’s Rebel of the Sands. This brisk but immersive foray into the world of Miraji – where rough wild west meets mysterious desert sands and long-hidden magic abounds – sees heroine Amani once again elbow-deep in fighting for her freedom and that of her people.  Hectic, pacy and bursting with plot, it’s driven by sparky bravery, simmering revolution, outrageous treachery, daring rescues, thrilling escapes, surprise re-appearances, and more powerful magic than ever before, and I was gripped from start to finish.

Tough, courageous, reckless and not afraid to get her hands dirty, the badass Amani crowns a cast of ragtag rebels, menacing enemies and palace spies. Among my favourites were well-written newcomers Sam and Rahim, royal prince turned noble rebel Ahmed and returning warrior Shazad, whose acerbic skill and general ferocity have been joined by fantastic flashes of friendship and loyalty. Amani’s love interest Jin also returns, though Hamilton is forced to squeeze their romantic moments into the unlikeliest of narrative places – and of course there are tempestuous tiffs and tricky complications to consider. The secondary cast is overbusy and difficult to keep track of even with the help of a character list. Hamilton resists the temptation of the traditional book two love triangle, however, and I am absolutely intrigued to see how intense the finale may be after such a fizzing installment.

Ideal for fans of Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen and Kiersten White’s And I Darken, this undoubtedly feels like the middle book of a trilogy but is still full of twists (some I guessed and some I didn’t), and if you haven’t read Rebel of the Sands, it’s well worth doing so. In world-building that is efficient yet sweeping, Hamilton takes the opportunity to show more of the creations she’s spun, from Miraji’s neighbouring nations to the sumptuous and treacherous palace. Opening with a jump in time allows for the avoidance of some second book pitfalls, but sacrifices potential emotional power and resolution.

I would’ve liked more description in the prose as it’s become noticeably more punchy and dialogue-heavy, with, dare I say it, almost too many quips? The first half is basically a bunch of teenagers trying to take over the desert armed only with sarcasm and quick comebacks, which while awesome, doesn’t make for the most substantial of reading experiences. Occasionally the series’ wild west element is forgotten amid the unquestionable glitz and glam of magic, but then that magic is beguiling – and if anything, it leaves the reader longing for more. Particularly pleasing is the weaving of folk-tales and myth-style storytelling into the high-stakes, highly entertaining plot.

4stars-fw

One of the best UKYA fantasy fiction offerings of recent years, Alwyn Hamilton’s tales of rebellion and magic, though not flawless, are pacy and full of action. Dramatic, exciting and unputdownable. I really enjoyed this one.

nametag2-fw