Moonrise by Sarah Crossan // Crossan dives back into solo verse fiction

33837404Author(s): Sarah Crossan
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 7th September 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary, verse
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

Joseph Moon hasn’t seen his brother for ten years, and it’s for the most brutal of reasons. Ed is on death row.

But now Ed’s execution date has been set, and Joe is determined to spend time with him, no matter what other people think. 

From one-time winner and two-time Carnegie Medal shortlisted author Sarah Crossan, Moonrise asks big questions. Does it cost to hope? What can you forgive? And when someone else’s past overshadows you, what does it take to find the light?

Moonrise opens with three pages of praise for Sarah Crossan’s heart-shattering, elegant verse story of sisterhood, One. And, given One’s track record – it was undoubtedly one of the most critically lauded YA novels of its release year, with extensive press coverage and collecting the Carnegie Medal, the YA Book Prize, and the CBI Book of the Year Award among others – why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to show it off? Even I gave it five stars back when I first read the advance copy in 2015 (at the time of writing, I’ve only given three so far this year). You get the feeling, then, that it could be a tough act to follow. In fact, Crossan probably could’ve pulled a John Green, waited five years to publish again and still have been given a lot of leeway by the book world. But fresh off a top-notch collaboration with fellow Carnegie and Costa alum Brian Conaghan (you can read my review of We Come Apart here), it seems she’s thrown herself into a new solo novel which tackles some seriously challenging subjects.

Joe’s older brother Ed, arrested at eighteen, has been in jail since Joe was seven. An already tenuous family life crumbled with Ed gone. Abandoned by an alcoholic mother who never showed she wanted them anyway, Joe and his sister Angela were left to fend for themselves or be taken in by their religious Aunt Karen. Ed’s kept in touch through letters from Texas, but now that he’s been given a date of execution, Joe feels one of them must answer his request for a visit. At first, the person behind the glass seems like a stranger: ten years older, tattooed, hardened and bruised by his time in the prison system. Piece by piece, Joe finds that his brother is still his brother: he talks, he cares, he hopes. But his fate rests on a final series of appeals, and Joe can’t yet bear to think beyond each visit.

Punchy, audacious and carefully constructed, Crossan’s choice of characters – many flawed, others unlikeable – in this book aligns with her established narrative interest in outsiders. The fallout of Ed’s sentence has created invisible casualties Joe and Angela, but the loyalty between them is persistent. She emphasises tremendous humanity while anticipating, and asking, questions of her audience. The minor characters are forgettable and it’s not exactly an enjoyable read, but it’s almost impossible not to get swept into Crossan’s writing. For fans of particularly stunning poetry or twisty, complex plots, her unflashy verse (‘like a rock into a river / she fell’) may be a little too close to functional here, but there is a whole story packed into its pages. There are hints of books like Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas to the subjects of Moonrise, but it’s unmistakably Crossan’s work. Confronting themes like social disintegration, family breakdown, corruption, injustice and capital punishment, if it is nominated for next year’s Carnegie – and it will surely be a potential nominee – expect to see it up for the Amnesty CILIP Honour.

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From one of the most accomplished verse specialists working in YA today comes a hard-hitting, effective, and thought-provoking novel which tackles challenging subjects through a now-familiar style. 

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The Explorer by Katherine Rundell // “You should always dress as if you might be going to the jungle”

34992381Author(s): Katherine Rundell
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 10th August 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): adventure, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Quotes from this copy may be subject to final changes.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

From his seat in a tiny aeroplane, Fred can see the vast Amazon jungle below him. He has always dreamed of becoming an explorer, of making history and reading his name on lists of great discoveries.

But when the plane crashes through the canopy, Fred suddenly finds himself in the jungle far sooner than he expected, along with three other children he’s only just met: Con, Lila and Max. With little hope of rescue, their chances of getting home feel impossibly small. Except, it seems, that someone has been there before them…

I love YA, but when you spend a lot of time reading and reviewing it (and its seemingly never-ending swamp of contemporary fiction), it can be a real breather to jump back into the exuberant capers and imaginative gymnastics of children’s fiction. There is a touch of that vibrancy to the work of Katherine Rundell, whose books include Rooftoppers (“A soaring story of adventure, friendship and hope set on the rooftops of Paris,” to use the fabulous Jenny’s words) and The Wolf Wilder, one of the most reviewed children’s titles of 2015. Set in the untamed wilds of the Amazon rainforest and following four children who must work together to find their way back home, there’s no other term for it: The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. 

Fred has read everything he can get his hands on about explorers, adventurers and the great expeditions which have taken them into the unknown. But with his father far too busy working and being respectable to notice (“his father always insisted so unswervingly on clean shoes and unrebellious eyebrows”), Fred’s dreams have always been a secret. That is, until a trip to Brazil sees him crashlanded in the jungle with three other children – siblings Lila and Max, and haughty Con (actually Constantia but use it at your peril). While their time in the jungle is dangerous (and involves eating spiders), it opens up something more in each of them. Fred gets braver. Con learns to climb trees and run. Lila’s love for animals, though she’s never been allowed a pet, leads her to adopt a sloth named Baca who likes to hang out in her hair. Five-year-old Max mostly wanders off into nearby trees/beehives/ant nests, but you get the idea. There’s lots of teamwork, arguing, and new friendship.

As with all good kids’ books, adult characters are a secondary consideration. There is one exception in the titular and nameless explorer, a mysterious and gruff jungle-dweller who lives in some ancient ruins and can catch fish with his bare hands (think Indiana Jones if he was more concerned with leaving things intact than putting them in a museum). Rundell makes sure to give each of her characters moments of complexity or backstory, the explorer included. The period setting isn’t entirely specific, but a little digging puts it somewhere in the mid-to-late 1920s. There were no illustrations in my early copy, which is a shame as they have the potential to really change or cement one’s experience of the book. It takes time to invest in the plot and a rushed ending is precipitated by just a little too much dialogue, but the book runs at an otherwise jolly pace. It’s packed with incident, from hair-raising river rides to tricky rock climbs.

Rundell’s prose is fairly straightforward, but also expressive (“his accent, Fred thought, belonged among good tailoring and fast motor cars”) and memorable (“I liked that it might be all right to believe in large and wild things”). The rainforest – “it was a thousand different colours; lime and emerald and moss and jade and a deep dark almost black green that made him think of sunken ships” – ultimately becomes a place more for savouring than escaping from. Rundell takes the opportunity to invoke the host of extraordinary creatures who call it home, too. Sloths, snakes, spiders, monkeys, Amazon river dolphins, whispers of big cats (“something with strong jaws and sharp manners”) all get a look in.

The writing style will appeal to readers across the 7-12 age group, and could make a great family/parent-child choice for reading aloud or together – particularly as the writing is by turns clever, challenging, touching (“Love is so terrifying. It is less like rainbows and butterflies and more like jumping on to the back of a moving dragon”) and tongue-in-cheek (“I did not admire our prime minister. He is very well-dressed, but despite his many protestations to the contrary, I am not one hundred percent sure he can read”). Of course it requires a little suspension of disbelief, a little strategic pacing, but young readers employ logic where it suits them and it is not going to detract too much from the story here. The Explorer is about adventures, and wildlife, and kids who get their hands dirty.

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Vibrant, expressive and often clever, The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. Rundell’s prose is terrifically appealing. Ideal for young fans of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything or Abi Elphinstone’s The Dreamsnatcher. 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Contemporary Catch-Up // The Hate U Give and When We Collided

Today on the blog it’s more contemporary YA (and I continue my battle with writing reviews that are actually less than a thousand words long), including one of 2016’s shiniest and one of 2017’s most talked-about!

25663637When We Collided by Emery Lord
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: April 7th 2016
Series or standalone?: standalone

Jonah is the kind of boy Vivi never expected to want.

Vivi is the kind of girl Jonah has never given himself time to love.

In an unflinching story about new love, old wounds, and the summer that paints their lives in vivid technicolour, Vivi and Jonah find that when you collide with the right person at just the right time, it can change you in all the ways you don’t expect.

As full of joy as it is of sorrow, this is a tale of family and food and love and sunshine and struggle. It is both generously written and incredibly bittersweet, and I was unexpectedly swept away by its frank and vividly unfurling story. The first Emery Lord book I’ve ever read, it’s taken me so long to review it her next book is already almost out – but if you haven’t read this yet, it’s absolutely worth doing so. For fans of Sarah Dessen and Sara Barnard, this is an energetic and memorable character-driven contemporary with enough plot and drive to feel satisfying.

Stubborn, sincere, sweet and hardworking, devoted brother Jonah is doing what he can to keep his family together after personal loss and during unspoken absences: keeping his family’s restaurant afloat, caring for his young siblings, running himself ragged. Bright, colourful Vivi is a whirlwind of cheer and exuberance, and longing to forget that which has been dealt to her, finds herself whisking a rather bewildered Jonah off his feet. Both are fabulously well-realised, at turns flawed and wonderful, characters: I liked Vivi, but particularly loved Jonah. Lord displays a deft hand in constructing secondary characters, too, whether in Verona Cove’s residents or, among my favourites, Jonah’s siblings.

Told in keen alternate narration, Jonah’s sturdy, big-hearted look at a precarious family contrasts sharply with Vivi’s gregarious but sometimes unpredictable enthusiasm. The latter is notable for its skilled and carefully-constructed illustration of rapid and reeling experiences of bipolar disorder. If you’re looking for YA that gives depth and resonance to the often lacking summer romance device, this is absolutely the book for you. Occasional missteps in twists, dialogue and narration – there’s a touch of instalove, the broader setting is a little forgettable (though the beach scenes are always a plus) and there are some details here and there I wasn’t a fan of – mean it falls short of being a five-star read, but there are moments when it comes close.

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When We Collided is sweeping, vivid and punchy. I love recommending this one. Such a fantastic read. 

32613366The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: April 6th 2017
Series or standalone?: standalone

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised, and the posh suburban high school she attends an hour away.

The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed friend, Khalil, by a police officer, and – in a novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement – she finds herself struggling for justice, clinging to hope, and fighting to be heard.

First things first: this is probably the hypiest book is the history of YA hype (and you know how I feel about hype). It débuted right onto the NYT bestseller list, already has a movie deal (with YA book-to-film-adaptation darling Amandla Stenberg set to play Starr), has at leas eight starred reviews from pillars-of-trade-reviewing like Kirkus, and has had more coverage in the months leading up to and just after release than I’ve seen for some UKYA books all together. If books were rated on buzz alone, well, there are some pretty happy marketing and publicity folks who can afford to take a holiday after this (and let’s face it, they might need a holiday after wrangling all those platform strategies, press releases and interviews…!). I was actually offered this book for review, but as it’s already out here in Ireland (I know!) I decided to pick up my own copy (shoutout to the lovely Jacq, whose recommendation bumped it up my always-toppling TBR).

Frank, sobering and often dark, this is a tough read told in forthright yet energetic style. Protagonist Starr’s voice is passionate, warm and distinctive, and readers will quickly be rooting for her. In a thematic, subplot-packed book, her struggles are often as internal as they are external: as well as seeking justice and the media circus which follows Starr’s witnessing of her friend’s death, there is exploration of her self-censorship at her posh secondary school, the impact of violence and trauma on a community, and the extent to which teenagers can be activists. The writing style isn’t spectacular, on occasion turning unwieldy, but a strong and present family dynamic – including Starr’s parents, siblings Seven and Sekani and some of her extended family – anchors the book brilliantly.

Authentic, empathetic and deeply entrenched in a rich series of experiences, The Hate U Give plunges the reader into its story with unapologetic momentum. Its stylistic immediacy coupled with its sharp examination of race and systemic inequality pitches it somewhere between Nicola Yoon’s frothy, current The Sun Is Also A Star and Malorie Blackman’s seminal (and still unparalleled) Noughts and Crosses, ensuring it will both land on most-recommended lists and crop up in classrooms under the auspices of particularly on-the-money teachers. The romance is lacklustre, uneven pacing makes it too long for a contemporary and it should be noted that the book is almost completely America-centric with little regard for goings-on in the rest of the world, but Starr’s tale has more vigour and outspokenness than most of John Green’s books put together. It’s weighed down only by a few duff or clunky emphases, and would be a great choice for listening to on audiobook. I It’s not an easy read – but then it’s not designed to be.

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For fans of Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence, Wing Jones by Katherine Webber and Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, this powerful début novel is sure to continue making waves both sides of the Atlantic. 

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Contemporary Catch-Up // All of the Above and The Square Root of Summer

In which I attempt to catch up on some of the best (and worst) releases which have slipped my scheduling net. Contemporary is one YA’s busiest genres, so I’ll be tackling these through the medium of (relatively) quick reviews. And probably snark.

alloftheaboveAll of the Above by Juno Dawson
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: September 1st 2015
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased

When sixteen-year-old Toria arrives at a new school, she finds herself caught in a storm of exam pressure, new friends and doubting if she’ll ever fit in. Funny, foul-mouthed Polly – the coolest and weirdest girl Toria’s ever met – and her cohort of fellow outsiders take Toria under their wing, but with loyalties tangled and secrets being kept, fast friendships may hit the rocks even faster. Thrown in Toria’s crush on the irresistible lead singer of a local band set for stardom, and she may find that love and friendship have a funny way of going round in circles…

Eventful, outrageous and biting, All of the Above is practically bursting with character: between artistically talented newcomer Toria, fierce but secretive Daisy, bolshy pack leader Polly, awkward Beasley, book-mad Freya, uber-cool musician Nico, permanently-entwined-and-coolly-disinterested Alex and Alice, and of course, Geoff the cross-dressing squirrel, readers are from the off confronted with a colourful cast of teenagers – and the knowledge that some of these friendships will not survive the book. Polly, Daisy and Nico were the stars of the ensemble for me, but the story itself is championed by heroine Toria.

Chatty, frank and uproariously funny, Toria’s narration was one of my favourite things about the book. Brutally honest and littered with pop culture references, it both keeps you reading and packs a punch. Toria’s experiences as a biracial British-Punjabi teenager only occasionally influence the plot but inform her forthright (“Brompton-on-Sea isn’t exactly a cultural melting pot”) and warmly wry (“Worst. Hindu. Ever”) voice. It is through Toria’s humour and  Dawson captures the chaos of teenage experience.

Arriving at Brompton Cliffs, Toria finds that the year which follows is one torrid whirlwind of sexual confusion, startling revelations and surprisingly bittersweet heartbreak. Relying on the base ingredients of the YA tradition – opening with an arrival in a new place, focusing on friendship drama and coming-of-age issues – Dawson adds few twists to the general formula, but packs the book with themes relevant to modern audiences: mental health, sexuality, alcoholism, break-ups, make-ups, strained family relationships, music, hormones.

There’s so much going on in this book. It’s like an episode of Hollyoaks, only better written. This style does have its drawbacks, however. There are moments where the book fails to charm and where plot gets lost in the muddle. The prose is so busy rushing around that it’s difficult to feel many of the tough subjects tackled have been explored as deeply as needed (it’s not an easy read for some issues and requires a trigger warning) or to imagine some of the central relationships, built as they are on hastily-constructed speed-paint foundations, will last beyond the pages.
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Fans of Alice Oseman’s Radio Silence, Liz Kessler’s Read Me Like A Book and Lisa Williamson’s All About Mia will find this lively, if occasionally overbusy, contemporary companion appeals. Funny, sharp, and distinctive. 

27420164The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter-Hapgood
Publisher:
Macmillan
Publication date: May 5th 2016
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC

Reeling from the twin heartbreaks of a summer ago – the loss of her grandfather and a tough break-up – Gottie is lost and busy burying herself in equations.  

Until Thomas comes home: former boy next door, former best friend, former everything. And until Gottie starts to experience strange blips in time. They take her back to last summer – back to all she should have seen then – where she must navigate grief, world-stopping kisses and the space-time continuum as she tries to reconcile her first heartbreak with her last.

The Square Root of Summer had plenty of potential and no small amount of pre-publication hype. The premise is a collection of things which regularly appear in YA – summer timeframe, tough break-up, bad ex-boyfriend, the boy next door, a struggle with loss – with the added complication of mathematics-laden time travel. Its contemporary framing has echoes of Emery Lord, Amy Zhang and Kasie West, but for me the rest of the book didn’t click.

Unfortunately, the book’s writing style is baffling. And I say this as someone who is all for unusual and striking contemporaries! One moment it’s classic contemporary, the next it’s confused, clunky and completely unenjoyable. Choppy prose weighed down by jargon made it difficult to invest in Gottie’s time travel adventures or the passion for science which litter the novel. The writing style is idiosyncratic, disjointed and jarring, with irritatingly short paragraphs and sentences – all admirable attempts at toying with convention, and perhaps they would’ve worked in the hands of a more skilled or experienced storyteller, but it just doesn’t work here.

This book is, for want of a better phrase, all over the place. The suspension of disbelief, not to mention the supposed romances on which so much of the book hinged, just wasn’t persuasive. The characters are forgettable, the pacing is uneven and the plot is submerged in inexplicable jumps from scene to scene. For a character-driven novel, the individual or intersecting emotional stories must be compelling, but here it’s like someone threw vaguely-contemporary-shaped spaghetti at a wall and decided to write a book out of what stuck. IT MAKES NO SENSE.

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I just didn’t enjoy this one. A summer read which fails to live up to its potential. If you’re looking for an unusual writing style in contemporary, expert hands like Sarah Crossan or Jenny Valentine are still your best bet.

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We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan // a verse novel with grit and verve

25310356Author(s): Sarah Crossan, Brian Conaghan
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 9 February 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): verse, contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC
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Acclaimed authors Brian Conaghan and Sarah Crossan join forces to tell the story of Nicu and Jess, two troubled teens whose paths cross in the unlikeliest of places.

Jess and Nicu are from different worlds. Tough city girl Jess doesn’t trust anyone, hiding the violence of her home life behind a mask of arrogance and disillusion. Nicu has emigrated from Romania and is struggling to find a place in his new home. When they meet, what starts out as an unexpected friendship turns to romance as the two bond over their painful pasts and hopeful futures. But with their worlds catching up to them, will they be able to save each other, let alone themselves?

I was lucky enough to read quite an early copy of this book, and let me tell you: it was worth the hype. (And you know how I feel about hype). Compelling, gritty and a little devastating, We Come Apart somehow emerges from the thunderous rumblings of pre-release anticipation with both surprises up its sleeve and writing that lives up to expectations. Crossan and Conaghan, already at the top of their game as individual writers, prove once again why they are critically acclaimed Carnegie and Costa winners respectively and reveal that collaboration has indeed sparked something new in their repertoire. With a keen sense of story and an eye for detail, this dynamic dual narrative is a back-and-forth of fearless proportions. It is unflinching, engaging, sharp and occasionally, totally heartbreaking.

We Come Apart is is helmed by two tour-de-force leads with distinctive verse voices. Jess is a gobby, streetwise London teenager turned truant who feels fed up with school and with adults who try to tell her what to do when they can’t – or won’t – see what’s right in front of them. Nicu, on the other hand, is what you’d call “a good egg.” He is naive, kind, straightforward, and big-hearted, but lives in a life, bound by the confines of culture and the traditions of family, in which it is difficult to be so. Both long for understanding, friendship and freedom. Both discover it, at least for a while, in each other. In a novel where every word is up for scrutiny, their presence dominates and leaves the rest of the cast for dust.(Nicu is an easy favourite. He will be everyone’s favourite).

This book is striking partly because Jess and Nicu’s story at first seems like one that doesn’t belong in poetry. This is poetry with shoplifting, criminal records, peer pressure, community service, and class in. It explores immigration, racism, prejudice, and clashing cultures. It features characters who experience disenfranchisement, distrust, and domestic violence. But is is also rarely about those things: instead it is often about friendship and strength and kindness and hope. It’s about loyalty and betrayal and realizing that, for better or worse, everyone has a choice when it comes to who and what they want to be. There is a sense that it is very deliberately saying to readers, “Look what we can do with poetry. This story belongs in poetry, too.”

For an audience often forced to stare at stanzas until their eyes fall out or the carefully-highlighted exam-worthy words lose all meaning, We Come Apart will be a bit of a shock, but it’s a worthwhile read. It may, in the hands of an open-minded gatekeeper, find favour in classrooms and library recommendation shelves or even persuade the skeptical that poetry is, every now and then, more than daffodils, metaphors and toffs with nothing better to do than write melodramatically about their feelings or the weather. (The Daffodils, by the way, was probably about the French Revolution). And of course, there’s plenty to satisfy the seasoned YA reader, too, including a page-turning pace, a handful of plot twists, and an effective narrative style.

The book is not without fault – it could use more heart or humour, the verse isn’t perfect, and, often bleak and far more bitter than sweet, it’s a difficult read, so it’s probably not the best to choose if you’re looking for something cheery. There are stereotypes, it may be triggering and it’s problematic. But that’s kind of the point, because the story is certainly strong: Conaghan and Crossan have set out to take the unpoetic, the sometimes unpleasant, and prove their ability to give it poetic form, and in that they have succeeded. As with many verse novels it’s quite a fast read, but it’s not easily forgotten. Fans of Phil Earle, Keren David and Benjamin Zephaniah will find an ideal recommendation in this poetic turn. Expect to see it up for multiple awards this year.

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Sharp, unflinching and well-written, this novel-in-verse marks a milestone collaboration for Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan. Moments of hope and friendship litter the bittersweet story of Jess and Nicu, two very different but very human characters. 

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