I’m Back + Top Ten Books of 2017

Look! It is I, returned to the world of saying effusive things about fictional escapades after an unexpected sojourn! And I come bearing gifts: my favourite books of 2017!

I read so many amazing books last year, it’s been almost impossible to choose favourites – but I have persevered and whittled it down to a top ten. (Some of the best books I read last year were actually ones I caught up on reading many years after they’d originally been published, but in the interests of not being here for three thousand words of flailing, I’ve kept this list to books published in 2017.)

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

I adored this book. I adored it in so many ways I’m just going to point you in the direction of my pre-release review, because it has ALL THE FEELS. “Romantic, expressive, warm and true, A Quiet Kind of Thunder is an irresistible second novel. It is achingly happy. It reminded me what five star books feel like: shiny, sparkling, and memorable.”

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

While Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers remains my personal favourite of her books, The Explorer is a marvellous addition to her repertoire of historical fiction. Vibrant, accomplished and often clever, The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. Rundell’s prose is terrifically appealing, and it’s little wonder that this book went on to win the children’s Costa. The writing is by turns clever and challenging, tongue-in-cheek and touching (“Love is so terrifying. It is less like rainbows and butterflies and more like jumping on to the back of a moving dragon”).

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Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

This is Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s best book yet, and hands down the best YA-but-set-at-the-first-months-of-university book out there at the moment. “Told in fast-paced alternate narration, Freshers is a tale of mayhem, mishaps, miscommunication and inexplicable amounts of tea, written with typical Ellen and Ivison aplomb. Messy, outrageous and down-to-earth, it’s full of chaotic charm. A vibrant array of characters populate the pages, and the friendships are particularly brilliant. What’s more, it’s sharp, candid, and outrageously, unashamedly funny.”

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Certainly one of the most talked-about books of the year, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow is a dazzling children’s fantasy début. It spills over with inexplicable and varied magic simply because it can. Because it’s fun. There’s a logic and yet an immense expressiveness to it. There are rooms that redecorate themselves for different occupants; carriages built like nimble metallic spiders; shadows that can wander on their own. Violinists who pickpocket entire audiences while playing; a clock with a sky for its face. Fireblossom trees and mesmerists and snowhounds and a gigantic talking cat.  I’m not yet sure if it’s going to nab a place in literary memory the same way that its go-to comparison, Harry Potter, has, but it’s still an enjoyable series opener.

Girls Can’t Hit by T.S. Easton

This is a 2017 book I wish had been talked about more! Girls Can’t Hit was a surprises of last year’s spring reading for me. Satisfying and clever, this is funny, feel-good, affectionately feminist teen fiction featuring great friendships, marvellous tone and a sporting twist. Easton manages to make you want to keep reading even if the sport in question, boxing, isn’t one you like (as in my case) as it follows teenager Fleur go from reluctant new recruit to unexpectedly empowered young person. I picked up several more of Easton’s books after reading this one.

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Now I Rise by Kiersten White

The only sequel on this list, Now I Rise is the second book in Kiersten White’s genderbent Vlad the Impaler retelling. This is compelling, effective and demanding alternate history with a vicious female lead, increasingly developed characterisation and a rich choice of setting. Much of this book follows Lada’s brother Radu at the siege of Constantinople in the mid-fifteenth century, and I was pleased to see this sequel living up, but appearing distinct, to its predecessor And I Darken. 

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

This is technically an adult book, but I’ll allow it as Schwab’s Darker Shade of Magic series is a great crossover for fans of young adult fantasy looking to read more adult fiction. Schwab’s practical, vivid prose, well-developed lead characters and strong sense of plot make for some memorable storytelling. A Conjuring of Light was a satisfying trilogy finale, but it’s since been announced that she will return to this fictional world with another trilogy, and I, like many fans, am so excited to read it.

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord

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. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, and it’s perhaps not as memorable as some of the other books I read in 2017, but this character-driven contemporary delivers on plot as well as premise. It’s warm and heartfelt, but also serious, thoughtful and, occasionally, heartbreaking.

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Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Bittersweet yet charming, Wing Jones is big-hearted, cinematic, satisfyingly driven YA. It has a top-notch, surprisingly swoony romance and vivid running scenes as embattled biracial teenager Wing takes to the track in 1990s Atlanta. Rather like a runner finding their form, when the book hits its stride, it simply glides.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

A hefty, mesmerising tome of a fantasy novel, Strange the Dreamer is the first in a duology full of things to like: librarians, desert quests, mythical cities, some flashes of wit and description, and… odd blue-skinned alien-demigod beings…? It is perhaps a little unnecessarily long, but it’s the first Laini Taylor book I’ve really enjoyed, and I’ll be reading the sequel.

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BONUS ROUND: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman*

Oh, you knew it was coming. Philip Pullman’s long-awaited return to Lyra’s Oxford via the Book of Dust finally began last year (the rumour mill was such that it had actually been one of my most anticipated books of 2016 before publication was confirmed). This dramatic, often dark tale is balanced by an endearing protagonist in the shape of Macolm Polstead. And of course, The Secret Commonwealth, in which Lyra will go from baby to young adult, is slated for this year, so we get even more daemons and alethiometers and chases and unnecessary literariness and DAEMONS.

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What did you think of these 2017 releases? What were your favourite books of 2017?

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YA I’d Like To See: Irish YA Edition (with bonus gifs!)

Today on the blog, I talk the kind of books I’d like to see from Irish YA! If you’re looking for recommendations from the existing selection, I have just the post from earlier this year. You may also have seen my ‘YA I’d  Like To See: Historical Fiction’ post last autumn, but if not, you can check it out here.

If Ireland has a YA ‘scene’ (that is, consistent new releases and a recognisable sense of community among readers) it’s relatively new – some estimates might even frame it as a twenty-first century phenomenon, though teen fiction for Irish teenagers has been around longer. Either way Irish YA is still in its early years: there are milestones it hasn’t reached, genres it hasn’t mastered, breakthroughs it hasn’t awoken to yet. This can be frustrating when you’re faced with a shelf full of books you’ve already thumbed through (seriously, I pity anyone who’s reading schedule depends on Irish YA alone, ’cause it would be SPARSE), but it does leave room for potential. So what would I like to see from Irish YA? Well…

First up: badass teen girl characters. Badass female characters are a high priority in all of my books-I-want-to-see posts. YA is a medium where teen girl characters, like real teen girls, can be as complex, active, flawed, fully-rounded people. As the same can’t be said for other types of media, the least YA can do is strive to provide a space where the interests of enthusiastic, smart, varied teen girls are valued and celebrated.

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More inclusive contemporaries. Contemporary is one of Irish YA’s go-to genres, but it would be cool  to see it include more diversity of perspective and experience! This could be incidental – where a character happens to be black, for example, because black people exist too, to paraphrase Amandla Stenberg – or more central to the plot – as with Peadar O’Guilín’s The Call, which is a horror novel but whose protagonist Nessa is both kickass and a disabled survivor of polio. Books like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon and When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon have rocketed through the blogosphere (and the NYT bestseller list). Books by UKYA BAME authors (try saying that ten times fast) have been all over awards like the YA Book Prize, the Costa and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Irish publishers might be missing a trick here.

Slick, cinematic genre additions. I’m talking out-there, eye-catching concepts. Catherine Doyle’s dark, action packed Mafia trilogy, full of feuds, fisticuffs and forbidden love is a memorable example, and it even busts some of the stereotypes it embraces. Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl remains a brilliant, wise-cracking sci-fi fantasy. Bombastic, confident genre pieces are a mainstay of MG – why not YA, too?

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Contemporary travel. YA where teens travel, explore, live abroad or look for a summer fling has had enduring appeal, not least in Stephanie Perkins’ near-perfect Anna and the French Kiss. It can be totally cheesy, but even Irish YA taking on a more international vibe – including challenges, obstacles, homesickness – would be awesome.

Books with a stylistic twist. Verse novels, non-linear narration, interesting typography, mixed epistolary formats with texts and emails and postcards and illustrations. Meg Grehan’s verse novel The Space Between is a good example of this in recent Irish YA, while Deirdre Sullivan’s collection of dark feminist fairytales Tangleweed and Brine is also one to keep an eye on. I WANT MORE OF THEM.

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Magic. Okay, so this has been done before. But there are so many possibilities with magical realism, mythology, portal fantasy, fairies, witchiness – whether that’s Irish-set or with expanded horizons. It’s a difficult genre to pull off, but when it’s good it’s fabul- oh, screw it, this is just me asking for more Moïra Fowley-Doyle books, isn’t it?

More complicated, fandom-worthy high fantasy. Fantasy is one of YA’s shining achievements. So many recent fantasy titles have been huge hits – Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, The Wrath and the Dawn by Reneé Ahdieh, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, I could go on – and I’d love to see a fresh Irish-penned series up there with the best of them. I want to fangirl over plot twists and eagerly await new installments! I want to overuse capslock in reviews and get invested in fandom theories! I want to be this gif of Joey from FRIENDS about it, basically.

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Less… I’m usually hesitant to include ‘less of’ in posts like this, because I’m a firm believer in trying to expand, rather than narrow, the vocal range of YA. But I will say that less historical fiction and less dystopia would be great, as Irish historical fiction is quite oversaturated (and dare I say it, predictable) while dystopia as a trend just doesn’t appeal to teens anymore. If you want readers to sit up and take notice, you have to be bringing something brilliant or new to the table.

Better covers. I struggle to think of an Irish teen fiction cover that’s really blown me away of late. The Space Between comes close, or maybe Sarah Crossan’s books, but still. Covers make or break a book, you guys, and there’s nothing worse than an underwhelming one. Bright colours, polished graphic design, striking typography, illustrations that make you do a double take – they’re SO important, I actually wrote an entire post about it. Irish YA needs to step up its game here.

MORE HAPPINESS. As much as I do my best to support and talk about it, the tone of Irish YA can be a bit of a miseryfest? I think it’s because seriousness sells – it’s literary, it’s what publishers are familiar with, it’s award-worthy, it comes with a handy list of default adjectives like ‘shocking’ and ‘important’. But it does a disservice to teens and readers, because we also deserve books that are optimistic and relevant and complicated. The teenagers I know are – hold onto your hats – complex, funny, messy, capable, proactive, ridiculous, even, dare I say it, occasionally happy. What’s more, it’s really tricky to write books which are warm or hopeful and heartbreaking and thematic (see Jandy Nelson, Sara Barnard, Clare Furniss, David Levithan, Emery Lord, Lisa Williamson), and perhaps even harder to write books which are laugh-out-loud funny. I’d like to see Irish YA challenging itself to bringing a little more light to teenage books.

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What about you? What are your favourite books by Irish authors? What would you like to see more of in YA?

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IN THE RED(ISH) CORNER: recent cover favourites!

Today on the blog, I talk some of my favourite recent YA cover designs (and try not to tear my hair out trying to figure out who actually designed them). I’ll be doing a follow-up post on my favourite cool-tone (navy, blue, green, etc) covers soon, too!

29740718What’s A Girl Gotta Do? by Holly Bourne
cover design by Hannah Cobley

The Spinster Club books are funny, entertaining, fierce and, of course, have unmistakable covers. Quite unusually for contemporary YA, they rely on solid, almost clashing colour combinations: yellow and black, pink and black, and here, in the final book of the trilogy, red and black. I was impressed by how loud this one is and how much force it gives to Lottie’s empowering, feminist mission. The illustration is energetic and unique. Also I hear the proof came with lipstick and those red-lip jelly sweets you can buy (A+ work, Usborne).

29979535Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens
cover design by Nina Tara

I really like the Murder Most Unladylike series covers, you guys. They have such a classic feel. The title placement, the silhouettes, the series banner… ugh, they’re just too good. Striking, fitting and easy to recognise, I’m a big fan how much they match and how bold they are, particularly this latest installment. This red (a happy red, not like, a Scorsese red) merges the series design with the Christmas theme and totally suits Daisy and Hazel. They’re usually shelved in children’s or middle grade books, but they have huge multi-age appeal.

30197201A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard
cover design by Pan Mac Art Dept 

This eye-catching cover is fabulous. It’s both simple and complicated, and there’s gold foil. GOLD FOIL! (Gold foil, as you will see, is a bit of theme for me when it comes to book covers). I love that it’s just close enough to Barnard’s Beautiful Broken Things to be familiar but different enough that it establishes the individuality of Rhys and Steffi’s story (which I adored, as you can read here). I like the typography, too, and white is the perfect choice. My own copy of this fell victim to the Bookshop Sticker Monster (*sob*) but I rescued it and now it is SHINY.

25756328Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
cover design by Simon & Schuster

I haven’t read this one yet, but just can’t help liking its design: if we’re talking judging a book by its cover, then Love & Gelato has absolutely rocketed up my to-be-read list because of its gorgeously simple design. It’s elegant, pretty and it has ICE CREAM. I’m not always a fan of beige but the soft pink hues to the pale background give it an almost earthy feel which is oddly satisfying. I would’ve liked to see multiple flavours or colours on the cover but then that’s just because I really enjoy gelato.

25909375Wing Jones by Katherine Webber
cover design by Marie Soler (art direction) and Luke Lucas (illustration)

Katherine Webber’s début novel has two fabulous UK and US covers, but while I love the watercolour effect of The Heartbeats of Wing Jones, I’ve chosen the UK cover as it’s the one I own! I like the colourscheme, the bounce of the trainer (or sneakers, or runners, depending where you’re from) being depicted mid-movement, and the effect of the laces as the title is obviously clever. I’m not sure about the tagline placement (CENTRE IT, CENTRE IT) but what you can’t see from this angle are the ombre pink-purple sprayed edges, which are awesome.

29852514The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon
cover design by Dominique Falla 

I think everyone found this cover breath-taking when it was first revealed. It bursts off the page, a riot of colour. If anything, I liked it even more when I discovered the process and inventiveness behind it (you can see how the tactile, three-dimensional cover was created here). It’s a great example of a really slick, ultra-modern cover that does a lot of work in making the book stand out, and while it focuses more on impact than content, the bright and explosive feel is  evocative of its insta-love story. 

And to conclude, some observations:

  • BRIGHT COLOURS FOR THE WIN, YES? I love, love, love bright colours.
  • If you’re going to have a pattern, you better make it classy or I will run for the hills.
  • I don’t mind pink in covers at all! EMBRACE THE PINK, PEOPLE.
  • I really, really like illustrated covers. I kind of had a feeling about this before I started researching, but it became incredibly clear once I began collecting favourites. For me, illustrated or graphic design-based covers are so much more versatile and appealing.
  • Related: I loathe YA book covers with models ontumblr_mqakvcc0cV1qmn5ngo5_250 them, especially if they have anything to do with the Gothic-girls-in-big-dresses or pastel-teenager-caught-in-sunrays-muses-about-life tropes. BLECH.
  • Make the title the most important thing on the cover! Big, eye-catching typography is your friend.
  • Simple and elegant, everyone. Simple and elegant.

What about you?  Do you judge books by their covers? What are some of your recent favourites?

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Most Anticipated Reads of 2017

It’s that time of year again: time to look briefly away from the fabulous YA releases of 2016 and indulge in a sordid affair with the novels of 2017 which have been catching our eye from across the room for months. I’ve stuck with ten (ish) here, but there are SO MANY to look forward to, it’s a wonder I could even decide…

Throne of Glass #6 by Sarah J. Maas

Okay, so this one was easy. The final installment of Sarah J. Maas’ legendary Throne of Glass series, this book doesn’t even have a title yet and I am SO EXCITED FOR IT. Empire of Storms was so full of twists and revelations it’s beyond words. It left everyone reeling – readers and characters alike – and I cannot wait to find out what happens next, let alone how Maas is going to wrap up what has become not just an epic but an extraordinary feat of female-led high fantasy in YA.

Once and for All by Sarah Dessen

I was so delighted when I heard the premise for Sarah Dessen’s next project. The concept reads like such a burst of joy. Like a delicious, glossy romantic comedy you’d turn to when you need to feel better (or eat several gallons of ice cream), with the added promise of the exceptional heart and depth and detail only a contemporary novel can bring. Weddings, family, a healthy dose of cynicism, happily-ever-afters and Dessen’s penchant for including past characters make this one to look out for. Oh, I have been WAITING for a book like this in YA.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

The actual details of Strange the Dreamer – Taylor’s first big project after Daughter of Smoke and Bone – have until recently been a closely guarded secret. Whispers of a scholar who loves fairytales, a city bereft of its name, the mysteries of otherworldly creatures and a love letter to fantasy have, however, put this duology opener on my radar, and it certainly has me intrigued. I didn’t love Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but hopefully this will be more up my alley.

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

If you’re looking for recent releases in classy, classic magic-and-knives-and-treachery fantasy fiction, Shades of Magic is the series you’re looking for. Full of adventure, allegiances, betrayals, bloodlust, princes, pirates, magical Londons and stylish coats, the final book in the trilogy promises to raise the stakes, answer burning questions and break hearts, probably in absolutely unequal measure.

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We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

A verse novel and a collaboration, We Come Apart raced up my most anticipated list after I attended Crossan and Conaghan’s first event for the book. They have a great rapport and talked about the book in a really vivid way. Perhaps most importantly, the extract we heard was fantastic. It tells the story of tough Jess and kind-hearted Nicu, two teenagers from very different backgrounds who find unexpected friendship with each other.

All About Mia by Lisa Williamson

I’ve actually already read a sampler of this, and it was amazing. Sixteen-year-old Mia is a middle child, sandwiched between Cambridge-bound Grace (‘Mother Teresa in a blazer’) and future Olympian Audrey (a swimmer otherwise known as Nemo). Constantly overshadowed by her high-achieving siblings, Mia’s grown used to being pushed aside, taking solace in selfies, parties and the knowledge that she probably more friends than her sisters put together, anyway. But when Grace drops a bombshell (and to Mia’s horror, goes unpunished), the family’s lives will be turned upside down over one unforgettable summer. Messy, relatable and full of wit, All About Mia could be a glorious addition to contemporary YA.

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Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to laugh-out-loud humour and realistic UKYA. They’re brilliant in interviews, too. After a hilarious, unashamed older YA début in Lobsters and younger YA novel Never Evers, they’re turning their attention to the antics of university freshers, and whatever trouble their characters get into, it’ll definitely be interesting…

Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

I really liked Alwyn Hamilton’s first book, and with a perennial habit of not picking up second books in trilogies, I’m hoping this one will be worth following up with! Hamilton’s badass heroine Amani inhabits a world of magic, rebellion, danger, and of course, love interests like the enigmatic Jin. Traitor to the Throne promises even more twists, turns and tenacity, and I’m excited to see where the story goes next.

A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

The Star-Touched Queen was lavish, mythical and vivid, though its uneven plot and pacing meant it stopped short of being a favourite for me. This companion novel, however, shouldn’t face the same problems as it picks up with a warrior princess, an unlikely ally, and a fight for survival in battle-scarred kingdom. Readers will recognise heroes Gauri and Vikram as secondary characters from Chokshi’s début, and I’m interested to see how their story intertwines. I’m looking for more action, a tighter plot, and more of the myths which made the first book so nearly brilliant.

Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

My interest was piqued by the sound of this book as soon as it was announced. A royal tale of conspiracy, intrigue and unexpected inheritance, it seems quite different from many of my other most anticipated YA novels of 2017, pitched so far as an apparent edgy semi-fantasy mystery of sorts. It certainly has one of the most unusual premises of this list, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for it!

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Honourable mentions (because okay, I have to keep the wordcount down but who can leave any most-anticipated list at just ten?!): Wing Jones by Katherine Webber (about a girl juggling family, friends, heritage, and a new-found passion for athletics), The Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moira Fowley-Doyle (The Accident Season was one of the best YA novels to come out of Ireland last year and I can’t wait to see Fowley-Doyle’s fierce, spellbinding, original work on the shelf again), A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard (an irresistible, deeply real love story I’ve actually read already but shhh, it can totally be a fave of this year and next) Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer (a high fantasy Sleeping Beauty retelling about curses,sisters and a kingdom on the brink, though I don’t know if it’s being published in the UK) and Now I Rise by Kiersten White (the sequel to And I Darken, White’s incredible genderbent alternate history about Lada the Impaler, my review of which you can read here).

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And so must end my brief fling with the most thrilling reads of 2017 – for now. Although, I’ve just noticed I may have to do another post just for débuts…

What books are you most looking forward to reading next year? Did any appear on this list? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments below!

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