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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love Songs and Other Lies by Jessica Pennington // boyband lit book won’t trouble chart-toppers

35034369Author(s): Jessica Pennington
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: 28th April 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Two years after a heartbreak worthy of a rock song, Virginia Miller is looking forward to a carefree summer. Her friends just landed a spot on a battle-of-the-bands bands reality show, and Vee is joining them for her dream internship. 

Then she learns she’ll also be sharing the tour bus with Cam. Her first love. The cause of that first heartbreak. Now she’s dodging cameras and her ex, who has secrets the show’s producers would kill to get their hands on. What’s more, she’s starting to wonder if their breakup anthem deserves a new ending…. 

Love Songs and Other Lies is a quick YA contemporary clearly going for the ‘American summer read’ approach. It appeared sporting the hallmarks of boyband lit – a phenomenon I’ve written about here and here – and I decided to see what’s being done with the genre across the pond, given that much of what I’ve read from it has come from UKYA.

Vee’s been the songwriter behind her best friend’s band for most of her teenage life, and when Logan’s band wins a spot on a battle-of-the-bands reality TV show, she gets pulled along for the ride – only to come face-to-face with Cam, her heartbreaker ex-boyfriend, who’s been called back into the band at the last minute. Cam is determined to win her forgiveness, but as the story of his secret is slowly unravelled and the competition gets more intense, it looks like things are going to get messy for the both of them once more.

This début has got music, mystery, and the added intrigue of the close-quarters setting. It’s told in dual timeline alternate narration, revealing how Cam and Vee fell for each other the first time around while also following a bitter reunion over the battle of the bands. It takes some getting used to, but showcases a bit of narrative ambition, which I liked. Reminiscent of Sarah Dessen or Emery Lord’s When We Collided, Cam and Vee’s first romance is enjoyable and heady, full of one-on-one moments and beaches at midnight. Vee’s friendship with Logan and the other band-members is interesting, too. The book deals with some intense stuff – fame, heartbreak, loss – and I was drawn into the pages by that unexpected level of intensity.

However, once you’ve closed those pages, the feel of the book is less captivating; it’s one of a modish, fleeting contemporary which doesn’t delve deep into exploration of theme or character. Most of the relationships don’t have depth, the secondary characters are thinly sketched and the prose is dialogue-heavy. The reader sees very little of the actual battle of the bands. Increasingly unbelievable decisions result in correspondingly unbelievable, too-easy, undeveloped successes. The ending could have been braver. There are so many warm, rich, thoughtful, well-written takes on this genre to be found elsewhere – Love Song by Sophia Bennett, Remix by Non Pratt, I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman – that this one became forgettable.

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This contemporary has its heady and intriguing moments, but it just doesn’t compare to the more accomplished additions to boyband lit on the shelf.

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I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman // a sharp, serious take on teen fame and fandom

Today on the blog, another addition to the phenomenon that is boyband lit in YA…

34325090Author(s): Alice Oseman
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 3rd May 2018
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

For Angel Rahimi, there’s only one thing that matters: The Ark, a teenage pop-rock trio. The Ark’s fandom has given her everything – her dreams, her place in the world, a sense of belonging. 

Jimmy Kaga-Ricci owes everything to The Ark, too. He’s the frontman of one of the world’s most famous bands – but recently, his gilded lifestyle has started to seem more like a nightmare. 

That’s the problem with dreaming – eventually, inevitably, real life arrives with a wake-up call. And when Angel and Jimmy are unexpectedly thrown together, they will discover just how strange facing up to reality can be.

Having written this discussion post on the trend, I still occasionally poke my head round the door of boyband lit – and I Was Born For This really piqued my interest. A contemporary from the perspective of both fan and boyband? A hijab-wearing fangirl and transgender boy as narrators? A super striking cover? Consider me intrigued.

I’ll admit right off the bat that I really didn’t like Alice Oseman’s début novel, Solitaire (there’s a reason we use the term ‘in exchange for an honest review’!). But not every book is to everyone’s taste, and when I spotted this premise, I figured it was worth giving a shot. Perhaps there is something to the idea that publishing’s emphasis on make-or-break débuts is at best dubious, because I enjoyed this standalone (Oseman’s third) much more than I expected. There’s a vast improvement at play here. I Was Born For This is, in many ways, absorbing and dynamic and nuanced.

Angel is a devoted fan of The Ark. She’s the conspiracy theorist to her friend and fellow fan Juliet’s cutting romantic, though they both spend hours hypothesising and shipping ‘their’ boys: handsome Lister, lyricist Rowan, and lead singer Jimmy Kaga-Ricci. Jimmy is Angel’s favourite – charismatic, elfin, perfect. In less than a week, she’ll be going to their meet-and-greet and seeing them perform live, and then she’ll be happy. Won’t she?

Unbeknownst to Angel, the band’s skyrocketing public fame is overlapping with a downward personal spiral. Jimmy feels surrounded by grabbing hands and unseen dangers. Rowan’s relationship with his girlfriend, who he’s had to keep secret from the press, is suffering. Lister’s drinking is becoming a problem. Their manager wants them to a sign a new contract so they can break America, and that means hitting the road for years. This is all Jimmy’s ever wanted. Isn’t it?

Oseman nails her hook in I Was Born For This. Fuelled by Angel and Jimmy’s distinct alternate narration and plenty of interwoven, character-focused subplots, it makes for compelling contemporary. The short timeframe is intense and chaotic, but it is mostly engaging and readable – the book gets you on side and I read it in one sitting. By turns glitzy and serious, Oseman’s straightforward prose takes a sharp, unromanticised look at boyband culture, wealth and fame. Angel and Jimmy are two of the more likeable characters in a flawed, imperfect cast, which includes multiple LGBTQ+ characters. The best – certainly the most well-rounded – character was sweary, ambitious, vibrant Bliss, though Jimmy’s kind-hearted grandfather Piero should get a nod too.

I Was Born For This is an unexpectedly thematic book. It explores modern fandom, the perils of idealisation, and what happens when obsession blinds people to their own potential. Sometimes it’s subtle as a spider’s web and sometimes it’s about as subtle as being hit over the head with a frying pan, but both are, to be fair, effective in their own way. I was particularly surprised by the prominence of different faiths and prayer. There’s a Joan of Arc motif (taken a bit out of context, but still) and an attempt to explore fandom as a kind of substitute for or relative of religion. There’s only one minor romance in the book, but I actually didn’t notice until I’d finished, as Oseman finds plenty to mine from friendships and family relationships.

Admittedly, there are too many rhetorical questions in the latter half where an author could be attempting to provide answers, and for a book all about bands and music, we hear more about The Ark’s fame than the music behind it. Some major incidents happen and are then never explored again, probably due to a constrained timeline. Even when highlighting fandom’s positive effects, on balance the book is still ultimately fan-negative. The dialogue is stylised and, along with the many social media references, will mean the book will date quickly. Its confused closing stages see characters kept in close proximity for inexplicable reasons. However, I can see what Oseman was trying to do, and if you’re looking for boyband lit that keeps you reading while getting its thinking cap on, this may be the book for you.

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The fame, fandom and boyband lit of Zan Romanoff’s Grace and The Fever meets an unravelling of flaws reminiscent of Sara Barnard’s Goodbye, Perfect in this gripping, diverse contemporary standalone. Busy, serious and biting, I Was Born For This isn’t without fault, but I appreciated its surprisingly thematic approach and fast-paced alternate narration.

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Love Song by Sophia Bennett // fun, feel-good, well-written boyband lit

27396059Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 7th April 2016
Category: YA, teen fiction
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone (so far)
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

A million girls would jump at the chance to meet world-famous boyband The Point, but Nina’s not one of them. She’s the new assistant to the lead singer’s diva fiancée, and she knows it’s going to suck. She quickly learns that being with the biggest band on the planet isn’t as easy as it seems: behind the scenes, the boys are on the verge of splitting up. Tasked with keeping an eye on four spoiled teenage rock stars, Nina’s determined to stick it out – and not fall for any of them…

You guys, I’ve been trying to review this book for AGES. I really liked Sophia Bennett’s first historical fiction novel, Following Ophelia, which published in March. I loved Threads and The Look. But even I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Love Song. Fun, refreshing and fabulously feel-good, it’s accessible but irresistible. An effective, clear-cut writing style makes a world of touring, gossip columns and guitars seem believable and multi-faceted. Bennett is undoubtedly one of the most reliable writers of quality teen fiction of recent years, and Love Song is certainly the best boyband lit book I’ve read (I wrote a whole post about the trend here). So far it seems to be a standalone, but I’d definitely read a sequel or a spin-off.

When Nina accidentally finds herself hired as an assistant and dragged on tour with The Point, the last thing she wants is to fall for one of the band’s members – and none of them look like boyfriend material when they’re throwing pizza at the wall or feuding with each other backstage. But her practical demeanour is noticed by Windy, their manager, and she ends up accompanying them on a songwriting trip at a vast, dilapidated country pile, where she slowly starts to realise that there is more to these teenage idols (“Three of Seventeen’s ‘Ten Hottest Humans’ were asking to enter my bedroom”) than meets the eye (“bad morning breath, a shared Led Zep obsession, and a surprising fear of bats”, for instance). But even with Nina and Jamie growing closer, mishaps seem to lurk around every corner.

Love Song shines most when the trappings have been stripped away and it’s just Nina and the boys in the old tumbledown house. The story is engaging, clever and funny (I forget how funny it is when I’m not reading it, which may be why it’s such a great re-read) with a brilliant setting in Heatherwick Hall. The romance between Nina and Jamie is sweet, though I’m more of a Declan fan myself. Capable and laidback, the newest bandmember (filling in for George, who winds up in rehab) may not have the lead-singer appeal of Jamie, and Connor has too much ego for most people to stand for more than five minutes, but someone’s got to shout-out the ginger multi-instrumentalist. Minor characters include Nina’s sister Ariel, chef Orli and a friendship struck up with cool, affable latecomer Issy.

Some would say that boyband lit is wish fulfillment, to which I would say: of course it is. The genre almost certainly has its roots in fan fiction, which exists, ultimately, for enjoyment. To see that kind of audience-focused storytelling spill in some way into YA is surely a good thing. YA should be a place where teens, especially teen girls, can enjoy themselves and what they’re interested in. Of course, there are some trade-offs – the romance here is decidedly PG, elements of the plot may be a touch unrealistic or melodramatic, the family plotlines needed to be handled better, and a book about a fictional band is never quite as on-the-button as the casual observer might expect – but there are also tremendous gains. The story benefits from skillful editing, character depth, a strong narrative arc, and Bennett’s experienced pen.

Bennett interrogates the tropes of this hybrid genre, such as unquestioning admiration of rockstar love interests. She avoids the one-dimensionality of cardboard cut-outs who give up everything for a flawless, empty life by giving down-to-earth Nina dreams of her own, namely in photography. Ariel, who unlike Nina is a fan of The Point, gives this fictional fandom a humanising touch, sidestepping the tendency of some boyband lit, and cultural impulses generally, to degrade or homogenise teen girls in fandom. In someone else’s hands, Nina would probably be linked with Angus, but instead of the bad-boy-who-needs-saving angle, Bennett opts for a healthier relationship. There are still obstacles and a little too much miscommunication for my liking, but Nina isn’t there to fix Jamie. When he treats her poorly, she doesn’t stand for it, and what’s more, they have things in common. Jamie and Nina both cried the first time they heard a certain classic rock song, which perhaps says more about their emotions than anything else in the book. The Point’s lyrics aren’t great, but in the absence of actual music, it’s conjuring an atmosphere that counts. Love Song is full of strummed chords and session musicians, and it makes for some terrific contemporary UKYA.

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Love Song is a warm and clever exploration of music, passion and a bit of teen wish fulfillment. I really can’t emphasise enough how enjoyable it is to read and re-read. This is deliciously feel-good, well-written stuff. It may have a straightforward premise, but Bennett really delivers. This is one of her best books yet. 

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GOOD VIBRATIONS: fans, music and boyband lit in YA fiction

YA has had its fair share of phases and trends in recent years, from ones we can’t wait to see more of (books focused on friendship, books exploring different kinds of relationships) to ones we’d like to see less of (paranormal romance, dystopia, cover models in giant dresses…). One trend I’ve seen crop up frequently of late (due to an increase in new releases under the label, including Songs About a Girl by Chris Russell, my review of which inspired this post, Eleanor Wood’s My Secret Rockstar Boyfriend, and Sophia Bennett’s brilliant Love Song, and to readers like Sally at The Dark Dictator who champion the genre) is boyband lit.

It’s a phenomenon which has both its delights and its drawbacks. For the uninitiated, boyband lit seeks to capitalise on the popularity of boybands by merging the ever-so-slightly-out-of-reach daydreams of fandom with the audiences of YA and the skill of the professional pen. It often sees a heroine – almost always ordinary, often not an ardent fan (it’s cooler for when she has to form coherent non-starstruck sentences later on) – run into the most famous band on the planet in a way which distinguishes her from the screaming masses – by tripping over nearby, by seeing them as people etc etc. – before discovering that one of them is the love of her life (alas it seems it’s too soon for polyamory to have kicked in as a solution to everyone’s problems). For added drama there may be a love triangle, or the bandmates will reveal their deepest secrets. This formula is commonplace in heteronormative fanfiction, but good boyband lit must seek to do more – to tell not only a polished story, but a surprising one, too.

27396059In fiction, story must come first. Teenagers aren’t the only members of fandom – fans come all walks of life and age groups – but they are often the target audience when it comes to marketing. It’s what every boyband for the last sixty years has depended on, whether we’re talking old-school music mania or the terrible haircuts of NSYNC. Music careers sink or sail on this stuff. This genre may be an attempt to tap into a lucrative financial opportunity, but at least in books, authors can draw from an already-established pool of themes and storylines, from friendship drama, social issues and family ties to school pressures and relationships. Twists, turns, and the skill of professional writers can create plot-focused, thought-provoking YA with the occasional pop quartet thrown in. It’s not written to start fandoms for or launch the careers of semi-believable fictional bands. If anything, it’s as much about giving readers a taste of music fandom as it is about bringing music fans to YA.

On the surface it might be easy to dismiss this trend as light-headed, inconsequential stuff. Except that while boyband lit may be new, boyband culture isn’t, and fandom being powered by teenage girls isn’t new, either. Many of the most passionate, talented, knowledgeable people in every fandom are women, and teenage girls are among the most powerful fans of all. Who do you think made most of music history’s best-known names so famous? Who bought their records and listened to songs over and over until they knew every lyric? Who makes their tangible pay-the-rent-and-make-another-album success possible? Because it’s not the limited circle of people who write for Rolling Stone.

Of course, shop-floor real-reader response to these books may be very different from that of forever-chasing-the-next-big-thing publishing and its trusty sidekick book blogging. (And there has been boyband lit which does an injustice to the very real readers who should be able to find solace, not mockery, in YA). But so as long as boy band lit respects readers, teens and young women, I’m fine with it.

21472663I can’t wait to see more YA featuring music, musicians, bands and the perils of balancing passion and fame. There’s such potential for exploring the way music is not only the soundtrack to but a real influence teenage life, as in Non Pratt’s fantastic Remix. And I’d absolutely love to see more YA where the heroine is a musician, or there’s a girlband (think Sarra Manning’s fictional  creation Duckie) at the heart of the book.

For now, this trend is on the up and up. Because, after all, it tells readers that it’s okay to enjoy things like pop music and wish fulfillment. It may even examine or improve damaging tropes which permeate fanfic, Most of all, it says that it’s okay to be a fan, to take an interest, to be enthusiastic.

What about you? What do you think of #boybandlit? Love it or loathe it? What would you like to see these books do next?

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

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

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

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

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

Sort of. Larry fanfic is a bit niche for mainstream YA, so for now the central paradigm for boyband lit requires a heroine – usually a teenager, always ordinary, often not hugely  into fandom (it’s more useful for when they need to form coherent, non-starstruck sentences later on) – to run into a famous band in a way which distinguishes her from the screaming masses – by tripping over right in front of them, by being able to see them as people etc etc – before discovering that one of them is likely the love of her life. For added drama there may be a love triangle, or she’ll be the shoulder to cry on as the bandmates reveal all their deepest secrets (if this sounds cynical, it’s because well, I am. But I have good things to say, too. As long as boyband lit respects teenage girls and continues to twine the skills of solid storytelling with the concept of the genre, then it’s fine by me. I am large, I contain multitudes…)

Likeable heroine Charlie has a family, school problems, backstory and is a good, but not perfect, photographer; her life doesn’t stop just because she’s met a vaguely handsome boyband. There are subplots, social struggles and mysteries to be solved. It helps that I like this book’s title: it’s simple, straightforward and most importantly sounds like an actual album. (I wasn’t quite sure why at first, but then I played Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane all through writing this review.)

Songs About a Girl is driven by a fairly basic plot, and I found I’d guessed a major twist early on, but it’s all very dramatic. Friendly Olly and bad boy Gabriel are touted as the book’s big stars but Yuki and Aiden get considerable time on the page too. Back at school, Charlie faces the highs and lows of friendship with Melissa, who’s definitely hiding something from her, and taunts when her involvement with Fire&Lights hits the schoolyard as well as the gossip columns. There are revelations and betrayals (including when one of the boys opens the door to Charlie and it seems he’s been leading her on while HAVING A FLING WITH A FAMOUS PERSON!). One twist had me like this: 

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Unfortunately, most of the characters are two-dimensional. Charlie is sixteen, but the book is aimed at a younger audience, certainly in terms of tone and unchallenging prose. Russell strives to at least blend realism with the admittedly unlikely premise of a teenager being plucked from obscurity to become an eyewitness to the fracturing relationships behind the nation’s favourite band, but there’s certainly some sanitisation of band life and fame. The book doesn’t deal with issues brilliantly or in depth; the dialogue isn’t great; the novel as a whole lacks sharpness and the intuitive, natural style of books like London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning or Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. However, There are two sequels planned and the book ends on a cliffhanger which should keep readers on their toes.

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

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