The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave // swapping the tropics for snowy forests

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing a book I read all the way back in June and am so excited to be able to talk about more!

way-past-winter-hb-no-bleedAuthor(s): Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 4th October 2018
Source: I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Mila and her sisters live with their brother Oskar in a small forest cabin in the snow.

One night, a fur-clad stranger arrives seeking shelter for himself and his men. But by the next morning, they’ve gone – and it looks like Oskar has joined them. Twelve-year-old Mila can’t believe her beloved Oskar would abandon them. But then she never believed her father would abandon them either, and he disappeared years ago. 

Then she learns that all the boys in the village have gone. Except one – an outcast mage called Rune. To discover the truth, Mila and Rune set out in a dog sleigh to find Oskar and bring him back. Even if it means facing a wilderness full of dangerous, magical things. Even if it means going all the way to the frozen north… 

Kiran Millwood Hargrave is having a bit of a moment. Already a published poet and playwright when her first children’s novel The Girl of Ink and Stars was picked up by Chicken House Books, it was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, declared Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards and won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Her second children’s book, The Island at the End of Everythingwas shortlisted for a Blue Peter Book Award and the Costa. The first book in a feminist YA series, Bellatrix, which will see her working with fellow Costa nominee Kit de Waal, is slated for July 2019. A buzzy 13-way auction for rights to her first adult novel The Mercies (previously known as Vardø) earlier this year was eventually won by Picador, with publication set for 2020.

What, then, of The Way Past Winter, which seems to bridge a critical moment between Millwood Hargrave’s children’s fiction and a transition to work for older audiences? Has this relatively short adventure been left in the dust in the rush to get to other projects? It certainly seems like a break with tradition when compared to The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at the End of Everything, which both feature long titles, only children, and sun-drenched tropical island settings. The characteristic girl heroine and male villain remain, and islands are to an extent still places of wonder for this writer, but the trading of sand for snow and sun for ice has the effect of conjuring a world as fresh and sharp as the air after a storm. It seems that Millwood Hargrave has found the means to step further away from the formula set by her first book – and her plunge into this wintry landscape is often brilliant.

Mila’s quest to find her brother is one of snowy forests and eerie mountain cities, breakneck chases and perilous encounters, fierce creatures and mesmerising wilderness. As their close-knit sibling group splinters and older sister Sanna concludes that Oskar was desperate to take any opportunity to abandon them – perhaps an expression of her own frustrated longing to see the world beyond the forest – Mila is sure there’s something more to his disappearance. She is joined in her search by mysterious boy-mage Rune, bright-eyed younger sister Pípa, and loyal canine companions Dusha and Danya. Theirs is a world which awaits a far-off spring; one of superstition and stories, like that of Bjorn, bear protector of the forest. I would’ve liked slightly deeper exploration of certain plot threads or secondary characters, but on the whole, simple devices are woven into an effective, engrossing adventure.

It is not unexpected that nature should prove fruitful literary ground here (“Cold hovered like a carrion bird”; “it was the way of the mountains to carry on outdoing each other”), or that there are poetic influences (“A dark fizzing, like a hot coal spitting”). More important is that Millwood Hargrave is hitting her prose stride. The Way Past Winter features a compelling goal, exciting action and well-defined structure. Some of my favourite lines were character-centric (“Oskar had grown up so fast it seemed he had left loving them behind”; “She felt empty, like a hand that is dropped when it is used to being held”), but some came even when the story was at its simplest. When it was speaking of “a pane of ice, thumb thick”, or “watching as the flour and water performed their small alchemy”, or “listening to her breathing, which seemed the best sound ever made.” It is in these moments that The Way Past Winter shines.

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The Way Past Winter is simple, evocative, and captivating. Its pacy adventure and flashes of rich imagination will appeal to fans of Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder and Abi Elphinstone’s Sky Song. One of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s best books yet.

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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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Children’s Lit Round-Up: Historical Fiction Edition

This week on the blog, I’m taking a quick detour away from YA with some marvellous historical fiction children’s books!

17350491Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication date: 7th March 2017
Source:
Purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Found floating in the English Channel in a cello case after a shipwreck when she was a baby and taken in by the kindly Charles, it seems almost impossible that Sophie’s mother is still alive – but that means it is still possible, and you should never ignore a possible.

When the Welfare Agency threatens to send Sophie to an orphanage, she flees to Paris to follow the only clue she has: an address on the inside of the cello case. There she meets Matteo and his network of rooftoppers, who open her eyes to a world above the streets, close to the sky. They must find her mother before Sophie can be caught and sent back to London – and before she loses hope.

I’ve talked about how much I like Rooftoppers before (for instance here, and most recently, here in my review of Katherine Rundell’s latest novel The Explorer) but I think I should just say again how much I adore this book. I don’t even think I have quite the words to describe how much. It is wonderful children’s fiction. It’s wry and funny and self-aware (“Your powers of observation are formidable. You are a credit to your optician”) and atmospheric and clever and just a little magical. It reaps the rewards of an adept writing style but bears traces of an old-fashioned children’s classic.

It’s set in the late nineteenth century, and is very much a book of two halves: its English scenes are warm and bookish while its Parisian scenes are both grimy and starry. The book’s eccentric family focus was perhaps my favourite parts of the novel. Young heroine Sophie is tomboyish, plucky and daring (“It is difficult to believe in extraordinary things. It is a talent you have, Sophie. Don’t lose it”). Her guardian Charles is unconventional but incredibly kind (“He was thirty-six years old, and six foot three. He spoke English to people and French to cats, and Latin to the birds”). The enigmatic Matteo and his ragtag collection of street urchins add notable texture and grounding to the book’s landscape. I only wish the novel’s ending wasn’t quite so rushed. That said, while there are a lot of children’s adventure stories out there (in fact The Explorer is one of the best of 2017) but Rooftoppers remains a masterstroke. 5stars-fw

Rooftoppers is a wonderful work of elegant plot, pacy adventuring and wry humour. Katherine Rundell is fast becoming one of my favourite writers of children’s books.

34045334The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Publisher:
Chicken House Books
Publication date:
4th May 2017
Source:
Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Ami lives with her mother on an island where the sea is as blue as the sky. It’s all she knows and loves, but the arrival of malicious official Mr Zamora changes their world forever: the island is to be made into a leper colony. Taken from her sick mother and banished across the sea, Ami faces an uncertain future in an orphanage. There she meets a honey-eyed girl named for butterflies, and together they discover a secret that will lead her on an adventure home. Ami must go back to the island of no return, but will she make it in time?

A pattern is emerging in Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s children’s books: both The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at The End of Everything have – to name just a few similarities -long titles, young female protagonists, tropical island settings, and officious male villains who use bureaucracy to ruin that tropical island home. However, while The Girl of Ink and Stars is magical realism or light fantasy, her second standalone novel certainly leans toward historical fiction. The Philippine island of the title, Culion, was a real leper colony for over ninety years (though it should be noted that in the book ‘leper’ is seen as a slur and the word ‘Touched’ is use to describe those who have contracted the disease). Set in the early twentieth century, it makes use of such implied isolation to create a microcosm that could seem ghastly (as the reader is aware of the seriousness of the illness) but has the capacity to amaze, particularly as Ami discovers the butterflies of the cover.

The Island at the End of Everything is a very bittersweet book. It echoes with a (perhaps not-unexpected) melancholia that saps some of the potential magic of the prose. I liked the descriptions, the kindness of several of its characters and the interesting twist in perspective that comes just over halfway into the book. I would’ve liked a stronger plot and a more memorable cast, but Millwood Hargrave writes with an effective and descriptive style. If you liked The Girl of Ink and Stars (my review of which can be read here), this one is worth checking out.

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A relatively short and often bittersweet second novel, with an unusual choice of subject and an effective, descriptive writing style. 

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The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine
Publisher: Egmont
Publication date: 4th June 2015
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

When a priceless and bejewelled clockwork sparrow is stolen from the glamourous London department store known as Sinclair’s, shop girl Sophie finds herself on the trail of some of the city’s most dastardly criminals. Joined by rookie porter turned aspiring detective Billy and extroverted, beautiful chorus girl Lillian, she must crack codes, devour iced buns and vow to bring the villains to justice…

This is the opener in what looks set to be a marvellous historical mystery saga – there are already several sequels and I can’t wait to read them. Woodfine builds an Edwardian London of great contrast, from the shimmering luxury of the shop to the shady backstreets of the city’s criminals. I loved the choice of time period and the setting, which give the mystery a really distinctive feel, and there are some fabulous panoramic scenes in the store. The plot is engaging and an intriguing mystery brings a quick pace. Its young characters are neatly individualised, particularly heroine Sophie and runaway Joe, and there are some interesting adult secondary characters. There was one over-long exposition scene, but the writing is otherwise strong.

Fans of Robin Stevens’ cracking Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries (I recently reviewed each of the books so far) will find plenty to like here – though the busy Edwardian shop floor contrasts sharply with a 1930s boarding school, and Sophie and Lillian are very much accidental detectives. There’s a sense that a series-long villain is on the cards here, while Stevens’ mysteries are decidedly more self-contained and murderous. Woodfine’s work probably bears more resemblance to glossy period drama Mr Selfridge, as Selfridge’s is clearly the inspiration for Sinclair’s, from its opulent displays to its gregarious American owner. (Of course, these books being aimed at kids aged 9-13, it skips out on the television series’ rampant adultery and, alas, the absurdly beautiful Grégory Fitoussi.)

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An engaging, pacy mystery with a terrific historical setting and fantastic series potential.
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*I’d like to make it clear that the stars are for the book, not just the Grégory Fitoussi gif.

Re-imagining Books As… Podcasts!

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m looking at some books (mostly YA) that would make amazing podcasts  (and describing them in detail, because of course. WE NEED THE JUICY DETAILS. Alternatively, feel free to see them as radio plays. I get very into this).

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the_loneliest_girlThe Loneliest Girl In The Universe by Lauren James

Commander Romy Silvers is the loneliest girl in the universe: the only crewmember of the spaceship Infinity, travelling to a distant planet on a mission to establish a new colony, Earth II. Then she learns that a new ship, The Eternity, has been launched and will join her – and on it is a single passenger named J. Their messages take months to transfer across the vast expanse of space, but Romy holds on to the hope that when J arrives, everything will be different. If she can keep her increasingly eerie ship running that long… 

This is such an obvious candidate for a podcast adaptation! A single viewpoint character, an ear-catching premise, a distinct setting, a twisty plot, escalating narrative tension, ominous thriller overtones. It’s a relatively compact book, so a well-planned series of 17-22 minute episodes would keep it short and sharp. It could be in the form of Romy’s captain’s or ship’s log, with sections of her fanfic for the fictional TV show Loch & Ness used to break up segments. Throw in some suitably sci-fi background noises and occasional guest voice actors to vary the sonic landscape, and you’d have a super-cool narrative podcast. It’d probably be totally creepy, but some of the most talked-about podcasts are dark or mysterious (*coughs* Welcome to Night Vale).

Side note: I’ve talked extensively about how much I like The Next Together (time travel! Epistolary additions! “Said the actress to the bishop”! Hot Tom!) and The Last Beginning (More time travel! LGBT lady protagonists! Hot DILF Tom!!). While either could work as a podcast, albeit quite a complex and busy one given the multiple time periods, from a more straightforward stylistic standpoint The Loneliest Girl In The Universe unfortunately fits the medium better. Also I SUPPOSE one can’t put the Finchley-Galloway-Sutcliffes (unless there is a collective noun for an extended family of rule-breaking gay time travellers that will have to be their name okay I don’t make the rules) in every feature. In the meantime though you can read more about them here, or here, or here…

30370281Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

The messiest choice on this list by far! I reviewed Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s third book Freshers before it released earlier this year (you can read the review here) and it was amazing – clever, vibrant, outrageous, incredibly funny. I’d definitely read a sequel, or in the absence of one, listen to a podcast adaptation.

The Freshers podcast could be framed as a university radio show, ostensibly hosted by one of the more sensible characters like Josh or someone totally outgoing and eclectic like Frankie (ohmygod, imagine her music choices) but actually hijacked by the entire friend group. It would include lots of chat, campus news, a slot for the Quidditch society, and salubrious amounts of gossip. Negin would be the deadpan, sarcastic one, speaking only when it’s effective. Rita would put in disclaimers to stop them being sued for libel, but be an unsurprisingly good contributor. Bowl-Cut Mary would wish she’d thought of it first and try to get on this wildly popular campus radio show (really, the first cool thing they’ve had on in years). 25-minute podcast episodes would cut in and out of the much longer in-world radio show (fading back in after ‘songs’ etc.), with some choice backstage scenes of plot where, most importantly, Josh and Phoebe finally talk about their OBVIOUS feelings!! There’d be lots of tea and laughter and quickfire dialogue and general awesomeness.

17199504The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

I’d like to see more fantasy podcasts given a chance! I’ve chosen Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season because it’s alternate timeline SFF, with some recognisable elements – the London setting, the general concept of clairvoyance – rather than high or epic fantasy, which might need more of a leap on the part of listeners. There was supposed to be a movie of this series but I haven’t heard anything about it in ages, so maybe a podcast would be a more successful medium! Episodes would be twenty minutes to half an hour, with that slightly mysterious, unsettling feel and evocative background soundscapes, like crowds or echoing tunnels. It would, of course, feature members of SciLo’s unnatural population, and would be as much about the more interesting elements of its world as about plot. Side characters might take take more prominence – one might even helm it (is there an order of clairvoyant to do purely with sound?) – than they do in the series, which is told almost exclusively from Paige Mahoney’s perspective. Think stories from or about London’s spirits, its different types of clairvoyants, its shadiest corners and ongoing rivalries – and every now and then, a hint at the shifting allegiances and events of the ongoing books.

The idea of a podcast or radio show in SciLo is also quite subversive – it’d be an insight into stories or an underworld the reader or listener knows is forbidden in the world of the books. And, oh wow, I’ve just realised if he thought he could get away with it, Jaxon Hall would absolutely showboat his way into a radio show like this. Like Potterwatch, only completely insufferable. Well, isn’t that delightful.

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The Spinster Club
trilogy by Holly Bourne
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Rather than just a book-to-podcast adaptation taking listeners from reworked versions of Am I Normal Yet? and its sequels, what strikes me as interesting podcast material here is the post-series years. Evie, Amber and Lottie, still frustrated with not seeing each other much several months after the events of And A Happy New Year? decide to make a commitment to record a friendship-and-feminism podcast every month so they have an inescapable excuse to hang out. Plot progression mostly involves behind-the-scenes moments, updates on who’s dating and who’s hating, Lottie’s political ascension and the steady exploration of the girls’ lives as twenty-somethings.

Lottie is the moderator and leader with the schedule and microphones, Evie is the researcher and referee, and Amber is the riotous one who inadvertently gets quoted in all the soundbytes. A shaky start devolves into lots of laughter, cheesy wotsits and Amber yelling about taking down the patriarchy while accidentally snorting her drink out of her nose. There are regular features such as ‘Feminist Ladies We Love’, ‘An American Boyfriend Chips In Where He’s Not Wanted; or, The Token Bloke’ and eventually ‘Agony Aunties (And Other Annoying Relatives)’ in which they attempt to give advice in response to a chosen listener letter, deferring to areas of expertise or experience or, sometimes hilariously, trying to tag-team an answer. Episodes are fifty minutes to an hour depending on how many times someone falls (or gets pushed) off their chair howling.

This is just me describing the perfect podcast now, isn’t it. TL;DR: SOMEONE MAKE THIS PLEASE I NEED MORE SPINSTER CLUB IN MY LIFE.

Would you like to see YA books turned into podcasts? What books would you pick? Do you have any podcast recommendations? Leave a comment down below!

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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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Laurel Remington talks weddings, classics, and Confetti & Cake

Today on the blog, I’m hosting a guest post from Laurel Remington to celebrate the release of her second MG book, Confetti & Cake (out from the lovely folks at Chicken House Books). I was delighted to be asked to be part of this mini blog tour (and add some choice gifs to the post!). You can read my review for The Secret Cooking Club here, or read on to see author Laurel Remington chat about her favourite fictional weddings. Warning: Jane Eyre spoilers abound!

download (1)I was a child when I attended a wedding for the first time. A girl called Lisa, the daughter of a neighbour, was marrying her high school sweetheart, a boy called Richie. I have few memories of that day – vague images of a church, a crowd, and a girl in a white dress – but the one thing I do remember is a single moment when bride and groom were standing at the altar, and the priest asked Richie if he would take this woman, Debbie, to be his wedded wife. This unfortunate slip of the tongue caused gasps from the crowd and hasty shouts of ‘Lisa!’, including from the groom himself. The fact that the groom’s ex-girlfriend was called named Debbie didn’t do the priest any favours!

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I’ve been to many weddings since – lovely affairs, all of them – but nothing sticks in my mind quite like the Lisa/Richie/Debbie moment. While photographs and videos may record all the things that went right, I suspect that for many guests, the most memorable moments are the ones where things went wrong. This certainly seems to be borne out in fiction, where some of the most famous romances are ones that didn’t come off quite right – or, in fact, went totally pear-shaped.

Jane Eyre’s journey sees her go from governess to fiancée of the lord of the manor, Edward Rochester. Jane’s promised wedded bliss comes to an end at the altar, as two strangers enter the church to ‘declare the existence of an impediment’, namely that Rochester is already married. When Jane finally returns  at the end of the book, when Rochester’s first wife has died and he has been blinded by a fire, a now much wiser Jane limits the description of her new circumstances to ‘Reader, I married him.’ What a powerful example of ‘less is more’!

While Jane Eyre had a belated ‘happy ending’, another classic bride-to-be was less fortunate. In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham is swindled out of her fortune and left at the altar by her brother’s friend Compeyson. She spends the rest of her life dressed for her wedding day, frozen in time. As her white dress rots from her body, and the wedding feast is devoured by mice, we see Miss Havisham take out her rage and hurt through her adopted daughter Estella, thus destroying the happiness of even more people in the process. While Dickens’ prose may admittedly fade from our minds, the image of an old woman living each day surrounded by dreams of her ghostly white wedding day is one that sticks with us.

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It’s interesting to note that the queen of Regency classics, Jane Austen, often downplayed descriptions of weddings in her novels. For her, the delight was in the romance and ‘the chase’, rather than in weddings themselves. Elizabeth and Jane Bennet’s weddings aren’t described in Pride and Prejudice, the day simply being marked as that ‘on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters.’ Jane Austen herself never married, and while she did once accept a proposal, she changed her mind the next day. Perhaps it was enough for her to be married to her art and her profession. Or could it have been wedding jitters? We’ll never know for sure.

secret-cooking-club-confetti-cake-657x1024In Confetti & Cake, Scarlett’s cooking club has succeeded beyond anything she could have expected, bringing new friends and new chances, including judging charity bake-offs! But when Scarlett’s mum announces she’s getting married and will be appearing on a  TV wedding show, let’s just say things don’t go quite to plan. Between trying to make the perfect wedding day feast and juggling her newfound sort-of fame, Scarlett feels like she’s riding a roller coaster that’s going far too fast. Can the Secret Cooking Club save the day with food, fun, friendship, and a lovely wedding cake – or will it all end in tiers?

Happy reading (and baking)!

Laurel Remington

Laurel Remington’s second book, Confetti & Cake, is out now. Her first children’s book, The Secret Cooking Club, was the winner of the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition 2015, and through it she hopes to inspire young readers to try their hand at cooking and baking. She lives in Surrey with her partner and three daughters.

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Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison // “Just a subtle pack howl, no big deal. Keep it caj.”

Today on the blog, I review another of my most anticipated reads of the year! You can see the full list here, or catch up with my progress on it through quick reviews here. 

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Author(s): Tom Ellen, Lucy Ivison
Publisher:
 Chicken House Books
Publication date: 3rd August 2017
Category: YA
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Phoebe Bennet has been waiting all summer for uni to start and her life to finally begin. 

But for Luke Taylor, starting uni marks an unexpected ending. His girlfriend lives hours away and he’s not sure they can make it work. Or that he really wants it to. 

Phoebe’s landed on her feet, made new friends and thrown herself into the chaos of freshers. Luke is finding York the escape he thought it would be. When the two collide and a secret crush turns into something more, they get sucked into each other’s worlds in the most messy, intense and ridiculous ways imaginable.

Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s début collaboration, Lobsters, was nominated for the YA Book Prize and is set in the heady no-man’s-land of a summer between finishing school and starting university. Their second, Never Evers, remains my go-to recommendation for the bridge between early teen and young adult fiction. Here it seems they’re filling another gap as it’s revealed that someone has finally (finally!) written a smart, plot-packed, realistically ridiculous book about teenagers in the first months of university. What’s more, Freshers is outrageously, unashamedly funny. It’s sharp, candid, and laugh-out-loud engaging.  I couldn’t help being won over by its messy, rollercoaster style.

Phoebe Bennet might be mistaken for the girl next door: friendly, ordinary, and entirely invisible to people like Luke Taylor when they were at school together. But when they go to the same university and end up helping the same drunk fresher get home on a night out, it seems Phoebe’s daydreams are about to become a reality. Unfortunately for her, freshers’ week is not the place for straightforward romances. On the upside, she’s making friends in her corridor, bags herself a job at a posh café and has plenty of first year antics to keep up with. Told in fast-paced alternate narration, what follows is a tale of mayhem, mishaps, miscommunication and inexplicable amounts of tea, written with typical Ellen and Ivison aplomb.

A vibrant array of characters populate the pages. I adored forthright Frankie, deadpan but determined Negin (“like if a newsreader fronted an indie band”) and level-headed Rita. Even out-of-it Arthur, bubbly Liberty and no-nonsense latecomer Thrones (actually called Ed, nay, Edmund) have their moments. Ellen and Ivison make an unlikely but enthusiastic bond between characters thrown together essentially at random seem believable and dynamic. Minor characters such as Bowl-Cut Mary (“How do you even become a person who is brave enough to get a rainbow bowl cut and wear boys’ trackies on a night out? What does your life preceding that point even look like?”) and Frankie’s mum make an impression, too. The outstanding friendship of Freshers, however, is that of Frankie, Negin and Phoebe. It’s positive, excruciatingly funny female friendship, and one of the most natural I’ve seen in YA so far this year.

Freshers is character-driven contemporary. Ellen and Ivison’s skill with flawed characters is evident when it comes to Luke. He retains an element of the reader’s sympathy, though he’S immature, muddled, and self-absorbed. He’s not yet realised that he can, and should, take responsibility for his relationships and stand up for things even when it’s not the popular choice. The villains of the piece (one of those villains is ‘laddishness’) are more obviously awful. Josh, meanwhile, is a character I’d have loved to have seen even more of. He’s confident, generous, realistic – a good egg, to borrow We Come Apart’s phrase – and completely underutilised. I’d definitely read a sequel to this book, and one of the reasons would be to see more of Josh in it.

There is some plot (“better to have loved and lost than to have… accidentally declared your love via text message”) and for a book that doesn’t seem long, it’s busy. The last sixth has some slight pacing issues and there are one or two unresolved threads. However, it also means they take opportunities to contrast different types of relationships and explore themes like being more in love with the idea of someone than the person themselves. There’s a lack of actual studying going on in this university setting but in a broomstick-to-academia ratio Harry would be proud of, there is a Quidditch society. If you’re a fan of Holly Bourne, Lisa Williamson or Non Pratt, this is the book for you.

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Funny, outrageous and down-to-earth, Freshers is full of chaotic charm. The friendships are particularly brilliant. Even if you’re new to brassy, frank contemporary UKYA, you may as well throw yourself in at the deep end and start with this. One of Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s best books yet. 

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