A review with lots of short stories in it // A Change Is Gonna Come anthology (various authors)

34946853Author(s): Mary Bello, Aisha Bushby, Tanya Byrne, Inua Ellams, Catherine Johnson, Patrice Lawrence, Ayisha Malik, Irfan Master, Musa Okwonga, Yasmin Rahman, Phoebe Roy, Nikesh Shukla, Lucy Banaji (illustrator)
Publisher: Stripes
Publication date: 10th August 2017
Category: YA, short fiction
Genre(s): contemporary, historical fiction, magical realism, dystopian, sci-fi
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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A steady flow of YA and kidlit short story anthologies have hit the shelves in recent years: Stephanie Perkins’ My True Love Gave To Me, the Malorie Blackman-curated Love Hurts, Abi Elphinstone’s terrific array of stories for younger readers Winter Magic, Deirdre Sullivan’s upcoming dark feminist fairytales project Tangleweed and Brine. This latest addition, the strikingly covered A Change Is Gonna Come, has been creating buzz ever since it was announced. It’s a headline release in inclusive, diverse UKYA in 2017, aiming to highlight a host of stories from UK-based BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers. It merges the approach of initiatives like the Jhalak Prize (one children’s literature contender was Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s splendid début The Girl of Ink and Stars), crowd-funded adult non-fiction title The Good Immigrant, and BAME-centric issues of publications like Shift Zine. It benefits from the backing of those with enough publishing power to do something about diversity rather than just staging another panel or pondering on it, and Stripes definitely deserve a shout-out for getting there first in terms of a move like this for YA.

The ostensible theme of the project is ‘change’, but it tackles far more: racism, culture shock, friendships, family, time travel, break-ups, Victorian circuses, heritage, loss, inexplicable feathers. Like most short story collections it’s quite a quick read, and like most short story anthologies (you can read more of my short fiction reviews here), it’s a little hit-and-miss. It’s rare that all contributions to a multifarious offering will suit every reader. A partial list of issues mentioned in the anthology, some with the potential to be very affecting for teens, is noted in the first pages and listed at the back.

The stories are framed by poetry – Musa Okwonga’s resonant ‘The Elders on the Wall’ (‘while I rise toward these elders, who yell / That they made it up here without help’) and ‘Of Lizard Skin and Dust Storms’ by Inua Ellams – which is a neat, pleasing device. Catherine Johnson’s circus-set ‘Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!’ sits squarely in her usual repertoire of historical fiction inspired by real events. Fellow YA Book Prize alumnus (and indeed this year’s winner – read reviews of the entire shortlist here) Patrice Lawrence takes on a Hunger Games or Maze Runner style prison dystopia in ‘The Clean Sweep’, which borders on too vague but has an interesting paratext-style ending twist.

Tanya Byrne’s experienced and effective pen shows in ‘Hackney Moon’, which makes full use of the short story form. There are some really fantastic lines (‘that bright afternoon in July when the summer rolled out at their feet like a red carpet’, ‘lipstick the colour of a fresh cut’, ’so that’s how it ended – not with a bang but with a squiggle of graffiti’). She packs a lot into the story of Esther and Alesha, or as it occasionally is the story of Esther and Sam, with its LGBTQ+ characters, yellow jumpers, bonding over zines and focus on tangled relationships. If you like Juno Dawson’s All of the Above or the messy characters of Moira Fowley-Doyle’s books, this may be up your alley.

The same story is never told twice in A Change Is Gonna Come, even when similar themes are at play. Racism is tackled and questioned head-on in ‘Fortune Favours the Bold’ by Yasmin Rahman and ‘We Who?’ by Nikesh Shukla; both seek to make messages ring true for readers, though the latter has an irresolute ending, perhaps due to the constraints of the form. If you’ve read Pooja Puri’s The Jungle (the first release from the new Scottish YA imprint at Black & White, Ink Road Books), then Ayisha Malik’s well-researched ‘A Refuge’ may appeal, though I didn’t like most of its adult characters.

‘The Unwritten Future of Moses Mohammad Shabazz Banneker King’ by Irfan Master is an out-there sci-fi which favours the serious over the wacky but still manages to cram time-travel into a post-box with the sort of concept that could only work in a short story. The titular Moses (‘named after a prophet, a boxer, an activist, a scientist and a pastor, not being able to see wasn’t going to stop Moses changing the world’) is tasked with altering reality through letters from a boy in the future called Malik. Master approaches it with ‘read now, ask questions later’ bombast. The reveal of who Malik is, and where the two will go next, gives the story an extra bit of punch.

‘Marionette Girl’ by Aisha Bushby shows a tonally as well as visibly contained approach to unfurling the life of Amani, a protagonist with OCD. Trapped by rituals such as scrubbing her hands, adhering to strict schedules and performing tasks a set number of times, there’s visceral illumination of the way Amani’s OCD affects her, but little depth expended on cause or secondary characters. The ending is abrupt, and there’s some f tell over show, also a feature of Mary Bello’s ‘Dear Asha’. Both stories have solid YA premises, however, and Bello’s conjuring of kinship and belonging in Nigeria – from markets and beaches to communities and corruption – shows flashes of immense vibrancy. There’s the odd duff line, but it’s got plenty going on for a piece of short fiction and it touches on themes like class and wealth disparity.

‘Iridescent Adolescent’ by Phoebe Roy (not, as it turns out, the same as ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ by the Arctic Monkeys, which completely got stuck in my head while writing this review) is undoubtedly the stand-out of the anthology. Its magical realism seems almost shaped or carved, as the mysterious, feathery tale of biracial, Jewish Nathalie unfolds. Some of its imagery and turns of phrase are notable (‘the sea lived in the house’s corners’) but it’s the impact of the story as a whole which really brightens the anthology. Reminiscent of The Girl at Midnight or The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, it showcases a glimmer of what one can do with the dreamlike in short fiction.

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For fans of non-fiction’s The Good Immigrant or Stripes’ previous anthology I’ll Be Home for Christmas, this collection does exactly what it sets out to, providing a diverse, fresh gathering of BAME authors and short stories for UKYA. I would’ve liked more humour and all its stories will be subjective, but offerings from Phoebe Roy and Tanya Byrne particularly stood out.

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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
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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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. It’s so entertaining – and the ending so nearly perfect – that I couldn’t help being won over by its messy, rollercoaster style.

Phoebe Bennet might be mistaken for the girl next door: friendly, upbeat, ordinary, and entirely invisible to people like Luke Taylor when they were at school together. But when they happen to 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 some hilarious 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 brilliantly vibrant array of characters populate the pages. I adored forthright, unabashedly individual 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 very different 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 incredibly 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. Both leads make mistakes, and Ellen and Ivison’s skill with complex, flawed characters is evident when it comes to Luke. He consistently retains an element of the reader’s sympathy, though he’s ultimately less easy to like. 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. This is a book of growth and learning, though. 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. 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. The downside to Ellen and Ivison’s terrific characterisation is that the villains of the piece (one of those villains is ‘laddishness’) are totally awful. 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. Theirs is suspiciously clever, brazen writing. If you’re a fan of Holly Bourne, Lisa Williamson or Non Pratt, this is the book for you.

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Funny, messy, 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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Most Anticipated Reads of 2017 – July Check In!

Every year, the blogosphere is flooded with most anticipated lists, and before you know it, you’re knee-deep in releases which are five or six or seven months away while your current TBR stares accusingly at you from across the bookshelf. But sooner or later these posts vanish – often never to be given any kind of conclusion or follow through. This year, I wanted to check in with my most anticipated books of the year  and see whether they’ve made it off the list and onto my shelf!

Throne of Glass #6 by Sarah J. Maas

Originally slated for publication in autumn 2017, the final installment in Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series has now been pushed back to May 2018. SIGH. There’s no other term for it: this SUCKS. I was so excited for this book – Throne of Glass remains an epic and extraordinary feat of female-led high fantasy in YA – and can’t wait to find out where it goes next. Instead of an autumn conclusion for the assassin once known as Celaena Sardothien, we’re getting a spin-off Chaol novel called Tower of Dawn and more sequels to her (ugh) A Court of Thorns and Roses books. It seems Maas has joined the likes of George R. R. Martin, Diana Gabaldon, Megan Whalen Turner and Samantha Shannon in making readers wait years for the next legit book in a fantasy series.

Once and for All by Sarah Dessen

I was so delighted when I heard the premise for Sarah Dessen’s new project, and it’s out this June! The concept reads like such a burst of joy.  Weddings, family, a healthy dose of cynicism, happily-ever-afters and Dessen’s penchant for including past characters make this sound like a glossy romantic comedy to adore, and I’ll be picking it up as soon as I see it in a bookshop. Oh, I have been WAITING for a book like this in YA.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Another one whose publication date was pushed back, Strange the Dreamer was one of the most talked-about fantasy releases of spring, and when I read it earlier this month, I enjoyed it. It’s rich, immersive stuff, centred on a scholar who loves fairytales, a city bereft of its name, and a quest to get it back. It’s quite long (perhaps even a little too long) and moves at a frustratingly even pace, but Taylor’s inventive streak is unquestionable and the world-building is top-notch. The characters are clearly designed to contrast with the cast of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but Taylor retains her distinctive, descriptive writing style and I’ll be picking up the sequel in this duology.

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

I read the final book in the Shades of Magic trilogy – or as Schwab rather mysteriously puts it, the final book in the first arc of the Shades of Magic series – earlier this year and it was awesome. It’s a rich, chunky fantasy to get your teeth into. Full of allegiance, betrayal, bloodlust, romance, sacrifice, pirates, magical Londons and stylish coats, it’s a strong conclusion to the trio. However, I did find that after the first book, the series came to rely on plot devices and types of magic we’ve seen before. A Conjuring of Light leaves a veritable cadre of unanswered questions, so I’d definitely read more about Kell, Lila, Alucard and co!

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We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

I read We Come Apart quite early, and reviewed it on the blog in February! “Crossan and Conaghan, already at the top of their game as individual writers, prove once again why they are critically acclaimed Carnegie and Costa winners respectively… collaboration has indeed sparked something new in their repertoire. With a keen sense of story and an eye for detail, this dynamic dual narrative is a back-and-forth of fearless proportions. It is unflinching, engaging, sharp and occasionally, totally heartbreaking.”

All About Mia by Lisa Williamson

This is a book that had me at ‘Mother Teresa in a blazer’, to be honest. I reviewed it on the blog in March and really enjoyed it. “Messy, outrageous, vivid and engaging, All About Mia boasts a brilliant premise and some great flashes of humour. A solid cast and a satisfying style are marred only by a few duff or unnecessary turns of plot. A blistering and lively contemporary standalone ideal for fans of Trouble by Non Pratt, All of the Above by Juno Dawson or Lobsters by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison.”

Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

Freshers didn’t even have a cover when I added it to my most anticipated list in December, but Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to laugh-out-loud humour and realistic UKYA, and I’m still intrigued to see what they come up with here. It will be published by Chicken House in August.

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Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

Another notch in my ‘actually following up on debuts by reading sequels’ belt, I read Traitor to the Throne before publication but reviewed it in April. “Rich, exciting and enthralling, Traitor to the Throne – the second book in what is rapidly becoming one of current UKYA’s most dramatic and action-packed fantasy series – is a commendable follow-up to last year’s Rebel of the Sands. This brisk but immersive foray into the world of Miraji – where rough wild west meets mysterious desert sands and long-hidden magic abounds – sees heroine Amani once again elbow-deep in fighting for her freedom and that of her people.  Hectic, pacy and bursting with plot, it’s driven by sparky bravery, simmering revolution, outrageous treachery, daring rescues, thrilling escapes, and surprise re-appearances.”

A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

This companion to the New York Times bestselling The Star-Touched Queen 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. While this book published in March, it looks like it doesn’t yet have a UK publisher, which is disappointing as I was hoping it could improve where The Star-Touched Queen had lagged a bit. For the one-day-I’ll-get-around-to-it pile.

Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

My interest was piqued by the sound of this book when it was announced: a royal tale of conspiracy and inheritance, it’s pitched as an apparent edgy semi-fantasy mystery of sorts. Unfortunately, this is another one that doesn’t seem to be lined up for publication this side of the Atlantic. I’m not particularly bothered about missing out on reading it, but it reminds me how much I wanted to see more fantasy in Irish and UKYA. Publishers here really need to work on publishing more solid YA fantasy!!

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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: you guys, I’d been waiting for this book for SO LONG. I did a lot of work talking about it and supporting it, and seemed like EVERYONE in the entire blogosphere got a review copy, but although I requested one, mine never arrived, and I was kind of too shy to say anything about it?? (Don’t worry, I’ve gotten better about that kind of thing now.) My purchased copy has been in my TBR for ages because review books often have to come first, but SOON, my pretty, SOON.

The Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moira Fowley-Doyle: the second standalone from one of the best – if not the best – Irish writers of current YA is absolutely one to get your hands on, particularly if you liked the eerie, magical style of The Accident Season. “Dark, strange and littered with magic, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is a stylishly written and pleasingly clever second novel. As beguiling as it is befuddling, it’s a sometimes imperfect but frankly unputdownable addition to recent YA magical realism. I’m intrigued to see what Fowley-Doyle writes next.”

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard: this book is glorious. It was my first (and so far only one of two) five star review of the year. I adored it. “This is a novel which finds in the ordinary the extraordinary: which has taken a humble premise, straightforward prose and a handful of characters and created a love story which may already be one of my favourite books of the year. (And perhaps even a possible awards contender, too).”

Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer: this high fantasy Sleeping Beauty retelling caught my eye last year, though it’s not really been a priority since. But again, where is the UK release date?! PUBLISH. MORE. FANTASY. YOU. GUYS.

Now I Rise by Kiersten White: A ruthless fifteenth century-set saga about a genderbent Vlad the Impaler may be an unlikely choice of subject for YA, but this sequel to the dramatic and NYT-bestselling And I Darken is just as ferocious as the trilogy opener. Set against a backdrop of empires and betrayal, it’s demanding, action-packed historical fiction. I finished it last week and will be reviewing it soon!

So far I’ve managed to read eight of fifteen most anticipated reads of the year, which I’m totally pleased with! Do you keep track of highly anticipated books in your TBR? Which of these 2017 releases have been your favourites?

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

34327163Author(s): Carlie Sorosiak
Publisher:
 Macmillan
Publication date: 29th June 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6 LGBTQ+ YA reads you may have missed

Today on the blog, I talk some seriously underrated YA featuring LGBTQ+ teens (mostly as an excuse to bookpush titles I’ve really enjoyed of late). We’ve all heard of David Levithan, Patrick Ness, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Becky Albertalli et al, but what about the YA books you may not know have LGBTQ+ characters?

24550848The Last Beginning by Lauren James 

You guys, I keep recommending this book. Funny, chaotic and full of adventure, The Last Beginning displays much of Lauren James’ characteristic writing style: a multitude of timelines, epistolary additions, and of course, more pieces of the puzzle in the story of Matthew Galloway and Katherine Finchley. Technically a companion novel to her début The Next Together, it picks up with a new heroine. A passionate knitter and whiz-kid programmer, Clove is smart, hot-headed and prone to making slightly disastrous and immature decisions, but her heart’s (usually) in the right place. Clove’s relationship with girlfriend Ella (which from the outset steers clear of bury-your-gays tropes) is threaded throughout and makes for a light-hearted sci-fi twist on typical star-crossed romance.

32200595A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

The final book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy – or as she rather cryptically puts it, the final book in the first arc of the Shades of Magic series – is one you’ll need to read after finishing the previous books A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows, but it’s totally worth catching up on. It’s absorbing, memorable fantasy with real classic punch. A Conjuring of Light is almost as long as the first two books put together, and a good deal of that is spent on Rhy, prince of the magic-drenched but in peril Red London, and Alucard, a nobleman turned pirate who gets dragged (only a little reluctantly) into the battle to save the city. As it’s packaged as traditional run-of-the-mill portal fantasy, it may be obvious that it features gay or bi characters, but Rhy and Alucard’s relationship proved a hit with fans. Rich, engaging and highly recommended.

33972290The Space Between by Meg Grehan

The Space Between is delicate, elegant, sorrowful, sweet, and all told in verse. I reviewed it earlier this month and it’s exactly the kind of thing many readers of YA have been calling for, so it’s frustrating to see it get so little traction! Little Island, its Irish-based publisher, also brought you Needlework by the award-winning, YALC-attending Deirdre Sullivan. It ticks all the boxes: mental health themes, two girls who fall in love, solid writing, a pretty cover. If you like books by Louise Gornall (you can read my review of Under Rose-Tainted Skies here) and Nina LaCour, or ‘Instagram poets’ like Amanda Lovelace, this one is well worth reading. 

25648276Unboxed by Non Pratt 

Published by Barrington Stoke last year, Non Pratt’s Unboxed is filled with complex, mature themes and awesome characters – and it’s accessible, specialist fiction for teens with dyslexia and other difficulties with reading. There’s a tendency to think of dyslexia-friendly fiction as going ‘back to basics’, but frankly, assuming that any reader should be satisfied with simple plots or subjects is incredibly condescending. Pratt brings the bolshiness and brilliance of longer novels like Trouble and Remix to this character-focused, entertaining YA novella, and – not to give too many spoilers – one of the major characters is a girl who likes girls and is in a relationship. Also, the character Dean was inspired by Wolfgang from Sense8, which gets an A+ from me. Non Pratt’s latest full-length novel Truth or Dare features an asexual character, if that’s more your cup of tea.

Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle30079403

Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s penchant for messy magical realism weaves YA which is beguiling, dark, mysterious and just a little peculiar. Spellbook of the Lost and Found is full of interesting and bewitching things: a town bonfire, missing shoes, a wishing tree, charm bracelets, sprawling tattoos, illicit alcohol, flawed friendships and, of course, several dogs named after types of cereal. Just as in her début The Accident Season, this one is chock full of LGBTQ+ teenagers, with a lyrical emphasis on adventure and adventure. Loyal, quick Olive is bisexual, as is her best friend Rose who strikes up (or rather falls in to) a relationship with tough newcomer Hazel. Fowley-Doyle is one of the best writers of Irish YA out there at the moment – I’d recommend her work for cleverness and flashes of fantastic prose alone.

alloftheaboveAll of the Above by Juno Dawson 

All of the Above is practically bursting with character: between artistic newcomer Toria, fierce but secretive Daisy, bolshy pack leader Polly, awkward Beasley, book-mad Freya, uber-cool Nico, permanently-entwined Alex and Alice, and of course, Geoff the cross-dressing squirrel, readers are from the off confronted with a colourful cast of teenagers. Among them are gay, bisexual, asexual and queer characters with varying experiences of sexuality and relationships. Chatty, frank, funny and littered with pop culture references, the narration keeps you reading and packs a punch. Toria’s experiences as a biracial British-Punjabi teenager only occasionally influence the plot but inform her forthright (“Brompton-on-Sea isn’t exactly a cultural melting pot”) and warmly wry (“Worst. Hindu. Ever”) voice. Juno Dawson is a relatively well-known UKYA figure, but All of the Above is one of her most underrated books.

23454354Bonus: Tumbling by Susie Day (short fiction) 

Tumbling is one of five pieces of original fiction commissioned for the Malorie Blackman-curated anthology Love Hurts in 2015. It is far and away the best part of the collection – the only one worth remembering, really. It’s ostensibly about Shirin and Candy (otherwise known as eye_brows and vaticancameltoes), but it’s about much more, too: first love, teen friendship, fangirls, Sherlock, illness, self-doubt and honesty. It’s engaging, chatty, sleek and well-written. If you like books by Nina LaCour or Sarra Manning, this is the short story for you. It NEEEEEEDS a full-length adaptation IMMEDIATELY.

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So there you have it! Have you read any of the books on this list? Are there any you’re planning to read? 

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The Girl In Between by Sarah Carroll // eerie, serious début joins the greyscale of Irish urban fiction

34457237Author(s): Sarah Carroll
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 4th May 2017 (U.K.) / 20th June 2017 (U.S.)
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

In an old, abandoned mill in the heart of Dublin, Sam and her ma take shelter from their memories of life on the streets, and watch the busy world go by. The windows are boarded up and the floorboards are falling in, but for Sam neither of those things matter. It’s The Castle – a place of her own, a place like no other.

But hard as she tries to hold on to her world, things are starting to change. As the men in yellow coats close in on their refuge, and her ma spins further out of control, Sam finds herself seeking friendship in the ghosts of the mill, and questioning who is really there.

The Girl In Between – quite apart from being the latest addition to a seemingly never-ending string of recently published novels with ‘girl’ in the title – is the latest addition to the Irish YA scene. Its main character is technically not a teenager, but the seriousness of its themes will likely ensure a YA shelving in libraries, bookshops and reading lists alike. Set in a ‘Castle’ – an abandoned mill – and surrounded by a moat – really a canal – it explores the border between surviving and living, between love and fixation, between staying invisible and becoming a ghost.

Sam has only ever known what her mother has told her, and she’s been told to keep herself hidden in the Castle. Hidden away from the Authorities, the hi-vis jackets, the coppers and the do-gooders, who are all in on it together, and who will all drag her away into care if they so much as see her. But when it seems that their dilapidated home is under threat, Sam becomes desperate to save it from the Authorities and her mother from her own personal torment. With only Caretaker, the old man who’s slept outside the mill for decades, to answer her questions, she begins to seek out the ghosts the building, but soon starts to wonder exactly what kind of demons haunt the mill and her mother.

The Girl In Between is a relatively short read, written in an economical, idiosyncratic style. It aims more for class and voice than it does for description or elegant turns of phrase. It’s a contemporary only in the sense of implied timeframe and setting, but verges on mystery, a touch of thriller and above all the eerie. It’s not quite lush or risky enough to plunge into magical realism, but there’s a hint of the uncanny throughout. The protagonist’s youthful naivety makes for some unreliable narration, and readers are invited often obliquely to fill in the blanks and gaps in Carroll’s sketching of her life. There’s a dissonance between what Sam understands about the world and the overarching inkling that there’s something more going on. I called the twist quite early on, but I found the writing style jarring and the lack of drive in the plot off-putting. It’s the kind of book where a lot goes unsaid, and even then some key details, like characters’ names, are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief.

As is the vogue in Irish YA, this book deals with heavy themes. What I wouldn’t give for a handful more Irish books in the vein of Sara Barnard, Non Pratt or Sarah Dessen – or even just some featuring teenagers who are capable, realistic, messy, even happy. This book’s confrontation of homelessness, neglect, addiction and substance abuse will garner plenty of serious head-nodding and murmurs of approval from adults on the literary scene. Carroll’s début has more in common with Roddy Doyle’s slang-strung, gritty urban fiction than it does with Moira Fowley-Doyle’s heady, surreal The Accident Season or Meg Grehan’s delicate, LGBTQ+ love story The Space Between – both novels which really brought something new and engaging to the table – but if you liked Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan or Taking Flight by Sheena Wilkinson, you may find something to like here.

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The Girl In Between is contemporary-mystery with a touch of the eerie which will leave readers scrambling to unravel the resolution, but the writing style of the book just didn’t work for me. Fans of Deirdre Sullivan, Sheena Wilkinson and Keren David may find it’s more their style.

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Truth or Dare by Non Pratt // solid UKYA from a cornerstone of current contemporary

25458747Author(s): Non Pratt
Publisher:
 Walker Books
Publication date: 1st June 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Sef Malik and Claire Casey may go to the same school, but they operate in entirely different circles. If the usual rules applied, they’d never have ended up in each other’s company.

When a horrific accident turns Sef’s world upside down, he and Claire fall into an unlikely friendship. They become Truth Girl and Dare Boy, confessing secrets and staging outrageous dares to raise funds for Sef’s older brother, Kam.

But Sef is prepared to do anything to help his brother. He’s willing to risk everything he has – and what if he’s prepared to risk Claire, too?

In what is arguably the busiest genre in UKYA, Non Pratt quickly established herself as a reliable voice for modern, often laugh-out-loud contemporaries. Her much-lauded début Trouble and hilarious second book Remix as well as novellas like Unboxed and the upcoming Second Best Friend for Barrington Stoke give her admirable teen fiction credentials. Truth or Dare bears the hallmarks of Pratt’s established style – a contemporary setting, dual narration, prominent friendships and relationships – though the prose is perhaps steadier and less flippant. It’s solidly written with a driven, satisfyingly focused plot. As is the contemporary fashion, it’s undeniably issue-centric, but there’s plenty going on and it’s never boring.

As with much of Pratt’s work, it’s full of flawed and well-realised characters. There’s a sense that almost all the characters have something more going on – other stories, other preoccupations, off-screen lives – which I’ve rarely seen achieved in YA. I would’ve liked to have seen a little more of these on the page, though this is already one of Pratt’s longer books. From Sef’s brother Kamran and best friend Finn to Claire’s parents and her best friend Seren, there’s some dextrous characterisation which has clearly benefited from Pratt’s growing skill. It’s Sef and Claire who take centrestage, however, and the sharp, flirty back-and-forth between outgoing, charismatic Sef and smart, kind Claire is the jewel in Truth or Dare’s crown.

At once both relatable and defiant as she faces down malicious schoolboys, the trials and tribulations of friendship, and her relationship with Sef, it’s Claire readers will take to first. Pratt confronts the idea that with so many ways of recording modern teen life – voluntarily and, most troublingly, involuntarily – a culture has developed where teenagers aren’t allowed to forget anything they’ve been or done, as past mistakes and experiences can be brought up again and again, leaving them defined, and damaged, by moments that would once have become a mere anecdote or long-ago recollection. In Claire’s case it’s an accidental nip slip, but there are interesting and important ramifications for teen life as a whole. I’d like to see similar themes explored further in YA, particularly as the thread is somewhat dropped in the latter stages of this book. Sef is a less likeable, as while he’s complex and sympathetic, it’s hard not to notice how manipulative he is toward Claire. It’s narratively deliberate, but one can’t help feeling that, after the book’s climax, a clean break would be the best choice for both of them.

That said, YA has never been a hotbed of healthy life choices, and elsewhere you’ll find outrageous dares, a vlogger somehow believably called Moz (meep morp), family scenes, food fights, themes of class and diversity, and, of course, characters you’ll want to punch in the face. Pratt’s put in solid research (and indeed is holding a fundraiser inspired by the book in which she’ll shave her head at YALC) and once you get into it, the book is a real page-turner. It needed more humour, alternate narration rather than flipped halves (when you’ve finished one half of the book you flip it over to read the other), and a deeper sense of resolution. Ultimately, it lacked the spark that makes me really adore a book. Remix remains my favourite Non Pratt novel.

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A solid, if unspectacular, addition to UKYA. Dextrous, realistically flawed characterisation and a driven plot make this one engaging despite readers missing out on the full clout of Pratt’s usual quick humour, memorable heroines and pacier style.

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