Floored Blog Tour // A Playlist for Velvet

What’s this? Two blog tours in a row?!

A few months back, I was invited to take part in the blog tour for Macmillan’s big summer YA novel, Floored, which of course I said yes to as the book was one of my most anticipated of the year (as you can see in this post from last winter)! Today I’m hosting my stop on the tour for this collaborative novel, which was written by some of the biggest names in UKYA including Sara Barnard, Holly Bourne, Tanya Byrne, Non Pratt, Melinda Salisbury, Lisa Williamson, and Eleanor Wood.

And there’s a twist: the book is told from seven different perspectives, but no one knows which author has written which character…

34372905When they got in the lift, they were strangers (though didn’t that guy used to be on TV?).

Sasha is desperately trying to deliver a parcel. Hugo knows he’s the best-looking guy in the lift and is eyeing up Velvet, who knows what that look means when you hear her name and it doesn’t match the way she looks, or the way she talks.

Dawson was on TV, but isn’t as good-looking as he was a few years ago and is desperately hoping no one recognizes him. Kaitlyn is losing her sight but won’t admit it (and used to have a poster of Dawson on her bedroom wall).

Joe shouldn’t be here at all, but wants to be here the most.

And one more person, who will bring them together again on the same day every year…

You can check out previous posts in this tour, each corresponding to a character, here:

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As for my own contribution to the tour, I’m writing about Velvet, a working class teenager who struggles with insecurity but is beginning to uncover her own agency, and whose first chapter simply begins with “Velvet?”. I wanted to do something a little different, so without further ado, here is a Velvet-inspired playlist…

Tapestry by Liv Dawson

This song is the closest I’ve found to describing the feeling of both stillness and motion conjured in the opening events of Floored. For Velvet, this moment means that six other lives inextricably become more intertwined with her own – from then on they are, so to speak, always going to be part of her story.

Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler 

This one has a simple explanation: it is, canonically, Velvet’s belt-it-out cleaning song (come on, you’ve all got one).

M.O.N.E.Y by The 1975

There’s a lot of drama in Floored, not least between Velvet and Hugo. This song, from The 1975’s first album, has some incisive lyrics relating to everyone’s least favourite posh boy, but is also apt because so many of Floored’s key events take place in Manchester, where the members of The 1975 (among many other iconic bands!) are from.

Friends by RAYE

A big part of Velvet’s story (and indeed for each of the other characters in the book) is dealing with friendships outside of the core We Should Have Taken the Stairs gang – friendships which change and emerge and sting and fade over time. (Be warned: this is a dance track, so best listen with your clubbing heels on).

Woman Is A Word by Empress Of

Finding a song that pins down Velvet herself has been the trickiest part of this playlist, and I think that’s due to the complexity allowed to the characters in the book. They’re never static. They change, they make mistakes, they learn – just as real young people do. This song hints at how Velvet grows into herself.

Youth by Troye Sivan

More than anything, this contemporary is an ode to youth. This triumphant pop earworm – which was all over the radio when it was released – is not only one Velvet is likely to listen to, but one that expresses the youthfulness of her shared experiences.

Heroes by David Bowie

Another classic plucked from the book itself, it would be absolutely spoilerific to explain the context in which this appears in Floored, but it makes for a terrific playlist finale…

Have you read Floored yet? Who was your favourite character? Let me know down in comments below!

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Everything All At Once by Steven Camden // a punchy, poetic week in the life

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing some POETRY.

40193883Author(s): Steven Camden
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 12th July 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley 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

One week. One secondary school. Hundreds of teenagers. Forty-two poems.

Zooming in across a cast of characters over the course of just five days, this collection illuminates a kaleidoscope of teenage moments. From fitting in, finding friends and falling out, to lessons, losing out and losing it, to worrying, wearing it well and worshipping from afar. 

There is a mythical dream tied to writing poetry aimed at young adults, and that is to make poetry cool. Such is the raison d’etre of acclaimed spoken word poet Steven Camden’s second book for young people of the year, Everything All At Once. It’s splashed all over the book: in the shouty cover, in the slang, in the Stormzy references. There must be a powerful pull to the promise of glory that would follow if you were the one who solved, once and for all, that strange equation, defined the inscrutable, ever-shifting property that is cool poetry. If you were to convince a whole target audience, who often only encounter poetry when it seems blunted into some kind of torture device – modern but laid out for dissection in revision materials and examination papers, important but deliberately pulled from the dustiest book on the shelf – that actually, poetry can be relevant and enjoyable.

Set at a busy, mutable comprehensive – the message clearly that it could be any school, anyone’s school  – the book presents a cross-section of quickly-sketched characters, from year sevens to school-leavers (“Funny to think / I was ever / that small”). Some names recur. Some figures aren’t named. Many appear, at least identifiably, for only one poem, as in the case of Yusuf, who pretends not to speak French well in order to better fit in, despite his mother being from Toulouse. The work flits from one poem to the next, one perspective to the next, usually in first person. As if to further say: look, you could write this. A football match can be worthy of a poem. Even if you’re no good at exams or like to make things with your hands. You could read poetry, too. 

From the ordinary (“Shauna said that / Leia said that / Jordan said it’s over / He changed his status yesterday / before he even told her”) to the startling (“a gaggle of mad daggering laminate features”), the poems are energetic, rapid-fire, staccato. As it strives to capture the bizarre microcosm that is secondary school society, the language is often mundane and the imagery sometimes vague, but I imagine it sounds great out loud. Hurtling along at a breakneck 128 pages, some of my favourite pieces included “Vending Machine”, “New Guy”, and “Parting Thought”.

Everything All At Once is more of a novel-in-verse than a collection, but there isn’t much of a plot, it can sometimes be tricky to follow, and it doesn’t delve that deeply into any of the themes or issues it raises. I’m not sure that it will transform poetry, either, given its very school setting, its try-hard nature. It will go down well in classrooms or workshops; it will certainly fit projects like Sarah Crossan’s ‘We Are The Poets’ laureateship. It probably won’t have the ‘organic’ feel of contemporary poets like Rupi Kaur or Amanda Lovelace whose digital, personal strategies persuade audiences, especially young women (who are somewhat sidelined in favour of a majority-masculine cast here) that subversive poetry, cool poetry, occurs outside the school gates, but it’s a fast-paced, dynamic effort.

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For fans of Sarah Crossan, Phil Earle and Benjamin Zephaniah, this novel-in-verse delivers on its premise. It lacks plot, but there are some energetic poems within its pages.

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Where Are All The Grandparents in YA?

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m launching a new discussion feature!

‘Where Are All The…’ Wednesdays: an original feature where I attempt to answer your many ‘but where are all the [female friendships/non-fiction books/broom wielding space goats/ninja land mermaids] in YA?’ questions. In short, a way to find what you’re looking for in teen and young adult fiction from someone who has read far too much of it. Enjoy!

Today: grandparents! Perhaps you think YA turns up a blank when it comes to books that feature meaningful relationships with grandparents – it is, after all, so focused on youth and new experiences. It is probably fair to say that you’ll find YA exploring parental or sibling or romantic relationships more often, but for many kids and young people, grandparents play a significant role in their lives – from simply a memory of childhood holidays to having been raised by them, and there are YA books exploring inter-generational relationships out there. So if you are looking for YA where characters know their grandparents or which explore multigenerational ideas, here twelve choices that may be of interest…

(Note: this list is drawn from post-2000 YA, and from books I’ve read, so there may be more out there – but it’s a start!)

25909375Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Wing Jones is satisfying, swoonworthy, big-hearted and bittersweet. When Wing’s popular older brother makes a catastrophic mistake, her world is thrown into chaos – and in the middle of it, she discovers running. What’s more, she’s fast. She finally has something that feels totally hers – and for a biracial, Ghanaian-Chinese teenager living in pre-Olympics 1990s Atlanta, that’s a new feeling. Paternal grandmother Granny Dee and maternal grandmother LaoLao live with Wing’s family and her relationship with them plays a prominent role in the book, particularly in exploration of cultural identity. A dash of magical realism sees Wing’s personal talismans, a lioness and a dragon, represent both women and their heritage. This was one of my favourite books of 2017 – read my review here!

31574295Margot and Me by Juno Dawson

London teenager Fliss is off to Wales to live with a grandmother she dislikes while her mother recovers from chemotherapy. Margot is so stern and unforgiving, Fliss can’t imagine how they’ll be able to stand six months with her. She’ll just have to keep her head down and concentrate on fitting in at a new school – but then she discovers a wartime diary at the back of a bookcase. Written during the Blitz, it reveals a whole new side to Margot, including a wartime romance – and a deeply buried secret. I really liked the premise of this book, as I’m a sucker for a story which merges historical and contemporary storylines. The diary entries are so evocative; they go long way to illustrating the idea that Margot was young once too, though her older incarnation plays a prominent role, too. Dawson takes her usual wall-to-wall approach to issue-driven YA here.

34325090I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman

Angel Rahimi is a devoted fan of The Ark, a pop-rock boyband. In less than a week, she’ll be going to their meet-and-greet and her life will be complete. But as the teenage trio’s star rises, lead singer Jimmy Kaga-Ricci is headed for a downward spiral. When band and fan are thrown unexpectedly together, each starts to question whether this really is all they’ve ever wanted, and whether there’s a world worth visiting outside The Ark. For a book so tied to youth culture and fleeting fads, Oseman makes an effort to feature older characters. Angel’s friend Juliet lives with her nan, who sheds some light on how fandom may not be so new after all, while Jimmy retreats to his kindly, accepting grandad Piero in times of crisis. I Was Born For This is the most recent release on this list – at time of writing it’s not even out yet – so if you’d like more details, take a look at my review!

10594356Going Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt

A twenty-first century teenager finds a novel way to deal with a break-up in Lindsey Leavitt’s Going Vintage: ditch the technology that allowed her boyfriend Jeremy to cheat and take life inspiration from a list of goals her grandmother wrote in 1962. All she needs to do is run for pep squad secretary (her school will need a pep squad first), host a fancy dinner party, sew a dress for homecoming, do something dangerous. and find a steady, if not one of her own then at least for her sister Ginnie (though with her Jeremy’s cousin Oliver on the scene, maybe for herself too). Both Mallory and Ginnie have a relationship with their grandmother, who’s seen both in the present and in the spirit of the book’s 1960s vibe. This one is a light read, with a sizeable dose of cute and quite a few funny lists.

25582543Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

Jenny Downham has a propensity for writing hard-hitting, almost adult-crossover YA, and that’s certainly the case with Unbecoming, which focuses on three generations of women, and three generations of secrets, in one family. There’s Katie, a seventeen-year-old grappling with expectations and coming to terms with her sexual orientation. Her mother, Caroline, is uptight and demands a certain standard of behaviour from her children. It’s a standard that isn’t even met by her own mother – Katie’s grandmother – Mary, who despite suffering from Alzheimer’s has a fiery tongue and knows when she’s being made to feel unwelcome. Just like in Margot and Me, the past – particularly Mary’s wild youth – is explored through journals, letters and flashbacks. This one is quite long, but was nominated for the 2016 YA Book Prize.

23266378The Next Together by Lauren James

The Next Together has to be one of the UKYA books I recommend most often. It’s a warm, unusual, engaging début which draws on contemporary fiction, historical fiction, and science fiction. It’s got time travel, romance, humour, texting, crossdressing undercover war correspondents – something for everyone, really. In this case, it’s married lesbian grandmothers Nancy and Flo. While main character Kate spends much of the book falling in love, accidentally uncovering secrets that somehow always involve chases, and making ‘said the actress to the bishop’ jokes, she also spends time with her grandparents, who provide some emotional support and are always sure to offer a sensible cup of tea during crisis situations. You can read more about them (and just what exactly is going on in this timey-wimey wonder) in my review here.

22929578The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

This is a little something different, in case issue-driven contemporary or semi-historical fiction isn’t your style. Imagine Scandal but written by the likes of YA’s Gallagher Girls’ author Ally Carter. Set in Washington D.C., it sees sixteen-year-old Tess uprooted from her grandfather’s ranch when he develops dementia only to be reunited with her estranged older sister, Ivy, who leads a high-prestige existence salvaging political PR crises before they happen. Enrolled at Hardwicke Academy, Tess unwittingly becomes a fixer herself, facing teens’ problems the way her sister fixes problems for their rich and powerful parents. Tess was raised by her grandfather, but one of the major mysteries she has to solve is the murder of a classmate’s grandfather, too. If you like contemporary thrillers, this one might be more up your alley.

8621462A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls isn’t technically young adult fiction, but it is an older children’s book which has successfully wrenched the hearts of many a YA and even adult fan, so it’s going on the list. This one may already be on your shelf (it won the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway in the same year for both Ness and illustrator Jim Kay, and of course was made into a film), so if you haven’t read it, go and immediately pick it up (but bring Kleenex with you for the tears). It follows a young boy, Conor, who’s struggling to deal with his mother’s cancer diagnosis. His relationship with his fiercesome grandmother, icy and awkward at first, is one of the most important in the novel (almost as important as his escapades with a terrifying, metaphorical, storytelling monster-tree).

22295304Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older 

Another option if contemporary isn’t your thing: although Shadowshaper is set in painfully-cool Brooklyn, New York, it’s an urban fantasy. For fans of Tom Pollock and Cassandra Clare, it fuses a heady combination of music and art, magic and monsters. Teenager Sierra had plans for a perfect New York summer – hanging with her friends, skateboarding, finishing her dragon mural on the walls of an old high-rise – but that was before she started uncovering the secrets of a supernatural order known as the Shadowshapers – and the man who wants to wipe them out. What’s more, the dark events afflicting her neighbourhhood seem to have something to do with her abuelo, who has suffered a stroke by the time of the book but features in underlying themes of Sierra’s relationship with family and identity.

35817737The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven

The Exact Opposite of Okay is another new release, though this one at least is already out, and explores lots of feminist issues with a modern contemporary YA lens, ideal if you like books by Holly Bourne or Louise O’Neill. When brash, confident Izzy is caught in a compromising position with a politician’s son at a party – and there are photos to prove it which send the media into a frenzy – she must brace herself for scandal and slut-shaming as well as other teenage problems, like trying to pursue her dream, in this case, to get into comedy. Izzy lives with her grandmother Betty, which is a real living situation for lots of young people, and they have a really strong, engaging relationship.

738148Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine

Jenny Valentine’s novels are eccentric, quirky and a little chaotic, and her 2007 début is no exception. I intentionally haven’t included many books here that focus on the death of an elderly person, but rather ones where grandparents are full of life or their actions in life become important to the plot, but Finding Violet Park touches on both: when sixteen-year-old Lucas finds an abandoned urn belonging to deceased pianist Violet Park in a London cab office, he is propelled into a strange journey of discovery, and self-discovery, which sees him discovering more about Violet and facing up to his own damaged family situation. Valentine has him enlist the help of his grandparents, Pansy and Norman, and paints a sympathetic, if characteristically kooky, portrait of his bond with them.

28383390How Not To Disappear by Clare Furniss

How Not To Disappear features a great aunt rather than a grandparent, but it gets an honourary shout-out because I liked it so much. It was also nominated for the 2017 YA Book Prize (I reviewed the shortlist in its entirety here) and longlisted for the Carnege Medal. With her family busy with her younger siblings, her best friend distracted by a new girlfriend and charismatic friend-turned-one-night-stand Reuben off to Europe to find himself, Hattie is facing an unexpected pregnancy seemingly alone – but then she ends up on a thought-provoking roadtrip with her gin-slinging great aunt Gloria, who is in the early stages of dementia. This tale of mouthy teenagers, hard truths, fading memories and unreliable exes is quintessential contemporary UKYA from start to finish.

 

Have you read any of these books? What would you like to see more of in YA? If you’d like to see more of these ‘where are all the…’ features, do let me know in the comments!

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Unconventional by Maggie Harcourt // charming, fan-respectful YA

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m catching up on contemporary. This was actually supposed to be a mini-review but there are just so many things to like about it (though it’s still technically a little shorter than usual)! *shoves thousand-word reviews out of shot with foot*

32820770Author(s): Maggie Harcourt
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 1st February 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Lexi has grown up helping her dad with his events business. She likes to stay behind the scenes, planning and organising. Then teenage author Aidan Green – messy-haired and annoyingly charismatic – arrives unannounced at the first convention of the year, and Lexi’s life is thrown into disarray.

In a flurry of late-night conversations, mixed messages and butterflies, Lexi discovers that some things can’t be planned. Things like falling in love…

You may have seen Maggie Harcourt’s Unconventional on my list of seven major YA books I accidentally hadn’t yet got around to reading last year. You’ll be pleased to hear I read it soon afterwards – and what’s more, Harcourt’s Theatrical made it onto my list of most anticipated books for 2018 partly because of its own premise and partly because I enjoyed Unconventional so much. I have a signed copy, too, which is an added delight.

This contemporary is full of fun, fandom and geeky friendships. It’s a book that says it’s okay, even brilliant, to be passionate about things, and it embraces the peculiar microcosm that is fan culture. It’s light but never vapid, and it’s written in suitably straightforward, chatty prose. It’s set at a convention – or to be more accurate multiple conventions – a great choice for a standalone, and written with the knowing, tell-tale nods of a seasoned con-goer. Lexi’s frantic behind-the-scenes scramble is all lanyards and emergency errands, so it’s not glamourous at all, but it serves to make starrier moments stand out.

One of those starrier strands is the romance. Lexi and Aidan’s first love romance is nerdy, cute and builds patiently. Lexi is smart and capable but uncertain about what she wants to do with her life, while Aidan is at first a little prickly but soon reveals himself a worthy love interest. You absolutely believe that there’s a story for them after the book ends. I also liked the sound of Piecekeepers, Unconventional’s high concept urban fantasy book-within-a-book – it’s almost enough to make you want to read more of it!

Elsewhere, Lexi has imperfect but ultimately positive relationships with her parents (her mother lives with her French girlfriend and her father is, to Lexi’s initial reluctance, about to marry his long-time partner). There are plenty of friendships too, like with best friend Sam and fellow convention stalwarts Nadiya and Bede, from which lots of humour emerges. The plot is character-centric, right down to inter-convention rivalries, and though there are some cool scenes – rooftops, a wedding, a handful of multimedia additions – it could have been a little stronger. Some of the background characters are flat, the story requires some suspension of disbelief and a scene or two more set outside the convention circuit would have been helpful. If you can make it through the slow first half, however, Unconventional makes for quirky, enjoyable contemporary YA. If you liked Geekerella by Ashley Poston or The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, this is the UKYA contemporary for you.

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Unconventional is fun, fan-respectful, well-written contemporary YA fiction. Light but never airy, it has a nerdy, almost slow-build romance and makes for a neat, memorable standalone. Hugely enjoyable. 

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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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Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain // début leaps – and sticks the landing

Today on the blog, we’re taking to the trapeze with this début novel…

ftipsAuthor(s): Kelly McCaughrain
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 1st March 2018
Genre: contemporary
Category:
upper MG, teen fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: own
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Teenage twins Finch and Birdie Franconi are stars of the flying trapeze. Circus tricks are practically in their blood.

But when Birdie suffers a terrifying accident, Finch must team up with the geeky new kid, Hector, to create an all-boys double act and save the family circus school. Teetering on the high-wire that is school social hierarchy while juggling the demands of family, first love and facing up to who they are is a lot for two confused clowns to handle. Will their friendship, and the circus, survive?

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds was another of those pleasant surprises in my spring reading this year. It’s again from that spot between fiction for older children and for early teens (11-14s), making it particularly suited to those looking to take more steps into the YA section. There was a spate of circus books in YA in 2017, but they all seemed to have a supernatural – Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Pack by Kate Ormand – or dark thriller edge – Show Stopper by Hayley Barker, even Flight of a Starling by Lisa Heathfield, which is also about a trapeze double act and a new acquaintance who alters two siblings’ lives – but with Flying Tips for Flightless Birds, Kelly McCaughrain manages to draw together both storytellers’ evident fascination with the circus and a much-needed lightness of touch.

When trapeze artists Finchley and Bridget Sullivan are in the air, they become Finch and Birdie Franconi, the latest in a long line of circus performers, including high wire walkers, barrel riders, jugglers (and one very health and safety conscious dad). While their ancestors flung themselves over Niagara Falls and travelled the world, their parents have opted to run a circus school just outside Belfast – though it still means having a mother who can tightrope walk, a little brother who wants to be a fire eater and a foul-mouthed grandmother, Lou, who used to walk across the ridges of roofs to freak out the neighbours.

Birdie and Finch have inherited a taste for daring. They dress flamboyantly and find themselves subconsciously juggling nearby objects during everyday conversation. But with Birdie starting to wonder if there could be life outside the circus and Finch struggling in her absence, they are believable. New boy Hector is enthusiastic but clumsy; at first the student of a reluctant Finch, his friendship becomes invaluable, and I really liked the exploration of their changing relationship. Elsewhere in the cast, there’s Freddie, known as Py (“Fire dancer, fire juggler – you name it, I’ll put lighter fluid on it”) and Janie, a foster kid and aerialist who’s so good at dangling from reams of silk she finds it calming.

McCaughrain’s prose is straightforward and fairly unshowy, though she conjures evocative details – the thrill of heights, the calluses on circus performers’ hands, even sitting in the safety net beneath the trapeze to get your breath back – and handles setting with subtlety, focusing on the circus warehouse as an adopted home for its eclectic residents. Finch’s narration cleverly interspersed with distinctive blog posts from Birdie, and there are moments of incisiveness (“Be that as it may” is “adult for ‘whatever'”; there’s “something lonely about an empty spotlight, like a big white hole in the world”). One of her major themes is what it means to stand out, but she also touches on things like found family and school struggles. She balances not-unrealistic elements of homophobia with quite a sweet coming-out story, too.

On the downside, there’s little urgency or pace to an already fairly standard plot, though it revolves around what you’d expect to be quite an urgent matter, that is, trying to save the circus school from closing. Some of the conflict gets resolved with very little action from the protagonists. I would’ve liked there to have been more actual trapeze scenes in the first half – we often hear more about it than see it take place – and there’s almost no character depth or development to Birdie and Finch’s other siblings, leaving them effectively faceless for the length of the book.

However, the most surprising feature of Flying Tips for Flightless Birds for me was its sense of humour. That was what kept me reading, whether it was in lively asides (“We’ve put a lot of effort into taming Jay, but we think it’s unfair to do it to more intelligent creatures”), mining humour from strife (“the only difference between a playground punch-up in Year Eight and one in Year Eleven is that everyone’s a bit taller and has better hair”), or quips in dialogue (Finch’s parents on marriage: “Ah, crap, I knew there was something we forgot to do.” “Do you think we should return all those gifts?”). It livened up the prose and turned this solid début into a really enjoyable one.

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Flying Tips for Flightless Birds is unexpectedly funny, often enjoyable and, at its best, oddly moving. This is a début which juggles the sweet and the sombre, and is ideal for 11-14 readers. I’m intrigued to see what McCaughrain writes next. 

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YA Shot Blog Tour // An Interview with Karen Gregory

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m playing host to YA Shot panellist Karen Gregory.

YA Shot is an author-run, one-day book festival for children and teens held in Uxbridge, London. Founded by Alexia Casale, the third annual YA Shot will be held on Saturday 14th April 2018. This year’s line-up feature authors such as Holly Bourne, Lauren James, Samantha Shannon, Katherine Webber, Chris Russell, Cecelia Vinesse,  Sita Brahmachari and more. You can find all the details on YA Shot (including the full list of panels) or buy tickets, whether for yourself or as a gift for young people from the local area, here.

As ever, my interview questions and mildly excitable contributions are in bold or occasionally [bracketed], while Karen’s answers are in plain text and marked KG. 

mb4ma8vv_400x400Karen Gregory is the author of YA novels Countless (Bloomsbury, 2017) is out now and Skylarks (Bloomsbury, forthcoming, May 2018). A graduate of Somerville College, Oxford, she’s a project manager by day who’s become adept at writing around the edges (strong coffee and a healthy disregard for housework help). She wrote her first story about a mouse called Bantra at the age of twelve, then put away the word processor until her first child was born when she was overtaken by the urge to write. She lives in Wiltshire with her family and is represented by Claire Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge & White.

A: We’ll start with one of my favourites: what drew you to YA?

KG: Great question! I think it was a mixture of several things. Your teenage years and early twenties are such a visceral time, when you’re encountering new things and learning how (and how not) to deal with them, while trying to figure out who you are and your place in the world. It’s such a rich area to explore. I don’t think those challenges necessarily go away as you get older; many people continue to struggle with big questions throughout their lives, so perhaps it’s also that which draws me to YA. And of course, there are so many brilliant YA authors out there, which I find massively inspiring!

Speaking of fellow YA authors, you’ll be chairing panellists Sara Barnard, Orlagh Collins and Tamsin Winter in talking literature and living well with mental illness at YA Shot. How did you get involved with the event? For readers who are unfamiliar, can you tell us more about it?yashotblogtourbanner1

KG: Sure! YA Shot is a day-long festival in Uxbridge, London, celebrating UK YA and Middle Grade fiction. It supports readers through partnerships between authors and local schools and libraries, includes the UKYA Blogger awards and runs blogger and vlogger workshops, and this year has a theme of human rights. I actually had tickets to go last year and then tonsillitis (my nemesis) intervened, so I was delighted to be invited to be one of around fifty authors taking part this year.

Like a lot of UKYA, your début novel Countless dealt with some serious issues and hard-hitting themes. Do you think YA writers have a duty of care to their readers in how they approach issue-driven stories?

KG: It’s a really tricky area. I do believe YA writers need to be mindful of their intended audience. At the same time, it’s important not to patronise readers and to recognise that awful things do happen in some young people’s lives. These stories need to be written too.

In terms of Countless in particular, given the subject matter I was concerned about the potential for the portrayal to be harmful to vulnerable people. I worked hard through the editing process to try and ensure there weren’t things in there which didn’t need to be for the story, for example specific numbers around weight and calories. I felt it was important to try and show the incredibly difficult emotions and thought processes around Hedda’s illness. I hope I got the balance right, but I’m always learning.

What did you hope teen readers would take from Countless when they’d turned over the last page?

KG: I’m going to sound incredibly cheesy here, but I guess I hoped readers would take away the sense that even for the most seemingly intractable problems, there is the possibility of change and hope that things can be different in the future. And that love, especially learning to love yourself, is a powerful and healing force.

Of course, for some authors it’s hard to turn over that last page on a book – are you the kind of writer who feels the book is done once you’ve finished writing or editing, or do you wish you’d done anything differently?

KG: I’m a ‘prise it out of my hands’ sort of writer! There are always things I want to change and it can be really hard to let something go. However, there comes a point in revising and editing where you’ve taken the book as far as you can. I try to remind myself that as long as I know I’ve put in as much work as I could and written the best book I’m capable of, then in the end that has to be enough. Eventually you need to let the book go, or you’d never write anything else!

If you had name three of your favourite YA books from the last year, what would they be and why?25310356

KG: Argh, this is a very cruel question as I read so much amazing YA last year! I think I’d choose We Come Apart, by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan. It’s about Nicu, a recent immigrant to the UK from Romania, and Jess, who is from a chaotic and disadvantaged background. I loved their story, which is told in alternating perspectives and in beautiful free verse. Jess in particular has really stayed with me since I read the book.

[A: I’ll second this recommendation – you can read my review of this bittersweet book here on the blog!]

KG: I also loved Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows. It’s a slight cheat as I got it for Christmas and actually read it this year, but it was a 2017 release so I think it counts. Set during the English Civil War, it’s a mixture of historical fiction, magical realism and mystery. Hardinge has one of the most unique voices out there and this book completely sucked me in.

I’m thirdly going to pick a book which is technically MG, but can be read by all ages: Tamsin Winter’s Being Miss Nobody. Main character Rosalind has selective mutism, and the book follows her as she struggles to literally and metaphorically find her voice during her first year at secondary school. It’s an incredibly warm book with a big heart – it had me crying towards the end.

dv_sgdsumaavf-qAnd finally, what can readers expect from you next? Can you tell us anything about your new book?

KG: Yes – I’ve got a new book out in May called Skylarks, which is about figuring out how to stand up for what you believe in and looks at social justice, the poverty gap and activism. It’s set in a fictionalised area of the Marlborough Downs and the occasional real skylark does make an appearance! I so enjoyed writing it and I’m really looking forward to sharing Joni and Annabel’s love story.

The YA Shot Blog Tour runs from 1st March to 12th April. be sure to check out the other stops, which will feature author interviews, guest posts, giveaways and other delightful stuff!

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