36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You by Vicki Grant // true love, tropical fish and other pressing enquiries

35698625Author(s): Vicki Grant
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 19th October 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Quotes from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Two random strangers. Thirty-six questions to make them fall in love.

Hildy and Paul each have their own reasons for taking part in a PhD studen’ts psychology study on love and relationships (in Paul’s case, it’s the forty dollar reward). They must ask each other thirty-six questions, ranging from “What is your worst memory?” to “If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?”

By the time they’ve made it to the end of the questionnaire, they’ve laughed and cried and lied and thrown things and run away and come back again. They’ve also each discovered the pain the other was trying so hard to hide. But have they fallen in love?

A straightforward, eye-catching hook led me to pick up 36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You after a brief sojourn from contemporary fiction. I wasn’t expecting much as I’d heard very little about the book beforehand, but then I do like to open up new books away from the hype, and I was surprised to soon find myself racing through this one. Engaging, entertaining and hurtling along at a brisk pace (it clocks in at around 280 pages), it tells the unfolding story of two strangers who turn up for a study which asks whether a close relationship can be manufactured through a series of intense, highly personal question-and-answer sessions. Bubbly, loquacious overtalker Hildy is eighteen and curious about the potential of the study, while artistic, taciturn teenager Paul is, at first, only there for the money.

Sizeable chunks of 36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You are told in transcripts, texts, messages and other epistolary additions. It became my favourite thing about the book. It relies heavily on dialogue – something I’m not always a fan of, particularly if it comes at the expense of description, as happens here – but in this case it’s pleasingly deliberate, effective and realistic. It’s sharp (“That was a ten-second cover-up of a thirty-six part docudrama”) and often funny (“You have very good emotional antennae” “I love it when you talk dirty, but could please just finish your answer”). Hildy and Paul have a sparky dynamic which ranges from emotional to witty to furious to solemn; they’re remarkably expressive given that when you take away descriptors or adverbs most authors would, at least initially, flounder, but Grant takes it in her stride (it was only after reading the book that I discovered she’s also a screenwriter, which probably contributes to this). The prose sections are fairly unexceptional, but lo and behold, a book that shows just how much you can get done without dialogue tags!

 

LOOK AT THEM, IN ALL THEIR DIALOGUE-TAG-FREE GLORY. Significant sections of the book are told in texts and messaging, too, and FINALLY, the first YA book I’ve read for ages that gets teenage textual voices right. It’s not cringe-worthy or overly stylised, instead taking cues from character (Hildy is all long sentences and correct capitalisation; Paul is lowercase and fine with shortening the occasional word) and punctuation, or lack thereof (“hey! watch it with the !!! someone could lose an eye”).

This is undoubtedly character-driven contemporary. Hildy and Paul are interesting and, particularly in Paul’s case, intriguing enough leads to keep you reading. For a book that seems to be about romance, there is relatively little of it in swoony Stephanie Perkins or sweet Sarah Dessen terms. It’s definitely an opposites-attract relationship, with spiky back-and-forth (“normally I’d challenge you to a duel for the insult but I’ve got the sniffles”) and a touch of the bad-boy exterior, but there’s a sense that they matter to each other (“You’re just the way you’re supposed to be”) which is a tricky balance to pull off. You’d be surprised how many other YA romances don’t have their characters spending any time actually getting to know each other, and if there’s one thing you can say about Hildy and Paul’s story, it’s that they certainly do.

Family drama, a last-minute dash to find each other and an unusually prominent tropical fish are thrown in for plot. Hildy’s well-off family life has been ruptured by a startling revelation – a subplot I ultimately wasn’t delighted by, though it’s cleverly only hinted at for much of the book and provides a twist for Hildy and Paul’s first date – with her brother Gabe and friends Max and Xiu making up most of the secondary cast. The psychology study, which isn’t conducted in any believable way in the first place, isn’t followed up much in the latter stages, so if you picked up the book for that, you’ll be disappointed. It looks like there’ll be illustrations in the final edition, though they’re not in the advance copy, which is a shame as illustrated YA is a really fun concept. The book’s ending is fairly sudden and completely lacking in resolution, and there are too many stereotypes in its characterisation. However, despite their differences – and despite the book’s abrupt ending – the reader is invited at least theoretically to hope for Hildy and Paul’s opposites-attract romance.

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A surprisingly funny, fast-paced contemporary with a solid hook and some great dialogue, though the ending is rather abrupt and it lacks the spark of truly brilliant YA. If you like books by Keris Stainton, Emma Mills or Sarah Mlynowski, you may find something to like here.

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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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Seven YA Books I Haven’t Gotten Around To Reading (Oops)

As a book blogger, it can feel like you constantly have to be on top of all the biggest books or constantly harping on about new releases. But there’s only so much time in the day, and inevitably books are going to slip through the net! That’s right, you guys, I’m basically about to name and shame my own TBR pile. I know I’m going to be inundated with recommendations after this, but I’ll get around to them at some point… I think…

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32820770Unconventional by Maggie Harcourt

Lexi Angelo has grown up helping her dad with his events business. She usually stays behind the scenes – until the messy-haired, almost arrogant Aidan Green arrives unannounced at the first event of the year, throwing her life into dissaray.  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…

I’ve heard lots of praise for this convention-set contemporary (published by Usborne in spring 2017), particularly for its nerdy characters, cute romance and mentions of fandom. It sounds like just the sort of thing one could use for a light sojourn in contemporary, so it’s definitely high up on my to-be-read list!

20821111The Young Elites by Marie Lu

This entire trilogy – about Adelina, who survived a blood fever that gave her silver hair and a scar instead of a left eye, Teren, the leader of an inquisition which hunts down any ‘malfetto’ it can, and Enzo, a member of a secret society which tries to get there first and reveal survivors’ mysterious gifts – came and went before I realised I hadn’t read more than an extract! Marie Lu’s Legend books constitute probably the only YA dystopian trilogy I’ve ever actually liked, and I’ve come close to picking up The Young Elites as the quality of her writing has the potential to appeal. However, high fantasy is more reliably my cup of tea than dystopia-SFF.

23009402Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

I really enjoy Sarah Dessen’s books, but Saint Anything, her twelfth, is among the few I haven’t read. The premise is fairly standard American YA fare (it’s about a teenager whose older brother takes the family spotlight until he causes a car accident and is jailed, before protagonist Sydney indulges in some self-discovery and acceptance among a warm, chaotic family called the Chathams who run a pizza parlour and play bluegrass). It’s a little less original than the premise of her 2017 book, Once and For All, but I’ll probably get around to reading more of her back catalogue one day.

27074515The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

London, April 1812. On the eve of eighteen-year-old Lady Helen’s presentation to the queen, one of her family’s maids disappears, and Helen is drawn into the shadows of Regency London. There, she meets Lord Carlston, one of the few who can stop the perpetrators: a cabal of demons infiltrating every level of society. Dare she ask for his help, when his reputation is almost as black as his eyes? Will her intelligence and curiosity finally be put to good use, or are they falling into a trap?

Okay, so this one isn’t for want of trying! I’ve started my copy of The Dark Days Club TWICE in full-on-choice-snack-and-nearby-cat reading sessions without success. I read an excerpt before it was released, too, and I really liked the supernatural historical fiction concept. There’s just something about the book as a whole – maybe the dense prose or chunky length – that makes it a little inaccessible. Maybe I’ll have to try an audiobook instead?

15832932What I Thought Was True by Huntley Fitzpatrick

When Gwen’s Biggest Mistake Ever, Cassidy, takes a job as a yard boy on her small island, it’s the last thing she wants. He’s a rich kid from Stony Bay, while she’s from a family of fishermen and cleaners who keep the island guests happy. Just when it looks like she’ll never escape her past – or a future spent cleaning summerhouses – she gets some shocking advice. Sparks fly and histories unspool as she spends a restless summer struggling to resolve everything she thought was true.

When I was researching this post I couldn’t believe What I Thought Was True was published way back in 2014! I loved My Life Next Door, and always assumed I’d get around to reading this standalone eventually. But it looks like the appeal of the Garrett family – who also appear in a companion novel to Fitzpatrick’s début, The Boy Most Likely To, which I have read – wins out for me! I’m still keen to see what Fitzpatrick writes next.

17675462The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. Even living in a house where clairvoyance is common, she never thought this would be a problem. But as she gets caught up in the strange and sinister world of the private school Raven Boys – Adam, Ronan, Noah and the one whose death seems to have been predicted, Gansey – she’s not so sure anymore…

The Raven Boys is possibly the Most Hyped YA Book of Ever, but that alone is enough to make me less inclined to read it. There’s just so much endless hype, rarely including stylistic critique or detail. I think most series would struggle under so much super-inflated expectation. Also, I can’t read Gansey seriously as a hero because HIS NAME LITERALLY MEANS JUMPER. ‘Gansey’ is the anglicised or slang version of the Irish term ‘geansaí’ (jumper, sweater). I can’t read it without laughing. It’s like trying to tell me a love interest is called ‘Cardigan’ or ‘Dungarees’. Additionally, why is Owain Glyndŵr’s name being mutilated. ARE YOU AFRAID OF OTHER LANGUAGES.

10194157Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Okay, this is a big-hitter. As a YA fantasy fan, I’ve tried to get into Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone. But the Grishaverse just hasn’t clicked for me. I think the genre has moved on from the character types of the trilogy at this point, too. I have read Six of Crows and think its characters and plot (a fantasy heist!) are really striking, but found it too steeped in Grishaverse worldbuilding for it to stand entirely on its own two feet. I know A LOT of readers love these books so I reckon the series will be perfectly fine without another jumping on the bandwagon. Besides, YA is full of great fantasy books – you could probably read it exclusively and never get around to them all!

So there you have it – the blockbuster books this busy reader hasn’t quite gotten around to yet! Are there any YA books you feel everyone has read but that haven’t clicked for you or that you haven’t yet had time for?

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Wing Jones by Katherine Webber // big-hearted but bittersweet

25909375Author(s): Katherine Webber
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 5th January 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Wing Jones has worshipped her older brother Marcus for as long as she can remember. Good-looking, popular, and the star of the football team, Marcus has made an asset of the Ghanaian-Chinese heritage that makes Wing stand out. 

Then a drunk Marcus gets behind the wheel of a car after a party. With Marcus in a coma, Wing is tormented at school for his mistake and haunted at home by her grandmothers’ grief.  

Unable to sleep, Wing finds herself sneaking out to run on her school’s empty track. When Aaron, Marcus’s best friend, sees her running, he recognizes that her speed and skill could get her spot on the track team – and maybe even a shot at a coveted sponsorship. Wing can’t pass up the opportunity to train with her longtime crush and to help pay Marcus’ medical bills, but can she handle being thrust out of Marcus’s shadow and into the spotlight?

One of my most anticipated reads of the year, it nevertheless took some time for me to get around to reading Wing Jones (more detail on that in my July reading check-in here). However, perhaps some distance from the hype (and you know how I feel about hype) was a good thing. It allowed a book I’d otherwise heard plenty about to spring a few surprises. It took me a while to get into the narrative as I found the writing style in the opening chapters very jerky and jagged, but rather like a runner finding their form, when the book hits its stride, it simply glides. Written with charm as well as drive, it’s gorgeously cinematic and would make for an awesome book-to-movie adaptation.

Wing Jones is, in many ways, typical ‘all-American’ YA: not only in setting, slang and sports, but in its petty high schoolers, crushing-on-older-brother’s-best-friend device, and familiar overarching formula. The added ingredients are of identity (Wing is biracial) with a dash of magical realism (her personal talismans, a lioness and a dragon, clearly represent the dual aspects of her heritage). Wing faces racism at school, but she’s proud of her heritage and her grandmothers, Granny Dee and LaoLao, are consistently present. If you’ve read Sarah Dessen’s Saint Anything, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give or Robyn Schneider’s The Beginning of Everything, you’ll recognise scraps of the story here.

When Wing’s star football player brother causes a car crash under the influence, her world is thrown into chaos. All she wants to do is run and run until her problems are far behind, so she does. Soon she’s running on an empty school track every night, wearing out her Converse and waiting for the sun to come up. What’s more, she’s good. She’s fast. It’s in running that Wing finds something that feels totally hers. The descriptions of running in the book are grounded yet spectacular, even soaring (“with my dragon on one side and my lioness on the other, I stretch my legs out, as my feet hit the track, heel-toe, heel-toe”), notably in the first third when it’s just Wing, the night and the track. Accidentally revealing her speed creates a flood of pressure and expectation (and paves the way for improbably swift success), but it also gives her a sense of purpose and, importantly, belonging, as she joins an athletics team and makes positive female friendships, particularly with warm, self-assured sprinter Eliza and her girlfriend Annie.

I was surprised by how much I loved the book’s romance. As swoonworthy as it is sweet, t’s probably one of the  top YA romances I’ve read all year. Aaron and Wing’s dynamic was built on actually spending time with each other (you’d be surprised how many YA romances aren’t!), and even with a requisite dose of drama, it’s a well-played and supportive relationship. A mix of fizzy first love and deep, realistic companionship, it’s been ages since I’ve read a YA relationship quite so delicious as this. Wing – brave, lost, angry, kind, big-hearted – grows a lot during the book, and the romance grows with her.

I was also surprised by Webber’s dextrous handling of character expression. Several secondary characters were a little two-dimensional on occasion – the book could’ve used more backstory – but her subtle understanding of the core cast was terrific. This is a deceptively hard-hitting novel, but it makes Wing’s elation all the more moving. I expect the mid-90s setting and elements of magical realism (Wing’s lioness and dragon appear to her in moments of need, but it’s never really explained in any way. Are they elaborate metaphors? Imaginary friends? Is she hallucinating?!) will be a deal-breaker for some, but a few unnecessary scenes aside, it’s an interesting twist in a hugely bittersweet book.

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Bittersweet yet charming, Wing Jones is big-hearted, cinematic, satisfyingly driven YA. A top-notch romance and vivid running scenes are among the highlights as a choppy start gives way to a book that really hits its stride.

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Street Song by Sheena Wilkinson // rags-to-riches-to-rags-again

34111364Author(s): Sheena Wilkinson 
Publisher:
 Black & White Publishing
Publication date: 20th April 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

After winning a glitzy TV talent show and becoming a teen pop sensation – under the particularly embarrassing stage name ‘RyLee’ – eighteen-year-old Ryan’s life has spiralled into addiction, media scrutiny, rehab and a floundering career. 

His stepdad, self-appointed architect of the RyLee brand, wants him in school, and under his thumb. But when their arguments reach boiling point, Ryan finds himself fleeing his old life, his failed career, and his dysfunctional family. When he meets witty guitar-player Toni, the opportunity to start fresh seems too good to pass up. Before long, he’s arrived in a new city, joined Toni’s band, and reinvented himself. But has he really outrun his past? And what kind of future can there be for a washed-up has-been with secrets to keep?

One of a string of 2017 titles from Scotland’s newest YA imprint – including a recent contemporary from Did I Mention I Love You author Estelle Maskame and hot-topic début The Jungle by Pooja Puri – Street Song is the latest standalone from Northern Irish writer Sheena Wilkinson. One of Ink Road Books’ more experienced early signings, I interviewed Sheena on the blog last year as part of UKYACX (and even got a glimpse into the book that would become Street Song). The resulting book isn’t a million miles from what I expected then, as Wilkinson, true to form, takes a tough but vigorous look at contemporary Belfast through the eyes of a teenager.

The premise of the book is remarkably reminiscent of Keren David’s latest UKYA effort, Cuckoo (you can read my review here): teen boy deals with fame, family breakdown, hostile relationships, and a career on a downward spiral as he is finds himself homeless and struggling to make a living, meeting an unlikely handful of both helpful and shady characters along the way. A few key features – acting is replaced with music, an experimental style is replaced with more predictable form – mean that they read just differently enough, though if you’re looking for something completely original, you won’t find it here.

In trying to outrun his fortune-hungry family, one-time teen star Ryan winds up running into cool, plucky musician Toni. She doesn’t recognise him from his cringe-worthy days on reality television, but she does recognise his musical ability. He needs a place to stay, she needs a decent guitarist for her band, and so the unlikely pair embark on a rocky road lined with musical jams, setbacks, mistakes, and the possibility of romance. He may be living in a hostel and be busking for his bread, but for the first time in his life Ryan is playing the music he’s always wanted to play.

Throw in no-nonsense Polish bass player Marysia, some work-in-progress song lyrics, Billy the cat, and a handful of solid but by no means iconic characters – I particularly like Toni’s pragmatic but supportive mother – and Wilkinson creates a novel which is at its best when caught up in the joys of music and the unrivalled potential of a band’s early days. While I found the idea that Ryan would agree to enter a battle of bands – Backlash – a bit surprising given his belligerent history with music competitions, it’s a standard plot device for a rags-to-riches (or in this case rags-to-riches-to-rags-again) tale.

Page-turning and surprisingly absorbing, Street Song is a relatively quick read which balances the unpredictability of busking on the streets, with its good takings, bad takings, inclement weather and cityscape feel with interesting character dynamics, driven plot and a vibrant musical thread. Ryan’s struggles with manufactured identity, addiction, and the fallout from fifteen minutes of fame take up much of the book, but I was most intrigued by Toni and Marysia. I really liked their friendship and would’ve liked to have seen even more of it. I’d almost go as far as to say I’d read a sequel to this book, if only to see where the choppy waters of music and relationships take the headline trio.

Street Song is one of those strange books that seems both gritty and occasionally glossed over, as the backdrop of a protagonist living hand-to-mouth amid some dodgy characters is met with an oddly-paced narrative in which the worst happens to others before being essentially brushed aside, and the fact that the audience is aware that Ryan is keeping a secret a luxurious existence he left behind, the likes of which working-class Toni and Marysia hardly dare dream of. I’d definitely recommend a trigger warning for serious content which appears to heighten tension and then seems almost forgotten about. RyLee’s fans, primarily women and girls, are referred to as ‘RyLeens’ and are usually dismissed or treated with dismay, so if you’re looking for more positive portrayals of teenagers and fandom, you’re better off with Sophia Bennett’s Love Song or Maggie Harcourt’s Unconventional – and I’m still waiting for a classic piece of girlband-focused fiction from contemporary YA.

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An interesting, if gritty, take on fame and misfortune from one of Northern Ireland’s most notable YA writers. For fans of Keren David’s Cuckoo, Katie Everson’s Drop and Leila Sales’ This Song Will Save Your Life. 

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Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence // infatuation and the issue novel

33786522Author(s): Patrice Lawrence
Publisher:
 Hodder Children’s Books
Publication date: 13 July 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Bailey is seventeen, mixed race, and spends all his time playing guitar or tending to his luscious ginger afro. Fellow teenager Indigo is new to London, having grown up in the care system. When they meet at sixth form, sparks fly. But when Bailey becomes the target of a homeless man who seems to know more about Indigo than Bailey does, they may find themselves in over their heads as well as head over heels… 

The second book from Costa nominee and YA Book Prize winner Patrice Lawrence (I reviewed the entire 2017 YA Book Prize shortlist, including Orangeboy, here), Indigo Donut is another fast-paced contemporary, this time with the overtones of, rather than an overt debt to, a thriller. There didn’t seem to be much talk about the book prior to publication – I didn’t even know Lawrence had another book coming out until about two weeks before it was released, and just days to publication that totally striking cover wasn’t on Goodreads. You’d think a carefully-planned summertime marketing or publicity campaign would’ve shaped something Indigo-specific out of the Orangeboy swamp. (…you know you’ve been in publishing too long when…)

With Indigo Donut, Lawrence tackles issues of class, social issues, foster care and dysfunctional relationships in the vein of Phil Earle and Tanya Byrne. She pays particular attention to Indigo’s anger and violent outbursts, which she believes are an unavoidable family inheritance. Much of Indigo’s attitude stems from her desire to keep anyone she cares about – like latest foster parent Keely, who seems like she’s going to stick – ‘safe’ by allowing herself to be sent away from them. Bailey, on the other hand, is more naive and far more middle-class, with his own room full of guitars, which spells trouble for his infatuated crush on Indigo as he tries to protect her and gets involved in a pretty dubious quest on the orders of a homeless alcoholic. There are lots of revelations and secondary themes, from friendship and ‘found family’ to drug abuse and violence.

The spiky-naive dynamic between Indigo and Bailey is unusual and interesting for YA. The moments which focus on them as characters and individuals are the book’s best, but with the basic premise difficult to invest in, it may leave readers scrambling to find a foothold. You keep reading to discover what happens to the characters, but the pieces that make up the novel aren’t enjoyable. I was reading an advance copy, but it seemed almost rushed, like there were whole sentences or chapters missing which would have better built the narrative. It’s dialogue-heavy and covered in slang, which will undoubtedly cause it to date quite quickly, and it’s not for younger readers. The prose is very jerky and undeveloped, lacking the richness of description and warm pacing that make a top-notch contemporary.

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Gritty, fast-paced and dynamic, Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut confronts class division, the care system, and social issues. This second novel is at its best when focused simply on the titular Indigo and puppy-eyed crush Bailey. The prose is jerky and needed more description, but fans of Orangeboy will find things to like here. 

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