DISCUSSION // How to write a book review

Today on the blog, I thought I’d talk about how to write a book review. A few weeks ago, I wrote about my personal reviewing process, which you can check out if you’d like to see a detailed explanation of how I approach reviews. But no two review writers or bloggers or critics are the same, so this is more about tips on review writing – and how to develop your OWN reviewing process (or just get through a homework assignment).

1. Ask yourself questions

Asking yourself questions about the books you’ve read is something you’re probably already doing – now you just need to know how to get them on paper (or keyboard, as the case may be). They can be simple: What did I like about this story? What didn’t I like? Who were the heroes? What were the big themes? Or they can be more complex: What was the writing style like? What were the character arcs? Why was this book written or published at this moment in time?

Try to figure out the difference between subjective (“what did I think of this book”) and objective (“what is actually going on in the pages of this book”) questions and responses. Think about the book from the perspective of the target audience. Maybe you thought the plot of this picture book was too simple, but would the three-year-old who just wants to look at animals?

The answers to these questions and more will form the substance of your review. You may find that certain elements  naturally go together, like linking heroes and character arcs, or big themes and topical relevance. Once you start reading in a way that prompts questions of it and yourself –  bam, that’s critical reading.

326020092. If you’re stuck, make things as straightforward as possible

Whether you’re experienced or just starting out, you’re going to get stuck sometimes. You’ll struggle to put into words why you loved a book so much, or how uncomfortable it made you feel, or struggle to explain the exact vibe a story gave you. You may not capture that feeling entirely – and that’s fine! Reading is an individual experience. But if it’s just a case of writer’s block (critic’s block?), writing a really straightforward sentence is one of the best ways to get started. You might cut it out at the end when you’ve said in more detail what you want to say, but there’s no harm in just explaining to yourself: “I picked this book off the shelf because…” or “I love this series because…”

The opening line of my review of Lisa Lueddecke’s first book is “A Shiver of Snow and Sky is one of those books I’d been intending to read for ages.” Early on in my review of Night Owls by Jenn Bennett is simply the line: “I was surprised by how much I liked this.”  Sometimes the only way to get to expressing more complicated ideas is start with simple ones. It’s also one of the best ways of keeping yourself honest.

3. Be conscious of developing your own style

If you plan to write more than one review, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your own style. This can take a long time, but there are ways you can consciously aid the process. Figure out what kind of reviews you like to read (What kind of language do they use? Is it short and chatty, is it funny and clever, is it serious and sophisticated?). Look back over your own reviews a few weeks or months after you’ve written them and see what you would change. Experiment with new styles and see what you think of them.

9781471406829Everyone has hallmarks. I finish all my reviews with a short in-brief paragraph, string multiple adjectives together at the start or end of sentences, have a terrible propensity for alliteration, and find comp titles (specific ‘for fans of’ descriptions) very useful (“For fans of Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll and The Boy Who Went Magic by A.P. Winter, Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm is an accessible, Victoriana-lite fantasy adventure”). I like a challenge, so recently I tasked myself with developing a more concise review style. I still occasionally write long reviews (check out this one for Alice Oseman’s I Was Born For This or this one for Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain). My shorter reviews are still content-heavy (check out this jam-packed review for Morgan Matson’s Save the Date), but you’ll also find me writing reviews like this one for Keris Stainton’s My Heart Goes Bang). 

4. Practice

Again, this is mainly if you’d like to consistently write reviews (if you’re just here trying to figure out how to do your homework, you probably stopped reading at point #2), but there really is only one way to develop a style or a process – practice! You won’t feel perfect at it straight away, but you can have fun getting there!

Do you have any tips on writing book reviews? Are there any reviews you’ve written that you’re particularly proud of?

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DISCUSSION // my reviewing process

Discussions posted, latest book finished, to-be-read pile saved from toppling – you know that this means. It’s TIME TO WRITE A REVIEW. Huzzah!

There are lots of ways of writing blog posts and review features, many of them much easier and less involved than mine (I am enthusiastic and need a constructive outlet for my flailing) but this is roughly how I go about it.

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STEP ONE: reading and annotating the book

I read for enjoyment, so I only take basic notes while reading. I used to take very detailed notes, but found it pulled me out of the story and slowed down the pace of the plot. Sometimes I’ll flick back or re-read specifically for review – I did this with The Next Together by Lauren James because it has four timelines – but otherwise I work from memory as I like to review quite soon after reading if I can.

STEP TWO: whip out the review notebook

I LOVE blogging notebooks. I’ve filled many with drafts of posts (and lots with fangirling).

STEP THREE: pick a review playlist

I love setting books to music. If I’m looking for a way to remind myself of the story, these songs allow me to review while keeping in touch with the essence of the book.

STEP FOUR (very important): planning

This is where I figure out my feelings on a book! I pack this plan with details, from the smallest plot twist to the hook. Somewhere in all of this I’ll cover plot, characters, craftsmanship, surprisingly good things, whether my expectations were met, pacing, my favourite scenes. If I’ve come up with any taglines or a fun way to introduce the review, I’ll make a note of that too.

(This is also usually where I get snacks/fly a dragon/realiSe my foot is asleep.)

Then, I must find order in the chaos. I’ll separate details into related topics and subjective opinion, choose a rating and set the tone for the post. Will it be passionate and full of gifs, or more story-focused and serious? Will it be both? I’ll start to group details together, finding connections and highlighting what I know I’ll definitely want to talk about. I’ll arrange and rearrange, discovering what each paragraph will look like.

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STEP FIVE: WRITING THE THING

Now we get to the hard bit: finding the words to make sense of the review outline. I may decide some paragraphs aren’t necessary or they’ll turn out longer than anticipated.

Review speed at this stage can vary from lightning fast to just about keeping pace with nearby tortoises.

STEP SIX: Edit. Edit some more. Edit again.

My early drafts are very detailed, and for this reason, editing is my best friend. If I’ve only written by hand up to this point, I’ll get an extra round of edits in while typing it up. I’ll sharpen sentences, rewrite criticisms or clunkily-worded phrases, check how many times I’ve repeated the word ‘magnificent’… and I’ll cut words right up until the last second. If there’s a way to say things more concisely, editing is where I’ll find it. I’ll only occasionally add things here.

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STEP SEVEN: INTO THE JUNGLE

Finally a finished, formatted blog post! Now I can hit schedule or publish, do promo, send emails, and sneak glances at my alluring TBR. Bloggers often bemoan the fact that reviews seem to get the least traction for the most amount of work, and maybe that’s true, but I love writing (and reading) them, especially if they’re evolving and improving, so that’s what I aim for: to get better at them, even just a little at a time.

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What’s your reviewing process like? Do you outline in detail or wing it? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments below!

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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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Event Round Up: We Love YA! DeptCon at ILFD

As you can see from my past event round-ups, DeptCon has become something of a staple in the Irish YA scene.

“But Arianne,” you whisper, aghast, “doesn’t DeptCon usually take place in… October?”

Yes, it does! This year, however, there was SURPRISE appearance from the DeptCon squad with their summertime We Love YA! event as part of the ongoing International Literature Festival. There were three panels plus signings, and I was lucky enough to attend (and bring back all the deets for you).

“Writing myself into this country”: Muhammad Khan, Emma Quigley and Mary Watson talk ‘New Voices’, chaired by Shane Hegarty 

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L-R: Shane Hegarty, Mary Watson, Emma Quigley, Muhammad Khan

The first panel, themed around the idea of ‘New Voices’, featured three debut YA writers (though Watson is an award-winning South African writer for adults, The Wren Hunt is her first book for teenagers). Hegarty’s questions drew answers on inspirations, writing routines, what they’d be working on next, and more.

Muhammad Khan’s biggest influence has been his time as a maths teacher and tutor in a school where most students are from BAME backgrounds. His students contributed to drafts of what became I Am Thunder, inspiring everything from Muzna’s shyness to the fact that he had the book’s cover artist thicken her eyebrows so that they’d be suitably “on fleek”! He decided to tackle themes like radicalisation and racism in YA partly because of the UK government’s Prevent strategy, which he realised was causing students to clam up in case their questions or experiences got them into trouble. His advice for young writers: “Write a book that you want to write…. don’t follow trends, because by the time you finish your book that trend will be over”. He’s currently working on another contemporary featuring different characters, exploring toxic masculinity ‘through the eyes of a very gentle boy’.

Emma Quigley’s début Bank (out from Little Island Books) is the comedy-drama story of a group of teen boys who decide to start money-lending to classmates, only to make a series of increasingly risky investments as their plans begin to unravel. Quigley wanted to write about friendships between teenage boys but also ended up mirroring twenty-first century financial crises. She spoke about how her son was a reader who often said his friends weren’t – she wanted to write something that would appeal to that drop-off point of readership, and Bank actually sounds really exciting! It was also revealed that her son wrote the tagline for the book: “Lunch money just got serious”!

Mary Watson became fascinated by the Irish tradition of the wren hunt – in which a real or stand-in wren is chased and hunted on St. Stephen’s Day (the day after Christmas Day) – after moving to Ireland from South Africa. She wanted to write a book that she could only have written here, even though The Wren Hunt is technically a fantasy or magical realism novel, full of “quiet magic, everyday magic”. She cited Diana Wynne Jones as an influence and spoke with real feeling about the wealth of African literature that doesn’t always make it to mainstream audiences in the Anglosphere. Watson’s was the only book I’d read of the three before the panel, but I think the discussion did its job because by the end of it I was so intrigued by I Am Thunder and Bank.

“The nineties were dull as dishwater”: Brian Conaghan, Derek Landy and Katherine Webber in ‘Nerd Alert!’, chaired by David O’Callaghan

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L-R: Katie Webber, David O’Callaghan, Brian Conaghan, Derek Landy

Most literary festival panels (naturally) focus on the literary side of life, but this panel was more about pop culture and what it meant to three writers growing up. They talked about the extent to which you can make pop culture references in a book but otherwise concentrated on beloved films, TV and music. There was a lot of love for the ’80s, but most of the ’90s  love was for Webber’s Wing Jones, which is set in 1996 Atlanta – read more about it here!).

Katherine Webber can quote much of Clueless; Conaghan made an impassioned speech on behalf of Grease and declared his belonging to a small global cult following of its much-maligned sequel; Derek Landy apparently owns half the prop department of multiple comic book adaptations, including the original Superman costume and cape. Katie credits Sailor Moon (only half-jokingly) with piquing her interest in Asian culture – she later studied Japanese, then Chinese, and moved to Hong Kong to study. Conaghan was into eternally cool bands, while Webber is an unashamed pop fan.

The conversation returned to literature to discuss favourite childhood books. Katie loves A Wrinkle in Time so much that it featured in at least three different ways at her wedding (shoutout to husband and Sam Wu co-writer Kevin Tsang for highest number of cameo mentions), while Landy commented on the past dearth of YA which once meant going straight from children’s books to crime fiction. Perhaps most interestingly, Brian Conaghan was frank about the fact that he was 17 when he first read a novel and had a reading age of 12 when he was 16, partly due to lack of access to a library or books at school. I so admired Conaghan’s work on We Come Apart and really appreciated someone pointing out that not all readers or writers come to books in the same way.

“I always felt like a changeling. I never felt like I belonged”: Louise O’Neill and Deirdre Sullivan talk ‘Dark Fairytales’, chaired by Elaina Ryan 

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L-R: Elaina Ryan, Louise O’Neill, Deirdre Sullivan, wearing ‘Repeal’ gear

There was something of a uniform for this event on feminist retellings of fairytales. Both Louise O’Neill and Deirdre Sullivan have recently released fairytale retellings: O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks takes on The Little Mermaid, while Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine is a collection of twelve short stories which draw on not just The Little Mermaid but fairytales like Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty (you can read more about the book here!).

This was the only panel in which the authors were asked to read from their books, which was a fantastic way to introduce or reintroduce the audience to the stories in question. It was O’Neill’s first time reading from The Surface Breaks at an event (she read a scene featuring a character called Sadhbh, a name she insisted on because “the English find it very confusing and I find that very amusing”).  Tangleweed and Brine is almost like prose poetry, making it chillingly effective when read aloud. Both books are quite dark – but that’s because, as O’Neill and Sullivan pointed out, the source fairytales are also quite dark. The Little Mermaid’s original ending at the hands of Hans Christian Anderson, for example, is incredibly unsettling.

There was plenty of talk about that most famous of fairytale strains, the Disney film, but it’s not all bad – there was definite agreement that movies like Frozen and Moana have appreciably feminist moments (in Elaina Ryan’s immortal words on Moana: “she seems like good craic”). And indeed, it is the complicated, sometimes sanitised history of the fairytale that seems to provide such scope for feminist reinterpretation, as both Louise and Deirdre would write another fairytale retelling if they had the chance. O’Neill would love to get her hands on Beauty and the Beast, while Sullivan would like to pair the ‘earth and water’ theme of Tangleweed and Brine with another collection on what I thought would just be ‘air and fire’ but was actually termed the far more poetic ‘breath and ember’.

So there you have it! Did you attend this edition of DeptCon? Have you read any of the books mentioned? Are any of them on your TBR?

 

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I’m Back + Top Ten Books of 2017

Look! It is I, returned to the world of saying effusive things about fictional escapades after an unexpected sojourn! And I come bearing gifts: my favourite books of 2017!

I read so many amazing books last year, it’s been almost impossible to choose favourites – but I have persevered and whittled it down to a top ten. (Some of the best books I read last year were actually ones I caught up on reading many years after they’d originally been published, but in the interests of not being here for three thousand words of flailing, I’ve kept this list to books published in 2017.)

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

I adored this book. I adored it in so many ways I’m just going to point you in the direction of my pre-release review, because it has ALL THE FEELS. “Romantic, expressive, warm and true, A Quiet Kind of Thunder is an irresistible second novel. It is achingly happy. It reminded me what five star books feel like: shiny, sparkling, and memorable.”

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

While Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers remains my personal favourite of her books, The Explorer is a marvellous addition to her repertoire of historical fiction. Vibrant, accomplished and often clever, The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. Rundell’s prose is terrifically appealing, and it’s little wonder that this book went on to win the children’s Costa. The writing is by turns clever and challenging, tongue-in-cheek and touching (“Love is so terrifying. It is less like rainbows and butterflies and more like jumping on to the back of a moving dragon”).

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Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

This is Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s best book yet, and hands down the best YA-but-set-at-the-first-months-of-university book out there at the moment. “Told in fast-paced alternate narration, Freshers is a tale of mayhem, mishaps, miscommunication and inexplicable amounts of tea, written with typical Ellen and Ivison aplomb. Messy, outrageous and down-to-earth, it’s full of chaotic charm. A vibrant array of characters populate the pages, and the friendships are particularly brilliant. What’s more, it’s sharp, candid, and outrageously, unashamedly funny.”

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Certainly one of the most talked-about books of the year, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow is a dazzling children’s fantasy début. It spills over with inexplicable and varied magic simply because it can. Because it’s fun. There’s a logic and yet an immense expressiveness to it. There are rooms that redecorate themselves for different occupants; carriages built like nimble metallic spiders; shadows that can wander on their own. Violinists who pickpocket entire audiences while playing; a clock with a sky for its face. Fireblossom trees and mesmerists and snowhounds and a gigantic talking cat.  I’m not yet sure if it’s going to nab a place in literary memory the same way that its go-to comparison, Harry Potter, has, but it’s still an enjoyable series opener.

Girls Can’t Hit by T.S. Easton

This is a 2017 book I wish had been talked about more! Girls Can’t Hit was a surprises of last year’s spring reading for me. Satisfying and clever, this is funny, feel-good, affectionately feminist teen fiction featuring great friendships, marvellous tone and a sporting twist. Easton manages to make you want to keep reading even if the sport in question, boxing, isn’t one you like (as in my case) as it follows teenager Fleur go from reluctant new recruit to unexpectedly empowered young person. I picked up several more of Easton’s books after reading this one.

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Now I Rise by Kiersten White

The only sequel on this list, Now I Rise is the second book in Kiersten White’s genderbent Vlad the Impaler retelling. This is compelling, effective and demanding alternate history with a vicious female lead, increasingly developed characterisation and a rich choice of setting. Much of this book follows Lada’s brother Radu at the siege of Constantinople in the mid-fifteenth century, and I was pleased to see this sequel living up, but appearing distinct, to its predecessor And I Darken. 

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

This is technically an adult book, but I’ll allow it as Schwab’s Darker Shade of Magic series is a great crossover for fans of young adult fantasy looking to read more adult fiction. Schwab’s practical, vivid prose, well-developed lead characters and strong sense of plot make for some memorable storytelling. A Conjuring of Light was a satisfying trilogy finale, but it’s since been announced that she will return to this fictional world with another trilogy, and I, like many fans, am so excited to read it.

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord

The Names They Gave Us is a considered and highly engaging exploration of the summer one confident but somewhat sheltered teenager’s world is turned upside down surprises and endears at every turn. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, and it’s perhaps not as memorable as some of the other books I read in 2017, but this character-driven contemporary delivers on plot as well as premise. It’s warm and heartfelt, but also serious, thoughtful and, occasionally, heartbreaking.

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Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Bittersweet yet charming, Wing Jones is big-hearted, cinematic, satisfyingly driven YA. It has a top-notch, surprisingly swoony romance and vivid running scenes as embattled biracial teenager Wing takes to the track in 1990s Atlanta. Rather like a runner finding their form, when the book hits its stride, it simply glides.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

A hefty, mesmerising tome of a fantasy novel, Strange the Dreamer is the first in a duology full of things to like: librarians, desert quests, mythical cities, some flashes of wit and description, and… odd blue-skinned alien-demigod beings…? It is perhaps a little unnecessarily long, but it’s the first Laini Taylor book I’ve really enjoyed, and I’ll be reading the sequel.

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BONUS ROUND: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman*

Oh, you knew it was coming. Philip Pullman’s long-awaited return to Lyra’s Oxford via the Book of Dust finally began last year (the rumour mill was such that it had actually been one of my most anticipated books of 2016 before publication was confirmed). This dramatic, often dark tale is balanced by an endearing protagonist in the shape of Macolm Polstead. And of course, The Secret Commonwealth, in which Lyra will go from baby to young adult, is slated for this year, so we get even more daemons and alethiometers and chases and unnecessary literariness and DAEMONS.

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What did you think of these 2017 releases? What were your favourite books of 2017?

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Children’s Lit Round-Up: Historical Fiction Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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