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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a pair of reviews // Night Owls by Jenn Bennett and Second Best Friend by Non Pratt

It’s a veritable contemporary YA extravaganza on the blog today!

25327818Author(s): Jenn Bennett
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 13th August 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Meeting Jack on San Francisco’s night bus turns Beatrix’s world upside down. Jack is charming, attractive, and one of San Francisco’s most wanted graffiti artists – and he makes Beatrix wonder if art can be more than the medical drawing she’s confined herself to. 

By night and on city rooftops, Beatrix and Jack get to know each other – and each other’s secrets. But will these secrets come back to haunt him? Or will the skeletons in her family’s closet tear them apart?

Page-turning and often charming, I was surprised by how much I liked this contemporary standalone. I hadn’t heard much about Night Owls before I started reading, and I had to start and re-start reading it a couple of times before it really hooked me, but once it did I flew through it. Bennett’s writing style is straightforward, neat and fast.

Thrown together in a San Francisco of slick city streets and trendy yoga studios, Jack and Bex – a  rebellious, enigmatic graffiti artist grappling with his wealthy family’s secrets and a single-minded aspiring medical illustrator, daughter of a single mom – make an unlikely but believable pair. Their romance, which is to an extent built on friendly verbal sparring, features some miscommunication (or lack of communication), but also has considerable stretches of swoon, and there is frank communication about relevant teenage experiences like sex. Bennett’s finest achievement, however, is to conjure an almost sweeping sense of artistry and passion from two unexpected, and very different, types of art.

Bennett’s reveal of Jack’s motive and treatment of serious mental illness could have been better handled, and there’s a touch of ick factor to descriptions of Bex’s medical illustrations. The resolution relies on a suspicious number of characters existing only to offer to splash a considerable amount of money around, like very privileged guardian angels. The story needed more fleshed-out friendships and while Beatrix’s brother brings his boyfriend home to meet his family in one particularly memorable scene, the book as a whole perhaps isn’t the most memorable YA fiction.

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Set in slick San Francisco, this arty contemporary has faults but also a rich seam of swoon. For fans of Lydia Ruffles and Susane Colasanti.

352228491Author(s): Non Pratt 
Publisher: 
Barrington Stoke
Publication date:
15th January 2018
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Jade and Becky are best friends. But when Jade’s ex lets on that everyone thinks Becky is better than she is – at everything – Jade finds herself noticing just how often she comes second to her friend. 

When Jade is voted party leader ahead of her school’s mock general election only to discover she’ll be up against Becky, she sees it as a chance to prove herself. Surely if there’s one thing she can win, it’s this election – even if it means losing her best friend.

Second Best Friend is Non Pratt’s second novel for Barrington Stoke, a specialist publisher for readers with dyslexia, after 2016’s successful Unboxed. This standalone comes with the same colour-adjusted paper, clear font and novella length, but Barrington Stoke books are about more than just physically adjusting for reading difficulties – they’re a reminder that teenagers with dyslexia are interested in the same kind of content that fills the rest of the UKYA shelf. For this reason, Second Best Friend is full of school pressures, jealousy, drinking, and rapidly escalating sexual antics in utility rooms.

Like Unboxed – in which a group of teenagers return to their old school to open a time capsule – Second Best Friend has a straightforward premise: Jade and Becky find themselves facing off in their school’s mock election, and Jade, feeling insecure and always in Becky’s shadow, is determined to do whatever it takes to win. This plot is carried throughout and provides an undeniable sense of narrative drive. There’s plenty for readers to recognise, from politics and sibling rivalry to the drudgery of homework and the strange sense of competition that can overtake a school full of naive teenagers with nothing better to do.

Pratt packs Second Best Friend with real teen concerns and a veritable maelstrom of seesawing emotions. I liked the casual mention of Becky’s two mothers and even at a brisk pace, there’s a suitable denouement – though the ending is rather abrupt, and I noticed slight sense of simplicity to the story in a way I haven’t with some other Barrington Stoke titles. This may be down to the fact that the premise didn’t entirely click for me. I’ve been really enjoying seeing much-needed positive female friendship in YA – think Sara Barnard’s A Quiet Kind of Thunder, or Pratt’s own Remix – and to see it reduced to jealousy and insecurity, mostly through the interference of a boy, without enough narrative space for deeper exploration or resolution here was a bit of shame. However, to Pratt’s credit, she tackles her themes with aplomb.

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Non Pratt’s second Barrington Stoke novella does exactly what it says on the tin: it provides user-friendly, utterly teenage drama with a thematic twist. 

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Moonrise by Sarah Crossan // Crossan dives back into solo verse fiction

33837404Author(s): Sarah Crossan
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 7th September 2017
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Joseph Moon hasn’t seen his brother for ten years, and it’s for the most brutal of reasons. Ed is on death row.

But now Ed’s execution date has been set, and Joe is determined to spend time with him, no matter what other people think. 

From one-time winner and two-time Carnegie Medal shortlisted author Sarah Crossan, Moonrise asks big questions. Does it cost to hope? What can you forgive? And when someone else’s past overshadows you, what does it take to find the light?

Moonrise opens with three pages of praise for Sarah Crossan’s elegant verse story of sisterhood, One. And, given One’s track record – it was undoubtedly one of the most critically lauded YA novels of its release year, with extensive press coverage and collecting the Carnegie Medal, the YA Book Prize, and the CBI Book of the Year Award among others – why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to show it off? Even I gave it five stars back when I first read the advance copy in 2015 (at the time of writing, I’ve only given three such ratings so far this year). You get the feeling, then, that it could be a tough act to follow. In fact, Crossan probably could’ve pulled a John Green, waited five years to publish again and still have been given a lot of leeway by the book world. But fresh off a collaboration with fellow Carnegie and Costa alum Brian Conaghan (you can read my review of We Come Apart here), it seems she’s thrown herself into a new solo novel which tackles some seriously challenging subjects.

Joe’s older brother Ed, arrested at eighteen, has been in jail since Joe was seven. An already tenuous family life crumbled with Ed gone. Abandoned by their alcoholic mother, Joe and his sister Angela were left to fend for themselves or be taken in by their religious Aunt Karen. Ed’s kept in touch through letters from Texas, but now that he’s been given a date of execution, Joe feels one of them must answer his request for a visit. At first, the person behind the glass seems like a stranger: ten years older, tattooed, hardened and bruised by his time in the prison system. Piece by piece, Joe finds that his brother is still his brother: he talks, he cares, he hopes. But his fate rests on a final series of appeals, and Joe can’t yet bear to think beyond each visit.

Punchy, audacious and carefully constructed, Crossan’s interest in characters tends toward the flawed or unlikeable in Moonrise. She emphasises tremendous humanity while anticipating, and asking, questions of her audience. The minor characters are forgettable and it’s not exactly an enjoyable read, but it’s almost impossible not to get swept into Crossan’s writing. For fans of particularly stunning poetry or complex plots, her unflashy verse (‘like a rock into a river / she fell’) may be a little too close to functional here, but there is a whole story packed into its pages. There are hints of books like Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas to the subjects of Moonrise, but it’s unmistakably Crossan’s work. Confronting themes like social disintegration, family breakdown, corruption, injustice and capital punishment, if it is nominated for next year’s Carnegie, expect to see it up for the Amnesty CILIP Honour.

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From one of the most accomplished verse specialists working in YA today comes a hard-hitting, effective, and thought-provoking novel which tackles challenging subjects through a now-familiar style. 

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The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury // fighters and folktales face off in this fantasy finale

Today on the blog, I review The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury (and crack out the alliteration again. Oops). You can read my review of The Sin Eater’s Daughter here; my review of The Sleeping Prince here (go on, I’m quite proud of that one); and my warning that this post may contain mild spoilers for the series, well, here!

31627294Author(s): Melinda Salisbury
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: 2nd March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (The Sin Eater’s Daughter #3)
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

As the villainous Sleeping Prince tightens his hold on Lormere and Tregellan, the net closes in on the ragged band of rebels trying desperately to defeat him. Twylla, queen’s executioner turned rabble rouser. Errin, scrappy apothecary turned prisoner. And what of Merek, prince turned runaway rebel?

But Twylla and Errin are separated, isolated, and running out of time. A final battle is coming, and Aurek will stop at nothing to keep the throne forever…

If you’ve ever read a Melinda Salisbury book – and chances are you have, what with this being the conclusion to a trilogy and The Sin Eater’s Daughter being one of the blogosphere’s most talked-about additions to recent UKYA fantasy fiction – then in many ways you’ll know what to expect from The Scarecrow Queen: high stakes, lots of twists, rebellion, betrayal, a now familiar style full characterised by pacy, businesslike prose and descriptive Scandi minimalism, more betrayal. Salisbury certainly delivers a novel that will satisfy long-time readers, including by ensuring her characters are put through the ringer seven or eight times as the pages fly by. Fans of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse should find this stark, eerie series is up their alley.

Banking on the existence of its established world of austere castles, shady villages, impoverished peoples, hidden enclaves and shifting priorities, readers are thrown straight into an action-packed plot. Alchemy remains central, but the emphasis is on the building of a rebellion. Twylla takes on the role of recruitment officer and unlikely symbol (there are definite echoes of Katniss in The Hunger Games to her singing tactics). Errin battles to escape Aurek’s clutches in order to rejoin the fight against him. Merek, a favourite with fans early on, also returns, as do side characters like Nia and The Sleeping Prince’s standout newcomer, Silas. I would’ve liked more of the romance between Silas and Errin, but it’s not unexpected that it often takes a backseat to tension and atmosphere. Lief – Errin’s brother and Twylla’s former love interest – turned tail at the end of The Sin Eater’s Daughter and has been doing a swandive into increasing treachery ever since, though even with this book’s twists, the character’s motivations are still a little unclear, or at least not entirely compelling.

Not so in the case of the series’ big bad, the Sleeping Prince. Sinister and steeped in folktales – a treacherous semi-mythos which undoubtedly entails one of the most interesting parts of the saga – Salisbury has written a bone-chilling villain. It may be the finest feature of the book, if not the crowning achievement of the trilogy. Aurek is utterly despicable and reeks of the creeps, yet it’s undeniably effective. Its prose is more accessible than extravagant (“Scarecrow queen. Nothing but a dupe, alone in a field, hoping to keep the crows at bay”), but this finale is at its most gripping when the looming machinations of the Sleeping Prince abound.

Both major characters helm different sections of the first-person narration, though Errin only gets about one-third to Twylla’s two-thirds. Errin proved the more active and resourceful protagonist on her arrival, but it was always evident that Twylla would return as the series’ focus. Looking at the trilogy as the whole, Twylla’s arc is very clear – from passivity as the evil queen’s executioner, to awakening as a runaway, to activity as a rebel leader (“I am tired of running away from everything. I want to be like Errin. Like Nia. Like Sister Hope. I want to be the girl who fought a golem, the girl who slammed her hands on a table and told a room full of powerful women that I was going to fight”).

Frustratingly, the relative shortness of this series as a whole somewhat compromises the true potential for character development and subplots, particularly if you delight in the sprawling richness of writers like Laini Taylor or Rae Carson. Some minor characters fall flat and there’s a touch of the ‘miracle cure’ trope to Silas’ fate. The world-building is strong in many ways, but one can’t help feeling that the books would benefit from simply having more room for it. Perhaps this tightly-paced style is just a UKYA thing, but I’ve found I definitely like my high fantasy a little more complex, a little more time-consuming, a little more luxuriating.

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An action-packed, twisty conclusion with a bone-chilling villain from a writer who has established herself as a notable voice in recent UKYA fantasy fiction. This series as a whole feels relatively short and tightly paced, particularly if you prefer your high fantasy long and immersive, but it is perhaps a form of praise in itself to say that one of the only things that could’ve improved a trilogy was having more of it!

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The Explorer by Katherine Rundell // “You should always dress as if you might be going to the jungle”

34992381Author(s): Katherine Rundell
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 10th August 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): adventure, historical fiction
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 final changes.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

From his seat in a tiny aeroplane, Fred can see the vast Amazon jungle below him. He has always dreamed of becoming an explorer, of making history and reading his name on lists of great discoveries.

But when the plane crashes through the canopy, Fred suddenly finds himself in the jungle far sooner than he expected, along with three other children he’s only just met: Con, Lila and Max. With little hope of rescue, their chances of getting home feel impossibly small. Except, it seems, that someone has been there before them…

I love YA, but when you spend a lot of time reading and reviewing it (and its seemingly never-ending swamp of contemporary fiction), it can be a real breather to jump back into the exuberant capers and imaginative gymnastics of children’s fiction. There is a touch of that vibrancy to the work of Katherine Rundell, whose books include Rooftoppers (“A soaring story of adventure, friendship and hope set on the rooftops of Paris,” to use the fabulous Jenny’s words) and The Wolf Wilder, one of the most reviewed children’s titles of 2015. Set in the untamed wilds of the Amazon rainforest and following four children who must work together to find their way back home, there’s no other term for it: The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. 

Fred has read everything he can get his hands on about explorers, adventurers and the great expeditions which have taken them into the unknown. But with his father far too busy working and being respectable to notice (“his father always insisted so unswervingly on clean shoes and unrebellious eyebrows”), Fred’s dreams have always been a secret. That is, until a trip to Brazil sees him crashlanded in the jungle with three other children – siblings Lila and Max, and haughty Con (actually Constantia but use it at your peril). While their time in the jungle is dangerous (and involves eating spiders), it opens up something more in each of them. Fred gets braver. Con learns to climb trees and run. Lila’s love for animals, though she’s never been allowed a pet, leads her to adopt a sloth named Baca who likes to hang out in her hair. Five-year-old Max mostly wanders off into nearby trees/beehives/ant nests, but you get the idea. There’s lots of teamwork, arguing, and new friendship.

As with all good kids’ books, adult characters are a secondary consideration. There is one exception in the titular and nameless explorer, a mysterious and gruff jungle-dweller who lives in some ancient ruins and can catch fish with his bare hands (think Indiana Jones if he was more concerned with leaving things intact than putting them in a museum). Rundell makes sure to give each of her characters moments of complexity or backstory, the explorer included. The period setting isn’t entirely specific, but a little digging puts it somewhere in the mid-to-late 1920s. There were no illustrations in my early copy, which is a shame as they have the potential to really change or cement one’s experience of the book. It takes time to invest in the plot and a rushed ending is precipitated by just a little too much dialogue, but the book runs at an otherwise jolly pace. It’s packed with incident, from hair-raising river rides to tricky rock climbs.

Rundell’s prose is fairly straightforward, but also expressive (“his accent, Fred thought, belonged among good tailoring and fast motor cars”) and memorable (“I liked that it might be all right to believe in large and wild things”). The rainforest – “it was a thousand different colours; lime and emerald and moss and jade and a deep dark almost black green that made him think of sunken ships” – ultimately becomes a place more for savouring than escaping from. Rundell takes the opportunity to invoke the host of extraordinary creatures who call it home, too. Sloths, snakes, spiders, monkeys, Amazon river dolphins, whispers of big cats (“something with strong jaws and sharp manners”) all get a look in.

The writing style will appeal to readers across the 7-12 age group, and could make a great family/parent-child choice for reading aloud or together – particularly as the writing is by turns clever, challenging, touching (“Love is so terrifying. It is less like rainbows and butterflies and more like jumping on to the back of a moving dragon”) and tongue-in-cheek (“I did not admire our prime minister. He is very well-dressed, but despite his many protestations to the contrary, I am not one hundred percent sure he can read”). Of course it requires a little suspension of disbelief, a little strategic pacing, but young readers employ logic where it suits them and it is not going to detract too much from the story here. The Explorer is about adventures, and wildlife, and kids who get their hands dirty.

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Vibrant, expressive and often clever, The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. Rundell’s prose is terrifically appealing. Ideal for young fans of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything or Abi Elphinstone’s The Dreamsnatcher. 

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Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle // a strangely satisfying second novel

Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle30079403
Publisher
: Corgi Children’s/PRH
Publication date: 1st June 2017
Category: YA
Genre: magical realism
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

One stormy Irish summer night, Olive and her best friend, Rose, begin to lose things. It starts with simple items like hairclips and jewellery but soon it’s clear that Rose has lost something much bigger, something she won’t talk about, and Olive thinks her best friend is slipping away.

Then seductive diary pages written by a girl named Laurel begin to appear all over town. And Olive meets three mysterious strangers: Ivy, Hazel, and her twin brother, Rowan, secretly holed up in an abandoned housing estate. The trio are cool and alluring, but they seem lost too. Like Rose, they’re holding tight to painful secrets.

When they discover an ancient spellbook, full of hand-inked charms to conjure back lost things, they realise it might be their chance to set everything right – unless it’s leading them toward secrets that were never meant to be found. 

Beguiling, mysterious and just a little peculiar, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is full of interesting and bewitching things: a town bonfire, missing shoes, a wishing tree, charm bracelets, sprawling tattoos, illicit alcohol, flawed friendships, LGBTQ+ characters and, of course, several dogs named after types of cereal. Penned in what is fast becoming Moira Fowley-Doyle’s trademark style, it’s messy magical realism which walks an audaciously dangerous line between the real and surreal.

Spellbook’s inexplicable happenings are told in alternate narration. Loyal, quick Olive is the most accessible and straightforward, while secretive, tough Hazel works in a pub, trying to outrun her past. Starry-eyed Laurel is being swept away in the whirlwind of an all-consuming friendship with wild, unreliable Ash and dainty, dreamy Holly, turning ominous under the influence of a new forest-dwelling acquaintance. I liked Rowan, Emily and Max, but Ivy was forgettable. Fowley-Doyle pays characteristic attention to toxic and muddled relationships, though the closeness and vibrancy of its family scenes are a pleasant surprise. Olive and Rose are the best of the main cast, while Olive’s father, Daniel – purveyor of puns and daily doses of poetry, like a sort of affectionate, booming Yeatsian alarm clock – is undoubtedly the funniest character in the book.

Atmospheric and rough around the edges, the plot is cleverly woven, with plenty of suspense and scheming to keep the reader engaged. It only wanders off the pace in the second half, but the major twist is terrific – I for one didn’t guess it – and a late resurgence in plot makes for a strong finish. It’s the kind of book you have to read all over again just to put the details together. Fowley-Doyle conjures a world which is richly multifarious, at once recognisable and eerie, modern and uncanny. The titular spellbook is an old, tattered tome of uncertain provenance which is steeped in a blend of earthy enchantments, cultural religiosity and instinctive superstition, but at their best, the most magical elements of the novel spill over into its prose.

Its so-called romances are undeveloped and overly stylised. There’s potential, but the reader can’t help but wonder how much some of the romantically-linked characters actually have in common. Some fairly serious themes are mentioned, including alcoholism, assault and unhealthy relationships, which alongside other content warnings make this one for older teens. Also the drink poitín (described here as a kind of high-alcohol Irish moonshine, and by ‘high alcohol’ we mean likely to cause blindness, hallucinations and/or death) is spelled ‘poteen’ and I really wanted to correct it, though that’s a bit of niche critique.

However, the writing is consistently strong, with moments of striking description (a newspaper ‘flutters like a giant black-and-white-winged bird’, ‘there have always been three of us: a coven, a crowd, a three-headed dog’) and playful humour (‘he looks like a cross between a farmer and a teenage Victorian chimney sweep’). There’s a more satisfying sense of explanation and conclusion than in the otherwise excellent The Accident Season (you can read my review here) but there are still a few questions left tantalisingly unanswered, and, with some unnecessary ‘twists’ which demanded more exploration or better handling, some threads left frustratingly unresolved. It leaves you wondering just what in the story is real, where its magic came from and perhaps most importantly: how old is Mags Maguire and how long  has she had that pub?

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Dark, strange and littered with magic, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is a stylishly written and pleasingly clever second novel from one of the best – if not the best – Irish writers of current YA. As beguiling as it is befuddling, it’s a sometimes imperfect but frankly unputdownable addition to recent YA magical realism. I’m intrigued to see what Fowley-Doyle writes next. 

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One Italian Summer by Keris Stainton // chatty contemporary is as bubbly as it is bittersweet

Today on the blog, I review what should be one of many shiny summer reads this year!

31322309Author: Keris Stainton
Publisher:
 Hot Key Books
Publication date: 4th May 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: NetGalley
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Milly loves her sisters more than anything. They’re her best friends and closest confidants. Their annual trip to Rome – full of food, family and fun – should be all she can think about. But this holiday is different. The city still holds its familiar charms, but it’s been a year since their dad died, and it’s left a gaping hole in their lives that none of them know how to fill.

With grief still raw for all of them, Milly is facing the additional awfulness of having to see Luke again. Gorgeous Luke, who she made a total fool of herself with. What’s more, things between Milly, her sisters and their mum are rocky. Leonie is tempestuous and unpredictable, Elyse is caught up in her new boyfriend, and Milly just doesn’t know how she fits in any more. Over one Italian summer, can Milly find a way back to the life she once had? Or is the person she once was gone for good? 

Bittersweet and bubbly, Keris Stainton’s latest contemporary is a solid addition to this year’s crop of summer UKYA. I was engrossed from the start. Keris – who remains the only UKYA author I know who could convincingly be known by a mononym – returns to charming, big-hearted form with One Italian Summer. Fans of Emma Hearts LA and Jessie Hearts NYC will find her conjuring of a world-famous city has just the right romantic comedy touch. I would’ve liked a little more detail or a stronger sense of Milly and her family’s years-long familiarity with the city, but for a fun, fast literary mini-break, it just about works.

There’s lots to enjoy in this book: delicious food, family weddings, late-night parties, sunny weather, delicious food, busy streets, an LGBT subplot, even more delicious food. The writing style is chatty, frank and funny, with plenty of cheeky, laugh-out-loud moments. The family dynamics are rich and realistic, with room for both familiarity and tension. The characters are on the whole well-realised, flawed and distinct.

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For as long as she can remember, teenager Milly and her sisters have spent a little bit of every summer in Rome with their parents, extended family and a cohort of friends. A wedding should make this trip the happiest ever – but still recovering from the loss of her dad, Milly isn’t sure anything can ever be the same again. She’s practically given up on college dreams, her mum works all the time, Elyse can’t wait to move out of home and in with her boyfriend, and Leonie is about to throw a curveball (natch). One Italian Summer may seem as light as a Victoria sponge but it is infused with the tang of heartache, perhaps more so than expected. The touristy hustle-and-bustle of Rome is tempered by the profundity and anchorlessness of loss. Its emotional core is never far from Milly’s narration. A tricky, and by no means always successful, balance between solemnity and messy reality makes for a summer contemporary with a serious side.

Close-knit, natural and devoted, the relationships which underpin the novel are particularly fantastic. They establish so much depth in such a short time. Elyse, Leonie and Milly are well-written individually, but they’re best when they’re together. From nicking each other’s food to collapsing face-first on each other’s duvets on bad days, they’ve got absolutely no sense of personal space and I loved it. There’s also a great dynamic with their cousin Toby and aunt Alice. I would’ve liked more prose description or extra plot, but if these relationships are the architecture of the book, then One Italian Summer stands on firm foundations.

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Milly feels her face flush even thinking about Luke, her cousin’s handsome best friend and the boy they’ve known for so long he’s become a regular face during their Roman holidays. Convinced she’s made an irreparable fool of herself in front of the friendly, laidback boy of her dreams, Milly’s romantic stumblings are painfully awkward and totally relatable. Stainton negotiates ideas of love, lust, consent and sex-positivity with only the occasional error, and I think Lauren James got it right when she described Milly as thirsty – because, oh boy, is she into Luke. She’s basically got “I want to lick his face” floating above her head in giant neon letters. Like with the book itself, there’s nothing hugely original or ground-breaking here, but it’s an enjoyable read. There are mistakes and misunderstandings, but I liked the way the relationship ultimately played out. There’s added romance with the soon-to-be-married Alice and Stefano, and while I don’t think we were supposed to like suave, good-natured Italian Stefano more than Luke, we all know he’s true love interest of the book, really. Stefano earns one of the stars here all by himself, to be honest.

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Sunlit and chatty, funny and bittersweet, One Italian Summer marks a return to form for Keris Stainton. A considerable improvement on previous release Counting Stars, there’s a warmth to this contemporary, and particularly its core relationships, which just about balances its weighty emotional subplot. If you like Lisa Williamson or Luisa Plaja, this one’s for you.

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