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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Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton // a strong sequel for sassy (and sandy) fantasy

Today on the blog, I’m (finally) reviewing one of the most exciting UKYA fantasy releases of the year – though it is a sequel, so there may be spoilers! If you need a recap, I reviewed the first book in the series, Rebel of the Sands, here.

31574408Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Publisher:
 Faber & Faber
Publication date: February 2nd 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: NetGalley
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Teenage gunslinger Amani Al-Hiza has escaped the dead-end desert town of Dustwalk only to find herself caught up in a rebellion held together by an enigmatic prince and a handful of extraordinary Demdji.

Thrust into the most dangerous place for a revolutionary in their war-torn kingdom, Amani is trapped in the sultan’s palace, far from the source of her magic and from those she cares about. With unlikely enemies as well as unexpected allies lurking around every corner, she must do whatever it takes to help end the tyranny of the sultan’s rule. Or the rebellion, and the hope it brings her people, will be snuffed out at the cold and pitiless hands of a tyrant – father to her rebel prince, a man who would slay his own family before giving up the throne.

For Amani, freedom is blood and sweat and sand. It means friendship forged in fire and the tantalising possibility of a life with mysterious rebel Jin. If they can make it out of the war for Miraji alive, and bring a new dawn to an old desert.

Rich, exciting and enthralling, Traitor to the Throne – the second book in what is rapidly becoming one of current UKYA’s most dramatic and action-packed fantasy series – is a commendable follow-up to last year’s Rebel of the Sands. This brisk but immersive foray into the world of Miraji – where rough wild west meets mysterious desert sands and long-hidden magic abounds – sees heroine Amani once again elbow-deep in fighting for her freedom and that of her people.  Hectic, pacy and bursting with plot, it’s driven by sparky bravery, simmering revolution, outrageous treachery, daring rescues, thrilling escapes, surprise re-appearances, and more powerful magic than ever before, and I was gripped from start to finish.

Tough, courageous, reckless and not afraid to get her hands dirty, the badass Amani crowns a cast of ragtag rebels, menacing enemies and palace spies. Among my favourites were well-written newcomers Sam and Rahim, royal prince turned noble rebel Ahmed and returning warrior Shazad, whose acerbic skill and general ferocity have been joined by fantastic flashes of friendship and loyalty. Amani’s love interest Jin also returns, though Hamilton is forced to squeeze their romantic moments into the unlikeliest of narrative places – and of course there are tempestuous tiffs and tricky complications to consider. The secondary cast is overbusy and difficult to keep track of even with the help of a character list. Hamilton resists the temptation of the traditional book two love triangle, however, and I am absolutely intrigued to see how intense the finale may be after such a fizzing installment.

Ideal for fans of Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen and Kiersten White’s And I Darken, this undoubtedly feels like the middle book of a trilogy but is still full of twists (some I guessed and some I didn’t), and if you haven’t read Rebel of the Sands, it’s well worth doing so. In world-building that is efficient yet sweeping, Hamilton takes the opportunity to show more of the creations she’s spun, from Miraji’s neighbouring nations to the sumptuous and treacherous palace. Opening with a jump in time allows for the avoidance of some second book pitfalls, but sacrifices potential emotional power and resolution.

I would’ve liked more description in the prose as it’s become noticeably more punchy and dialogue-heavy, with, dare I say it, almost too many quips? The first half is basically a bunch of teenagers trying to take over the desert armed only with sarcasm and quick comebacks, which while awesome, doesn’t make for the most substantial of reading experiences. Occasionally the series’ wild west element is forgotten amid the unquestionable glitz and glam of magic, but then that magic is beguiling – and if anything, it leaves the reader longing for more. Particularly pleasing is the weaving of folk-tales and myth-style storytelling into the high-stakes, highly entertaining plot.

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One of the best UKYA fantasy fiction offerings of recent years, Alwyn Hamilton’s tales of rebellion and magic, though not flawless, are pacy and full of action. Dramatic, exciting and unputdownable. I really enjoyed this one.

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Contemporary Catch-Up // The Hate U Give and When We Collided

Today on the blog it’s more contemporary YA (and I continue my battle with writing reviews that are actually less than a thousand words long), including one of 2016’s shiniest and one of 2017’s most talked-about!

25663637When We Collided by Emery Lord
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: April 7th 2016
Series or standalone?: standalone

Jonah is the kind of boy Vivi never expected to want.

Vivi is the kind of girl Jonah has never given himself time to love.

In an unflinching story about new love, old wounds, and the summer that paints their lives in vivid technicolour, Vivi and Jonah find that when you collide with the right person at just the right time, it can change you in all the ways you don’t expect.

As full of joy as it is of sorrow, this is a tale of family and food and love and sunshine and struggle. It is both generously written and incredibly bittersweet, and I was unexpectedly swept away by its frank and vividly unfurling story. The first Emery Lord book I’ve ever read, it’s taken me so long to review it her next book is already almost out – but if you haven’t read this yet, it’s absolutely worth doing so. For fans of Sarah Dessen and Sara Barnard, this is an energetic and memorable character-driven contemporary with enough plot and drive to feel satisfying.

Stubborn, sincere, sweet and hardworking, devoted brother Jonah is doing what he can to keep his family together after personal loss and during unspoken absences: keeping his family’s restaurant afloat, caring for his young siblings, running himself ragged. Bright, colourful Vivi is a whirlwind of cheer and exuberance, and longing to forget that which has been dealt to her, finds herself whisking a rather bewildered Jonah off his feet. Both are fabulously well-realised, at turns flawed and wonderful, characters: I liked Vivi, but particularly loved Jonah. Lord displays a deft hand in constructing secondary characters, too, whether in Verona Cove’s residents or, among my favourites, Jonah’s siblings.

Told in keen alternate narration, Jonah’s sturdy, big-hearted look at a precarious family contrasts sharply with Vivi’s gregarious but sometimes unpredictable enthusiasm. The latter is notable for its skilled and carefully-constructed illustration of rapid and reeling experiences of bipolar disorder. If you’re looking for YA that gives depth and resonance to the often lacking summer romance device, this is absolutely the book for you. Occasional missteps in twists, dialogue and narration – there’s a touch of instalove, the broader setting is a little forgettable (though the beach scenes are always a plus) and there are some details here and there I wasn’t a fan of – mean it falls short of being a five-star read, but there are moments when it comes close.

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When We Collided is sweeping, vivid and punchy. I love recommending this one. Such a fantastic read. 

32613366The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: April 6th 2017
Series or standalone?: standalone

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised, and the posh suburban high school she attends an hour away.

The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed friend, Khalil, by a police officer, and – in a novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement – she finds herself struggling for justice, clinging to hope, and fighting to be heard.

First things first: this is probably the hypiest book is the history of YA hype (and you know how I feel about hype). It débuted right onto the NYT bestseller list, already has a movie deal (with YA book-to-film-adaptation darling Amandla Stenberg set to play Starr), has at leas eight starred reviews from pillars-of-trade-reviewing like Kirkus, and has had more coverage in the months leading up to and just after release than I’ve seen for some UKYA books all together. If books were rated on buzz alone, well, there are some pretty happy marketing and publicity folks who can afford to take a holiday after this (and let’s face it, they might need a holiday after wrangling all those platform strategies, press releases and interviews…!). I was actually offered this book for review, but as it’s already out here in Ireland (I know!) I decided to pick up my own copy (shoutout to the lovely Jacq, whose recommendation bumped it up my always-toppling TBR).

Frank, sobering and often dark, this is a tough read told in forthright yet energetic style. Protagonist Starr’s voice is passionate, warm and distinctive, and readers will quickly be rooting for her. In a thematic, subplot-packed book, her struggles are often as internal as they are external: as well as seeking justice and the media circus which follows Starr’s witnessing of her friend’s death, there is exploration of her self-censorship at her posh secondary school, the impact of violence and trauma on a community, and the extent to which teenagers can be activists. The writing style isn’t spectacular, on occasion turning unwieldy, but a strong and present family dynamic – including Starr’s parents, siblings Seven and Sekani and some of her extended family – anchors the book brilliantly.

Authentic, empathetic and deeply entrenched in a rich series of experiences, The Hate U Give plunges the reader into its story with unapologetic momentum. Its stylistic immediacy coupled with its sharp examination of race and systemic inequality pitches it somewhere between Nicola Yoon’s frothy, current The Sun Is Also A Star and Malorie Blackman’s seminal (and still unparalleled) Noughts and Crosses, ensuring it will both land on most-recommended lists and crop up in classrooms under the auspices of particularly on-the-money teachers. The romance is lacklustre, uneven pacing makes it too long for a contemporary and it should be noted that the book is almost completely America-centric with little regard for goings-on in the rest of the world, but Starr’s tale has more vigour and outspokenness than most of John Green’s books put together. It’s weighed down only by a few duff or clunky emphases, and would be a great choice for listening to on audiobook. I It’s not an easy read – but then it’s not designed to be.

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For fans of Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence, Wing Jones by Katherine Webber and Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, this powerful début novel is sure to continue making waves both sides of the Atlantic. 

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Contemporary Catch-Up // All of the Above and The Square Root of Summer

In which I attempt to catch up on some of the best (and worst) releases which have slipped my scheduling net. Contemporary is one YA’s busiest genres, so I’ll be tackling these through the medium of (relatively) quick reviews. And probably snark.

alloftheaboveAll of the Above by Juno Dawson
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: September 1st 2015
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased

When sixteen-year-old Toria arrives at a new school, she finds herself caught in a storm of exam pressure, new friends and doubting if she’ll ever fit in. Funny, foul-mouthed Polly – the coolest and weirdest girl Toria’s ever met – and her cohort of fellow outsiders take Toria under their wing, but with loyalties tangled and secrets being kept, fast friendships may hit the rocks even faster. Thrown in Toria’s crush on the irresistible lead singer of a local band set for stardom, and she may find that love and friendship have a funny way of going round in circles…

Eventful, outrageous and biting, All of the Above is practically bursting with character: between artistically talented newcomer Toria, fierce but secretive Daisy, bolshy pack leader Polly, awkward Beasley, book-mad Freya, uber-cool musician Nico, permanently-entwined-and-coolly-disinterested Alex and Alice, and of course, Geoff the cross-dressing squirrel, readers are from the off confronted with a colourful cast of teenagers – and the knowledge that some of these friendships will not survive the book. Polly, Daisy and Nico were the stars of the ensemble for me, but the story itself is championed by heroine Toria.

Chatty, frank and uproariously funny, Toria’s narration was one of my favourite things about the book. Brutally honest and littered with pop culture references, it both keeps you reading and packs a punch. Toria’s experiences as a biracial British-Punjabi teenager only occasionally influence the plot but inform her forthright (“Brompton-on-Sea isn’t exactly a cultural melting pot”) and warmly wry (“Worst. Hindu. Ever”) voice. It is through Toria’s humour and  Dawson captures the chaos of teenage experience.

Arriving at Brompton Cliffs, Toria finds that the year which follows is one torrid whirlwind of sexual confusion, startling revelations and surprisingly bittersweet heartbreak. Relying on the base ingredients of the YA tradition – opening with an arrival in a new place, focusing on friendship drama and coming-of-age issues – Dawson adds few twists to the general formula, but packs the book with themes relevant to modern audiences: mental health, sexuality, alcoholism, break-ups, make-ups, strained family relationships, music, hormones.

There’s so much going on in this book. It’s like an episode of Hollyoaks, only better written. This style does have its drawbacks, however. There are moments where the book fails to charm and where plot gets lost in the muddle. The prose is so busy rushing around that it’s difficult to feel many of the tough subjects tackled have been explored as deeply as needed (it’s not an easy read for some issues and requires a trigger warning) or to imagine some of the central relationships, built as they are on hastily-constructed speed-paint foundations, will last beyond the pages.
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Fans of Alice Oseman’s Radio Silence, Liz Kessler’s Read Me Like A Book and Lisa Williamson’s All About Mia will find this lively, if occasionally overbusy, contemporary companion appeals. Funny, sharp, and distinctive. 

27420164The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter-Hapgood
Publisher:
Macmillan
Publication date: May 5th 2016
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC

Reeling from the twin heartbreaks of a summer ago – the loss of her grandfather and a tough break-up – Gottie is lost and busy burying herself in equations.  

Until Thomas comes home: former boy next door, former best friend, former everything. And until Gottie starts to experience strange blips in time. They take her back to last summer – back to all she should have seen then – where she must navigate grief, world-stopping kisses and the space-time continuum as she tries to reconcile her first heartbreak with her last.

The Square Root of Summer had plenty of potential and no small amount of pre-publication hype. The premise is a collection of things which regularly appear in YA – summer timeframe, tough break-up, bad ex-boyfriend, the boy next door, a struggle with loss – with the added complication of mathematics-laden time travel. Its contemporary framing has echoes of Emery Lord, Amy Zhang and Kasie West, but for me the rest of the book didn’t click.

Unfortunately, the book’s writing style is baffling. And I say this as someone who is all for unusual and striking contemporaries! One moment it’s classic contemporary, the next it’s confused, clunky and completely unenjoyable. Choppy prose weighed down by jargon made it difficult to invest in Gottie’s time travel adventures or the passion for science which litter the novel. The writing style is idiosyncratic, disjointed and jarring, with irritatingly short paragraphs and sentences – all admirable attempts at toying with convention, and perhaps they would’ve worked in the hands of a more skilled or experienced storyteller, but it just doesn’t work here.

This book is, for want of a better phrase, all over the place. The suspension of disbelief, not to mention the supposed romances on which so much of the book hinged, just wasn’t persuasive. The characters are forgettable, the pacing is uneven and the plot is submerged in inexplicable jumps from scene to scene. For a character-driven novel, the individual or intersecting emotional stories must be compelling, but here it’s like someone threw vaguely-contemporary-shaped spaghetti at a wall and decided to write a book out of what stuck. IT MAKES NO SENSE.

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I just didn’t enjoy this one. A summer read which fails to live up to its potential. If you’re looking for an unusual writing style in contemporary, expert hands like Sarah Crossan or Jenny Valentine are still your best bet.

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Following Ophelia by Sophia Bennett // contemporary queen proves a dab hand at art-inspired historical fiction

Today on the blog, I take a look at Sophia Bennett’s latest! (what do you mean I haven’t reviewed Love Song yet I AM TOTALLY ON TOP OF MY REVIEW SCHEDULE).

33256865Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher:
 Stripes
Publication date: 9 March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

London, 1857. Young scullery maid Mary Adams has swapped her old-fashioned Kent village for the grandeur – and grime – of Victorian London.

But it’s only when she sees John Everett Millais’ depiction of the tragic Ophelia that this new world opens up for her. Caught in the irresistible circles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, where passionate young painters break the rules of art, dress, and society, she finds herself drawn to a host of new friends and heart-pounding capers. To survive in London’s high society, she reinvents herself as Persephone Lavelle, but even as rumours abound about the mysterious new face of London’s exciting art scene, she will learn that keeping secrets in the glamourous city is not as easy as it seems. And if she must choose, what will she sacrifice for who she wishes to be – and be with? 

Known for her chatty, ultra-modern YA – from fabulous teen fashion début Threads to brilliant bastion of boyband lit Love Song – Sophia Bennett’s first foray into historical fiction is pleasantly accomplished. Colourful, descriptive and neat, her prose here perhaps lacks the laugh-out-loud, natural feel of her contemporary work, but displays a remarkable shift to suit the genre.

This is accessible teen historical fiction for fans of Catherine Johnson, Julia Golding and Jacqueline Wilson. In fact, I couldn’t help feeling as I read that this book was everything I would’ve liked, but never quite obtained, from a Jacqueline Wilson historical if hers were not so simplistically or formulaically aimed at younger audiences: there is a richness, a patience, a stylistic satisfaction to Following Ophelia that simultaneously makes the novel engaging and refuses to underestimate readers. Bennett takes some fairly familiar ingredients (young maid, Victorian London, a well-to-do family, a secret world where class lines blur, a possible romance) and spins a story with just enough pluck to keep you reading.

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Mary Adams has one foot in the busy drudgery of life as a scullery maid and another in the tantalising escape of Pre-Raphaelitism, where rash and gifted painters are enraptured by her red hair and pale face, seeing her not as a changeling or curse but as a potential muse for great works. Finding herself drawn to talented young artist Felix, they embark on Hades and Persephone: the painting that will win him renown and free her from servitude. Mary’s secret life as Persephone sees her in cahoots with the vivacious Kitty and her scandalous brother Roly (“the most dangerous man in London”), while her everyday existence is brought down to earth with a bump by the seemingly antagonistic Annie, mysterious acquaintance Eddie, and the plight of her cousin Harriet. As the stakes get higher Bennett brilliantly takes the opportunity to explore issues involving agency, class, sexism, and lack of education. A particularly interesting look at the relationship between artist and model makes for a book which has its themes woven superlatively between escapades.

The book’s premise caught my eye because of the art, and it held my attention because of it. The discovery of the Pre-Raphaelite movement turns Mary’s narrative to glorious technicolour, and brings out the shine in Bennett’s prose. It may occasionally feel as if everything is a little too beautiful, but with entertaining cameos from some famous artistic figures – Hunt, Rossetti, Millais – and glittering insight into London’s high society, readers will be swept away by an eventful plot which cleverly segues from grimy servants’ quarters for glamourous parties sometimes within the space of a single chapter. Solidly, though not exceptionally, researched, the book glosses over some darker issues of Victorian Britain but has moments of real skill and has sequels in the pipeline, making it both an enjoyable read and a worthy recommendation for 11-14s.

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Remarkably accomplished, eventful and enjoyable historical fiction with an interesting cast and some deliciously vivid description. I’m particularly excited to learn that this is the first in a series.

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All About Mia by Lisa Williamson // second book syndrome? Not a chance

I finally got to read All About Mia by Lisa Williamson! (What? I have a very busy TBR). I’ve now read five of my most anticipated reads of the year (and about to start a sixth), which I am totally pleased with. Anyway, on with the review!

326157251Author(s): Lisa Williamson
Publisher:
 David Fickling Books
Publication date: 2 February 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

One family. Three sisters.

Grace is the oldest and a straight-A student. Audrey is the youngest, a future Olympic swimming champion. And Mia? Mia is the the mess in the middle.

Mia is wild and daring, great with hair and selfies, and probably more popular than both her sisters put together – though these are not attributes appreciated by her parents or teachers. When Grace makes a shock announcement, Mia is almost relieved: finally someone else will bear the brunt of her parents’ high expectations and constant nagging. But instead, it’s Mia whose life spirals out of control – boozing, boys and bad behaviour – and who might put at risk the very things she loves the most.

From the author of one of 2015’s breakout débuts – The Art of Being Normal, a contemporary which won critical acclaim, garnered serious award credentials and swept many into the clamour of a new UKYA favourite – comes one of my most anticipated reads of 2017: Lisa Williamson’s rambunctious, remarkable second novel, All About Mia.

I loved the premise of this book. It’s just the kind of chunky, get-stuck-into-it contemporary UKYA I’ve been looking for. It has such a strong, big-hearted feel: it’s down-to-earth, chaotic, candid and entertaining. I think ‘realistic’ is a very overused word when it comes to YA, but if interesting characters, believable struggles and strong writing count, then All About Mia fits the bill.

Sixteen-year-old Mia Campbell-Richardson is sandwiched between Cambridge-bound Grace (‘Mother Teresa in a blazer’) and future Olympic swimmer Audrey (occasionally known as Nemo). Mia, however, isn’t academic or sporty, doesn’t have any kooky hobbies, and hasn’t got a clue what she wants to do with her life. She may be a selfie queen and the undisputed leader of her friends, but inside she feels constantly shown up by her high-achieving siblings. Where Grace and Audrey excel, Mia fails spectacularly; where her parents plaster her sisters’ successes all over the walls, Mia gets a handful of embarrassing photographs and constant reminders of the trouble she’s caused. When straight-A student Grace comes home early from her gap year and drops a bombshell, Mia hopes that her now-not-so-perfect sister will get the comeuppance she deserves – the kind of reprimand she’s been used to for years. But her parents’ ire is conspicuously absent, and what’s worse, Mia finds herself on a downward spiral that can mean only one thing: trouble.

This character-driven novel is at turns fun, frank and vivid. With their parents finally about to marry after a twenty-year engagement, Grace’s life turning upside down (and boyfriend Sam taking up what little space there is left in the house), Audrey adapting to strict training under a new coach and Mia muddling her way through one disaster after another, you could say that the Campbell-Richardson household is a little bit busy. These core characters are vibrant, flawed and brilliant, and I’d definitely read a spin-off about Audrey.

Messy, mouthy Mia is a force to be reckoned with. Resigned to being the family disappointment, her struggle to be seen in the shadow of her overachieving sisters is written in a deeply empathetic way. Williamson doesn’t underestimate her audience, either: it’s the reader who will notice first that Mia’s behaviour is immature and attention-seeking, but also the reader who will first empathise with her. Shallow and impulsive, she does some unlikeable things, but particularly in the early half of the book, her heart’s on every page. I loved some of the little details: her passion, her intelligence, Miss Linden’s belief in and kind words for her making all the difference.

In a move which should please YA fans looking for reads without a romance-orientated plot, Mia doesn’t have a love interest. However, this ploy is perhaps taken a little too literally as all of Mia’s romantic and physical experiences are unhealthy and the book is far more sex-negative than sex-positive. Secondary relationships for Mia’s loved-up parents and sister Grace with boyfriend Sam bring a touch of warmth and buoyance – though as we see both through Mia’s cringing perspective one can’t help but feel there’s a bit of ‘ick’ to them!

Unfortunately, the friendships which appear in Mia’s life needed more depth. Authors like Sara Barnard and Holly Bourne have set the bar high when it comes to friendship in recent YA, creating resonant, genuine platonic relationships between their prose teenagers, and what’s more, pointing out that many YA friendships which have come before have been cursory at best. The first half of the book is engaging and often hilarious but the second half is weighed down by unnecessary plot points and scenes which drag before a dramatic and satisfying climax finally breaks through and the book gets back on track. All About Mia shines brightest when the tight-knit, loving, ever-so-slightly dysfunctional Campbell-Richardsons take centre stage.

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Messy, outrageous, vivid and engaging, All About Mia boasts a brilliant premise and some great flashes of humour. A solid cast and a satisfying style are marred only by a few duff or unnecessary turns of plot. A blistering and lively contemporary standalone ideal for fans of Trouble by Non Pratt, All of the Above by Juno Dawson or Lobsters by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison.

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