Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison // “Just a subtle pack howl, no big deal. Keep it caj.”

Today on the blog, I review another of my most anticipated reads of the year! You can see the full list here, or catch up with my progress on it through quick reviews here. 

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Author(s): Tom Ellen, Lucy Ivison
Publisher:
 Chicken House Books
Publication date: 3rd August 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Phoebe Bennet has been waiting all summer for uni to start and her life to finally begin. 

But for Luke Taylor, starting uni marks an unexpected ending. His girlfriend lives hours away and he’s not sure they can make it work. Or that he really wants it to. 

Phoebe’s landed on her feet, made new friends and thrown herself into the chaos of freshers. Luke is finding York the escape he thought it would be. When the two collide and a secret crush turns into something more, they get sucked into each other’s worlds in the most messy, intense and ridiculous ways imaginable.

Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s début collaboration, Lobsters, was nominated for the YA Book Prize and is set in the heady no-man’s-land of a summer between finishing school and starting university. Their second, Never Evers, remains my go-to recommendation for the bridge between early teen and young adult fiction. Here it seems they’re filling another gap as it’s revealed that someone has finally (finally!) written a smart, plot-packed, realistically ridiculous book about teenagers in the first months of university. What’s more, Freshers is outrageously, unashamedly funny. It’s sharp, candid, and laugh-out-loud engaging. It’s so entertaining – and the ending so nearly perfect – that I couldn’t help being won over by its messy, rollercoaster style.

Phoebe Bennet might be mistaken for the girl next door: friendly, upbeat, ordinary, and entirely invisible to people like Luke Taylor when they were at school together. But when they happen to go to the same university and end up helping the same drunk fresher get home on a night out, it seems Phoebe’s daydreams are about to become a reality. Unfortunately for her, freshers’ week is not the place for straightforward romances. On the upside, she’s making some hilarious friends in her corridor, bags herself a job at a posh café and has plenty of first year antics to keep up with. Told in fast-paced alternate narration, what follows is a tale of mayhem, mishaps, miscommunication and inexplicable amounts of tea, written with typical Ellen and Ivison aplomb.

A brilliantly vibrant array of characters populate the pages. I adored forthright, unabashedly individual Frankie, deadpan but determined Negin (“like if a newsreader fronted an indie band”) and level-headed Rita. Even out-of-it Arthur, bubbly Liberty and no-nonsense latecomer Thrones (actually called Ed, nay, Edmund) have their moments. Ellen and Ivison make an unlikely but enthusiastic bond between very different characters thrown together essentially at random seem believable and dynamic. Minor characters such as Bowl-Cut Mary (“How do you even become a person who is brave enough to get a rainbow bowl cut and wear boys’ trackies on a night out? What does your life preceding that point even look like?”) and Frankie’s mum make an impression, too. The outstanding friendship of Freshers, however, is that of Frankie, Negin and Phoebe. It’s incredibly positive, excruciatingly funny female friendship, and one of the most natural I’ve seen in YA so far this year.

Freshers is character-driven contemporary. Both leads make mistakes, and Ellen and Ivison’s skill with complex, flawed characters is evident when it comes to Luke. He consistently retains an element of the reader’s sympathy, though he’s ultimately less easy to like. He’s immature, muddled, and self-absorbed. He’s not yet realised that he can, and should, take responsibility for his relationships and stand up for things even when it’s not the popular choice. This is a book of growth and learning, though. Josh, meanwhile, is a character I’d have loved to have seen even more of. He’s confident, generous, realistic – a good egg, to borrow We Come Apart’s phrase – and completely underutilised! I’d definitely read a sequel to this book, and one of the reasons would be to see more of Josh in it.

There is some plot (“better to have loved and lost than to have… accidentally declared your love via text message”) and for a book that doesn’t seem long, it’s busy. There’s a lack of actual studying going on in this university setting but in a broomstick-to-academia ratio Harry would be proud of, there is a Quidditch society. The downside to Ellen and Ivison’s terrific characterisation is that the villains of the piece (one of those villains is ‘laddishness’) are totally awful. The last sixth has some slight pacing issues and there are one or two unresolved threads. However, it also means they take opportunities to contrast different types of relationships and explore themes like being more in love with the idea of someone than the person themselves. Theirs is suspiciously clever, brazen writing. If you’re a fan of Holly Bourne, Lisa Williamson or Non Pratt, this is the book for you.

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Funny, messy, outrageous and down-to-earth, Freshers is full of chaotic charm. The friendships are particularly brilliant. Even if you’re new to brassy, frank contemporary UKYA, you may as well throw yourself in at the deep end and start with this. One of Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s best books yet. 

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The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord // outstandingly thoughtful, feel good YA

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Author(s): Emery Lord
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 1st June 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Lucy Hansson was ready for the perfect summer with her boyfriend, working at her childhood Bible camp on the lake. But when her mom’s cancer reappears, Lucy falters – in faith, in love, and in her ability to cope.

When her boyfriend ‘pauses’ their relationship and her summer job switches to a different camp, this time for trouble kids, Lucy isn’t sure how much more she can handle. Thrown into a world of broken rules, close-knit coworkers and relentlessly energetic third graders, she attempts to regain her footing while keeping her Sundays with her mom to herself. But she’s not the only one with secrets, and she may find that in the summer she thought she needed it least, her new world – and the people in it – could be what she needs most. 

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. It’s character-driven but delivers on plot as well as premise. It’s warm and heartfelt, but also serious, thoughtful and, occasionally, heartbreaking. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, but it really blew me away. I gave Lord’s last book quite a high rating (you can read my review of When We Collided here), but I’m glad I left room for just a little more for this standalone.

Capable, put-together Lucy finds herself completely thrown by the recurrence of her mother’s cancer and by her dependable, upright boyfriend’s subsequent checking out of their relationship. When an old friend seeks an emergency replacement for a counsellor who quit at the summer camp across the lake, Lucy agrees at her mother’s request. At first feeling both out of place and way out of her depth, Lucy must navigate a new world where kids who have seen too much could do with someone on their side. Kind, accepting, hard-working Lucy is a well-realised protagonist. She does her best in the face of challenges and is slowly realising she is in a place where it is okay to feel as she does – angry, conflicted, afraid, guilty for the chinks showing in her once-dutiful armour – and what’s more, where new friends and unexpected allies will feel it with her.

Among them are fellow counsellors like friendly Anna, guarded Keely, and outgoing Tambe, each with histories and complexities of their own. Best of all, however, is the bespectacled, lively, flaweed Henry Jones. Their romance is realistic, passionate and honest. Lucy and Jones actually spend time together and get to know each other – their shared talent for music and equal devotion to the kids of camp are particular highlights – turning theirs from sweet romance to gorgeous relationship in a way that soars. I liked Lucy trying to figure out her young chargers, too, whether by teaching shy Thuy to swim to giving Nadia a shoulder to lean on. Vibrant, diverse and individual, these characters leap from the page.

The Names They Gave Us is filled with the requisite moments of plot and drama, secrets and revelations, humour and heartbreak. Frank, compassionate and incredibly empathetic, the vivid portrayal of its characters’ multifarious, and sometimes traumatic, experiences is exemplified by Lord’s unabashed confrontation of themes as varied as grief, sexuality, and religion. The immense sensitivity with which Lord depicts faith allows her to capture both Lucy’s belief and struggles. This is YA with present parents in the shape of Lucy’s funny, loving mom and open, good-natured pastor dad, and with fabulous, imperfect friendships, too. The ending is quite rushed and abrupt, and the prose style is a little choppy, but the book is absorbing from start to finish. A worthy choice for what is, at the time of writing, only my second five star rating of the year.

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I adored this book. For fans of Sara Barnard, Sarah Dessen and Jennifer E. Smith, this is feel-good, heart-rending contemporary. The characters are fantastic, the romance well-written and the story sweeps you away. Emery Lord is improving with every book she writes.

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A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard // a love story with ALL of the romance

30197201Author: Sara Barnard
Publisher:
 Macmillan
Publication date: 12 January 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Steffi doesn’t talk, but has so much to say.
Rhys can’t hear, but he can listen.

Shy, anxious Steffi has been silent for so long that sometimes she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her.

Rhys is deaf, and Steffi’s knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to introduce him to sixth form life. To kind, confident Rhys, it doesn’t matter that she can’t talk, and with each they find unexpected friendship and even new adventures. As they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she may have a voice after all – and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.

From the bestselling author of Beautiful Broken Things comes a love story about the times when a whisper is as good as a shout.

I didn’t quite have the words, at first, to describe how much I adored this book. It took me ages to write a review because every time I looked at my notes I just ended up re-reading it. But I have taken this as par for the course when it comes to Rhys and Steffi, who would probably also see the irony in someone being (at least momentarily) speechless because of a story about finding one’s voice.

This is a novel which finds in the ordinary the extraordinary: which has taken a humble premise, straightforward prose and a handful of characters and created a love story which may already be one of my favourite books of the year. (And perhaps even a possible awards contender, too). Sara Barnard’s celebrated début novel Beautiful Broken Things was a great addition to young adult fiction, but A Quiet Kind of Thunder stunned me. I think I’d forgotten anyone could get much better at writing when a first novel was that good. The style is still fairly plain, but it does so much work with such everyday words and most importantly, it has improved: it flows better, it’s more memorable, and it’s more vivid. Fans of Sarah Crossan and Stephanie Perkins looking for a new writer to add to their shelves will find an excellent companion here.

Quiet, determined Steffi has learned the hard way that the world does not really know what to do with someone who should be able to, but cannot, talk. Sixth form will be difficult enough without her best friend Tem – sporty, rambunctious, big-hearted Tem, who has traitorously abandoned her for a different college and can send only texts to keep her spirits up – but when she’s asked to act as a guide for the new boy at school, her day reaches new levels of socially-anxious terror. But Rhys is not at all like she expected: kind, charming, ridiculous and maybe a little more nervous than he lets on, he is the first person in a long time to look at Steffi and see her. There’s just one complication: Rhys is deaf, and Steffi’s sign language skills are more than a little rusty.

I loved Steffi. I loved Rhys. I loved Tem. I even loved Meg, who steals every scene she’s in.
I loved how Steffi and Rhys actually spend time with each other and get to know each other. Theirs is somehow both a slow, unfurling love story – full of shyness and affection, mistakes and mishaps – and a swoony, sweet romance – full of kisses and conversations, humour and hope. And honestly? This book has set new standards for me when it comes to romance in YA fiction. It’s thoughtful and down-to-earth but also heartfelt and gorgeous. It’s astonishing. HOW CAN IT BE ALL THESE THINGS AT ONCE??! Where has Barnard been hiding this talent? CAN I READ ABOUT THEIR WHOLE ADORABLE LIFE TOGETHER?!

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(spoiler: it’s definitely a kissing book)

Funny, cheesy, romantic and serious, the story is told in traditional narration, but also notes, text, chat exchanges and British Sign Language. Consistently bolded or explained, BSL is Rhys’ first language and Steffi’s second: it is the wholly embraced dialogue of their relationship. And just as love does not give Rhys hearing, neither does it cure Steffi’s selective mutism or anxiety. They simply help and understand each other. Oh, and there are dogs. And families! And hope! And dogs. And some subplots! Supportive, enthusiastic teen friendships! Platonic, caring boy-girl friendships! AND DOGS.

A strong, character-driven plot proves contemporary fiction can be both romantic and highly engaging. It’s focused, fluid, dramatic and just a little heartbreaking, and it fits the characters. Things go wrong, there are failures of communication, there are roads to true love with a few bumps along the way. The ending is a bit rushed and I would’ve liked a touch more description, more sex-positivity for Steffi herself (though the book is sex-positive on the whole), or to have seen appearances from the characters of Beautiful Broken Things (NO MATTER HOW INEXPLICABLE). Alas, it will have to wait until this book’s delightfully romantic sequel. Or the Belinda-Davy short story. Or the Meg spin-off. YA NEEDS A MEG SPIN-OFF.

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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. Glorious. I loved it. 

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LOYALTY, LOVE AND LAUGHTER: favourite female friendships in YA

Gasp! What is this I see before me?! A discussion post, you say? And it’s time to talk about FEMALE FRIENDSHIPS?! Yay!

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I love YA about positive female friendships. I’m a fan of romance and adventures and time travel and historical fiction and all those great things too, but books that do justice to friendship stand out – and what better way to celebrate than by talking about a few of my favourites?

21472663Kaz and Ruby from Remix by Non Pratt

I adore this book. It’s fast, fizzy and fierce, full of music and boy drama and festival shenanigans. But mostly, it’s full of the fantastic friendship between best mates Kaz and Ruby. They have their ups and downs but they love each other, and what’s more, they’re brilliantly funny. Genuine, positive, messy teen friendship is extraordinary. It’s laughter and affection and mistakes and support and as much silliness as seriousness, and Remix comes closest, perhaps of any YA I’ve read, to showing how heartfelt and laugh-out-loud ridiculous it can be. (It helps that the rest of the book is magnificent, too. Definitely worth reading.)

Christina and Elizabeth from Feeling Sorry For Celia/Emily, Cass and Lydia from The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty

I couldn’t pick just one friendship here! These books are so underrated. There are some great friendships in Jaclyn Moriarty’s Ashbury/Brookfield novels, particularly in Feeling Sorry for Celia, which shows teenager Elizabeth dealing with the fallout from the actions of her unreliable best friend and unexpectedly finding a healthier, more equal dynamic thanks a school pen pal assignment.

By the time Emily, Cass and Lydia – close friends facing the pressure of exams, personal dramas and the legacy of the mysterious Ashbury-Brookfield Pen Pal Project, in which they like students before them are required to write letters to students at a local school reputed to be a haven for criminals, biker gangs, drop-outs etc – take the helm, the series has totally won you over. Told in epistolary format, whether that’s letters, emails, diaries, notes, exam answers, vandalised school noticeboards or the titular secret assignments, Moriarty gives a fantastically immediate voice to her characters and to the trials and tribulations of teen friendship. The Year of Secret Assignments (also known as Finding Cassie Crazy) is perhaps the quirkiest (and only occasionally the most ludicrous) of a loosely-connected quartet, showcasing a friendship bound by loyalty and written with entirely self-aware humour.

25437747Caddy, Rosie and Suzanne from Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

A love story without a romance, Beautiful Broken Things is a heartwarming, heartbreaking début with female friendship explored on every page,  first with the long-established best friendship of Caddy and Rosie, and then with the added complication of newcomer Suzanne as she arrives in blustery, beachy Brighton. But you probably know that, since this is another one I find myself recommending over and over again. It may be one of the best books not just featuring but about teen girl friendship released this year. I liked the book so much I actually reviewed it twice, which you can check out here and here. The book sees friendship really being put to the test (with time for baking macarons and midnight escapades in between, natch) but while their mistakes and actions have consequences, Caddy, Rosie and Suzanne care about each other. It’s a great example of platonic relationships which can be just as compelling as romantic ones when done well in fiction.

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Nonie, Edie, Jenny and Crow from Threads by Sophia Bennett

Sophia Bennett’s gloriously lively first book won the Times/Chicken House competition – and it did it with a story about teen girls and the friendship which sees them feeling like they can take on the world, whether that’s by using their talents for fashion (Nonie, Crow), by stepping into the sometimes overwhelming world of acting (Jenny) or by fostering ambitions to save the planet (Edie). And against a backdrop of books which appear to echo messages to teen girls that they should put up with toxic friendships or struggle in the social minefield of teenager-hood without anyone they can trust or depend on, the straightforward but sincere friendship in books like Threads is important. This being YA, things don’t always go smoothly for them, but it’s tremendously fun; light as a Victoria sponge and flowing in talkative, jam-packed style.

Evie, Lottie and Amber from The Spinster Club trilogy by Holly Bourne

I know, I know, I wax lyrical about Am I Normal Yet? and its sequels all the time. But they’re just so good! Here, Holly Bourne takes on airbrushed ideas of female friendship and replaces them with something far more real: a deep, garrulous, comical bond between three girls who boost each other up and help each other when they’re dow29740718n. Lottie, Amber and Evie celebrate each other’s successes, no matter how small, and can talk about things like mental health, relationships and feminism with confidence, knowing their girls have got their back.

I’ve read too many books where female friendships are disingenuous or lacking in depth; books where teenagers passed off as friends essentially don’t even like each other. This trilogy shines a stark light on YA novels past with flimsy loyalties and poorly-drawn female characters. This trio’s well-written, good-natured friendship is a reminder to other YA (and to readers) that if a relationship is filled with copious amounts of competition, envy and cattiness – often influenced by a misogynistic culture that can’t seem to wrap its head around the fact that women might actually like and rely on each other in ways which can’t be summed up in conversations entirely centred on their latest conquests – then it is not a friendship. Evie, Lottie and Amber really set the bar high for female friendship in future UKYA. There’s a Spinster Club novella being released later this year, too!

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So there you have it: five of the most fabulous female friendships in young adult fiction. Do any of your favourite characters appear on this list? Are there any books about YA friendship you just can’t help but recommend?

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