Interview: Sophia Bennett talks artists, teenagers, One Direction, and Unveiling Venus

Today I’m delighted to be playing host to one of the most consistently fabulous writers of UKYA fiction for teens – Sophia Bennett! I’ve loved so many of her contemporary books, and her second historical fiction novel, Unveiling Venus, was published last week (I reviewed it here on the blog). Below is the full unedited text of our interview, with, as ever, my questions in bold and Sophia’s plain text answers marked SB.

UntitledSophia Bennett’s debut novel, Threads, won the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition in 2009. She has since published six further novels for young teens, including The Look and Love Song. For her exploration of the worlds of fashion, art and music, Sophia has been called ‘the queen of teen dreams’ by journalist Amanda Craig. Her books have sold internationally to over 16 countries and there are plans to make Threads into a children’s TV series.

Hi Sophia! We’re celebrating the release of Unveiling Venus, your second historical novel and the sequel to last year’s Following Ophelia. If you had to entice a new reader to pick up either book in fifty words or less, what would you say?

SB: “What is it like to be looked at for a living? In these lavish, detailed stories, Mary Adams discovers the joys of being admired by great artists and the dark underside of being a muse. Her adventures are for anyone who loves art, fashion, history, travel and the stirrings of feminism.” (That’s 51 words, but Mary has a lot of adventures!)

33256865Ordinary maid Mary becomes the mysterious Persephone when she enters the world of the Pre-Raphaelites. Did you always want to write about this period in art? How did you make that world come so vibrantly to life?

SB: Funnily enough, my specialist art history periods are the Italian Renaissance and the Twentieth Century. I didn’t know much about the Pre-Raphaelites until Stripes asked me to write the stories, but I love their use of colour and I really wanted to write about art. I absolutely loved the painstaking research. Every colour of every apple, brush, ribbon, eye, costume or necklace was carefully considered and matched to Rossetti, Titian (who the Pre-Raphaelites admired) or one of the other artists I talk about.

Plus, the men in the group are so fascinating to a twenty-first century feminist: they love women and celebrate them, but objectify them and often make their lives miserable – even to the point of contributing to Lizzie Siddal’s early death. Christina Rossetti was busy writing fabulous poetry – which I quote – but doesn’t get talked about nearly as much. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to celebrate the joie de vivre of the group, but also analyse and criticise how hard it was for the women in their circle. Mary Adams comes through OK, but it’s no thanks to them!

Your books have taken you from the high fashion of contemporary London to grand, crumbling country houses and now to the streets of nineteenth century Venice. How do you approach tackling such different settings?

34483827SB: I’m glad you’ve noticed them! I find that the more I mentor new writers, the more I get them to focus on setting. The reader wants to be able to picture where things are happening and setting helps to create the mood and character of a book. It’s often what keeps me going while I’m writing. My protagonists won’t do what they’re told, the plot goes off in unexpected directions, but the houses, streets, hotels, canals and palazzos are always there to be luxuriated in. I want my reader to be tucked up on her sofa with a hot chocolate, imagining herself in these places, as I do while I write.

Often it’s weird to visit the real location afterwards and think for a moment that my scene really took place there, then remember, no – it was fiction. I’m going to Venice at Easter and I know I’ll get lots of fake déjà vu from Unveiling Venus, even though I set the story there 150 years ago.

Your 2015 standalone, Love Song (which I adored), contributed to contemporary YA’s current taste for books about boybands and fandom. What did you enjoy most about writing boybandlit? What did writing about music mean to you? (And is there any chance of a sequel about Declan, the multi-instrumentalist drummer and one of my favourite characters from the book?)

27396059SB: Thank you! I’m very fond of Love Song but it was very hard to write – or at least, the first half was. Once they all settled down in the crumbling country house it got easier. It was inspired by my (spot on as it turned out) conviction that One Direction were on the verge of splitting up and wondering how they must be feeling. As Keris Stainton knows, I have a very soft spot for Harry – although possibly not quite as soft as hers. But in the end I was more inspired by reading about the heyday and split up of the Beatles, who are closer to my band The Point. Lounging around, doing my research for the book by reading rock biographies was a pretty awesome way to make a living.

Also writing about teenage boy friendships. I have a teenager at home and he’s very funny with his mates. I wanted to capture some of that. And listening to music with my younger son, discovering Led Zeppelin and sharing that moment when you fall in love with a piece of music so that it becomes a part of you – that’s very special and I’ve been thrilled to hear from readers that they’ve discovered it through the book. Making my Spotify playlist for it was lovely too.

On the Declan front, don’t worry, that book is already written in my head. To do a controversial JK Rowling, Declan was always gay, and not acknowledging it to himself, and his story would be about coming out and taking on the profoundly homophobic rock/pop industry and finding his path. I know there are exceptions, but I still think it’s really tough for gay young people in the music industry. I wanted to put some of that in Love Song and I tried to, but it was a book in its own right and I think if you’re going to do justice to the story you have to do it properly. He and Angus are my favourite people to write about – although I’m fond of them all in their way, even Connor.

One thing your (often very different) books all have in common is that they’re for pre-teens or YAs, but what has writing for teens taught you?

thelooknewcoverSB: That it is very hard to write and sell books specifically for teens to teens in the UK! Unless they’re fantasy. The teens who read a lot have all the books in the world to choose from. I’ve always wanted to write for 11-15 year olds, but it’s a competitive market.

I love very much the connections I’ve made with readers who have taken my books to their heart. I’m honoured that they did. I wanted to write about being creative and brave, and finding your inner confidence. I wanted to reassure teens that although these years are tough – and they are – you will turn out OK. I also wanted to explore the dark side of insta-fame and show that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I particularly wanted to make books that would keep kids reading during those difficult early secondary school years, when Eng Lit suddenly becomes a chore and the joy can get sucked out of books. But now I’ve done as much as I can. Writing as a teen made me re-experience all those emotions and often it was hard. Now I’m moving on to other things, though I’m still grateful for anyone who comes to the nine novels I’ve written so far and finds those messages inside them.

And finally, can you tell us anything about what you’ll be working on next/?

SB: I’m currently working on two picture books, a middle grade novel set in Switzerland and an adult detective story. I need to find a new voice and that takes time. We’ll see what works…

Have you read any of Sophia’s books? Do you have a favourite? You can check out my review of her latest, Unveiling Venus, here!

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Unveiling Venus by Sophia Bennett // contemporary queen ventures back to historical fiction

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing some historical fiction! (Warning: this review will contain one (1) spoiler for the previous book in the series, Following Ophelia).

34483827Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher: Stripes
Publication date: 8th February 2018
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Mary Adams, once a scullery maid, has swapped daily drudgery for the glamourous existence of her much-admired alter ego, Persephone Lavelle. From lavish Venetian balls to luxurious Mayfair townhouses, she’s been let into the most fashionable – and enviable – lives of the age.

But somehow she can’t seem to forget those she’s left behind below stairs. In mysterious Venice and pristine Mayfair, she has the chance to rise to the very top – but will she risk her friendships to take it? And if she rose, could she fall?

Following Ophelia, Sophia Bennett’s first foray into historical fiction – after making her name with warm, chatty contemporary teen fiction like Threads and Love Song – was a pleasant surprise in my reading last year. Charming, confident and draped in the allure of the Pre-Raphaelites, I was pleased the book was slated for a sequel.

Flame-haired maid turned artist’s model Mary has found her way into high society – but her hold there is precarious. Her dalliance in the bohemian art world and reliance on admirer Rupert to keep herself off the streets has generated scandal in fashionable social circles, though her closest friend Kitty seems blessedly oblivious. Accepting gregarious, elegant Kitty’s invitation to join her at the family palazzo in Venice, she embraces her disguise as Persephone and indeed is referred to as such for the rest of the book.

Bennett’s accessible style and vivid descriptions return here, and Venice in particular shines. She evokes a hugely realistic sense of wide-eyed awe in the face of the city’s soaring patchwork of old buildings and extraordinary pieces of art, as well as the world-famous canals. Persephone’s brief time there is so believably rendered as that of an awed outsider that readers may perhaps feel that it acts more as set dressing than an exploration of its storytelling potential, but it’s the most memorable part of Unveiling Venus.

Bennett always manages to pack an amount of excitement and plot into her books. Much of the conflict emerges when it’s revealed that Kitty is about to become engaged to charismatic young viscount Arthur Malmesbury. His indulgent lifestyle and wandering eye prove troublesome. There are also appearances from friends Persephone met as a scullery maid, and I actually found myself enjoying some of those subplots most. There are servants Harriet and Annie, and the latter’s brother, Eddie, an Irish stableboy and boxer caught in the web of a Whitechapel gang’s match fixing. Previous love interest Felix is rather swiftly done away with through a handful of scenes in this sequel, so there’s a really likeable touch of romance for Persephone and Eddie, too.

While Persephone is briefly seen sitting for people like John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and new figure James Whistler, these moments are flourishes rather than rich canvases; the Pre-Raphaelite world which was so crucial to Following Ophelia is  essentially only given lip-service here. The painting of the title, Titian’s fabulously scandalous portrait of a nude and reclining woman, known as the Venus of Urbino (probably painted for a Medici after he was reluctantly made a cardinal and continued to do things like spend the night in Venice with a famous courtesan) is never viewed on the page, only talked about. As a result, there’s a lack of depth and pay-off to the book’s artistic references.

Stripped of the mercurial underground of eighteenth century artistry, much of Unveiling Venus reads more as a conventional grand house or society story – sort of like a Regency novel that’s been left a bit behind on the times with some YA thrown in. Persephone’s somewhat spontaneous talent for sewing (so amazing it’s literally described as her ‘magic hands’ at one point) also grates, as does the disparate feel of plot events and dissatisfying pacing. Still, I’m curious to see what happens if there’s another book in the series, where it looks like Persephone will be heading to another famous city.

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Well-researched, incredibly vivid and ultimately enjoyable, Sophia Bennett’s Unveiling Venus is a book of two worlds: wealthy high society and grimy Victorian London. It needed better plotting and more artistic richness, but its character-focused conflict is effective and its Venetian scenes shine.

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I’m Back + Top Ten Books of 2017

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

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

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

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

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

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

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Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

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

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

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

Girls Can’t Hit by T.S. Easton

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

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Now I Rise by Kiersten White

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

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

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

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord

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

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Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

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

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

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

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BONUS ROUND: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman*

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

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

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Children’s Lit Round-Up: Historical Fiction Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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32820770Unconventional by Maggie Harcourt

Lexi Angelo has grown up helping her dad with his events business. She usually stays behind the scenes – until the messy-haired, almost arrogant Aidan Green arrives unannounced at the first event of the year, throwing her life into dissaray.  In a flurry of late-night conversations, mixed messages and butterflies, Lexi discovers that some things can’t be planned. Things like falling in love…

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

20821111The Young Elites by Marie Lu

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

23009402Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

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

27074515The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

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

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

15832932What I Thought Was True by Huntley Fitzpatrick

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

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

17675462The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

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

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

10194157Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Books To Read In Autumn

We’re well and truly on the way to autumn, so today on the blog, I thought I’d look at some of my favourite books to recommend in autumn! Rather than going for a theme like 2017 autumn/winter books or curriculum-assigned reading, I’ve chosen books that feel autumnal to me, whether through style or content (eerie fantasy, say, rather than beachside contemporary) or simply being a sensory reader (it’s definitely a thing!).

27281393The Sleeping Prince by Melinda Salisbury

So maybe it’s a little unorthodox to start a recommendation list with the second book in a trilogy, but hear me out. The Sin Eater trilogy is solid UKYA, but for me the eerie, folk-tale touches to The Sleeping Prince marked the point where Salisbury really began to flex what she could do in terms of voice, villains and style. The titular Sleeping Prince is a chilling, semi-undead creation, a kind of Pied-Piper-meets-Sleeping-Beauty mash-up, and probably one of the best (or should that be worst?) villains I’ve read of late (there’s lots more about the books in my reviews here). There’s also a strain of the book that includes what seems suspiciously like lycanthropy. Moreover, this  is a book which just feels autumnal to me: like cold stone, crunched leaves, ginger biscuits (don’t ask), air with just a little drizzle in it, discovering the art of alchemy isn’t lost after all, etc.

23592175The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

This one isn’t so much for the book’s weather as its spooky, surprisingly dark feel. I’d heard a lot of praise for The Lie Tree before I read it, but somehow didn’t expect it to be such a distinct historical thriller – it’s smart, thematic and has splashes of the otherworldly (not least in the much-lauded quality of the writing), but it’s most certainly a historical mystery. Set in Victorian England, it follows fourteen-year-old Faith Sanderly in a complex mix of problem-solving, gothic twists and frustration at gender roles (there’s even a rebuke of the ‘not like other girls’ trope: “Faith had always told herself that she was not like other ladies. But neither, it seemed, were other ladies”). Of course, everyone else has already hyped it enough before me!, but it’s a top recommendations out there for that border between upper children’s and young adult fiction.

35688988Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

This collection of (bear with me) twelve feminist fairytale retelling short stories was released just a few weeks ago from Little Island Books and is ideal autumnal reading. Witchy, subversive and lyrical, it’s fairly dark but is another top-notch addition to the fabulous Deirdre Sullivan’s back catalogue, and a particularly unique addition to this year’s Irish YA. If you liked Amanda Lovelace’s The Princess Saves Herself In This One or are intrigued by Louise O’Neill’s upcoming Little Mermaid retelling The Surfaces Breaks, this should tide you over (additionally, the cover looks fabulous surrounded by ivy and potion ingredients flowers). You can read more about Sullivan’s books, and others like it, here. 

16068905Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

All my recommendation so far have been a bit on the dark or at least slightly fantastical side, so I’ve gone for something a little lighter and more down-to-earth here. Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl is a gorgeous, unhurried, almost cosy contemporary, which begins during protagonist Cath’s first semester (think falling leaves, darkening weather, cute sweaters) at college. It’s warm as a well-worn scarf and sharp as a pair of six-inch stilettos, and though it’s been out for a couple of years, it’s still one of the best portrayals of fandom I’ve seen in YA. If you haven’t made time for Cath, Reagan and Levi (oh, Levi) in your contemporary reading, this is one you need to add to your list.

29080992Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

The Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries are one of those series you know is relatively recent but which seems like it’s been around for ages. It has that classic but accessible touch which makes it appealing to kids and brings something older readers or adults can appreciate, too. The quintessential English boarding school setting – where pupils call teachers ‘mistresses’ and ‘masters’, learn Latin and get up to hijinks – fits autumn, but added adventures, mysteries and a historical time period make it stand out. The storytelling style plays on the Sherlock Holmes and John Watson dichotomy, with narrator Hazel relaying events in her notebook while partner-in-crime (solving) runs headfirst into trouble. Cacklingly funny as well as cleverly written (who doesn’t want an excuse to use words like ‘dashing’ and ‘canoodling’ more often?!) the first book in the series, which opens in October 1934, is worth opening up if you haven’t tried it yet.

23346358The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle

If there’s any recent YA book that’s ideal for reading and re-reading every autumn, it’s Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s The Accident Season. Come October, seventeen-year-old Cara and her family – including her mother, older sister and ex-stepbrother – board up the windows and hide the sharp implements in preparation for the Accident Season, a month in which mysterious and dangerous things seem to constantly befall them. A spellbinding magical realism standalone, it’s full of tarot cards, masquerade balls, fortune-telling, dreams, hallucinations and hazy, stylish prose. If you’re looking for an atmospheric autumnal read, this is absolutely the book to go for. Fowley-Doyle’s other book, Spellbook of the Lost and Found, is set during summer, but it does have a bonfire, and is totally worth picking up too – it’s definitely one of my go-to book-pushing reads of the year!

What will you be reading this autumn? Have you read any of the books on this list? Chat below or on Twitter!

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