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

34992381Author(s): Katherine Rundell
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 10th August 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): adventure, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Quotes from this copy may be subject to final changes.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A review with lots of short stories in it // A Change Is Gonna Come anthology (various authors)

34946853Author(s): Mary Bello, Aisha Bushby, Tanya Byrne, Inua Ellams, Catherine Johnson, Patrice Lawrence, Ayisha Malik, Irfan Master, Musa Okwonga, Yasmin Rahman, Phoebe Roy, Nikesh Shukla, Lucy Banaji (illustrator)
Publisher: Stripes
Publication date: 10th August 2017
Category: YA, short fiction
Genre(s): contemporary, historical fiction, magical realism, dystopian, sci-fi
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

A steady flow of YA and kidlit short story anthologies have hit the shelves in recent years: Stephanie Perkins’ My True Love Gave To Me, the Malorie Blackman-curated Love Hurts, Abi Elphinstone’s terrific array of stories for younger readers Winter Magic, Deirdre Sullivan’s upcoming dark feminist fairytales project Tangleweed and Brine. This latest addition, the strikingly covered A Change Is Gonna Come, has been creating buzz ever since it was announced. It’s a headline release in inclusive, diverse UKYA in 2017, aiming to highlight a host of stories from UK-based BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers. It merges the approach of initiatives like the Jhalak Prize (one children’s literature contender was Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s splendid début The Girl of Ink and Stars), crowd-funded adult non-fiction title The Good Immigrant, and BAME-centric issues of publications like Shift Zine. It benefits from the backing of those with enough publishing power to do something about diversity rather than just staging another panel or pondering on it, and Stripes definitely deserve a shout-out for getting there first in terms of a move like this for YA.

The ostensible theme of the project is ‘change’, but it tackles far more: racism, culture shock, friendships, family, time travel, break-ups, Victorian circuses, heritage, loss, inexplicable feathers. Like most short story collections it’s quite a quick read, and like most short story anthologies (you can read more of my short fiction reviews here), it’s a little hit-and-miss. It’s rare that all contributions to a multifarious offering will suit every reader. A partial list of issues mentioned in the anthology, some with the potential to be very affecting for teens, is noted in the first pages and listed at the back.

The stories are framed by poetry – Musa Okwonga’s resonant ‘The Elders on the Wall’ (‘while I rise toward these elders, who yell / That they made it up here without help’) and ‘Of Lizard Skin and Dust Storms’ by Inua Ellams – which is a neat, pleasing device. Catherine Johnson’s circus-set ‘Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!’ sits squarely in her usual repertoire of historical fiction inspired by real events. Fellow YA Book Prize alumnus (and indeed this year’s winner – read reviews of the entire shortlist here) Patrice Lawrence takes on a Hunger Games or Maze Runner style prison dystopia in ‘The Clean Sweep’, which borders on too vague but has an interesting paratext-style ending twist.

Tanya Byrne’s experienced and effective pen shows in ‘Hackney Moon’, which makes full use of the short story form. There are some really fantastic lines (‘that bright afternoon in July when the summer rolled out at their feet like a red carpet’, ‘lipstick the colour of a fresh cut’, ’so that’s how it ended – not with a bang but with a squiggle of graffiti’). She packs a lot into the story of Esther and Alesha, or as it occasionally is the story of Esther and Sam, with its LGBTQ+ characters, yellow jumpers, bonding over zines and focus on tangled relationships. If you like Juno Dawson’s All of the Above or the messy characters of Moira Fowley-Doyle’s books, this may be up your alley.

The same story is never told twice in A Change Is Gonna Come, even when similar themes are at play. Racism is tackled and questioned head-on in ‘Fortune Favours the Bold’ by Yasmin Rahman and ‘We Who?’ by Nikesh Shukla; both seek to make messages ring true for readers, though the latter has an irresolute ending, perhaps due to the constraints of the form. If you’ve read Pooja Puri’s The Jungle (the first release from the new Scottish YA imprint at Black & White, Ink Road Books), then Ayisha Malik’s well-researched ‘A Refuge’ may appeal, though I didn’t like most of its adult characters.

‘The Unwritten Future of Moses Mohammad Shabazz Banneker King’ by Irfan Master is an out-there sci-fi which favours the serious over the wacky but still manages to cram time-travel into a post-box with the sort of concept that could only work in a short story. The titular Moses (‘named after a prophet, a boxer, an activist, a scientist and a pastor, not being able to see wasn’t going to stop Moses changing the world’) is tasked with altering reality through letters from a boy in the future called Malik. Master approaches it with ‘read now, ask questions later’ bombast. The reveal of who Malik is, and where the two will go next, gives the story an extra bit of punch.

‘Marionette Girl’ by Aisha Bushby shows a tonally as well as visibly contained approach to unfurling the life of Amani, a protagonist with OCD. Trapped by rituals such as scrubbing her hands, adhering to strict schedules and performing tasks a set number of times, there’s visceral illumination of the way Amani’s OCD affects her, but little depth expended on cause or secondary characters. The ending is abrupt, and there’s some f tell over show, also a feature of Mary Bello’s ‘Dear Asha’. Both stories have solid YA premises, however, and Bello’s conjuring of kinship and belonging in Nigeria – from markets and beaches to communities and corruption – shows flashes of immense vibrancy. There’s the odd duff line, but it’s got plenty going on for a piece of short fiction and it touches on themes like class and wealth disparity.

‘Iridescent Adolescent’ by Phoebe Roy (not, as it turns out, the same as ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ by the Arctic Monkeys, which completely got stuck in my head while writing this review) is undoubtedly the stand-out of the anthology. Its magical realism seems almost shaped or carved, as the mysterious, feathery tale of biracial, Jewish Nathalie unfolds. Some of its imagery and turns of phrase are notable (‘the sea lived in the house’s corners’) but it’s the impact of the story as a whole which really brightens the anthology. Reminiscent of The Girl at Midnight or The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, it showcases a glimmer of what one can do with the dreamlike in short fiction.

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For fans of non-fiction’s The Good Immigrant or Stripes’ previous anthology I’ll Be Home for Christmas, this collection does exactly what it sets out to, providing a diverse, fresh gathering of BAME authors and short stories for UKYA. I would’ve liked more humour and all its stories will be subjective, but offerings from Phoebe Roy and Tanya Byrne particularly stood out.

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Beyond The Wall by Tanya Landman // historical fiction effort proves a let down

34668577Author(s): Tanya Landman
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 6th April 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Britannia. A conquered land.

Running. Weeping. Blood on her lips.
Blood in her mouth.
Blood that is not her own.

After maiming her master, Cassia has no choice but to run. With dogs on her trail and a bounty on her head, escape from the vast Roman Empire seems impossible. But beyond the river, far to the north, stands Hadrian’s Wall – the furthest limit of the empire. And beyond it? Danger. Uncertainty. Freedom.

I snapped this book up because of its premise. Historical fiction set in the Roman Empire, but not from the perspective of a Roman? A female lead and a solid cover to boot? It’s eye-catching stuff (or at least it is if like me you’re on the lookout for more historical fiction in your review pile). The book’s protagonist Cassia once didn’t even know there was a place where the Roman Empire ended, but finds hope in tantalising rumours of a wild land the Romans have failed to tame beyond what became known as Hadrian’s Wall. I particularly liked the potential for deconstructing the Roman occupation through the eyes of a character who doesn’t fit into their highly stratified society. And the greedy, cruel, violent, hubristic Romans of fourth century Britannia certainly are the villains of the piece. Cassia only dares accept aid from one or two of them, and the major Roman character, Marcus, has secrets of his own.

This is the first Tanya Landman book I’ve read – the first I’ve even heard of, though I was vaguely aware of the name, probably because of the Carnegie Medal – and there were some flashes of promising prose (‘the statue of Neptune was face down like a drowned man’), particularly in the earliest chapters. The plot focuses on Cassia’s various escapes from slavery, taking her from stately villa to chaotic Londinium, from roadside taverns to the wintry north. As well as Marcus, she’s joined by fellow escaped slaves Rufus, Silvio and Flavia, and there were some emphasised moments such as the returning of the elderly Flavia to her village in Germania. However, just when the story would have been at its most interesting – Cassia’s arrival and acceptance into a complex, cultured ‘barbarian’ tribe (probably Picts) in what was known to the Romans as Caledonia – the book abruptly cuts away .Marcus’ narration reverts to Roman society and while it provides some plot twists, it means that the increasingly pent-up curiosity built by the entire first half of the book goes unfulfilled. A near-cliffhanger in what is slated as a standalone also makes for a displeasing, rushed ending.

The book stops short of the really demanding, thoughtful exploration its themes could’ve yielded, too. It hurries along at a commercial pace, but fails to stretch itself in the thematic department, as strong YA historical fiction should. Perhaps this would’ve been fine in a title for younger readers (and even then, I say this with a pinch of salt – look at the scope and skill of books like Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series or Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything) but while the cover gives it an apparent middle grade vibe, make no mistake: this book isn’t for kids. Violence, particularly sexual violence, incest and misogyny, is not only pervasive in Landman’s text but is also essentially used as a carousel of plot tropes. Landman spins from one to the other before rounding back to the start all over again. It’s tedious, unoriginal and downright tasteless in a book which makes absolutely no attempt to pursue alternative sources of ‘tension’ or ‘stakes’. The result is a book that seems at once both ‘convenient’ – as characters pass through whole swathes of the Roman Empire unimpeded or have minor plot problems solved with almost oleaginous ease – and horrific. I won’t be recommending this one.

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A solid premise is let down by a narrow, unimaginative selection of plot events and an unsatisfying shift in character which fails to capitalise on readers’ curiosity about the very thing described by the title: that is, the wilderness Beyond the Wall.

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Now I Rise by Kiersten White // a brutal, bloodthirsty sequel

Today on the blog, I review another of my most anticipated reads of the year! You can check out my review of the opener to this trilogy (And I Darken) here, or see a full list of my anticipated YA reads of 2017 here. Warning: this review may contain mild spoilers for both books!

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Author(s): Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi/PRH
Publication date: 6th July 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (The Conquerors’ Saga #2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are taken from this copy and may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Lada has only ever wanted one thing: the Wallachian throne. But foes stand in her way at every turn. She has no allies. No influence. Even her small band of soldiers is dwindling. 

After failing to reclaim Wallachia, Lada is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her path. She storms the countryside with her men, including her childhood friend Bogdan, looking for a way in, but brute force isn’t getting her what she wants. She needs another tactic. But her silver-tongued brother, Radu, remains in the Ottoman Empire and thinking of Mehmed – now the sultan – brings little comfort to her stony heart.

Unbeknownst to Lada, Mehmed has sent Radu to Constantinople. He wants control of the city, and for that he needs a spy. Radu envies his sister’s fierce self-possession, but for the first time in his life, his tangled loyalties lead him to reject her requests of him. He must succeed in Constantinople if he is to ever to make the young ruler look upon him with the same longing Radu does. 

The Dracul siblings must decide: how much they are prepared to sacrifice for power? How much are they willing to risk for love? And as nations quake and fall around them, will either goal be what they imagined? 

A ruthless, bloodthirsty, fifteenth-century what-might-have-been saga about a genderbent Vlad the Impaler may be an unlikely choice of subject for young adult fiction, but it’s certainly an eye-catching one. After the success of trilogy opener And I Darken – it went straight to number four on the NYT bestseller list – Kiersten White is back for more of Lada Dracul’s vicious clambering toward the throne. Sweeping and dark, it’s a sequel that commands the reader’s attention.

One does not simply walk into power in Wallachia, and the ferocious Lada has come up against foes which have her bouncing around medieval Eastern Europe like a particularly murderous ping-pong ball. She finds an unexpected ally in the formidable John Hunyadi. The relationship between Lada and Hunyadi – the closest Lada may ever come to a ‘positive’ father figure, and even then only because he’s a celebrated warrior whom she grudgingly helped out of a skirmish – is a fantastic addition to the book. Lada’s still not quite as heartless as she thinks is, and watching her wrestle with newly-complicated decisions was riveting.

This series is, however, told in dual perspective. Radu fits into noblemen’s courts with a patience and diplomacy Lada could never achieve, and their split to opposite fringes of the Ottoman empire makes for a narrative in which he can really test his wings. Unfortunately, this doesn’t preclude him from making poor choices (the Dracul siblings, really, specialise in those). His blind belief that Mehmed will suddenly return his feelings if only he does the sultan’s every bidding can get a little repetitive and tiresome, but the story as a whole is rich and engaging. It’s rare that both halves of an interwoven narrative are equally compelling. I was so absorbed by each section I kept forgetting there was a different storyline coming up, and after I got over the momentary surprise at a switch, it’d happen all over again.

Resolute, clear-headed Nazira was given welcome prominence, while newcomer Daciana quickly makes her presence known. Her relationship with a rather bemused Stefan is an effective and balancing subplot. Long-suffering soldiers Nicolae and Bogdan (poor Bogdan, Lada is treating him much the same way as Mehmed treats Radu) also return. Mehmed himself takes up less of the narrative but still manages to make himself less likeable in that time, while the holdovers of a ‘romance’ between Mehmed and Lada seem rather redundant when it’s clear neither of them are willing to love anyone the way they love power. Or themselves.

A busy, action-packed plot is driven by Lada’s ambition in the lawless wilds of Wallachia and Radu’s activities as a double agent in Constantinople. It was this latter backdrop – much of the book takes place during the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 – that made the book stand out for me. It’s an immersive, brilliantly-conjured plunge into a superstitious, crumbling city. I’d like to see more YA set there. White’s writing style is closer to functional than illustrative, with some unnecessary intrusions from modern terms (e.g. ‘block’ for a street) but it does the trick. There are even flashes of flair (‘The moon did not take sides. But the blood-washed expanse of the Byzantine full moon seemed to promise otherwise’, ‘the teeth of the castle and the people it devoured’) and even, very occasionally, humour (‘the sultan is the son of a donkey!’) (donkeys get a very bad rap in this book, tbh). That said, it is at times too brutal, unnecessarily grim, and it definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It reads like the middle of a trilogy, with plenty yet to be resolved. I would’ve liked even more detail and history – though it is even clearer here than in And I Darken that this is reimagined historical fiction, and it remains to be seen if White will throw in some unpredictable twists for the finale.

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Now I Rise is compelling, effective and demanding alternate history with a vicious female lead, increasingly developed characterisation and a rich choice of setting. Sweeping and unputdownable.

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