Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain // début leaps – and sticks the landing

Today on the blog, we’re taking to the trapeze with this début novel…

ftipsAuthor(s): Kelly McCaughrain
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 1st March 2018
Genre: contemporary
upper MG, teen fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: own
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Teenage twins Finch and Birdie Franconi are stars of the flying trapeze. Circus tricks are practically in their blood.

But when Birdie suffers a terrifying accident, Finch must team up with the geeky new kid, Hector, to create an all-boys double act and save the family circus school. Teetering on the high-wire that is school social hierarchy while juggling the demands of family, first love and facing up to who they are is a lot for two confused clowns to handle. Will their friendship, and the circus, survive?

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds was another of those pleasant surprises in my spring reading this year. It’s again from that spot between fiction for older children and for early teens (11-14s), making it particularly suited to those looking to take more steps into the YA section. There was a spate of circus books in YA in 2017, but they all seemed to have a supernatural – Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Pack by Kate Ormand – or dark thriller edge – Show Stopper by Hayley Barker, even Flight of a Starling by Lisa Heathfield, which is also about a trapeze double act and a new acquaintance who alters two siblings’ lives – but with Flying Tips for Flightless Birds, Kelly McCaughrain manages to draw together both storytellers’ evident fascination with the circus and a much-needed lightness of touch.

When trapeze artists Finchley and Bridget Sullivan are in the air, they become Finch and Birdie Franconi, the latest in a long line of circus performers, including high wire walkers, barrel riders, jugglers (and one very health and safety conscious dad). While their ancestors flung themselves over Niagara Falls and travelled the world, their parents have opted to run a circus school just outside Belfast – though it still means having a mother who can tightrope walk, a little brother who wants to be a fire eater and a foul-mouthed grandmother, Lou, who used to walk across the ridges of roofs to freak out the neighbours.

Birdie and Finch have inherited a taste for daring. They dress flamboyantly and find themselves subconsciously juggling nearby objects during everyday conversation. But with Birdie starting to wonder if there could be life outside the circus and Finch struggling in her absence, they are believable. New boy Hector is enthusiastic but clumsy; at first the student of a reluctant Finch, his friendship becomes invaluable, and I really liked the exploration of their changing relationship. Elsewhere in the cast, there’s Freddie, known as Py (“Fire dancer, fire juggler – you name it, I’ll put lighter fluid on it”) and Janie, a foster kid and aerialist who’s so good at dangling from reams of silk she finds it calming.

McCaughrain’s prose is straightforward and fairly unshowy, though she conjures evocative details – the thrill of heights, the calluses on circus performers’ hands, even sitting in the safety net beneath the trapeze to get your breath back – and handles setting with subtlety, focusing on the circus warehouse as an adopted home for its eclectic residents. Finch’s narration cleverly interspersed with distinctive blog posts from Birdie, and there are moments of incisiveness (“Be that as it may” is “adult for ‘whatever'”; there’s “something lonely about an empty spotlight, like a big white hole in the world”). One of her major themes is what it means to stand out, but she also touches on things like found family and school struggles. She balances not-unrealistic elements of homophobia with quite a sweet coming-out story, too.

On the downside, there’s little urgency or pace to an already fairly standard plot, though it revolves around what you’d expect to be quite an urgent matter, that is, trying to save the circus school from closing. Some of the conflict gets resolved with very little action from the protagonists. I would’ve liked there to have been more actual trapeze scenes in the first half – we often hear more about it than see it take place – and there’s almost no character depth or development to Birdie and Finch’s other siblings, leaving them effectively faceless for the length of the book.

However, the most surprising feature of Flying Tips for Flightless Birds for me was its sense of humour. That was what kept me reading, whether it was in lively asides (“We’ve put a lot of effort into taming Jay, but we think it’s unfair to do it to more intelligent creatures”), mining humour from strife (“the only difference between a playground punch-up in Year Eight and one in Year Eleven is that everyone’s a bit taller and has better hair”), or quips in dialogue (Finch’s parents on marriage: “Ah, crap, I knew there was something we forgot to do.” “Do you think we should return all those gifts?”). It livened up the prose and turned this solid début into a really enjoyable one.


Flying Tips for Flightless Birds is unexpectedly funny, often enjoyable and, at its best, oddly moving. This is a début which juggles the sweet and the sombre, and is ideal for 11-14 readers. I’m intrigued to see what McCaughrain writes next. 



20 Things I Learned at DeptCon3

As some of you may know, I attended DeptCon3 (Ireland’s largest YA book convention) again this year! As well as having lots of bookish chats and bumping into various folk from the book world, (there seriously wasn’t enough time for even half of the cool conversations to be had), wearing delightfully vampy nails and only nearly tripping up the stairs twice, I took lots of detailed notes – so many I can barely decipher them, and have decided to do a round-up made of highlights and fun moments instead!


image courtesy @Dept51

Maggie Harcourt’s top priority when it comes to writing is being near the biscuit tin. Her assertion that bourbons are the best writing biscuit, however, was more controversial…

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it is THE HEALING POWER OF NAPS. As Sarah Maria Griffin put it, “Is napping not just horizontal walking?”

Before she settled on being an author, Krystal Sutherland wanted to be an actress: “I had this grand plan that Peter Jackson was going to get a flat tyre outside my house and discover me…”

There were plenty of podcast recommendations, which is interesting because just last week I devoted a whole post to re-imagining YA books as podcasts… 


image courtesy @Dept51

Katherine Webber can apparently quote the entirety of Clueless, and can definitely quote the first three minutes. We probably would have been treated to a live reading if there weren’t time constraints on a top-notch panel alongside Lauren James, Holly Bourne, Cat Doyle and Anna James.

We can never look at garden gnomes the same way again, thanks to Cat Doyle and her deviant ex… (Other topics of conversation on that panel included writing female characters and romance in YA.)

The panellists were ruthless when it came to David Stevens’ moderation, as Sheena Wilkinson, Meg Grehan, Sara Barnard and Estelle Maskame chatted responses to characters, fandom, fan-fiction (“It was one time!”), genre, and how “bad choices make good stories.”

If Meg Grehan’s book The Space Between was a kitchen utensil, it would be a ladle…? 


image courtesy @Dept51

“MAKE GOOD CHOICES, DECLAN!” became one of my favourite slogans of the weekend thanks to Deirdre Sullivan, who is a rare combination of hilarious panel guest and enthusiastic chair (the moderating position, not the piece of furniture) and also she knits very cute hats.

It was Pooja Puri’s first-ever panel, and she got a round of applause for finishing her dissertation!

Whether or not one writes to music was a popular topic and came up on multiple panels; it was addressed by authors including Lydia Ruffles, who listens to songs and lights candles to get in the writing zone, and YA Book Prize winner Patrice Lawrence.

Sally Nicholls “is so here for gay suffragettes!” but had to do quite a lot of research as she is so here for it, in fact, that she wrote an entire book about it.

The eternal struggle of the DeptCon audience: sit near the front for best view (Facial expressions! Secrets boxes!) or near the back to get out first for the post-panel signing (Chat! Shorter queues!)…?


image courtesy @Dept51

SARAAAAHHHHHH. Hang on, wait, that’s not an answer. Okay, so Sarah, who is English but recently defected to Scotland along with her new fringe, made her first trip to DeptCon this year AND IT WAS GREAT. She made for a fab convention co-conspirator. There may have been singalongs. She and I are fairly seasoned book event people, so instead of participating in the ARC drop I played with a dog and she spent her time on a chocolate muffin #priorities Also I learned actual facts, such as that Gàidhlig (Scottish or Scots Gaelic), is pronounced ‘Gallic’, like the French term, as opposed to the Irish Gaelic or Gaeilge. 

Hayley Barker’s time as a teacher influenced her writing of YA. In a panel that was often focused on writing as a process and a craft, it was generally agreed that YA can act as a safe space for teenagers to explore serious issues.

Anna Day’s book The Fandom isn’t out until January, but she still got to do at least one signing – because I had a coveted review copy with me!


image courtesy @Dept51

The panel unofficially known as ‘Prosecco and Secrets’, Melinda Salisbury, Cat Doyle, Alice Broadway, Dave Rudden and Moira Fowley-Doyle, was raucous and totally salacious. If this quintet held a dinner party, just some of their guests would include Lyra from His Dark Materials, Death from Discworld, and Sirius Black because Mel wants to sleep with him (“I bought a pair of rams’ horns… for personal reasons… ask Sirius Black if you want to know more!”)

As every Irish person knows, it was reiterated that you should never piss off the fairies. This involved sharing many fairy anecdotes, such as clapping twice after sneezing so a fairy won’t die and mistaking the light of illegal poitín stills on bogs for otherworldly creatures. As Moira Fowley-Doyle put it: “Growing up in Ireland, you’re super sceptical and willing to believe at the same time…” Melinda Salisbury countered with “In England you wouldn’t speak to anyone on the bus, let alone to the fairies” but noted that when she went to the Isle of Man, the announcements on her bus greeted a fairy bridge…

Things got a bit existential when Fowley-Doyle wondered if, rather than fantasy folks being bad at reality, “Maybe reality’s just not very good at us?”

The otherwise brilliant Holly Bourne can’t spell Dobby. She may never live this down. (The Harry Potter Spelling Bee, won by Emily Barr, was a really entertaining addition to the schedule, and it worked really well to break up the panels – more like this, please!)


image couresty @Dept51

Bonus: there was a giant, portable My Little Pony there for the whole weekend, and nobody questioned it…


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!


Street Song by Sheena Wilkinson // rags-to-riches-to-rags-again

34111364Author(s): Sheena Wilkinson 
 Black & White Publishing
Publication date: 20th April 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

After winning a glitzy TV talent show and becoming a teen pop sensation – under the particularly embarrassing stage name ‘RyLee’ – eighteen-year-old Ryan’s life has spiralled into addiction, media scrutiny, rehab and a floundering career. 

His stepdad, self-appointed architect of the RyLee brand, wants him in school, and under his thumb. But when their arguments reach boiling point, Ryan finds himself fleeing his old life, his failed career, and his dysfunctional family. When he meets witty guitar-player Toni, the opportunity to start fresh seems too good to pass up. Before long, he’s arrived in a new city, joined Toni’s band, and reinvented himself. But has he really outrun his past? And what kind of future can there be for a washed-up has-been with secrets to keep?

One of a string of 2017 titles from Scotland’s newest YA imprint – including a recent contemporary from Did I Mention I Love You author Estelle Maskame and hot-topic début The Jungle by Pooja Puri – Street Song is the latest standalone from Northern Irish writer Sheena Wilkinson. One of Ink Road Books’ more experienced early signings, I interviewed Sheena on the blog last year as part of UKYACX (and even got a glimpse into the book that would become Street Song). The resulting book isn’t a million miles from what I expected then, as Wilkinson, true to form, takes a tough but vigorous look at contemporary Belfast through the eyes of a teenager.

The premise of the book is remarkably reminiscent of Keren David’s latest UKYA effort, Cuckoo (you can read my review here): teen boy deals with fame, family breakdown, hostile relationships, and a career on a downward spiral as he is finds himself homeless and struggling to make a living, meeting an unlikely handful of both helpful and shady characters along the way. A few key features – acting is replaced with music, an experimental style is replaced with more predictable form – mean that they read just differently enough, though if you’re looking for something completely original, you won’t find it here.

In trying to outrun his fortune-hungry family, one-time teen star Ryan winds up running into cool, plucky musician Toni. She doesn’t recognise him from his cringe-worthy days on reality television, but she does recognise his musical ability. He needs a place to stay, she needs a decent guitarist for her band, and so the unlikely pair embark on a rocky road lined with musical jams, setbacks, mistakes, and the possibility of romance. He may be living in a hostel and be busking for his bread, but for the first time in his life Ryan is playing the music he’s always wanted to play.

Throw in no-nonsense Polish bass player Marysia, some work-in-progress song lyrics, Billy the cat, and a handful of solid but by no means iconic characters – I particularly like Toni’s pragmatic but supportive mother – and Wilkinson creates a novel which is at its best when caught up in the joys of music and the unrivalled potential of a band’s early days. While I found the idea that Ryan would agree to enter a battle of bands – Backlash – a bit surprising given his belligerent history with music competitions, it’s a standard plot device for a rags-to-riches (or in this case rags-to-riches-to-rags-again) tale.

Page-turning and surprisingly absorbing, Street Song is a relatively quick read which balances the unpredictability of busking on the streets, with its good takings, bad takings, inclement weather and cityscape feel with interesting character dynamics, driven plot and a vibrant musical thread. Ryan’s struggles with manufactured identity, addiction, and the fallout from fifteen minutes of fame take up much of the book, but I was most intrigued by Toni and Marysia. I really liked their friendship and would’ve liked to have seen even more of it. I’d almost go as far as to say I’d read a sequel to this book, if only to see where the choppy waters of music and relationships take the headline trio.

Street Song is one of those strange books that seems both gritty and occasionally glossed over, as the backdrop of a protagonist living hand-to-mouth amid some dodgy characters is met with an oddly-paced narrative in which the worst happens to others before being essentially brushed aside, and the fact that the audience is aware that Ryan is keeping a secret a luxurious existence he left behind, the likes of which working-class Toni and Marysia hardly dare dream of. I’d definitely recommend a trigger warning for serious content which appears to heighten tension and then seems almost forgotten about. RyLee’s fans, primarily women and girls, are referred to as ‘RyLeens’ and are usually dismissed or treated with dismay, so if you’re looking for more positive portrayals of teenagers and fandom, you’re better off with Sophia Bennett’s Love Song or Maggie Harcourt’s Unconventional – and I’m still waiting for a classic piece of girlband-focused fiction from contemporary YA.


An interesting, if gritty, take on fame and misfortune from one of Northern Ireland’s most notable YA writers. For fans of Keren David’s Cuckoo, Katie Everson’s Drop and Leila Sales’ This Song Will Save Your Life. 


YA I’d Like To See: Irish YA Edition (with bonus gifs!)

Today on the blog, I talk the kind of books I’d like to see from Irish YA! If you’re looking for recommendations from the existing selection, I have just the post from earlier this year. You may also have seen my ‘YA I’d  Like To See: Historical Fiction’ post last autumn, but if not, you can check it out here.

If Ireland has a YA ‘scene’ (that is, consistent new releases and a recognisable sense of community among readers) it’s relatively new – some estimates might even frame it as a twenty-first century phenomenon, though teen fiction for Irish teenagers has been around longer. Either way Irish YA is still in its early years: there are milestones it hasn’t reached, genres it hasn’t mastered, breakthroughs it hasn’t awoken to yet. This can be frustrating when you’re faced with a shelf full of books you’ve already thumbed through (seriously, I pity anyone who’s reading schedule depends on Irish YA alone, ’cause it would be SPARSE), but it does leave room for potential. So what would I like to see from Irish YA? Well…

First up: badass teen girl characters. Badass female characters are a high priority in all of my books-I-want-to-see posts. YA is a medium where teen girl characters, like real teen girls, can be as complex, active, flawed, fully-rounded people. As the same can’t be said for other types of media, the least YA can do is strive to provide a space where the interests of enthusiastic, smart, varied teen girls are valued and celebrated.


More inclusive contemporaries. Contemporary is one of Irish YA’s go-to genres, but it would be cool  to see it include more diversity of perspective and experience! This could be incidental – where a character happens to be black, for example, because black people exist too, to paraphrase Amandla Stenberg – or more central to the plot – as with Peadar O’Guilín’s The Call, which is a horror novel but whose protagonist Nessa is both kickass and a disabled survivor of polio. Books like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon and When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon have rocketed through the blogosphere (and the NYT bestseller list). Books by UKYA BAME authors (try saying that ten times fast) have been all over awards like the YA Book Prize, the Costa and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Irish publishers might be missing a trick here.

Slick, cinematic genre additions. I’m talking out-there, eye-catching concepts. Catherine Doyle’s dark, action packed Mafia trilogy, full of feuds, fisticuffs and forbidden love is a memorable example, and it even busts some of the stereotypes it embraces. Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl remains a brilliant, wise-cracking sci-fi fantasy. Bombastic, confident genre pieces are a mainstay of MG – why not YA, too?


Contemporary travel. YA where teens travel, explore, live abroad or look for a summer fling has had enduring appeal, not least in Stephanie Perkins’ near-perfect Anna and the French Kiss. It can be totally cheesy, but even Irish YA taking on a more international vibe – including challenges, obstacles, homesickness – would be awesome.

Books with a stylistic twist. Verse novels, non-linear narration, interesting typography, mixed epistolary formats with texts and emails and postcards and illustrations. Meg Grehan’s verse novel The Space Between is a good example of this in recent Irish YA, while Deirdre Sullivan’s collection of dark feminist fairytales Tangleweed and Brine is also one to keep an eye on. I WANT MORE OF THEM.


Magic. Okay, so this has been done before. But there are so many possibilities with magical realism, mythology, portal fantasy, fairies, witchiness – whether that’s Irish-set or with expanded horizons. It’s a difficult genre to pull off, but when it’s good it’s fabul- oh, screw it, this is just me asking for more Moïra Fowley-Doyle books, isn’t it?

More complicated, fandom-worthy high fantasy. Fantasy is one of YA’s shining achievements. So many recent fantasy titles have been huge hits – Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, The Wrath and the Dawn by Reneé Ahdieh, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, I could go on – and I’d love to see a fresh Irish-penned series up there with the best of them. I want to fangirl over plot twists and eagerly await new installments! I want to overuse capslock in reviews and get invested in fandom theories! I want to be this gif of Joey from FRIENDS about it, basically.


Less… I’m usually hesitant to include ‘less of’ in posts like this, because I’m a firm believer in trying to expand, rather than narrow, the vocal range of YA. But I will say that less historical fiction and less dystopia would be great, as Irish historical fiction is quite oversaturated (and dare I say it, predictable) while dystopia as a trend just doesn’t appeal to teens anymore. If you want readers to sit up and take notice, you have to be bringing something brilliant or new to the table.

Better covers. I struggle to think of an Irish teen fiction cover that’s really blown me away of late. The Space Between comes close, or maybe Sarah Crossan’s books, but still. Covers make or break a book, you guys, and there’s nothing worse than an underwhelming one. Bright colours, polished graphic design, striking typography, illustrations that make you do a double take – they’re SO important, I actually wrote an entire post about it. Irish YA needs to step up its game here.

MORE HAPPINESS. As much as I do my best to support and talk about it, the tone of Irish YA can be a bit of a miseryfest? I think it’s because seriousness sells – it’s literary, it’s what publishers are familiar with, it’s award-worthy, it comes with a handy list of default adjectives like ‘shocking’ and ‘important’. But it does a disservice to teens and readers, because we also deserve books that are optimistic and relevant and complicated. The teenagers I know are – hold onto your hats – complex, funny, messy, capable, proactive, ridiculous, even, dare I say it, occasionally happy. What’s more, it’s really tricky to write books which are warm or hopeful and heartbreaking and thematic (see Jandy Nelson, Sara Barnard, Clare Furniss, David Levithan, Emery Lord, Lisa Williamson), and perhaps even harder to write books which are laugh-out-loud funny. I’d like to see Irish YA challenging itself to bringing a little more light to teenage books.


What about you? What are your favourite books by Irish authors? What would you like to see more of in YA?


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

33837404Author(s): Sarah Crossan
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 7th September 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary, verse
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

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

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

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

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

Joe’s older brother Ed, arrested at eighteen, has been in jail since Joe was seven. An already tenuous family life crumbled with Ed gone. Abandoned by an alcoholic mother who never showed she wanted them anyway, Joe and his sister Angela were left to fend for themselves or be taken in by their religious Aunt Karen. Ed’s kept in touch through letters from Texas, but now that he’s been given a date of execution, Joe feels one of them must answer his request for a visit. At first, the person behind the glass seems like a stranger: ten years older, tattooed, hardened and bruised by his time in the prison system. Piece by piece, Joe finds that his brother is still his brother: he talks, he cares, he hopes. But his fate rests on a final series of appeals, and Joe can’t yet bear to think beyond each visit.

Punchy, audacious and carefully constructed, Crossan’s choice of characters – many flawed, others unlikeable – in this book aligns with her established narrative interest in outsiders. The fallout of Ed’s sentence has created invisible casualties Joe and Angela, but the loyalty between them is persistent. She emphasises tremendous humanity while anticipating, and asking, questions of her audience. The minor characters are forgettable and it’s not exactly an enjoyable read, but it’s almost impossible not to get swept into Crossan’s writing. For fans of particularly stunning poetry or twisty, complex plots, her unflashy verse (‘like a rock into a river / she fell’) may be a little too close to functional here, but there is a whole story packed into its pages. There are hints of books like Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas to the subjects of Moonrise, but it’s unmistakably Crossan’s work. Confronting themes like social disintegration, family breakdown, corruption, injustice and capital punishment, if it is nominated for next year’s Carnegie – and it will surely be a potential nominee – expect to see it up for the Amnesty CILIP Honour.


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


6 LGBTQ+ YA reads you may have missed

Today on the blog, I talk some seriously underrated YA featuring LGBTQ+ teens (mostly as an excuse to bookpush titles I’ve really enjoyed of late). We’ve all heard of David Levithan, Patrick Ness, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Becky Albertalli et al, but what about the YA books you may not know have LGBTQ+ characters?

24550848The Last Beginning by Lauren James 

You guys, I keep recommending this book. Funny, chaotic and full of adventure, The Last Beginning displays much of Lauren James’ characteristic writing style: a multitude of timelines, epistolary additions, and of course, more pieces of the puzzle in the story of Matthew Galloway and Katherine Finchley. Technically a companion novel to her début The Next Together, it picks up with a new heroine. A passionate knitter and whiz-kid programmer, Clove is smart, hot-headed and prone to making slightly disastrous and immature decisions, but her heart’s (usually) in the right place. Clove’s relationship with girlfriend Ella (which from the outset steers clear of bury-your-gays tropes) is threaded throughout and makes for a light-hearted sci-fi twist on typical star-crossed romance.

32200595A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

The final book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy – or as she rather cryptically puts it, the final book in the first arc of the Shades of Magic series – is one you’ll need to read after finishing the previous books A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows, but it’s totally worth catching up on. It’s absorbing, memorable fantasy with real classic punch. A Conjuring of Light is almost as long as the first two books put together, and a good deal of that is spent on Rhy, prince of the magic-drenched but in peril Red London, and Alucard, a nobleman turned pirate who gets dragged (only a little reluctantly) into the battle to save the city. As it’s packaged as traditional run-of-the-mill portal fantasy, it may be obvious that it features gay or bi characters, but Rhy and Alucard’s relationship proved a hit with fans. Rich, engaging and highly recommended.

33972290The Space Between by Meg Grehan

The Space Between is delicate, elegant, sorrowful, sweet, and all told in verse. I reviewed it earlier this month and it’s exactly the kind of thing many readers of YA have been calling for, so it’s frustrating to see it get so little traction! Little Island, its Irish-based publisher, also brought you Needlework by the award-winning, YALC-attending Deirdre Sullivan. It ticks all the boxes: mental health themes, two girls who fall in love, solid writing, a pretty cover. If you like books by Louise Gornall (you can read my review of Under Rose-Tainted Skies here) and Nina LaCour, or ‘Instagram poets’ like Amanda Lovelace, this one is well worth reading. 

25648276Unboxed by Non Pratt 

Published by Barrington Stoke last year, Non Pratt’s Unboxed is filled with complex, mature themes and awesome characters – and it’s accessible, specialist fiction for teens with dyslexia and other difficulties with reading. There’s a tendency to think of dyslexia-friendly fiction as going ‘back to basics’, but frankly, assuming that any reader should be satisfied with simple plots or subjects is incredibly condescending. Pratt brings the bolshiness and brilliance of longer novels like Trouble and Remix to this character-focused, entertaining YA novella, and – not to give too many spoilers – one of the major characters is a girl who likes girls and is in a relationship. Also, the character Dean was inspired by Wolfgang from Sense8, which gets an A+ from me. Non Pratt’s latest full-length novel Truth or Dare features an asexual character, if that’s more your cup of tea.

Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle30079403

Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s penchant for messy magical realism weaves YA which is beguiling, dark, mysterious and just a little peculiar. Spellbook of the Lost and Found is full of interesting and bewitching things: a town bonfire, missing shoes, a wishing tree, charm bracelets, sprawling tattoos, illicit alcohol, flawed friendships and, of course, several dogs named after types of cereal. Just as in her début The Accident Season, this one is chock full of LGBTQ+ teenagers, with a lyrical emphasis on adventure and adventure. Loyal, quick Olive is bisexual, as is her best friend Rose who strikes up (or rather falls in to) a relationship with tough newcomer Hazel. Fowley-Doyle is one of the best writers of Irish YA out there at the moment – I’d recommend her work for cleverness and flashes of fantastic prose alone.

alloftheaboveAll of the Above by Juno Dawson 

All of the Above is practically bursting with character: between artistic newcomer Toria, fierce but secretive Daisy, bolshy pack leader Polly, awkward Beasley, book-mad Freya, uber-cool Nico, permanently-entwined Alex and Alice, and of course, Geoff the cross-dressing squirrel, readers are from the off confronted with a colourful cast of teenagers. Among them are gay, bisexual, asexual and queer characters with varying experiences of sexuality and relationships. Chatty, frank, funny and littered with pop culture references, the narration keeps you reading and packs a punch. Toria’s experiences as a biracial British-Punjabi teenager only occasionally influence the plot but inform her forthright (“Brompton-on-Sea isn’t exactly a cultural melting pot”) and warmly wry (“Worst. Hindu. Ever”) voice. Juno Dawson is a relatively well-known UKYA figure, but All of the Above is one of her most underrated books.

23454354Bonus: Tumbling by Susie Day (short fiction) 

Tumbling is one of five pieces of original fiction commissioned for the Malorie Blackman-curated anthology Love Hurts in 2015. It is far and away the best part of the collection – the only one worth remembering, really. It’s ostensibly about Shirin and Candy (otherwise known as eye_brows and vaticancameltoes), but it’s about much more, too: first love, teen friendship, fangirls, Sherlock, illness, self-doubt and honesty. It’s engaging, chatty, sleek and well-written. If you like books by Nina LaCour or Sarra Manning, this is the short story for you. It NEEEEEEDS a full-length adaptation IMMEDIATELY.


So there you have it! Have you read any of the books on this list? Are there any you’re planning to read?