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!

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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… 

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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…? 

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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!)…?

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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!

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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!)

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image couresty @Dept51

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

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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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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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

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The Girl In Between by Sarah Carroll // eerie, serious début joins the greyscale of Irish urban fiction

34457237Author(s): Sarah Carroll
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 4th May 2017 (U.K.) / 20th June 2017 (U.S.)
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
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

In an old, abandoned mill in the heart of Dublin, Sam and her ma take shelter from their memories of life on the streets, and watch the busy world go by. The windows are boarded up and the floorboards are falling in, but for Sam neither of those things matter. It’s The Castle – a place of her own, a place like no other.

But hard as she tries to hold on to her world, things are starting to change. As the men in yellow coats close in on their refuge, and her ma spins further out of control, Sam finds herself seeking friendship in the ghosts of the mill, and questioning who is really there.

The Girl In Between – quite apart from being the latest addition to a seemingly never-ending string of recently published novels with ‘girl’ in the title – is the latest addition to the Irish YA scene. Its main character is technically not a teenager, but the seriousness of its themes will likely ensure a YA shelving in libraries, bookshops and reading lists alike. Set in a ‘Castle’ – an abandoned mill – and surrounded by a moat – really a canal – it explores the border between surviving and living, between love and fixation, between staying invisible and becoming a ghost.

Sam has only ever known what her mother has told her, and she’s been told to keep herself hidden in the Castle. Hidden away from the Authorities, the hi-vis jackets, the coppers and the do-gooders, who are all in on it together, and who will all drag her away into care if they so much as see her. But when it seems that their dilapidated home is under threat, Sam becomes desperate to save it from the Authorities and her mother from her own personal torment. With only Caretaker, the old man who’s slept outside the mill for decades, to answer her questions, she begins to seek out the ghosts the building, but soon starts to wonder exactly what kind of demons haunt the mill and her mother.

The Girl In Between is a relatively short read, written in an economical, idiosyncratic style. It aims more for class and voice than it does for description or elegant turns of phrase. It’s a contemporary only in the sense of implied timeframe and setting, but verges on mystery, a touch of thriller and above all the eerie. It’s not quite lush or risky enough to plunge into magical realism, but there’s a hint of the uncanny throughout. The protagonist’s youthful naivety makes for some unreliable narration, and readers are invited often obliquely to fill in the blanks and gaps in Carroll’s sketching of her life. There’s a dissonance between what Sam understands about the world and the overarching inkling that there’s something more going on. I called the twist quite early on, but I found the writing style jarring and the lack of drive in the plot off-putting. It’s the kind of book where a lot goes unsaid, and even then some key details, like characters’ names, are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief.

As is the vogue in Irish YA, this book deals with heavy themes. What I wouldn’t give for a handful more Irish books in the vein of Sara Barnard, Non Pratt or Sarah Dessen – or even just some featuring teenagers who are capable, realistic, messy, even happy. This book’s confrontation of homelessness, neglect, addiction and substance abuse will garner plenty of serious head-nodding and murmurs of approval from adults on the literary scene. Carroll’s début has more in common with Roddy Doyle’s slang-strung, gritty urban fiction than it does with Moira Fowley-Doyle’s heady, surreal The Accident Season or Meg Grehan’s delicate, LGBTQ+ love story The Space Between – both novels which really brought something new and engaging to the table – but if you liked Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan or Taking Flight by Sheena Wilkinson, you may find something to like here.

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The Girl In Between is contemporary-mystery with a touch of the eerie which will leave readers scrambling to unravel the resolution, but the writing style of the book just didn’t work for me. Fans of Deirdre Sullivan, Sheena Wilkinson and Keren David may find it’s more their style.

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Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle // a strangely satisfying second novel

Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle30079403
Publisher
: Corgi Children’s/PRH
Publication date: 1st June 2017
Category: YA
Genre: magical realism
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

One stormy Irish summer night, Olive and her best friend, Rose, begin to lose things. It starts with simple items like hairclips and jewellery but soon it’s clear that Rose has lost something much bigger, something she won’t talk about, and Olive thinks her best friend is slipping away.

Then seductive diary pages written by a girl named Laurel begin to appear all over town. And Olive meets three mysterious strangers: Ivy, Hazel, and her twin brother, Rowan, secretly holed up in an abandoned housing estate. The trio are cool and alluring, but they seem lost too. Like Rose, they’re holding tight to painful secrets.

When they discover an ancient spellbook, full of hand-inked charms to conjure back lost things, they realise it might be their chance to set everything right – unless it’s leading them toward secrets that were never meant to be found. 

Beguiling, mysterious and just a little peculiar, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is full of interesting and bewitching things: a town bonfire, missing shoes, a wishing tree, charm bracelets, sprawling tattoos, illicit alcohol, flawed friendships, LGBTQ+ characters and, of course, several dogs named after types of cereal. Penned in what is fast becoming Moira Fowley-Doyle’s trademark style, it’s messy magical realism which walks an audaciously dangerous line between the real and surreal.

Spellbook’s inexplicable happenings are told in alternate narration. Loyal, quick Olive is the most accessible and straightforward, while secretive, tough Hazel works in a pub, trying to outrun her past. Starry-eyed Laurel is being swept away in the whirlwind of an all-consuming friendship with wild, unreliable Ash and dainty, dreamy Holly, turning ominous under the influence of a new forest-dwelling acquaintance. I liked Rowan, Emily and Max, but Ivy was forgettable. Fowley-Doyle pays characteristic attention to toxic and muddled relationships, though the closeness and vibrancy of its family scenes are a pleasant surprise. Olive and Rose are the best of the main cast, while Olive’s father, Daniel – purveyor of puns and daily doses of poetry, like a sort of affectionate, booming Yeatsian alarm clock – is undoubtedly the funniest character in the book.

Atmospheric and rough around the edges, the plot is cleverly woven, with plenty of suspense and scheming to keep the reader engaged. It only wanders off the pace in the second half, but the major twist is terrific – I for one didn’t guess it – and a late resurgence in plot makes for a strong finish. It’s the kind of book you have to read all over again just to put the details together. Fowley-Doyle conjures a world which is richly multifarious, at once recognisable and eerie, modern and uncanny. The titular spellbook is an old, tattered tome of uncertain provenance which is steeped in a blend of earthy enchantments, cultural religiosity and instinctive superstition, but at their best, the most magical elements of the novel spill over into its prose.

Its so-called romances are undeveloped and overly stylised. There’s potential, but the reader can’t help but wonder how much some of the romantically-linked characters actually have in common. Some fairly serious themes are mentioned, including alcoholism, assault and unhealthy relationships, which alongside other content warnings make this one for older teens. Also the drink poitín (described here as a kind of high-alcohol Irish moonshine, and by ‘high alcohol’ we mean likely to cause blindness, hallucinations and/or death) is spelled ‘poteen’ and I really wanted to correct it, though that’s a bit of niche critique.

However, the writing is consistently strong, with moments of striking description (a newspaper ‘flutters like a giant black-and-white-winged bird’, ‘there have always been three of us: a coven, a crowd, a three-headed dog’) and playful humour (‘he looks like a cross between a farmer and a teenage Victorian chimney sweep’). There’s a more satisfying sense of explanation and conclusion than in the otherwise excellent The Accident Season (you can read my review here) but there are still a few questions left tantalisingly unanswered, and, with some unnecessary ‘twists’ which demanded more exploration or better handling, some threads left frustratingly unresolved. It leaves you wondering just what in the story is real, where its magic came from and perhaps most importantly: how old is Mags Maguire and how long  has she had that pub?

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Dark, strange and littered with magic, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is a stylishly written and pleasingly clever second novel from one of the best – if not the best – Irish writers of current YA. As beguiling as it is befuddling, it’s a sometimes imperfect but frankly unputdownable addition to recent YA magical realism. I’m intrigued to see what Fowley-Doyle writes next. 

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