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. 



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? 


Truth or Dare by Non Pratt // solid UKYA from a cornerstone of current contemporary

25458747Author(s): Non Pratt
 Walker Books
Publication date: 1st June 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Sef Malik and Claire Casey may go to the same school, but they operate in entirely different circles. If the usual rules applied, they’d never have ended up in each other’s company.

When a horrific accident turns Sef’s world upside down, he and Claire fall into an unlikely friendship. They become Truth Girl and Dare Boy, confessing secrets and staging outrageous dares to raise funds for Sef’s older brother, Kam.

But Sef is prepared to do anything to help his brother. He’s willing to risk everything he has – and what if he’s prepared to risk Claire, too?

In what is arguably the busiest genre in UKYA, Non Pratt quickly established herself as a reliable voice for modern, often laugh-out-loud contemporaries. Her much-lauded début Trouble and hilarious second book Remix as well as novellas like Unboxed and the upcoming Second Best Friend for Barrington Stoke give her admirable teen fiction credentials. Truth or Dare bears the hallmarks of Pratt’s established style – a contemporary setting, dual narration, prominent friendships and relationships – though the prose is perhaps steadier and less flippant. It’s solidly written with a driven, satisfyingly focused plot. As is the contemporary fashion, it’s undeniably issue-centric, but there’s plenty going on and it’s never boring.

As with much of Pratt’s work, it’s full of flawed and well-realised characters. There’s a sense that almost all the characters have something more going on – other stories, other preoccupations, off-screen lives – which I’ve rarely seen achieved in YA. I would’ve liked to have seen a little more of these on the page, though this is already one of Pratt’s longer books. From Sef’s brother Kamran and best friend Finn to Claire’s parents and her best friend Seren, there’s some dextrous characterisation which has clearly benefited from Pratt’s growing skill. It’s Sef and Claire who take centrestage, however, and the sharp, flirty back-and-forth between outgoing, charismatic Sef and smart, kind Claire is the jewel in Truth or Dare’s crown.

At once both relatable and defiant as she faces down malicious schoolboys, the trials and tribulations of friendship, and her relationship with Sef, it’s Claire readers will take to first. Pratt confronts the idea that with so many ways of recording modern teen life – voluntarily and, most troublingly, involuntarily – a culture has developed where teenagers aren’t allowed to forget anything they’ve been or done, as past mistakes and experiences can be brought up again and again, leaving them defined, and damaged, by moments that would once have become a mere anecdote or long-ago recollection. In Claire’s case it’s an accidental nip slip, but there are interesting and important ramifications for teen life as a whole. I’d like to see similar themes explored further in YA, particularly as the thread is somewhat dropped in the latter stages of this book. Sef is a less likeable, as while he’s complex and sympathetic, it’s hard not to notice how manipulative he is toward Claire. It’s narratively deliberate, but one can’t help feeling that, after the book’s climax, a clean break would be the best choice for both of them.

That said, YA has never been a hotbed of healthy life choices, and elsewhere you’ll find outrageous dares, a vlogger somehow believably called Moz (meep morp), family scenes, food fights, themes of class and diversity, and, of course, characters you’ll want to punch in the face. Pratt’s put in solid research (and indeed is holding a fundraiser inspired by the book in which she’ll shave her head at YALC) and once you get into it, the book is a real page-turner. It needed more humour, alternate narration rather than flipped halves (when you’ve finished one half of the book you flip it over to read the other), and a deeper sense of resolution. Ultimately, it lacked the spark that makes me really adore a book. Remix remains my favourite Non Pratt novel.


A solid, if unspectacular, addition to UKYA. Dextrous, realistically flawed characterisation and a driven plot make this one engaging despite readers missing out on the full clout of Pratt’s usual quick humour, memorable heroines and pacier style.


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

Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle30079403
: 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?


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. 


The Space Between by Meg Grehan // a delicate debut you may have missed

Author(s): Meg Grehan33972290
 Little Island Books
Publication date: 30th March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary, verse
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Beth has made a resolution: to spend a whole year alone. But she never counted on fate – or floppy-eared, tail-wagging Mouse, who comes nosing to her window, followed shortly by his owner, Alice.

As Beth’s year of solitude begins, Alice gently steals her way first into Beth’s house and later into her heart. And by the time New Year’s Eve comes round again – who knows?

Delicate, elegant and straightforward, The Space Between is a notable addition to the recent trend for verse novels in YA. As sorrowful as it is sweet, it tells the story of Beth, a teenager whose life has been slowly whittled away by agoraphobia, anxiety and depression, and Alice, the girl who opens up her world (and her window) as if by chance. Or a very curious dog named Mouse. Full of small details and featuring an even smaller cast, the book’s focus is so intense it sometimes feels almost microscopic. It’s not the most exciting of books, but it packs a solid punch for its relatively simple style.

At the core of The Space Between is the relationship between Beth and Alice. It’s a saccharine and understated, if somewhat rose-tinted, romance, but it steers clear of ‘love cures mental illness’ tropes and is clearly heartfelt. In a landscape of Irish teen fiction where LGBTQ+ characters are fairly thin on the ground (mostly because Irish teen fiction itself is still also fairly thin on the ground, quantitatively speaking) The Space Between is probably the best female-led contribution since Geraldine Meade’s Flick. It’s certainly more modern and relevant, complete with nods and cultural awareness contemporary teenagers will relate to. Irish YA still has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to matching the surge in such titles elsewhere, but The Space Between could become a go-to recommendation.

This is a book I’d like to see being talked about more. It’s exactly the kind of thing many readers of YA are calling for. It ticks all the boxes: mental health themes, LGBTQ+ characters, strong writing, a pretty cover. It’s the kind of book that should be landing on most-anticipated lists and creating buzz, but I saw hardly any marketing or publicity for it, which is a shame. For intrepid fans of YA names like Louise Gornall (you can read my review of Under Rose-Tainted Skies here) and Nina LaCour, or of the recent explosion in ‘Instagram poets’ like Rupi Kaur and Amanda Lovelace, this one is well worth reading.

Short, spare and page-turning, The Space Between, like many novels-in-verse, is quite a quick read. Grehan plays more with shape and pattern than language or vocabulary, so its verse is at times more functional than stunning. Its simplicity is a bit of a drawback when it comes to plot and pace, and I would’ve liked to have seen more inventiveness or ambition. Some of the poems grate and it’s not as forceful as Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming or as eye-catching as Sarah Crossan’s One. An interior style is prioritised more often than engaging storytelling, and as such it occasionally runs the risk of allowing readers used to busy, polished YA to drift away.


A delicate and poignant, if imperfect, début novel-in-verse, which puts ever-present themes and LGBTQ+ characters at the forefront. If you like books by Sarah Crossan, Deirdre Sullivan or Jandy Nelson, The Space Between is worth reading. 


Release by Patrick Ness // a tale of two (rather off-kilter) halves

Author(s): Patrick Ness31194576
 Walker Books
Publication date: 4th May 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary, supernatural
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant boss, and unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart.

He has two people to keep him sane – his new boyfriend Linus and his best friend Angela – but over the course of a single day, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing his life into chaos. Meanwhile, lurking at the edges, something unearthly and unsettling is set on a collision course with Adam and his town. A day of confrontation and transformation will not be without sacrifice – yet in spite of everything he has to let go, Adam may also find freedom in release.

Patrick Ness – a man with his fingers in a number of metaphorical pies when it comes to writing and creating for young people – is clearly enjoying being YA fiction’s genre-hopping answer to Neil Gaiman. Even a short list of his pursuits includes two Carnegie medals, two movie deals, the top spot in writing and creating Doctor Who spin-off Class, a plethora of awards, near-innumerable newspaper inches, and a string of well-received books. His cherry-picking of projects has made itself clear in novels like More Than This, The Rest of Us Just Live Here and now an attempt to bring Virginia Woolf’s formidable Mrs Dalloway to a modern teenage audience.

Perhaps because of this freedom to choose projects that might never get off the ground in the hands of a newly signed writer, Release is a novel which basks in its own literariness. There are nods to Woolf everywhere, from the wholesale borrowing of structure or events to more subtle references which should please those who’ve read the original without becoming too unwieldy for those who haven’t. Judy Blume’s Forever is also said to have been an influence. The writing style itself echoes with familiar characters of Ness’ YA: predictable rhythm, unflashy description, serious tone, the occasional moment of light-heartedness, though it’s denser and more formal than usual.

For fans of Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera and The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, the core of Release is protagonist Adam’s struggle with identity and orientation in the face of small-town mindsets and his religious, intolerant parents, who subscribe to views even they know are out-dated. Confrontation of Adam’s experiences gives the novel emphatic dramatic weight. Ness navigates implicit repression, outright rejection and other difficult topics with consistent dexterity. He places the venom of Adam’s preacher father alongside the exhilaration of his relationship with Linus and the fearless acceptance of best friend Angela – one of the best and most underrated characters in the book. Complicated characters litter the novel, with only the occasional flat note or slip into the one-dimensional among the secondary cast.

By turns bleak and busy, harsh and hopeful, Adam’s story is accompanied by a rather less effective supernatural sideplot. Essentially, a so-called queen, a faun, a murder, drug abuse and unanswered questions get turned into the kind of eerie-mystery-possibly-a-ghost-story. The reader is aware that it’s supposed to illuminate some deep and meaningful parallel to the contemporary plotline, but it’s so disparate I found it detracted from the more successful parts of the book. If you’re going to write contemporary magical realism, you’re better off really going for it, as in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys or Moira Fowley-Doyle’s spellbinding The Accident Season.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but perhaps more fitting here is Oscar Wilde’s variation on the phrase: “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Because while Release is solid, it’s not earth-shattering. In fact, the prose is sometimes, well, boring. I’m not sure that an attempted reworking of one of Virginia Woolf’s most complex books by a middle-aged white dude was something YA needed. Adam’s navigating of relationships, identity and sexual orientation sits firmly in the tradition of foregrounding the G in LGBT in teen fiction, while elements of the book designed to make it seem unique – reinterpretation of a classic, a supernatural undercurrent – don’t mesh the way they should. A Monster Calls remains Ness’ best work.


An ambitious offering from the ever-versatile Patrick Ness, who is clearly punching for the literary side of critical acclaim with this Mrs Dalloway-inspired novel. Unfortunately, a misjudged supernatural subplot and prose that dulls more than it shines leave this effort curiously askew.


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


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

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

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

The Names They Gave Us is a considered and highly engaging exploration of the summer one confident but somewhat sheltered teenager’s world is turned upside down surprises and endears at every turn. It’s character-driven but delivers on plot as well as premise. It’s warm and heartfelt, but also serious, thoughtful and, occasionally, heartbreaking. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, but it really blew me away. I gave Lord’s last book quite a high rating (you can read my review of When We Collided here), but I’m glad I left room for just a little more for this standalone.

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

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

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


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