Event Round Up: We Love YA! DeptCon at ILFD

As you can see from my past event round-ups, DeptCon has become something of a staple in the Irish YA scene.

“But Arianne,” you whisper, aghast, “doesn’t DeptCon usually take place in… October?”

Yes, it does! This year, however, there was SURPRISE appearance from the DeptCon squad with their summertime We Love YA! event as part of the ongoing International Literature Festival. There were three panels plus signings, and I was lucky enough to attend (and bring back all the deets for you).

“Writing myself into this country”: Muhammad Khan, Emma Quigley and Mary Watson talk ‘New Voices’, chaired by Shane Hegarty 

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L-R: Shane Hegarty, Mary Watson, Emma Quigley, Muhammad Khan

The first panel, themed around the idea of ‘New Voices’, featured three debut YA writers (though Watson is an award-winning South African writer for adults, The Wren Hunt is her first book for teenagers). Hegarty’s questions drew answers on inspirations, writing routines, what they’d be working on next, and more.

Muhammad Khan’s biggest influence has been his time as a maths teacher and tutor in a school where most students are from BAME backgrounds. His students contributed to drafts of what became I Am Thunder, inspiring everything from Muzna’s shyness to the fact that he had the book’s cover artist thicken her eyebrows so that they’d be suitably “on fleek”! He decided to tackle themes like radicalisation and racism in YA partly because of the UK government’s Prevent strategy, which he realised was causing students to clam up in case their questions or experiences got them into trouble. His advice for young writers: “Write a book that you want to write…. don’t follow trends, because by the time you finish your book that trend will be over”. He’s currently working on another contemporary featuring different characters, exploring toxic masculinity ‘through the eyes of a very gentle boy’.

Emma Quigley’s début Bank (out from Little Island Books) is the comedy-drama story of a group of teen boys who decide to start money-lending to classmates, only to make a series of increasingly risky investments as their plans begin to unravel. Quigley wanted to write about friendships between teenage boys but also ended up mirroring twenty-first century financial crises. She spoke about how her son was a reader who often said his friends weren’t – she wanted to write something that would appeal to that drop-off point of readership, and Bank actually sounds really exciting! It was also revealed that her son wrote the tagline for the book: “Lunch money just got serious”!

Mary Watson became fascinated by the Irish tradition of the wren hunt – in which a real or stand-in wren is chased and hunted on St. Stephen’s Day (the day after Christmas Day) – after moving to Ireland from South Africa. She wanted to write a book that she could only have written here, even though The Wren Hunt is technically a fantasy or magical realism novel, full of “quiet magic, everyday magic”. She cited Diana Wynne Jones as an influence and spoke with real feeling about the wealth of African literature that doesn’t always make it to mainstream audiences in the Anglosphere. Watson’s was the only book I’d read of the three before the panel, but I think the discussion did its job because by the end of it I was so intrigued by I Am Thunder and Bank.

“The nineties were dull as dishwater”: Brian Conaghan, Derek Landy and Katherine Webber in ‘Nerd Alert!’, chaired by David O’Callaghan

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L-R: Katie Webber, David O’Callaghan, Brian Conaghan, Derek Landy

Most literary festival panels (naturally) focus on the literary side of life, but this panel was more about pop culture and what it meant to three writers growing up. They talked about the extent to which you can make pop culture references in a book but otherwise concentrated on beloved films, TV and music. There was a lot of love for the ’80s, but most of the ’90s  love was for Webber’s Wing Jones, which is set in 1996 Atlanta – read more about it here!).

Katherine Webber can quote much of Clueless; Conaghan made an impassioned speech on behalf of Grease and declared his belonging to a small global cult following of its much-maligned sequel; Derek Landy apparently owns half the prop department of multiple comic book adaptations, including the original Superman costume and cape. Katie credits Sailor Moon (only half-jokingly) with piquing her interest in Asian culture – she later studied Japanese, then Chinese, and moved to Hong Kong to study. Conaghan was into eternally cool bands, while Webber is an unashamed pop fan.

The conversation returned to literature to discuss favourite childhood books. Katie loves A Wrinkle in Time so much that it featured in at least three different ways at her wedding (shoutout to husband and Sam Wu co-writer Kevin Tsang for highest number of cameo mentions), while Landy commented on the past dearth of YA which once meant going straight from children’s books to crime fiction. Perhaps most interestingly, Brian Conaghan was frank about the fact that he was 17 when he first read a novel and had a reading age of 12 when he was 16, partly due to lack of access to a library or books at school. I so admired Conaghan’s work on We Come Apart and really appreciated someone pointing out that not all readers or writers come to books in the same way.

“I always felt like a changeling. I never felt like I belonged”: Louise O’Neill and Deirdre Sullivan talk ‘Dark Fairytales’, chaired by Elaina Ryan 

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L-R: Elaina Ryan, Louise O’Neill, Deirdre Sullivan, wearing ‘Repeal’ gear

There was something of a uniform for this event on feminist retellings of fairytales. Both Louise O’Neill and Deirdre Sullivan have recently released fairytale retellings: O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks takes on The Little Mermaid, while Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine is a collection of twelve short stories which draw on not just The Little Mermaid but fairytales like Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty (you can read more about the book here!).

This was the only panel in which the authors were asked to read from their books, which was a fantastic way to introduce or reintroduce the audience to the stories in question. It was O’Neill’s first time reading from The Surface Breaks at an event (she read a scene featuring a character called Sadhbh, a name she insisted on because “the English find it very confusing and I find that very amusing”).  Tangleweed and Brine is almost like prose poetry, making it chillingly effective when read aloud. Both books are quite dark – but that’s because, as O’Neill and Sullivan pointed out, the source fairytales are also quite dark. The Little Mermaid’s original ending at the hands of Hans Christian Anderson, for example, is incredibly unsettling.

There was plenty of talk about that most famous of fairytale strains, the Disney film, but it’s not all bad – there was definite agreement that movies like Frozen and Moana have appreciably feminist moments (in Elaina Ryan’s immortal words on Moana: “she seems like good craic”). And indeed, it is the complicated, sometimes sanitised history of the fairytale that seems to provide such scope for feminist reinterpretation, as both Louise and Deirdre would write another fairytale retelling if they had the chance. O’Neill would love to get her hands on Beauty and the Beast, while Sullivan would like to pair the ‘earth and water’ theme of Tangleweed and Brine with another collection on what I thought would just be ‘air and fire’ but was actually termed the far more poetic ‘breath and ember’.

So there you have it! Did you attend this edition of DeptCon? Have you read any of the books mentioned? Are any of them on your TBR?

 

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Goodbye, Perfect by Sara Barnard // surprisingly nimble and skin-scrapingly pointed

35495848Author(s): Sara Barnard
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 8th February 2018
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

Eden McKinley knows she can’t count on much in this world, but she can depend on Bonnie, her solid, steady, straight-A best friend. So it’s a bit of a surprise when Bonnie runs away with the boyfriend Eden knows nothing about five days before the start of their GCSEs. Especially when the police arrive on her doorstep and Eden finds out that the ‘boyfriend’ is actually their music teacher, Mr Cohn.

Sworn to secrecy and bound by loyalty, only Eden knows Bonnie’s location, and that’s the way it has to stay. There’s no way she’s betraying her best friend – not even when she’s faced with police questioning, suspicious parents and her own growing doubts…

After soaring once more into my YA favourites with the gorgeous, expressive A Quiet Kind of Thunder, Sara Barnard’s third book delves deep into the bittersweet side of friendship touched upon in her début Beautiful Broken Things in the latest addition to her contemporary repertoireThis standalone’s straightforward writing style and readable length are true to form, but there are also some fresh details, from protagonist Eden’s unexpected love for gardens and growing things to clever character descriptions through quick-fire lists.

A brief stint as a wild child has left Eden McKinley with a moral compass that only occasionally needs to be prodded into better alignment. She is earthy and mouthy and loyal and blinkered in believable but significant ways, particularly when it comes to her best friend Bonnie. A deliberate contrast to Barnard’s previous heroines – caring but sheltered Caddy and sweet but painfully anxious Steffi – she’s a character readers will find themselves rooting for even amid her mistakes. In fact, this may be Barnard’s best book yet in terms of down-to-earth, individuated characters. Eden’s adoptive parents Bob and Carolyn are kind but firm and a tricky relationship with older sister Valerie is pleasingly explored. In a novel which dexterously balances a variety of relationships, the established romance between Eden and boyfriend Connor is a warm, supportive and healthy one. These family and relationship dynamics were my favourite part of the novel.

Barnard improves in some way with every book she writes. Goodbye, Perfect is easily her most thematic book and it is with unprecedented clarity that she takes on the deconstruction of perfection, as Eden comes to realise that the people around her all have faults and unseen depths. Straight-laced Valerie isn’t quite the unbending, unapproachable figure she had imagined her to be; all-round boffin Bonnie hid her insecurities with disastrous consequences. Barnard takes care to note the realistic immaturity of her teenagers, whether it’s Bonnie’s lack of common sense or Eden’s misguided belief that loyalty is in this case more important than her friend’s safety. There are notable subplots and back-stories involving adoption, identity and young carers, too.

Barnard’s writing is by turns nimble, engaging, funny, and skin-scrapingly pointed. A now-experienced hand makes a largely character-driven plot solidly gripping – I raced through the book in one sitting – which is perhaps helped by a short, intense timeline and strong character scenes. The book’s structure is somewhat jumpy early on, and the heavy issues which make up much of its conflict, while carefully handled may put some readers off. I would’ve liked more warmth and richness to the exploration of Eden’s feelings towards her family. I probably prefer A Quiet Kind of Thunder, but then I really did adore that book, and I still hugely enjoyed Goodbye, Perfect. Barnard’s next project will be collaborative YA effort Floored, but I’m already intrigued to see where she goes with her next solo novel.

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Sara Barnard’s most thematic novel yet features realistic characterisation, a solidly engaging plot, and dextrous handling of relationships. Goodbye, Perfect is by turns warm and gut-wrenching, unputdownable and assured. 

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If Birds Fly Back by Carlie Sorosiak // summer contemporary fails to soar

34327163Author(s): Carlie Sorosiak
Publisher:
 Macmillan
Publication date: 29th 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

Linny has been living life in black and white since her sister Grace ran away. When she witnesses the return of a cult writer and movie legend long presumed dead, she’s certain it’s a sign. Surely Álvaro Herrera can tell her why people come back – and how to bring her sister home?

Sebastian is in Miami seeking his father, a man whose name he’s only just learned. An aspiring astrophysicist, he can tell Linny how much plutonium weighs and how likely she is to be struck by a meteorite. But none of the theories he knows are enough to answer his questions about why his father abandoned him. 

As Sebastian and Linny converge around the mystery of Álvaro’s disappearance and return, their live turn to technicolour – but finding the answers to their questions might mean risking everything that matters.

If you’ve looked at any summer most anticipated list this year, you’ve probably seen mentions of If Birds Fly Back. Another one for the YA-in-2017 hype train, I was intrigued by its premise – teen girl tries to track down her runaway sister by investigating celebrity disappearances, including that of a Hollywood figure, and collides with an aspiring scientist along with the way – and figured it would be a pleasant summer read. The concept is somewhere between Nina LaCour’s Everything Leads to You and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star (my review of which you can read here) but unfortunately that which made those books readable – charm, flashes of gorgeous prose – was lacking here.

Perhaps the most significant factor was the writing style. It’s choppy, jerky and off-putting. It really reminded me of Harriet Reuter Hapgood’s The Square Root of Summer (read the review here) which I didn’t enjoy either, though if you’re a fan of Reuter Hapgood, this book, also a Macmillan title, may be more your kind of thing. The book starts in media res and it’s so  confusing I had to check I hadn’t accidentally missed the first chapter of the ARC. The first half of the book is much the same, with the prose leaving readers scrambling to catch up or get even a basic sense of the characters. I have high expectations for contemporaries – not least because there are so many of them in current YA – and if a novel doesn’t bring its A-game, whether that be in beautiful prose or new twists, I’d rather use precious reading time elsewhere.

However, the second half of the book shows improvement. Once the prose is settled in, and stops rushing about so much, the emotional stakes become clearer. Linny, short for Marilyn, is desperately seeking answers to her older sister’s disappearance even as her parents become ever more restrictive, while Sebastian, raised by a single mom who refuses to answer questions about his father, is searching for the man who has shaped his life by absence. Stronger pacing and greater dramatic tension make the book’s conclusion far more gripping and powerful than its opening.

There were some stylistic details, like Sebastian’s scientific explanations, which I really like, and others which are hit-and-miss. Linny’s screenplay is interesting, but very little seems to actually happen in it, and it could have been far more dynamic. The mysterious Álvaro lacks the charisma described by many of the characters and the setting sinks into sun-bleached staleness. The secondary cast could’ve been more developed and the romance is fairly predictable. Ultimately, Sorosiak fails to make If Birds Fly Back stand out from the crowd.

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For fans of Adi Alsaid, Nicola Yoon and Harriet Reuter Hapgood, this début’s premise contains potential but a jerky writing style and predictable plot mean it fails to soar.

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Reviewing The YA Book Prize Shortlist

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phoro courtesy of @yabookprize

Today on the blog, I review the first half of the YA Book Prize 2017 shortlist! I set myself the challenge of reading the entire list – whether through new purchases, the library or my review pile – a little because I think that’s what shortlists are partly for and because it’s helped me work on short reviews, but also to give you all the details! First, some thoughts…

  • The shortlist features a mix of genres, but contemporary has, not unexpectedly, come out on top with five titles (Beautiful Broken Things, How Not To Disappear, Paper Butterflies, Orangeboy and Crongton Knights).
  • Adventure and mythology make their usual appearances, but I was surprised to see no historical fiction. The closest is probably How Not To Disappear, which delves into some of the letters and recollections of heroine Hattie’s great-aunt Gloria.
  • I was also surprised to see two technically-dystopian books shortlisted, but significantly both have major elements of other genres (The Call is fantasy-horror and Chasing the Stars is science fiction), perhaps reflecting the fact that pure dystopia really isn’t what teen readers are going in for anymore.
  • There are three débuts on the list: Beautiful Broken ThingsOrangeboy and Riverkeep. That’s compared with four in 2015 (Trouble, LobstersOnly Ever Yours, and Half Bad) and just two (The Art of Being Normal and The Sin Eater’s Daughter) in 2016.
  • This is a first-time nomination for all of the authors on the list. Louise O’Neill, winner of the inaugural YA Book Prize, remains the only author shortlisted twice.
  • Irish YA also gets a look-in this year! It’s so pleasing to see the recent outpouring of (much-improved and engaging) Irish children’s and teen fiction rewarded. I wrote more about Irish YA you might like here. 
  • The shortlist is diverse (five books feature protagonists of colour, three of them by BAME writers, two have disabled protagonists, and several deal in some way with mental health and sexuality). More so in terms of authorship than the recent Carnegie shortlist (which you can read more about, from people who know more about it, here and here) but less so than the Jhalak Prize (which was created specifically to recognise writing by authors of colour and saw the wonderful Girl of Ink and Stars on its inaugural shortlist).
  • For publishing nerds like me: with three shortlistings each, publishers Penguin Random House and David Fickling Books are tied for most all-time nominations.
  • Most strikingly, dark and blue-toned covers seem to be the key to being shortlisted this year! Only Orangeboy’s cream-and-colour concoction defies the trend.

25437747Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

Beautiful Broken Things is, in many ways, a love story – it’s just not the love story you’d expect. Quiet, clever Caddy longs for a Significant Life Event to make her teenage years more interesting, but she is about to find that sometimes, the most significant thing in life can be a friend, and those courageous – or foolish – enough to love her. Authentic, heart-shattering and disarming, this is a book which takes pleasure in the little details: in small joys, in sunflowers, in baking, in hilarious (realistic, and occasionally drunken) texts. Barnard’s second novel A Quiet Kind of Thunder is perhaps even more brilliant (it’s my forerunner for next year’s YA Book Prize) but I’d love to see this one win, if not because I’m quoted in it (you can read my reviews here and here), then for the prominence it gives to one of the most powerful and underrated of all loves: heartfelt female friendship.

28693621Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman

OTHELLO! IN SPACE! So reads every press release for the brilliant Malorie Blackman’s latest, and it joins a plethora of YA retellings that claim descent from Shakespeare. Having read Othello, I was intrigued to see how Blackman would handle a retelling when I picked this up in the library. Chasing the Stars’ alternate narration follows siblings Aidan and Olivia, known as Vee, who are travelling back to Earth after surviving an epidemic onboard their spaceship, and Nathan, rescued while travelling in the other direction. Unfortunately, it’s overly long and what Blackman takes from Shakespeare’s original play – fanatical jealousy, raging suspicion, misogyny, and a severe case of insta-love – turn out to be pretty much the worst things to put in the book for me. I found the melodramatic, unhealthy relationship at the centre of the novel undermined its twisty sci-fi mystery-dystopia set-up. Fans of Katie Khan’s Hold Back the Stars or Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s These Broken Stars (I’m sensing a bit of a theme…) might be more suited to this.

25365584The Graces by Laure Eve

Laure Eve was a terrific panellist at DeptCon last year (I wrote about the panel and Laure’s amazingly cool hair here), so her stylish approach to The Graces comes as no surprise. Definitely in the running for UKYA’s most hyped book of 2016, for a time The Graces, and its eye-catching cover, was all anyone in the blogosphere could talk about. Mysterious and richly written, this is a contemporary-pseudo-thriller wrapped in prose like incense. Unreliable narrator River introduces the reader to the beautiful and enigmatic Grace siblings, Summer, Thalia and Fenrin, who are rumoured to be witches by her small town. It’s River who becomes the most obsessed of all, ingratiating herself into their lives with dramatic consequences. However, among others things this novel’s dragging pace, unrealistic and unwieldy dialogue and sizeable dose of the “I’m not like other girls therefore I hate other girls” trope made it a less enjoyable read for me.

28383390How Not to Disappear
by Clare
Furniss

For fans of Juno Dawson’s Margot and Me and Jenny Downham’s Unbecoming, this tale of mouthy teenagers, ardent friendship, hard truths, family strife and unreliable exes is classic contemporary UKYA from start to finish. Teen pregnancy is a fairly well-travelled YA road – Non Pratt’s Trouble was nominated for the first YA Book Prize – but clever, hapless, sometimes overly loyal Hattie is more Holly Smale’s geeky Harriet than Pratt’s gobby Hannah, and it’s the weaving of her modern story with that of her elderly great aunt Gloria which makes How Not to Disappear really stand out. It’s quite a serious book but there are some brilliant dashes of warmth and humour and I loved Hattie’s chatty, sharp, charming emails. I spent most of the book wanting to punch her charismatic, self-centred friend-turned-love-interest Reuben in the face. He’s a scene-stealing character, but he’s a terrible human being. Hattie deserves better – way better. After a strong début with The Year of the Rat, Furniss’ second book was also longlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal. 

34031732Paper Butterflies by Lisa Heathfield

In Electric Monkey’s first YA Book Prize shortlisting, one of the more difficult reads on this year’s shortlist, Paper Butterflies, is unflinching, harrowing and harsh, flecked rather than brimming with hope. Split into two intertwining timelines – ‘Before’ and ‘After’ – it tells the story of June, who finds an escape from her suffering at the hands of her vindictive stepmother and stepsister through her friendship with Jacob, also known as Blister, and his family. June’s relationship with Blister is reminiscent of Holly Bourne’s short story in the UKYA anthology I’ll Be Home for Christmas, but its new, bright colourful cover is thematically deceptive. A trigger warning for themes of horrific abuse means this isn’t one I’d recommend on the basis of its shortlisting alone; it isn’t exactly a book to enjoy, but may be your kind of thing if you have the stomach for writers like Louise O’Neill and Tanya Byrne, or indeed Heathfield’s début novel Seed. Paper Butterflies works best when it’s building extraordinary and immediate empathy not just for but with June, showcasing her voice and agency both within and beyond struggle.

What do you think of (the first half of) this year’s YA Book Prize shortlist? Are there any other books you’d like to have seen included?

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Contemporary Catch-Up // All of the Above and The Square Root of Summer

In which I attempt to catch up on some of the best (and worst) releases which have slipped my scheduling net. Contemporary is one YA’s busiest genres, so I’ll be tackling these through the medium of (relatively) quick reviews. And probably snark.

alloftheaboveAll of the Above by Juno Dawson
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: September 1st 2015
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased

When sixteen-year-old Toria arrives at a new school, she finds herself caught in a storm of exam pressure, new friends and doubting if she’ll ever fit in. Funny, foul-mouthed Polly – the coolest and weirdest girl Toria’s ever met – and her cohort of fellow outsiders take Toria under their wing, but with loyalties tangled and secrets being kept, fast friendships may hit the rocks even faster. Thrown in Toria’s crush on the irresistible lead singer of a local band set for stardom, and she may find that love and friendship have a funny way of going round in circles…

Eventful, outrageous and biting, All of the Above is practically bursting with character: between artistically talented newcomer Toria, fierce but secretive Daisy, bolshy pack leader Polly, awkward Beasley, book-mad Freya, uber-cool musician Nico, permanently-entwined-and-coolly-disinterested Alex and Alice, and of course, Geoff the cross-dressing squirrel, readers are from the off confronted with a colourful cast of teenagers – and the knowledge that some of these friendships will not survive the book. Polly, Daisy and Nico were the stars of the ensemble for me, but the story itself is championed by heroine Toria.

Chatty, frank and uproariously funny, Toria’s narration was one of my favourite things about the book. Brutally honest and littered with pop culture references, it both 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. It is through Toria’s humour and  Dawson captures the chaos of teenage experience.

Arriving at Brompton Cliffs, Toria finds that the year which follows is one torrid whirlwind of sexual confusion, startling revelations and surprisingly bittersweet heartbreak. Relying on the base ingredients of the YA tradition – opening with an arrival in a new place, focusing on friendship drama and coming-of-age issues – Dawson adds few twists to the general formula, but packs the book with themes relevant to modern audiences: mental health, sexuality, alcoholism, break-ups, make-ups, strained family relationships, music, hormones.

There’s so much going on in this book. It’s like an episode of Hollyoaks, only better written. This style does have its drawbacks, however. There are moments where the book fails to charm and where plot gets lost in the muddle. The prose is so busy rushing around that it’s difficult to feel many of the tough subjects tackled have been explored as deeply as needed (it’s not an easy read for some issues and requires a trigger warning) or to imagine some of the central relationships, built as they are on hastily-constructed speed-paint foundations, will last beyond the pages.
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Fans of Alice Oseman’s Radio Silence, Liz Kessler’s Read Me Like A Book and Lisa Williamson’s All About Mia will find this lively, if occasionally overbusy, contemporary companion appeals. Funny, sharp, and distinctive. 

27420164The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter-Hapgood
Publisher:
Macmillan
Publication date: May 5th 2016
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC

Reeling from the twin heartbreaks of a summer ago – the loss of her grandfather and a tough break-up – Gottie is lost and busy burying herself in equations.  

Until Thomas comes home: former boy next door, former best friend, former everything. And until Gottie starts to experience strange blips in time. They take her back to last summer – back to all she should have seen then – where she must navigate grief, world-stopping kisses and the space-time continuum as she tries to reconcile her first heartbreak with her last.

The Square Root of Summer had plenty of potential and no small amount of pre-publication hype. The premise is a collection of things which regularly appear in YA – summer timeframe, tough break-up, bad ex-boyfriend, the boy next door, a struggle with loss – with the added complication of mathematics-laden time travel. Its contemporary framing has echoes of Emery Lord, Amy Zhang and Kasie West, but for me the rest of the book didn’t click.

Unfortunately, the book’s writing style is baffling. And I say this as someone who is all for unusual and striking contemporaries! One moment it’s classic contemporary, the next it’s confused, clunky and completely unenjoyable. Choppy prose weighed down by jargon made it difficult to invest in Gottie’s time travel adventures or the passion for science which litter the novel. The writing style is idiosyncratic, disjointed and jarring, with irritatingly short paragraphs and sentences – all admirable attempts at toying with convention, and perhaps they would’ve worked in the hands of a more skilled or experienced storyteller, but it just doesn’t work here.

This book is, for want of a better phrase, all over the place. The suspension of disbelief, not to mention the supposed romances on which so much of the book hinged, just wasn’t persuasive. The characters are forgettable, the pacing is uneven and the plot is submerged in inexplicable jumps from scene to scene. For a character-driven novel, the individual or intersecting emotional stories must be compelling, but here it’s like someone threw vaguely-contemporary-shaped spaghetti at a wall and decided to write a book out of what stuck. IT MAKES NO SENSE.

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I just didn’t enjoy this one. A summer read which fails to live up to its potential. If you’re looking for an unusual writing style in contemporary, expert hands like Sarah Crossan or Jenny Valentine are still your best bet.

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A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard // a love story with ALL of the romance

30197201Author: Sara Barnard
Publisher:
 Macmillan
Publication date: 12 January 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

Steffi doesn’t talk, but has so much to say.
Rhys can’t hear, but he can listen.

Shy, anxious Steffi has been silent for so long that sometimes she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her.

Rhys is deaf, and Steffi’s knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to introduce him to sixth form life. To kind, confident Rhys, it doesn’t matter that she can’t talk, and with each they find unexpected friendship and even new adventures. As they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she may have a voice after all – and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.

From the bestselling author of Beautiful Broken Things comes a love story about the times when a whisper is as good as a shout.

I didn’t quite have the words, at first, to describe how much I adored this book. It took me ages to write a review because every time I looked at my notes I just ended up re-reading it. But I have taken this as par for the course when it comes to Rhys and Steffi, who would probably also see the irony in someone being (at least momentarily) speechless because of a story about finding one’s voice.

This is a novel which finds in the ordinary the extraordinary: which has taken a humble premise, straightforward prose and a handful of characters and created a love story which may already be one of my favourite books of the year. (And perhaps even a possible awards contender, too). Sara Barnard’s celebrated début novel Beautiful Broken Things was a great addition to young adult fiction, but A Quiet Kind of Thunder stunned me. I think I’d forgotten anyone could get much better at writing when a first novel was that good. The style is still fairly plain, but it does so much work with such everyday words and most importantly, it has improved: it flows better, it’s more memorable, and it’s more vivid. Fans of Sarah Crossan and Stephanie Perkins looking for a new writer to add to their shelves will find an excellent companion here.

Quiet, determined Steffi has learned the hard way that the world does not really know what to do with someone who should be able to, but cannot, talk. Sixth form will be difficult enough without her best friend Tem – sporty, rambunctious, big-hearted Tem, who has traitorously abandoned her for a different college and can send only texts to keep her spirits up – but when she’s asked to act as a guide for the new boy at school, her day reaches new levels of socially-anxious terror. But Rhys is not at all like she expected: kind, charming, ridiculous and maybe a little more nervous than he lets on, he is the first person in a long time to look at Steffi and see her. There’s just one complication: Rhys is deaf, and Steffi’s sign language skills are more than a little rusty.

I loved Steffi. I loved Rhys. I loved Tem. I even loved Meg, who steals every scene she’s in.
I loved how Steffi and Rhys actually spend time with each other and get to know each other. Theirs is somehow both a slow, unfurling love story – full of shyness and affection, mistakes and mishaps – and a swoony, sweet romance – full of kisses and conversations, humour and hope. And honestly? This book has set new standards for me when it comes to romance in YA fiction. It’s thoughtful and down-to-earth but also heartfelt and gorgeous. It’s astonishing. HOW CAN IT BE ALL THESE THINGS AT ONCE??! Where has Barnard been hiding this talent? CAN I READ ABOUT THEIR WHOLE ADORABLE LIFE TOGETHER?!

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(spoiler: it’s definitely a kissing book)

Funny, cheesy, romantic and serious, the story is told in traditional narration, but also notes, text, chat exchanges and British Sign Language. Consistently bolded or explained, BSL is Rhys’ first language and Steffi’s second: it is the wholly embraced dialogue of their relationship. And just as love does not give Rhys hearing, neither does it cure Steffi’s selective mutism or anxiety. They simply help and understand each other. Oh, and there are dogs. And families! And hope! And dogs. And some subplots! Supportive, enthusiastic teen friendships! Platonic, caring boy-girl friendships! AND DOGS.

A strong, character-driven plot proves contemporary fiction can be both romantic and highly engaging. It’s focused, fluid, dramatic and just a little heartbreaking, and it fits the characters. Things go wrong, there are failures of communication, there are roads to true love with a few bumps along the way. The ending is a bit rushed and I would’ve liked a touch more description, more sex-positivity for Steffi herself (though the book is sex-positive on the whole), or to have seen appearances from the characters of Beautiful Broken Things (NO MATTER HOW INEXPLICABLE). Alas, it will have to wait until this book’s delightfully romantic sequel. Or the Belinda-Davy short story. Or the Meg spin-off. YA NEEDS A MEG SPIN-OFF.

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Romantic, expressive, warm and true, A Quiet Kind of Thunder is an irresistible second novel. It is achingly happy. It reminded me what five star books feel like: shiny, sparkling, and memorable. Glorious. I loved it. 

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a pair of reviews // children’s fiction takes on a winter’s tale (or several)

It’s time for another pair of reviews – and yes, I have gone full winter (it’s nearly Christmas whoop!). Grab your knitted scarves, curl up with a cup of cocoa (or coffee) and enjoy this foray into children’s fiction!

28168228A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 
26 January 2017
Source: 
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 
Genre:
magical realism, fantasy
Category:
children’s fiction

A swift, snowy adventure in which the eponymous Owl discovers she’s the daughter of Jack Frost. Full of gleaming icicles and midnight escapes, A Girl Called Owl conjures up vivid sequences of magic and nature, with more than a hint of Disney’s Frozen and Christmas classic The Snowman in its pages.

This is firm magical realism, occasionally touching on issues relevant to modern life – school, divorce, non-nuclear families – but generally focusing on a fantastical semi-otherworld of elemental creatures and their court, where grudges grow and powers wax and wane over centuries.

Denizens of spring and autumn provide a mixture of allies, enemies and surprises, while interjected chapters uncovering backstory and myths start with great intrigue but sometimes lose steam. The book isn’t quite up the standards of recent classics like The Lie Tree or The Wolf Wilder, and its subplots are somewhat tacked-on, with repetitive scenes of dialogue that go nowhere. The plot could be stronger, but the book should make solid reading for young 8-10s. A thoroughly G-rated children’s novel parents will happily gift to kids.

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A Girl Called Owl features beguiling wintry description and a straightforward plot, but there are deficits in storytelling and the dialogue needs work.

29991694Winter Magic edited by Abi Elphinstone
Authors:
Emma Carroll, Jamila Gavin, Berlie Doherty, Michelle Magorian, Michelle Harrison, Amy Alward, Piers Torday, Geraldine McCaughrean, Lauren St. John, Katherine Woodfine, Abi Elphinstone
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication date: 
3 November 2016
Source:
Purchased 
Genre:
magical realism, contemporary, fantasy, multiple
Category:
children’s fiction

Short story anthologies are always tricky: notoriously hit and miss affairs, it’s likely that some stories will endear more than others, and indeed that is the case here. But for the book on the whole to feel satisfying and hold attention – that is a rare thing, and Winter Magic comes very close to achieving throughout that sense of cohesive wonder.

Drawing on the talents of nearly a dozen acclaimed children’s authors from Berlie Doherty to Katherine Woodfine, this collection ranges from soft to sharp, subtle to starry. Helped by its magical unifying theme – enchanting, Christmassy winter – these are stories of playful childhood and close-knit celebration, but also of frost fairs, snow dragons, glittering landscapes, unexpected time travel, rogue French teachers and friendship. Several stories, including Amy Alward’s ‘The Magic of Midwinter’, fell flat for me, but contributions from Michelle Harrison, Lauren St. John and particularly Emma Carroll prove worthy of a collection which is at its best as tempting as Turkish delight in a frozen forest and hearty as Lyra’s race across the ice on the back of an armoured bear.

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At turns enchanting and exciting, Winter Magic is a short story collection which on the whole benefits from the skilled pens of its writers, with only a handful of duff twists or lacklustre contributions. A strong – and altogether more charming – alternative to the YA-orientated I’ll Be Home for Christmas (my review of which you can read here).

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