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

Author(s): Meg Grehan33972290
Publisher:
 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.

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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. 

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Contemporary Catch-Up // The Hate U Give and When We Collided

Today on the blog it’s more contemporary YA (and I continue my battle with writing reviews that are actually less than a thousand words long), including one of 2016’s shiniest and one of 2017’s most talked-about!

25663637When We Collided by Emery Lord
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: April 7th 2016
Series or standalone?: standalone

Jonah is the kind of boy Vivi never expected to want.

Vivi is the kind of girl Jonah has never given himself time to love.

In an unflinching story about new love, old wounds, and the summer that paints their lives in vivid technicolour, Vivi and Jonah find that when you collide with the right person at just the right time, it can change you in all the ways you don’t expect.

As full of joy as it is of sorrow, this is a tale of family and food and love and sunshine and struggle. It is both generously written and incredibly bittersweet, and I was unexpectedly swept away by its frank and vividly unfurling story. The first Emery Lord book I’ve ever read, it’s taken me so long to review it her next book is already almost out – but if you haven’t read this yet, it’s absolutely worth doing so. For fans of Sarah Dessen and Sara Barnard, this is an energetic and memorable character-driven contemporary with enough plot and drive to feel satisfying.

Stubborn, sincere, sweet and hardworking, devoted brother Jonah is doing what he can to keep his family together after personal loss and during unspoken absences: keeping his family’s restaurant afloat, caring for his young siblings, running himself ragged. Bright, colourful Vivi is a whirlwind of cheer and exuberance, and longing to forget that which has been dealt to her, finds herself whisking a rather bewildered Jonah off his feet. Both are fabulously well-realised, at turns flawed and wonderful, characters: I liked Vivi, but particularly loved Jonah. Lord displays a deft hand in constructing secondary characters, too, whether in Verona Cove’s residents or, among my favourites, Jonah’s siblings.

Told in keen alternate narration, Jonah’s sturdy, big-hearted look at a precarious family contrasts sharply with Vivi’s gregarious but sometimes unpredictable enthusiasm. The latter is notable for its skilled and carefully-constructed illustration of rapid and reeling experiences of bipolar disorder. If you’re looking for YA that gives depth and resonance to the often lacking summer romance device, this is absolutely the book for you. Occasional missteps in twists, dialogue and narration – there’s a touch of instalove, the broader setting is a little forgettable (though the beach scenes are always a plus) and there are some details here and there I wasn’t a fan of – mean it falls short of being a five-star read, but there are moments when it comes close.

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When We Collided is sweeping, vivid and punchy. I love recommending this one. Such a fantastic read. 

32613366The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: April 6th 2017
Series or standalone?: standalone

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised, and the posh suburban high school she attends an hour away.

The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed friend, Khalil, by a police officer, and – in a novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement – she finds herself struggling for justice, clinging to hope, and fighting to be heard.

First things first: this is probably the hypiest book is the history of YA hype (and you know how I feel about hype). It débuted right onto the NYT bestseller list, already has a movie deal (with YA book-to-film-adaptation darling Amandla Stenberg set to play Starr), has at leas eight starred reviews from pillars-of-trade-reviewing like Kirkus, and has had more coverage in the months leading up to and just after release than I’ve seen for some UKYA books all together. If books were rated on buzz alone, well, there are some pretty happy marketing and publicity folks who can afford to take a holiday after this (and let’s face it, they might need a holiday after wrangling all those platform strategies, press releases and interviews…!). I was actually offered this book for review, but as it’s already out here in Ireland (I know!) I decided to pick up my own copy (shoutout to the lovely Jacq, whose recommendation bumped it up my always-toppling TBR).

Frank, sobering and often dark, this is a tough read told in forthright yet energetic style. Protagonist Starr’s voice is passionate, warm and distinctive, and readers will quickly be rooting for her. In a thematic, subplot-packed book, her struggles are often as internal as they are external: as well as seeking justice and the media circus which follows Starr’s witnessing of her friend’s death, there is exploration of her self-censorship at her posh secondary school, the impact of violence and trauma on a community, and the extent to which teenagers can be activists. The writing style isn’t spectacular, on occasion turning unwieldy, but a strong and present family dynamic – including Starr’s parents, siblings Seven and Sekani and some of her extended family – anchors the book brilliantly.

Authentic, empathetic and deeply entrenched in a rich series of experiences, The Hate U Give plunges the reader into its story with unapologetic momentum. Its stylistic immediacy coupled with its sharp examination of race and systemic inequality pitches it somewhere between Nicola Yoon’s frothy, current The Sun Is Also A Star and Malorie Blackman’s seminal (and still unparalleled) Noughts and Crosses, ensuring it will both land on most-recommended lists and crop up in classrooms under the auspices of particularly on-the-money teachers. The romance is lacklustre, uneven pacing makes it too long for a contemporary and it should be noted that the book is almost completely America-centric with little regard for goings-on in the rest of the world, but Starr’s tale has more vigour and outspokenness than most of John Green’s books put together. It’s weighed down only by a few duff or clunky emphases, and would be a great choice for listening to on audiobook. I It’s not an easy read – but then it’s not designed to be.

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For fans of Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence, Wing Jones by Katherine Webber and Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, this powerful début novel is sure to continue making waves both sides of the Atlantic. 

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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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Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall // short, serious YA (and some Wonder Woman fangirling…?)

29566743Author: Louise Gornall
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 7 July 2016
Category: YA
Genre: contemporary
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I was kindly sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Every day Norah wakes up in a quiet house on a quiet street, and every day she prepares for battle with the combined forces of agoraphobia and OCD. Years of struggling with illnesses that seem much stronger than she is have left her weary and increasingly resigned to the confines of a life where the sky is a glimpse through a window and the world is always out of reach.

When groceries are left out on her porch, Norah can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. The sweet, funny boy next door just caught her fishing for groceries, because of course he did. And just like that: Norah has a crush. But love can be tricky even when your life can fit the rose-tinted lenses of a Hollywood romance – and what about when it can’t?

The set-up of Under Rose-Tainted Skies may be simple – it tells the story of a girl, a boy, and the agoraphobia which throws a bit of a spanner in the works when it comes to conventional romance – but it’s also nuanced. Short, serious and just sweet enough to temper its heavy subject matter, Under Rose-Tainted Skies will undoubtedly please readers calling for more young adult fiction which tackles teen mental health head-on.

Stepping back to look at the story as whole, you’ll also find (in no particular order): red lipstick, passed notes, inconvenient birds, fumbled French, bad movies, and one unusual protagonist. Whatever kind of narrator you were expecting for Under Rose-Tainted Skies, Norah probably isn’t it. Frank, fearful, foul-mouthed and morbid, she won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but she’ll have readers rooting for her faster than they expect. Blunt, arresting and distinctive, Norah’s voice is not confined.

The romance between Norah and Luke, in contrast, is quite sweet. There’s a lightness to it which lifts the prose long enough to keep you reading, but it doesn’t go unblemished by the seriousness of Norah’s situation. Luke is kind, funny, and while he makes mistakes, he cares about her – though I definitely felt like there was a touch of that scene in the new Wonder Woman where a curious and wide-eyed Gal Gadot sees Chris Pine on the beach and is like, “This is the first man I have ever seen, yes, good, I like him, I shall not kick his ass today, I will keep him” to the way the Norah falls in love with essentially the first teenage boy she claps eyes on.

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(Sidenote: I am more excited for the Wonder Woman movie than is probably warranted, that line in the trailer “what I do is not up to you” I NEARLY FELL OVER it’s amazing)

But then maybe Norah is as strong as Wonder Woman, too: Norah, after all, has the persistent ability to contend with a brain which often works against her. There’s exploration of a teenage relationship in which serious issues and boundaries have to be dealt with early on, and while it’s tame in terms of content, that’s sort of the point. Under Rose-Tainted Skies strives to show a relationship in which two teenagers care about each other while scaling back the usual step-by-step of contemporary romance to fit its heroine’s needs. It’s a book that makes you cheer when they get to hold hands – for Luke and Norah, it’s a real triumph.

And in a move that will delight many with an interest in mental health-focused teen fiction, this book states pretty emphatically that love does not cure mental illness. Luke is Norah’s light in the dark, but he’s not a knight in shining armour, swooping in to show that mental illness can be fixed with a bit of starcrossed love or the quirk of an expressive, sculpted eyebrow.

The story may even have benefited for a little more of Luke, as it’s cast is more short film than blockbuster-sized. Norah and her mother are close and she has a positive relationship with her therapist which just about counterbalances what can come across as the book’s harsh judgement of other female characters. The writing style still needs work, as it relies on uninspired plot contrivances, the ending is rushed and poorly explored, and in a not-uncommon occurrence for a début, the plot is as simplistic as its structure. It lacks the warmth of polished, get-stuck-into-it contemporaries like Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door or Holly Bourne’s How Hard Can Love Be? It’s set in America though there’s no particular reason for it to be. It requires a trigger warning (self-harm) and it’s not always the most enjoyable of reads given its heavy theme.

Of course, it’s no secret that the best thing in, and perhaps the point of, this book is its raw, honest approach to mental health. It’s the reason it’s being recommended, the reason it’s being read. Much of what can be said about Under Rose-Tainted Skies’ approach to mental health has already been said, but it’s still worth mentioning. Norah’s distinctive voice and validated perspective aside, it notes her worries about medication and therapy and how an emotionally healthy support system – without caveats, without take-backs, without impatience disguised by tolerance – can be invaluable. There’s an unexpected physicality to the prose, specifically in the case of its emphasis on Norah’s awareness of her body and of how what many would assume is a purely psychological experience is in fact a highly physical one. Descriptions of place and colour may be a little lacklustre, but more internal descriptions, like those in which Norah relates what her agoraphobia kicking in does to her legs or limbs or brain, are visceral and incredibly specific. Descriptions of her body’s reactions to fear are more suggestive of a relentless mind-body rugby match than anything else. It’s not perfect, but it’s stark, unflinching stuff.

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A sensitive and defiant portrayal of a teenage girl’s complex relationship with the world, her brain and the boy who makes her wonder if she’ll ever be able to navigate both.

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