a pair of reviews // Night Owls by Jenn Bennett and Second Best Friend by Non Pratt

It’s a veritable contemporary YA extravaganza on the blog today!

25327818Author(s): Jenn Bennett
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 13th August 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Meeting Jack on San Francisco’s night bus turns Beatrix’s world upside down. Jack is charming, attractive, and one of San Francisco’s most wanted graffiti artists – and he makes Beatrix wonder if art can be more than the medical drawing she’s confined herself to. 

By night and on city rooftops, Beatrix and Jack get to know each other – and each other’s secrets. But will these secrets come back to haunt him? Or will the skeletons in her family’s closet tear them apart?

Page-turning and often charming, I was surprised by how much I liked this contemporary standalone. I hadn’t heard much about Night Owls before I started reading, and I had to start and re-start reading it a couple of times before it really hooked me, but once it did I flew through it. Bennett’s writing style is straightforward, neat and fast.

Thrown together in a San Francisco of slick city streets and trendy yoga studios, Jack and Bex – a  rebellious, enigmatic graffiti artist grappling with his wealthy family’s secrets and a single-minded aspiring medical illustrator, daughter of a single mom – make an unlikely but believable pair. Their romance, which is to an extent built on friendly verbal sparring, features some miscommunication (or lack of communication), but also has considerable stretches of swoon, and there is frank communication about relevant teenage experiences like sex. Bennett’s finest achievement, however, is to conjure an almost sweeping sense of artistry and passion from two unexpected, and very different, types of art.

Bennett’s reveal of Jack’s motive and treatment of serious mental illness could have been better handled, and there’s a touch of ick factor to descriptions of Bex’s medical illustrations. The resolution relies on a suspicious number of characters existing only to offer to splash a considerable amount of money around, like very privileged guardian angels. The story needed more fleshed-out friendships and while Beatrix’s brother brings his boyfriend home to meet his family in one particularly memorable scene, the book as a whole perhaps isn’t the most memorable YA fiction.

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Set in slick San Francisco, this arty contemporary has faults but also a rich seam of swoon. For fans of Lydia Ruffles and Susane Colasanti.

352228491Author(s): Non Pratt 
Publisher: 
Barrington Stoke
Publication date:
15th January 2018
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Jade and Becky are best friends. But when Jade’s ex lets on that everyone thinks Becky is better than she is – at everything – Jade finds herself noticing just how often she comes second to her friend. 

When Jade is voted party leader ahead of her school’s mock general election only to discover she’ll be up against Becky, she sees it as a chance to prove herself. Surely if there’s one thing she can win, it’s this election – even if it means losing her best friend.

Second Best Friend is Non Pratt’s second novel for Barrington Stoke, a specialist publisher for readers with dyslexia, after 2016’s successful Unboxed. This standalone comes with the same colour-adjusted paper, clear font and novella length, but Barrington Stoke books are about more than just physically adjusting for reading difficulties – they’re a reminder that teenagers with dyslexia are interested in the same kind of content that fills the rest of the UKYA shelf. For this reason, Second Best Friend is full of school pressures, jealousy, drinking, and rapidly escalating sexual antics in utility rooms.

Like Unboxed – in which a group of teenagers return to their old school to open a time capsule – Second Best Friend has a straightforward premise: Jade and Becky find themselves facing off in their school’s mock election, and Jade, feeling insecure and always in Becky’s shadow, is determined to do whatever it takes to win. This plot is carried throughout and provides an undeniable sense of narrative drive. There’s plenty for readers to recognise, from politics and sibling rivalry to the drudgery of homework and the strange sense of competition that can overtake a school full of naive teenagers with nothing better to do.

Pratt packs Second Best Friend with real teen concerns and a veritable maelstrom of seesawing emotions. I liked the casual mention of Becky’s two mothers and even at a brisk pace, there’s a suitable denouement – though the ending is rather abrupt, and I noticed slight sense of simplicity to the story in a way I haven’t with some other Barrington Stoke titles. This may be down to the fact that the premise didn’t entirely click for me. I’ve been really enjoying seeing much-needed positive female friendship in YA – think Sara Barnard’s A Quiet Kind of Thunder, or Pratt’s own Remix – and to see it reduced to jealousy and insecurity, mostly through the interference of a boy, without enough narrative space for deeper exploration or resolution here was a bit of shame. However, to Pratt’s credit, she tackles her themes with aplomb.

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Non Pratt’s second Barrington Stoke novella does exactly what it says on the tin: it provides user-friendly, utterly teenage drama with a thematic twist. 

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6 LGBTQ+ YA reads you may have missed

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

24550848The Last Beginning by Lauren James 

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

32200595A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

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

33972290The Space Between by Meg Grehan

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

25648276Unboxed by Non Pratt 

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

Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle30079403

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

alloftheaboveAll of the Above by Juno Dawson 

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

23454354Bonus: Tumbling by Susie Day (short fiction) 

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

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

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

25458747Author(s): Non Pratt
Publisher:
 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.

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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.

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A review with lots of short stories in it // I’ll Be Home For Christmas anthology (various authors)

31114205Authors: Okay, so – hold onto your hats – there’s Holly Bourne, Tom Becker, Kevin Brooks, Sita Brahmachari, Melvin Burgess, Katy Cannon, Cat Clarke – *gulp of air* – Juno Dawson, Tracy Darnton, Julie Mayhew, Non Pratt, Marcus Sedgewick aaand Benjamin Zephaniah *phew*
Publisher: Stripes Publishing
Publication date: 22 September 2016
Category: YA, short stories
Genres: …many
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review
Find on Goodreads

The short story collection I’ll Be Home For Christmas sees a host of big names writing on the theme of home – but of course, this is UKYA, so if you have any expectations of that meaning a nice semi-detached feat. two parents, three kids and a Labrador, you can pretty much throw them out the window before you even start reading it.

This is gritty UKYA on full blast, tackling subjects like poverty, homelessness, grief, violence, homophobia, escape and isolation, with occasional appearances from sci-fi, thriller and semi-ghost stories. It’s difficult to write happy short fiction, and many authors rely on use of the dark or stark for impact here. The collection is less idealised than the Stephanie Perkins-helmed Summer Days and Summer Nights and provides more stories in general than Malorie Blackman’s why-are-there-only-five-original-pieces-in-this Love Hurts, though as with most anthologies, it is a hit and miss affair. 

It is the stories which weave hope and survival with support and family that really stand out in I’ll Be Home For Christmas. Juno Dawson’s take on new love, family and coming out is an uplifting addition to a book which features stories like Holly Bourne’s ‘The Afterschool Club’- a far cry from the feel-good feminist ferocity of the Spinster Club series, titles are about as similar as things get in this account of conditional friendship, toxicity and desperation with a horrific sting in the tail. Sita Brahmachari’s distinctive style makes her contribution interesting reading, while the closing story, ‘Routes and Wings’ by Lisa Williamson, is centred on the issues of homelessness most related to the work of the charity Crisis (which will receive a donation for every copy of the book sold). For those who don’t often read short stories, names like Marcus Sedgewick and Cat Clarke – who focuses on the kind of eclectic ‘found family’ dynamic many have been asking for from YA of late – will appeal.

Non Pratt’s look at the first steps of a teen romance complicated by a strange coincidence is unsurprisingly one of the best stories in the collection, displaying a talent for short fiction already honed by this year’s Unboxed for Barrington Stoke. She knows how to pack story into her pages. Susie Day’s ‘Tumbling’ (from the above mentioned Love Hurts) remains undefeated, however, as my favourite UKYA short story of recent years. (It’s clever and enjoyable in a way that has set the short story bar high for me, and IT NEEDS TO BE GIVEN A FULL-LENGTH SEQUEL, YOU GUYS.)

But I digress. I’d like to see more short fiction in YA, but it’s a tricky thing to pull off – too serious and you end up with a book most readers will put down after thirty seconds, too saccharine and it will lack the realism many come to YA for. This book is fairly serious and definitely requires a trigger warning (in fact it requires several) but strong work from a handful of its authors keeps you reading (though I could’ve sworn Sarah Crossan was announced as part of the original line-up!).

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solid addition to the UKYA short fiction scene, though the sheer variety entailed in an anthology means it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Stand outs include contributions from Juno Dawson, Cat Clarke and Non Pratt.

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GOOD VIBRATIONS: fans, music and boyband lit in YA fiction

YA has had its fair share of phases and trends in recent years, from ones we can’t wait to see more of (books focused on friendship, books exploring different kinds of relationships) to ones we’d like to see less of (paranormal romance, dystopia, cover models in giant dresses…). One trend I’ve seen crop up frequently of late (due to an increase in new releases under the label, including Songs About a Girl by Chris Russell, my review of which inspired this post, Eleanor Wood’s My Secret Rockstar Boyfriend, and Sophia Bennett’s brilliant Love Song, and to readers like Sally at The Dark Dictator who champion the genre) is boyband lit.

It’s a phenomenon which has both its delights and its drawbacks. For the uninitiated, boyband lit seeks to capitalise on the popularity of boybands by merging the ever-so-slightly-out-of-reach daydreams of fandom with the audiences of YA and the skill of the professional pen. It often sees a heroine – almost always ordinary, often not an ardent fan (it’s cooler for when she has to form coherent non-starstruck sentences later on) – run into the most famous band on the planet in a way which distinguishes her from the screaming masses – by tripping over nearby, by seeing them as people etc etc. – before discovering that one of them is the love of her life (alas it seems it’s too soon for polyamory to have kicked in as a solution to everyone’s problems). For added drama there may be a love triangle, or the bandmates will reveal their deepest secrets. This formula is commonplace in heteronormative fanfiction, but good boyband lit must seek to do more – to tell not only a polished story, but a surprising one, too.

27396059In fiction, story must come first. Teenagers aren’t the only members of fandom – fans come all walks of life and age groups – but they are often the target audience when it comes to marketing. It’s what every boyband for the last sixty years has depended on, whether we’re talking old-school music mania or the terrible haircuts of NSYNC. Music careers sink or sail on this stuff. This genre may be an attempt to tap into a lucrative financial opportunity, but at least in books, authors can draw from an already-established pool of themes and storylines, from friendship drama, social issues and family ties to school pressures and relationships. Twists, turns, and the skill of professional writers can create plot-focused, thought-provoking YA with the occasional pop quartet thrown in. It’s not written to start fandoms for or launch the careers of semi-believable fictional bands. If anything, it’s as much about giving readers a taste of music fandom as it is about bringing music fans to YA.

On the surface it might be easy to dismiss this trend as light-headed, inconsequential stuff. Except that while boyband lit may be new, boyband culture isn’t, and fandom being powered by teenage girls isn’t new, either. Many of the most passionate, talented, knowledgeable people in every fandom are women, and teenage girls are among the most powerful fans of all. Who do you think made most of music history’s best-known names so famous? Who bought their records and listened to songs over and over until they knew every lyric? Who makes their tangible pay-the-rent-and-make-another-album success possible? Because it’s not the limited circle of people who write for Rolling Stone.

Of course, shop-floor real-reader response to these books may be very different from that of forever-chasing-the-next-big-thing publishing and its trusty sidekick book blogging. (And there has been boyband lit which does an injustice to the very real readers who should be able to find solace, not mockery, in YA). But so as long as boy band lit respects readers, teens and young women, I’m fine with it.

21472663I can’t wait to see more YA featuring music, musicians, bands and the perils of balancing passion and fame. There’s such potential for exploring the way music is not only the soundtrack to but a real influence teenage life, as in Non Pratt’s fantastic Remix. And I’d absolutely love to see more YA where the heroine is a musician, or there’s a girlband (think Sarra Manning’s fictional  creation Duckie) at the heart of the book.

For now, this trend is on the up and up. Because, after all, it tells readers that it’s okay to enjoy things like pop music and wish fulfillment. It may even examine or improve damaging tropes which permeate fanfic, Most of all, it says that it’s okay to be a fan, to take an interest, to be enthusiastic.

What about you? What do you think of #boybandlit? Love it or loathe it? What would you like to see these books do next?

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