A review with lots of short stories in it // A Change Is Gonna Come anthology (various authors)

34946853Author(s): Mary Bello, Aisha Bushby, Tanya Byrne, Inua Ellams, Catherine Johnson, Patrice Lawrence, Ayisha Malik, Irfan Master, Musa Okwonga, Yasmin Rahman, Phoebe Roy, Nikesh Shukla, Lucy Banaji (illustrator)
Publisher: Stripes
Publication date: 10th August 2017
Category: YA, short fiction
Genre(s): contemporary, historical fiction, magical realism, dystopian, sci-fi
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

A steady flow of YA and kidlit short story anthologies have hit the shelves in recent years: Stephanie Perkins’ My True Love Gave To Me, the Malorie Blackman-curated Love Hurts, Abi Elphinstone’s terrific array of stories for younger readers Winter Magic, Deirdre Sullivan’s upcoming dark feminist fairytales project Tangleweed and Brine. This latest addition, the strikingly covered A Change Is Gonna Come, has been creating buzz ever since it was announced. It’s a headline release in inclusive, diverse UKYA in 2017, aiming to highlight a host of stories from UK-based BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers. It merges the approach of initiatives like the Jhalak Prize (one children’s literature contender was Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s splendid début The Girl of Ink and Stars), crowd-funded adult non-fiction title The Good Immigrant, and BAME-centric issues of publications like Shift Zine. It benefits from the backing of those with enough publishing power to do something about diversity rather than just staging another panel or pondering on it, and Stripes definitely deserve a shout-out for getting there first in terms of a move like this for YA.

The ostensible theme of the project is ‘change’, but it tackles far more: racism, culture shock, friendships, family, time travel, break-ups, Victorian circuses, heritage, loss, inexplicable feathers. Like most short story collections it’s quite a quick read, and like most short story anthologies (you can read more of my short fiction reviews here), it’s a little hit-and-miss. It’s rare that all contributions to a multifarious offering will suit every reader. A partial list of issues mentioned in the anthology, some with the potential to be very affecting for teens, is noted in the first pages and listed at the back.

The stories are framed by poetry – Musa Okwonga’s resonant ‘The Elders on the Wall’ (‘while I rise toward these elders, who yell / That they made it up here without help’) and ‘Of Lizard Skin and Dust Storms’ by Inua Ellams – which is a neat, pleasing device. Catherine Johnson’s circus-set ‘Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!’ sits squarely in her usual repertoire of historical fiction inspired by real events. Fellow YA Book Prize alumnus (and indeed this year’s winner – read reviews of the entire shortlist here) Patrice Lawrence takes on a Hunger Games or Maze Runner style prison dystopia in ‘The Clean Sweep’, which borders on too vague but has an interesting paratext-style ending twist.

Tanya Byrne’s experienced and effective pen shows in ‘Hackney Moon’, which makes full use of the short story form. There are some really fantastic lines (‘that bright afternoon in July when the summer rolled out at their feet like a red carpet’, ‘lipstick the colour of a fresh cut’, ’so that’s how it ended – not with a bang but with a squiggle of graffiti’). She packs a lot into the story of Esther and Alesha, or as it occasionally is the story of Esther and Sam, with its LGBTQ+ characters, yellow jumpers, bonding over zines and focus on tangled relationships. If you like Juno Dawson’s All of the Above or the messy characters of Moira Fowley-Doyle’s books, this may be up your alley.

The same story is never told twice in A Change Is Gonna Come, even when similar themes are at play. Racism is tackled and questioned head-on in ‘Fortune Favours the Bold’ by Yasmin Rahman and ‘We Who?’ by Nikesh Shukla; both seek to make messages ring true for readers, though the latter has an irresolute ending, perhaps due to the constraints of the form. If you’ve read Pooja Puri’s The Jungle (the first release from the new Scottish YA imprint at Black & White, Ink Road Books), then Ayisha Malik’s well-researched ‘A Refuge’ may appeal, though I didn’t like most of its adult characters.

‘The Unwritten Future of Moses Mohammad Shabazz Banneker King’ by Irfan Master is an out-there sci-fi which favours the serious over the wacky but still manages to cram time-travel into a post-box with the sort of concept that could only work in a short story. The titular Moses (‘named after a prophet, a boxer, an activist, a scientist and a pastor, not being able to see wasn’t going to stop Moses changing the world’) is tasked with altering reality through letters from a boy in the future called Malik. Master approaches it with ‘read now, ask questions later’ bombast. The reveal of who Malik is, and where the two will go next, gives the story an extra bit of punch.

‘Marionette Girl’ by Aisha Bushby shows a tonally as well as visibly contained approach to unfurling the life of Amani, a protagonist with OCD. Trapped by rituals such as scrubbing her hands, adhering to strict schedules and performing tasks a set number of times, there’s visceral illumination of the way Amani’s OCD affects her, but little depth expended on cause or secondary characters. The ending is abrupt, and there’s some f tell over show, also a feature of Mary Bello’s ‘Dear Asha’. Both stories have solid YA premises, however, and Bello’s conjuring of kinship and belonging in Nigeria – from markets and beaches to communities and corruption – shows flashes of immense vibrancy. There’s the odd duff line, but it’s got plenty going on for a piece of short fiction and it touches on themes like class and wealth disparity.

‘Iridescent Adolescent’ by Phoebe Roy (not, as it turns out, the same as ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ by the Arctic Monkeys, which completely got stuck in my head while writing this review) is undoubtedly the stand-out of the anthology. Its magical realism seems almost shaped or carved, as the mysterious, feathery tale of biracial, Jewish Nathalie unfolds. Some of its imagery and turns of phrase are notable (‘the sea lived in the house’s corners’) but it’s the impact of the story as a whole which really brightens the anthology. Reminiscent of The Girl at Midnight or The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, it showcases a glimmer of what one can do with the dreamlike in short fiction.

4stars-fw

For fans of non-fiction’s The Good Immigrant or Stripes’ previous anthology I’ll Be Home for Christmas, this collection does exactly what it sets out to, providing a diverse, fresh gathering of BAME authors and short stories for UKYA. I would’ve liked more humour and all its stories will be subjective, but offerings from Phoebe Roy and Tanya Byrne particularly stood out.

NameTag2.fw

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.

3hstars-fw

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. 

NameTag2.fw

We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan // a verse novel with grit and verve

25310356Author(s): Sarah Crossan, Brian Conaghan
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 9 February 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): verse, contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Acclaimed authors Brian Conaghan and Sarah Crossan join forces to tell the story of Nicu and Jess, two troubled teens whose paths cross in the unlikeliest of places.

Jess and Nicu are from different worlds. Tough city girl Jess doesn’t trust anyone, hiding the violence of her home life behind a mask of arrogance and disillusion. Nicu has emigrated from Romania and is struggling to find a place in his new home. When they meet, what starts out as an unexpected friendship turns to romance as the two bond over their painful pasts and hopeful futures. But with their worlds catching up to them, will they be able to save each other, let alone themselves?

I was lucky enough to read quite an early copy of this book, and let me tell you: it was worth the hype. (And you know how I feel about hype). Compelling, gritty and a little devastating, We Come Apart somehow emerges from the thunderous rumblings of pre-release anticipation with both surprises up its sleeve and writing that lives up to expectations. Crossan and Conaghan, already at the top of their game as individual writers, prove once again why they are critically acclaimed Carnegie and Costa winners respectively and reveal that collaboration has indeed sparked something new in their repertoire. With a keen sense of story and an eye for detail, this dynamic dual narrative is a back-and-forth of fearless proportions. It is unflinching, engaging, sharp and occasionally, totally heartbreaking.

We Come Apart is is helmed by two tour-de-force leads with distinctive verse voices. Jess is a gobby, streetwise London teenager turned truant who feels fed up with school and with adults who try to tell her what to do when they can’t – or won’t – see what’s right in front of them. Nicu, on the other hand, is what you’d call “a good egg.” He is naive, kind, straightforward, and big-hearted, but lives in a life, bound by the confines of culture and the traditions of family, in which it is difficult to be so. Both long for understanding, friendship and freedom. Both discover it, at least for a while, in each other. In a novel where every word is up for scrutiny, their presence dominates and leaves the rest of the cast for dust.(Nicu is an easy favourite. He will be everyone’s favourite).

This book is striking partly because Jess and Nicu’s story at first seems like one that doesn’t belong in poetry. This is poetry with shoplifting, criminal records, peer pressure, community service, and class in. It explores immigration, racism, prejudice, and clashing cultures. It features characters who experience disenfranchisement, distrust, and domestic violence. But is is also rarely about those things: instead it is often about friendship and strength and kindness and hope. It’s about loyalty and betrayal and realizing that, for better or worse, everyone has a choice when it comes to who and what they want to be. There is a sense that it is very deliberately saying to readers, “Look what we can do with poetry. This story belongs in poetry, too.”

For an audience often forced to stare at stanzas until their eyes fall out or the carefully-highlighted exam-worthy words lose all meaning, We Come Apart will be a bit of a shock, but it’s a worthwhile read. It may, in the hands of an open-minded gatekeeper, find favour in classrooms and library recommendation shelves or even persuade the skeptical that poetry is, every now and then, more than daffodils, metaphors and toffs with nothing better to do than write melodramatically about their feelings or the weather. (The Daffodils, by the way, was probably about the French Revolution). And of course, there’s plenty to satisfy the seasoned YA reader, too, including a page-turning pace, a handful of plot twists, and an effective narrative style.

The book is not without fault – it could use more heart or humour, the verse isn’t perfect, and, often bleak and far more bitter than sweet, it’s a difficult read, so it’s probably not the best to choose if you’re looking for something cheery. There are stereotypes, it may be triggering and it’s problematic. But that’s kind of the point, because the story is certainly strong: Conaghan and Crossan have set out to take the unpoetic, the sometimes unpleasant, and prove their ability to give it poetic form, and in that they have succeeded. As with many verse novels it’s quite a fast read, but it’s not easily forgotten. Fans of Phil Earle, Keren David and Benjamin Zephaniah will find an ideal recommendation in this poetic turn. Expect to see it up for multiple awards this year.

4stars-fw

Sharp, unflinching and well-written, this novel-in-verse marks a milestone collaboration for Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan. Moments of hope and friendship litter the bittersweet story of Jess and Nicu, two very different but very human characters. 

nametag2-fw

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?!

11159837

(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.

5stars-fw

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. 

nametag2-fw