Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain // début leaps – and sticks the landing

Today on the blog, we’re taking to the trapeze with this début novel…

ftipsAuthor(s): Kelly McCaughrain
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 1st March 2018
Genre: contemporary
Category:
upper MG, teen fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: own
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Teenage twins Finch and Birdie Franconi are stars of the flying trapeze. Circus tricks are practically in their blood.

But when Birdie suffers a terrifying accident, Finch must team up with the geeky new kid, Hector, to create an all-boys double act and save the family circus school. Teetering on the high-wire that is school social hierarchy while juggling the demands of family, first love and facing up to who they are is a lot for two confused clowns to handle. Will their friendship, and the circus, survive?

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds was another of those pleasant surprises in my spring reading this year. It’s again from that spot between fiction for older children and for early teens (11-14s), making it particularly suited to those looking to take more steps into the YA section. There was a spate of circus books in YA in 2017, but they all seemed to have a supernatural – Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Pack by Kate Ormand – or dark thriller edge – Show Stopper by Hayley Barker, even Flight of a Starling by Lisa Heathfield, which is also about a trapeze double act and a new acquaintance who alters two siblings’ lives – but with Flying Tips for Flightless Birds, Kelly McCaughrain manages to draw together both storytellers’ evident fascination with the circus and a much-needed lightness of touch.

When trapeze artists Finchley and Bridget Sullivan are in the air, they become Finch and Birdie Franconi, the latest in a long line of circus performers, including high wire walkers, barrel riders, jugglers (and one very health and safety conscious dad). While their ancestors flung themselves over Niagara Falls and travelled the world, their parents have opted to run a circus school just outside Belfast – though it still means having a mother who can tightrope walk, a little brother who wants to be a fire eater and a foul-mouthed grandmother, Lou, who used to walk across the ridges of roofs to freak out the neighbours.

Birdie and Finch have inherited a taste for daring. They dress flamboyantly and find themselves subconsciously juggling nearby objects during everyday conversation. But with Birdie starting to wonder if there could be life outside the circus and Finch struggling in her absence, they are believable. New boy Hector is enthusiastic but clumsy; at first the student of a reluctant Finch, his friendship becomes invaluable, and I really liked the exploration of their changing relationship. Elsewhere in the cast, there’s Freddie, known as Py (“Fire dancer, fire juggler – you name it, I’ll put lighter fluid on it”) and Janie, a foster kid and aerialist who’s so good at dangling from reams of silk she finds it calming.

McCaughrain’s prose is straightforward and fairly unshowy, though she conjures evocative details – the thrill of heights, the calluses on circus performers’ hands, even sitting in the safety net beneath the trapeze to get your breath back – and handles setting with subtlety, focusing on the circus warehouse as an adopted home for its eclectic residents. Finch’s narration cleverly interspersed with distinctive blog posts from Birdie, and there are moments of incisiveness (“Be that as it may” is “adult for ‘whatever'”; there’s “something lonely about an empty spotlight, like a big white hole in the world”). One of her major themes is what it means to stand out, but she also touches on things like found family and school struggles. She balances not-unrealistic elements of homophobia with quite a sweet coming-out story, too.

On the downside, there’s little urgency or pace to an already fairly standard plot, though it revolves around what you’d expect to be quite an urgent matter, that is, trying to save the circus school from closing. Some of the conflict gets resolved with very little action from the protagonists. I would’ve liked there to have been more actual trapeze scenes in the first half – we often hear more about it than see it take place – and there’s almost no character depth or development to Birdie and Finch’s other siblings, leaving them effectively faceless for the length of the book.

However, the most surprising feature of Flying Tips for Flightless Birds for me was its sense of humour. That was what kept me reading, whether it was in lively asides (“We’ve put a lot of effort into taming Jay, but we think it’s unfair to do it to more intelligent creatures”), mining humour from strife (“the only difference between a playground punch-up in Year Eight and one in Year Eleven is that everyone’s a bit taller and has better hair”), or quips in dialogue (Finch’s parents on marriage: “Ah, crap, I knew there was something we forgot to do.” “Do you think we should return all those gifts?”). It livened up the prose and turned this solid début into a really enjoyable one.

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Flying Tips for Flightless Birds is unexpectedly funny, often enjoyable and, at its best, oddly moving. This is a début which juggles the sweet and the sombre, and is ideal for 11-14 readers. I’m intrigued to see what McCaughrain writes next. 

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Girls Can’t Hit by T.S. Easton // funny, feel-good teen fiction

29102795Author(s): T.S. Easton
Publisher:
 Hot Key Books
Publication date: 20th April 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

Fleur Waters never takes anything seriously – until she turns up at her local boxing club one day, just to prove a point. She’s the only girl there, and the warm-up alone is exhausting, but the workout gives her an escape from home and school, and when she lands her first uppercut she feels a rare thrill. Determined to improve, she goes back the next week. And the next. And the next.

Her overprotective mum can’t stand the idea of her entering a boxing ring, her friends don’t really get it either, and even her ever-polite boyfriend George seems concerned by her growing passion for the sport. But Fleur is learning that sometimes, you have to take a chance on yourself, and that sometimes the best things in life can come from unexpected places.

Well-written and hugely enjoyable, Girls Can’t Hit was one of the best surprises of this year’s spring UKYA for me. Straightforward, energetic and light-hearted prose makes for a fast read which is by turns warm and serious, entertaining and absorbing. Fleur’s story takes her from a reluctant new recruit to the first one out slapping posters on the walls when the local boxing club needs her help. Hers is a tale of friendship, boxing, skipping, food, bad driving, vintage costumes, more food, Friday movie nights (including Rocky marathons, natch), a collection of gangly ginger limbs, dodgy restaurants, battle re-enactments, defying expectations, and of course, finding your passion.

Scattered with pop culture references and entirely suitable description, fans of Sarra Manning, Holly Bourne, Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison will each find something to like here. And not to sound like Tom Jones off The Voice, but I loved the tone: pitched somewhere between teen fiction and YA, it’s deliciously, brilliantly funny. Filled with moments of sharp wit and wry observation, Fleur’s sense of humour and touches of sarcasm permeate her voice and shine when multiple characters get together. I love a carefully done YA comedy, and this book just flows. As clever as it is chatty, it had me laughing out loud and I loved it.

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Stubborn, hard-working and always ready with a quip, Fleur is an irresistible heroine. She’s determined, committed, and undergoes the kind of character development which is based on finding out more about oneself, rather than losing who you are. I liked her ambition, her lively characterisation, her active pursuit of her goals. She does things, wants things, makes mistakes and cares for those around her. She may even be one of my favourite contemporary teen fiction heroines of the year so far.

Fabulous, passionate and flawed best friend Blossom is wonderfully drawn while the gangly, awkward, kind-hearted Pip even gets an arc of his own (somehow involving Normans, Saxons, steampunk, time travel and sword-waving). npretentious supporting characters may only be described in a few throwaway lines, but most are sketched just enough for it to work. Fleur has a tricky but close relationship with her Mum and Dad, while boyfriend George is pleasant (or at least he is until the break-up caused by his inability to accept Fleur’s newfound skill and THEN HE IS DEAD TO ME). Also, I totally ship Fleur and Tarik. They’re so good together and I want to see MORE OF THEM.

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And it’s surprisingly feminist! Toeing the thin line between trenchant support and affectionately mocking (“It’s not a gateway drug to the patriarchy, it’s a custard cream”), the book’s feminism ranges from ardent (Blossom) to promising (Fleur) to thematic (portrayals of casual or institutional sexism met with noticeable examination and admitted realism). There’s awareness of feminist issues, recognition of the importance of talented, conscientious female role models and appreciation of the feeling of belonging a girl-positive feminism brings to characters, and real-life teen girls, like Blossom and Fleur.

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Fleur’s discovery of boxing and other sports makes her a force to be reckoned with not just physically but mentally, as she finds a level of self-belief, resolve and courage she never knew she had. The descriptions of her boxing are almost enough to make you want to take up the sport, but at the very least will see you noticing the book’s encouraging approach. Fleur has to work at her sport to get better and improvement is seen as an achievement in itself. Easton touches on its dangers and injuries, and has characters point out its embedding in violence and toxic masculinity, but primarily focuses on its positive effects for Fleur. There are a few missteps in unclear background characterisation and scene choices, but otherwise I raced through Girls Can’t Hit.

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Satisfying and clever, this is terrifically funny, affectionately feminist, feel-good teen fiction featuring great friendships, marvellous tone and a sporting twist. An unexpected addition to my favourite reads of spring 2017. 

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All About Mia by Lisa Williamson // second book syndrome? Not a chance

I finally got to read All About Mia by Lisa Williamson! (What? I have a very busy TBR). I’ve now read five of my most anticipated reads of the year (and about to start a sixth), which I am totally pleased with. Anyway, on with the review!

326157251Author(s): Lisa Williamson
Publisher:
 David Fickling Books
Publication date: 2 February 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

One family. Three sisters.

Grace is the oldest and a straight-A student. Audrey is the youngest, a future Olympic swimming champion. And Mia? Mia is the the mess in the middle.

Mia is wild and daring, great with hair and selfies, and probably more popular than both her sisters put together – though these are not attributes appreciated by her parents or teachers. When Grace makes a shock announcement, Mia is almost relieved: finally someone else will bear the brunt of her parents’ high expectations and constant nagging. But instead, it’s Mia whose life spirals out of control – boozing, boys and bad behaviour – and who might put at risk the very things she loves the most.

From the author of one of 2015’s breakout débuts – The Art of Being Normal, a contemporary which won critical acclaim, garnered serious award credentials and swept many into the clamour of a new UKYA favourite – comes one of my most anticipated reads of 2017: Lisa Williamson’s rambunctious, remarkable second novel, All About Mia.

I loved the premise of this book. It’s just the kind of chunky, get-stuck-into-it contemporary UKYA I’ve been looking for. It has such a strong, big-hearted feel: it’s down-to-earth, chaotic, candid and entertaining. I think ‘realistic’ is a very overused word when it comes to YA, but if interesting characters, believable struggles and strong writing count, then All About Mia fits the bill.

Sixteen-year-old Mia Campbell-Richardson is sandwiched between Cambridge-bound Grace (‘Mother Teresa in a blazer’) and future Olympic swimmer Audrey (occasionally known as Nemo). Mia, however, isn’t academic or sporty, doesn’t have any kooky hobbies, and hasn’t got a clue what she wants to do with her life. She may be a selfie queen and the undisputed leader of her friends, but inside she feels constantly shown up by her high-achieving siblings. Where Grace and Audrey excel, Mia fails spectacularly; where her parents plaster her sisters’ successes all over the walls, Mia gets a handful of embarrassing photographs and constant reminders of the trouble she’s caused. When straight-A student Grace comes home early from her gap year and drops a bombshell, Mia hopes that her now-not-so-perfect sister will get the comeuppance she deserves – the kind of reprimand she’s been used to for years. But her parents’ ire is conspicuously absent, and what’s worse, Mia finds herself on a downward spiral that can mean only one thing: trouble.

This character-driven novel is at turns fun, frank and vivid. With their parents finally about to marry after a twenty-year engagement, Grace’s life turning upside down (and boyfriend Sam taking up what little space there is left in the house), Audrey adapting to strict training under a new coach and Mia muddling her way through one disaster after another, you could say that the Campbell-Richardson household is a little bit busy. These core characters are vibrant, flawed and brilliant, and I’d definitely read a spin-off about Audrey.

Messy, mouthy Mia is a force to be reckoned with. Resigned to being the family disappointment, her struggle to be seen in the shadow of her overachieving sisters is written in a deeply empathetic way. Williamson doesn’t underestimate her audience, either: it’s the reader who will notice first that Mia’s behaviour is immature and attention-seeking, but also the reader who will first empathise with her. Shallow and impulsive, she does some unlikeable things, but particularly in the early half of the book, her heart’s on every page. I loved some of the little details: her passion, her intelligence, Miss Linden’s belief in and kind words for her making all the difference.

In a move which should please YA fans looking for reads without a romance-orientated plot, Mia doesn’t have a love interest. However, this ploy is perhaps taken a little too literally as all of Mia’s romantic and physical experiences are unhealthy and the book is far more sex-negative than sex-positive. Secondary relationships for Mia’s loved-up parents and sister Grace with boyfriend Sam bring a touch of warmth and buoyance – though as we see both through Mia’s cringing perspective one can’t help but feel there’s a bit of ‘ick’ to them!

Unfortunately, the friendships which appear in Mia’s life needed more depth. Authors like Sara Barnard and Holly Bourne have set the bar high when it comes to friendship in recent YA, creating resonant, genuine platonic relationships between their prose teenagers, and what’s more, pointing out that many YA friendships which have come before have been cursory at best. The first half of the book is engaging and often hilarious but the second half is weighed down by unnecessary plot points and scenes which drag before a dramatic and satisfying climax finally breaks through and the book gets back on track. All About Mia shines brightest when the tight-knit, loving, ever-so-slightly dysfunctional Campbell-Richardsons take centre stage.

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Messy, outrageous, vivid and engaging, All About Mia boasts a brilliant premise and some great flashes of humour. A solid cast and a satisfying style are marred only by a few duff or unnecessary turns of plot. A blistering and lively contemporary standalone ideal for fans of Trouble by Non Pratt, All of the Above by Juno Dawson or Lobsters by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison.

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A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston // a retelling in need of a bit more pace

252441111Author: E.K. Johnston
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s/Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: 20 October 2015
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

This lush reimagining of A Thousand and One Nights weaves out of Scheherazade’s well-known origins a different tale to the one we usually hear. Not wishing to lose anyone else to the monstrous Lo-Melkhiin, its heroine decides to take her sister’s place as his next bride so that she may save her life. Her kingdom is trapped in a nightmare which can only be ended with hope, courage and dreams of a kingdom peaceful once more, where each is free to choose their own future. 

A Thousand Nights tells the story of a girl who weaves whimsical tales not just for herself but for all those she has left behind. The love in this book is that of sisters, families and their people. Shrouded with illusion, spilling over with myth, and crowned by magic, its blend of genres – fantasy, adventure, magical realism, pseudo-historical fiction – creates a shimmering and surreal quality: every word is carefully chosen, every page a step further into a spell. It has a stunning cover, too: a luxurious swathe of deep purple, spun with gold, pink and blue.

Even more surreal is the idea that most of the book’s cast are not given names. Much of our heroine’s family is referred to only be their relation to one another, and readers may be put off by this lack of individuality. Even the heroine of the story – resourceful, self-sacrificing, and finding herself wielding an eerie, strange kind of magic in the face of oncoming wrath and war – never names herself. We are left with only an imprint, an afterimage, of the person she is striving to be. It’s hard to put a protagonist on your list of favourites when she’s not given a name. However, I liked the focus on stories, particularly those of women. A Thousand Nights makes a case for the idea that just because we don’t know a heroine’s name doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell her story.

Lavish imagery and constant metaphors are characteristic of a distinctive writing style which is at its best beautiful, but at its worst cloying. It verges on purple prose and it’s not the most engaging style; it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. A dramatic finale is well-earned, but the plot is meandering, occasionally dull, and, perhaps due to the characterisation, is easy to lose interest in. For me, there was always just something off about it, the absence of that indefinable ingredient which takes books from ordinary to extraordinary. For a more action-packed alternative, try Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton or The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi.

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Lush  and lyrical, A Thousand Nights is a story of the nameless, of the unknown heroine, and acts of bravery and adventure which have been lost to time. Delicate and well-spun as a tapestry, it’s vagueness and slow pace are, however, major drawbacks.

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The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle // magical realism done right

It’s October and we are firmly into autumn, with its colourful falling leaves and warm-scarf weather. If you’re a fan of Moïra Fowley-Doyle, however, you’ll know that it’s also a surreal time known as The Accident Season…

(This is a repost of my review from last year, which you can read in its original form here. Minor changes have been made to typos etc. because I am an insatiable editor.)

23346358Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle
Publisher: Corgi Children’s
Publication date: August 18th 2015
Category: YA
Genre: magical realism
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

It’s the accident season, the same time every year.

Bones break, skin tears, bruises bloom. The accident season has been part of seventeen-year-old Cara’s life for as long as she can remember.

Towards the end of October, Cara’s family becomes inexplicably accident-prone. They banish knives to locked drawers, cover sharp table edges with padding, switch off electrical items – but injuries follow wherever they go, and the accident season becomes an ever-growing obsession and fear. But why are they so cursed? And how can they break free?

Stylishly written, highly engaging and utterly captivating, The Accident Season heralds the arrival of an original and striking voice to YA fiction. It’s full of tarot cards, masquerade balls, fortune-telling, dreams, hallucinations and hazy, intoxicating magic.

Every October, seventeen-year-old Cara and her family – including her mother, older sister and ex-stepbrother – board up the windows, hide sharp implements and batten the hatches, because if something bad’s going to happen to them, it’s going to happen during the Accident Season. Throw in the mystery of a girl who shows up in all of their photographs, though nobody else seems to notice or even remember her, and The Accident Season sends chills down your spine from the very first page.

The Accident Season is a shifting, shadowy tale which seems to hover in the border between reality and fantasy. It reads with the ease of a labyrinthine Tumblr or an abandoned places Instagram; flowing, illustrative, and telling more story in a single page than some authors do in a lifetime. The plot is exquisitely constructed, and often raises more questions than it answers. As its secrets are revealed, it will have you questioning everything you thought you knew about this surreal storytelling world.

Fowley-Doyle seizes her chance to make use of legends and folklore, but never overplays her hand; she breaks free from tradition as much as she draws on it, and I loved it. The book is set in Ireland, and it could have easily seemed too Irish or cliché (thank you, any writer who’s ever written an Irish stereotype, for leaving me unable to read about Irish characters without wondering if a hardy, handsome, gruff émigré or a green-eyed half-leprechaun is about to come strolling round the corner) but The Accident Season and all its settings are cleverly written. In avoiding the usual pitfalls of an Irish-set book and always taking the brave choice, Fowley-Doyle’s true talent may lie in the way she skilfully appeals to an international audience. Her prose springs to life and dares you to hold on; she writes fearlessly, brimming with intellect and vivacity.

The Accident Season is quite dark, never far from themes of trauma and tragedy, so it’s not for younger readers (and I haven’t even mentioned the drinking, trespassing and truancy yet). For older YA readers, however, it’s a treasure trove; powerful, striking, and totally unnerving, it’s perfect if you’re looking for a very different kind of read to fill your summer with. For me, the only downside came with the characters. They’re well-drawn, but it’s difficult to connect with them in such a heady, ethereal atmosphere, and even more difficult to relate when so much of their decision-making is questionable at the very least. There’s a great LGBTQ+ storyline but romance usually take a backseat to the spooky happenings of the plot. That said, when you’ve got so many mysteries to unravel, there’s always something to keep you reading.

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The Accident Season is an absolute diamond of a book. Beautiful, enchanting and just a little dangerous, it holds an almost mythical power over the reader, drawing you in until you can’t look away. Deliciously dark and utterly spellbinding, this is a shimmering and unmissable début.

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The Next Together by Lauren James // wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff

The Next Together by Lauren James has been out for a whole year! To celebrate, I’m reposting my review from the first time around (and just in case you haven’t read the book yet).

(You can read the original post here. Minor edits have been made to this one for typos and sentence structure.)

23266378Author: Lauren James
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 3 September 2015
Category: YA
Genre: contemporary, sci-fi, historical, time-travel (…it’s a bit complicated)
Series or standalone?: series (#1 of 2)
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

How many times can you lose the person you love?

Katherine and Matthew are destined to be born again and again, century after century. Each time, their presence changes history for the better, and each time, they fall hopelessly in love, only to be tragically separated.  Spanning the Crimean War, the Siege of Carlisle and the near-future of 2019 and 2039 they find themselves sacrificing their lives to save the world. But why do they keep coming back? What else must they achieve before they can be left to live and love in peace?  Maybe the next together will be different…

Take a look at any bookshelf this year and you’ll come face to face with a treasure trove of cutting-edge contemporaries and lush high fantasies. Look a little further, however, and you’ll find one of the most original UKYA débuts in years winning fans from all sides in the run up to publication. That début is The Next Together, a dramatic and enthralling tale of romance and intrigue split across three centuries.

We first meet Katherine and Matthew in a laboratory in 2039. And in 1745 before the Siege of Carlisle. And again during the Crimean War in 1854. And, in my favourite storyline, through post-it notes, power-points, e-mails, texts, status updates, diary entries and Tumblr posts from their lives in 2019. In fact, letters, articles, postcards and maps bring a touch of magic to all three of these otherwise straightforward stories, tying them together as they brim over with love, tragedy and hope. Kate and Matt’s romance draws you in and has you racing to discover their destiny; I absolutely adored it.

Their story is a veritable melting pot of themes and storylines, all rounded off with a distinct, economical and shamelessly British writing style. It has everything you could wish for and more: time travel, unusual settings, memorable leads, history, science, humour, LGBTQ+ characters, star-crossed lovers. It even brings us characters in a positive long-term relationship, something I really want to see more of in YA. The Next Together has so much going on, in fact, it almost shouldn’t work – but it does. Somehow, this patchwork quilt of a novel pulls together into a warm, comforting story readers will want to return to time and again. It’s inventive, sweet and down-to-earth.

There’s a sense that feisty, exuberant Kate could easily crash from one embarrassing situation to the next, but she’s witty, brave and bashful, and I couldn’t help but fall for her. This book is full of unexpected humour, and Kate is at the heart of it. She doesn’t hold back and she will grow on you. Matthew is her long-suffering partner in crime, but behind that shy smile and messy hair is a courageous, honourable and above all, deeply good guy. He’s a breath of fresh air against a backdrop of brooding YA heroes; it won’t be long before you fall for him, too. I loved Matt’s laidback brother Tom, too, and of course Kate’s cool, chatty grandmothers Nancy and Flo. I almost wished the book had been longer so as to spend more time with them – with all of the leading characters, really. It works as a standalone, but fans will be thrilled to hear a sequel, The Last Beginning, releases in October 2016.

Hit-and-miss pacing is an issue for an already compact book, as its early pages dawdle and later scenes are rushed. Some plot problems are just too easy for our leads to figure out and there are definite plot holes. I’d hoped for more passion and emotion in the writing (probably because I’d just finished reading Crown of Midnight, which is basically the written equivalent of a hurricane) and it’s missing illustrative description, so while it’s easy to let historical discrepancies slide as creative licence, readers will have to work to conjure up scenery and visuals. The book’s minor characters are hastily sketched at best and it doesn’t escape the age-old problem of tell vs. show, either.

Yet even in this constantly shifting sea of storylines, The Next Together does an excellent job of keeping you on your toes. Even the finale raises more questions than it answers. There’s something refreshingly innocent and old-school about the way this book looks at the world, though it’s modern and engaging. The first half of the book is a slow burn, but it’s full of mystery and by the time Kate and Matt start unravelling the threads of the conspiracy around them, it’s all kicking off: fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…

Okay, so only some of those things happen here. But I don’t quote The Princess Bride without good reason. If you’re looking for a début that packs a surprising amount of action into its pages, this book is for you. Lauren James writes such heartfelt leads, it’s impossible not to be swept up in the joy, and possibilities, of this storytelling universe.

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This book is like gold dust. Deeply romantic, refreshingly real and wonderfully original, it’s a stellar début from a talented new voice in YA fiction. The Next Together will capture your heart and your imagination. Charming, ambitious and surprising, once you’re hooked, you won’t want to put it down. It’s gut-wrenching, heart-warming, near-perfect and very, very funny. I can’t wait to see what Lauren James has in store for us next.

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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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