Interview: Lauren James talks science fiction, romance and what she’ll be writing next

Today on the blog, I’m delighted to be hosting author extraordinaire and cool human Lauren James! As you know, I think her books are fabulous and recommend them CONSTANTLY, so it was about time we did an interview. My questions are in bold, while Lauren’s answers are in plain text marked ‘LJ’. 

unnamed-3Lauren James was born in 1992, and graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2014, where she studied chemistry and physics. She started writing in secondary school because she couldn’t stop thinking about a couple who kept falling in love throughout history. That story became The Next Together, a debut novel which sold when she was 21.

The Next Together was described by The Bookseller as ‘funny, romantic and compulsively readable’ and was longlisted for the Branford Boase Award, which recognises outstanding novels by first-time writers. The Last Beginning, the sequel to The Next Together, was named a top LGBT-inclusive book for toung adults by The Independent. She has written two shorter stories in the series, Another Together and Another Beginning. Her third novel, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, was inspired by a space-based university physics assignment. She is published by Walker Books in the UK, by HarperCollins in the US and in translation in five other countries around the world.

Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She remains a passionate advocate of STEM further education – all of her books feature scientists. She has written for the Guardian, Buzzfeed and The Toast. You can find her on Twitter at @Lauren_E_James or her website, where you can subscribe to her newsletter to be kept up to date with bonus content and new releases.

Hi Lauren! Thanks for joining me on The Paper Alchemist today. You’ve got three books out on shelves, another out this year, and always (so it seems!) a draft or secret project on the go. How do you manage to juggle so many – often very different – projects?

LJ: I do have a ridiculous number of projects on the go! It’s because everything is always at different stages and I find it hard to wait for feedback or edits from a whole range of different people, so I start up something new in the meantime. It works out quite well, because there’s always something different to work on. I’ll send off an edited book and pick up drafting a new book, then go back to editing, etc. I think I’d find it quite difficult to work on more than one novel at a time though – I’d get scenes muddled up!

23266378The Next Together was your first novel. What do you still love about the book? Is there anything you feel you’ve gotten better at in writing since that first step into YA?

LJ: I think I’ve got better at everything since The Next Together. When I think back to writing that book, it was so difficult in every way – I was basically teaching myself to write and edit as I went. If I wrote it now it would be a very different book. But I’m really proud of what I managed to do with the concept as a complete writing novice. It launched my career, and it’s likely I’d never have been brave enough to try to write full time if I hadn’t got a book deal at that point in my life, when I was still at university, so I have a lot to be grateful for! I really love the chemistry between Kate and Matt, and their sense of humour and tenderness. It still makes me laugh when I reread parts.

24550848In The Next Together and The Last Beginning, Katherine and Matthew and Clove and Ella get along well with each other – they’ve got quite realistic and healthy relationships (despite everything time travel throws at them). Is this something you intended to focus on from the start?

LJ: I really hate when romance novels have characters who seem to genuinely dislike each other. I love a good enemies-to-lovers trope, but when characters bicker constantly and don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company, with lots of misunderstandings even when they’ve started dating, it doesn’t feel romantic to me. A partner should be your best friend, first and foremost. Otherwise what’s the point? So for me, in every book I write, I want to create really solid relationships where the characters are equally important to each other, even if the romantic tension was taken away and it was purely platonic.

You primarily write sci-fi, though several of your books have elements of historical fiction and contemporary romance, too. Are there any genres you haven’t tried or explored yet that you’d like to write?

LJ: I’d love to write a contemporary YA set at university. And a superhero book. And a regency romance with magic. And a middle grade about animals. And, and, and – I want to write everything! Hopefully I’ll be given the chance!

the_loneliest_girlIn The Loneliest Girl In The Universe, protagonist and space ship captain Romy has never set foot on Earth. If you had to explain some earth objects or activities she’s never experienced but only have heard of in theory, what do you think she’d find the strangest and what one would she most enjoy?

LJ: I think swimming would be something she’d enjoy, though it would still be strange after a lifetime of water being such a precious thing. I think a swimming pool or hot bath would blow her mind – imagine floating for the first time!

I think walking down a crowded street would probably be the strangest, as she wouldn’t know how to deal with all the people. Is she supposed to talk to them? Where are they all going? Are they looking at her? It would be tough.

You’ve spoken before about how you once felt compelled to read hyped-up or mainstream YA and struggled a bit to love reading when forcing yourself to do so. If you had to pick three underappreciated books you think YA fans would love (or that might get them out of a reading slump!), what would they be and why?

LJ: I used to, yes, but once I stopped myself reading anything because of the hype, and just read for enjoyment again, I’ve not had a reading slump since!

34593693The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein: I’m a huge fan of thirties detective novels like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, and this is a perfect spin on that – there’s murder, rich people living frivolously, dogs, Bronze age marine archaeology, bisexual characters exploring both sides of their sexuality, castles, cross-dressing cabaret shows, TREASURE-HUNTING, pearls, buried treasure (did I mention the treasure?) and river trawling. I’m so into it in every way. This is a great read for YA fans who want something a bit unusual.

Monsters by Emerald Fennell: A dark upheaval of the middle grade novel, with children who may or may not be serial killers. It’s not one for children, but it’s very Enid Blyton all the same.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor: For a YA fan wanting to branch out into some sci-fi, this is a short novella that gives a perfect taste of Black Panther style afrofuturism. It’s about an African tribal girl who travels to a different planet to study maths at uni. Her dreadlocks are TENTACLES. Enough said.

Your books all have multimedia sections: articles, postcards, powerpoints, blog entries, chat messages, and in The Loneliest Girl, fanfiction. How do you approach writing these pieces (and do you have a favourite individual one)?

LJ: I’m not gonna lie, these are so tough. It’s really hard to come up with new formats I haven’t done before! It takes a lot longer to make them than writing normal prose, but they’re so interesting that I would never get rid of them. They’re some of my favourite parts of the books, and I think they’re quite enticing, especially for younger readers.

I often make lists of possible media while I’m drafting – leaflets, architectural proposals, posters, post-it notes – and when the book is complete I’ll go back through and see where those things might fit into the story. Usually they don’t cover things already written about in the text but give more background to the world to make it seem more real. And anything that’s  funny gets priority. 😉

My favourite is probably this one from The Next Together. I must have written it about six years ago now, but I still find it hilarious. I remember it was one of the first times when I was still in the early stages of writing that I realised “Wait, I might actually be funny.”

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As well as being a writer, you’re also a qualified scientist™, an ambitious baker, and the resident human to several very excitable dogs. Is there anything you can’t do?! (And, for the fans, what are you working on at the moment?)

LJ: Hah! There’s so much I can’t do. I’m terrible at driving, for a start (don’t ask me to go on a motorway). I think it’s important to do other things besides writing, because otherwise all you have to write about is writing, you know? I’ve just finished edits on my next book, which comes out this autumn, about the last boy and girl born after humanity stop being able to conceive (the title/cover haven’t been revealed yet but you can add it here on Goodreads). I like to travel as much as possible, and I’m always going to exhibitions and museums – you never know where inspiration might strike.

Thanks again to Lauren for a fabulous interview – if you enjoyed it, feel free to comment down below!

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The Loneliest Girl In The Universe by Lauren James // space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence

I’m catching up with reviews of some recent(ish) YA releases at the moment, and this one has been in my to-review list for ages…

the_loneliest_girlAuthor(s): Lauren James
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 19th October 2017
Genre(s): science fiction
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Commander Romy Silvers is the only remaining crewmember of the spaceship Infinity, travelling to a distant planet on a mission to establish a new colony, Earth II.

Then she learns that a new ship, The Eternity, has been launched and will join her – and on it is one passenger, named J. Their messages take months to transfer across the vast expanse of space, but Romy holds on to the hope that when J arrives, everything will be different. If she can keep her increasingly eerie ship running that long… 

I love Lauren James’ books. Her début The Next Together (“charming, ambitious and surprising, once you’re hooked, you won’t want to put it down”) and second novel The Last Beginning (“Funny, chaotic and full of adventure… throws its arms around things like anomalies and paradoxes and says if there’s one there may as well be a hundred”) are among some of my go-to YA recommendations. They’ve got so much going on: time travel, science fiction, historical fiction, alternate universes, starcrossed romance, LGBTQ+ characters, action sequences, humour, post-it notes, powerpoints, KNITTING.

The Loneliest Girl In The Universe, James’ first novel not centred on rule-breaking gay time travellers the Finchley-Galloway-Sutcliffes (still need a collective noun for them), is a very different type of book. Where The Next Together is warm and messy, The Loneliest Girl is all cool tones and clean lines. Where Kate and Matthew are ridiculous and adorkable, Romy and J are single-minded and mysterious. If The Next Together and The Last Beginning draw on a remarkable array of interests and genres, then The Loneliest Girl in the Universe is almost microscopic in its focus. Set entirely onboard a spaceship – with the exception of Romy’s fan fiction sequences – it’s James’ most high-concept sci-fi book to date (with a cover to match). Short, sharp, and efficient, The Loneliest Girl packs quite a punch.

The first person born in space, teenager Romy is the only person left to pilot her ship, The Infinity, to its planned destination: a new colony for Earth. When she hears that another ship – newer, faster, and with its own passenger – is being sent to join her, she leaps at the prospect of renewed human contact. But a long, slow, perilous journey across the vastness of space is starting to take its toll on an increasingly desperate Romy and on The Infinity. Scientifically smart but incredibly naive, Romy may have the resourcefulness to keep her ship running, but to her, other humans may as well as be aliens.

The Loneliest Girl takes an atmospheric approach to a sinister plot, with intense action and some calamitous twists. This is sci-fi with a thriller edge, and I’ll admit I had my reservations as while I occasionally read science fiction, thriller is not a genre I usually go for. If it had strayed into horror, it would have been a definite no from me. As it was, I can’t say it’s book I enjoyed exactly – it’s just too tense and creepy! – but I can see why fans of the genre would be surprised and thrilled by it. There was a lack of logic to some of the back-story and the suspension of disbelief required throughout is considerable, but it achieves much of what it sets out to do, with a highly concentrated narrative and razor-sharp neatness.

It’s great to see an author challenge themselves so much with their third book. Rather than fall into a comfortable pattern, Lauren James has really flexed her talents and shown her versatility here, taking a cut-glass look at unhealthy relationships in ways I haven’t often seen done in YA and tackling space travel as a psychological experience as well as a physical one. And the bamboozling thing is, you get the sense that this is still just a fraction of what she can do. The prose is accessible, at times cinematic, conjuring the surrounds of The Infinity and making particularly brilliant use of fan fiction. Romy’s fandom centres on a fictional pair of TV detectives, a banshee and a selkie respectively, who team up as Loch & Ness. Her fics serve both as brief respite for the reader and character insight for the narrative, and in fact, I probably would’ve read even more of it. Clocking in at a pacy 290 pages, if you like sleek YA sci-fi – perhaps without the heft of Illuminae or the romances of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles – then The Loneliest Girl in the Universe may be for you.

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Short, sharp and suspenseful, Lauren James’ third novel is her most focused, and darkest, yet. I still prefer the cosiness of The Next Together and the LGBTQ+ characters of The Last Beginning, but that’s not what this book sets out to be. You’ll find effective, pacy sci-fi with a knock-out twist here. Ambitious, versatile stuff.

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Re-imagining Books As… Podcasts!

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m looking at some books (mostly YA) that would make amazing podcasts  (and describing them in detail, because of course. WE NEED THE JUICY DETAILS. Alternatively, feel free to see them as radio plays. I get very into this).

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the_loneliest_girlThe Loneliest Girl In The Universe by Lauren James

Commander Romy Silvers is the loneliest girl in the universe: the only crewmember of the spaceship Infinity, travelling to a distant planet on a mission to establish a new colony, Earth II. Then she learns that a new ship, The Eternity, has been launched and will join her – and on it is a single passenger named J. Their messages take months to transfer across the vast expanse of space, but Romy holds on to the hope that when J arrives, everything will be different. If she can keep her increasingly eerie ship running that long… 

This is such an obvious candidate for a podcast adaptation! A single viewpoint character, an ear-catching premise, a distinct setting, a twisty plot, escalating narrative tension, ominous thriller overtones. It’s a relatively compact book, so a well-planned series of 17-22 minute episodes would keep it short and sharp. It could be in the form of Romy’s captain’s or ship’s log, with sections of her fanfic for the fictional TV show Loch & Ness used to break up segments. Throw in some suitably sci-fi background noises and occasional guest voice actors to vary the sonic landscape, and you’d have a super-cool narrative podcast. It’d probably be totally creepy, but some of the most talked-about podcasts are dark or mysterious (*coughs* Welcome to Night Vale).

Side note: I’ve talked extensively about how much I like The Next Together (time travel! Epistolary additions! “Said the actress to the bishop”! Hot Tom!) and The Last Beginning (More time travel! LGBT lady protagonists! Hot DILF Tom!!). While either could work as a podcast, albeit quite a complex and busy one given the multiple time periods, from a more straightforward stylistic standpoint The Loneliest Girl In The Universe unfortunately fits the medium better. Also I SUPPOSE one can’t put the Finchley-Galloway-Sutcliffes (unless there is a collective noun for an extended family of rule-breaking gay time travellers that will have to be their name okay I don’t make the rules) in every feature. In the meantime though you can read more about them here, or here, or here…

30370281Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

The messiest choice on this list by far! I reviewed Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s third book Freshers before it released earlier this year (you can read the review here) and it was amazing – clever, vibrant, outrageous, incredibly funny. I’d definitely read a sequel, or in the absence of one, listen to a podcast adaptation.

The Freshers podcast could be framed as a university radio show, ostensibly hosted by one of the more sensible characters like Josh or someone totally outgoing and eclectic like Frankie (ohmygod, imagine her music choices) but actually hijacked by the entire friend group. It would include lots of chat, campus news, a slot for the Quidditch society, and salubrious amounts of gossip. Negin would be the deadpan, sarcastic one, speaking only when it’s effective. Rita would put in disclaimers to stop them being sued for libel, but be an unsurprisingly good contributor. Bowl-Cut Mary would wish she’d thought of it first and try to get on this wildly popular campus radio show (really, the first cool thing they’ve had on in years). 25-minute podcast episodes would cut in and out of the much longer in-world radio show (fading back in after ‘songs’ etc.), with some choice backstage scenes of plot where, most importantly, Josh and Phoebe finally talk about their OBVIOUS feelings!! There’d be lots of tea and laughter and quickfire dialogue and general awesomeness.

17199504The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

I’d like to see more fantasy podcasts given a chance! I’ve chosen Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season because it’s alternate timeline SFF, with some recognisable elements – the London setting, the general concept of clairvoyance – rather than high or epic fantasy, which might need more of a leap on the part of listeners. There was supposed to be a movie of this series but I haven’t heard anything about it in ages, so maybe a podcast would be a more successful medium! Episodes would be twenty minutes to half an hour, with that slightly mysterious, unsettling feel and evocative background soundscapes, like crowds or echoing tunnels. It would, of course, feature members of SciLo’s unnatural population, and would be as much about the more interesting elements of its world as about plot. Side characters might take take more prominence – one might even helm it (is there an order of clairvoyant to do purely with sound?) – than they do in the series, which is told almost exclusively from Paige Mahoney’s perspective. Think stories from or about London’s spirits, its different types of clairvoyants, its shadiest corners and ongoing rivalries – and every now and then, a hint at the shifting allegiances and events of the ongoing books.

The idea of a podcast or radio show in SciLo is also quite subversive – it’d be an insight into stories or an underworld the reader or listener knows is forbidden in the world of the books. And, oh wow, I’ve just realised if he thought he could get away with it, Jaxon Hall would absolutely showboat his way into a radio show like this. Like Potterwatch, only completely insufferable. Well, isn’t that delightful.

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The Spinster Club
trilogy by Holly Bourne
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Rather than just a book-to-podcast adaptation taking listeners from reworked versions of Am I Normal Yet? and its sequels, what strikes me as interesting podcast material here is the post-series years. Evie, Amber and Lottie, still frustrated with not seeing each other much several months after the events of And A Happy New Year? decide to make a commitment to record a friendship-and-feminism podcast every month so they have an inescapable excuse to hang out. Plot progression mostly involves behind-the-scenes moments, updates on who’s dating and who’s hating, Lottie’s political ascension and the steady exploration of the girls’ lives as twenty-somethings.

Lottie is the moderator and leader with the schedule and microphones, Evie is the researcher and referee, and Amber is the riotous one who inadvertently gets quoted in all the soundbytes. A shaky start devolves into lots of laughter, cheesy wotsits and Amber yelling about taking down the patriarchy while accidentally snorting her drink out of her nose. There are regular features such as ‘Feminist Ladies We Love’, ‘An American Boyfriend Chips In Where He’s Not Wanted; or, The Token Bloke’ and eventually ‘Agony Aunties (And Other Annoying Relatives)’ in which they attempt to give advice in response to a chosen listener letter, deferring to areas of expertise or experience or, sometimes hilariously, trying to tag-team an answer. Episodes are fifty minutes to an hour depending on how many times someone falls (or gets pushed) off their chair howling.

This is just me describing the perfect podcast now, isn’t it. TL;DR: SOMEONE MAKE THIS PLEASE I NEED MORE SPINSTER CLUB IN MY LIFE.

Would you like to see YA books turned into podcasts? What books would you pick? Do you have any podcast recommendations? Leave a comment down below!

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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.

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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.

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Hold Back The Stars by Katie Khan // striking sci-fi splices space and society

26804769Author: Katie Khan
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: 26th January 2017
Category: crossover, adult
Genre(s): science fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: won
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

In whose name? 
Not God, not king, or country.
In whose name?
My own.

Adrift in space with ninety minutes of air left and nothing to hold on to but each other, Carys and Max are fighting for their lives.

Their shuttle is damaged and Earth looms far below them. They can’t help but look back at the well-ordered  world they left behind – at the rules they couldn’t reconcile themselves to, and the life to which they might now never return. But in a society where love is banned, what happens when you find it? And when the odds are stacked against you, what do you do to survive? 

A simple premise, straightforward prose and a striking plot shape this remarkably confident début. It sees two fairly familiar stories entwined – one in space, the other earthbound – in a page-turning, engrossing read which slowly reveals how heroes Max and Carys go from aspiring chef and scientifically-orientated pilot to astronauts trapped in the vacuum of space. It’s smart, stylish and memorable, with a plenty of tension, conversation and even a few surprising twists. It’s a fast, pacy read, and I was so gripped I read it in one sitting.

Carys and Max’s Earth is a world in which the problems of the past are being solved by a new way of life: one where everyone spends time in each other’s countries, where languages are picked up like clockwork, and where the only loyalty is to oneself. This distinctive world-building makes for a strong backdrop to the exploration of the line – which sometimes turns surreptitiously sinister – between utopia and dystopia. At turns chilling, vibrant, unsettling and effective, Khan takes time to create a feasible utopia while simultaneously illustrating its flaws and the ultimate inability of the system to fit everyone. Max was raised with the ideals of Europia, which have brought peace, prosperity and understanding to a war-torn world. Carys is more skeptical, scornful of believers who send their children away and condemn them to years of loneliness on Rotation through different Voivodes. But neither wish to tip the balance that has made their world a better place – until they find each other.

Here’s where the book’s cover copy gets a little misleading. Love isn’t banned (this isn’t Delirium) but long-term relationships have become obsolete in a system which obliges citizens to move to randomly-assigned cities every three years (at least in those under 35, when they are permitted to choose a partner and have children). Unfortunately for a novel so pinned on a relationship, I wasn’t swayed by the romance. There’s an effort, however, to avoid the pitfalls of “the fate of this system depends on these two specific youths being definitely, completely unable to be together for REASONS!” trope, and they are interesting, compelling characters.

Then there’s the minor complication of Max and Carys spending much of the book FREEFALLING WILDLY AWAY FROM THEIR SPACESHIP. IN SPACE. The planet is surrounded by a recently-arrived, apparently-impassable asteroid field, and Europia wants to know how to navigate it. Fast-tracked to the space program and losing signal with on-board computer Osric, Max and Carys are going to have to rescue themselves. It’s a high-stakes concept and I couldn’t wait to see them aboard Laertes. 

Except we never get to see them aboard Laertes. There are almost no scenes set on the shuttle! There are mentions of experiments, a greenhouse and Carys’ flying skills, but the book never once lets the reader see what they’re ACTUALLY DOING in space in the first place. It builds up to their journey and just skips right by it. Imagine listening to a great song only for it end before the rousing chorus. Or buying an ice cream and getting an empty cone! It leaves out potentially the best part! Anyway, I WAS TOLD THERE WOULD BE SPACESHIPS AND THEIR ABSENCE IS DISAPPOINTING.

As a portrait of societies and human psychology, Hold Back the Stars frequently delivers. Max’s relationship with his parents is strained, while Carys is much closer to her mother Gwen. Many third-generation Europians have stopped investing in meaningful relationships altogether, overcome by the endless series of leavings, monotonous contribution and the isolation of being separated from family and any notion of lifelong friends. Secondary characters are each almost visibly confined and kept at arm’s length in a system which above all values the transient individual.

The downside to this characterisation is, however, that some seem flat, and if the book is occasionally thin on narrative richness, it can be traced to the base calculation of the novel: a cinematic efficiency in which the simplest of plots can be shaped to yield the highest impact result. I would’ve liked to see some character and world details more richly fleshed out. Older fans of Lauren James’ The Last Beginning and Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars will find some things to like, but I still prefer Becky Chambers’ brilliant The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. 

Of course, there are plot holes. Why do two characters walk into a grand hall to discuss their love lives and walk out in charge of a space shuttle? Who thought this was a good idea? If Carys is such a skilled pilot, why don’t we get to see her being a pilot for more than ten seconds? Why can different languages exist but not associated cultures? Did anything aside from impromptu Shakespeare readings happen on Laertes? Will I ever read more than two sci-fi books in a year where the romance is actually consistently romantic? Why is this book being marketed as YA when its characters and content are clearly adult fiction? WHO EVEN KNOWS.

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Page-turning, striking and atmospheric, Hold Back the Stars is snappy sci-fi which is as much about a society as it is about a relationship. In some ways I would’ve liked more from it – more romance, more developed characters, more spaceships, more detail – but it’s still an engrossing read.

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DECK THE HALLS WITH BELLS OF HOLLY (BOURNE): books to give as Christmas gifts this year

We all know the drill: it’s getting closer to Christmas, and you’re wondering if you can swap out the traditional novelty mug and socks for something a little more…conducive to your their book addiction. Or maybe you’re still doing the bookworm’s good work in trying to convince friends and family of the wonders of books in the first place (moment of silence for all those still struggling with this quest). Or maybe you don’t celebrate but just want an excuse to peruse the shelves for hours give birthday or seasonal presents anyway. But what to choose?! To shed some light on the matter, I thought I’d take you through some YA and kidlit perfect for that hard-to-please reader in your life…(even if it’s yourself)

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THE CONTEMPORARY CONTINGENT

Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne: I figured we should just get this out of the way first since it’s one of my favourite books to recommend and it’s kind of amazing. Heartfelt, raw and real, it’s the opening book in a trilogy about teens Evie, Lottie and Amber as they tackle friendship, feminism, and feeling less alone in the world. Focused on Evie, this book is also a great introduction to some of the best handling of mental health YA has to offer. It’s not always an easy read, but it’s chatty, accessible and honest. Fabulous.

Love Song by Sophia Bennett: Love Song is warm, feel-good and so well-written. It’s about unexpected allegiances, fractured friendships, new experiences, good food, great songs and of course, a boyband. (If you’re not aware of the #boybandlit phenomenon, check out this post for all the details). i don’t even have the words to describe how fantastic it is, only that it’s one of Sophia Bennett’s best books. It’s full of drama, gorgeously tender moments (I personally love the scene where Jamie sings to heroine Nina’s sister Ariel) and, of course, music.

London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning: this is a book I’ll be giving as a gift this year, because it is brilliant. Fun, fresh, fast and full of joy, it’s a dizzying whirlwind of a book, pulling you in from start to finish. You can read my full (and much more eloquent) review here for more on its fierce female characters, grumpy French boys and glorious sense of humour.

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SCI-FI THAT’S NOT STAR WARS

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: adult fiction! OH MY BLOG?! A rare sight indeed. But then The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet is exceptional in many ways: a refreshing, episodic, detailed, diverse, non-dystopian space opera, it is sci-fi filled with colourful characters, rich cultures, thematic exploration and of course the occasional raising of stakes. Perfect for fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with a little more drama thrown in. Another one I’ll be giving as a gift this Christmas.

The Last Beginning by Lauren James: Time travel! Starcrossed romance! Knitting! This is the story of Clove, a teenager investigating the sudden disappearance of two scientists, Katherine Finchley and Matt Galloway sixteen years before. There are multiple timelines, cool secondary characters in the shape of ex-hacker Tom and snarky computer Spart, and epistolary additions like letters, emails, extracts, doodles, transcripts and powerpoints which keep book both visual and interesting. Although it is a sequel so you should probably pick up its predecessor The Next Together as well. (You can read my reviews for both books here.)

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner: you know the upcoming Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt movie, Passengers? This is a little bit like that, except YA got it first and oh, the luxury spaceliner in question has just crashlanded from hyperspace onto a nearby planet. Apparently alone, teenagers Lilac – wealthy, privileged, whip-smart – and Tarver – a cynical war hero who came from nothing and, when Icarus crashes, apparently still has nothing – must rely on each other for their very survival. It’s alternately narrated, has an epic romance, and is just generally FULL of feels.

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FIERCE HIGH FANTASY

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi: a lush, lyrical take on mythology and royalty, The Star-Touched Queen is fantasy of a slower kind. It dials things down a notch when it comes to pace and plot, but if you’re looking for world-building and a game of choice and chance that becomes steadily deadlier, then this diverse NYT bestseller may be for you.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab: another technically-adult book, this is classy, classic fantasy, full of magical Londons and many-sided coats. Cut-throat almost-pirate Lila Bard steals something dangerous from Kell, brother of the prince of Red London, without realizing he’s an Antari – someone born with the ability to travel between worlds otherwise cut off from each other. Throw in waiting enemies, treacherous deceptions and poisoned power, and it’s a rich, compact opener to a trilogy.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas: Throne of Glass is the ULTIMATE high fantasy series in recent YA. If you (or the person you’re buying for) love vast, sprawling sagas with thrilling quests, deadly secrets and just a dash of magic, and you haven’t read it yet, then you need to get on that STAT. Now’s the perfect time to get started, too, as the final book in the series releases next year (though I’m going to include the cover for the third book here because it’s fab).

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and finally: FICTION FOR THOSE PESKY KIDS

Winter Magic edited by Abi Elphinstone: a more recent release, this is a short story collection featuring contributions from award-winning children’s authors like Emma Carroll, Michelle Magorian, Piers Torday, Lauren St. John and Katherine Woodfine. And it it’s a book with a Christmassy winter theme! Its varied, vivid stories should have something for everyone and would make a great gift for eager young readers this year.

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell: elegant, extraordinary and full of adventure, Rooftoppers is already being considered a classic of children’s literature, and it was only released three years ago. If you haven’t read it yet, then I urge you to pick this one up, as it’s such a great book. It sees heroine Sophie escape to Paris as she searches for her long-lost mother with only the information contained on the cello case she was found in as a baby to go on, and recounts her acquaintance with the rooftoppers, street urchins who live beneath the night sky. There’s a magical quality to the book even though it isn’t strictly magical, and Rundell’s prose has moments of pure brilliance.

Never Evers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison: ideal for readers nearing YA but with one foot still in middle grade fiction, this is a tale of early teen chaos and bashful charm. Never Evers has all the drama and disaster of classic light-hearted teen fiction – think Louise Rennison or Karen McCombie – with the added pandemonium of a school trip and ski slopes. It’s a landslide (or should that be avalanche?) of shenanigans: snow sport disasters, failed flirtations, new friendships, hidden ballet, igloo building, French popstars… oh, and the smuggling of a live hamster across several international borders. It’s mayhem, misunderstandings and mischief – and full of snow, too!

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So there you have it: your guide to YA and children’s books ideal for gift-giving this Christmas! (Or just for treating yourself). What’s the best book you’ve ever been given – or the worst?! Are your favourites among these recommendations?

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The Last Beginning by Lauren James // even more wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff

Author: La24550848uren James
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 6 October 2016
Category: YA
Genre: contemporary, sci-fi, historical fiction, time travel (…it’s, er, complicated)
Series or standalone?: duology (#2)
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

The epic sequel to Lauren James’ enthralling début about love, destiny and time travel.

Sixteen years ago, after a scandal that rocked – and saved – the world, Kate Finchley and Matt Galloway  vanished without a trace. 

Stumbling upon their story, and wondering what it has to do with hers, teenager Clove Sutcliffe is determined to find out what happened to them. But where do you start looking for a couple who seem to have been reincarnated at every key moment in history? Who were Kate and Matt? Why were they born again and again? And who is the mystery girl who keeps appearing at every turn in Clove’s investigation?

Lauren James’ The Last Beginning brings back much of what made her début novel The Next Together stand out: a multitude of timelines, a sci-fi twist on a star-crossed romance, and of course, more pieces of the puzzle in the story of Matthew Galloway and Katherine Finchley, who seem destined to be born again and again throughout history, changing the world – and losing each other – every time.  Unique, funny, chaotic and full of adventure, The Last Beginning picks up with a new heroine. A passionate knitter and whiz-kid programmer, Clove is smart, impetuous, hot-headed and prone to making slightly disastrous and immature decisions, but her heart’s (usually) in the right place.

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#clove’s life philosophy, tbh

Clove longs to be the world’s first time traveller, and lucky for her, her scientist parents have been working on a time machine prototype at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. A startling revelation, however, turns Clove’s life upside down, and sees her tackling time travel  sooner than expected. Throw in multiple mysteries to solve, fugitives to track down and a prominent LGBTQ+ romance, and Clove, while not my favourite character in the book, certainly has her hands full in this plot-packed but surprisingly fast read.

My favourite character, of course, was Tom. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen my over-the-top livetweeting but just in case, let me explain: Tom is Matthew’s hot ex-hacker brother. Sharp, quick-witted and a total softie, for me he continues to steal the show. At one point he trades science for rebellion and a motorbike. The novel has a relatively small cast and not all are vividly drawn, but newcomers Jen and Ella are solid additions, while Clove’s exchanges with sassy, soap-opera-watching computer Spart are a strong source of humour in the book.

Like with The Next Together, the book features historical, contemporary and futuristic sequences, twined together in a dizzying array of twists and connections. New for this book is the use of alternate universes – timelines which have diverged completely from ones the reader has been introduced to – and the stronger emphasis on sci-fi. There’s so much going on, in fact, that it’s a little too confusing. The Last Beginning is so focused on hitting the beats of plot that it forgets to let the story breathe. It occasionally feels like a mere guide for filling in the blanks of the first book, and even then there are plot holes and unrealistic reactions which weigh it down. There’s a lot of tell over show and the need to get through scenes as quickly as possible sees many characters acting, well, out of character. They’re so caught up in time-travel and sci-fi that the reader doesn’t get to see them as they are, as they could be. The book almost reads like important moments of emotional payoff have been left off the page.

There is plenty to like about the book, however, and while you’ll need to have read The Next Together to make sense of this one (you can read my very excited 4.5 star review here), the duology remains one of the most unique on the UKYA shelf. The return of visual, often entertaining additions like letters, emails, articles, extracts, doodles, transcripts and powerpoints is particularly brilliant. The complexities of time travel are more than just navigated, they’re embraced: this is a book which throws its arms around things like anomalies and paradoxes and says, look, if there’s one there may as well be a hundred. More than anything, Lauren James has displayed a tremendous talent for concept and a willingness to add an unexpected twist or three to a familiar premise. I can’t wait to see where she goes with her writing next.

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Fans of Lauren James’ début will find a lot to like about this sequel: the return of much-loved characters, a multitude of timelines, a busy plot, great humour and a prominent romance make for a jam-packed read. The narrative needed more space to breathe, but it’s an absolutely enjoyable time-travel page-turner.

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