The Girl In Between by Sarah Carroll // eerie, serious début joins the greyscale of Irish urban fiction

34457237Author(s): Sarah Carroll
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 4th May 2017 (U.K.) / 20th June 2017 (U.S.)
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

In an old, abandoned mill in the heart of Dublin, Sam and her ma take shelter from their memories of life on the streets, and watch the busy world go by. The windows are boarded up and the floorboards are falling in, but for Sam neither of those things matter. It’s The Castle – a place of her own, a place like no other.

But hard as she tries to hold on to her world, things are starting to change. As the men in yellow coats close in on their refuge, and her ma spins further out of control, Sam finds herself seeking friendship in the ghosts of the mill, and questioning who is really there.

The Girl In Between – quite apart from being the latest addition to a seemingly never-ending string of recently published novels with ‘girl’ in the title – is the latest addition to the Irish YA scene. Its main character is technically not a teenager, but the seriousness of its themes will likely ensure a YA shelving in libraries, bookshops and reading lists alike. Set in a ‘Castle’ – an abandoned mill – and surrounded by a moat – really a canal – it explores the border between surviving and living, between love and fixation, between staying invisible and becoming a ghost.

Sam has only ever known what her mother has told her, and she’s been told to keep herself hidden in the Castle. Hidden away from the Authorities, the hi-vis jackets, the coppers and the do-gooders, who are all in on it together, and who will all drag her away into care if they so much as see her. But when it seems that their dilapidated home is under threat, Sam becomes desperate to save it from the Authorities and her mother from her own personal torment. With only Caretaker, the old man who’s slept outside the mill for decades, to answer her questions, she begins to seek out the ghosts the building, but soon starts to wonder exactly what kind of demons haunt the mill and her mother.

The Girl In Between is a relatively short read, written in an economical, idiosyncratic style. It aims more for class and voice than it does for description or elegant turns of phrase. It’s a contemporary only in the sense of implied timeframe and setting, but verges on mystery, a touch of thriller and above all the eerie. It’s not quite lush or risky enough to plunge into magical realism, but there’s a hint of the uncanny throughout. The protagonist’s youthful naivety makes for some unreliable narration, and readers are invited often obliquely to fill in the blanks and gaps in Carroll’s sketching of her life. There’s a dissonance between what Sam understands about the world and the overarching inkling that there’s something more going on. I called the twist quite early on, but I found the writing style jarring and the lack of drive in the plot off-putting. It’s the kind of book where a lot goes unsaid, and even then some key details, like characters’ names, are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief.

As is the vogue in Irish YA, this book deals with heavy themes. What I wouldn’t give for a handful more Irish books in the vein of Sara Barnard, Non Pratt or Sarah Dessen – or even just some featuring teenagers who are capable, realistic, messy, even happy. This book’s confrontation of homelessness, neglect, addiction and substance abuse will garner plenty of serious head-nodding and murmurs of approval from adults on the literary scene. Carroll’s début has more in common with Roddy Doyle’s slang-strung, gritty urban fiction than it does with Moira Fowley-Doyle’s heady, surreal The Accident Season or Meg Grehan’s delicate, LGBTQ+ love story The Space Between – both novels which really brought something new and engaging to the table – but if you liked Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan or Taking Flight by Sheena Wilkinson, you may find something to like here.

2stars-fw

The Girl In Between is contemporary-mystery with a touch of the eerie which will leave readers scrambling to unravel the resolution, but the writing style of the book just didn’t work for me. Fans of Deirdre Sullivan, Sheena Wilkinson and Keren David may find it’s more their style.

NameTag2.fw 

Reviewing The YA Book Prize Shortlist

yabookprize

phoro courtesy of @yabookprize

Today on the blog, I review the first half of the YA Book Prize 2017 shortlist! I set myself the challenge of reading the entire list – whether through new purchases, the library or my review pile – a little because I think that’s what shortlists are partly for and because it’s helped me work on short reviews, but also to give you all the details! First, some thoughts…

  • The shortlist features a mix of genres, but contemporary has, not unexpectedly, come out on top with five titles (Beautiful Broken Things, How Not To Disappear, Paper Butterflies, Orangeboy and Crongton Knights).
  • Adventure and mythology make their usual appearances, but I was surprised to see no historical fiction. The closest is probably How Not To Disappear, which delves into some of the letters and recollections of heroine Hattie’s great-aunt Gloria.
  • I was also surprised to see two technically-dystopian books shortlisted, but significantly both have major elements of other genres (The Call is fantasy-horror and Chasing the Stars is science fiction), perhaps reflecting the fact that pure dystopia really isn’t what teen readers are going in for anymore.
  • There are three débuts on the list: Beautiful Broken ThingsOrangeboy and Riverkeep. That’s compared with four in 2015 (Trouble, LobstersOnly Ever Yours, and Half Bad) and just two (The Art of Being Normal and The Sin Eater’s Daughter) in 2016.
  • This is a first-time nomination for all of the authors on the list. Louise O’Neill, winner of the inaugural YA Book Prize, remains the only author shortlisted twice.
  • Irish YA also gets a look-in this year! It’s so pleasing to see the recent outpouring of (much-improved and engaging) Irish children’s and teen fiction rewarded. I wrote more about Irish YA you might like here. 
  • The shortlist is diverse (five books feature protagonists of colour, three of them by BAME writers, two have disabled protagonists, and several deal in some way with mental health and sexuality). More so in terms of authorship than the recent Carnegie shortlist (which you can read more about, from people who know more about it, here and here) but less so than the Jhalak Prize (which was created specifically to recognise writing by authors of colour and saw the wonderful Girl of Ink and Stars on its inaugural shortlist).
  • For publishing nerds like me: with three shortlistings each, publishers Penguin Random House and David Fickling Books are tied for most all-time nominations.
  • Most strikingly, dark and blue-toned covers seem to be the key to being shortlisted this year! Only Orangeboy’s cream-and-colour concoction defies the trend.

25437747Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

Beautiful Broken Things is, in many ways, a love story – it’s just not the love story you’d expect. Quiet, clever Caddy longs for a Significant Life Event to make her teenage years more interesting, but she is about to find that sometimes, the most significant thing in life can be a friend, and those courageous – or foolish – enough to love her. Authentic, heart-shattering and disarming, this is a book which takes pleasure in the little details: in small joys, in sunflowers, in baking, in hilarious (realistic, and occasionally drunken) texts. Barnard’s second novel A Quiet Kind of Thunder is perhaps even more brilliant (it’s my forerunner for next year’s YA Book Prize) but I’d love to see this one win, if not because I’m quoted in it (you can read my reviews here and here), then for the prominence it gives to one of the most powerful and underrated of all loves: heartfelt female friendship.

28693621Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman

OTHELLO! IN SPACE! So reads every press release for the brilliant Malorie Blackman’s latest, and it joins a plethora of YA retellings that claim descent from Shakespeare. Having read Othello, I was intrigued to see how Blackman would handle a retelling when I picked this up in the library. Chasing the Stars’ alternate narration follows siblings Aidan and Olivia, known as Vee, who are travelling back to Earth after surviving an epidemic onboard their spaceship, and Nathan, rescued while travelling in the other direction. Unfortunately, it’s overly long and what Blackman takes from Shakespeare’s original play – fanatical jealousy, raging suspicion, misogyny, and a severe case of insta-love – turn out to be pretty much the worst things to put in the book for me. I found the melodramatic, unhealthy relationship at the centre of the novel undermined its twisty sci-fi mystery-dystopia set-up. Fans of Katie Khan’s Hold Back the Stars or Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s These Broken Stars (I’m sensing a bit of a theme…) might be more suited to this.

25365584The Graces by Laure Eve

Laure Eve was a terrific panellist at DeptCon last year (I wrote about the panel and Laure’s amazingly cool hair here), so her stylish approach to The Graces comes as no surprise. Definitely in the running for UKYA’s most hyped book of 2016, for a time The Graces, and its eye-catching cover, was all anyone in the blogosphere could talk about. Mysterious and richly written, this is a contemporary-pseudo-thriller wrapped in prose like incense. Unreliable narrator River introduces the reader to the beautiful and enigmatic Grace siblings, Summer, Thalia and Fenrin, who are rumoured to be witches by her small town. It’s River who becomes the most obsessed of all, ingratiating herself into their lives with dramatic consequences. However, among others things this novel’s dragging pace, unrealistic and unwieldy dialogue and sizeable dose of the “I’m not like other girls therefore I hate other girls” trope made it a less enjoyable read for me.

28383390How Not to Disappear
by Clare
Furniss

For fans of Juno Dawson’s Margot and Me and Jenny Downham’s Unbecoming, this tale of mouthy teenagers, ardent friendship, hard truths, family strife and unreliable exes is classic contemporary UKYA from start to finish. Teen pregnancy is a fairly well-travelled YA road – Non Pratt’s Trouble was nominated for the first YA Book Prize – but clever, hapless, sometimes overly loyal Hattie is more Holly Smale’s geeky Harriet than Pratt’s gobby Hannah, and it’s the weaving of her modern story with that of her elderly great aunt Gloria which makes How Not to Disappear really stand out. It’s quite a serious book but there are some brilliant dashes of warmth and humour and I loved Hattie’s chatty, sharp, charming emails. I spent most of the book wanting to punch her charismatic, self-centred friend-turned-love-interest Reuben in the face. He’s a scene-stealing character, but he’s a terrible human being. Hattie deserves better – way better. After a strong début with The Year of the Rat, Furniss’ second book was also longlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal. 

34031732Paper Butterflies by Lisa Heathfield

In Electric Monkey’s first YA Book Prize shortlisting, one of the more difficult reads on this year’s shortlist, Paper Butterflies, is unflinching, harrowing and harsh, flecked rather than brimming with hope. Split into two intertwining timelines – ‘Before’ and ‘After’ – it tells the story of June, who finds an escape from her suffering at the hands of her vindictive stepmother and stepsister through her friendship with Jacob, also known as Blister, and his family. June’s relationship with Blister is reminiscent of Holly Bourne’s short story in the UKYA anthology I’ll Be Home for Christmas, but its new, bright colourful cover is thematically deceptive. A trigger warning for themes of horrific abuse means this isn’t one I’d recommend on the basis of its shortlisting alone; it isn’t exactly a book to enjoy, but may be your kind of thing if you have the stomach for writers like Louise O’Neill and Tanya Byrne, or indeed Heathfield’s début novel Seed. Paper Butterflies works best when it’s building extraordinary and immediate empathy not just for but with June, showcasing her voice and agency both within and beyond struggle.

What do you think of (the first half of) this year’s YA Book Prize shortlist? Are there any other books you’d like to have seen included?

nametag2-fw

a pair of reviews // children’s fiction takes on a winter’s tale (or several)

It’s time for another pair of reviews – and yes, I have gone full winter (it’s nearly Christmas whoop!). Grab your knitted scarves, curl up with a cup of cocoa (or coffee) and enjoy this foray into children’s fiction!

28168228A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 
26 January 2017
Source: 
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 
Genre:
magical realism, fantasy
Category:
children’s fiction

A swift, snowy adventure in which the eponymous Owl discovers she’s the daughter of Jack Frost. Full of gleaming icicles and midnight escapes, A Girl Called Owl conjures up vivid sequences of magic and nature, with more than a hint of Disney’s Frozen and Christmas classic The Snowman in its pages.

This is firm magical realism, occasionally touching on issues relevant to modern life – school, divorce, non-nuclear families – but generally focusing on a fantastical semi-otherworld of elemental creatures and their court, where grudges grow and powers wax and wane over centuries.

Denizens of spring and autumn provide a mixture of allies, enemies and surprises, while interjected chapters uncovering backstory and myths start with great intrigue but sometimes lose steam. The book isn’t quite up the standards of recent classics like The Lie Tree or The Wolf Wilder, and its subplots are somewhat tacked-on, with repetitive scenes of dialogue that go nowhere. The plot could be stronger, but the book should make solid reading for young 8-10s. A thoroughly G-rated children’s novel parents will happily gift to kids.

3Stars.fw

A Girl Called Owl features beguiling wintry description and a straightforward plot, but there are deficits in storytelling and the dialogue needs work.

29991694Winter Magic edited by Abi Elphinstone
Authors:
Emma Carroll, Jamila Gavin, Berlie Doherty, Michelle Magorian, Michelle Harrison, Amy Alward, Piers Torday, Geraldine McCaughrean, Lauren St. John, Katherine Woodfine, Abi Elphinstone
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication date: 
3 November 2016
Source:
Purchased 
Genre:
magical realism, contemporary, fantasy, multiple
Category:
children’s fiction

Short story anthologies are always tricky: notoriously hit and miss affairs, it’s likely that some stories will endear more than others, and indeed that is the case here. But for the book on the whole to feel satisfying and hold attention – that is a rare thing, and Winter Magic comes very close to achieving throughout that sense of cohesive wonder.

Drawing on the talents of nearly a dozen acclaimed children’s authors from Berlie Doherty to Katherine Woodfine, this collection ranges from soft to sharp, subtle to starry. Helped by its magical unifying theme – enchanting, Christmassy winter – these are stories of playful childhood and close-knit celebration, but also of frost fairs, snow dragons, glittering landscapes, unexpected time travel, rogue French teachers and friendship. Several stories, including Amy Alward’s ‘The Magic of Midwinter’, fell flat for me, but contributions from Michelle Harrison, Lauren St. John and particularly Emma Carroll prove worthy of a collection which is at its best as tempting as Turkish delight in a frozen forest and hearty as Lyra’s race across the ice on the back of an armoured bear.

4Stars.fw

At turns enchanting and exciting, Winter Magic is a short story collection which on the whole benefits from the skilled pens of its writers, with only a handful of duff twists or lacklustre contributions. A strong – and altogether more charming – alternative to the YA-orientated I’ll Be Home for Christmas (my review of which you can read here).

NameTag2.fw

The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson // so full of sunshine it’ll give you a tan

17838528Author: Morgan Matson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 3 May 2016
Category: YA
Genre: Contemporary
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I was kindly sent a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

From college dreams (good grades, summer programs, med school) to great friends (level-headed Palmer, movie-mad Sabrina, emoji-fluent Toby), Andie has always had it together. The only child of a Congressman with a reputation to protect and the media spotlight to withstand, she can’t afford not to. But when political scandal sees her father locked out of office and her pre-med summer plans go down the drain, Andie is faced for the first time with finding out what – and who – she loves when she doesn’t have to be the person the world expects her to be. Ideal for fans of Sarah Dessen, Rainbow Rowell and Jenny Han, this is the story of a girl who finds that, for once, the unexpected may just be the best thing that’s ever happened to her.

Friendship takes pride of place in The Unexpected Everything. I occasionally found myself wishing for more laughter and sheer messiness – sometimes you really just need writers to remember that being a teenager also often means being a shambles, where this book has characters trying so hard to be perfect it’s like they’re not talking to each other in any real way. However, they are supportive of each other. Add in a dash of drama and the occasional showdown, and it makes for a satisfying read.

There’s a lot I’ve been asking for from YA in this book. It has a strong plot which keeps momentum right to the last pages (and I liked the ending, too). Dogs who survive until the end? Dozens of them. Cameos from some of Matson’s best-loved characters? Several. Teens in long-term, committed relationships? Check. Pizza, happiness, scavenger hunts? Check. Teens who get to be positive and driven and are anything but apathetic? Check. A heroine whose intelligence, kindness and ambitions are celebrated? Check.

The book’s romance is cute and quirky. It’s in natural moments that Andie and the bashful, bookish Clark find each other. It won’t win awards for hottest romance of the year, but the string of choices and coincidences – if Andie’s father hadn’t been rocked by political scandal, leaving her to pick Maya’s job offer off the noticeboard at the diner; if Clark hadn’t agreed to house-sit that summer; if he hadn’t called for help wrangling a giant Pyrenees; if that same giant Pyrenees hadn’t been ill and given them the chance to remedy a disastrous first date – which bring them together lead to a relationship you can see lasting. Tom and Palmer are also a great example of the fact that not all teen relationships need to be insta-love will-they-won’t-they romances.

Matson takes time to explore Andie’s rebuilding of her relationship with her dad, a politician who’s spent so much time working that their lives are practically on different planets. Fans of Rainbow Rowel will appreciate excerpts from an in-world book series and a touch of Game of Thrones-style fantasy fiction. The book is longer than you’d think and while that’s great if you plan on spending hours reading at the beach, the story as a whole would benefit from tighter pacing. A lack of diversity and LGBTQIA+ characters may also put off readers looking for more unusual contemporary YA.

Unfortunately for a novel with ‘unexpected’ in the title, the book is a little predictable. It’s slow to start, and it doesn’t have the flow you’d expect from a writer of this calibre. I guessed twists early on. At times, tired tropes (secrets, pushing people away, break-ups just to add some unnecessary obstacle to a relationship) seem thrown in because they ‘have’ to be, not because they need to be. The setting is generic – like those towns you get in board games, all stick people and carbon-copy storefronts, there’s little that stands out.

This novel has a lot going for it, but I don’t think I’d quite appreciated the impact of shadow, of books as rippling and hypnotic as the open sea, before I read The Unexpected Everything. Opening this book was like looking at the sun. Or a tanning bed. It’s just a blast of heat, too intent on roasting your retina to let you see anything. It doesn’t reach into your heart or leave you awash with highs and lows. Enjoyable, but not a favourite. 

4Stars.fw

Generous, warm and packed with sun, The Unexpected Everything is a page-turning read, longer and chunkier than you’d expect. It’s full of things I’ve been looking for in YA, and while it’s not perfect, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable four-star read.

NameTag2.fw