Following Ophelia by Sophia Bennett // contemporary queen proves a dab hand at art-inspired historical fiction

Today on the blog, I take a look at Sophia Bennett’s latest! (what do you mean I haven’t reviewed Love Song yet I AM TOTALLY ON TOP OF MY REVIEW SCHEDULE).

33256865Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher:
 Stripes
Publication date: 9 March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

London, 1857. Young scullery maid Mary Adams has swapped her old-fashioned Kent village for the grandeur – and grime – of Victorian London.

But it’s only when she sees John Everett Millais’ depiction of the tragic Ophelia that this new world opens up for her. Caught in the irresistible circles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, where passionate young painters break the rules of art, dress, and society, she finds herself drawn to a host of new friends and heart-pounding capers. To survive in London’s high society, she reinvents herself as Persephone Lavelle, but even as rumours abound about the mysterious new face of London’s exciting art scene, she will learn that keeping secrets in the glamourous city is not as easy as it seems. And if she must choose, what will she sacrifice for who she wishes to be – and be with? 

Known for her chatty, ultra-modern YA – from fabulous teen fashion début Threads to brilliant bastion of boyband lit Love Song – Sophia Bennett’s first foray into historical fiction is pleasantly accomplished. Colourful, descriptive and neat, her prose here perhaps lacks the laugh-out-loud, natural feel of her contemporary work, but displays a remarkable shift to suit the genre.

This is accessible teen historical fiction for fans of Catherine Johnson, Julia Golding and Jacqueline Wilson. In fact, I couldn’t help feeling as I read that this book was everything I would’ve liked, but never quite obtained, from a Jacqueline Wilson historical if hers were not so simplistically or formulaically aimed at younger audiences: there is a richness, a patience, a stylistic satisfaction to Following Ophelia that simultaneously makes the novel engaging and refuses to underestimate readers. Bennett takes some fairly familiar ingredients (young maid, Victorian London, a well-to-do family, a secret world where class lines blur, a possible romance) and spins a story with just enough pluck to keep you reading.

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Mary Adams has one foot in the busy drudgery of life as a scullery maid and another in the tantalising escape of Pre-Raphaelitism, where rash and gifted painters are enraptured by her red hair and pale face, seeing her not as a changeling or curse but as a potential muse for great works. Finding herself drawn to talented young artist Felix, they embark on Hades and Persephone: the painting that will win him renown and free her from servitude. Mary’s secret life as Persephone sees her in cahoots with the vivacious Kitty and her scandalous brother Roly (“the most dangerous man in London”), while her everyday existence is brought down to earth with a bump by the seemingly antagonistic Annie, mysterious acquaintance Eddie, and the plight of her cousin Harriet. As the stakes get higher Bennett brilliantly takes the opportunity to explore issues involving agency, class, sexism, and lack of education. A particularly interesting look at the relationship between artist and model makes for a book which has its themes woven superlatively between escapades.

The book’s premise caught my eye because of the art, and it held my attention because of it. The discovery of the Pre-Raphaelite movement turns Mary’s narrative to glorious technicolour, and brings out the shine in Bennett’s prose. It may occasionally feel as if everything is a little too beautiful, but with entertaining cameos from some famous artistic figures – Hunt, Rossetti, Millais – and glittering insight into London’s high society, readers will be swept away by an eventful plot which cleverly segues from grimy servants’ quarters for glamourous parties sometimes within the space of a single chapter. Solidly, though not exceptionally, researched, the book glosses over some darker issues of Victorian Britain but has moments of real skill and has sequels in the pipeline, making it both an enjoyable read and a worthy recommendation for 11-14s.

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Remarkably accomplished, eventful and enjoyable historical fiction with an interesting cast and some deliciously vivid description. I’m particularly excited to learn that this is the first in a series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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