Truth or Dare by Non Pratt // solid UKYA from a cornerstone of current contemporary

25458747Author(s): Non Pratt
Publisher:
 Walker Books
Publication date: 1st June 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Sef Malik and Claire Casey may go to the same school, but they operate in entirely different circles. If the usual rules applied, they’d never have ended up in each other’s company.

When a horrific accident turns Sef’s world upside down, he and Claire fall into an unlikely friendship. They become Truth Girl and Dare Boy, confessing secrets and staging outrageous dares to raise funds for Sef’s older brother, Kam.

But Sef is prepared to do anything to help his brother. He’s willing to risk everything he has – and what if he’s prepared to risk Claire, too?

In what is arguably the busiest genre in UKYA, Non Pratt quickly established herself as a reliable voice for modern, often laugh-out-loud contemporaries. Her much-lauded début Trouble and hilarious second book Remix as well as novellas like Unboxed and the upcoming Second Best Friend for Barrington Stoke give her admirable teen fiction credentials. Truth or Dare bears the hallmarks of Pratt’s established style – a contemporary setting, dual narration, prominent friendships and relationships – though the prose is perhaps steadier and less flippant. It’s solidly written with a driven, satisfyingly focused plot. As is the contemporary fashion, it’s undeniably issue-centric, but there’s plenty going on and it’s never boring.

As with much of Pratt’s work, it’s full of flawed and well-realised characters. There’s a sense that almost all the characters have something more going on – other stories, other preoccupations, off-screen lives – which I’ve rarely seen achieved in YA. I would’ve liked to have seen a little more of these on the page, though this is already one of Pratt’s longer books. From Sef’s brother Kamran and best friend Finn to Claire’s parents and her best friend Seren, there’s some dextrous characterisation which has clearly benefited from Pratt’s growing skill. It’s Sef and Claire who take centrestage, however, and the sharp, flirty back-and-forth between outgoing, charismatic Sef and smart, kind Claire is the jewel in Truth or Dare’s crown.

At once both relatable and defiant as she faces down malicious schoolboys, the trials and tribulations of friendship, and her relationship with Sef, it’s Claire readers will take to first. Pratt confronts the idea that with so many ways of recording modern teen life – voluntarily and, most troublingly, involuntarily – a culture has developed where teenagers aren’t allowed to forget anything they’ve been or done, as past mistakes and experiences can be brought up again and again, leaving them defined, and damaged, by moments that would once have become a mere anecdote or long-ago recollection. In Claire’s case it’s an accidental nip slip, but there are interesting and important ramifications for teen life as a whole. I’d like to see similar themes explored further in YA, particularly as the thread is somewhat dropped in the latter stages of this book. Sef is a less likeable, as while he’s complex and sympathetic, it’s hard not to notice how manipulative he is toward Claire. It’s narratively deliberate, but one can’t help feeling that, after the book’s climax, a clean break would be the best choice for both of them.

That said, YA has never been a hotbed of healthy life choices, and elsewhere you’ll find outrageous dares, a vlogger somehow believably called Moz (meep morp), family scenes, food fights, themes of class and diversity, and, of course, characters you’ll want to punch in the face. Pratt’s put in solid research (and indeed is holding a fundraiser inspired by the book in which she’ll shave her head at YALC) and once you get into it, the book is a real page-turner. It needed more humour, alternate narration rather than flipped halves (when you’ve finished one half of the book you flip it over to read the other), and a deeper sense of resolution. Ultimately, it lacked the spark that makes me really adore a book. Remix remains my favourite Non Pratt novel.

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A solid, if unspectacular, addition to UKYA. Dextrous, realistically flawed characterisation and a driven plot make this one engaging despite readers missing out on the full clout of Pratt’s usual quick humour, memorable heroines and pacier style.

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The Space Between by Meg Grehan // a delicate debut you may have missed

Author(s): Meg Grehan33972290
Publisher:
 Little Island Books
Publication date: 30th March 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary, verse
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
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It’s New Year’s Eve, and Beth has made a resolution: to spend a whole year alone. But she never counted on fate – or floppy-eared, tail-wagging Mouse, who comes nosing to her window, followed shortly by his owner, Alice.

As Beth’s year of solitude begins, Alice gently steals her way first into Beth’s house and later into her heart. And by the time New Year’s Eve comes round again – who knows?

Delicate, elegant and straightforward, The Space Between is a notable addition to the recent trend for verse novels in YA. As sorrowful as it is sweet, it tells the story of Beth, a teenager whose life has been slowly whittled away by agoraphobia, anxiety and depression, and Alice, the girl who opens up her world (and her window) as if by chance. Or a very curious dog named Mouse. Full of small details and featuring an even smaller cast, the book’s focus is so intense it sometimes feels almost microscopic. It’s not the most exciting of books, but it packs a solid punch for its relatively simple style.

At the core of The Space Between is the relationship between Beth and Alice. It’s a saccharine and understated, if somewhat rose-tinted, romance, but it steers clear of ‘love cures mental illness’ tropes and is clearly heartfelt. In a landscape of Irish teen fiction where LGBTQ+ characters are fairly thin on the ground (mostly because Irish teen fiction itself is still also fairly thin on the ground, quantitatively speaking) The Space Between is probably the best female-led contribution since Geraldine Meade’s Flick. It’s certainly more modern and relevant, complete with nods and cultural awareness contemporary teenagers will relate to. Irish YA still has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to matching the surge in such titles elsewhere, but The Space Between could become a go-to recommendation.

This is a book I’d like to see being talked about more. It’s exactly the kind of thing many readers of YA are calling for. It ticks all the boxes: mental health themes, LGBTQ+ characters, strong writing, a pretty cover. It’s the kind of book that should be landing on most-anticipated lists and creating buzz, but I saw hardly any marketing or publicity for it, which is a shame. For intrepid fans of YA names like Louise Gornall (you can read my review of Under Rose-Tainted Skies here) and Nina LaCour, or of the recent explosion in ‘Instagram poets’ like Rupi Kaur and Amanda Lovelace, this one is well worth reading.

Short, spare and page-turning, The Space Between, like many novels-in-verse, is quite a quick read. Grehan plays more with shape and pattern than language or vocabulary, so its verse is at times more functional than stunning. Its simplicity is a bit of a drawback when it comes to plot and pace, and I would’ve liked to have seen more inventiveness or ambition. Some of the poems grate and it’s not as forceful as Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming or as eye-catching as Sarah Crossan’s One. An interior style is prioritised more often than engaging storytelling, and as such it occasionally runs the risk of allowing readers used to busy, polished YA to drift away.

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A delicate and poignant, if imperfect, début novel-in-verse, which puts ever-present themes and LGBTQ+ characters at the forefront. If you like books by Sarah Crossan, Deirdre Sullivan or Jandy Nelson, The Space Between is worth reading. 

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Release by Patrick Ness // a tale of two (rather off-kilter) halves

Author(s): Patrick Ness31194576
Publisher:
 Walker Books
Publication date: 4th May 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary, supernatural
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant boss, and unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart.

He has two people to keep him sane – his new boyfriend Linus and his best friend Angela – but over the course of a single day, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing his life into chaos. Meanwhile, lurking at the edges, something unearthly and unsettling is set on a collision course with Adam and his town. A day of confrontation and transformation will not be without sacrifice – yet in spite of everything he has to let go, Adam may also find freedom in release.

Patrick Ness – a man with his fingers in a number of metaphorical pies when it comes to writing and creating for young people – is clearly enjoying being YA fiction’s genre-hopping answer to Neil Gaiman. Even a short list of his pursuits includes two Carnegie medals, two movie deals, the top spot in writing and creating Doctor Who spin-off Class, a plethora of awards, near-innumerable newspaper inches, and a string of well-received books. His cherry-picking of projects has made itself clear in novels like More Than This, The Rest of Us Just Live Here and now an attempt to bring Virginia Woolf’s formidable Mrs Dalloway to a modern teenage audience.

Perhaps because of this freedom to choose projects that might never get off the ground in the hands of a newly signed writer, Release is a novel which basks in its own literariness. There are nods to Woolf everywhere, from the wholesale borrowing of structure or events to more subtle references which should please those who’ve read the original without becoming too unwieldy for those who haven’t. Judy Blume’s Forever is also said to have been an influence. The writing style itself echoes with familiar characters of Ness’ YA: predictable rhythm, unflashy description, serious tone, the occasional moment of light-heartedness, though it’s denser and more formal than usual.

For fans of Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera and The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, the core of Release is protagonist Adam’s struggle with identity and orientation in the face of small-town mindsets and his religious, intolerant parents, who subscribe to views even they know are out-dated. Confrontation of Adam’s experiences gives the novel emphatic dramatic weight. Ness navigates implicit repression, outright rejection and other difficult topics with consistent dexterity. He places the venom of Adam’s preacher father alongside the exhilaration of his relationship with Linus and the fearless acceptance of best friend Angela – one of the best and most underrated characters in the book. Complicated characters litter the novel, with only the occasional flat note or slip into the one-dimensional among the secondary cast.

By turns bleak and busy, harsh and hopeful, Adam’s story is accompanied by a rather less effective supernatural sideplot. Essentially, a so-called queen, a faun, a murder, drug abuse and unanswered questions get turned into the kind of eerie-mystery-possibly-a-ghost-story. The reader is aware that it’s supposed to illuminate some deep and meaningful parallel to the contemporary plotline, but it’s so disparate I found it detracted from the more successful parts of the book. If you’re going to write contemporary magical realism, you’re better off really going for it, as in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys or Moira Fowley-Doyle’s spellbinding The Accident Season.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but perhaps more fitting here is Oscar Wilde’s variation on the phrase: “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Because while Release is solid, it’s not earth-shattering. In fact, the prose is sometimes, well, boring. I’m not sure that an attempted reworking of one of Virginia Woolf’s most complex books by a middle-aged white dude was something YA needed. Adam’s navigating of relationships, identity and sexual orientation sits firmly in the tradition of foregrounding the G in LGBT in teen fiction, while elements of the book designed to make it seem unique – reinterpretation of a classic, a supernatural undercurrent – don’t mesh the way they should. A Monster Calls remains Ness’ best work.

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An ambitious offering from the ever-versatile Patrick Ness, who is clearly punching for the literary side of critical acclaim with this Mrs Dalloway-inspired novel. Unfortunately, a misjudged supernatural subplot and prose that dulls more than it shines leave this effort curiously askew.

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Contemporary Catch-Up // This Beats Perfect by Rebecca Denton and Countless by Karen Gregory

33135198Author(s): Rebecca Denton 
Publisher:
 Atom
Publication date: 2 February 2017
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.
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Amelie Ayres has impeccable taste in music: Bowie. Bush. Bob. So when she finds herself backstage watching one of the most famous boybands in the world perform for thousands of screaming fans, she expects to hate it – after all, The Keep are world’s most tragic band. She has to admit, though, that feels a sort of respect, not (obviously) for their music, but for the work that goes in to making them megastars. And when lead singer Maxx is not dressed up like Elvis and/or a My Little Pony, he is actually rather normal, with creative struggles not too dissimilar to her own.

But then a photo of her backstage makes her a subject of global speculation, and suddenly the world needs to know #Who’sThatGirl? for all the wrong reasons.

Immaculate is a concept. Flawless is fake. But just sometimes music, and hearts, can rock a perfect beat.

As someone who has kept an eye on boyband lit in YA fiction, I’d hoped this book would be an admirable addition to a sub-genre which is often fun, engaging and appealing to modern audiences. Unfortunately, I was left disappointed by a book which wastes its potential and, worse still, trivialises a style which has been so cleverly adapted in contemporaries like Sophia Bennett’s brilliant Love Song.

Teenage singer-songwriter Amelie Ayres, visiting her sound engineer father, finds herself backstage at the gig of one of the biggest boybands in the world – the only problem is, she has zero interest in the peppy pop and flashy outfits that have made them famous. She’s surprised by what it’s like to meet the boys behind the band, but when one of them snaps a selfie with her, the rumour mill goes into overdrive. Caught up in the world of the band whether she likes it or not, Amelie must navigate jealousy, paparazzi, hints of romance and her own stage fright if she’s to find where she truly wants, or needs, to be.

Unfortunately, the most interesting elements of this plot – the pressures of fame, behind-the-scenes figures, exploration of the sometimes-manufactured nature of boybands, possibilities for complex characterisation – are lost in a soup of bad dialogue, flat characters and poor prose. There is far better writing out there in YA than appears in this book. This Beats Perfect is patronising, vapid and full of the pseudo-dialogue that would half make you think the author had never actually heard a real teenager speak. It underestimates and undervalues its intended readership, insulting their intelligence and inadvertently making a mockery of the passion which is poured into fandom and musicianship.

The interest in music that’s supposed to make Amelie stand out quickly reveals itself to be music snobbery of the worst kind, transplanted onto a protagonist presented as knowing and somehow superior to other girls (and you know how much I dislike the ‘I’m not like other girls’ trope) but who is ultimately incredibly immature, particularly considering she and her friends are supposed to be sixteen. I liked Amelie’s interest in music production and there was potential in her relationship with her family, but Denton does a disservice to real teenagers in her stilted characterisation and in not being able to make her mind up about what the book is trying to say.

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I wanted to like this one, but This Beats Perfect wastes its potential and fails to deliver the intelligent and complex depictions of fandom, passion and music teenage readers deserve. Sophia Bennett’s Love Song and Jenny McLachlan’s Flirty Dancing are more enjoyable alternatives.

34299826Author(s): Karen Gregory
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 4 May 2017
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.
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When Hedda discovers she is pregnant, she doesn’t believe she could ever look after a baby. The numbers just don’t add up. She’s young and still in the grip of an eating disorder that controls every aspect of her daily life. She’s even given it a name: Nia. But as the days tick by, Hedda comes to a decision: she and Nia will call a truce, just until the baby is born. 17 weeks, 119 days, 357 meals. 

Karen Gregory’s début novel is a story of love, heartache, and how sometimes the things that matter most can’t be counted.

I find books like this one – serious, relentless, grotesquely eerie – difficult to rate mainly because while I appreciate the effectiveness of the point the writer is trying to make, my star ratings are influenced by enjoyment, and I did not enjoy this book. Torn between the vice-like grip of her eating disorder and the desire to keep her daughter strong, teenager Hedda is engaged in a narratively violent struggle with the anorexia she calls Nia.

Countless is gritty, efficient and reminiscent of work by Melvin Burgess, Nick Hornby and Clare Furniss. It’s peppered with difficult choices, old habits and skewed relationships, with some characters failing while others step up to the plate. There’s unexpectedly kind neighbour Robin, honest fellow new mother Lois, Hedda’s distant, critical and painfully unforthcoming parents, her perfect, detached sister Tammy, and, never too far away, the reminders of the protagonist’s eating-disorder existence. It’s not a terribly diverse book, but YA readers looking for books without a romance may find the focus on character, topical issues and Hedda’s personal journey works for them.

Gregory explores themes of love, self-esteem, family breakdown and flashbacks to the weird world of ED units, where Hedda and her fellow sufferers go ostensibly for treatment but wind up building toxic friendships and becoming locked in some bizarre race to be thinnest, sickest, cruellest. She writes with both immense empathy and unflinching characterisation, but the book is undoubtedly triggering and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who has had or come into contact with real-life eating disorders. Moments of hope and Hedda’s unquestionable love for daughter Rose are really the only features that make reading a book that might be gripping if it weren’t so chilling possible.

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A mix of Jacqueline Wilson’s Dustbin Baby, Nick Hornby’s Slam and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, this is a brutal, almost raw rendering of hyper-contemporary YA, dominated by its theme of eating disorders but somewhat salvaged by its empathy and the depth of Hedda’s feeling for Rose. Not an enjoyable or an easy read, and not one I’ll be leaping to recommend.

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a pair of reviews // even more magical realism

22317526Author(s): Cathryn Constable
Publisher:
 Chicken House Books
Publication date: 5 January 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): magical realism
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC
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When Livy is accepted at Temple College – a school for the very brightest, and the oldest in London – no one is more surprised than she is. Though she’s always felt different, she doesn’t seem to quite fit in at Temple College, either.

Recently, Livy has become more and more drawn to the roof of the school, climbing fearlessly among its towering stone angels, where she can be alone, and has the strangest desire to fly. But her behaviour has been noticed by others, for whom the ability to defy gravity is magic which could be a possible reality… and involves a secret they’ll do anything to discover.

Five years after the release of her much-lauded children’s fiction début The Wolf Princess, Cathryn Constable follows up with a novel full of things to like: mysterious adventures, crumbling but atmospheric old buildings, hints of potions, concoctions and alchemy, tantalising tendrils of magic. Plain, uncomplicated prose accommodates moments of wonder and almost lyrical description – and perhaps could have accommodated a little more of it – in a story which unfolds like the ripple of billowing fabric in the wind.

Thrust into a school where stone Sentinels perch on the roof and the history of its founder seems to lurk wherever she goes, Livy is struggling to fit in and deal with the loss of her childhood best friend. The timelessness of traditional school stories, embodied here by the centuries-old Temple College with its stiff uniforms, stained glass windows and soaring towers, is tempered by the occasional nod to modernity and, more successfully, the presence of Livy’s family, especially little brother Tom. Constable’s skill works best when displaying Livy’s explorations, Tom’s boundless energy and one of the mysterious relics of Temple College’s eerie past.

Constable tackles some fairly serious themes in the book, but unfortunately there’s not quite enough time spent on the most pressing of them to say they’ve been adequately explored. As ever with novels aimed solidly in the middle of the children’s fiction section, the characters aren’t exactly realistic (including the secondary cast of children themselves), but then that’s not the point. I’d recommend Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers more readily, but there are plenty of discoveries, secrets and flights of fancy to fill the adventure.

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Fans of Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers and Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars will find atmospheric though not ground-breaking fare with Cathryn Constable’s The White Tower. Straightforward and, at its best, suitably elegant. 

33782743Author(s): Nigel McDowell
Publisher:
 Hot Key Books
Publication date: 9 March 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): magical realism, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC
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Luke Mountfathom is the son of Lord and Lady Mountfathom, keepers of a great House where the wrong door could take you to a far away land and strange animals appear to stalk the grounds at midnight. The house is his home – but it is also the headquarters of the Driochta, a magic-weaving group of poets, artists, politicians and activists charged with keeping the peace across the land. They have many powers – have mastered Mirror-Predicting and Smoke-Summoning and Storm-Breaching – and a final ability: that of Mogrifying; taking on a unique animal form.

But Luke’s idyllic existence at Mountfathom appears in danger. Word reaches them of a people with a wish for independence, a rising discontent and scenes of violence that even the Driochta cannot control. But what seems like a  quest for freedom involves a greater darkness than the rebels can know – and it draws Luke’s irretrievably into the fight. And when things quickly spin out of control for the Driochta, it is up to Luke, his cat Morrigan and his best friend Killian to worm out the heart of the evil in their land. 

For fans of Debi Gliori, Dave Rudden and Moira Fowley-Doyle, The House of Mountfathom is as eclectic as such a multifarious description would suggest: its melting pot of magical realism, historical fiction and action adventure is close to boiling over, it’s so stuffed. It’s got spells, shapeshifters, soldiers, servants, poets, priceless treasures, tradition, rebellion, wallpaper that comes alive, orchards, inexplicable powers, political tensions, class struggle, and room upon room of strange and wondrous workings. All that’s missing is the kitchen sink, and even then I’m sure Mountfathom has one somewhere.

The novel is populated by a vast array of characters, naturally named things like Findlater and Vane-Temple, theirs is an eccentricity in keeping with the most bizarre elements of the world concocted around them. The book never lingers too long on any of them which leaves some a little flat – the most interesting, like Lord and Lady Mountfathom, seem like they have oodles more to add than Luke’s viewpoint allows for. By far the most striking feature of the book, however, is the writing style. Its distinctive, choppy prose is forceful but evocative: jewel-like visuals and precise metaphors lurk in lopped off sentences and juddering lists. This may wear a little thin after fifty pages or so and a rather confusing narrative will occasionally not so much challenge readers as baffle them – more focused description and fewer jumpy paragraphs would give the storytelling a necessary steadying – but the story is strong.

The addition of historical fiction has some mixed results: on the one hand it’s a unique and bold decision, but on the other it can be a little jarring when the transition doesn’t quite work. However, this unusually complex pursuit of the genre – for example the fact that the Mountfathoms are aristocracy occupying a complicated position in historical events – is emblematic of an ability, aided by flashes of humour and lightning-quick points of reference, to appeal to an audience of children and adults alike.

The final novel by late writer Nigel McDowell, The House of Mountfathom’s shines best in its playful use of magic and wonder. It deploys magic spells and creations with reckless abandon. The impossible lopes about the House and its rolling grounds with the self-assured freedom of pure childlike imagination. There are streaks of dark to the book’s villains and themes, but it’s the fantastic and strange that the young fan will re-read this book for.

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An inventive and sometimes dark caper told in playful, idiosyncratic language, The House of Mountfathom is a vivid children’s novel, overflowing with magic and the fantastic. Pacy and chaotic, its meld of magical-realism-historical-adventure can seem a little overbusy, but has moments of real punch. 

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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
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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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A review with lots of short stories in it // I’ll Be Home For Christmas anthology (various authors)

31114205Authors: Okay, so – hold onto your hats – there’s Holly Bourne, Tom Becker, Kevin Brooks, Sita Brahmachari, Melvin Burgess, Katy Cannon, Cat Clarke – *gulp of air* – Juno Dawson, Tracy Darnton, Julie Mayhew, Non Pratt, Marcus Sedgewick aaand Benjamin Zephaniah *phew*
Publisher: Stripes Publishing
Publication date: 22 September 2016
Category: YA, short stories
Genres: …many
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review
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The short story collection I’ll Be Home For Christmas sees a host of big names writing on the theme of home – but of course, this is UKYA, so if you have any expectations of that meaning a nice semi-detached feat. two parents, three kids and a Labrador, you can pretty much throw them out the window before you even start reading it.

This is gritty UKYA on full blast, tackling subjects like poverty, homelessness, grief, violence, homophobia, escape and isolation, with occasional appearances from sci-fi, thriller and semi-ghost stories. It’s difficult to write happy short fiction, and many authors rely on use of the dark or stark for impact here. The collection is less idealised than the Stephanie Perkins-helmed Summer Days and Summer Nights and provides more stories in general than Malorie Blackman’s why-are-there-only-five-original-pieces-in-this Love Hurts, though as with most anthologies, it is a hit and miss affair. 

It is the stories which weave hope and survival with support and family that really stand out in I’ll Be Home For Christmas. Juno Dawson’s take on new love, family and coming out is an uplifting addition to a book which features stories like Holly Bourne’s ‘The Afterschool Club’- a far cry from the feel-good feminist ferocity of the Spinster Club series, titles are about as similar as things get in this account of conditional friendship, toxicity and desperation with a horrific sting in the tail. Sita Brahmachari’s distinctive style makes her contribution interesting reading, while the closing story, ‘Routes and Wings’ by Lisa Williamson, is centred on the issues of homelessness most related to the work of the charity Crisis (which will receive a donation for every copy of the book sold). For those who don’t often read short stories, names like Marcus Sedgewick and Cat Clarke – who focuses on the kind of eclectic ‘found family’ dynamic many have been asking for from YA of late – will appeal.

Non Pratt’s look at the first steps of a teen romance complicated by a strange coincidence is unsurprisingly one of the best stories in the collection, displaying a talent for short fiction already honed by this year’s Unboxed for Barrington Stoke. She knows how to pack story into her pages. Susie Day’s ‘Tumbling’ (from the above mentioned Love Hurts) remains undefeated, however, as my favourite UKYA short story of recent years. (It’s clever and enjoyable in a way that has set the short story bar high for me, and IT NEEDS TO BE GIVEN A FULL-LENGTH SEQUEL, YOU GUYS.)

But I digress. I’d like to see more short fiction in YA, but it’s a tricky thing to pull off – too serious and you end up with a book most readers will put down after thirty seconds, too saccharine and it will lack the realism many come to YA for. This book is fairly serious and definitely requires a trigger warning (in fact it requires several) but strong work from a handful of its authors keeps you reading (though I could’ve sworn Sarah Crossan was announced as part of the original line-up!).

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solid addition to the UKYA short fiction scene, though the sheer variety entailed in an anthology means it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Stand outs include contributions from Juno Dawson, Cat Clarke and Non Pratt.

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