Contemporary Catch-Up // All of the Above and The Square Root of Summer

In which I attempt to catch up on some of the best (and worst) releases which have slipped my scheduling net. Contemporary is one YA’s busiest genres, so I’ll be tackling these through the medium of (relatively) quick reviews. And probably snark.

alloftheaboveAll of the Above by Juno Dawson
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: September 1st 2015
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased

When sixteen-year-old Toria arrives at a new school, she finds herself caught in a storm of exam pressure, new friends and doubting if she’ll ever fit in. Funny, foul-mouthed Polly – the coolest and weirdest girl Toria’s ever met – and her cohort of fellow outsiders take Toria under their wing, but with loyalties tangled and secrets being kept, fast friendships may hit the rocks even faster. Thrown in Toria’s crush on the irresistible lead singer of a local band set for stardom, and she may find that love and friendship have a funny way of going round in circles…

Eventful, outrageous and biting, All of the Above is practically bursting with character: between artistically talented newcomer Toria, fierce but secretive Daisy, bolshy pack leader Polly, awkward Beasley, book-mad Freya, uber-cool musician Nico, permanently-entwined-and-coolly-disinterested Alex and Alice, and of course, Geoff the cross-dressing squirrel, readers are from the off confronted with a colourful cast of teenagers – and the knowledge that some of these friendships will not survive the book. Polly, Daisy and Nico were the stars of the ensemble for me, but the story itself is championed by heroine Toria.

Chatty, frank and uproariously funny, Toria’s narration was one of my favourite things about the book. Brutally honest and littered with pop culture references, it both keeps you reading and packs a punch. Toria’s experiences as a biracial British-Punjabi teenager only occasionally influence the plot but inform her forthright (“Brompton-on-Sea isn’t exactly a cultural melting pot”) and warmly wry (“Worst. Hindu. Ever”) voice. It is through Toria’s humour and  Dawson captures the chaos of teenage experience.

Arriving at Brompton Cliffs, Toria finds that the year which follows is one torrid whirlwind of sexual confusion, startling revelations and surprisingly bittersweet heartbreak. Relying on the base ingredients of the YA tradition – opening with an arrival in a new place, focusing on friendship drama and coming-of-age issues – Dawson adds few twists to the general formula, but packs the book with themes relevant to modern audiences: mental health, sexuality, alcoholism, break-ups, make-ups, strained family relationships, music, hormones.

There’s so much going on in this book. It’s like an episode of Hollyoaks, only better written. This style does have its drawbacks, however. There are moments where the book fails to charm and where plot gets lost in the muddle. The prose is so busy rushing around that it’s difficult to feel many of the tough subjects tackled have been explored as deeply as needed (it’s not an easy read for some issues and requires a trigger warning) or to imagine some of the central relationships, built as they are on hastily-constructed speed-paint foundations, will last beyond the pages.
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Fans of Alice Oseman’s Radio Silence, Liz Kessler’s Read Me Like A Book and Lisa Williamson’s All About Mia will find this lively, if occasionally overbusy, contemporary companion appeals. Funny, sharp, and distinctive. 

27420164The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter-Hapgood
Publisher:
Macmillan
Publication date: May 5th 2016
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC

Reeling from the twin heartbreaks of a summer ago – the loss of her grandfather and a tough break-up – Gottie is lost and busy burying herself in equations.  

Until Thomas comes home: former boy next door, former best friend, former everything. And until Gottie starts to experience strange blips in time. They take her back to last summer – back to all she should have seen then – where she must navigate grief, world-stopping kisses and the space-time continuum as she tries to reconcile her first heartbreak with her last.

The Square Root of Summer had plenty of potential and no small amount of pre-publication hype. The premise is a collection of things which regularly appear in YA – summer timeframe, tough break-up, bad ex-boyfriend, the boy next door, a struggle with loss – with the added complication of mathematics-laden time travel. Its contemporary framing has echoes of Emery Lord, Amy Zhang and Kasie West, but for me the rest of the book didn’t click.

Unfortunately, the book’s writing style is baffling. And I say this as someone who is all for unusual and striking contemporaries! One moment it’s classic contemporary, the next it’s confused, clunky and completely unenjoyable. Choppy prose weighed down by jargon made it difficult to invest in Gottie’s time travel adventures or the passion for science which litter the novel. The writing style is idiosyncratic, disjointed and jarring, with irritatingly short paragraphs and sentences – all admirable attempts at toying with convention, and perhaps they would’ve worked in the hands of a more skilled or experienced storyteller, but it just doesn’t work here.

This book is, for want of a better phrase, all over the place. The suspension of disbelief, not to mention the supposed romances on which so much of the book hinged, just wasn’t persuasive. The characters are forgettable, the pacing is uneven and the plot is submerged in inexplicable jumps from scene to scene. For a character-driven novel, the individual or intersecting emotional stories must be compelling, but here it’s like someone threw vaguely-contemporary-shaped spaghetti at a wall and decided to write a book out of what stuck. IT MAKES NO SENSE.

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I just didn’t enjoy this one. A summer read which fails to live up to its potential. If you’re looking for an unusual writing style in contemporary, expert hands like Sarah Crossan or Jenny Valentine are still your best bet.

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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, in the present day, 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 rather sooner than even she 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, dedicated, quick-witted, and essentially a total softie, for me he stole the show in the first book and does so even more here. He’s hotter and more noble than ever. Oh, and 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 huge 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 and going through the motions of plot that it forgets to let the story breathe. It doesn’t spend enough time on scenes that matter, which lessens any sense of emotional payoff. 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 down the text. 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. I would’ve liked to have seen more of Clove, Tom and Jen before the reveal, or more of Clove after meeting Kate and Matt – so much happens between them, but the book almost reads like important moments 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 epistolary 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 semi-epistolary read. It’s not quite perfect and the narrative needed more space to breathe, but it’s an absolutely enjoyable time-travel page-turner.

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

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

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

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

How many times can you lose the person you love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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