Floored Blog Tour // A Playlist for Velvet

What’s this? Two blog tours in a row?!

A few months back, I was invited to take part in the blog tour for Macmillan’s big summer YA novel, Floored, which of course I said yes to as the book was one of my most anticipated of the year (as you can see in this post from last winter)! Today I’m hosting my stop on the tour for this collaborative novel, which was written by some of the biggest names in UKYA including Sara Barnard, Holly Bourne, Tanya Byrne, Non Pratt, Melinda Salisbury, Lisa Williamson, and Eleanor Wood.

And there’s a twist: the book is told from seven different perspectives, but no one knows which author has written which character…

34372905When they got in the lift, they were strangers (though didn’t that guy used to be on TV?).

Sasha is desperately trying to deliver a parcel. Hugo knows he’s the best-looking guy in the lift and is eyeing up Velvet, who knows what that look means when you hear her name and it doesn’t match the way she looks, or the way she talks.

Dawson was on TV, but isn’t as good-looking as he was a few years ago and is desperately hoping no one recognizes him. Kaitlyn is losing her sight but won’t admit it (and used to have a poster of Dawson on her bedroom wall).

Joe shouldn’t be here at all, but wants to be here the most.

And one more person, who will bring them together again on the same day every year…

You can check out previous posts in this tour, each corresponding to a character, here:

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As for my own contribution to the tour, I’m writing about Velvet, a working class teenager who struggles with insecurity but is beginning to uncover her own agency, and whose first chapter simply begins with “Velvet?”. I wanted to do something a little different, so without further ado, here is a Velvet-inspired playlist…

Tapestry by Liv Dawson

This song is the closest I’ve found to describing the feeling of both stillness and motion conjured in the opening events of Floored. For Velvet, this moment means that six other lives inextricably become more intertwined with her own – from then on they are, so to speak, always going to be part of her story.

Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler 

This one has a simple explanation: it is, canonically, Velvet’s belt-it-out cleaning song (come on, you’ve all got one).

M.O.N.E.Y by The 1975

There’s a lot of drama in Floored, not least between Velvet and Hugo. This song, from The 1975’s first album, has some incisive lyrics relating to everyone’s least favourite posh boy, but is also apt because so many of Floored’s key events take place in Manchester, where the members of The 1975 (among many other iconic bands!) are from.

Friends by RAYE

A big part of Velvet’s story (and indeed for each of the other characters in the book) is dealing with friendships outside of the core We Should Have Taken the Stairs gang – friendships which change and emerge and sting and fade over time. (Be warned: this is a dance track, so best listen with your clubbing heels on).

Woman Is A Word by Empress Of

Finding a song that pins down Velvet herself has been the trickiest part of this playlist, and I think that’s due to the complexity allowed to the characters in the book. They’re never static. They change, they make mistakes, they learn – just as real young people do. This song hints at how Velvet grows into herself.

Youth by Troye Sivan

More than anything, this contemporary is an ode to youth. This triumphant pop earworm – which was all over the radio when it was released – is not only one Velvet is likely to listen to, but one that expresses the youthfulness of her shared experiences.

Heroes by David Bowie

Another classic plucked from the book itself, it would be absolutely spoilerific to explain the context in which this appears in Floored, but it makes for a terrific playlist finale…

Have you read Floored yet? Who was your favourite character? Let me know down in comments below!

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Everything All At Once by Steven Camden // a punchy, poetic week in the life

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing some POETRY.

40193883Author(s): Steven Camden
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 12th July 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

One week. One secondary school. Hundreds of teenagers. Forty-two poems.

Zooming in across a cast of characters over the course of just five days, this collection illuminates a kaleidoscope of teenage moments. From fitting in, finding friends and falling out, to lessons, losing out and losing it, to worrying, wearing it well and worshipping from afar. 

There is a mythical dream tied to writing poetry aimed at young adults, and that is to make poetry cool. Such is the raison d’etre of acclaimed spoken word poet Steven Camden’s second book for young people of the year, Everything All At Once. It’s splashed all over the book: in the shouty cover, in the slang, in the Stormzy references. There must be a powerful pull to the promise of glory that would follow if you were the one who solved, once and for all, that strange equation, defined the inscrutable, ever-shifting property that is cool poetry. If you were to convince a whole target audience, who often only encounter poetry when it seems blunted into some kind of torture device – modern but laid out for dissection in revision materials and examination papers, important but deliberately pulled from the dustiest book on the shelf – that actually, poetry can be relevant and enjoyable.

Set at a busy, mutable comprehensive – the message clearly that it could be any school, anyone’s school  – the book presents a cross-section of quickly-sketched characters, from year sevens to school-leavers (“Funny to think / I was ever / that small”). Some names recur. Some figures aren’t named. Many appear, at least identifiably, for only one poem, as in the case of Yusuf, who pretends not to speak French well in order to better fit in, despite his mother being from Toulouse. The work flits from one poem to the next, one perspective to the next, usually in first person. As if to further say: look, you could write this. A football match can be worthy of a poem. Even if you’re no good at exams or like to make things with your hands. You could read poetry, too. 

From the ordinary (“Shauna said that / Leia said that / Jordan said it’s over / He changed his status yesterday / before he even told her”) to the startling (“a gaggle of mad daggering laminate features”), the poems are energetic, rapid-fire, staccato. As it strives to capture the bizarre microcosm that is secondary school society, the language is often mundane and the imagery sometimes vague, but I imagine it sounds great out loud. Hurtling along at a breakneck 128 pages, some of my favourite pieces included “Vending Machine”, “New Guy”, and “Parting Thought”.

Everything All At Once is more of a novel-in-verse than a collection, but there isn’t much of a plot, it can sometimes be tricky to follow, and it doesn’t delve that deeply into any of the themes or issues it raises. I’m not sure that it will transform poetry, either, given its very school setting, its try-hard nature. It will go down well in classrooms or workshops; it will certainly fit projects like Sarah Crossan’s ‘We Are The Poets’ laureateship. It probably won’t have the ‘organic’ feel of contemporary poets like Rupi Kaur or Amanda Lovelace whose digital, personal strategies persuade audiences, especially young women (who are somewhat sidelined in favour of a majority-masculine cast here) that subversive poetry, cool poetry, occurs outside the school gates, but it’s a fast-paced, dynamic effort.

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For fans of Sarah Crossan, Phil Earle and Benjamin Zephaniah, this novel-in-verse delivers on its premise. It lacks plot, but there are some energetic poems within its pages.

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Where Are All The Grandparents in YA?

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m launching a new discussion feature!

‘Where Are All The…’ Wednesdays: an original feature where I attempt to answer your many ‘but where are all the [female friendships/non-fiction books/broom wielding space goats/ninja land mermaids] in YA?’ questions. In short, a way to find what you’re looking for in teen and young adult fiction from someone who has read far too much of it. Enjoy!

Today: grandparents! Perhaps you think YA turns up a blank when it comes to books that feature meaningful relationships with grandparents – it is, after all, so focused on youth and new experiences. It is probably fair to say that you’ll find YA exploring parental or sibling or romantic relationships more often, but for many kids and young people, grandparents play a significant role in their lives – from simply a memory of childhood holidays to having been raised by them, and there are YA books exploring inter-generational relationships out there. So if you are looking for YA where characters know their grandparents or which explore multigenerational ideas, here twelve choices that may be of interest…

(Note: this list is drawn from post-2000 YA, and from books I’ve read, so there may be more out there – but it’s a start!)

25909375Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Wing Jones is satisfying, swoonworthy, big-hearted and bittersweet. When Wing’s popular older brother makes a catastrophic mistake, her world is thrown into chaos – and in the middle of it, she discovers running. What’s more, she’s fast. She finally has something that feels totally hers – and for a biracial, Ghanaian-Chinese teenager living in pre-Olympics 1990s Atlanta, that’s a new feeling. Paternal grandmother Granny Dee and maternal grandmother LaoLao live with Wing’s family and her relationship with them plays a prominent role in the book, particularly in exploration of cultural identity. A dash of magical realism sees Wing’s personal talismans, a lioness and a dragon, represent both women and their heritage. This was one of my favourite books of 2017 – read my review here!

31574295Margot and Me by Juno Dawson

London teenager Fliss is off to Wales to live with a grandmother she dislikes while her mother recovers from chemotherapy. Margot is so stern and unforgiving, Fliss can’t imagine how they’ll be able to stand six months with her. She’ll just have to keep her head down and concentrate on fitting in at a new school – but then she discovers a wartime diary at the back of a bookcase. Written during the Blitz, it reveals a whole new side to Margot, including a wartime romance – and a deeply buried secret. I really liked the premise of this book, as I’m a sucker for a story which merges historical and contemporary storylines. The diary entries are so evocative; they go long way to illustrating the idea that Margot was young once too, though her older incarnation plays a prominent role, too. Dawson takes her usual wall-to-wall approach to issue-driven YA here.

34325090I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman

Angel Rahimi is a devoted fan of The Ark, a pop-rock boyband. In less than a week, she’ll be going to their meet-and-greet and her life will be complete. But as the teenage trio’s star rises, lead singer Jimmy Kaga-Ricci is headed for a downward spiral. When band and fan are thrown unexpectedly together, each starts to question whether this really is all they’ve ever wanted, and whether there’s a world worth visiting outside The Ark. For a book so tied to youth culture and fleeting fads, Oseman makes an effort to feature older characters. Angel’s friend Juliet lives with her nan, who sheds some light on how fandom may not be so new after all, while Jimmy retreats to his kindly, accepting grandad Piero in times of crisis. I Was Born For This is the most recent release on this list – at time of writing it’s not even out yet – so if you’d like more details, take a look at my review!

10594356Going Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt

A twenty-first century teenager finds a novel way to deal with a break-up in Lindsey Leavitt’s Going Vintage: ditch the technology that allowed her boyfriend Jeremy to cheat and take life inspiration from a list of goals her grandmother wrote in 1962. All she needs to do is run for pep squad secretary (her school will need a pep squad first), host a fancy dinner party, sew a dress for homecoming, do something dangerous. and find a steady, if not one of her own then at least for her sister Ginnie (though with her Jeremy’s cousin Oliver on the scene, maybe for herself too). Both Mallory and Ginnie have a relationship with their grandmother, who’s seen both in the present and in the spirit of the book’s 1960s vibe. This one is a light read, with a sizeable dose of cute and quite a few funny lists.

25582543Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

Jenny Downham has a propensity for writing hard-hitting, almost adult-crossover YA, and that’s certainly the case with Unbecoming, which focuses on three generations of women, and three generations of secrets, in one family. There’s Katie, a seventeen-year-old grappling with expectations and coming to terms with her sexual orientation. Her mother, Caroline, is uptight and demands a certain standard of behaviour from her children. It’s a standard that isn’t even met by her own mother – Katie’s grandmother – Mary, who despite suffering from Alzheimer’s has a fiery tongue and knows when she’s being made to feel unwelcome. Just like in Margot and Me, the past – particularly Mary’s wild youth – is explored through journals, letters and flashbacks. This one is quite long, but was nominated for the 2016 YA Book Prize.

23266378The Next Together by Lauren James

The Next Together has to be one of the UKYA books I recommend most often. It’s a warm, unusual, engaging début which draws on contemporary fiction, historical fiction, and science fiction. It’s got time travel, romance, humour, texting, crossdressing undercover war correspondents – something for everyone, really. In this case, it’s married lesbian grandmothers Nancy and Flo. While main character Kate spends much of the book falling in love, accidentally uncovering secrets that somehow always involve chases, and making ‘said the actress to the bishop’ jokes, she also spends time with her grandparents, who provide some emotional support and are always sure to offer a sensible cup of tea during crisis situations. You can read more about them (and just what exactly is going on in this timey-wimey wonder) in my review here.

22929578The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

This is a little something different, in case issue-driven contemporary or semi-historical fiction isn’t your style. Imagine Scandal but written by the likes of YA’s Gallagher Girls’ author Ally Carter. Set in Washington D.C., it sees sixteen-year-old Tess uprooted from her grandfather’s ranch when he develops dementia only to be reunited with her estranged older sister, Ivy, who leads a high-prestige existence salvaging political PR crises before they happen. Enrolled at Hardwicke Academy, Tess unwittingly becomes a fixer herself, facing teens’ problems the way her sister fixes problems for their rich and powerful parents. Tess was raised by her grandfather, but one of the major mysteries she has to solve is the murder of a classmate’s grandfather, too. If you like contemporary thrillers, this one might be more up your alley.

8621462A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls isn’t technically young adult fiction, but it is an older children’s book which has successfully wrenched the hearts of many a YA and even adult fan, so it’s going on the list. This one may already be on your shelf (it won the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway in the same year for both Ness and illustrator Jim Kay, and of course was made into a film), so if you haven’t read it, go and immediately pick it up (but bring Kleenex with you for the tears). It follows a young boy, Conor, who’s struggling to deal with his mother’s cancer diagnosis. His relationship with his fiercesome grandmother, icy and awkward at first, is one of the most important in the novel (almost as important as his escapades with a terrifying, metaphorical, storytelling monster-tree).

22295304Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older 

Another option if contemporary isn’t your thing: although Shadowshaper is set in painfully-cool Brooklyn, New York, it’s an urban fantasy. For fans of Tom Pollock and Cassandra Clare, it fuses a heady combination of music and art, magic and monsters. Teenager Sierra had plans for a perfect New York summer – hanging with her friends, skateboarding, finishing her dragon mural on the walls of an old high-rise – but that was before she started uncovering the secrets of a supernatural order known as the Shadowshapers – and the man who wants to wipe them out. What’s more, the dark events afflicting her neighbourhhood seem to have something to do with her abuelo, who has suffered a stroke by the time of the book but features in underlying themes of Sierra’s relationship with family and identity.

35817737The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven

The Exact Opposite of Okay is another new release, though this one at least is already out, and explores lots of feminist issues with a modern contemporary YA lens, ideal if you like books by Holly Bourne or Louise O’Neill. When brash, confident Izzy is caught in a compromising position with a politician’s son at a party – and there are photos to prove it which send the media into a frenzy – she must brace herself for scandal and slut-shaming as well as other teenage problems, like trying to pursue her dream, in this case, to get into comedy. Izzy lives with her grandmother Betty, which is a real living situation for lots of young people, and they have a really strong, engaging relationship.

738148Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine

Jenny Valentine’s novels are eccentric, quirky and a little chaotic, and her 2007 début is no exception. I intentionally haven’t included many books here that focus on the death of an elderly person, but rather ones where grandparents are full of life or their actions in life become important to the plot, but Finding Violet Park touches on both: when sixteen-year-old Lucas finds an abandoned urn belonging to deceased pianist Violet Park in a London cab office, he is propelled into a strange journey of discovery, and self-discovery, which sees him discovering more about Violet and facing up to his own damaged family situation. Valentine has him enlist the help of his grandparents, Pansy and Norman, and paints a sympathetic, if characteristically kooky, portrait of his bond with them.

28383390How Not To Disappear by Clare Furniss

How Not To Disappear features a great aunt rather than a grandparent, but it gets an honourary shout-out because I liked it so much. It was also nominated for the 2017 YA Book Prize (I reviewed the shortlist in its entirety here) and longlisted for the Carnege Medal. With her family busy with her younger siblings, her best friend distracted by a new girlfriend and charismatic friend-turned-one-night-stand Reuben off to Europe to find himself, Hattie is facing an unexpected pregnancy seemingly alone – but then she ends up on a thought-provoking roadtrip with her gin-slinging great aunt Gloria, who is in the early stages of dementia. This tale of mouthy teenagers, hard truths, fading memories and unreliable exes is quintessential contemporary UKYA from start to finish.

 

Have you read any of these books? What would you like to see more of in YA? If you’d like to see more of these ‘where are all the…’ features, do let me know in the comments!

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Event Round Up: We Love YA! DeptCon at ILFD

As you can see from my past event round-ups, DeptCon has become something of a staple in the Irish YA scene.

“But Arianne,” you whisper, aghast, “doesn’t DeptCon usually take place in… October?”

Yes, it does! This year, however, there was SURPRISE appearance from the DeptCon squad with their summertime We Love YA! event as part of the ongoing International Literature Festival. There were three panels plus signings, and I was lucky enough to attend (and bring back all the deets for you).

“Writing myself into this country”: Muhammad Khan, Emma Quigley and Mary Watson talk ‘New Voices’, chaired by Shane Hegarty 

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L-R: Shane Hegarty, Mary Watson, Emma Quigley, Muhammad Khan

The first panel, themed around the idea of ‘New Voices’, featured three debut YA writers (though Watson is an award-winning South African writer for adults, The Wren Hunt is her first book for teenagers). Hegarty’s questions drew answers on inspirations, writing routines, what they’d be working on next, and more.

Muhammad Khan’s biggest influence has been his time as a maths teacher and tutor in a school where most students are from BAME backgrounds. His students contributed to drafts of what became I Am Thunder, inspiring everything from Muzna’s shyness to the fact that he had the book’s cover artist thicken her eyebrows so that they’d be suitably “on fleek”! He decided to tackle themes like radicalisation and racism in YA partly because of the UK government’s Prevent strategy, which he realised was causing students to clam up in case their questions or experiences got them into trouble. His advice for young writers: “Write a book that you want to write…. don’t follow trends, because by the time you finish your book that trend will be over”. He’s currently working on another contemporary featuring different characters, exploring toxic masculinity ‘through the eyes of a very gentle boy’.

Emma Quigley’s début Bank (out from Little Island Books) is the comedy-drama story of a group of teen boys who decide to start money-lending to classmates, only to make a series of increasingly risky investments as their plans begin to unravel. Quigley wanted to write about friendships between teenage boys but also ended up mirroring twenty-first century financial crises. She spoke about how her son was a reader who often said his friends weren’t – she wanted to write something that would appeal to that drop-off point of readership, and Bank actually sounds really exciting! It was also revealed that her son wrote the tagline for the book: “Lunch money just got serious”!

Mary Watson became fascinated by the Irish tradition of the wren hunt – in which a real or stand-in wren is chased and hunted on St. Stephen’s Day (the day after Christmas Day) – after moving to Ireland from South Africa. She wanted to write a book that she could only have written here, even though The Wren Hunt is technically a fantasy or magical realism novel, full of “quiet magic, everyday magic”. She cited Diana Wynne Jones as an influence and spoke with real feeling about the wealth of African literature that doesn’t always make it to mainstream audiences in the Anglosphere. Watson’s was the only book I’d read of the three before the panel, but I think the discussion did its job because by the end of it I was so intrigued by I Am Thunder and Bank.

“The nineties were dull as dishwater”: Brian Conaghan, Derek Landy and Katherine Webber in ‘Nerd Alert!’, chaired by David O’Callaghan

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L-R: Katie Webber, David O’Callaghan, Brian Conaghan, Derek Landy

Most literary festival panels (naturally) focus on the literary side of life, but this panel was more about pop culture and what it meant to three writers growing up. They talked about the extent to which you can make pop culture references in a book but otherwise concentrated on beloved films, TV and music. There was a lot of love for the ’80s, but most of the ’90s  love was for Webber’s Wing Jones, which is set in 1996 Atlanta – read more about it here!).

Katherine Webber can quote much of Clueless; Conaghan made an impassioned speech on behalf of Grease and declared his belonging to a small global cult following of its much-maligned sequel; Derek Landy apparently owns half the prop department of multiple comic book adaptations, including the original Superman costume and cape. Katie credits Sailor Moon (only half-jokingly) with piquing her interest in Asian culture – she later studied Japanese, then Chinese, and moved to Hong Kong to study. Conaghan was into eternally cool bands, while Webber is an unashamed pop fan.

The conversation returned to literature to discuss favourite childhood books. Katie loves A Wrinkle in Time so much that it featured in at least three different ways at her wedding (shoutout to husband and Sam Wu co-writer Kevin Tsang for highest number of cameo mentions), while Landy commented on the past dearth of YA which once meant going straight from children’s books to crime fiction. Perhaps most interestingly, Brian Conaghan was frank about the fact that he was 17 when he first read a novel and had a reading age of 12 when he was 16, partly due to lack of access to a library or books at school. I so admired Conaghan’s work on We Come Apart and really appreciated someone pointing out that not all readers or writers come to books in the same way.

“I always felt like a changeling. I never felt like I belonged”: Louise O’Neill and Deirdre Sullivan talk ‘Dark Fairytales’, chaired by Elaina Ryan 

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L-R: Elaina Ryan, Louise O’Neill, Deirdre Sullivan, wearing ‘Repeal’ gear

There was something of a uniform for this event on feminist retellings of fairytales. Both Louise O’Neill and Deirdre Sullivan have recently released fairytale retellings: O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks takes on The Little Mermaid, while Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine is a collection of twelve short stories which draw on not just The Little Mermaid but fairytales like Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty (you can read more about the book here!).

This was the only panel in which the authors were asked to read from their books, which was a fantastic way to introduce or reintroduce the audience to the stories in question. It was O’Neill’s first time reading from The Surface Breaks at an event (she read a scene featuring a character called Sadhbh, a name she insisted on because “the English find it very confusing and I find that very amusing”).  Tangleweed and Brine is almost like prose poetry, making it chillingly effective when read aloud. Both books are quite dark – but that’s because, as O’Neill and Sullivan pointed out, the source fairytales are also quite dark. The Little Mermaid’s original ending at the hands of Hans Christian Anderson, for example, is incredibly unsettling.

There was plenty of talk about that most famous of fairytale strains, the Disney film, but it’s not all bad – there was definite agreement that movies like Frozen and Moana have appreciably feminist moments (in Elaina Ryan’s immortal words on Moana: “she seems like good craic”). And indeed, it is the complicated, sometimes sanitised history of the fairytale that seems to provide such scope for feminist reinterpretation, as both Louise and Deirdre would write another fairytale retelling if they had the chance. O’Neill would love to get her hands on Beauty and the Beast, while Sullivan would like to pair the ‘earth and water’ theme of Tangleweed and Brine with another collection on what I thought would just be ‘air and fire’ but was actually termed the far more poetic ‘breath and ember’.

So there you have it! Did you attend this edition of DeptCon? Have you read any of the books mentioned? Are any of them on your TBR?

 

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Unconventional by Maggie Harcourt // charming, fan-respectful YA

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m catching up on contemporary. This was actually supposed to be a mini-review but there are just so many things to like about it (though it’s still technically a little shorter than usual)! *shoves thousand-word reviews out of shot with foot*

32820770Author(s): Maggie Harcourt
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 1st February 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Lexi has grown up helping her dad with his events business. She likes to stay behind the scenes, planning and organising. Then teenage author Aidan Green – messy-haired and annoyingly charismatic – arrives unannounced at the first convention of the year, and Lexi’s life is thrown into disarray.

In a flurry of late-night conversations, mixed messages and butterflies, Lexi discovers that some things can’t be planned. Things like falling in love…

You may have seen Maggie Harcourt’s Unconventional on my list of seven major YA books I accidentally hadn’t yet got around to reading last year. You’ll be pleased to hear I read it soon afterwards – and what’s more, Harcourt’s Theatrical made it onto my list of most anticipated books for 2018 partly because of its own premise and partly because I enjoyed Unconventional so much. I have a signed copy, too, which is an added delight.

This contemporary is full of fun, fandom and geeky friendships. It’s a book that says it’s okay, even brilliant, to be passionate about things, and it embraces the peculiar microcosm that is fan culture. It’s light but never vapid, and it’s written in suitably straightforward, chatty prose. It’s set at a convention – or to be more accurate multiple conventions – a great choice for a standalone, and written with the knowing, tell-tale nods of a seasoned con-goer. Lexi’s frantic behind-the-scenes scramble is all lanyards and emergency errands, so it’s not glamourous at all, but it serves to make starrier moments stand out.

One of those starrier strands is the romance. Lexi and Aidan’s first love romance is nerdy, cute and builds patiently. Lexi is smart and capable but uncertain about what she wants to do with her life, while Aidan is at first a little prickly but soon reveals himself a worthy love interest. You absolutely believe that there’s a story for them after the book ends. I also liked the sound of Piecekeepers, Unconventional’s high concept urban fantasy book-within-a-book – it’s almost enough to make you want to read more of it!

Elsewhere, Lexi has imperfect but ultimately positive relationships with her parents (her mother lives with her French girlfriend and her father is, to Lexi’s initial reluctance, about to marry his long-time partner). There are plenty of friendships too, like with best friend Sam and fellow convention stalwarts Nadiya and Bede, from which lots of humour emerges. The plot is character-centric, right down to inter-convention rivalries, and though there are some cool scenes – rooftops, a wedding, a handful of multimedia additions – it could have been a little stronger. Some of the background characters are flat, the story requires some suspension of disbelief and a scene or two more set outside the convention circuit would have been helpful. If you can make it through the slow first half, however, Unconventional makes for quirky, enjoyable contemporary YA. If you liked Geekerella by Ashley Poston or The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, this is the UKYA contemporary for you.

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Unconventional is fun, fan-respectful, well-written contemporary YA fiction. Light but never airy, it has a nerdy, almost slow-build romance and makes for a neat, memorable standalone. Hugely enjoyable. 

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A Shiver of Snow and Sky by Lisa Lueddecke // an impressive, icy fantasy debut

Today on the blog, I’m diving in to some YA fantasy…

32602009Author(s): Lisa Lueddecke
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: October 5th 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

On the frozen island of Skane, the sky speaks. Beautiful lights appear on clear nights, and their colours have meaning. Green means the Goddess is happy and all is well. Blue means a snow storm is on the way.

But red is rare. Red is a warning.

Seventeen years ago, the sky turned red just as Ósa was born, unleashing a plague that claimed the lives of hundreds of villagers, including her own mother. But when she sees for herself a night sky turned crimson, this time she decides she must find a way to stop the onslaught before lives are lost again.

A Shiver of Snow and Sky is one of those books I’d been intending to read for ages. I think it probably got a bit snowed under in the blizzard that is October in publishing, but when I did finally manage to pick up a copy, I found a fantasy so atmospheric and engrossing I had to go and put a scarf on while reading it.

Long ago, Ósa’s people were chased off the mainland by a monstrous enemy, the Ør. For generations, they have eked out a living on the inhospitable island of Skane, at the mercy of sudden snowstorms and half-frozen seas. When a plague outbreak threatens, seventeen-year-old Ósa sets out to find the Goddess in the mountains and ask for her help. She leaves behind her bitter father and sister, who have resented her ever since her mother died soon after childbirth, and her closest friend Ivar, a rune singer who can read the ancient words of their ancestors. Ahead of her there is great danger, but it is a path to hope.

Lueddecke’s worldbuilding is straightforward and evocative. Skane’s wind-chilled plains, snow-covered forests and hunkered-down villages seep off the page. Certain details – the runes, the caves, the fishing, the clothes – are particularly memorable. And the plot is so elegant. Ósa has a clear goal. Her story has clear structure. There’s one big twist in a handful of smaller twists. It was music to my review-hardened ears. Lueddecke’s writing style is rangy enough to handle action sequences and more thoughtful stretches. To encompass simpler (“Cold was an unforgiving intruder”) and more elaborate moments (“It would be the kind of storm the sky would have warned us about, if it hadn’t been bleeding red”; “A loneliness that made me better acquainted with myself”).

A Shiver of Snow and Sky is the story of determined, serious Ósa, but it also returns to the village and an equally focused but more willingly open Ivar as their community prepares for oncoming danger. The shift from first to third person is initially a little jarring, but it really works once it settles in. What begins as a grounded fantasy actually embraces myth and magic in an intensifying fashion, and while it’s relatively short for a fantasy, in the early stages it still exquisitely draws out its pacing. It savours some of its time on the page.

What’s more, the book feels original, not because of the innovation of its parts – associating the constellations with myth is common across human history, the room sequence is reminiscent of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,  the whole vibe is very North-of-the-Wall Game of Thrones – but because of the deft way they’re put together. The book is light on the romance, but squint and even in the freezing temperatures of Skane you could probably see it as a slow-burn. I had a few qualms – the characters could have been more developed, it was a bit grim for my tastes at times, I could take or leave the incidents with the giants, a female friendship for Ósa would have been a welcome addition, and there are some loose ends which look set to remain untied given that the next book is a prequel – but otherwise, this is a pretty great fantasy début.

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A Shiver of Snow and Sky is evocative, atmospheric and elegantly plotted. One of the best young adult fantasy books I’ve read so far this year.

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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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