6 LGBTQ+ YA reads you may have missed

Today on the blog, I talk some seriously underrated YA featuring LGBTQ+ teens (mostly as an excuse to bookpush titles I’ve really enjoyed of late). We’ve all heard of David Levithan, Patrick Ness, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Becky Albertalli et al, but what about the YA books you may not know have LGBTQ+ characters?

24550848The Last Beginning by Lauren James 

You guys, I keep recommending this book. Funny, chaotic and full of adventure, The Last Beginning displays much of Lauren James’ characteristic writing style: a multitude of timelines, epistolary additions, and of course, more pieces of the puzzle in the story of Matthew Galloway and Katherine Finchley. Technically a companion novel to her début The Next Together, it picks up with a new heroine. A passionate knitter and whiz-kid programmer, Clove is smart, hot-headed and prone to making slightly disastrous and immature decisions, but her heart’s (usually) in the right place. Clove’s relationship with girlfriend Ella (which from the outset steers clear of bury-your-gays tropes) is threaded throughout and makes for a light-hearted sci-fi twist on typical star-crossed romance.

32200595A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

The final book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy – or as she rather cryptically puts it, the final book in the first arc of the Shades of Magic series – is one you’ll need to read after finishing the previous books A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows, but it’s totally worth catching up on. It’s absorbing, memorable fantasy with real classic punch. A Conjuring of Light is almost as long as the first two books put together, and a good deal of that is spent on Rhy, prince of the magic-drenched but in peril Red London, and Alucard, a nobleman turned pirate who gets dragged (only a little reluctantly) into the battle to save the city. As it’s packaged as traditional run-of-the-mill portal fantasy, it may be obvious that it features gay or bi characters, but Rhy and Alucard’s relationship proved a hit with fans. Rich, engaging and highly recommended.

33972290The Space Between by Meg Grehan

The Space Between is delicate, elegant, sorrowful, sweet, and all told in verse. I reviewed it earlier this month and it’s exactly the kind of thing many readers of YA have been calling for, so it’s frustrating to see it get so little traction! Little Island, its Irish-based publisher, also brought you Needlework by the award-winning, YALC-attending Deirdre Sullivan. It ticks all the boxes: mental health themes, two girls who fall in love, solid writing, a pretty cover. If you like books by Louise Gornall (you can read my review of Under Rose-Tainted Skies here) and Nina LaCour, or ‘Instagram poets’ like Amanda Lovelace, this one is well worth reading. 

25648276Unboxed by Non Pratt 

Published by Barrington Stoke last year, Non Pratt’s Unboxed is filled with complex, mature themes and awesome characters – and it’s accessible, specialist fiction for teens with dyslexia and other difficulties with reading. There’s a tendency to think of dyslexia-friendly fiction as going ‘back to basics’, but frankly, assuming that any reader should be satisfied with simple plots or subjects is incredibly condescending. Pratt brings the bolshiness and brilliance of longer novels like Trouble and Remix to this character-focused, entertaining YA novella, and – not to give too many spoilers – one of the major characters is a girl who likes girls and is in a relationship. Also, the character Dean was inspired by Wolfgang from Sense8, which gets an A+ from me. Non Pratt’s latest full-length novel Truth or Dare features an asexual character, if that’s more your cup of tea.

Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle30079403

Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s penchant for messy magical realism weaves YA which is beguiling, dark, mysterious and just a little peculiar. Spellbook of the Lost and Found is full of interesting and bewitching things: a town bonfire, missing shoes, a wishing tree, charm bracelets, sprawling tattoos, illicit alcohol, flawed friendships and, of course, several dogs named after types of cereal. Just as in her début The Accident Season, this one is chock full of LGBTQ+ teenagers, with a lyrical emphasis on adventure and adventure. Loyal, quick Olive is bisexual, as is her best friend Rose who strikes up (or rather falls in to) a relationship with tough newcomer Hazel. Fowley-Doyle is one of the best writers of Irish YA out there at the moment – I’d recommend her work for cleverness and flashes of fantastic prose alone.

alloftheaboveAll of the Above by Juno Dawson 

All of the Above is practically bursting with character: between artistic newcomer Toria, fierce but secretive Daisy, bolshy pack leader Polly, awkward Beasley, book-mad Freya, uber-cool Nico, permanently-entwined Alex and Alice, and of course, Geoff the cross-dressing squirrel, readers are from the off confronted with a colourful cast of teenagers. Among them are gay, bisexual, asexual and queer characters with varying experiences of sexuality and relationships. Chatty, frank, funny and littered with pop culture references, the narration 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. Juno Dawson is a relatively well-known UKYA figure, but All of the Above is one of her most underrated books.

23454354Bonus: Tumbling by Susie Day (short fiction) 

Tumbling is one of five pieces of original fiction commissioned for the Malorie Blackman-curated anthology Love Hurts in 2015. It is far and away the best part of the collection – the only one worth remembering, really. It’s ostensibly about Shirin and Candy (otherwise known as eye_brows and vaticancameltoes), but it’s about much more, too: first love, teen friendship, fangirls, Sherlock, illness, self-doubt and honesty. It’s engaging, chatty, sleek and well-written. If you like books by Nina LaCour or Sarra Manning, this is the short story for you. It NEEEEEEDS a full-length adaptation IMMEDIATELY.

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So there you have it! Have you read any of the books on this list? Are there any you’re planning to read? 

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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.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

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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IN THE RED(ISH) CORNER: recent cover favourites!

Today on the blog, I talk some of my favourite recent YA cover designs (and try not to tear my hair out trying to figure out who actually designed them). I’ll be doing a follow-up post on my favourite cool-tone (navy, blue, green, etc) covers soon, too!

29740718What’s A Girl Gotta Do? by Holly Bourne
cover design by Hannah Cobley

The Spinster Club books are funny, entertaining, fierce and, of course, have unmistakable covers. Quite unusually for contemporary YA, they rely on solid, almost clashing colour combinations: yellow and black, pink and black, and here, in the final book of the trilogy, red and black. I was impressed by how loud this one is and how much force it gives to Lottie’s empowering, feminist mission. The illustration is energetic and unique. Also I hear the proof came with lipstick and those red-lip jelly sweets you can buy (A+ work, Usborne).

29979535Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens
cover design by Nina Tara

I really like the Murder Most Unladylike series covers, you guys. They have such a classic feel. The title placement, the silhouettes, the series banner… ugh, they’re just too good. Striking, fitting and easy to recognise, I’m a big fan how much they match and how bold they are, particularly this latest installment. This red (a happy red, not like, a Scorsese red) merges the series design with the Christmas theme and totally suits Daisy and Hazel. They’re usually shelved in children’s or middle grade books, but they have huge multi-age appeal.

30197201A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard
cover design by Pan Mac Art Dept 

This eye-catching cover is fabulous. It’s both simple and complicated, and there’s gold foil. GOLD FOIL! (Gold foil, as you will see, is a bit of theme for me when it comes to book covers). I love that it’s just close enough to Barnard’s Beautiful Broken Things to be familiar but different enough that it establishes the individuality of Rhys and Steffi’s story (which I adored, as you can read here). I like the typography, too, and white is the perfect choice. My own copy of this fell victim to the Bookshop Sticker Monster (*sob*) but I rescued it and now it is SHINY.

25756328Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
cover design by Simon & Schuster

I haven’t read this one yet, but just can’t help liking its design: if we’re talking judging a book by its cover, then Love & Gelato has absolutely rocketed up my to-be-read list because of its gorgeously simple design. It’s elegant, pretty and it has ICE CREAM. I’m not always a fan of beige but the soft pink hues to the pale background give it an almost earthy feel which is oddly satisfying. I would’ve liked to see multiple flavours or colours on the cover but then that’s just because I really enjoy gelato.

25909375Wing Jones by Katherine Webber
cover design by Marie Soler (art direction) and Luke Lucas (illustration)

Katherine Webber’s début novel has two fabulous UK and US covers, but while I love the watercolour effect of The Heartbeats of Wing Jones, I’ve chosen the UK cover as it’s the one I own! I like the colourscheme, the bounce of the trainer (or sneakers, or runners, depending where you’re from) being depicted mid-movement, and the effect of the laces as the title is obviously clever. I’m not sure about the tagline placement (CENTRE IT, CENTRE IT) but what you can’t see from this angle are the ombre pink-purple sprayed edges, which are awesome.

29852514The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon
cover design by Dominique Falla 

I think everyone found this cover breath-taking when it was first revealed. It bursts off the page, a riot of colour. If anything, I liked it even more when I discovered the process and inventiveness behind it (you can see how the tactile, three-dimensional cover was created here). It’s a great example of a really slick, ultra-modern cover that does a lot of work in making the book stand out, and while it focuses more on impact than content, the bright and explosive feel is  evocative of its insta-love story. 

And to conclude, some observations:

  • BRIGHT COLOURS FOR THE WIN, YES? I love, love, love bright colours.
  • If you’re going to have a pattern, you better make it classy or I will run for the hills.
  • I don’t mind pink in covers at all! EMBRACE THE PINK, PEOPLE.
  • I really, really like illustrated covers. I kind of had a feeling about this before I started researching, but it became incredibly clear once I began collecting favourites. For me, illustrated or graphic design-based covers are so much more versatile and appealing.
  • Related: I loathe YA book covers with models ontumblr_mqakvcc0cV1qmn5ngo5_250 them, especially if they have anything to do with the Gothic-girls-in-big-dresses or pastel-teenager-caught-in-sunrays-muses-about-life tropes. BLECH.
  • Make the title the most important thing on the cover! Big, eye-catching typography is your friend.
  • Simple and elegant, everyone. Simple and elegant.

What about you?  Do you judge books by their covers? What are some of your recent favourites?

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One Italian Summer by Keris Stainton // chatty contemporary is as bubbly as it is bittersweet

Today on the blog, I review what should be one of many shiny summer reads this year!

31322309Author: Keris Stainton
Publisher:
 Hot Key Books
Publication date: 4th May 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: NetGalley
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Milly loves her sisters more than anything. They’re her best friends and closest confidants. Their annual trip to Rome – full of food, family and fun – should be all she can think about. But this holiday is different. The city still holds its familiar charms, but it’s been a year since their dad died, and it’s left a gaping hole in their lives that none of them know how to fill.

With grief still raw for all of them, Milly is facing the additional awfulness of having to see Luke again. Gorgeous Luke, who she made a total fool of herself with. What’s more, things between Milly, her sisters and their mum are rocky. Leonie is tempestuous and unpredictable, Elyse is caught up in her new boyfriend, and Milly just doesn’t know how she fits in any more. Over one Italian summer, can Milly find a way back to the life she once had? Or is the person she once was gone for good? 

Bittersweet and bubbly, Keris Stainton’s latest contemporary is a solid addition to this year’s crop of summer UKYA. I was engrossed from the start. Keris – who remains the only UKYA author I know who could convincingly be known by a mononym – returns to charming, big-hearted form with One Italian Summer. Fans of Emma Hearts LA and Jessie Hearts NYC will find her conjuring of a world-famous city has just the right romantic comedy touch. I would’ve liked a little more detail or a stronger sense of Milly and her family’s years-long familiarity with the city, but for a fun, fast literary mini-break, it just about works.

There’s lots to enjoy in this book: delicious food, family weddings, late-night parties, sunny weather, delicious food, busy streets, an LGBT subplot, even more delicious food. The writing style is chatty, frank and funny, with plenty of cheeky, laugh-out-loud moments. The family dynamics are rich and realistic, with room for both familiarity and tension. The characters are on the whole well-realised, flawed and distinct.

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For as long as she can remember, teenager Milly and her sisters have spent a little bit of every summer in Rome with their parents, extended family and a cohort of friends. A wedding should make this trip the happiest ever – but still recovering from the loss of her dad, Milly isn’t sure anything can ever be the same again. She’s practically given up on college dreams, her mum works all the time, Elyse can’t wait to move out of home and in with her boyfriend, and Leonie is about to throw a curveball (natch). One Italian Summer may seem as light as a Victoria sponge but it is infused with the tang of heartache, perhaps more so than expected. The touristy hustle-and-bustle of Rome is tempered by the profundity and anchorlessness of loss. Its emotional core is never far from Milly’s narration. A tricky, and by no means always successful, balance between solemnity and messy reality makes for a summer contemporary with a serious side.

Close-knit, natural and devoted, the relationships which underpin the novel are particularly fantastic. They establish so much depth in such a short time. Elyse, Leonie and Milly are well-written individually, but they’re best when they’re together. From nicking each other’s food to collapsing face-first on each other’s duvets on bad days, they’ve got absolutely no sense of personal space and I loved it. There’s also a great dynamic with their cousin Toby and aunt Alice. I would’ve liked more prose description or extra plot, but if these relationships are the architecture of the book, then One Italian Summer stands on firm foundations.

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Milly feels her face flush even thinking about Luke, her cousin’s handsome best friend and the boy they’ve known for so long he’s become a regular face during their Roman holidays. Convinced she’s made an irreparable fool of herself in front of the friendly, laidback boy of her dreams, Milly’s romantic stumblings are painfully awkward and totally relatable. Stainton negotiates ideas of love, lust, consent and sex-positivity with only the occasional error, and I think Lauren James got it right when she described Milly as thirsty – because, oh boy, is she into Luke. She’s basically got “I want to lick his face” floating above her head in giant neon letters. Like with the book itself, there’s nothing hugely original or ground-breaking here, but it’s an enjoyable read. There are mistakes and misunderstandings, but I liked the way the relationship ultimately played out. There’s added romance with the soon-to-be-married Alice and Stefano, and while I don’t think we were supposed to like suave, good-natured Italian Stefano more than Luke, we all know he’s true love interest of the book, really. Stefano earns one of the stars here all by himself, to be honest.

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Sunlit and chatty, funny and bittersweet, One Italian Summer marks a return to form for Keris Stainton. A considerable improvement on previous release Counting Stars, there’s a warmth to this contemporary, and particularly its core relationships, which just about balances its weighty emotional subplot. If you like Lisa Williamson or Luisa Plaja, this one’s for you.

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Reviewing the YA Book Prize Shortlist (Part 2)

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photo courtesy of @yabookprize

Today on the blog, following in the footsteps of many a YA movie of the last ten years, we come to the second part of a what should’ve been one post as I attempt to review every book shortlisted for this year’s YA Book Prize (let’s hope it’s more Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows than Twilight: Breaking Dawn). You can read the first set of reviews – for Beautiful Broken Things, Chasing the Stars, The Graces, How Not to Disappear and Paper Butterflies – here.

25699515Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence

Marlon never wanted anything to do with his brother Andre’s world of gangs and drug running, but when he’s implicated in the death of fellow teenager Sonya, it seems like he has no choice. Orangeboy’s set-up is quite similar to Crongton Knights (crime, family strain, a protagonist with only one parent living and an older brother who is too close to those aforementioned gangs for comfort) but differs in execution: pacy, tense and with a slightly older lead, it’s contemporary with a thriller edge. I didn’t realise it was a thriller until I’d already started reading it, as it’s not usually my cup of tea, but it’s designed to be gripping. Lawrence continually plays with the reader’s expectations as Marlon is sucked into a breakneck downward spiral, thrust from being a nerdy kid who keeps to himself into a life of knives, drugs and violence. He makes terrible decisions while trying to protect his family and absolve himself; his essentially good nature won’t stop readers from yelling in frustration at the page. Undoubtedly one of the most talked-about titles on the list, this début’s trajectory has been studded with award nominations: longlisted for the Jhalak Prize and shortlisted for the Costa as well as the YA Book Prize, if I were a betting woman I’d consider this one of the most likely choices for overall winner.

31567282The Call by Peadar O’Guilín

This fantasy-horror-dystopian by Irish author Peadar O’Guilín (pronounced padder oh gill-een) was mentioned by approximately 93% of the blogosphere in the weeks surrounding its release, but as horror is probably my least favourite genre, it was one of the books I was most wary of on this list. I met Peadar after a pun-tastic panel at a event last year (you can read more about the convention here) but even then got my sampler signed for a friend as I knew the book would be too horrific for my tastes. However, I decided that if I was going to review the shortlist, I was going to review it in its entirety. And while I still don’t intend to add more of the genre to my reading, I will say that its elements of fantasy and mythology are fascinating, heroine Nessa is gritty and gutsy, and the pace is practically relentless, making for a fast read. I would’ve liked it to be more mysterious or eerie instead of gruesome and gory, but fans of Victoria Schwab’s This Savage Song and Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts may find it’s more their kind of thing. It’s not a book I enjoyed, but a win for O’Guilín would mean an Irish author has won every YA Book Prize to date, which would be brilliant – and perhaps make more people sit up and take notice of the recent outpouring of awesome Irish YA!

30133870The Monstrous Child by Francesca Simon

First of all: can we talk about this book’s cover? Continuing the trend of blue and dark-tone covers being up for this award, the sketchy, sweeping scope of its design is absolutely eye-catching, and is a little reminiscent of Patrick Ness’s Jim Kay-illustrated A Monster Calls. Unfortunately, the cover turned out to be one of only a few highlights of the book for me, as we just didn’t get on. I was expecting a kind of Rick Riordan meets Debi Gliori take on Norse mythology, perhaps both dark and tongue-in-cheek, and in some respects, that’s what the book is – but in others, it failed to spark. There’s potential in taking on a goddess of the underworld as a protagonist, but Simon’s attempt at turning YA led her to undermine the possibilities of Hel’s character. Rather than letting her own this weird and wicked predicament, Simon makes her petulant and whiny, which would be fine if there was any well-structured character development, but there really isn’t. I think this one was more critically acclaimed than reader acclaimed – it received a fair amount of print coverage and was up for the Costa – so of course it may still claim the prize, but such a bumpy transition to YA writing didn’t work for me.

25883016Riverkeep
by Martin Stewart

Finally, an outright fantasy on the shortlist! Another one with a vividly-painted cover, I’d heard a lot of praise for Riverkeep before I read it. Named for the tough but unenviable position of those who tend a treacherous river by fishing out its dead, this is the story of Wulliam, who will one day take his place among them. Of course, like any good fantasy hero, he longs for anything but becoming the next Riverkeep. Unluckily for him, his inheritance is accelerated somewhat by his father’s apparent possession by a dark spirit. A quest to find the sea monster who can free his father, save Wull from his Riverkeep fate for a little while longer, and generally secure happy endings all round ensues. Also like any good fantasy, however, things don’t quite go to plan. Populated by characters with names like Tillinghast, Mix and Remedie, a whole host of eccentric and sometimes morally ambiguous figures turn up in this adventure, though I would’ve liked more female characters. The pacing is a little uneven and the writing style never quite endears, but there’s some terrific world-building, from the darkly conjured depths of the Danék to the harsh industrial edging of the world around them, from the smallest details of clothing and food to the overarching mythology of its mythical beasts.

29767084Crongton Knights by Alex Wheatle

This contemporary contender is the second YA title from prolific multi-genre author Alex Wheatle and has already scooped the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize. Fans of Wheatle’s Liccle Bit will recognise characters and a distinctive style in this technically-a-sequel, but it stands fairly well on its own. Set on the fictional South Crongton estate, young teenager McKay takes up the story as he battles the tensions of his family’s heavy debt, the dangers of gang culture, and the disastrous consequences of a well-intentioned, if misguided, mission to help a friend. Wheatle juggles serious, tough subjects and a surprisingly funny narrative voice which is slowed only by the intense and persistent use of invented slang – which a) has the effect of making you realise how ridiculous slang must sometimes sound and b) ultimately gives rise to prose you’ll either love or hate. Peppered with the risk of violence and sexism, Wheatle has the skill to explore his themes to an extent, but much of the book is taken up with the heart-pounding escalation of McKay’s madcap, perilous adventure.

So there you have it – the lowdown on this year’s YA Book Prize shortlist! What do you think of the books on the list? Which ones have you read? Are there any others you would’ve liked to have seen nominated?

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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.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

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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Girls Can’t Hit by T.S. Easton // funny, feel-good teen fiction

29102795Author(s): T.S. Easton
Publisher:
 Hot Key Books
Publication date: 20th April 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Fleur Waters never takes anything seriously – until she turns up at her local boxing club one day, just to prove a point. She’s the only girl there, and the warm-up alone is exhausting, but the workout gives her an escape from home and school, and when she lands her first uppercut she feels a rare thrill. Determined to improve, she goes back the next week. And the next. And the next.

Her overprotective mum can’t stand the idea of her entering a boxing ring, her friends don’t really get it either, and even her ever-polite boyfriend George seems concerned by her growing passion for the sport. But Fleur is learning that sometimes, you have to take a chance on yourself, and that sometimes the best things in life can come from unexpected places.

Well-written and hugely enjoyable, Girls Can’t Hit was one of the best surprises of this year’s spring UKYA for me. Straightforward, energetic and light-hearted prose makes for a fast read which is by turns warm and serious, entertaining and absorbing. Fleur’s story takes her from a reluctant new recruit to the first one out slapping posters on the walls when the local boxing club needs her help. Hers is a tale of friendship, boxing, skipping, food, bad driving, vintage costumes, more food, Friday movie nights (including Rocky marathons, natch), a collection of gangly ginger limbs, dodgy restaurants, battle re-enactments, defying expectations, and of course, finding your passion.

Scattered with pop culture references and entirely suitable description, fans of Sarra Manning, Holly Bourne, Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison will each find something to like here. And not to sound like Tom Jones off The Voice, but I loved the tone: pitched somewhere between teen fiction and YA, it’s deliciously, brilliantly funny. Filled with moments of sharp wit and wry observation, Fleur’s sense of humour and touches of sarcasm permeate her voice and shine when multiple characters get together. I love a carefully done YA comedy, and this book just flows. As clever as it is chatty, it had me laughing out loud and I loved it.

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Stubborn, hard-working and always ready with a quip, Fleur is an irresistible heroine. She’s determined, committed, and undergoes the kind of character development which is based on finding out more about oneself, rather than losing who you are. I liked her ambition, her lively characterisation, her active pursuit of her goals. She does things, wants things, makes mistakes and cares for those around her. She may even be one of my favourite contemporary teen fiction heroines of the year so far.

Fabulous, passionate and flawed best friend Blossom is wonderfully drawn while the gangly, awkward, kind-hearted Pip even gets an arc of his own (somehow involving Normans, Saxons, steampunk, time travel and sword-waving). npretentious supporting characters may only be described in a few throwaway lines, but most are sketched just enough for it to work. Fleur has a tricky but close relationship with her Mum and Dad, while boyfriend George is pleasant (or at least he is until the break-up caused by his inability to accept Fleur’s newfound skill and THEN HE IS DEAD TO ME). Also, I totally ship Fleur and Tarik. They’re so good together and I want to see MORE OF THEM.

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And it’s surprisingly feminist! Toeing the thin line between trenchant support and affectionately mocking (“It’s not a gateway drug to the patriarchy, it’s a custard cream”), the book’s feminism ranges from ardent (Blossom) to promising (Fleur) to thematic (portrayals of casual or institutional sexism met with noticeable examination and admitted realism). There’s awareness of feminist issues, recognition of the importance of talented, conscientious female role models and appreciation of the feeling of belonging a girl-positive feminism brings to characters, and real-life teen girls, like Blossom and Fleur.

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Fleur’s discovery of boxing and other sports makes her a force to be reckoned with not just physically but mentally, as she finds a level of self-belief, resolve and courage she never knew she had. The descriptions of her boxing are almost enough to make you want to take up the sport, but at the very least will see you noticing the book’s encouraging approach. Fleur has to work at her sport to get better and improvement is seen as an achievement in itself. Easton touches on its dangers and injuries, and has characters point out its embedding in violence and toxic masculinity, but primarily focuses on its positive effects for Fleur. There are a few missteps in unclear background characterisation and scene choices, but otherwise I raced through Girls Can’t Hit.

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Satisfying and clever, this is terrifically funny, affectionately feminist, feel-good teen fiction featuring great friendships, marvellous tone and a sporting twist. An unexpected addition to my favourite reads of spring 2017. 

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