Save The Date by Morgan Matson // Matson delivers with multifaceted rom-com YA

Today on the blog, it’s my time for my now-biennial Morgan Matson contemporary YA review…

34839193Author(s): Morgan Matson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 14th June 2018
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Charlie Grant’s older sister is getting married this weekend at their family home. For the first time in years, all four of her older siblings will be under one roof, and Charlie is desperate for one last perfect weekend, before the house is sold and everything changes. Making decisions about things like what college to attend and reuniting with longstanding crush – all that can wait. 

The only problem? The weekend is shaping up to be an absolute disaster.

There’s a dog with a penchant for howling, a house alarm that won’t stop going off, and a papergirl with a grudge. A storm seems bent on drenching everything. The justice of the peace is missing. The band will only play covers. The guests are all crazy. And the wedding planner’s nephew is surprisingly, distractingly cute.

Over the course of three ridiculously chaotic days, Charlie will learn more than she ever expected about the family she thought she knew by heart.

Morgan Matson is one of the most consistent names in that particular style of big-hearted, aspirational contemporary USYA which includes the likes of Sarah Dessen’s Lock and Key and Stephanie Perkins’ Lola and the Boy Next Door. Big houses, chunky sunglasses, handy hobbies, memorable grand gestures – it is the subgenre in which YA is at its glossy, irresistible peak. I liked Matson’s The Unexpected Everything – about a teenager whose summer plans are derailed by her politician father’s career, complete with dog-walking, scavenger hunts and a fictional fantasy book-within-a-book – but when I heard about Save The Date, it immediately became one of my most anticipated reads of 2018. I’ve been waiting for a romantic comedy premise like this in YA.

Charlie Grant is the youngest of five siblings, and as the only one still living at home, she can’t wait to finally have her brothers and sister back under one roof, even if only for a weekend. I loved that the most prominent relationships in the book were those of Charlie and her siblings. Danny, the oldest, has always been Charlie’s favourite brother; he can do no wrong in her eyes. Linnie, with whom Charlie once shared so much of her life, is about to get married in the backyard (though her fiancé, Rodney, has been around so long he’s already an honourary member of the household). JJ, the irresponsible middle brother. And then there’s Mike, closest in age to Charlie, who hasn’t spoken to her for almost a year.

Charlie was collateral damage in Mike’s colossal fall-out with their parents (a college professor and a comic strip creator respectively), and when he unexpectedly turns up for the wedding, she is forced to confront the rupture of her beloved family head-on. There are other disasters plaguing the wedding preparations, too. To name just a few: the power’s out, the groom’s tuxedo is missing, the wrong band has turned up, and the wedding planner has done a runner. The only upside: her last-minute replacement has brought along his teenage nephew, the cute but ever-so-slightly awkward Bill (when was the last time you heard of a YA love interest named Bill?!).

In between all this, there’s the frankly inspired inclusion of illustrated extracts from Grant Central Station, the comic strip Charlie’s mother loosely bases on the family’s life. There are a few missteps – the narrative can by turns feel slow, repetitive and overly long, the themes can get a bit clouded amidst some increasingly eyebrow-raising chaos, and I would’ve liked a little more cathartic payoff – but what sets Save The Date apart is its lived-in feel. From the family home for which Charlie has tangible affection to the bouncy, back-and-forth dialogue, Save The Date offers a satisfying taste of what the thinking teen’s romantic comedy-drama can do.

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Sarah Dessen’s Once and For All meets Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door in Morgan Matson’s warm, intelligent contemporary standalone about a chaotic wedding and a complicated, close-knit family. 

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Love Songs and Other Lies by Jessica Pennington // boyband lit book won’t trouble chart-toppers

35034369Author(s): Jessica Pennington
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: 28th April 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Two years after a heartbreak worthy of a rock song, Virginia Miller is looking forward to a carefree summer. Her friends just landed a spot on a battle-of-the-bands bands reality show, and Vee is joining them for her dream internship. 

Then she learns she’ll also be sharing the tour bus with Cam. Her first love. The cause of that first heartbreak. Now she’s dodging cameras and her ex, who has secrets the show’s producers would kill to get their hands on. What’s more, she’s starting to wonder if their breakup anthem deserves a new ending…. 

Love Songs and Other Lies is a quick YA contemporary clearly going for the ‘American summer read’ approach. It appeared sporting the hallmarks of boyband lit – a phenomenon I’ve written about here and here – and I decided to see what’s being done with the genre across the pond, given that much of what I’ve read from it has come from UKYA.

Vee’s been the songwriter behind her best friend’s band for most of her teenage life, and when Logan’s band wins a spot on a battle-of-the-bands reality TV show, she gets pulled along for the ride – only to come face-to-face with Cam, her heartbreaker ex-boyfriend, who’s been called back into the band at the last minute. Cam is determined to win her forgiveness, but as the story of his secret is slowly unravelled and the competition gets more intense, it looks like things are going to get messy for the both of them once more.

This début has got music, mystery, and the added intrigue of the close-quarters setting. It’s told in dual timeline alternate narration, revealing how Cam and Vee fell for each other the first time around while also following a bitter reunion over the battle of the bands. It takes some getting used to, but showcases a bit of narrative ambition, which I liked. Reminiscent of Sarah Dessen or Emery Lord’s When We Collided, Cam and Vee’s first romance is enjoyable and heady, full of one-on-one moments and beaches at midnight. Vee’s friendship with Logan and the other band-members is interesting, too. The book deals with some intense stuff – fame, heartbreak, loss – and I was drawn into the pages by that unexpected level of intensity.

However, once you’ve closed those pages, the feel of the book is less captivating; it’s one of a modish, fleeting contemporary which doesn’t delve deep into exploration of theme or character. Most of the relationships don’t have depth, the secondary characters are thinly sketched and the prose is dialogue-heavy. The reader sees very little of the actual battle of the bands. Increasingly unbelievable decisions result in correspondingly unbelievable, too-easy, undeveloped successes. The ending could have been braver. There are so many warm, rich, thoughtful, well-written takes on this genre to be found elsewhere – Love Song by Sophia Bennett, Remix by Non Pratt, I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman – that this one became forgettable.

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This contemporary has its heady and intriguing moments, but it just doesn’t compare to the more accomplished additions to boyband lit on the shelf.

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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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Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier // pacy, plot-efficient YA fantasy

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing a book that made it onto my most anticipated reads of 2018 list!

30339493Author(s): Makiia Lucier
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH)
Publication date: 10th April 2018
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (duology, #1)
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Nineteen-year-old Elias is a royal explorer, a skilled mapmaker, and the oldest friend of the new king of del Mar. Soon he’ll embark on an expedition into uncharted waters – the adventure of a lifetime. Then a long-ago tragedy comes back into the light.

The people of St. John del Mar have never recovered from the loss of their boy princes eighteen years ago. But when two maps surface, each bearing the same hidden riddle, troubling questions arise. What really happened to the young heirs? And why do the maps appear to be drawn by Lord Antoni, Elias’s father, who vanished on that same fateful day? Drawn into a web of secrets, Elias will have to use his wits and guard his back. Some truths are better left buried – and an unknown enemy lurks at every turn.

In an effort to read more fantasy this spring and find a new-to-me author to try out amid a crop of familiar names and big sequels, I was pleased to pick up Isle of Blood and Stone soon after I included it on my most anticipated YA reads of 2018 list. I really liked the premise – lost royalty! mapmakers! explorers! an island kingdom! a mystery! – and, I am delighted to report, there’s much about the book which lives up to that appeal.

Page-turning, smartly written and consistently intriguing, Isle of Blood and Stone centres on cartographer Elias’ search for his island’s long lost princes and the father he never got the chance to know. The plot is pacy, well constructed and for the most part believable, with plenty of twists I didn’t see coming. This is historical fantasy with only the lightest of emphases on the historical, but plenty of action and just enough worldbuilding – the spirit-soaked forest, the blue indigo fire, the network of islands – to keep you reading.

I particularly enjoyed the focus on mapmaking and the glimpses of the workings of a fantasy society – not just dependent on chosen ones or magic wands, Cortes is a city that relies on trade and signing letters and superstition. There are emissaries, apprentices, navigators, merchants,  coin-counters. Even the tax collector gets an interesting, if brief, flash of story. The latter is one of the book’s occasional nods to female characters in unusual positions of power, an idea that could have been explored even further.

Elias, Ulises and Mercedes make for a suitable trio of leads: the stubborn but caring mapmaker, the world-heavy young king, the sharp and defensive emissary. A busy supporting cast made the book vibrant, from the forbidding Commander Aimon to the mysterious Brother Francis. The lively and watchful Reyna, who wants to be a mapmaker like Elias, is a stand-out. She was just the start of one of my favourite features of the book: families and kids in a fictional world that otherwise leans rather heavily on the storytelling trope of the orphan or dead parent. It would have been pretty standard for Elias’ mother Sabine, for example, to become an outcast widow, but instead she’s remarried. As well as honourary sister Reyna, Elias has younger half-siblings Nieve, Lea and Jonas, and a positive stepfather figure in jovial Lord Isidore.

There’s a romance built on friendship for Elias and Mercedes, too. The book doesn’t really go for extraneous scenes, however, and while the implications are that they’ve known each other for a long time, building up the giddiness and warmth of romance would have pleased here. Indeed, that’s probably the only major gripe I have with Isle of Blood and Stone: it needed just a little more description, a little more romance, a little more exploration – even if that would mean slowing down. The writing style isn’t elaborate or noticeably quotable, and the cast probably aren’t the most memorable in fantasy, either.

However, the story as a whole is satisfying and gripping. The blurb makes it sound somewhat dark but the tone and style are often approachable. Once you get past the first few chapters, the story really flies by (around 260 pages, at least in my Netgalley edition). If you’re looking for YA fantasy that’s not quite as time consuming as books by Laini Taylor or Sarah J. Maas, this could be an alternative for you. There’s a sense of (no spoilers) multiple endings and chasing things up for several characters, but there’s room for more adventure in the sequel. I’m hoping that provides an opportunity for a little more worldbuilding depth and richnesss – Why are there sea serpents? What’s with all the saints? What are all these other fictional lands mentioned like? – to be explored.

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The islands and cartographers of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at the End of Everything meet the pacy YA fantasy of the likes of Lori M. Lee and Sara Raasch in Makiia Lucier’s first foray into the genre. It has some pitfalls, but I read it in one sitting and it’s full of twists. 

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a pair of reviews // Night Owls by Jenn Bennett and Second Best Friend by Non Pratt

It’s a veritable contemporary YA extravaganza on the blog today!

25327818Author(s): Jenn Bennett
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 13th August 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Meeting Jack on San Francisco’s night bus turns Beatrix’s world upside down. Jack is charming, attractive, and one of San Francisco’s most wanted graffiti artists – and he makes Beatrix wonder if art can be more than the medical drawing she’s confined herself to. 

By night and on city rooftops, Beatrix and Jack get to know each other – and each other’s secrets. But will these secrets come back to haunt him? Or will the skeletons in her family’s closet tear them apart?

Page-turning and often charming, I was surprised by how much I liked this contemporary standalone. I hadn’t heard much about Night Owls before I started reading, and I had to start and re-start reading it a couple of times before it really hooked me, but once it did I flew through it. Bennett’s writing style is straightforward, neat and fast.

Thrown together in a San Francisco of slick city streets and trendy yoga studios, Jack and Bex – a  rebellious, enigmatic graffiti artist grappling with his wealthy family’s secrets and a single-minded aspiring medical illustrator, daughter of a single mom – make an unlikely but believable pair. Their romance, which is to an extent built on friendly verbal sparring, features some miscommunication (or lack of communication), but also has considerable stretches of swoon, and there is frank communication about relevant teenage experiences like sex. Bennett’s finest achievement, however, is to conjure an almost sweeping sense of artistry and passion from two unexpected, and very different, types of art.

Bennett’s reveal of Jack’s motive and treatment of serious mental illness could have been better handled, and there’s a touch of ick factor to descriptions of Bex’s medical illustrations. The resolution relies on a suspicious number of characters existing only to offer to splash a considerable amount of money around, like very privileged guardian angels. The story needed more fleshed-out friendships and while Beatrix’s brother brings his boyfriend home to meet his family in one particularly memorable scene, the book as a whole perhaps isn’t the most memorable YA fiction.

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Set in slick San Francisco, this arty contemporary has faults but also a rich seam of swoon. For fans of Lydia Ruffles and Susane Colasanti.

352228491Author(s): Non Pratt 
Publisher: 
Barrington Stoke
Publication date:
15th January 2018
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Jade and Becky are best friends. But when Jade’s ex lets on that everyone thinks Becky is better than she is – at everything – Jade finds herself noticing just how often she comes second to her friend. 

When Jade is voted party leader ahead of her school’s mock general election only to discover she’ll be up against Becky, she sees it as a chance to prove herself. Surely if there’s one thing she can win, it’s this election – even if it means losing her best friend.

Second Best Friend is Non Pratt’s second novel for Barrington Stoke, a specialist publisher for readers with dyslexia, after 2016’s successful Unboxed. This standalone comes with the same colour-adjusted paper, clear font and novella length, but Barrington Stoke books are about more than just physically adjusting for reading difficulties – they’re a reminder that teenagers with dyslexia are interested in the same kind of content that fills the rest of the UKYA shelf. For this reason, Second Best Friend is full of school pressures, jealousy, drinking, and rapidly escalating sexual antics in utility rooms.

Like Unboxed – in which a group of teenagers return to their old school to open a time capsule – Second Best Friend has a straightforward premise: Jade and Becky find themselves facing off in their school’s mock election, and Jade, feeling insecure and always in Becky’s shadow, is determined to do whatever it takes to win. This plot is carried throughout and provides an undeniable sense of narrative drive. There’s plenty for readers to recognise, from politics and sibling rivalry to the drudgery of homework and the strange sense of competition that can overtake a school full of naive teenagers with nothing better to do.

Pratt packs Second Best Friend with real teen concerns and a veritable maelstrom of seesawing emotions. I liked the casual mention of Becky’s two mothers and even at a brisk pace, there’s a suitable denouement – though the ending is rather abrupt, and I noticed slight sense of simplicity to the story in a way I haven’t with some other Barrington Stoke titles. This may be down to the fact that the premise didn’t entirely click for me. I’ve been really enjoying seeing much-needed positive female friendship in YA – think Sara Barnard’s A Quiet Kind of Thunder, or Pratt’s own Remix – and to see it reduced to jealousy and insecurity, mostly through the interference of a boy, without enough narrative space for deeper exploration or resolution here was a bit of shame. However, to Pratt’s credit, she tackles her themes with aplomb.

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Non Pratt’s second Barrington Stoke novella does exactly what it says on the tin: it provides user-friendly, utterly teenage drama with a thematic twist. 

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I’m Back + Top Ten Books of 2017

Look! It is I, returned to the world of saying effusive things about fictional escapades after an unexpected sojourn! And I come bearing gifts: my favourite books of 2017!

I read so many amazing books last year, it’s been almost impossible to choose favourites – but I have persevered and whittled it down to a top ten. (Some of the best books I read last year were actually ones I caught up on reading many years after they’d originally been published, but in the interests of not being here for three thousand words of flailing, I’ve kept this list to books published in 2017.)

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

I adored this book. I adored it in so many ways I’m just going to point you in the direction of my pre-release review, because it has ALL THE FEELS. “Romantic, expressive, warm and true, A Quiet Kind of Thunder is an irresistible second novel. It is achingly happy. It reminded me what five star books feel like: shiny, sparkling, and memorable.”

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

While Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers remains my personal favourite of her books, The Explorer is a marvellous addition to her repertoire of historical fiction. Vibrant, accomplished and often clever, The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. Rundell’s prose is terrifically appealing, and it’s little wonder that this book went on to win the children’s Costa. The writing is by turns clever and challenging, tongue-in-cheek and touching (“Love is so terrifying. It is less like rainbows and butterflies and more like jumping on to the back of a moving dragon”).

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Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

This is Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s best book yet, and hands down the best YA-but-set-at-the-first-months-of-university book out there at the moment. “Told in fast-paced alternate narration, Freshers is a tale of mayhem, mishaps, miscommunication and inexplicable amounts of tea, written with typical Ellen and Ivison aplomb. Messy, outrageous and down-to-earth, it’s full of chaotic charm. A vibrant array of characters populate the pages, and the friendships are particularly brilliant. What’s more, it’s sharp, candid, and outrageously, unashamedly funny.”

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Certainly one of the most talked-about books of the year, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow is a dazzling children’s fantasy début. It spills over with inexplicable and varied magic simply because it can. Because it’s fun. There’s a logic and yet an immense expressiveness to it. There are rooms that redecorate themselves for different occupants; carriages built like nimble metallic spiders; shadows that can wander on their own. Violinists who pickpocket entire audiences while playing; a clock with a sky for its face. Fireblossom trees and mesmerists and snowhounds and a gigantic talking cat.  I’m not yet sure if it’s going to nab a place in literary memory the same way that its go-to comparison, Harry Potter, has, but it’s still an enjoyable series opener.

Girls Can’t Hit by T.S. Easton

This is a 2017 book I wish had been talked about more! Girls Can’t Hit was a surprises of last year’s spring reading for me. Satisfying and clever, this is funny, feel-good, affectionately feminist teen fiction featuring great friendships, marvellous tone and a sporting twist. Easton manages to make you want to keep reading even if the sport in question, boxing, isn’t one you like (as in my case) as it follows teenager Fleur go from reluctant new recruit to unexpectedly empowered young person. I picked up several more of Easton’s books after reading this one.

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Now I Rise by Kiersten White

The only sequel on this list, Now I Rise is the second book in Kiersten White’s genderbent Vlad the Impaler retelling. This is compelling, effective and demanding alternate history with a vicious female lead, increasingly developed characterisation and a rich choice of setting. Much of this book follows Lada’s brother Radu at the siege of Constantinople in the mid-fifteenth century, and I was pleased to see this sequel living up, but appearing distinct, to its predecessor And I Darken. 

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

This is technically an adult book, but I’ll allow it as Schwab’s Darker Shade of Magic series is a great crossover for fans of young adult fantasy looking to read more adult fiction. Schwab’s practical, vivid prose, well-developed lead characters and strong sense of plot make for some memorable storytelling. A Conjuring of Light was a satisfying trilogy finale, but it’s since been announced that she will return to this fictional world with another trilogy, and I, like many fans, am so excited to read it.

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord

The Names They Gave Us is a considered and highly engaging exploration of the summer one confident but somewhat sheltered teenager’s world is turned upside down surprises and endears at every turn. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, and it’s perhaps not as memorable as some of the other books I read in 2017, but this character-driven contemporary delivers on plot as well as premise. It’s warm and heartfelt, but also serious, thoughtful and, occasionally, heartbreaking.

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Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Bittersweet yet charming, Wing Jones is big-hearted, cinematic, satisfyingly driven YA. It has a top-notch, surprisingly swoony romance and vivid running scenes as embattled biracial teenager Wing takes to the track in 1990s Atlanta. Rather like a runner finding their form, when the book hits its stride, it simply glides.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

A hefty, mesmerising tome of a fantasy novel, Strange the Dreamer is the first in a duology full of things to like: librarians, desert quests, mythical cities, some flashes of wit and description, and… odd blue-skinned alien-demigod beings…? It is perhaps a little unnecessarily long, but it’s the first Laini Taylor book I’ve really enjoyed, and I’ll be reading the sequel.

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BONUS ROUND: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman*

Oh, you knew it was coming. Philip Pullman’s long-awaited return to Lyra’s Oxford via the Book of Dust finally began last year (the rumour mill was such that it had actually been one of my most anticipated books of 2016 before publication was confirmed). This dramatic, often dark tale is balanced by an endearing protagonist in the shape of Macolm Polstead. And of course, The Secret Commonwealth, in which Lyra will go from baby to young adult, is slated for this year, so we get even more daemons and alethiometers and chases and unnecessary literariness and DAEMONS.

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What did you think of these 2017 releases? What were your favourite books of 2017?

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36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You by Vicki Grant // true love, tropical fish and other pressing enquiries

35698625Author(s): Vicki Grant
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 19th October 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Quotes from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Two random strangers. Thirty-six questions to make them fall in love.

Hildy and Paul each have their own reasons for taking part in a PhD studen’ts psychology study on love and relationships (in Paul’s case, it’s the forty dollar reward). They must ask each other thirty-six questions, ranging from “What is your worst memory?” to “If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?”

By the time they’ve made it to the end of the questionnaire, they’ve laughed and cried and lied and thrown things and run away and come back again. They’ve also each discovered the pain the other was trying so hard to hide. But have they fallen in love?

A straightforward, eye-catching hook led me to pick up 36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You after a brief sojourn from contemporary fiction. I wasn’t expecting much as I’d heard very little about the book beforehand, but then I do like to open up new books away from the hype, and I was surprised to soon find myself racing through this one. Engaging, entertaining and hurtling along at a brisk pace (it clocks in at around 280 pages), it tells the unfolding story of two strangers who turn up for a study which asks whether a close relationship can be manufactured through a series of intense, highly personal question-and-answer sessions. Bubbly, loquacious overtalker Hildy is eighteen and curious about the potential of the study, while artistic, taciturn teenager Paul is, at first, only there for the money.

Sizeable chunks of 36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You are told in transcripts, texts, messages and other epistolary additions. It became my favourite thing about the book. It relies heavily on dialogue – something I’m not always a fan of, particularly if it comes at the expense of description, as happens here – but in this case it’s pleasingly deliberate, effective and realistic. It’s sharp (“That was a ten-second cover-up of a thirty-six part docudrama”) and often funny (“You have very good emotional antennae” “I love it when you talk dirty, but could please just finish your answer”). Hildy and Paul have a sparky dynamic which ranges from emotional to witty to furious to solemn; they’re remarkably expressive given that when you take away descriptors or adverbs most authors would, at least initially, flounder, but Grant takes it in her stride (it was only after reading the book that I discovered she’s also a screenwriter, which probably contributes to this). The prose sections are fairly unexceptional, but lo and behold, a book that shows just how much you can get done without dialogue tags!

 

LOOK AT THEM, IN ALL THEIR DIALOGUE-TAG-FREE GLORY. Significant sections of the book are told in texts and messaging, too, and FINALLY, the first YA book I’ve read for ages that gets teenage textual voices right. It’s not cringe-worthy or overly stylised, instead taking cues from character (Hildy is all long sentences and correct capitalisation; Paul is lowercase and fine with shortening the occasional word) and punctuation, or lack thereof (“hey! watch it with the !!! someone could lose an eye”).

This is undoubtedly character-driven contemporary. Hildy and Paul are interesting and, particularly in Paul’s case, intriguing enough leads to keep you reading. For a book that seems to be about romance, there is relatively little of it in swoony Stephanie Perkins or sweet Sarah Dessen terms. It’s definitely an opposites-attract relationship, with spiky back-and-forth (“normally I’d challenge you to a duel for the insult but I’ve got the sniffles”) and a touch of the bad-boy exterior, but there’s a sense that they matter to each other (“You’re just the way you’re supposed to be”) which is a tricky balance to pull off. You’d be surprised how many other YA romances don’t have their characters spending any time actually getting to know each other, and if there’s one thing you can say about Hildy and Paul’s story, it’s that they certainly do.

Family drama, a last-minute dash to find each other and an unusually prominent tropical fish are thrown in for plot. Hildy’s well-off family life has been ruptured by a startling revelation – a subplot I ultimately wasn’t delighted by, though it’s cleverly only hinted at for much of the book and provides a twist for Hildy and Paul’s first date – with her brother Gabe and friends Max and Xiu making up most of the secondary cast. The psychology study, which isn’t conducted in any believable way in the first place, isn’t followed up much in the latter stages, so if you picked up the book for that, you’ll be disappointed. It looks like there’ll be illustrations in the final edition, though they’re not in the advance copy, which is a shame as illustrated YA is a really fun concept. The book’s ending is fairly sudden and completely lacking in resolution, and there are too many stereotypes in its characterisation. However, despite their differences – and despite the book’s abrupt ending – the reader is invited at least theoretically to hope for Hildy and Paul’s opposites-attract romance.

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A surprisingly funny, fast-paced contemporary with a solid hook and some great dialogue, though the ending is rather abrupt and it lacks the spark of truly brilliant YA. If you like books by Keris Stainton, Emma Mills or Sarah Mlynowski, you may find something to like here.

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