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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My Heart Goes Bang by Keris Stainton // confident, chaotic contemporary UKYA

Today on the blog, it’s time for more summer contemporary…

9781471406829Author(s): Keris Stainton
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 28th June 2018
Category:
YA
Source: Purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Lou, Issey, Liane, Ella and Paige are determined to make the most of their second year at uni. They want to have fun, but will have to focus on work. They have no time for relationships. Except with each other. And even then, there’s tension between Issey and Liane, and none of them know Paige that well.

When they find a magazine article with a list of men they should date before they’re 21 (Someone who’s been on telly? Check. Someone who’s got tattoos? Check) they vow to complete the list by the end of the year. In fact, some of them set about it with a lot more enthusiasm than they do their studies … but will any of them end up with a full house? And as secrets spiral out of control, will their friendship survive intact?

If you’ve ever asked for more female friendship in YA, or more YA with multiple LGBT characters, or more frank treatment of sex in YA, or more YA set during university, then Keris Stainton (professional 1D fan by day, fiction author by night) may be writing the books for you. In fact, she may have written the book for you, since My Heart Goes Bang contains all of those things – and more. I picked up my copy at YALC this year (in fact it was the first book I bought at the entire convention) and read it within days (it became my go-to reading on the tube).

My Heart Goes Bang is the busy, messy story of five close-knit housemates, including overworked Paige (who’s trying to hide the fact that she’s behind on her bills), straight-laced Ella (who’s trying to hide that her beloved brother is in a world-famous band), and middle-class Liane (who’s trying to hide from her overbearing gallery-owning mother). Theirs is a year of intense friendship and casual flings, but among the more memorable moments are a sweet romance between Ella and Nick and the characters’ exploration of orientation (the girls open up the magazine list to include LGBTQ+ relationships). The writing style, meanwhile, is lightning fast and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Stainton’s prolific backlist stretches from teen fiction (like Emma Hearts LA) to adult women’s fiction (like If You Could See Me Now), with My Heart Goes Bang slotting, in terms of content and style, between last year’s upper YA One Italian Summer (you can read my review here) and 2015’s new adult contemporary Counting Stars. There’s plenty of sex, swearing and drinking, very much drawing on stereotypes of the uni experience. With all the drama Stainton throws at them, it’s little wonder lectures are the last of these girls’ worries. The book isn’t perfect and with so many characters I find I remember more of what happened than who it happened to, but other elements, like the group chats and nods to boyband lit, help make this exuberant contemporary UKYA.

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For fans of Non Pratt’s Truth or Dare, Sarah Mlynowski’s Ten Things We Did (And Probably Shouldn’t Have) and Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s Freshers, Keris Stainton’s My Heart Goes Bang is messy, character-driven UKYA. Short, sharp and fizzy with female friendship. 

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Theatrical by Maggie Harcourt // a starry behind-the-scenes standalone

SURPRISE: I still blog! Totally didn’t accidentally not post anything for a whole month just there. MOVING ON. Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m reviewing one of my most anticipated reads of the year!

34615412Author(s): Maggie Harcourt
Publisher: Usborne
Publication date: 28th June 2018
Category: 
YA
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Seventeen-year-old Hope is happiest out of the spotlight, working backstage at her local theatre, so she can’t believe her luck when she lands a top internship on a major new production. However, with a Hollywood star in the lead and his young understudy upstaging Hope’s heart, it seems unlikely that her life is going to stick to the script.

Hope has to prove she’s got what it takes. But with a big secret and so much buzz around the show, she’s soon struggling to keep her cool… 

Theatres are places of terrific dichotomy, where an elegant, even plush front of house usually gives way to a backstage of cramped spaces, utilitarian corridors, and bustling crew. This labyrinth of the personal and professional shimmers with storytelling possibility. Fortunately for young adult fiction fans like me, Maggie Harcourt is interested in the behind the scenes of things. 2017’s Unconventional is an access-all-areas pass to a frantic scramble of lanyards, pineapples and emergency errands, set against a backdrop of meeting rooms, cavernous convention venues and teen friendship. Contemporary standalone Theatrical dives behind the curtain at a theatre, but begins in a draughty rehearsal space, with a production still in an unpolished state.

The legs paddling furiously beneath the surface to keep the swan afloat in this case include skilled deputy stage manager Amy, restrained assistant director Nina, and big-shot actor-director Rick. Exuberant makeup and wardrobe intern George provides Hope with a bit of teenage company backstage, though family takes something of a backseat as Hope tries to keep her internship a secret from her chilly older sisters and harried parents – including her costume designer mother, Miriam, whose reputation threatens to overshadow Hope’s determination to prove herself.

Hope is a Bridget Jones-style heroine who regularly tunes out of important conversations and is somehow late to everything, but she’s likeable and driven (“They knew everything about what was going on in the theatre and everyone in it… like it was part of them and they were part of it and you couldn’t separate them. Like they belonged there. And listening to them, I suddenly couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else”). Quiet love interest Luke is not the play’s lead – that’s fictional Hollywood heartthrob Tommy Knight, with whom Hope also has an interesting relationship – but a hardworking understudy. Their romance is sweet and slow-building, with a handful of sweepingly romantic scenes (“It’s a goodbye, and a hello; an I know you and I don’t and I want to know you“).

Starry yet grounded, I have been waiting for a YA book that takes on theatre as warmly as this. I had a few minor qualms: one unnecessary trope, a few forgettable characters, Hope’s formative theatre the Square Globe being mentioned but rarely seen, the first half occasionally feeling agonisingly slow, and repetition of the blueness of the love interest’s eyes, which to be fair, is also a characteristic of Kiersten White’s The Chaos of Stars, a book I really enjoyed. And there’s so much to enjoy about Theatrical. Harcourt’s writing has moments of absolute seamlessness. The second half of the book is pacy and dramatic. Genuine love for the theatre and its world spills from the page. There are even cameos, the most obvious being that the play at the heart of Theatrical is a stage adaptation of Unconventional’s book-within-a-book, Piecekeepers. I’m a big fan of its little details, from superstitions (never say the last line of the play in dress rehearsal) to chapter divisions and act titles (“Act One, Scene One”; “Audition”). I’d read a sequel – and will certainly be keeping my eyes peeled for Harcourt’s next project.

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For fans of Sophia Bennett and Stephanie Perkins, this book makes behind the scenes seem like the place to be. Theatrical is intelligent, satisfying and full of detail, and will sweep you off your feet.

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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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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: own
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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I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman // a sharp, serious take on teen fame and fandom

Today on the blog, another addition to the phenomenon that is boyband lit in YA…

34325090Author(s): Alice Oseman
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 3rd May 2018
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

For Angel Rahimi, there’s only one thing that matters: The Ark, a teenage pop-rock trio. The Ark’s fandom has given her everything – her dreams, her place in the world, a sense of belonging. 

Jimmy Kaga-Ricci owes everything to The Ark, too. He’s the frontman of one of the world’s most famous bands – but recently, his gilded lifestyle has started to seem more like a nightmare. 

That’s the problem with dreaming – eventually, inevitably, real life arrives with a wake-up call. And when Angel and Jimmy are unexpectedly thrown together, they will discover just how strange facing up to reality can be.

Having written this discussion post on the trend, I still occasionally poke my head round the door of boyband lit – and I Was Born For This really piqued my interest. A contemporary from the perspective of both fan and boyband? A hijab-wearing fangirl and transgender boy as narrators? A super striking cover? Consider me intrigued.

I’ll admit right off the bat that I really didn’t like Alice Oseman’s début novel, Solitaire (there’s a reason we use the term ‘in exchange for an honest review’!). But not every book is to everyone’s taste, and when I spotted this premise, I figured it was worth giving a shot. Perhaps there is something to the idea that publishing’s emphasis on make-or-break débuts is at best dubious, because I enjoyed this standalone (Oseman’s third) much more than I expected. There’s a vast improvement at play here. I Was Born For This is, in many ways, absorbing and dynamic and nuanced.

Angel is a devoted fan of The Ark. She’s the conspiracy theorist to her friend and fellow fan Juliet’s cutting romantic, though they both spend hours hypothesising and shipping ‘their’ boys: handsome Lister, lyricist Rowan, and lead singer Jimmy Kaga-Ricci. Jimmy is Angel’s favourite – charismatic, elfin, perfect. In less than a week, she’ll be going to their meet-and-greet and seeing them perform live, and then she’ll be happy. Won’t she?

Unbeknownst to Angel, the band’s skyrocketing public fame is overlapping with a downward personal spiral. Jimmy feels surrounded by grabbing hands and unseen dangers. Rowan’s relationship with his girlfriend, who he’s had to keep secret from the press, is suffering. Lister’s drinking is becoming a problem. Their manager wants them to a sign a new contract so they can break America, and that means hitting the road for years. This is all Jimmy’s ever wanted. Isn’t it?

Oseman nails her hook in I Was Born For This. Fuelled by Angel and Jimmy’s distinct alternate narration and plenty of interwoven, character-focused subplots, it makes for compelling contemporary. The short timeframe is intense and chaotic, but it is mostly engaging and readable – the book gets you on side and I read it in one sitting. By turns glitzy and serious, Oseman’s straightforward prose takes a sharp, unromanticised look at boyband culture, wealth and fame. Angel and Jimmy are two of the more likeable characters in a flawed, imperfect cast, which includes multiple LGBTQ+ characters. The best – certainly the most well-rounded – character was sweary, ambitious, vibrant Bliss, though Jimmy’s kind-hearted grandfather Piero should get a nod too.

I Was Born For This is an unexpectedly thematic book. It explores modern fandom, the perils of idealisation, and what happens when obsession blinds people to their own potential. Sometimes it’s subtle as a spider’s web and sometimes it’s about as subtle as being hit over the head with a frying pan, but both are, to be fair, effective in their own way. I was particularly surprised by the prominence of different faiths and prayer. There’s a Joan of Arc motif (taken a bit out of context, but still) and an attempt to explore fandom as a kind of substitute for or relative of religion. There’s only one minor romance in the book, but I actually didn’t notice until I’d finished, as Oseman finds plenty to mine from friendships and family relationships.

Admittedly, there are too many rhetorical questions in the latter half where an author could be attempting to provide answers, and for a book all about bands and music, we hear more about The Ark’s fame than the music behind it. Some major incidents happen and are then never explored again, probably due to a constrained timeline. Even when highlighting fandom’s positive effects, on balance the book is still ultimately fan-negative. The dialogue is stylised and, along with the many social media references, will mean the book will date quickly. Its confused closing stages see characters kept in close proximity for inexplicable reasons. However, I can see what Oseman was trying to do, and if you’re looking for boyband lit that keeps you reading while getting its thinking cap on, this may be the book for you.

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The fame, fandom and boyband lit of Zan Romanoff’s Grace and The Fever meets an unravelling of flaws reminiscent of Sara Barnard’s Goodbye, Perfect in this gripping, diverse contemporary standalone. Busy, serious and biting, I Was Born For This isn’t without fault, but I appreciated its surprisingly thematic approach and fast-paced alternate narration.

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