INTERVIEW // Take Five with Natasha Ngan, author of Girls of Paper and Fire

Today on the blog, I’m delighted to be hosting a Q&A with author Natasha Ngan as part of my ongoing Take Five interview series!

As ever, my questions are in bold, with Natasha’s answers in plain text.

20180428-DSC04172_edit-cropNatasha Ngan is a writer and yoga teacher. She grew up between Malaysia, where the Chinese side of her family is from, and the UK. This multicultural upbringing continues to influence her writing; she is passionate about bringing diverse stories to teens. Natasha studied Geography at the University of Cambridge before working as a social media consultant and fashion blogger. She recently moved to Paris, where she likes to imagine she drifts stylishly from brasserie to brasserie, notepad in one hand, wineglass in the other. In reality, she spends most of her time getting lost on the metro and confusing locals with her French.

Set the scene: Can you tell blog readers something about where you are right now? 

Natasha Ngan: I’m sitting at my desk in my little studio apartment in Paris, looking out at rooftops and a beautiful blue sky! It sounds idyllic – except there’s two different sets of works going on in my block of flats, so the air is filled with the rumble and squeal of drilling, and people are shouting angrily in French in the street below. However, I have a cup of tea nearby and am wrapped up in blankets, so I’m pretty cosy!

160701411. Girls of Paper and Fire is the start of a new series. What makes this book different from your previous books (The Elites and The Memory Keepers)?

NN: GIRLS is my first fantasy book, which is funny since that’s the first genre I fell in love with and have spent so much time since young creating various fantasy worlds to lose myself in! I also feel like GIRLS is the most personal of my books to date. It’s own voices in more ways than one – the Asian-inspired world, queer characters, the theme of sexual abuse. So it feels pretty vulnerable offering up this story to the world! But I’ve been so overwhelmed by the response so far, and to see readers connecting with something that means so much to me is just incredible.

2. What served as your inspiration for Lei’s story? What kind of research did you do to build her world?

RNN: With Ikhara, I wanted to create a world that felt completely authentic and real to me as a person who has Chinese heritage but isn’t from mainland China. My mother’s side of the family is from Malaysia, and we spent a lot of time there when I was young so I could grow up surrounded by the languages and cultures that my mum is familiar with. But I’m also half English and was born in the UK. So I really wanted a fantasy world that had all these different influences and really celebrated them.

Research-wise, I’m lucky as a lot of things in Ikhara have come directly from my own memories and experiences, so during the writing many details such as clothes, superstitions and symbolism, architectural styles, language and food (LOTS of food!) are things I’m already familiar with. While I was dreaming up the world and story, however, I did do lots of research into the history of the regions I’m drawing from and brushed up on various mythologies and folklore too.

181965163. By the time Girls of Paper and Fire releases, it will have been four years since your last book was published. What do you feel you’ve learned about writing in that time?

NN: SO MUCH! And if you ask me this question again a few more books down the line, I’m sure I’ll say the exact same thing! I love how writing is a skill that constantly evolves alongside you. Not just in style and technique, but also in topics, ideas, the whole being of writing – it’s always changing, just as we are. If I had to rewrite GIRLS today, I’ve no doubt it would come out very differently, since it’s been almost four years since that first draft!

I’ve definitely learnt more about the craft over the past few years. I’m an instinctive writer and a total panster, so I struggle to explain the hows and whys of my writing, particularly whilst I’m actually writing. But I’ve made an effort to study and explore the technique of it more, listening to how other writers work, reading craft books, watching YouTube videos that break down why good films work etc. So even if I’m not consciously applying them, my subconscious is hopefully doing it for me!

4. As well as writing for teens, you’re also a fashion blogger and yoga teacher. Do you ever feel that you’re contributing to the pressure on young women to look a certain way by being involved in the fashion industry? Does that background ever affect your writing?

NN: This is such an interesting question! I actually think blogging back in its youth moved against those pressures by showcasing different looks, styles, shapes and personalities, particularly those underrepresented in mainstream media. Sadly, as blogging has become commercialised and social media use has exploded, it’s lost that quality. I don’t really blog much anymore, and that’s a big reason for it. Now I’m happy just sharing the odd picture here and there on Instagram with little snippets of my life in Paris.

On the other hand, being a yoga teacher is all about empowering your students to look after themselves from the inside out, and becoming confident and comfortable with who they are. I’ve struggled with anxiety since young, especially surrounding my chronic genetic health condition, and yoga has helped me enormously to be at peace within myself and whatever is going on in my body. These issues definitely come into what I write. GIRLS is a lot about inner strength and reclaiming your body after others have controlled and abused you, and I hope these messages come across positively.

5. Finally, can you tell us what’s next for you (and for Lei)?

NN: I’ve just finished the first draft of book two in the GIRLS trilogy! It was an … experience. There’s still a lot of work to come of course, but I’m actually very happy with the direction the story takes and the new characters, settings and conflicts book two explores. [BLOGGER’S NOTE: What comes next is a mild spoiler for Girls of Paper and Fire. If you’re not lucky enough to have read the book yet, skip over the white out. Highlight it at your peril!] Without giving away too much, I can tell you that Lei and a certain someone have escaped the palace, and they’ll be travelling all across Ikhara in a bid to secure allies for the upcoming war.There’s a big cast of new characters to fall in love with (I hope!) and we’ll see Lei learn and grow from what happened to her in book one, as well as explore the ethical dilemnas of the dark side of what she’s got herself caught up with. I can’t wait for readers to continue her journey! 

Thanks to Natasha for this fantastic and detailed interview! Girls of Paper and Fire is out on November 6th 2018 in the USA and March 21st 2019 in the UK and Ireland. On that note, there’s a special postscript from Natasha for readers in the US: 

Oh and I’m also coming to the US on a tour in November to celebrate the release of GIRLS! I’d love to meet you and chat all the bookish things. I’ll be posting up my tour dates very shortly over on my website. Please do come say hi!

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39449484Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for… and the most cruel.

But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, traumatised by the loss of her mother. Now, the guards who took her mother are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after. 

Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable — she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.

Is Girls of Paper and Fire on your TBR? Let us know in comments down below!

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Most Anticipated Reads of 2019

Today on The Paper Alchemist, it’s time to peel back the curtain and look ahead to some of the most exciting releases of 2019!

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Hands down my most anticipated title of early 2019 is Samantha Shannon’s standalone high fantasy novel The Priory of the Orange Tree. There’s some terrific worldbuilding in her Bone Season series, from its different levels of clairvoyance to its inventive use of Victorian-style gang nicknames, so I was pleased to hear that she’s swapping dystopia (bleh, one of my least favourite genres) for high fantasy (YAY, one of my faves). Just some of the things that have me intrigued: it’s set in a world with bioluminescent dragons, the cover art is amazing, it has four narrators including a queen in a matriarchy, the book is the size of a brick, and DID I MENTION THE DRAGONS?

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth, the sequel to 2017’s much-awaited and highly dramatic His Dark Materials sequel La Belle Sauvage, was also on my list of most anticipated books of 2018. It never materialised then, so back on the list it goes. According to reports, we’ll finally get to see Lyra again, this time as an adult, probably working with the alethiometer, as well as characters we first met in La Belle Sauvage, like good-hearted Malcolm, and of course, those world-famous daemons.

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

The New York Times bestselling author of The Star-Touched Queen, A Crown of Wishes and Aru Shah and the End of Time returns to YA with The Gilded Wolves, a historical novel set in the darkly glamourous world of late nineteenth-century Paris. Séverin Montagnet-Alarie is a treasure hunter, wealthy hotelier and keeper of dangerous secrets. When the powerful Order of Babel seeks his help, he is offered a chance at recovering his true inheritance. To find the artefact they seek, he must bind together a ragtag collection of misfits, including an engineer, a historian, a dancer and his brother in all but blood. As you may have seen, I struggled to get into the likes of Leigh Bardugo’s books, so maybe this historical treasure hunt will be more my kind of thing.

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Fierce Fragile Hearts by Sara Barnard

Sara Barnard writes such resonant and enjoyable contemporary UKYA. I adored the warm, romantic love story of A Quiet Kind of Thunder; I was surprised by the dexterous and unputdownable Goodbye, Perfect.With Fierce Fragile Hearts, Barnard returns to the world of her very first book, Beautiful Broken Things, which focused on the intense friendship between three teenage girls. Sheltered Caddy, outgoing Rosie, and whirlwind Suzanne look set to return – this time from Suzanne’s perspective, set two years after the first book, with Caddy and Rosie are about to start university. I can’t wait to get hold of this sequel in spring.

Enchantée by Gita Trelease

Back in Paris, next on the list is another historical novel – this time set on the simmering eve of the French Revolution, with added fantasy twists. Orphan Camille relies on petty magic (“la magie ordinaire”) to provide for herself and her siblings. After an apparent betrayal, she decides to risk dark magic and to pursue a richer, more dangerous mark: the court of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Some of my favourite books of 2018 were historical fiction and historical fantasy (albeit from the children’s section), so this has the potential to be fabulous.

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Song of the Abyss by Makiia Lucier

Makiia Lucier’s Isle of Blood and Stone was one of my anticipated reads of 2018, perhaps the most anticipated by a new-to-me author, and it turned out to be one of best fantasy books I read in the first half of the year. Song of the Abyss is set in the same world (it’s apparently being termed the Tower of Winds series) but is described as a companion novel rather than a straight-up sequel. Still, I’m intrigued as it promises some more of the things I liked best about Isle of Blood and Stone – exploring, secretive kingdoms, a high-stakes mystery – and this time with a female lead.

Paper Avalanche by Lisa Williamson

Another book initially slated for a 2018 release, the pushed-back Paper Avalanche instead makes it into the 2019 publishing slate in January. Lisa Williamson’s debut The Art of Being Normal received critical acclaim, while the exuberant All About Mia proved that second book syndrome was no match for this accomplished contemporary writer. Paper Avalanche seems reminiscent of Susin Nielsen’s No Fixed Address, with guarded protagonist Stevie juggling crushes, the temptation of friendship and her love of music with one big secret. The house where Stevie tells people to drop her off, No. 56? She doesn’t live there at all.

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Izzy + Tristan by Shannon Dunlap

I am, as a general rule, wary of YA retellings of stories as old as this. Reimaginings of Romeo and Juliet tend to rely too much on instalove; reworkings of the love affair of Guinevere and Lancelot can seem clunky. It just seems that taking them out of their medieval or early modern context and into a teenage experience is a bit of a wrestling match. And yet, rather like the irresistible forces which brings these figures together, I am tempted back into the world of retellings every couple of years. I can’t wait to find out if someone can finally do the stories justice. Izzy + Tristan is a reimagining of the Arthur-adjacent myth of Tristan and Iseult. Set in modern-day Brooklyn, Tristan is a chess prodigy who meets Izzy, a practical-minded teenager who wants to become a doctor.

Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett

I was surprised by how much I liked Jenn Bennett’s Night Owls, and in the absence (so far) of an announced 2019 title from big-hitters of contemporary USYA like Sarah Dessen, Morgan Matson or Stephanie Perkins, this book is filling the gap. Serious Moonlight is the story of sheltered Birdie and gregarious Daniel, two teenagers who start summer jobs at a Seattle hotel and stumble upon a mystery surrounding a reclusive author. It will have to strike a careful balance between quirky and thoughtful to avoid the pitfall of pretentiousness which sometimes plagues talky, character-centric contemporaries like this, but if it does, it could be really enjoyable.

The True Queen by Zen Cho

When I reviewed Zen Cho’s near-brilliant fantasy opener Sorcerer to the Crown earlier this year, I bemoaned the fact that the release date of the sequel had been pushed back again and again – but there is one upside, in that it can now be included in my 2019 list of anticipated reads. The world of this series is undoubtedly one of its best features: there’s something so engrossing about an alternate Regency London where a decadent aristocracy meet an unruly Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers. It’s also the second (third if you count Pullman’s widely-appealing Secret Commonwealth) adult fiction title on this list, and perhaps indicates that historical fantasy really is becoming my jam…

What books are you looking forward to reading in 2019? Do you have any recommendations I should add to the list?

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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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Event Round-Up // YALC 2018

You heard it right, folks: this year, I attended London’s Young Adult Literature Convention!

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Though it was my first time attending YALC, I’ve been book event-ing long enough to have picked up some key tips:

  • It was 30+ degrees that week so light clothes, water and a fan were a must
  • Bringing your own food is useful (to save you the queues and expense of trying to find lunch in the venue and/or Kensington)
  • Wear comfy shoes (unless you’re in cosplay in which case… no pain no gain?)
  • Plan to do SOME things but not EVERYTHING (so you’re not rushing from one workshop/panel/signing to another or feeling disappointed if one runs over and affects your next event) and your day will be all the better for it.

I attended on Saturday. I had a dress with pockets, books to get signed, and I was ready to go (with a friend in tow with whom I could fangirl, obviously). There was so much going on – Tomi Adeyemi had a signing during the sci-fi panel, Lindsay Galvin had a launch party I didn’t get to, I forgot to bring All About Mia for the Lisa Williamson signing – and it was impossible to be in two places at once, but here’s what I did get up to…

10am: Growing Up In The Past, with Frances Hardinge, Keren David, Laura Wood and Lucy Adlington

We arrived about twenty minutes after this historical fiction panel had started, which was a shame, but at least meant a) we arrived after the entrance queue had dissipated and b) we had time to meander! We browsed, got a look at the layout, and, spotting that her signing queue was just winding up, I met Keris Stainton. I babbled because I’d only just got there and my coherent sentences were still somewhere on the Underground, but Keris is so nice and My Heart Goes Bang, her latest book, was my first purchase of the day (given that we’d only been there for fifteen minutes, this did not seem to bode well for my wallet). I also started another theme for the day which was FORGETTING TO TAKE PHOTOS.

Also, when I was perusing publisher stands, I was almost IMMEDIATELY introduced to another Irish person (shout-out to Roisin at Hot Key).

11am: Careers in Publishing with Chloe Seager, Alice Natali, Lucy Richardson and Sarah Stewart

Of all the agents’ arena talks of the day, Careers in Publishing was the one I most liked the sound of (I’ve never seen any similar panels specifically for YA and kidlit here in Ireland). I appreciated the variety of roles represented: Chloe Seager is an agent and author, while Lucy Richardson is in publicity at HarperCollins, Sarah Stewart is in editorial at Usborne, and Alice Natali is in translation rights at ILA. They spoke about the day-to-day (publicists are people-facing and usually extroverted) and things people find surprising about their jobs (you don’t have to speak multiple languages to work in rights).

The panel also spoke about how they got into publishing; commonalities seemed to include having a degree (though not always in English Lit) and working in different departments to get a foot in the door, but there was also acknowledgement that some people need full-time jobs rather than unpaid internships. There were shout-outs for things like Penguin’s paid internships, the Society of Young Publishers, and Ink Road Books, Edinburgh’s shiny new YA imprint. I like to make myself ask one at every event I go to, so when it came to the Q&A I asked what the panellists thought about the prospects of the publishing industry moving beyond London, as that’s such a hot topic at the moment. It was also fab to see a professional, industry-focused panel entirely made up of women.

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L-R: Chloe Seager, Lucy Richardson, Sarah Stewart, Alice Natali

12pm: Lunch and signings

In the interest of taking my own advice, this hour was essentially free, so I ate and then popped along to see Sara Barnard (one of the most genuinely lovely humans in YA, if not the world) and meet the fabulous Non Pratt (I’d remembered how to speak in sentences at this point and was able to talk about how much I love her difficult second child Remix)I also dropped by Ink Road to see my friend and newly-minted publishing professional Sarah, and, of course, take part in their Harry Potter in Scots quiz.

1pm: Amongst the Stars, with Samantha Shannon, Becky Chambers, Lauren James and Sasha Alsberg 

This was the panel my sci-fi mad bestie was most excited about, so it was one that we absolutely had to get to – our only mistake was heading in with about five minutes to go only to find the seating almost full. Luckily we found half-decent seats from which to hear a calm and collected Samantha Shannon ask some great questions, Becky Chambers extol the benefits of having come from a scientific family and Lauren James combine effervescent fangirling with real sci-fi knowledge. There was some controversial talk of pop culture icon Star Wars being science fantasy rather than science fiction, which my friend and I had just been discussing days earlier, but let’s not mention the war(s)…

This panel was the scene of an Irregularly Scheduled Momoa Moment, as he appeared through a nearby door to a ripple of delight from the audience….

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Panel L-R: Samantha Shannon, Becky Chambers, Sasha Alsberg, Lauren James

2pm: Samantha Shannon signing

Ah yes. This was the longest queue I had to wait in, and I was probably still in the first third or so. The line stretched back behind us that I heard later that they cut off the queue and sent people away, rather than giving tickets as they did near the front. Bloomsbury had announced a proof giveaway for Samantha Shannon’s 2019 book, The Priory of the Orange Tree, and well done that publicity team – the lure certainly worked!

While waiting I managed to get a bite to eat, drop in to the fab Lauren James’ signing line, visit some more publishers including Chicken House Books where I met publicist Jazz and a surprise Kiran Millwood Hargrave (I would have brought my books if I’d known – it’s YALC, not MGLC!), and bump into book blogger and #boybandlit creator turned kpop stan Sal, after ages trying to spot her red shoes!

When I finally got to meet Samantha Shannon, she was absolutely (you guessed it) lovely. I’d lugged my massive copy of The Bone Season all the way over from Ireland, and got to chat about my favourite moments of The Song Rising (you can read my review for more info here!). It can be tough for readers and writers (and fans of anything really) when signing queues are so long, and it really seemed that she was taking the time to talk to everyone – as fresh and polite as if she’d only been there for twenty minutes, rather than an hour and a half (though if you’re interested in events with big-name authors but more laidback signings, maybe DeptCon is for you…)

4pm: Loud and Proud, with Simon James Green, Josh Martin and Keris Stainton

This panel was informed, fun and undoubtedly the funniest of the day. Simon James Green, the moderator, writes funny fiction for the slightly younger end of the teen spectrum (you’ll no doubt recognise the cover of Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never), while Martin writes fantasy and Stainton is an experienced writer of fiction from to teen to adult. They talked about personal experiences, the issue of identity, the difference between UK and USYA, and a whole plethora of LGBTQ+ recommendations from current YA, including shout-outs for Alice Oseman and Becky Albertalli. There was also another sighting of a Lesser Spotted Jason Momoa, which caused a bit of a stir…

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L-R: Keris Stainton, Simon James Green, Josh Martin

I think there were a couple more events after this, but we had to get going. I took notes at the workshops and panels, but I’m convinced I’ve forgotten some details – trips to Waterstones, the vibrantly decorated publisher posters and stands, people I met, cosplays I saw (including a TINY Wonder Woman), prize draws entered… Still, I’ll end this here on my swag haul – it’s probably on the small side for YALC, but I did have a luggage allowance to consider…

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Did you go to YALC? What were your favourite panels? Do you think there need to be more YA book events outside of London? Let me know in comments below!

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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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Floored Blog Tour // A Playlist for Velvet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tapestry by Liv Dawson

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

Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler 

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

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

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

Friends by RAYE

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

Woman Is A Word by Empress Of

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

Youth by Troye Sivan

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

Heroes by David Bowie

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

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

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