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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Where Are All The Grandparents in YA?

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

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

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

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

25909375Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

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

31574295Margot and Me by Juno Dawson

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

34325090I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman

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

10594356Going Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt

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

25582543Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

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

23266378The Next Together by Lauren James

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

22929578The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

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

8621462A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

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

22295304Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older 

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

35817737The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven

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

738148Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine

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

28383390How Not To Disappear by Clare Furniss

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

 

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

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Event Round Up: We Love YA! DeptCon at ILFD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But red is rare. Red is a warning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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YA Shot Blog Tour // An Interview with Karen Gregory

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m playing host to YA Shot panellist Karen Gregory.

YA Shot is an author-run, one-day book festival for children and teens held in Uxbridge, London. Founded by Alexia Casale, the third annual YA Shot will be held on Saturday 14th April 2018. This year’s line-up feature authors such as Holly Bourne, Lauren James, Samantha Shannon, Katherine Webber, Chris Russell, Cecelia Vinesse,  Sita Brahmachari and more. You can find all the details on YA Shot (including the full list of panels) or buy tickets, whether for yourself or as a gift for young people from the local area, here.

As ever, my interview questions and mildly excitable contributions are in bold or occasionally [bracketed], while Karen’s answers are in plain text and marked KG. 

mb4ma8vv_400x400Karen Gregory is the author of YA novels Countless (Bloomsbury, 2017) is out now and Skylarks (Bloomsbury, forthcoming, May 2018). A graduate of Somerville College, Oxford, she’s a project manager by day who’s become adept at writing around the edges (strong coffee and a healthy disregard for housework help). She wrote her first story about a mouse called Bantra at the age of twelve, then put away the word processor until her first child was born when she was overtaken by the urge to write. She lives in Wiltshire with her family and is represented by Claire Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge & White.

A: We’ll start with one of my favourites: what drew you to YA?

KG: Great question! I think it was a mixture of several things. Your teenage years and early twenties are such a visceral time, when you’re encountering new things and learning how (and how not) to deal with them, while trying to figure out who you are and your place in the world. It’s such a rich area to explore. I don’t think those challenges necessarily go away as you get older; many people continue to struggle with big questions throughout their lives, so perhaps it’s also that which draws me to YA. And of course, there are so many brilliant YA authors out there, which I find massively inspiring!

Speaking of fellow YA authors, you’ll be chairing panellists Sara Barnard, Orlagh Collins and Tamsin Winter in talking literature and living well with mental illness at YA Shot. How did you get involved with the event? For readers who are unfamiliar, can you tell us more about it?yashotblogtourbanner1

KG: Sure! YA Shot is a day-long festival in Uxbridge, London, celebrating UK YA and Middle Grade fiction. It supports readers through partnerships between authors and local schools and libraries, includes the UKYA Blogger awards and runs blogger and vlogger workshops, and this year has a theme of human rights. I actually had tickets to go last year and then tonsillitis (my nemesis) intervened, so I was delighted to be invited to be one of around fifty authors taking part this year.

Like a lot of UKYA, your début novel Countless dealt with some serious issues and hard-hitting themes. Do you think YA writers have a duty of care to their readers in how they approach issue-driven stories?

KG: It’s a really tricky area. I do believe YA writers need to be mindful of their intended audience. At the same time, it’s important not to patronise readers and to recognise that awful things do happen in some young people’s lives. These stories need to be written too.

In terms of Countless in particular, given the subject matter I was concerned about the potential for the portrayal to be harmful to vulnerable people. I worked hard through the editing process to try and ensure there weren’t things in there which didn’t need to be for the story, for example specific numbers around weight and calories. I felt it was important to try and show the incredibly difficult emotions and thought processes around Hedda’s illness. I hope I got the balance right, but I’m always learning.

What did you hope teen readers would take from Countless when they’d turned over the last page?

KG: I’m going to sound incredibly cheesy here, but I guess I hoped readers would take away the sense that even for the most seemingly intractable problems, there is the possibility of change and hope that things can be different in the future. And that love, especially learning to love yourself, is a powerful and healing force.

Of course, for some authors it’s hard to turn over that last page on a book – are you the kind of writer who feels the book is done once you’ve finished writing or editing, or do you wish you’d done anything differently?

KG: I’m a ‘prise it out of my hands’ sort of writer! There are always things I want to change and it can be really hard to let something go. However, there comes a point in revising and editing where you’ve taken the book as far as you can. I try to remind myself that as long as I know I’ve put in as much work as I could and written the best book I’m capable of, then in the end that has to be enough. Eventually you need to let the book go, or you’d never write anything else!

If you had name three of your favourite YA books from the last year, what would they be and why?25310356

KG: Argh, this is a very cruel question as I read so much amazing YA last year! I think I’d choose We Come Apart, by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan. It’s about Nicu, a recent immigrant to the UK from Romania, and Jess, who is from a chaotic and disadvantaged background. I loved their story, which is told in alternating perspectives and in beautiful free verse. Jess in particular has really stayed with me since I read the book.

[A: I’ll second this recommendation – you can read my review of this bittersweet book here on the blog!]

KG: I also loved Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows. It’s a slight cheat as I got it for Christmas and actually read it this year, but it was a 2017 release so I think it counts. Set during the English Civil War, it’s a mixture of historical fiction, magical realism and mystery. Hardinge has one of the most unique voices out there and this book completely sucked me in.

I’m thirdly going to pick a book which is technically MG, but can be read by all ages: Tamsin Winter’s Being Miss Nobody. Main character Rosalind has selective mutism, and the book follows her as she struggles to literally and metaphorically find her voice during her first year at secondary school. It’s an incredibly warm book with a big heart – it had me crying towards the end.

dv_sgdsumaavf-qAnd finally, what can readers expect from you next? Can you tell us anything about your new book?

KG: Yes – I’ve got a new book out in May called Skylarks, which is about figuring out how to stand up for what you believe in and looks at social justice, the poverty gap and activism. It’s set in a fictionalised area of the Marlborough Downs and the occasional real skylark does make an appearance! I so enjoyed writing it and I’m really looking forward to sharing Joni and Annabel’s love story.

The YA Shot Blog Tour runs from 1st March to 12th April. be sure to check out the other stops, which will feature author interviews, guest posts, giveaways and other delightful stuff!

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