BLOG TOUR: T is for Tree by Greg Fowler

I’m excited about the work being done by Ink Road here in Edinburgh, and so I was delighted to be asked to take part in the blog tour for one of their very first YA titles, T is for Tree. (If you don’t already subscribe to their mailing list, you definitely should – it’s always the highlight of my inbox! Check ’em out here.)

T is for Tree

Eddy knows he’s not like other teenagers. He doesn’t look like them. He doesn’t think like them. He doesn’t go to school or have friends like they do. Eddy’s not even allowed to leave his bedroom – except on shower day of course. He doesn’t know why; all Eddy knows is that he’s different.

Abandoned by his mother and kept locked away by his grandmother, Eddy must spend his life watching the world go by from his bedroom window. Until Reagan Crowe moves in next door and everything starts to change. She’s kind, funny, beautiful, and most importantly, she’s Eddy’s first friend. Over time, Reagan introduces Eddy to the strange and wonderful world outside his bedroom: maths, jam, love.

But growing up isn’t that simple for either of them. And Eddy has a secret. The tree that’s slowly creeping in through his window from the garden is no ordinary tree. But then again, Eddy’s no ordinary boy. He’s special…

Set over the course of five years, T is for Tree is moving, life-affirming, and shows that we can all find greatness in the small things.

As you all probably know, I’ve been struggling to read anything because of the Dreaded Dissertation, but guess what?! It’s done now and I am free! This was the first book I read as a free woman, and I’m glad to have had such an easy read to get back into the swing of things. Eddy’s life is laid out before the reader in short episodic chapters as we see him grow from isolated 12 year old to confident older teen, with the help of best friends Reagan and Mr Tree.

The cover is stunning: there’s Eddy and there’s Reagan, with the extraordinary tree bridging the gap between the two friends and allowing for the kind of communication Eddy went without for the first twelve years of his life. Inside the book, you’ll find some beautiful adages on life itself. My favourite character was Mrs Elsdon, a lonely old lady who takes the time out of her daily walk to talk to Eddy about love and death and everything in between; mourning her husband and her dog, she has little else to do, but a lot of wisdom to give.

This is a strange, fairytale-like story. The tree of the title is no ordinary tree, but instead becomes Eddy’s greatest support, helping him in many different ways on the twisted and difficult journey that is growing up. It’s the very definition of a force of nature, growing its way into the bedroom that Grandma Daisy keeps so tightly locked. The tree is Eddy’s saviour… but in the end, is it really Eddy who needs saving? Is he broken, after all?

I’ll let you decide. In the meantime, you can check out the rest of the blog tour – I’m the last stop, which means everybody else’s posts are out there, ready for you to enjoy.

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Thanks to Ink Road for sending me a copy of T is for Tree in exchange for an honest review!

YALC 2017 round-up

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YALC! It’s been over a week since the stalls were packed away, the last books were signed, and all the authors/publishers/bloggers/readers finally went home (maybe after a quick stop at the pub – the over-18s, anyway). As you probably know, I’m still in dissertation hell, and I’m blaming the lateness of this round-up post on that tragic state. That other summertime book bash starts on Saturday, so I thought I’d better cast a quick glance back over a wonderful weekend in July before I’m surrounded by excitable bookish folk all over again.

In no particular order, I present… a selection of my YALC 2017 highlights.

NON PRATT SHOCKS CUMBERBATCH

Probably the most iconic moment of YALC’s four years and certainly the most iconic moment to which I have ever borne witness… it’s gotta be Benedict Cumberbatch walking in on Non Pratt’s head shave. Already an intensely surreal moment, I’m not sure if Sherlock himself’s sudden appearance made it more or less weird. I really can’t explain the atmosphere if you weren’t in the room where it happened. It was truly incredible. And Non has raised almost £3000 for the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability! You can still donate if you feel so inclined.

DANCE CLASS IS IN SESSION

In honour of The Dark Days Club (which is an utter delight, and you should read it) the excellent Alison Goodman, my esteemed QuizYA captain, ran a Regency dancing class which somehow I got roped into. (By somehow, I mean I was physically dragged by Lauren James.) You can never quite predict what’s going to happen at YALC, but I was not expecting to do-si-do Walker’s Emily McD! Despite my initial reluctance, I had a lot of fun. Though it got rather warm with all that skipping. …you guys, YALC is weird.

PANELS!

I was having so much fun wandering around that I nearly forgot about sitting down and listening to smart book people chatting smart book things. I did attend the Life Advice panel (fabulous agony aunting from all involved, and how could you ignore advice from the rightfully crowned Sara Barnard?), the Fandom panel (brilliant chairing from Lucy Saxon – I will never forget the November Rain story!), and the FLAWLESS “We Love Buffy” panel, where it was lovely to see authors I admire geeking out and being their fantastically fannish selves about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I also saw the Tricky Second Book panel, and I have to say that Cat Doyle might be my favourite panel chair of all the panel chairs? Don’t tell the others I said that, though. Lauren James was an excellent chair, also, and I loved the support on the Unconventional Romance panel for love triangles – a much maligned trope!

PALS!

Of course, what makes YALC so lovely is the community, and I met more cool people than I can possibly hope to list. It was great to see the #SundayYA crew (and be recognised as SundayYA Sarah) and lots of other Twitter pals.

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I met #ChangeBook star Aisha Bushby! We took about 12 pics trying to achieve perfection!

I was finally in a #jimsprofile picture, to my joy! I also bumped into lots of Edinburgh buddies (shout out to Kirstin for putting up with me aaall weekend, and to Justine of I Should Read That for much the same) as well as catching up with pals from south of the border. We initiated Clare into the YALC fun, and I thiiink she’ll come back next year! One of us, one of us! Last but IN NO WAY least, I finally met Moïra Fowley-Doyle, one of my writing heroes and also general subject of my admiration, and not only was I not completely weird and awkward about it, she actually knew who I was!

GETTING QUIZZICAL

QuizYA was a highlight from… what I remember… Let’s just say the free wine was flowing, and everybody seemed to be drinking white but me. My tweets and messages to my friends document that I was having a COMPLETELY LOVELY TIME, and they’re all perfectly spelt, so… MOVING ON.

GETTING GALACTIC

YALC marked the early release of The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. Actual conversation between me and Lauren James on the train to London on Friday: (may be paraphrased because, c’mon, I’ve slept since then)

LJ: *gestures at Twitter* look, it says it’s selling like hot cakes!
me: that’s good!!!
LJ: what if it sells out?
me: calm down
LJ: LIKE HOT CAKES, SARAH

Friends, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe sold out in two hours. It sold out when we were in, like, Leighton Buzzard. (Probably? idk, I used to be Very Into the London Midland line.) All of YALC was abuzz over this little book about Captain Romy Silvers, alone in space, and I am SO PROUD of Lauren (and of Romy). Space is where it’s at. I had the best time getting galactic with Walker, and there are even pics to prove it! And I did finally get my finished copy of The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, happily. Signed and everything.

HOW TO GET INTO PUBLISHING

I wasn’t going to go to Publishing 102, despite wanting a career in publishing, because a) I went last year and b) I am just finishing up an entire MSc in publishing, what could they possibly cover in 45 minutes that I hadn’t heard before? But then I was free on Sunday, so I wandered over to the Agents Arena and heard some great advice – internships aren’t everything, be good at the boring stuff, you probably have to move to London (BOO) – but also THE GREATEST INTERVIEW HORROR STORY EVER courtesy of brilliant agent Louise Lamont. Her top tip for publishing hopefuls? Don’t kill a living creature during your interview. Publishing: not a career for the faint-hearted.

That was my YALC 2017! Being among friends and books for a whole weekend healed my dissertation-stricken soul. I already can’t wait for July 2018.

What I Read in June

Well, it’s been yet another sluggish reading month. To be fair, I am deep in dissertation hell now, but also I completed Pokémon Moon yesterday, so at least part of the problem is about how I’m choosing to spend my free time.

BY THE WAY! If you’d like to help me with my dissertation, which obviously you would, you can! If you work in a public library, or publishing, or you’re a published author, or you like to go down the pub (okay, not the last one, but hey if you’re in Edinburgh…) you would do me a tremendous favour if you filled out this survey: Click here

Moving swiftly on to books I’ve read this month, then.

31683270BONE GAP by Laura Ruby – This had been on my radar for a long time, and I was pleased when Faber picked it up in the UK. Not pleased enough to get round to reading it, though, obviously. Finally I saw it in the library a few weeks ago, and thought, “Why not here? Why not now?” Bone Gap is a strange, dusty town in America where everyone knows everyone’s business, though business is often a little odder than you might be accustomed to. Finn and Sean are missing Roza, the beautiful stranger who brought nourishment back into their lives after their mother left them for a new life of her own. Finn saw her being kidnapped, but no one will believe him. He doesn’t know where she is – and neither does she. Offbeat and lovely, this book is fantastic in every sense. Bone Gap is a small town full of quirky characters and full of a sense of strangeness. Reality is hushed by the waving corn. The plot is clever, the atmosphere skewed somewhere between a sleeping nightmare and a living one. The situations the characters find themselves in are the stuff of fantasy, but the magic intrudes on lives that are real – especially when depicting the violence we do each other, physical or not.

9781408866627THE PEARL THIEF by Elizabeth Wein – Readers might be familiar with the indefatigable Julia Beaufort-Stuart from Wein’s (deservedly) beloved Code Name Verity. Here we find her fifteen years old, already yearning for adventure, and in the middle of selling off her recently deceased grandfather’s estate. It doesn’t take her long to get into trouble even on home turf, but when she wakes up in hospital after a bang on the head, she is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Who attacked her and why? And is the other developing missing person case actually a murder case? The atmospheric setting and compelling mystery are propelled along by a charming main character. Code Name Verity is stuck in my heart, and knowing what’s ahead of Queenie and what’s behind her gives both books an extra layer of bittersweet beauty. There’s plenty to enjoy besides the adventure of the stolen pearls; the prejudice faced by the “tinkers” is a significant plot point, which I found particularly interesting as I’ve not encountered many Travellers in fiction. I also loved the gentle exploration of Julie’s burgeoning sexuality, which she approaches with the same curiosity and sense of play as she does the rest of the world.  The twisty plot wasn’t too predictable, and the whole book is suffused with the nostalgic ache of the last of the summer holidays.

9781408855652HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE by J.K. Rowling – I’ve reread Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire fairly recently, and I’m listening to Order of the Phoenix at the moment, but I haven’t read this book for at least six or seven years. It’s markedly less complex as the later books, so I expected to be bored, but it’s charming and supremely readable. The series develops in maturity so organically along with Harry, one of the iconic protagonists of children’s literature. I got quite upset about his treatment at the hands of the Dursleys, which is a little ridiculous because in this book at least, they are so cartoonishly awful. The level of abuse is parodic, but having grown up alongside him, Harry is just psychologically and emotionally very real to me. Other stray thoughts: It’s striking how little Dumbledore features in this book. Hermione’s character development is rapid – perhaps too rapid – and as always when I read these books, I wonder how different everything would be if she had a female friend. There’s a weird recurring anti-library motif: Harry doesn’t get post, not even rude letters from the library asking him to return books, Madam Pince is not at all helpful, Ollivander’s is like a strict sort of library… ALSO sending 11 year olds into the Forbidden Forest for detention will never not be a bad idea, McGonagall’s the boss, the Norbert subplot is pointless, and there’s way too much aimless wandering the castle at night. Overall though, I adore these characters, this world, and this book.

What I Read in May

According to Goodreads, I only read two books in May, which doesn’t seem like it can possibly be right?!?! Goodreads is always putting my books in unexpected places. I blame the app. I’m too much of an oldster for any of this. (Btw, I now have more than four friends on Goodreads! You can be one of them.)

51DajNvVaLL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_THE DARK CIRCLE by Linda Grant – This book is on the Baileys Prize shortlist, which is another shortlist I have not managed to complete in time for the prize announcement this year. (Once upon a time Sarah liked books…) I listened to this over the whole month. When people asked me what I thought of it, I told them it was “weird”, which I stand by. Lenny and Miriam, two teenage East Londoners, get sent to a sanatorium as the institution’s very first patients paid for by the burgeoning National Health Service. Their rough manners generally scandalise and amuse the residents, providing a little bit of variety in the long, dull days of the rest cure. I really didn’t know what to make of this book, but eventually the characters got under my skin. It’s a book in which little happens, but the non-events change the characters’ lives forever – which is perhaps a true chronicle of illness. It’s a vivid portrait of a momentous time in British history. Without getting all political about it, now seems an excellent time to extol the virtues of the NHS. The great levelling effect of universal healthcare is explored: rich or poor, we all have bodies that sometimes fail us. The Dark Circle is a funny novel about class, sickness and shadows, city and country, and post-war politics. I’m still not sure what I make of it.

51c2LE-2pFL._SX379_BO1,204,203,200_THE MONSTROUS CHILD by Francesca Simon – Speaking of shortlists… I picked up The Monstrous Child on the strength of its YA Book Prize shortlisting. I’m familiar with Simon as the author of the Horrid Henry series, but didn’t know she had also written YA. This is a novelisation of Norse mythology’s Hel, narrated by the woman herself, who is just your ordinary half-corpse teenage girl. The narration is sharp and fun, but not enough to carry the book, which really is just a retread of the myth, with very little in the way of suspense or character development. Still, the book itself is a dark and gorgeous thing. More illustrated YA, please!

spellbookSPELLBOOK OF THE LOST AND FOUND by Moïra Fowley-Doyle – Thank you to Harriet Venn & PRH Children’s for the chance to read this early in exchange for an honest review. The Accident Season is my favourite book of the past few years, so this was my #1 most anticipated book of 2017. After a summer party in a small town, things start to go missing – or are they being taken? Olive loses her best friend, and isn’t sure who it is she’s found when Rose turns up again. Mysterious teens with botanical names start sprouting up in the most unexpected of places. And diary pages are scattered like clues in the fields and hedgerows… This is a strange, messy book, with tales taking root between the lines of unreality. Moïra’s writing is wonderfully evocative; I’ve never been to Ireland but reading her words, I can feel the rain and smell the soil. (Not to mention the poteen.) Most importantly, her teens are just so real: conflicted, affected, smart, wholehearted. Her characters ground the more fantastical elements of the story in a truth made of injokes, chocolate digestives, eyeliner, and hope. Spellbook of the Lost and Found isn’t as perfect as The Accident Season, but it is its own beast, something meandering and beautiful. I’ll be thinking about it for a while yet.

What I Read in April

I read four books in April. To be fair, one of them was 666 pages long, and I also snuck in a cheeky reread, but that’s still a pretty poor showing. Now my classes are over and most of my deadlines are long and gone, perhaps I can do better in May?

Girl-of-Ink-Stars-newTHE GIRL OF INK AND STARS by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – Confession: I started reading this just after it was published in January 2016 and I didn’t really take to it, so I returned it to the library. After it was awarded the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, I decided to give it another go. I think this is truly a case of “it’s not you, it’s me” – plenty of people whose opinions I respect absolutely loved it, but I found myself reluctant to return to Joya every time I put on my headphones (audiobook, natch). Maybe I’m just not used to reading middle grade?

32613366THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas – In a nutshell: YA and the Black Lives Matter movement, but also so much more. I’ve nothing to say about this book that hasn’t been said before by people far more qualified and eloquent than me. Suffice it to say that The Hate U Give deserves to top the New York Times bestseller list a zillion times over. Reading this book made my heart feel bigger and my mind feel wider. It’s absolutely stunning. Angry and alive, but surprisingly tender and often laugh-out-loud funny. And the voice! Starr and her friends and family are absolutely wonderful, and this book is important, nay, VITAL. Angie Thomas’ brilliance is radiant and her success is inspiring. The Hate U Give is unforgettable.

a-conjuring-of-light-1A CONJURING OF LIGHT by V.E. Schwab – The final instalment of Schwab’s excellent Shades of Magic trilogy. I think it suffers a little from last-in-the-series syndrome, in that it is reeeaaally long with all the loose ends it has to tie up. I don’t mind spending a while in this universe, with these characters, but it wasn’t until the latter third of the book that I found myself letting my coffee go cold, anxiously turning pages. There was a surprising amount of backstory crammed in, and though that was necessary for characters like the king and queen, I found Holland’s flashbacks overlong. I’m glad he got the sympathy and spotlight he deserves, but I didn’t enjoy squinting at full pages of italics. Despite all this, I really thoroughly enjoyed this book. I don’t read very much fantasy, but Schwab’s Londons are completely enthralling, and the magic system is one of the most interesting I’ve encountered. ACOL is 100% worth it just for three Antari in the same room.

419OgK6BE2L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_GIRLHOOD by Cat Clarke – This book is out today and you should buy it! It’s a queer boarding school story with themes of identity, friendship, and obsession. I think you’ll like it; I did, as you can read here.

And that’s your lot! Sorry about that. I’ve already read one book this month, and I’m hoping to finish six more, so there might be more to blog about in a few weeks. See you then!

REVIEW: Girlhood by Cat Clarke

Cat Clarke’s latest was sold to me as “queer Malory Towers with a dash of Single White Female.” Honestly, they had me at “queer”, but the rest of the pitch is intriguing too – a psychological thriller set at a boarding school? Sign. Me. Up.

Girlhood opens with a midnight feast, and it only gets better from there. Our narrator is Harper, newly rich and living under the shadow of her twin sister’s death. At the exclusive Duncraggan Academy, she has a tight-knit group of pals, including her best friend, roommate Rowan. Boarding school is like a sleepover with your besties every day, and this is their last year together before university and the real world outside the Academy’s walls. It’s shaping up to be a year to remember even before the new girl, Kirsty, joins the group. Harper and Kirsty have so much in common, naturally they become fast friends – but this new addition to the group threatens to throw off the whole dynamic, and Harper soon finds herself having to make unexpected choices, with the formerly solid bonds of friendship looking ever more fragile…

I read this book in one sitting. It’s as intense a page-turner as anything I’ve ever read, with the emotional stakes deeply compelling. It’s also intensely unsettling. Clarke digs deep into the relationships between these girls to create a psychological thriller where the worst thing that can happen is for them not to be friends any more. For any teenager, friendship is vital social currency, but in boarding school, it’s your whole life. Imagine eating every meal, sitting in every class, even sharing a bedroom with the same person every day. Now imagine what it’s like when that person isn’t talking to you any more. The claustrophobic setting is skilfully evoked, and although Harper isn’t blameless, the way disagreements escalate into feuds when you are living in each other’s pockets made me positively vibrate with sympathy for her.

The relationship between Harper and Rowan is one of my favourite things in the book. Rowan is a great best friend: she’s funny, loyal, and cares a lot about dental hygiene. Like Harper, she’s queer (she began QueerSoc at Duncraggan!) and although it’s refreshing to see two queer characters who are just friends, if there aren’t dozens of Harper/Rowan fics on the internet soon, I will be disappointed. Their relationship is so supportive, it makes it all the more disorienting when it is threatened with being taken away. Along with these sharply drawn relationships, there is a background story about Harper’s twin, Jenna, and her death resulting from an eating disorder. This serious subject is navigated sensitively by the author, but it’s wrenching to see how the disease has shattered the family, and particularly Harper’s struggle with survivor’s guilt. It’s worth remembering that Harper has always been one of a pair: after Jenna there’s Rowan, and when Kirsty comes along it’s second nature for Harper to seek the other half of her whole, intensifying the already acute nature of teenage girl friendship.

Girlhood‘s bright pink cover is scattered with burnt matches. When Kirsty is left in the dark, she doesn’t use a single match, because she has a torch. She doesn’t need to make her own light in the dark: Harper has given her light. In the face of Harper’s indifference, Kirsty is desperate to rekindle their friendship, and so she tries until something catches. But in the closed environment of boarding school, rumours and lies spread faster than a forest fire, and Harper soon finds herself in danger of suffocation.

At the end – when the fires have burnt down – the girls rise from the ashes. Despite the darkness of grief and deceit, it’s ultimately a hopeful book. It’s a coming of age story that reminds you healing is slow and difficult, but possible. Love helps, love hopes, and there is nothing like the love between teenage girls. Girlhood: complicated. Girlhood: highly recommended!

I need to read Cat Clarke’s (gorgeously rejacketed) back catalogue immediately. Any recommendations, anyone?

REVIEW: How Not to Disappear by Clare Furniss

Thanks for joining me on an odyssey through the #YA10. I’ll be brutally honest about what I love and what I don’t enjoy so much about the ten books deemed worthy contenders for the only prize dedicated to UKYA. This is the fourth of my reviews. I originally planned to have them up, week by week, in order but real life has intervened! Adds a wee bit of excitement and mystery, I suppose.

Copy of ASTRONOMY 101

The long, lazy summer holidays are some of the best days of a teenager’s life, right? Not so for Hattie; not only has she been abandoned by her best friends, she’s pregnant by one of them. As if the rest of her family’s drama wasn’t enough… Cue the sudden appearance on the scene by Gloria, surprise great-aunt, and the friend Hattie desperately needs right now. Gloria is in the early stages of dementia, but she’s fierce, funny, and ready for a road trip. So off they go, to confront and to share a past and future.

I read this book last year, and wrote on Goodreads:

A beautiful, generously heartfelt novel, and that great rarity – a UKYA roadtrip story! The book is peppered throughout with laugh-out-loud lines, and peopled by characters charming and lively enough to elevate HOW NOT TO DISAPPEAR above the standard YA contemporary. There are some wonderful female friendships and a welcome focus on functional, if non-traditional family relationships. Moving and full of wisdom, with an appealing narrator and a unique sense of humour.

Even a year later, I remember the experience of reading this book fondly. It really is lovely, which is not to say that it sugarcoats any of the difficult subjects it tackles; on the contrary, through the dual narratives it digs deep into the prejudice faced by pregnant women who aren’t the right kind of mother according to society’s mores. The characters are really strong, and I loved that Hattie writes a good email – her narration in all formats is likeable, mature but not unrealistically so, and very much alive. You know she’d be an excellent pal.

Much like Unbecoming from last year’s shortlist, with which it shares the themes of intergenerational relationships, family history, and dementia, How Not to Disappear is a novel with broad appeal. I would readily recommend it to anybody who likes books that warm the cockles of their heart. (Though you had better be ready to shed a few tears, too.) And, as I said above – it’s a road trip story! There’s something very appealing about characters going on a literal journey that mirrors their internal journeys, and being the little island that we are, there are precious few road trips in UKYA. This novel makes me believe in a future for rich, well-rounded characters driving around and having emotional epiphanies. There’s a trend I could get behind.