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.

REVIEW: The Graces by Laure Eve

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 third of my reviews.

ASTRONOMY 101 (1)

Everyone says the Graces are witches. The three impossibly beautiful siblings are irresistible, and River wants – no, needs – to know them. To bask in their magic. To be with them. She’s just the misfit new girl with secrets, eating beans on toast in the library, but for some reason the Graces notice her. She is chosen, and feels like she has finally found her place in the world. The beautiful Graces are not quite what they seem… but then again, neither is River.

Friends, I read this book last spring and I was so disappointed. I thought it was shallow, indulgent, irritating. When I decided to reread it so I could write this review, I knew it would be a waste of my time. But, my blogger sensibilities said Go, you must review afresh (or something). So I reread it and… I kind of… really enjoyed it. I think I misjudged it the first time round, partly because it was marketed as The Secret History meets The Craft and I LOVE The Secret History. Largely, it’s because I didn’t realise River was meant to be a terrible person. It clicked for me last night: River isn’t Bella Swan, she’s Richard Papen!

Once you understand that River is pretty awful and an unreliable narrator, the whole book breaks free from its Twilight-esque plot shackles and becomes a deliciously hideous car crash of deeply flawed rich people doing bad things, which is my absolute favourite subgenre. Once you understand that the Graces have no power other than the myths they have built around themselves and that they have been born into, they are much more compelling and fragile characters. The Graces aren’t super special, they’re super messed up.

There are some problematic elements that need addressing: the girl-hate is like nails on a chalkboard, but it is just River being horrible. More troubling is the vein of homophobia that runs through the book unchecked, and especially the bisexuality representation which is not great. (Who’s sick of sexuality-as-plot-twist? Meee!) I absolutely understand that characters’ views are not necessarily condoned by the author, and, to reiterate, everyone in this book is horrible and it delights me, but there is a responsibility when writing for young people to handle these issues with a bit more sensitivity than we see here. Also, an Eastern European character is referred to as a Gypsy, and please can we not?

Aside from those issues, I really enjoyed The Graces this time round. The characters pontificate pretentiously about death and the true nature of self, and do pagan rituals, and drink tremendous amounts of alcohol. Some reviewers have criticised this as unrealistic, especially the pontificating, but to those people I say: did you never have a Goth phase? There is nothing unrealistic about a fifteen year old believing they have a unique perspective on the meaning of life. There is nothing unrealistic about a fifteen year old feeling like they can’t show the world their “true self”. Most teenagers can’t kill people with their thoughts, admittedly, and I am eternally grateful for that.

In conclusion this is a dark, weird book peopled by flawed characters, with a killer ending. I liked it quite a bit.

REVIEW: Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman

It’s YA Book Prize time again! My favourite time of the year – in terms of this blog, anyway. Prepare to join 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 second of my reviews (with the first yet to come… don’t ask, it’s all timey-wimey shenanigans.)

ASTRONOMY 101

Olivia Sindall is the teenage captain of a ship hurtling through space back to Earth. A virus has wiped out the rest of the crew, including her family – except for her brother, Aidan. It’s a pretty lonely existence, until one day they intercept a distress signal coming from an uninhabited planet in enemy territory. Vee’s life collides with Nathan’s, and nothing will ever be the same again. The confines of a spaceship are the perfect environment for love to flourish… or to suffocate. Surrounded by rumours and a spate of suspicious accidents, jealousy starts to rear its ugly head.

Othello in space – by Malorie Blackman – sounds like everything a YA nerd could want, right? Whether Chasing the Stars is a retelling or merely inspired by the Bard is up for debate. It has been a little while since I last read/saw Othello, and my literary criticism is not rigorous enough for me to have sought it out for purposes of this review, and therefore I may have missed some nods to the play in the book. Vee and Nathan are obviously Othello and Desdemona, with Aidan playing the role of Iago. Iago’s famously inscrutable motivation is rather cleverly explained here; I cannot elaborate for fear of spoilers, but I enjoyed Blackman’s addition to the canon of interpretations of Iago’s psychology.

There is a whole diverse cast of characters surrounding Nathan and Vee – so many, in fact, that they quickly become interchangeable. Nobody gets very development except for the two narrators, although I did like Commander Linedecker, Nathan’s forthright and authoritative mother (Brabantio, of course). The first person dual narration creates a claustrophobic vibe and allows us to get inside the motivations behind Vee and Nathan’s often frankly baffling actions. However, the very short chapters mean that the POV often changes several times within the same scene, which didn’t really work for me.

I am glad that the sexual content in the book is not demurely skimmed over. For the reader to believe in Vee and Nathan’s dizzyingly intense romance, we have to believe they are attracted to each other. They’re young and have been isolated for so long, it would be unrealistic for them not to want to jump each other’s bones. Especially considering that they’re married. Their romance is the central part of the book, at the expense of the sci-fi element – a shame in my eyes, because what we do get to see of the futuristic world is intriguing enough.

There are some things I liked about this book, but I only managed to finish it because I was shadowing the YA Book Prize. It was easier going in the back half, where the plot picked up a little, but most of the book is flat characters delivering cringe-worthily clunky dialogue. (Seriously, here’s an example: “And weren’t those the words from a poem used in the late twentieth-century film Dead Poets Society starring Robin Williams?” Just trying saying that sentence out loud.) Nathan and Vee’s chemistry was not convincing enough for me to get swept up in their romance, or to ignore the fact that Nathan’s idea of consent is sketchy at best. I really wanted to like Chasing the Stars, and I hope other readers get something out of it, but I think I’ll stick to Noughts & Crosses, and/or the actual works of William Shakespeare. (Though I still need to read Hagseed, Margaret Atwood’s spin on The Tempest!)

What I Read in March

Spring update, continued. March is the best month: it has my birthday, International Women’s Day, World Book Day, Crufts, and, this year, London Book Fair! Also, I read some books, which I’m sure you’re just dying to hear my opinions on, so let’s get to that:

25458747TRUTH OR DARE by Non Pratt – A new Non book is a veritable event, and I was delighted to get a proof of this, a tale of tragedy, YouTube, and unlikely romance. Predictably brilliant but brilliantly unpredictable. When it comes to contemporary YA, Non Pratt is truly one of the best. (Proper review to come closer to publication date!)

coverHOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi – Epic in scale, this sweeping novel follows seven generations of family, beginning with two half-sisters in eighteen century Ghana. Homegoing is unflinching in its portrayal of the horrors of slavery, and the continuing weight of that history. As might be expected, it’s difficult to hear at times, but it is luminous and compelling as anything I’ve ever read. The way the ties between ancestor and descendant stretch but never snap is an almost elementally powerful concept, and Gyasi successfully juggles fourteen separate voices living very different lives whilst making sure their stories are woven together subtly but effectively, making the novel more than a sum of its parts. Homegoing is brilliant and unforgettable, and I can’t wait to see what Gyasi does next.

25699515ORANGEBOY by Patrice Lawrence – I loved this tough, pacy YA novel, and… so did everyone else! I’m so pleased to see Patrice being handed accolades left right and centre. Marlon is a (mostly) sweet kid who gets caught up in his older brother’s world of gangs and danger when an innocent date at the fair ends badly. This is quite unlike a lot of contemporary YA I’ve read, but a good way, with the plot keeping me anxiously turning pages until the end. Marlon is a very likeable main character, even as he keeps making decisions you know aren’t going to work out for him. The supporting characters are great too, and the librarian mum is a fine addition to the growing canon of actually-present-and-parenting YA parents.

the_jungleTHE JUNGLE by Pooja Puri – The inaugural title of new YA imprint Ink Road, Pooja Puri’s debut had a fair amount riding on it. That’s without considering the heavy subject matter. The Jungle is a YA novel about the Calais refugee and migrant encampment. The writing is understatedly lovely, and the depiction of the situation these people have found themselves in – its essential, inhumane unfairness – is deftly done. I would have liked to know more about the characters’ backgrounds, but perhaps the point is that now they are in the Jungle, they are seen as residents of the Jungle, not as whoever they were in the past. The twists and turns the plot takes are unexpected, and Pooja avoids writing an easy narrative. Overall, this is a story that will make you think, without the get-out of a neat resolution.

CHASINGTHESTARS_9780857531414_JKTCHASING THE STARS by Malorie Blackman – I DNF’ed this when I first tried to read it. It had such an excellent pitch – Othello in space! Othello is a black teenage girl! – but I’m not sure it ever lived up to it. Longer review to come as part of my YA Book Prize shadowing.

33016783THE ESSEX SERPENT by Sarah Perry – Newly widowed Cora Seaborne moves to Essex and hears the tale of the Essex Serpent, rumoured to be terrorising the parish of Aldwinter. Will Ransome, man of the cloth, has no truck with the tall tales of mythical creatures, but that’s only one thing of many he finds to disagree over with Cora. It took me some time to get into this, but once I was in, I was in ALL THE WAY. What a big, sexy, clever, lovely book. It’s about the monsters of love and desire… and also science, socialism, sensation. I couldn’t wait to get back to Aldwinter every time I went back to the book. Every character feels like a friend, and I miss them already.

What I Read in February

Looks like I spoke too soon about the returning vitality of this blog! But spring is here, the daffodils are nodding their yellow heads, and I have read a few books that I want to talk to you all about, so let’s go. (Here’s February, with March to come shortly.)

16109340I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson – I know this is a favourite for a lot of people. I listened to the audiobook, and griped a lot about the “English” accents I was therefore subjected to, but overall I enjoyed this book a lot. I love Jandy Nelson’s distinctive prose style. It elevates her books above the generic US contemporary mold and makes them a little more magical. In I’ll Give You The Sun, the story is told in a non-linear way by two sibling narrators, and I really enjoyed this, especially the way it digged deep into the characters and the way they changed over the years. People change so gradually for the most part, we can’t see how different we’ve become until we compare ourselves against ourselves two, three years ago. Mostly, the book is about family and truth, and how we keep secrets from those we love the most, or even from ourselves. It’s a totally charming book with all sorts of lovely and unconventional family dynamics. Thoroughly recommended.

1000x2000THE ARGONAUTS by Maggie Nelson – This beautifully lucid examination of sex, gender, birth, death, and everything else had me feeling rather smarter just by merit of owning it. Nelson has a wonderful brain and a compelling way with words. It stood out to me more as a startlingly personal piece of autobiography rather than a work of theory, as I have already discussed and thought about gender in complex ways during my academic career. Yet there is something so vital about a woman talking frankly about her body and the miracles and pleasures it can perform. You cannot read this book without your intellect and empathy being expanded, and isn’t that exactly what literature is for?

downloadSTILL by Nadine Aisha – A poetry collection about survival, and giving voice to the experience of being a woman in a world still so steeped in gendered violence. I’m basically a big Nadine Aisha fangirl. Moving, honest, bare and beautiful. If you have the chance to see the poet perform her work, leap at it. Her words form a quiet, powerful place for the reader to reflect and endure: to be still.

Farizan_IfYouCould_pbk_rgb_jkt_2MB_HR_WEBIF YOU COULD BE MINE by Sara Farizan – Heartbreaking and candid, this novel gives voice to a gay teen in Iran, in hopeless love with her childhood best friend. I enjoyed the frank tone of the narrator, and the brief window into what is in some ways a very different culture (and in other ways, not so much).

NASTY WOMEN edited by 404 Ink – The consistent quality of this essay collection is just staggering, as is the incredible spectrum of issues it covers. This should be required reading for every human being, especially men. Saying that, I found something new in every essay, even those about issues on which I already considered myself informed. Special shout-outs for Laura Waddell’s piece on the invisibility of the working-class narrative, Rowan C Clarke’s heartbreaking essay revealing homophobia to be alive and well, and Alice Tarbuck’s quietly subversive celebration of bf31247696521029a6d876ecb6d8216e_originalwitchcraft. I’ve been particularly passionate lately about the idea that when we, as women, speak out about our own experiences, what we are doing at the same time is carving out a space for other women to speak. Nasty Women is carving out a bloody huge space for women’s voices, and thank goodness for that.