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.

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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!)

YA books as Hamilton songs

Some time ago, I wrote a post about which Wagamama dishes each of The Decemberists’ full-length studio albums would be. Honestly, it was quite… niche. The idea of combining my enthusiasms in unexpected ways continues to appeal, however, and by popular demand today I bring you YA books as Hamilton songs.

Specifically: the YA Book Prize shortlist as songs from genre-busting award-winning Broadway hit Hamilton. Some of these choices were immediately obvious to me, others took some thinking, all of them feel right in my heart.

Continue reading “YA books as Hamilton songs”

REVIEW: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

This is the tenth of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’ve now read and reviewed each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS. We did it, folks!

David Piper has a secret. His family and classmates think he’s a pretty weird teenage boy. What they don’t know – what he’s too afraid to tell them – is that he’s really a girl. David knows that he’s trans and what that means, but the next step is to explain it to his parents. As if adolescence and school weren’t hard enough! At least he has his friends. And there’s a new boy at Eden Park called Leo Denton. David is fascinated by Leo, but he can’t figure out why. Maybe it’s that Leo has secrets of his own.

aobn

The Art of Being Normal is one of the most important YA novels of the past few years, a necessary addition to the LGBT literature canon, and a fantastic teen contemporary to boot. It’s explicitly concerned with gender identity and trans issues, but the characters are so warmly written there is no danger of the story becoming exploitative. There has been a call recently for more stories about marginalised people that are written by marginalised people. Trans people remain under- and misrepresented in the media, and lived experience goes a long way towards creating accurate representation. That said, at one of the many, many diversity panels I’ve attended since I started going to book events, someone pointed out that “trans people shouldn’t have to write all the trans books.” Lisa Williamson is writing from a well-researched and genuinely felt place, and The Art of Being Normal comes endorsed by many real life trans people. Hopefully this book will herald a new wave of slice-of-trans-life stories, in which characters get to live their lives without their gender being sensationalised. David is desperately lonely until he meets Leo, who understands what he’s going through. For a generation of teens, this book could be a reminder that they are not alone.

So it’s important, but is it good? To my shame, I had forgotten how good it really is until I reread it for the purposes of this review. David and Leo are compelling, sympathetic heroes, even if Leo’s a bit grumpy sometimes. Williamson does a skilful job of bringing out the two narrators’ different voices, and also their different experiences of class. Leo’s embarrassment about the council estate where he lives is subtly done. The little details are so effective; I’m always particularly struck by Leo’s little sister having had salt and vinegar crisps for breakfast. Both of their families are, like all families, a complex mess of love and resentment. Leo’s mum, for all her failings, is unswerving in her support for her son. It’s refreshing to see a trans teen in conflict with his parents for reasons other than his trans status. Likewise, Leo’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his dad is wrenching and realistic.

The family relationships are one of the book’s strengths for me, but teenagers do sometimes leave the house. (Or at least, these teens do. I’m not sure I did.) The party scenes are delightful: atmospheric, chaotic, full of friendships and flirting. The Christmas ball especially is so visual I need to see The Art of Being Normal: the TV special now. And of course, the “road trip” is the high point of the novel. Secrets, adventure, karaoke, friendship, heartbreak, bingo, and underage drinking – what more could you possibly want from a YA contemporary, or indeed any kind of novel?

The Art of Being Normal shows that normality is a moving target. We shouldn’t try to achieve someone else’s idea of “normal” – that’s no way to be happy, and no one’s normal is the same. Perhaps the only way to be normal is to find people who are willing to expand their definition of normal to include yours. Lisa Williamson’s novel might help a lot of people establish a new normal through her beautifully written characters, and that’s an achievement worth celebrating.

 

REVIEW: One by Sarah Crossan

This is the ninth of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’m going to be reading and reviewing each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS. One more to go, folks!

Grace and Tippi are conjoined twins. Sisters. Best friends. They’ve spent sixteen years sharing absolutely everything, including a body. For other people the very idea is a nightmare, but they’ve never known any different, and is it such a terrible thing to share such a bond with your sister? Changes are on the horizon: new school, new friendships, money troubles, and more dangerous kinds of trouble, too. Soon, Grace and Tippi will have to make a massive, life-changing choice about the future.

One

I went through several phases of reading and writing poetry for pleasure as a teenager, so I’m not a complete stranger to it, but this might be the first novel I’ve read entirely in verse. I loved Apple and Rain, Crossan’s previous novel, which included poetry as part of the story-telling, and I really need to read The Weight of Water because it’s set in Coventry! With a shoutout to the ring road and everything!

Anyway, One… It’s a verse novel about conjoined twins and it’s nominated for the YA Book Prize, and that in itself speaks volumes about UKYA and what an exciting scene it is to be (no matter how small) a part of. This poetry strips language down, makes it looser and more direct, which makes the reader feel closer to the characters. What I’m trying to say here is that this book made me cry at least three tears. I’m always sceptical about supposed tearjerkers because I possess a cold, dead heart, but One is genuinely wrenching and beautiful. The blank verse is never a gimmick, but instead a tool for chiselling away at the reader’s emotions. Is there any other medium that can make your stomach drop with line spacing? It’s the closest the written word comes to music. The novel is actually presented as a poetry collection, though read chronologically it tells a fairly conventional narrative. The titles of each poem variously add context, irony, emphasis; it’s tempting to tear through the book because it’s a quick read, but it’s worth spending time with the text. This will surprise approximately nobody who’s ever read a poem, but each word is placed for maximum effect, with multitudes of meaning.

Individuality is an essential part of identity; we recognise ourselves as separate from others, as possessing some innate selfhood. At the same time, we define ourselves by our relationships with others. For the twins, who share things other people consider definitively private, their identities as separate people are complex. Grace is our sole narrator. The book’s title is One. These are clues as to the end of the book, but also strong statements about the girls’ individuality. It urges us to remember that even those in the unique situation of not having a body to themselves still possess everything else. Grace likes to read, Tippi likes Hitchcock films. They have separate therapists, separate passports. They fall in love with different people.

Only when we appreciate Grace and Tippi as distinct characters can we understand the depth of their bond with each other. It’s this bond of love and sisterhood that sustains them, and the novel itself. It’s this bond that makes the book so absolutely devastating. Grace has never woken up or fallen asleep without Tippi at her side. Throughout the novel, the twins come up against people who think this must be a curse, but they insist to deaf ears that they don’t mind, that it’s always been this way, that they love each other. They are in an extreme situation. Being conjoined twins is certainly not all joyful love-ins all the time: medically, it’s dangerous and expensive. They will never lead a “normal” life – people staring is the least of it. Grace’s descriptions of the difficulties of this life are unsparing. It makes for painful reading at times, but it shines a light on issues I had never had cause to think about before.

Gosh, this book! Your heart will take a battering, but what a beautiful battering it will be.

REVIEW: The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

This is the eighth of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’m going to be reading and reviewing each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS.

Twylla is fair of voice and red of hair. She lives at the top of a tower in the castle. She is betrothed to the prince. One day, she shall be queen. For now, she is the executioner: poison runs through her veins, she kills with a single touch. The guards that flank her day and night are there to protect the rest of the world from her as much as the other way around. When she is assigned a new guard, Twylla is surprised to find that Lief isn’t afraid of her. At the same time Prince Merek, long abroad, has returned, and Twylla now has the attentions of two extraordinary young men to deal with.

The-Sin-Eaters-Daughter

This is fairy tale subverted. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is a fable about the harm done by non-physical violence; the threat of the queen’s “mercy” is ever present, but the devastating effect of her control over Twylla is that Twylla is as trapped by the fortresses in her own mind as she is by the castle gates. Taken as an extended fantasy metaphor for an abusive family, The Sin Eater’s Daughter is very effective, with a skin-crawling depiction of narcissism, control, and gaslighting. The queen knows the best way to keep Twylla captive is to make her complicit in her own captivity, so she is instilled with the idea that the gods – who are always watching – will strike her down for ingratitude.

Again, taken as a metaphor, there is a reassuring message here: keep your head down and you’ll get out. Captain Awkward, an internet advice columnist whose blog genuinely changed my life, talks about “a small, quiet room that is just yours, where you are safe and you are free” in this old post. (Read the whole last paragraph.) And Twylla does make it there. Her happily ever after is a place to herself where she learns to read. She is asked to choose between two men and she picks neither. The epilogue might just be my favourite part of the book.

But as much as I appreciated the ending, I struggled to see the feminist themes elsewhere in the book. I’m all about promoting the different ways in which “strong female characters” can be strong. I’m a big Sansa Stark fan. Twylla and Helewys are essentially Sansa-and-Cersei-lite: the naive young girl and the evil queen in a battle of wills and court politics. No doubt for some readers, Twylla’s journey is a resonant story of survival, and I would like to be with them, but I just found her so boring. The entire book is about her being rescued by men. The other female characters are similarly uninspiring: the queen is probably the most relatable character because she also hates everybody else in the book. The queen, incidentally, is the most politically powerful person in the kingdom, but she’s a) insane and b) infertile and therefore unable consolidate her power. I loved the rich, mysterious symbolism of the Eating and enjoyed the Sin Eater as a character, but she wields her power spitefully and is an indifferent mother. Maryl, Twylla’s sister, exists solely as a spectre of Twylla’s self-pity. The Sin Eater’s Daughter depicts sexist structures without delving deep enough to problematise them.

…I saw the look in my eye. It was the look of wanting: lust, bright strawberry-flavoured list. And I can’t allow myself to want, because I am betrothed to the prince and if I touch anyone else I will kill them.

For example, the above quote is a brilliant twist on the shame around female sexuality and… it’s just there. Twylla’s touch is literally toxic. Her body is contaminated. The metaphor is ripe, but it’s left unplucked. What a waste! (Admittedly, Twylla realises she is not poisonous and has sex with a cute boy, but… only after the cute boy tells her she’s not poisonous. And kisses her. Without asking.)

Lief’s story of the Sleeping Prince is more interesting than the plot of the actual novel, and it’s part of some intriguing world-building. I’m a sucker for fictional religions and folklore and I really liked that aspect of the story. As I said, I found the Sin Eating fascinating, and I love that the book’s title refers to Twylla as the Sin Eater’s daughter rather than Daunen Embodied. In Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the eponymous character is more correctly called Hedda Tesman, Gabler being her maiden name. Ibsen meant to imply that Hedda should be considered her father’s daughter rather than her husband’s wife. Should we infer that Twylla is her mother’s daughter, not daughter to the gods? She seems to abandon both, but perhaps eventually she will come into the elemental power she admired in the Sin Eater. Hopefully she’ll become the hero of her own story.

In summary: I liked this book’s cover a lot more than I liked what was inside it. SORRY.