Mini Book Reviews / Leah on the Offbeat, Clean & Bookshop Girl

Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah is Simon’s awesome bestie from Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, ready to tell her story. She’s a girl-band drummer, with a dry sense of humour, unashamedly bisexual – and in love with one of her best girl friends.

Leah on the Offbeat‘s main focus is friendship – much more so than Simon vs. – and everything’s unravelling in Creekwood. I loved seeing the gang back together, especially our faves Simon and Bram. But I would’ve loved a bit more romance, too! I was swayed by all the raving on Twitter and Instagram, and assumed we’d get to see Leah live happily ever after, coupled up with a girlfriend, but that’s not what Leah on the Offbeat is about. Leah is openly bisexual to her mother but it’s kept a secret from her friends – and that’s okay. There’s a lot of pressure for people to be open and out, but not everyone’s comfortable with sexuality being a large part of their identity. Even so, I wish Leah was a bit more open-minded when talking about sexuality with Abby – she was a little judgemental at times!

Leah on the Offbeat takes us back to Creekwood and into the lives of teenagers who are just trying to figure themselves, and everyone else, out.

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Clean by Juno Dawson

Lexi Volkov is beautiful, sex-positive, a socialite, the daughter of a rich Russian… and addicted to drugs. When Lexi overdoses and her brother Nikolai takes her to an exclusive rehab facility, The Clarity Centre, she’s in for a shock. It’s here that she becomes friends with fellow teens, from ex-child star Brady to Kendall, who’s transgender and has an eating disorder.

Clean doesn’t hold back, and that’s what I loved about it – drugs, sex and swearing, it’s part of every teenager’s life Clarity. Lexi’s not someone I’d be friends with (or even meet!) IRL, but I couldn’t help but adore her and hope that she’d push past her addiction. But rehabilitation isn’t easy and Lexi’s about to go through some very dark times. There are many types of addiction, and Clean makes each and every character relatable, regardless of what they’re struggling with, from relationships to drugs.

Clean is my favourite Juno Dawson novel so far. The TV rights have been snapped up, and I really hope it gets made – it’s UKYA Gossip Girl for the 2020s.

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Bookshop Girl by Chloe Coles

Bookshop Girl was written for teen Stacey. When it’s announced that Bennett’s Bookshop will close down, Paige Turner is having none of it. It’s her place of work; where she goes with her best friend and colleague, Holly, to buy her next favourite book; and a pillar of the Greysworth community. Paige won’t go down without a fight, even if there are pretty artistic boys around to distract her.

Paige’s bookshop campaign alights the fire in all booklovers. I’m from London and so I’m lucky enough to have loads of fantastic chain and independent bookshops around me, but what if the one local bookshop in my town was going to close? It’s a very real issue, and one that Chloe Coles – bookworm and bookseller – tackles with giggles, book tokens and feminism.

On a side note, I work at National Book Tokens and this autumn you’ll be able to get your hands on this Bookshop Girl gift card, which was super fun to work on and I can’t wait to see it in bookshops around the UK!

 

Mini Book Reviews / Skylarks, The Astonishing Colour of After & From Twinkle, With Love

Skylarks by Karen Gregory

Joni is constantly worried about money. Her dad is unable to work due to disability, her family’s about to be evicted, and she might have to give up her job volunteering at the school library. Joni’s life goes in an unexpected direction when she meets Annabel, a fellow volunteer. Skylarks is about these two girls – one working class and poor, and one posh and rich – and their new relationship.

Skylarks sees Joni battling between doing what she feels right and what her family think she should do. Her entire family are hugely present throughout the story and in Joni’s life (much to her distress!), which I love because it’s not something we often see in YA, which is often full of deceased and absent parents.

Annabel and Joni are both adorable, and the relationship storyline also doesn’t go in the direction you might expect. I never felt like I was reading about characters, but real people. There was a lot of push and pull between the characters. Both girls have their faults, and it was lovely watching them work each other out as well as simply get to know each other. Skylarks also shouts about all the great things that teenagers experience and fight for: same-sex relationships, tolerance and open-mindedness, volunteering and political activism.

Skylarks isn’t a coming out story, but a beautiful tale of coming together.

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The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X.R. Pan

“My mother is a bird. This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird.”

After her mother commits suicide, Leigh travels to Taiwan with her father. Before they leave, she meets a curious bird – and is convinced it is her mother.

Leigh is such a fantastic character. She’s passionate about art and although she draws in black and white, colour is hugely important to her. Like a non-medical synesthesia, Leigh thinks and feels in colour. Leigh’s passion for art is tied to her friendship/romance with Axel. They kissed before Leigh left and now she can’t face talking to or seeing him again. I loved discovering more about their relationship.

The Astonishing Colour of After is mostly set in Taiwan. Leigh discovers more about her family, their culture, and learns Taiwanese. This is a story where magical realism is key. The flashbacks were fascinating and beautiful, and it’s as much the story of Leigh’s grandmother and parents as it is of Leigh. There’s also an exploration of mental illness that I haven’t yet seen in YA. Leigh’s mother has depression, and it just is. That can be the hardest thing of all for people to understand – Leigh’s mother couldn’t see a way out.

I discovered a lot to love about The Astonishing Colour of After. It’s a novel that I’ve been telling everyone to pick up, including people who don’t usually read YA!

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From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon

I loved When Dimple Met Rishi, so I couldn’t wait to read From Twinkle, With Love.

Like one of my favourite YA novels, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Twinkle starts chatting with a boy via email who says he’s in love with her, and she cannot help but try to figure out who it is. And then there’s the romance between Twinkle and Sahil, the nerdy twin brother of her current crush. Will she pick Sahil, his brother, or the mystery boy?!

I enjoyed Twinkle’s passion for film, especially for her favourite female film-makers, and the story is told through letters that she writes to them. I would’ve preferred a narration like Dimple, but I did enjoy that this was a huge part of the story, and would’ve loved to see even more film fangirling – I loved seeing Sahil and Twinkle shop for film costumes!

In From Twinkle, With Love, we meet a lot of teenagers from Twinkle’s school. Maddie’s a half awesome best friend, half Mean Girl. As for Sahil, on one hand he’s delightful and the best boyfriend and on the other, he’s in love with the idea of Twinkle – the girl he’s made up in his head – more than Twinkle herself. There’s a lot of drama in Twinkle’s world!

I devoured From Twinkle, With Love in two sittings and I may have shed a tear at the end… !

Mini Book Reviews / Nevermoor, Out of the Blue & I Was Born for This

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

I love, love, loved Nevermoor. I know every children’s book under the sun has been compared to Harry Potter, but in this case it’s accurate and very well-deserved.

Morrigan Crow has the unluckiest birthday of all – Eventide. She’s cursed and therefore blamed for everything, from hailstorms to heart attacks – and it means that on the next Eventide, her 11th birthday, she’ll die. But just before, a mysterious man called Jupiter North appears and whisks her away to the Deucalion Hotel in a magical city called Nevermoor, and it’s there that Morrigan learns all about the famous Wundrous Society (I so desperately want to be member, please).

I couldn’t stop thinking about Nevermoor. I’d go off to bed, wondering what thrilling twists awaited my return, falling asleep dreaming of the dangerous trials, and desperately rooting for Morrigan to earn her place in the society. Nevermoor is fantastically crafted. It captures your imagination and doesn’t let go until you’ve reached the last page. And accompanying the magical story is a sensational cast of characters, from Jupiter and his colleague Fen (a giant sarcastic cat, if you must know) to fellow children Hawthorne and Jack.

Nevermoor is one of the most fun, inventive and brilliantly written children’s books I’ve read, and I cannot wait to go on another adventure with our heroine in Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow. 

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Out of the Blue by Sophie Cameron

A YA novel set in Edinburgh? Yes please! Edinburgh is one of my absolute favourite places. I’ve visited a few of times and recently took myself there on a solo holiday. I was grateful to Out of the Blue for taking me back.

Jaya and Rani set off to the city because their father’s chasing angels. 10 days after their mum died, angels fell from the sky, smashing down to Earth so fast that not one has survived. Until now. Jaya discovers one on Arthur’s Seat and brings her back to their rented flat, where she’s named Teacake. As someone who’s very particular about paranormal, I was wary! And yet the fallen angels plot line felt comfortable within the contemporary setting and storyline. Through Teacake, Jaya begins to explore her grief and make new connections, particularly with siblings Allie and Callum.

I adored the trio’s antics across the city as they learned more about each other – Allie is disabled and bisexual – and enjoyed seeing the relationship between Allie and Jaya become something more. Out of the Blue has a lot happening in such a short book, but at its core, it’s all about finding your place in this world.

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I Was Born for This by Alice Oseman

Alice Oseman’s I Was Born for This was one of my most anticipated books of the year – I adored Radio Silence and couldn’t wait to see what Alice came up with next.

Angel Rahimi is off to London (and a fancy part at that) to stay with her best friend Juliet from the interwebz. They have tickets to a meet and greet/gig for their favourite boy band of all time, The Ark aka Lister, Jimmy and Rowan. For Angel, there’s nothing more to life than The Ark. And her encyclopaedic knowledge of them rivals any fan’s. The book’s second point of view is from Jimmy. He’s constantly in the spotlight due to being a member of one of the world’s most famous bands, previously outed as being trans to the incredible support of his fans, and secretly suffers from severe anxiety. Both characters think they know what the other is like, until their lives unexpectedly collide…

I Was Born for This brilliantly weaves in someone vs. the idea of someone. Angel thinks she knows everything about the boys, but she can only know how they’re portrayed. And, as soon as she meets her bestie Juliet, their friendship dynamic isn’t quite how Angel imagined. As a huge music fan as a teenager – I blogged about music, went to monthly gigs, listened to music all morning/afternoon/evening, and even did my university dissertation on music and fandom – I resonated with I Was Born for This. I remember reading that blogpost by Josh from Paramore and questioning everything I thought about the band – it made me feel funny inside, and affected how I interpreted their album Brand New Eyes.

I probably don’t even need to tell you that the characters that Alice creates are honest, accurate and realistic. Alice does an absolutely brilliant job of writing about the teenage experience and making it read from someone who actually gets it because they’ve gone through it – from fandom to mental health. I Was Born for This is for anyone who’s ever been a fan.

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Mini Book Reviews / Orphan Monster Spy, The Exact Opposite of Okay & Becoming Betty

Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

I love the tagline ‘A teenage spy. A Nazi boarding school. The performance of a lifetime.’ and was gripped by Orphan Monster Spy from the start.

Orphan Monster Spy begins with 15-year-old Sarah, on the run from the government following her mother’s death. She meets a mysterious spy and persuades him to let her work alongside him, certain that her mother’s acting tuition will pay off – and he does. Her high-stakes mission is to infiltrate the Rothenstadt Academy as ‘Ursula Haller’, befriend the daughter of a scientist, and steal the blueprints for a bomb that could take out an entire city in one fell swoop. Because Sarah is Jewish – and also blonde and blue-eyed – she experiences terror from both sides, from fascist soldiers to cut-throat students.

Sarah is a brave, intelligent and quick-witted teenager, whose story gave me the same thrill that Wolf by Wolf did. As a reader, it’s exciting to be one of the chosen few to know the protagonist’s real identity. On her journey, she meets the Captain, close friend Mauser, who has more strength than she knows, and popular Elsa, whose life isn’t all that it appears, amongst many terrifying characters. Orphan Monster Spy is one of my favourite books of the year so far – super exciting, dark and intense story. Pick it up even if you’re usually not a fan of historical fiction!

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The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven

18-year-old Izzy parties, drinks, dances and… sleeps with a boy. But that’s her business. Until a slut-shaming website is set up and she becomes the centre of a national scandal because the boy in question is a politician’s son. Thankfully, Izzy doesn’t have to deal with it alone. I adored Izzy’s friendship with her best friend Ajita and her wonderful and close relationship with her grandmother. It was also refreshing to see Izzy build a rapport with her supportive teachers, who encourage her to pursue her dream of being a comic writer. I loved Lauren Steven’s exploration of life as a teenager today – and it’s not always pretty.

Izzy gets up to mischief more than once and that was great to see. She may not make the ‘best’ choices, but this doesn’t mean she deserves to be judged and abused as a result. Izzy could’ve been a stereotypical ‘innocent’ and ‘perfect’ character to make it easier for us to feel sorry for her, but she’s not. No one is.

The Exact Opposite of Okay is a feminist, hilarious and topical UKYA novel set in the US, covering everything from online bullying to revenge porn.

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Becoming Betty by Eleanor Wood

16-year-old Elizabeth aka Lizzie is nervous on her first day of sixth form college, wondering how she’s going to make friends, watching the cooler girls fit in easily like they’ve been there the whole time. But luckily she meets super cool Viv and they become instant best friends – even though she already has two perfectly excellent friends at her old school. Viv decides that Lizzie is to join her band and voilà, Betty is born. But is that who she really is?

Becoming Betty is set against the colourful and quirky backdrop of The Lanes in Brighton. I love reading books set here as I went to the University of Sussex and lived just outside of Brighton for three years. It’s easy to be jealous of Viv – who lives in her own flat with her boyfriend – but being friends with Viv isn’t all that great for Lizzie. I constantly wanted to shake her and shout “stop listening to Viv!”, but Betty has to make that decision on her own.

Becoming Betty is a fun snapshot into the drama-filled lives of two music-loving sixth formers. I need more feel good UKYA in my life!

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Mini Book Reviews / Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Suicide Club, The Sun and Her Flowers & Milk and Honey

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

“I find lateness exceptionally rude; it’s so disrespectful, implying unambiguously that you consider yourself and your own time to be so much more valuable than the other person’s.”

How could I not read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine?! It seemed like readers with all different tastes adored this novel and so, without knowing much about it, I jumped in.

Although Eleanor is not what other people consider “normal”, she’s a 30-year-old woman who’s competent at her day job, a Tesco fangirl (home to her weekly frozen pizza and vodka), and, minus the weekly frustrating phone calls with her incarcerated mother, she’s doing perfectly all right. That is, until she becomes friends with Raymond, the new guy from work. He’s a man-child and quite disgusting but they seem to be becoming… mates? And so Eleanor is forced to break her routine. Even if she refuses to admit it, she is lonely. Throughout the novel, we watch Eleanor open herself up to other people and discover that she doesn’t have to do everything alone.

“LOL could go and take a running jump. I wasn’t made for illiteracy; it simply didn’t come naturally.”

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is all about our quirky protagonist. There is an intriguing backstory to Eleanor, but it’s the present that kept me reading. Her life is often mundane and yet Eleanor herself is anything but. I’ll watch the adaptation featuring Reese Witherspoon, even if I can’t see it doing justice to this fantastic character who has the sort of “deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit” that I’ve never experienced before. Her story is emotional and brilliant and warm. Now that I’ve finished reading, I’ll miss E.

“When you’re struggling hard to manage your own emotions, it becomes unbearable to have to witness other people’s, to have to try and manage theirs too.”

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Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

It’s so much fun delving into science fiction. I used to read sci-fi often, mainly the YA dystopia and post-apocalytic type. I love reading about societies that are similar to our own, but feature advanced technology and despotic governments – although I guess this is becoming more fact, less fiction!

“In near-future New York, life expectancy averages three hundred years. Immortality is almost within our grasp. It’s hell.”

As soon as I read the above tagline, I knew Suicide Club was for me. It’s like an episode of Black Mirror but much less likely to make you feel funny afterwards. It all starts to go wrong for Lea Kirino when she spots her estranged father on the way to work. She’s a “Lifer”, so she’ll potentially live forever due to her genetic makeup, successful career and covetable relationship – if she follows the guidelines, including no fresh food, no running, no heavy music. Upon pursuing her father, Lea’s eventually drawn to the Suicide Club, a group that rejects society’s ambition and strict regulation surrounding immortality. Members are set on a life in which they get to choose whether they live or die, when, and how.

Suicide Club isn’t a fast-paced, action-adventure novel. It’s a slow-burning exploration of Lea’s world and the society she grew up in. As Lea begins to question everything she thought she knew, we’re introduced a variety of fascinating characters, each with their own motivations. What would it look like to live in a world where people lived for more than 300 years? What if only some people did, and others lived for less than 100? Rachel Heng’s near-future NYC isn’t so different to our present, where luck, money and knowing the right people can get you far. Nonetheless, I’m happy Suicide Club is mostly fictional, for now.

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The Sun and Her Flowers and Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

it takes grace
to remain kind
in cruel situations – rupi kaur

I have a funny relationship with poetry. Whenever I’m asked whether I enjoy poetry, I say “no”. It makes me think of studying school poetry anthologies, when I would’ve much rather have read a novel. And yet I’ve enjoyed Sarah Crossan’s novels in verse. I’d seen so many of my friends talk about Rupi Kaur’s work that I finally bought a copy of The Sun and Her Flowers whilst visiting Pages of Hackney bookshop with my friend Louise last year. I read it over a couple of evenings and instantly saw why people adored it so much. Even if Rupi’s experiences aren’t the same as mine, I could take the poetry as my own, especially thinking about loneliness, sadness and relationship breakdowns. A friend then gifted me a copy of Milk and Honey which I found less relatable than The Sun and Her Flowers but appreciated Rupi’s talent to explore moments in life that many women around the experience, from negative body image to abusive relationships. I’m definitely up for giving more poetry a shot!

“it isn’t what we left behind
that breaks me
it’s what we could’ve built
had we stayed” – rupi kaur

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