Mini Review: Counting Stars

Counting Stars

Counting Stars is the first of Keris Stainton’s books that I’ve read and I really, really, REALLY enjoyed it!

Anna’s finally ready to be a ‘proper’ grown-up. She couldn’t be more excited about her big move to Liverpool, and she’s determined to bring more of her super-confident online alter-ego, Anna Sparks, with her. 

But her new life is also a little overwhelming.  Anna’s job quickly falls through, and then she realises that although her new friends are great, they’re also a little mixed-up…and it’s not long before Anna starts using her blog to talk about her experiences, from the hilarious to the ridiculous to the little-bit-scary. But when Anna spills a bigger secret than she can handle, suddenly the consequences are all too real.

Counting Stars is the perfect example of fabulous contemporary YA: it’s rude, funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking, captivating, and completely embracing of late-teens/early twenties culture. Anna is the main character – although this isn’t told in first-person – and her friends make up a full and interesting cast of secondary characters. I really enjoyed that all of the characters feel rounded and as a result this is such an easy read.

Despite there being a main character, there are multiple storylines touching upon issues from all of the characters perspectives. Keris has done a marvellous job of interweaving all of these narratives into an exciting story that feels very real and true to life. The use of third person narrative makes this book really quirky – the only book I can think to compare this to is the Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series, although these are aimed at a slightly older audience.

Something that I really love about Counting Stars is the variety of characters and that each of their sexualities and attitudes towards sex is celebrated. Gay relationships, casual sex and being a virgin are all issues explored sensitively and in a manner that, rightfully, suggests that all of these are normal. I especially liked that Anna isn’t shamed for being a virgin because so often YA focusses on normalising teens who have sex, sometimes to the point of suggesting that all teenagers are and should be having sex.

It’s unusual to find a YA novel that covers family, friends, secrets, university, money, moving out, growing-up, independence, relationships and sex, death and careers as sensitively and brilliantly as Counting Stars does. I really, really recommend this book to anyone looking for something super-duper to read!

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Book Review: Eden Summer

Eden SummerEden Summer is Liz Flanagan’s debut novel and is a pacy and exciting contemporary YA!

It starts like any other day for Jess – get up, draw on eyeliner, cover up tattoos and head to school. But soon it’s clear this is no ordinary day, because Jess’s best friend, Eden, isn’t at school . . . she’s gone missing.

Jess knows she must do everything in her power to find Eden before the unthinkable happens.

So Jess decides to retrace the summer she and Eden have just spent together. But looking back means digging up all their buried secrets, and she starts to question everything she thought Eden’s summer had been about …

There are so many aspects of this book that Liz deserves praise for but what stood out most for me is the main character. Jess is a goth and I am so pleased that Liz wrote her as such. Growing up, goths were always seen as being weird and at school would often sit in small groups along with anyone else who was a bit different as they were targets of abuse.

On TV and in books that unpleasantness towards goths always continued, with the strange girl at school being obvious by her black eyeliner and red hair. I’ve never read anything where the goth stereotype is addressed and I think Liz does an amazing job of showing that Jess is just like anyone else, that she shares the same ambitions and fears as any other teenage girl. She’s not defined or governed by her appearance and I think that’s really, really important.

Eden Summer is quite unusual in that it’s both character and plot driven, and both aspects are fantastic. In the first couple of chapters we’re introduced to a handful characters that could all be suspects in the case of Eden’s disappearance and Liz so cleverly makes the reader believe that everyone is guilty. The small details that are given about each character made my mind race thinking up motives and alibis before I’d even reached chapter two and I sped through the book in no time at all – if I had enough time this would have been a one-sit read.

The plot is really mysterious and thrilling which is definitely helped by the back and forth style that it’s written in. The search for Eden takes place over the course of one day but the story is broken up with flashbacks to key moments from the past year of Eden’s life helping to unravel the reasons behind her disappearance. ‘I decided that the day-long structure interspersed with flashbacks might work for this story, again for drama and drive. I visualised it like a clock face in the end!

Much of Jess’ time spent searching for Eden takes place with her running on rocky and uneven hills which left me almost breathless so I really like the clock face analogy as a way of describing the race against time to find Eden. Also as time begins to run out for Jess, you’ll find yourself inching closer towards the edge of your seat with a dry mouth and pounding heart – honestly, it’s the most fearful I’ve ever felt whilst reading a book!

Eden Summer is an incredibly powerful book that deals with awful issues in the most honest and sincere manner. So much of the story is heartbreaking and yet I never lost hope in the characters because the overwhelming theme throughout is love. Liz has clearly written this from the heart and I think it’s important that she cites her inspiration for the writing about a missing teenager as, ‘partly because, as a parent, it’s my worst nightmare. Partly because in narrative terms it creates instant drive and drama. Partly for personal reasons – because I was missing my best friend who’d recently died, and so that atmosphere of loss felt like somewhere I wanted to go.

The sincerity of Eden Sumer continues beyond the subject matter into the detailed descriptions throughout, ‘I felt I owed it to the story to go as far as I could with it, to be as emotionally faithful to the difficult parts as possible, and I really believe that the heart of this book comes from the fact that it’s set in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire. ‘It’s based on a version of my home town, somewhere I love very deeply, somewhere I grew up and where I live now. I like that I have overlapping memories of the town, as a child, a teenager, as an adult.

I cannot recommend Eden Summer highly enough to everyone- it is truly fantastic. There are few books that keep me thinking about them for days after finishing but this is definitely going to stay with me for a very long time. I hope that Liz continues to write more YA fiction in the future, but until then, I hope that Eden Summer is nominated for as many awards as possible!


Eden Summer will be published on July 7th by David Fickling Books.
A HUGE thank you to David Fickling Books for sending me a proof copy and to Liz Flanagan for answering my questions.

Mini Review: You Know Me Well

You Know Me Well is a dual perspective LGBT+ story about teenagers Kate and Mark and the love lives that they are desperate to have.

You Know Me Well

Who knows you well? Your best friend? Your boyfriend or girlfriend? A stranger you meet on a crazy night? No one, really? 

Mark and Kate have sat next to each other for an entire year, but have never spoken. For whatever reason, their paths outside of class have never crossed. That is until Kate spots Mark miles away from home, out in the city for a wild, unexpected night.

Kate is lost, having just run away from a chance to finally meet the girl she has been in love with from afar. Mark, meanwhile, is in love with his best friend Ryan, who may or may not feel the same way.

I really enjoyed this book and think that Nina and David did a fantastic job of writing a story about love, with friendship taking centre stage. Both Kate and Mark’s stories could so easily have stood alone as teen-romances and yet combining the two to create a book about friendship is what makes this so special. As both characters are gay it’s made very clear that Kate and Mark will not have any romantic storylines together and I really, really liked that. The friendship that was presented was real and raw, and felt more true than many that I’ve read before.

There are lots of ‘coming of age’ topics explored in this book as well as friendship. First love, self worth in and out of relationships, independence, identity, and university are all touched on which I thought was wonderful as every reader regardless of their sexual identity can relate to You Know Me Well.

This is a very diverse book and features a whole spectrum of LGBT+ characters. All of the main characters are gay and the overall cast is made up of people of all identities, all of whom are celebrating being themselves at San Francisco Pride. I also particularly like that LGBT stereotypes were challenged – Mark is on the baseball team, and it’s revealed that the flamboyancy of another gay character was an act put on for work.

You Know Me Well is a celebration of LGBT+ culture and is an absolute pleasure to read. All aspects of LGBT+ life are explored and issues including stigma and abuse are touched upon in a sensitive but powerful manner. I much preferred this to Will Grayson, Will Grayson (the only other story by David that I’ve read, and he wrote this with John Green) and would definitely read another story by David and Nina in the future. I thoroughly recommend this to anyone looking for a story about friendships and first love!

You Know Me Well will be published by Macmillan Children’s Books on June 2nd – thank you to Beatrice at the Federation of Children’s Book Groups conference for my proof copy!

Mini Review: Seed

Lisa Heathfield’s debut novel tells the story of 15 year old Pearl’s life in a cult called Seed.

SeedSeed loves you. Seed will never let you go.

Fifteen-year-old Pearl has lived her whole life protected within the small community at Seed, where they worship Nature and idolise their leader, Papa S.

When some outsiders arrive, everything changes. Pearl experiences feelings that she never knew existed and begins to realise that there is darkness at the heart of Seed. A darkness from which she must escape, before it’s too late.

Seed begins with Pearl discovering that she’s started her period and as a result, being taken to an underground chamber in the forest where she’s left alone by candlelight so that she can be cleansed.

In return for obliging, Nature will bless her with a healthy womb, something which the women at Seed consider to be the most precious gift. I loved that Lisa started the book by presenting a really shocking version of something so ordinary as it’s clear by the way that Pearl is treated for starting her period that Seed is a very dark and frightening place.

There are many themes touched on in Seed but the most prominent, and I think most important, is the role that women play in the community. Hierarchy at Seed is strictly observed with Papa S as leader, Kindred Smith and Kindred John in second tier, the women in 3rd, and the children at the bottom.

The Handmaid’s Tale and Only Ever Yours are 2 of my favourite books, and I was glad to see that Seed explores many of the same themes; from the complete lack of power balance between the men and women, to Papa S taking his pick of the grown women at Seed to be his next sexual partner. Just like Margaret Atwood and Louise O’Neill, Lisa very cleverly presents a frightening world where a woman’s sole purpose is to please a man – cleaning, cooking, child rearing, and sex are all expected from the females at Seed.

Power is explored further through the belief in Seed as a cult. Papa S acts as the leader and translator between Nature and Seed, passing on what members believe are Nature’s wishes and punishing people as Nature demands. I particularly liked reading about Pearl beginning to question the truth in Nature and Papa S’s motives, and think that Lisa portrayed Pearl’s fear and unease very well.

I really, really enjoyed Seed and I’m so glad that Ally chose it as her bookclub read for February as I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise! I really highly recommend this to anyone looking for a strong feminist novel that combines dystopian themes with a contemporary setting.

Book Review: Unbecoming

UnbecomingI won my copy of Unbecoming in a Twitter giveaway back in August and I can’t believe I waited so long to read it because it’s truly one of the most wonderful books that I’ve ever read.

Three women – three secrets – one heart-stopping story. Funny, sad, honest and wise, Unbecoming is a celebration of life, and learning to honour your own stories.

Unbecoming is Jenny Downham’s third book, and is quite different to the books that I’ve been reading recently. Compared with the first-person narrative stories that I’m usually drawn to, Unbecoming is told entirely in third person.

Katie is 17 and is struggling to come to terms with her sexuality – she thinks she might be gay, but is passing off all of her feelings as one offs, as completely within the normal range of heterosexuality. Her mum, Caroline, has lived an incredibly hard life having been brought up thinking her aunty was her mum, and since having children has had to cope with divorce and caring for a son with an undiagnosed condition. She’s tightly wound and heavily protective, keeping her children safe by planning every aspect of their lives even if it’s not at all what they want.

Caroline has been estranged from her mother for years but when Mary’s husband suddenly dies, Caroline is forced to look after her. Now suffering from dementia Mary is confused by Caroline’s reluctance to be close to her and has trouble remembering any of the circumstances behind her daughter’s anger. The secrets that all three of these women are holding on to are gradually revealed when Mary moves in.

Unbecoming is a love story hidden within a family mystery. 3 generations of women whose reluctance to communicate is holding them back from connecting must dig into the past to discover what they’re missing out on in the present. Everything about this book felt real, and subsequently it was an incredibly emotional and powerful read.

Jenny has such a talent for writing multi-dimentional characters that you believe and care about and I completely fell in love with all 3 of them. At the beginning, each character is defined by their flaw – Katie’s secret, Caroline’s anger towards her elderly mother, Mary’s absence from Caroline’s life – but as the story unfolds we, like the characters themselves, learn that these negative aspects are just a small part of what makes each character unique. I think it’s so important and uplifting that each of the 3 women, all at completely different stages in their life, has room for self discovery.

I also love the style that Jenny uses to tell the 3 stories. In some chapters we zoom in to Katie, hearing the story told with her in the centre, and in others Mary’s story is at the forefront. Through Katie and Mary we’re able to piece together Caroline’s story and I think it’s a really special idea that as the middle generation Caroline has impacted both Mary and Katie’s lives enough that we never have to tap into her thoughts to obtain any of the story.

As well as the present day story, occasional chapters transport us back to key moments in the women’s lives, helping to fill in the blanks where memories have been forgotten. With no individual character narrating, the reader has access to an honest version of the truth making each character feel more real and their stories more raw.

Another unusual aspect of Unbecoming is that it’s split into 3 parts which Jenny says is for a few different reasons. Firstly, as a nod to 3 act play scripts (Jenny began storytelling when she worked with an improv. group); secondly to signify time periods (Unbecoming is set in the summer holidays with each part loosely covering 1 week); and thirdly, Jenny says that the parts (getting smaller each time) represent Mary’s deterioration.

I was bookselling this weekend at the Federation of Children’s Book Groups conference and Jenny was the speaker at the Gala Dinner on the Saturday evening. During her speech she spoke about growing up thinking that because her mum never read a book, she couldn’t ever enjoy stories. It wasn’t until her mum was suffering from dementia and would tell stories to make sense of the world around her that Jenny realised that stories are a part of everyone. This experience is portrayed in Unbecoming through Mary, who shares stories from her life with her granddaughter Katie. The relationship that they develop as a result is really beautiful and is one of my favourite aspects of the book.

I really, really loved Unbecoming and it’s a book that I will definitely revisit. The characters and stories are so beautiful that your heart will burst with love with every page that you read. I honestly can’t recommend this book highly enough – it’s just so completely amazing!

jenny

Book Review: Radio Silence

Thank you so much to HarperCollins for sending me the manuscript of this to read ahead of publication – I was so excited to see it in my inbox!

25322449Radio Silence is Alice Oseman’s second novel (Solitaire was her debut) and is the first book that I have ever read in 1 day – I literally couldn’t stop reading this!

Frances has always been a study machine with one goal, elite university. Nothing will stand in her way; not friends, not a guilty secret – not even the person she is on the inside.

But when Frances meets Aled, the shy genius behind her favourite podcast, she discovers a new freedom. He unlocks the door to Real Frances and for the first time she experiences true friendship, unafraid to be herself. Then the podcast goes viral and the fragile trust between them is broken.

This book tells the story of Frances, a sixth form student whose only goal is to get into Cambridge, no matter how boring that makes her seem. She’s head girl because it looks good on her personal statement, she chose her A Level subjects based on what would make her the most appealing Cambridge candidate, and she has no real friends because they’d just get in the way of studying. But beneath this facade Frances’ real self is hidden, exposed only online under her alias Touloser.

Compared to Alice’s debut, Radio Silence is much bolder and tackles the topic of diversity in a much more blatant manner. Whilst Solitaire contains gay and bisexual characters it does lack racial diversity with Alice herself commenting that ‘the thing that I absolutely despise the most about it is that all of the primary characters are implied to be white … this is never, ever going to happen again. Alice certainly stuck by what she said and has done a remarkable job of including characters of colour, of different wealth backgrounds, and a variety of LGBT+ qualities into Radio Silence. However despite containing such varied characters, it never once felt like she was ticking off a diversity checklist; every character felt rounded, and it felt like a realistic depiction of a modern multicultural society.

As well as being bolder with character diversity, the themes in Radio Silence felt darker and more frightening than those seen in Solitaire. Abusive family relationships, manipulation, bullying and isolation are all explored and there’s also a heavy focus on the self-worth attached to exams and university which I thought Alice wrote about really well. Due to illness I only managed to continue with 1 A Level subject after AS and wasn’t well or qualified enough after my extra year of sixth form to consider university. Although the situations in this book are different to what mine were, the fear and hopelessness that I felt are described so perfectly that reading this made me feel a bit unsettled. It’s not often that my feelings are described so accurately, although Alice has managed to do just that in both of her books!

An aspect of Radio Silence that I loved is the relationship between Frances and her mum. Often YA fiction depicts a negative relationship between mother and daughter which I can’t relate to so for me, it was nice to read about the positive and happy mother-daughter bond that Frances experiences. I also like that Frances’ mum is a working and loving single parent because the media has a habit of portraying single mothers as lazy and elusive which is, for the most part, completely untrue. It’s so refreshing to read about characters who are perfectly normal without fitting within the white, middle-class mould. There’s nothing about Frances’ mixed race, single parent, only child family that makes her anything other than normal, and I’m so pleased that Alice hadn’t made these surface-level characteristics into issues that aren’t there.

I really enjoyed Radio Silence and think that yet again Alice Oseman has written a really good story whilst managing to confront relevant issues through believable and relatable characters. What I like most about Alice’s stories is that she understands the people that she writes about because she is one of them. To read about a character who watches YouTubers and uses Tumblr and dresses in patterned leggings is wonderful because that’s literally me, and I hardly ever read something and think ‘yeh, this author gets it’. Perhaps Radio Silence won’t be timeless, and maybe in 10 years someone will read it and think ‘what the hell in Tumblr??’ but that doesn’t really matter because for now it so perfectly captures the experiences that teenagers and twenty-somethings are living. I loved this book and really hope there’s more to come.

Radio Silence is published by HarperCollins on February 25th 2016.

Find Alice: twitter | tumblr | website | facebook | youtube

 

Michelle and Jasmine read: I’ll Tell You Mine

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Our third read was I’ll Tell You Mine by Pip Harry. This is an Australian YA fiction that Michelle very kindly sent me for my birthday!

Kate Elliot isn’t trying to fit in – that’s the whole point of being a goth, isn’t it?

Everything about her – from her hair to her clothes – screams different and the girls at her school give her a wide berth. How can Kate be herself, really herself, when she’s hiding her big secret? The one that landed her in boarding school in the first place. She’s buried it down deep but it always seems to surface.

Find Pip Harry: twitter | website

M: Pip Harry is one of my favourite Aussie authors, so when Jasmine asked for OzYA recommendations, I just knew I’ll Tell You Mine would be one of them (followed by Pip’s second novel Head of the River). It’s your quintessential boarding school YA, but with a wonderful Aussie twist which felt like home for me. I was a day-girl at a boarding school, so reading this bought quite a few memories back for me (although, the food was always so good that day-girls would opt to buy their lunch from the boarder’s dining room!).

J: I’ll Tell You Mine is the first Australian YA that I’ve ever read and I really, really enjoyed it. I’m not very familiar at all with Australian culture as in England most of our non-UK entertainment comes from America, and so my only Oz knowledge come entirely from Neighbours and Home and Away circa 2011 (Ramsay Street and Summer Bay over revision any day), and of course from the much-loved daytime property programme classic, Wanted Down Under. Thankfully, I’ll Tell You Mine has completely opened my eyes to a realistic Australia wrapped up in a story that I thoroughly enjoyed.

M: Jasmine and I are slowly educating each other on Australian and UK culture! Apart from a fairly fun look at boarding school life, I’ll Tell You Mine is a beautiful exploration of the, often fraught, relationship between mothers and daughters. Kate is sent to board at school after an incident with her mother, something she’s deeply ashamed of and determined to keep secret. I thought Pip did an excellent job of incorporating years of friction between the two into the story, while also showing them start to mend their relationship towards the end.

J: I agree, and I really enjoyed the unravelling of Kate’s secret. Nothing was kept hidden from the reader for too long (sometimes books keep you hanging for ages and it gets a bit boring) and the gradual reveal kept me intrigued and interested. I think that Pip’s exploration of the mother-daughter relationship was written really nicely, and I particularly liked the inclusion of Kate’s dad and sister to balance out the family dynamic. The mother-daughter relationship is something that all females can relate to and I’m pleased that it was portrayed in many different ways. One of Kate’s friends, Maddy, had a mum that had died and this was a storyline that cleverly ran parallel to Kate’s for much of the story.

This is part 1 – read part 2 on Michelle’s blog.

More Michelle! Blogger Q&A: Michelle Gately | blog | twitter | goodreads

More Michelle and Jasmine read: The A to Z of You and Me | Lobsters