• Books and reading

    Learning from the youngsters: ‘Loveless’ by Alice Oseman

    YA (young adult) fiction is something I have only recently begun to read (since I was a young adult myself, I mean – and that was… well, some years ago now.) I’ve been intrigued and I admit, a little surprised at how much has changed in novels for this target audience. For a start, the language is different: much more ‘colourful’ and very influenced by the brevity of social media posts and also by some ‘Americanisms’. What has not changed is the way that these novels can explore the issues that are front and centre of their young readers’ lives.

    This is what Loveless does, in an interesting and sensitive way. The themes of this novel by Alice Oseman include the challenges faced by young people as they explore their sexuality, begin to navigate the adult world, and face new challenges outside of home and school life. At its heart is friendship, of utmost importance to all people in this age group.

    The story centres on Georgia and her best friends Pip and Jason as they begin university life. There are the usual nerves at the threshold of a big step like this, but for Georgia there is also confusion and anxiety. She longs for a romantic relationship and can’t understand why she has not been able to find someone she is attracted to. Is she gay? Bisexual? What does it mean to be asexual? Is that even a thing? Or is she just shy, preferring to watch a romcom or read fanfic to going clubbing?

    Georgia envies her room-mate, Rhooney, who seems to be able to make friends easily, exudes confidence and has a robust social and sexual life. However she comes to realise that Rhooney, too, has her own secrets and struggles.

    After some unsuccessful attempts to meet boys she would want to date, Georgia reflects:

    I thought I’d understood what all these romantic things would feel like – butterflies and the spark and just knowing when you liked someone. I’d read about these feelings hundreds of times in books and fanfic. I’d watched way more romances than was probably normal for an eighteen-year-old.

    But now I was starting to wonder if these things were made up.

    Loveless p139

    We dive right in to the university experience with Georgia and her friends: clubs and societies, college life, formal balls and pub crawls, student mentors, too much alcohol. The story is unflinching about the lengths youngsters will go to, in order to fit in, and to find romance and/or sex.

    One delight is the reference to Shakespeare: the group are all avowed Shakespeare fans and work to put on a performance with scenes chosen from some key plays. In doing so they highlight the relevance of some much of Shakespeare’s work to our modern world with scenarios that are still recognisable today : romance, social gaffes, sexuality and gender fluidity, for example.

    I learnt a lot about the lives of young people today but was also reminded of my own nerves and fluster at beginning university, not knowing anyone and shy to make friends. Alice Oseman is a skilful novelist to be able to evoke memories while illuminating the current lay of the land for young adults.

    Loveless will be published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in
    August 2020.

    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Confirming and confounding this reader’s pre-conceived ideas: ‘The Betrothed’ by Kiera Cass

    I’m generally not a romance reader and have only recently begun to re-visit the world of young adult (YA) fiction, so at first I was not sure what to make of this new novel by US author Kiera Cass. She is a New York Times best selling author (the series The Selection have been particularly popular). Judging from their covers, her books could be best described as fantasy/romance in the ‘Princess’ mode, of which I’m not a great fan. So I came to The Betrothed with something of a hesitant mindset, to say the least.

    The Betrothed managed to do two things at once: confirm some of my prejudices and confound them. Here’s how.

    The novel is set in a fictional world loosely based on Europe or Britain of around the eighteenth century. Lady Hollis Brite is a beautiful young woman at Keresken Castle, the court of King Jameson, who is thrilled to be singled out for attention by the handsome young king. Soon the king makes clear his intention to marry Hollis, much to her joy and that of her self seeking parents. She now has to step up and learn about the kingdom and its relations with neighbouring countries, and prepare herself for the demands of her future role.

    What happens next, of course, throws an unexpected obstacle in the way. Hollis finds herself drawn towards another young man, Silas, who with his family have escaped from the cruel and paranoid King Quentin of the nearby kingdom of Isolte. She must choose between the life she had dreamed of and the new possibilities that now present themselves with Silas.

    For my taste there was not enough world-building in this novel. There is a lovely map at the beginning, showing Hollis’ homeland of Coroa and surrounding countries, but few of the map’s features are part of the story. To be fair, the author might be planning to explore more of her created world in later books, as I’m guessing The Betrothed might be the first of a new series by Cass. In this book, though, the clothing, manners and lifestyle feel ‘borrowed’ from historical romance tropes. At the same time, the language used by its characters, particularly Hollis and her friends Delia Grace and Nora, don’t really match the setting, with plenty of Americanisms and teen expressions that regularly threw me out of the story.

    However…I acknowledge that for her army of loyal readers, Cass uses expressions that are familiar and accessible. I also acknowledge that I am not one of her target audience and not familiar with the language typically found in this genre of books.

    Finally, I want to mention the way in which The Betrothed confounded some of my expectations. Towards the end of the book, I realised to my relief that this was not going to be a ‘happy-ever-after-Princess’ story. Far from it. Hollis has to confront the consequences of decisions she has made, and is plunged into a harrowing sequence of events that test her mettle. In this, the author has given her heroine a range of experiences and characteristics beyond her beauty and an initial desire to become queen. I thank Ms Cass for that.

    The Betrothed will no doubt please Kiera Cass’ fans who’ve been waiting for her next novel, and other young adult readers who enjoy a mix of fantasy, romance and a royal theme.

    The Betrothed was published by Harper Collins in May 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    New YA (young adult) novel about a very different French revolution: ‘Court of Miracles’ by Kester Grant

    The first in a new trilogy by British-Mauritian author Kester Grant, The Court of Miracles is a complex, action-filled story of what might have happened had the French Revolution failed. A large cast of characters, many of them re-imagined versions of Victor Hugo’s creations from Les Misérables, includes the protagonist Eponine (‘Nina’). At the opening of the story, Nina is a frightened child but she develops courage, quick wits and skill in order to survive in early nineteenth century Paris.

    This is no City of Lights, but a far darker and more dangerous city. Nina’s older sister Azelma is sold by their father Thenardier to the Master of Flesh (the head of a sex-slave and prostitution ring as hideous as it sounds). Before she is taken, Azlema instructs her sister:

    Be useful, be smart, and stay one step ahead of everyone. Be brave even when you’re afraid. Remember that everyone is afraid.

    The Court of Miracles p14

    What follows is a series of exploits as Nina struggles to survive, while also trying to rescue Azelma and a youngster, Cosette (‘Ettie’). Ettie is a beautiful, naive girl towards whom Nina feels a protective love. All three girls join the Wretched – those who survive in the poverty-stricken streets, invisible to royalty, the nobility and the wealthy. As Nina sees it:

    After the revolution failed, the city was carved into two parts. Half of Paris is rigid, boxtree-lined avenues haunted by the aristocracy. The other half is a murky jungle of crime and misery.

    The Court of Miracles p70

    The lives of the Wretched who inhabit that shadowy Paris are governed by the Miracle Court, made up of nine Guilds: the Guild of Thieves (to which Nina is pledged), the Guilds of Flesh, Assassins, Smugglers, Beggars, Dreamers, Mercenaries, Chance and Letters. The Guilds are akin to the trade and craft guilds of the mediaeval period, but they operate via criminal activities and with a complicated code of law and behaviour which members must follow. The Guilds, their Masters and Lords are brought to vivid life and there is a helpful summary of the main characters and activities of each at the front of the book, which I referred to often. Perhaps the best explanation of this underground world is this:

    We all come to the Miracle Court as equals. The Court recognises no race, no religion, no marriage or tie of blood. The Wretched have only one Father, their Guild Lord; one family, their Guild; and one Law.

    The Court of Miracles p134

    There are some surprising twists and revelations which kept me turning the pages, leading to Nina’s understanding that ‘sometimes we must pay a terrible price to protect the things we love.’ p379

    Readers who like a fast-paced story will enjoy this novel. There is also plenty to love for fans of historical fiction, fantasy, and the characters from Les Misérables in its various forms. It’s a vivid re-imagining of a dramatic time and place.

    The Court of Miracles is published by Harper Voyager (an imprint of Harper Collins) in June 2020.
    Thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Harrowing yet ultimately hopeful: ‘Invisible Boys’ by Holden Sheppard

    Holden Sheppard’s debut novel follows the struggles of three high school boys in the small Western Australian town of Geraldton, as they try to figure out the big things of life: who they are, where they belong, what family and friendships mean, and their sexuality. All three suspect they are gay and each has a different response , as they also try to navigate the various responses to homosexuality by the people around them.

    I recall that during Australia’s sometimes fractious marriage equality debates, there were warnings from those working with young people, especially in rural and regional areas, that the divisiveness and stigma still attached to homosexuality would be worsened by the rancour around the campaign. They worried that it could cause further harm to young people already struggling with questions around their sexual identity. The events played out in Invisible Boys bring these concerns to life in a realistic way.

    The author wrote in his Acknowledgements that each of the three main characters represented a part of himself. And yes, so vividly are they portrayed, the characters and events must surely have arisen from lived experience.

    The three young protagonists are Zeke, a studious boy from a staunchly Italian Catholic family; Hammer, an athletic boy who dreams of becoming a star football player; and Charlie, a punk rocker who has no idea of where he fits – he only knows that it’s not in Geraldton, not in his Catholic high school, and certainly not in his neglectful, dismissive family. A fourth character, Matt, comes from a local farming family and plays an important role as the novel progresses.

    The boys differ in the level of sympathy they engendered from me at the beginning of the novel. Hammer presents as a particularly repellent individual, the result of being raised in a toxic swill of extreme homophobia and sickening misogyny. As events unfold, there are glimpses of other facets of personality and what makes each boy behave the way they do, their fears and insecurities.
    Here is Zeke, for example:

    Why am I so weak? Why do I cower to this? I know homosexuality is natural in the animal kingdom. I don’t think anyone should have fewer rights than anyone else. I don’t hate it in other people as much as I hate it in myself. And yet I fall in line with Father Mulroney’s condemnation.

    Invisible Boys p507

    This quote, incidentally, is from a scene which also has some laugh-out-loud moments – Zeke’s excruciating enforced act of confession in church.

    And here is Charlie:

    I figured you’re allowed to tell other gay guys in the closet. It’s like mutually assured destruction. Either of you tells and it’s catastrophe, like a nuclear winter.

    Invisible Boys p523

    Anyone who can remember their own pathway through the agonies and traps of adolescence will relate to the boys’ struggles. And the added layers of difficulty imposed by their families, friends and community, can only be viewed as absurd, unfair and entirely unnecessary. Why make someone’s path to adulthood harder than it needs to be?

    The last word on this book belongs to its author:

    …my teenage self, who, for a long time, didn’t want to be on this planet anymore because he was a gay bloke. Good on you for staying alive, you resilient bastard. Turns out you were good just the way you were.

    Holden Sheppard, Acknowledgements in Invisible Boys.

    Invisible Boys was published by Fremantle Press in 2019. It was the recipient of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award 2018 (even before publication!) and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2020, as well as being a Notable Book in the 2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) and longlisted in the 2020 Indie Book Awards, among other accolades.

    #AussieAuthor20

  • Books and reading

    Book Review: ‘Nevermoor’ by Jessica Townsend

    ‘Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow’ by Jessica Townsend

    LothianBooks 2017

    This is the first in the Nevermoor series of YA/children’s author, Australian Jessica Townsend. It has won many awards and commendations, including: Winner, Dymocks Book of the Year 2018, QBD Children’s Book of the Year 2018, Book of the Year for Younger Children, ABIA 2018, Indie Books Awards 2018, Aurealis Awards 2017, Waterstones Children’s Book Prize (UK) 2018, a CBCA Notable Book.

    I don’t read a lot in the fantasy genre nowadays, but this book was recommended to me by a friend. It is a rollicking tale of magic, centred around the adventures of young Morrigan Crow, who lives an unloved life in a drab and predictable town. Marked at birth as a ‘cursed child’ along with others born on Eventide, held to be an unlucky day, Morrigan is blamed for all the misfortunes of others, and doomed to die on Eventide when she turns eleven.

    Enter Jupiter North, her mysterious rescuer, who whisks Morrigan away from the threat of the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow and brings her to the magical city of Nevermoor. Here Morrigan is ensconced in the Hotel Deucalion, which magically changes the shapes of its rooms and fittings, and she learns that she must pass a series of trials if she is to be allowed to remain…

    I liked several things about this book. One is the humour that imbues every chapter. Despite some scenes that are a bit scary, even younger readers will appreciate the insouciance of Jupiter, the mild cynicism of his nephew Jack, the daredevil nature of Morrigan’s new friend Hawthorn, and especially, the sarcasm and bossiness of Fenestra, the giant Magnificat in charge of hotel housekeeping.

    Another is of course, the magic. Occasionally reminiscent of the brilliant world building to be found in the Harry Potter novels by JK Rowling, Nevermoor’s magic is nonetheless unique, surprising and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

    Morrigan is an endearing protagonist. Smart and brave but full of self- doubt and uncertainty, she yearns for friendship and belonging, both of which she finds in Nevermoor. There are plenty of heart-warming moments, along with the magic and quirky humour.

    And speaking of heart, a real theme of the novel is exactly that. There is a strong element of exploration of what it means to belong. Because Morrigan has not yet successfully completed the trials which will allow her to remain in Nevermoor, she is dogged by the City’s police force for being a ‘filthy illegal’. Inspector Flintlock berates Jupiter North for not handing Morrigan over for immediate deportation: reminders of the decidedly unmagical and unsympathetic scenes being played out in real life, all over our globe. So, while Nevermoor is a fantasy novel, it manages to hold within it messages to us all about caring, humanity and belonging.