Fab Fiction Friday: 3 Great Recent UKYA Reads

For this Fab Fiction Friday post, I’m micro-reviewing three books by fab UKYA authors that I’ve read relatively recently, all of which are gripping stories with great diverse representation. The first two of these have ‘incidental’ representation – the stories are not ‘about’ the character’s identity as such (although it may add complications to their situation). It is important that these stories exist in order that readers can see a range of characters experiencing adventures – otherwise we can find ourselves left with the situation in which I found myself in the classroom a few years ago:

We were covering ‘narrative writing’ for the GCSE and, frustrated by the weirdness of my 70% Asian class naming all their characters ‘Bob’ and ‘Susan’ (and equally ‘old white person’ names), I asked them why they weren’t writing about ‘Mohammed’ or ‘Sufiya’. They were stunned into silence. Eventually, one boy answered, ‘But Miss, we’re supposed to write real stories. Stories aren’t about us. They’re about you.’

That’s when I knew we had a problem. A problem that books like these are addressing. It’s not just race, though – when I was growing up, as a working-class kid, there weren’t many books about me, either.

My Box-Shaped Heart by Rachael Lucas

(from Goodreads): My Box-Shaped Heart is a powerful story of an unlikely friendship from Rachael Lucas, author of The State of Grace.

Holly’s mum is a hoarder, and she is fed up with being picked on at school for being weird . . . and having the wrong clothes . . . and sticking out. All she wants is to be invisible. She loves swimming, because in the water everyone is the same.

Ed goes to the swimming pool to escape the horrible house he and his mum have been assigned by the women’s refuge. In his old life he had money; was on the swim team; knew who he was and what he wanted. In his old life his dad hit his mum.

Holly is swimming in one direction and Ed’s swimming in the other. As their worlds collide they find a window into each other’s lives – and learn how to meet in the middle.

genre(s): contemporary

representation notes: British working-class (specifically Scottish), blended family with complex relationships, mentally ill parent, domestic abuse

read it for: a touching but not sentimentalised story of first love and growing up; a vividly-drawn emotional journey with pace and real action; gentle (rather than ‘gritty’) treatment of issues but never sanitised

This would be appropriate as an ‘eye-opening’ read for young readers, or potentially as a comfort for those in similar circumstances. I’d also recommend it for swimming lovers.

Out of the Blue by Sophie Cameron

(from Goodreads): When angels start falling from the sky, it seems like the world is ending. Smashing down to earth at extraordinary speeds, wings bent, faces contorted, not a single one has survived.

As the world goes wild for angels, Jaya’s father uproots the family to Edinburgh intent on catching one alive. But Jaya can’t stand this obsession and, still reeling from her mother’s recent death and the sudden disappearance of her ex-girlfriend, she’s determined to stay out of it.

Then something incredible happens: an angel lands right at Jaya’s feet – and it’s alive …

genre(s): fantasy (angels), contemporary

representation notes: MC is biracial lesbian with Sri Lankan heritage, chronic illness/disability

read it for: a beautiful story about dealing with grief and loss – and love; a character-led, very ‘literary’ feeling novel with fantasy elements with a solid focus throughout on relationships and emotions; an original premise that is explored in an interesting and very human way

This is a book with wide appeal, I think: there are almost post-apocalyptic elements with the angels seeming to herald the end of days, as well as the strong relationship and character focus that contemporary fans crave.

We Are Young by Cat Clarke

(from Goodreads): On the same night Evan’s mother marries local radio DJ ‘Breakfast Tim’, Evan’s brand-new step-brother Lewis is found unconscious and terribly injured, the only survivor of a horrific car crash.

A media furore erupts, with the finger of blame pointed firmly at stoner, loner Lewis. Everyone else seems to think the crash was drugs-related, but Evan isn’t buying it. With the help of her journalist father, Harry, she decides to find out what really happened that night.

As Evan delves deeper into the lives of the three teenagers who died in the crash, she uncovers some disturbing truths and a secret that threatens to tear her family – and the community – apart for ever…

genre(s): contemporary

representation notes: bisexuality, mental health

read it for: thriller-like pacing and gritty but never sensationalist treatment of some difficult issues (if you want specific trigger warnings which are too spoilery for me to share, check Goodreads first)

As with all Cat Clarke titles, this handles complex and disturbing issues well, treating young adults with the respect they deserve. There are a few low ratings on Goodreads because people have bought into the ‘snowflake’ rhetoric, but a book like this may be just what a young person struggling with serious problems (or having come out the other side) needs – to know they’re not alone.

Recommendations for Teachers for Downtime

With half-term on the horizon, I thought it might be timely to share a few recent adult books for a bit of escapist joy of our own. These cover a range of genres, so hopefully there’s something here that will appeal no matter your reading tastes.

Contemporary UK-set Urban Crime (Police Procedural)

Someone Else's Skin (DI Marnie Rome 1)Someone Else’s Skin, Sarah Hilary. OK, this is not so recent (2014), but that’s only because I have to recommend the first in this excellent series (we’re up to the fourth now). These books follow the career of DI Marnie Rome and her DS Noah Jake. I love them because they’re brilliantly written, totally absorbing and the representation they offer is a breath of fresh air in terms of diversity. To be fair, that is something found more in UK than US procedurals (hat-tip to Val McDermid, for example), but these are strong examples of something very ‘now’, very British and very moral. Hilary always raises an issue in her Marnie Rome books – I’ve always learned something, and always been gripped by the story. Her narration features the odd chapter from the perpetrator’s perspective (without giving away their identity), which intensifies the action. Beautifully done, and well worth a look. [Teacher hat on: also worth showing to students if you’re doing the Crime incarnation of the AQA Lit A Level. Sorry, couldn’t help myself…]

1980s US-set Nostalgia/Coming-of-age

The Impossible Fortress, Jason Rekulak. This book is about 14 year olds in 1987, which made me almost the same age as the protags at the same time, so the heavy references in the first couple of chapters to anchor the text were an amazing memory blast personally. The book is chock-full of early computer gaming and coding (with tapes!!), teen boy obsessions (Playboy, for example) and terrible ideas (because teen boys) and I should probably warn potential readers that the early part of it felt really ‘blokey’ to me but it’s much more intelligent and sensitive than it initially presents itself to be. It’s a well-done coming-of-age set firmly in a specific time-frame which I enjoyed a lot and would definitely recommend for its 80s nostalgia and its exploration of masculinity and growing up.

Romantic Comedy (with a splash of magic realism)

If You Could See Me Now, Keris Stainton. This hilarious novel features Izzy whose life is not quite what she’d wish for and whose boyfriend rather takes her for granted. And then something rather unexpected (and magical) happens and she’s forced to re-examine everything. I really enjoyed this – the characterisation is warm and easy to accept, and the crazy magic twist works in context. I found myself laughing often, with too many oh-so-familiar small details. I’ve always enjoyed Keris’s YA and children’s titles in the past – this is her first book for adults, but her trademark warmth and wit and keen ear for dialogue make it just as successful.

Black Comedy/Thriller (from serial killer’s perspective)

Sweetpea, C J Skuse. This irreverent and hilarious novel had me trying desperately not to laugh out loud on the bus, which is not what you expect from a serial killer novel, but the voice is superb. Rhiannon narrates and also shares snippets from her diary, often lists of people (or types of people) who annoy her – some of which you can easily understand and others are way beyond reasonable. The portrayal of her psychopathy is fab because you are happily nodding along with her complaints about other people and then suddenly it takes a turn and is all way too much. I should probably mention that there is quite a strong level of violence (and sex, for that matter) in this novel, and the language is also very much adult.

Folklore/Fairytale Retelling

A Pocketful of Crows, Joanne Harris (publishing 19 Oct). This is a treat of a book. Based on a Child ballad and featuring gorgeous line illustrations, it’s a feast of love, betrayal and revenge. I enjoyed getting lost in this and felt that it was something that Angela Carter would have taken real pleasure in – a delightful textural weaving of elements out of a relatively short original piece.

What will you pick up over half term?