Mini-reviews: fab YA genre reads offering great representation

Often when we talk about diversity and representation, it’s contemporary novels that get all the attention. Somehow, it seems that those ‘edgy’ reads set squarely and realistically in the present lend themselves maybe a little more easily to reflecting the world’s diversity a little more readily. That doesn’t have to be the case, though. Here are three novels I’ve read recently that are both fab YA genre titles AND offer something more positive in the way of representation.

White Rabbit, Red Wolf, Tom Pollock (Walker), 2018

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This absorbing spy thriller features a maths genius protagonist with a severe anxiety disorder. The book opens with Peter in the midst of a panic attack, and the inciting incident (as stated in the blurb – don’t worry, we’re still spoiler-free here) is his scientist Mum being found stabbed before an awards dinner in her honour, his twin sister Bel missing. So, you can see that the tension levels are high from the start, and trust me, things do not get any easier for poor Peter, who already found it difficult just to go to school and cope with life on a normal level.

It’s quite difficult to talk about this book without spoiling it but, trust me, if you like high-octane thrillers, codes and conspiracies with plenty of uncertainty about who to trust and what’s coming next, this is a masterpiece. And, of course, the representation of Peter’s mental state is perfectly executed.

The Wrath and the Dawn series, Renee Ahdieh (Hodder), 2016

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This is a gorgeous take on the Thousand and One Nights, which opens with sixteen-year-old Shahrzad facing down death to be a bride of the Caliph, Khalid, and avenge her friend who met a terrible fate.

I’m not generally a fan of purely romantic books, but there’s plenty going on story-wise in this sweeping fantasy duology which explores a kingdom in ruins through the introduction of various amazing characters. Be warned that book 1, The Wrath and the Dawn, has a shocker of an ending, so you may want to have book 2, The Rose and the Dagger, to hand ready!

If, like me and many other readers, you find you can’t get enough of those characters, there are also novellas which add to the world Ahdieh has created. Some of these are insertions from specific points in the story, while others provide backstory.

The Fallen Children, David Owen (Atom), 2017

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This gripping novel brings creepy sci-fi unease to a contemporary London tower block, and reflects the community you would expect to find there. Owen offers a retelling of The Midwich Cuckoos that explores how teens are othered by society and treated as inherently problematic and dangerous, as well as layering on additional social problems.

The result is unsettling and provides well-rounded teen characters that it’s easy to understand and root for in their context, even if sometimes you’re willing them to make different choices.

All three of these are great examples of books offering positive representation, with The Fallen Children presenting contemporary reality as it is, not the default white, and both The Wrath and the Dawn and White Rabbit, Red Wolf offering #ownvoices perspectives.

For more information about these authors and their fabulous books, I’d recommend looking them up on Twitter:

@tomhpollock

@davidowenauthor

@rahdieh

Happy New Year – my 2018 discoveries

Well, it’s been a while! I’ve been a busy bee this last term, going back to uni after 20 years to begin a PhD looking at the possibilities diverse YA might offer in the classroom. It’s been great to read theory about reading and to look at some studies into different types of reading (as long as I can avoid getting despondent about the limitations of GCSE English/Lit, of course…).

Anyway, this is just a quick post to wish you all a happy new year and give a quick rundown of some of my 2018 favourites. You may well have heard me mention these before, but just in case, in no particular order…

image of the covers of the books recommended in the post
  • The Fallen Children, David Owen, Atom – brilliant creepy vibe in a YA sci-fi novel (aliens!!) which also explores the contemporary UK setting and its realities for many teens perfectly.
  • Out Of The Blue, Sophie Cameron, Macmillan (YA) – great pace and twists alongside fab representation, plus a truly brilliant angels plot allowing for an exploration of grief and family dynamics.
  • Slay, Kim Curran, Usborne – so much fun packed into this YA urban fantasy featuring a boy band with a sideline in killing demons. I’m looking forward to the sequel due this year.
  • The Death of Mrs Westaway, Ruth Ware, Harvill Secker – great modern (adult) thriller, with plenty of red herrings and atmosphere. A tarot reader down on her luck, a big old Cornish house, mystery and tension – what’s not to love?
  • White Rabbit, Red Wolf, Tom Pollock, Walker – possibly the twistiest YA I’ve read. A great spy thriller focusing on a maths whizz with extreme anxiety who gets caught up in a web of deceit.
  • Before I Let Go, Marieke Nijkamp, Sourcebooks (YA) – described by the author as her antidote to disability inspiration porn, I felt this was beautifully achieved in this tale of a friend’s death in an atmospheric Alaskan small town.
  • The Queen of Bloody Everything, Joanna Nadin, Macmillan – a rare adult read for me, and the author’s first adult novel. This is a hugely entertaining (and sometimes poignant) meditation on mother/daughter relationships, spanning several decades and particularly great for those of us who remember the eighties.

Plus two great YA series concluded this year:

  • Hero at the Fall (Rebel of the Sands, book 3), Alwyn Hamilton, Faber – read this series for action and magic combined with real feminist sensibility (i.e. not just a ‘tough heroine’ but female friendship and a range of female characters as well as male ones) in a fabulous desert setting infused with shades of the Wild West and the Thousand and One Nights.
  • Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass, book 7), Sarah J Maas, Bloomsbury – read this series for strong character development across the seven books, which takes place in a complex set of lands showing strong world-building. One for fans of high fantasy.

One of my new year’s resolutions is to blog more consistently, so I’ll be seeing you again soon. What have you resolved to do more/less of in 2019?

Adult review: In Bloom by C J Skuse

Genre: is serial killer black comedy a genre? If so: this is it!

Age range: definitely 18+ – graphic language, violence and sexual content are key features of this series.

I loved Sweet Pea and was very excited to read this sequel, which picks up the minute Sweet Pea leaves off. Consequently, it is very difficult to talk about without making spoilers for the first book. I will therefore assume you know the basics: Rhiannon is a serial killer, the novel is narrated in her highly engaging voice, including notes from her diary (I particularly love her lists of people she wants to get rid of). The tone is darkly comic and like the best comedians, Rhiannon often pulls you along noting things that you can easily agree with but, as she is a psychopath, she will then take a turn into grotesquesly violent territory where you or I would not have gone – which is a nice reassurance of our normality, perhaps.

If you haven’t read Sweet Pea, you should toddle off and do that now, and I’ll move on to In Bloom-specific points…

For much of this instalment, Rhiannon has the complication of being pregnant, living with her in-laws and being the girlfriend of a convicted killer to deal with, all of which make killing difficult in different ways. But don’t worry, her irreverent voice and her drives are still very much in evidence. If, like me, you found Sweet Pea hilarious and were weirdly rooting for Rhiannon, you will definitely enjoy In Bloom. (and PS, I saw C J Skuse say on Twitter that there is a third book to comes, as well as a TV series!!) So much Sweet Pea goodness to look forward to!

I very much enjoyed seeing Rhiannon negotiate and wriggle around the further limitations imposed by her chatty fetus, her nosey and well-meaning in-laws and the pressures of being recognised as the girlfriend of killer Craig. The idea of her trying to fit into a pre-natal group is, by turns, hilarious and heartbreaking (serial killers have feelings too – and the ‘cliquiness’ of those groups was perfectly captured).

Overall, I obviously very much recommend this. The combination of genres is highly original and I think the use of humour will appeal to a lot of readers.  The pacing of the plot and control of tension in this second novel is well-judged and had me turning pages, but the novel’s real strength is in its characterisation and voice.

Thank you to HQ and to C J Skuse for providing a copy of In Bloom via NetGalley for review. Note that accepting a review copy never influences my expressed views and I only opt to review books I enjoy.

Reading Recommendations Slide 9: Something Different

Both of these are fabulous reads which break boundaries or challenge expectations in terms of genre and/or style. Mortal Chaos is essentially a thriller, but it uses chaos theory as its organising concept, and is told in incredibly short chapters. Every Day has a body-free character at the centre known simply as A, who simply inhabits a different body each day, with no understanding of where the body’s usual inhabitant goes. A is therefore genderless, but they do have an age, as they have progressed through bodies of different ages over time.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 3 – Something different 1

Last week’s theme was bullies. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 7: Multiple Narrative Voice

Most of these have more than two narrators, and there’s a good spread of genres too, with a twin-perspective romance, a family drama (with an incredible array of narrators that somehow is not confusing) and two thrillers – one action-focused and one more of a whodunnit. All demonstrate great character-building through voice.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here:  1 – Multiple narrators

 

Last week’s theme was contemporaries, coded for students as ‘for fans of series like Gilmore Girls and/or Riverdale). I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.