The YA Shot Blog Tour – Interview with JENNY DOWNHAM

When I was asked to take part in this year’s YA Shot Blog Tour, naturally I jumped at the chance – it’s always good fun to take part in community events like this. Then, when I was told the author I had been given I nearly exploded – JENNY DOWNHAM. JENNY FREAKING DOWNHAM. Author of the outstanding Unbecoming, You Against Me, and Before I Die, she’s one of the best YA novelists working in the UK today – if not the world. I was lucky enough to interview her, and you can read her answers below…

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1. Hello Jenny! Thank you so much for agreeing to do this little interview – I’m a massive fan of your books so it’s a huge honour to be talking with you. Maybe we could start with you telling us a little about your latest book, Unbecoming?

Katie is seventeen and in love with someone whose identity she can’t reveal. Her mother Caroline, is uptight, worn out and about to find her past catching up with her. Katie’s grandmother, Mary, is back with the family after years of mysterious absence and ‘capable of anything,’ despite suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Every morning Mary runs away. She’s desperate to find something, says it’s imperative, but when questioned, can’t be more specific. Katie wants to know what Mary’s looking for. She also wants to know why her mother seems to detest Mary. What was the nature of their original estrangement? It makes Katie question everything she thought was true about her family.

So – three women at different stages of life bound together by a web of lies that only the youngest can untangle.

Oh, and it’s a love story too…

2. Unbecoming covers so many themes – from mental health to sexuality. Did you set out to cover so many topics, or did they evolve natural as the story progressed?

I don’t really think in terms of themes or topics when I begin a project, I’m more interested in characters and the stories they have to tell. I start with them and see where they lead me.

Pinter said a writer’s job is to ‘arrange and listen.’ He believed that characters arrive at their destination through their own impulses, rather than being manipulated to suit a pre-ordained plot. I love writing this way, although it can be time-consuming!

It’s usually about a year or so into a project that I begin to see what I might be writing about.

3. You’ve mentioned in interviews that a lot of Unbecoming drew from your own mother’s Alzheimer’s. Was it taxing to write about a subject so close to your heart, or did you find it cathartic to put it on the page?

Unbecoming is undoubtedly the most personal of my books. I have been a teenager, a mother and a carer and a lot of my own experiences are in there. But perhaps most importantly, yes – my own mother had Alzheimer’s and became very unwell and died while I was writing.

I found it very cathartic writing the book. I used to care for my mum during the day and then I’d go home and try to imagine what it might be like to ‘be’ her. I like to think that writing about the erosion of memory from a sufferer’s perspective made me a better daughter and carer in my mum’s last months.

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4. You talk about some very intense subjects in all your books (Terminal illness in Before I Die, Sexual Assault in You Against Me) – Do you feel it’s important for YA literature to look at these ideas?

When I’m sitting inside the story writing it, I don’t think about themes or ideas, I just get drawn to interesting characters and dramatic situations. My job is to ensure the characters are emotionally truthful and then I find that they lift off the page and begin to tell their stories themselves.

As for what’s ‘important.’ I want to take readers on a journey, rather than give them a message to take away. Books can address difficult situations and confront social issues and help readers deal with real-life challenges. They can transport you, make you think, move you… the list is endless. I hope my readers shift allegiance over and over again with the characters in Unbecoming. I hope they empathise with teenage Mary in her claustrophobic 1950s town and teenage Katie with all her problems at school and home. I hope readers wonder, “What would I do if that were me?” And I hope, by the book’s end, the reader feels they’ve been somewhere and seen some things and that perhaps the world looks slightly different now.

5. YA has been accused of being “too dark” in recent years – do you think that’s true? Are there any subjects you don’t think teenagers and young adults should be reading about?

The LIVES of children and teens are full of tough things. It’s illusory to think we can keep them safe by only allowing them access to certain books. We need to find the joy among the difficult stuff, rather than ignoring the difficult stuff. I don’t think there’s a single subject that can’t be tackled in YA, so long as the author handles the material truthfully and with respect and takes account of all the complexities.

6. Do you have a favourite out of your characters?

I love them all after spending so much time with them – even the difficult ones! But perhaps Tessa in Before I Die has a particularly special place in my heart because her story doesn’t continue beyond the page. I’m very aware of her death date each year and I think how old she would be had she lived.

Dakota Fanning in the movie adaptation Now Is Good

Dakota Fanning as Tessa in the movie adaptation Now Is Good

7. How does a new story start to unfold for you? Do you plan meticulously or start writing and see where it leads?

I never plan. When I’m in the middle of a project and every day I’m throwing thousands of words in the bin, I wish with all my heart that I could be the kind of writer who could follow a path. However, when the book is complete, I’m rather proud that I didn’t need one. At that point, I think it’s exactly the best kind of writing habit and fully resolve to do exactly the same for my next book!

8. Do you treat writing like a full time job? Is your writing day structured or do you only write when the mood takes you?

When I know where a project is going (so about 18 months in), I can write every day and be quite disciplined. Before that, while I’m still exploring, I idle my way in. Most of my writing in the early stage gets chucked, but I find I return again and again to the things that preoccupy and eventually I begin to see what the book might be about. It’s a slow process. And involves lots of coffee and day-dreaming.

9. Why do you write YA?

Because young people are on the cusp of adulthood and that interests me. A teen protagonist can do almost everything an adult can, but because they are boundaried by adult rules and expectations, they have to be far more creative to get what they want. It’s much more exciting to tell a story when there are lots of obstacles in the way.

Also, YA is a happening gig! There are so many books being published in the UK and Ireland that wouldn’t have seen the light of day in past years and would still not be published in many other places in the world. More readers are seeing their own lives represented within stories and this enables them to think not only, ‘What would I do if that happened to me?’ But also to think, ‘That is happening to me.’ Books can sometimes give you the very thing you need – the clue to solve a problem, the strength to keep going, the laughter that makes things more manageable and, perhaps most importantly – the feeling you’re not alone.

10. Who are some of your favourite authors, YA or otherwise?

As a young reader I devoured poetry, folk and fairy tales (Grimm, Andersen), and stories from the Arabian Nights and Ancient Greece. Now I love Raymond Carver, Donna Tartt, Denis Johnson, Ali Smith, Toni Morrison, Maggie O’Farrell, Tove Jansson, John Irving and Kate Atkinson amongst many others. I try to read as a writer might – with one eye and half my brain looking for just how this author make this character so believable, or that sentence so beautiful, or this story such a pageturner…

11. If they made a Jenny Downham action figure, what three accessories would it come with?

Assorted disguises, working wings and a mini espresso maker.

12. Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

I’ve started something new, but it’s very early days. All I have are voices at the moment and I have no idea where they’ll take me. If I had to sum it up so far I’d say it’s about a girl who is furious! She wants her life to be very different and is determined to make it happen.


And that’s your lot! I’d like to thank the YA Shot Team, Carolyn at David Fickling Books, and of course – Jenny herself, for helping put all this together.

You can pick up a copy of Unbecoming just here.

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The Call by Peadar O’Guilin

When David Fickling Books are publishing a new title, it’s something to take note of. The publishers have released the last two year’s best books for me (The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, and Unbecoming by Jenny Downham), so I already know that their calibre of YA is pretty high. So when The Call came to me, I was very curious indeed – A YA horror/thriller with deep roots in traditional Irish folklore? I’m in…

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Set in a desolate Dystopian Ireland in a world where all teenagers must survive The Call – 3 minutes and 4 seconds in which they will be transported to the hellish Grey Lands to fight for their lives against the twisted and beautiful Sidhe (pronounced “Shee”) people – the malevolent fairies of legend who where banished there thousands of years ago by the descendants of the modern day people of the Emerald Isle. Time moves differently in the Grey Lands, and 3 minutes becomes 24 hours there, whilst the Sidhe hunt their prey – and if you’re lucky you’ll be transported back at the end unharmed. If you’re lucky they might only kill you. But the Sidhe like to play with their victims if they catch them early enough… Twisting human flesh into grotesque art. If you’re unlucky, what they send back might not resemble anything human at all. Nessa, the story’s main character, is at a training college that educates and prepares the nation’s teenagers for The Call. No-one expects her to survive – there’s no way, not after polio ravaged her legs as a child. She can barely run without the aid of crutches, and the Sidhe won’t let her take anything like that with her. Her death is a certainty, and everyone knows it. Except Nessa – Nessa is going to prove them all wrong…

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Despite such twisted writing, he seems so nice!

Talk about PACING. I’m a pretty slow reader (it bugs me a lot), but I flew through The Call in about a week, which is not bad going for me. Peadar expertly pulls the story along by using short, punchy chapters, each one ending on just the right hook to pull you into the next one. It’s these choppy chapters, filled with action and mystery which keep the book pounding along through its story, combined with the way he jumps from Nessa’s plot to the short, often violent lives of those Called to the Grey Lands. It’s these little snapshots of the brutality of the Sidhe realm that up the tension for the characters left behind, and as they are Called one by one, the pressure becomes monumental on those who remain. Peadar also uses a Clive Barker-esque feel of horror in his writing, by twisting the familiar to make it unsettling or outright upsetting (in the way all good horror should be), and the punishments and the games of the Sidhe are wonderfully creative and horrifically dark and cruel. The Grey Lands themselves are a suffocating alternate world which the author describes in scant, disturbing slices, but it’s the bleak and ruined Ireland that really feels the darker setting of the two. Only 1 in 10 teenagers survive The Call, making the country a crumbling ruin of what it once was. The adults are strained, hopeless and desperate, and the teenagers range for confident and arrogant to nihilistic, and the clashing this creates makes the characters really stand out – none more so than Nessa. A physically disabled protagonist in a YA novel is virtually unheard of, and one in a fast paced survival horror is even rarer. Nessa might even be the first, to my knowledge. Her resolve and quiet determination are at odds with the usual “strong female character” trope that we see so much in the genre. She has fears and hopes, loves and hates. She isn’t an unstoppable badass – she’s a girl who everyone else has written off already, and the bitterness of a life being told she’s as good as dead quietly weaves its way through her actions.

The Call uses mythology and modern horror ideas to create something really unique and absorbing. As someone with no knowledge of the Sidhe and Irish folklore, I’d love the backstory to be investigated a little more and fleshed out – perhaps in a sequel…? I’ll be the first in line…

Thanks For Reading,

D

Eden Summer by Liz Flanagan

Whenever Phil Earle over at David Fickling Books asks if I want a proof of something, I know I’m going to be reading an outstanding YA Novel. The publishing house is responsible for heavy hitters like The Art of Being Normal and Unbecoming, so it goes without saying that their books come with emotional depth and intelligence, and Eden Summer is a perfect addition to their roster.

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Jess’ best friend Eden is missing. Ever since her sister died, Eden’s behaviour has become more and more erratic and unstable, and over the Summer Jess and Eden’s boyfriend Liam have been trying desperately to keep her head above the waters of grief. But now she’s missing, and Jess and Liam have no idea where she’s gone. Her behaviour has been deeply concerning, but is there something deeper and darker going in Eden’s past? And Jess has her own past trauma to work through as well… Can anything ever be truly normal again for the three teenagers?

Eden Summer is a stunning début, weaving themes of guilt and regret with an honest and beautiful friendship between its main characters. Eden is a whirling mess of emotion and chaos, and the way she gradually falls in on herself whilst pushing desperately outwards creates a tragic character arc to follow. Inside she’s blackness but on the outside she’s frantically grasping to all the things she thinks will make her better. Her progression mirrors Jess brilliantly, as Jess goes from fragile and skittish to resourceful and determined. In a way, Eden’s disappearance is a catalyst to help her face her own past and start to mend the wounds that affect her psyche. I think the most enjoyable character in the book is the setting though – Liz manages to use a much less known part of the country (Yorkshire) to create a sense of drama and bleak desperation to the plot, and she does it with knowledge and passion.

Eden Summer uses beautiful language to create a lyrical sense of unease and tension, which pushes the plot along, accelerating as it goes, and Liz’s use of flashbacks creates a wonderful discord between happier memories, chaotic memories and the harrowing present day. It’s through these flashbacks that we slowly unravel the darkness of each character’s backstory, and the fragments of secrets are revealed. The book really reminded me of Tanya Byrne’s Follow Me Down, and it’s an excellent thriller with vibrant, emotionally driven characters and a superbly written backdrop for it all.

Thanks for Reading!

D

Eden Summer is published this July. You can pre-order a copy here.

Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

If you’re not familiar with Jenny Downham, you really should be. Her bestselling debut, Before I Die was an amazingly powerful examination of mortality and life that was taken to the big screen with Dakota Fanning under the name Now Is Good. Her second novel is the electrifyingly dark You Against Me, which deservedly won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Her latest novel, Unbecoming, is out in September, and blows her previous brilliant pieces of writing clean out of the water.

Don't get me started in how gorgeous this is.

Don’t get me started in how gorgeous this is.

Katie’s life is complicated. Her mother is piling pressure on her to succeed in her exams, and her friends have abandoned her completely after she kissed Esme, her best friend. She’s alone in the world, her Dad with his new family, her Mum at work all the time, and her brother Chris at his special needs school most days – Katie has no control over her life, and nothing she wants to do even if she did. But when Mary turns up, life suddenly becomes much more interesting – because Mary is Katie’s grandmother, a grandmother she never really knew she had. Mary is in the early stages of dementia, and after her partner Jack dies, she’s left alone and confused with nowhere to go. Her daughter had hoped never to see her again, but Mary has no-one to turn to, and her memories are fading with each day. Katie is determined to look after her ailing grandmother, and to repair the yawning gulf that separates her elderly relative from her mother, but some memories unlock secrets, and some secrets can do more damage. Katie needs to piece together the truth from a stubborn, uncommunicative mother and the rapidly vanishing memories of Mary to try and work out the strange, omnipresent darkness in her family’s past.

Unbecoming shouldn’t work. It shouldn’t. In theory, it’s trying to do too much at once, cover too many themes. What it should be is chaotic and meandering. What it actually is, is tight and sprawling and beautifully, perfectly crafted – like a strange tangle of coloured wools that look so dissimilar, but have been woven together which such skill and talent to create something staggeringly breathtaking.

Move over, John Green.

Move over, John Green.

Katie, the main character of the novel, is a superbly written young girl, full of fire and drive, as well as open uncertainty and anxiety. She’s trapped in a world she can’t escape, but she’s starting to scratch the surfaces of what her life could be, looking at the memories of Mary and trying to escape the control of her mother. But in amongst all her burning passion for a wider world, she’s filled with guilt and a strong need to do right by her exhausted but overbearing mother –  and this mix makes her a sweet, caring and immediately engaging protagonist. Mary is absolutely heartbreaking, the parts of the book from her point of view are bittersweet and filled with pure, unrestrained emotion. The way time meanders and snaps back and forth for her is never confusing to read, but her confusion is palpable in every line, and her muddled memories are all at once heartwarmingly bright and innocent, and tinged with an edge of sadness that meant I had a lump in my throat pretty much at all times. Her carefree attitude combined with her constant need to do the right thing makes her a flickering and unique character full of passion and fire. Caroline (Katie’s mother and Mary’s daughter) is also a superb contrast of emotions and personalities, so fearful of the world and of what it could do to her children, but so full of resentment and passionate rage towards her mother. All of Jenny’s characters are brilliantly, faithfully portrayed on the page, and she never lets them be flawless heroes or two dimensional villains – Chris is emotionally articulate and loved, and Simona is firey, strident and stubborn.

So dark, so strong.

So dark, so strong.

It’s not just Jenny’s characters that shine, though – her writing style is totally flawless, lyrical and philosophical, drifting across the page like sweet incense. Unbecoming reads like a Beautiful South song, messy and heartfelt and so close to home that it sees all the beauty in the mundane and everyday. Even the horribly painful moments have a sheen to them because her writing style is so fluid and gorgeous – every word weighs with purpose and emotion, and she never wastes a single one. It’s a dozen glorious threads and every single one of them sings and vibrates in harmony to create a bigger story. There’s plot twists and darkness that’s handled with intelligence and sensitivity, as well as staggering passion for life that made my heart balloon in my chest, as well as bringing me to tears on multiple occasions. Jenny handles dementia and depression and mental health achingly well, and her look at the development of Katie’s sexuality is subtle, tasteful and expertly woven into the larger plot. Mary’s dementia is so well handled, actually, that it couldn’t help but break my heart over and over again.

Unbecoming is a powerfully important YA novel, covering three generations of women, each with secrets and vibrancy that leap and skip about the pages, examining so many vital themes of sexuality and mental health. It’s a true triumph of writing, and Jenny Downham may well be one the all time greats. This is a classic in the making.

Thanks for reading, ya’ll.

D

P.S. You can pre-order Unbecoming HERE – out in September.

As always, thanks to Phil Earle for the proof. He’s never given me a bad book yet.

My Top Ten Reads of 2014!

Another year is gone, and so many books have been read and celebrated… And what a year for books it’s been! We saw the very first Literature Convention for Young Adult books, and I was lucky enough to get myself along to YALC, and for all the warmth, and the swamping crowds, it was an absolute success. And now the Bookseller has launched a YA Book Prize to celebrate fantastic Young Adult books, with a phenomenal shortlist announced a little while ago, so it looks like 2015 is going to be big too. Twitter has been a fantastic place to celebrate all things YA too, especially the UKYA chats and events organised by Lucy from Queen of Contemporary and Jim over at YAYeahYeah, and I strongly recommend you join us using the hashtag #UKYAChat if you get the chance!

SO, I suppose it’s about time that I do a run through of my top ten books of the year! This will be one of many; I’m sure, so if you’re reading it then THANK YOU. Obviously, not every great book I’ve read this year can make it to the list, but I review the ones I’ve enjoyed on the blog so you can check them out! Some of the books on the list have been published in 2013, or are set to come out next year, but if I’ve read them this year, they’re going on the list AND THERE AIN’T NOTHIN’ YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. In no particular order:

10. THE MESSENGER OF FEAR by Michael Grant

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Michael Grant’s GONE series holds a special place in my heart as one of the first teen fiction series that I got into as a (supposed) adult, and while I couldn’t get into BZRK in the same way, the concept of The Messenger of Fear grabbed me from the go – Filled with dark mystery and an oppressive sense of dread, this is Grant on top form with a narrative force that drives the story through twists and turns at breakneck speed. It also deals with mental health in a heartbreakingly bleak, but honest method that I was glad to see making its way into YA literature. It’s got the makings of a great, gripping and blood-chilling series.

9. IN BLOOM by Matthew Crow

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A fantastically witty, touching and heartbreaking novel, In Bloom is from an incredibly talented author from my neck of the woods (well, Newcastle – close enough) which faces tragedy and terminal illness head on with a sense of humour and genuine honesty that can make you cry with laughter and from emotion in the same page. Unlike some other YA Novels about, I found that Matthew’s use of dialogue was unpretentious, down to Earth and real, and all of his characters felt familiar and fully formed on the page. I loved each and every one of them, and that made it so much harder to read in a way. It also contains a set of sentences with broke my heart and will never leave me.

8. PAPER AEROPLANES by Dawn O’Porter

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A triumph of hilarity and a resounding celebration of friendship, the first book in the saga of Renée and Flo is an absolute joy to read. So painfully touching, Dawn manages to capture the ups & downs and ins & outs of a teenage friendship perfectly, leaving me laughing out loud on more than one 7:30am train to work. She perfectly moulds her characters throughout the book, creating two flawed, funny girls who I became friends with too, and she never pulls her punches with the difficulties of life as a teenage girl. I was lucky enough to get to meet Dawn in Newcastle as part of her tour for Goose, the sequel to Paper Aeroplanes, and she was a warm and delightfully happy and welcoming person who was brilliant to work with.

7. WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart

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One of the biggest successes of YA in 2014, We Were Liars is a swirling mysterious story of decadence, love, betrayal and tragedy. Told in a beautiful mix of metaphors and hyperbole, We Were Liars constantly teases the reader with potential endings and red herrings and keeps you on edge throughout, as well as wrapping you up in a dream-like sense that mirrors the main character’s memory loss perfectly. It’s a fantastic read that completely absorbed me and had an ending that totally blew me away – Well worth the hype that surrounded it.

6. SAY HER NAME by James Dawson

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MORE HORROR PLEASE. Okay, I admit it; I’m a horror novel nut – But James’ suspense filled modern retelling of the legend of Bloody Mary absolutely stands head and shoulders above the rest. It was one of the bestsellers in my shop, and it went down a storm with the Durham YA Book Club, because of how perfectly it weaves together a subtle spooky atmosphere with a modern, contemporary setting that everyone is familiar with. He pulls together his loves for good old fashioned Point Horror books and the twisted darkness of J-Horror masterfully (two of my own obsessions as a teenager) and creates an atmosphere that glues you to the page with tension, superb characters and a haunting sadness.

5. ONCE UPON AN ALPHABET by Oliver Jeffers

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That’s right. It’s a picture book in my list. WHAT YOU GONNA DO ABOUT IT?! Once Upon an Alphabet is probably the finest picture book published this year, and may be one of the best Jeffers has ever done. The 26 short stories range from absolutely hilarious and silly, to almost tragic and dark, all combined with the iconic illustrations that made me fall in love with his picture books in the first place. It’s definitely one that works on adult’s levels as well as on children’s, which is exactly the kind of sophistication and versatility you want from a picture book.

4. GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE by Andrew Smith

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Oh. My. God. The most insane book you will ever read, but also in a strange way, really important. Andrew’s coming-of-age story with added giant murderous praying mantises (Mantii? Nah.) is wonderfully left field, with a phenomenally funny and confused narrator who’s rambling historical tangents build the book’s world superbly. As well as a classic, B-Movie feel to it, Grasshopper Jungle also approaches sexual confusion in its teen characters with a hilarious honesty that is so very lacking in other YA titles. It’s violent and gore-filled, rude and stupid in places, just like being a teenager, and his dialogue has a Tarantino quality to it – sometimes it’s not about the plot, sometimes it’s about nothing at all, but it always feels natural and flows perfectly.

3. SOLITAIRE by Alice Oseman

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Solitaire holds such a special place in my heart for so many reasons, but primarily it’s because of Tori Spring, the passive, miserable and morose teen protagonist of the book, who I gelled with immediately, having been quite a melodramatic teenager myself. Alice’s characters are perfectly realised, right down to names that roll of the tongue, and slick dialogue that snaps and crackles on the page. The story is a brilliantly dark thriller playing on familiar school elements and using a very current hacktavist theme, with Alice’s obvious disdain for the school system radiating across every page. It’s intelligent and funny, with nods to the worlds of blogging and fandoms in just the right places without trying too hard. Alice also came to the most successful YA Book Club I’ve had at Durham to date, so I have that to thank her for too!

2. THE ART OF BEING NORMAL by Lisa Williamson

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Official publication date for this one is in January, but you can find it in shops already, and I seriously urge you to! Beautiful, evocative and absolutely enchanting, The Art of Being Normal is already making waves in the Twitterverse, and rightly so – A YA novel that deals with transgender issues and discovery with dignity and a serious emotional heart behind it, which is something seriously important. Outside of that, it’s a great story too, with a melancholy kitchen-sink drama aspect to it that keeps the story grounded and makes the characters familiar and relatable. And what characters! Both of the lead characters are fantastic, and they oppose each other and support each other perfectly. It’s a real feel good story too, and it made me laugh, cry and gasp out loud and I already feel very passionate about getting into the hands of fans of modern, beautiful contemporary stories to warm your heart and echo around your brain forever.

1. TROUBLE by Non Pratt

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Oh Trouble. What a fantastic book. I’ve never come across fictional teenagers like the characters in Non’s book, so vulgar and genuine and emotionally complex, just perfect. The story is down to earth and charged with so many feelings and emotions that ripple through the wonderful characters that populate Trouble’s world. The heartfelt blooming friendship between Hannah and Aaron is fantastic, and Aaron has to be the character I’ve had the most empathy towards all year. I honestly never expected to be so completely swept away by this book, but Non’s writing style is sharp and intelligent, and she makes you care about characters straight off the bat, and by the end of the book I found myself absolutely unable to put it down. The way Aaron’s back story is slowly, darkly teased out is breathtaking, and Hannah’s development from the opening to the close is absolutely fantastic, and the whole book buzzes with the energy and uncertainty of youth, with a passion that radiates out from the book. Basically, Non is a superb author with such a special talent for drawing readers in. Also, she signed my book with a hilarious thing at YALC.

Sorry, Non.

Sorry, Non.

So that’s that! A special mention to continuing series in 2014 – Lockwood & Co (Jonathan Stroud) and Department 19 (Will Hill) for being outstanding and exciting and keeping me up until 2am.
I hope everyone has had a great year, and as always, thank you so much for toddling over and reading the words I squeeze out of my brain. It means a lot to me to know people care about what I try to say, even if I tend to get a bit overboard with it all. I wouldn’t be doing it if people didn’t keep showing up.

Until next time,

D

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

This book is already creating a superb hum in the online blogging and bookselling universe. The passion and drive that Phil Earle and the rest of the team at David Fickling Books are drumming up right now has created a sense of excitement and anticipation which rarely accompanies a debut release. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of the novel, and let me tell you – This is going to be big. The love this book is already gaining is entirely justified, and it better break the YA world open when it comes out next year.

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It’s Finally Here! The final jacket for the book is beautiful.

The Proof Jacket for the book!

The Proof Jacket for the book!

The Art of Being Normal tells the story of fourteen year old David Piper, a boy who for as long as he can remember, has known that he was supposed to be born a girl. Unable to tell his parents or his sister, he keeps his secret ambitions hidden in a scrapbook under his bed, dreaming of one day being able to get the help he needs to become the person he knows he’s supposed to be. The only people who know are David’s only friends, Essie and Felix, his classmates in the agonising world of Eden Park School. It also tells the story of the angry sixteen year old loner Leo Denton, who is doing his GCSE year at Eden Park, after being expelled from the local estate school Cloverdale. David becomes fascinated with the mysterious, potentially dangerous if the rumours are to be believed, stranger, though he can’t put his finger on why. He’s fairly certain it’s not a romantic connection; he just finds Leo Denton an enigma to be unravelled. Leo, on the other hand, is content to keep his head down, finish his exams unscathed and get the chance to go to a half decent college somewhere far away from his mum and her constant string of scummy boyfriends. The two outcasts worlds are about to collide though, and Leo is forced to interact more than he ever planned to, especially when his attractive classmate Alicia Baker starts to take an interest in him – An interest he definitely returns. Eventually, Leo goes overboard, and when he sees the shy David being bullied by Year 9 hot-stuff Harry, he snaps, punching him in the face. His valiant act saves David from almost being outed as Transgender, and lands him with a permanent sidekick, no matter what he wants. School life isn’t going quite how Leo Denton had planned, but his inability to control his anger is nothing new. It isn’t going how David planned either, living a life that’s a lie is starting to take its toll on him as he cries himself to sleep at night. The poor and troubled Leo and David’s lives an inseparably linked now, though. More than either of them realise.

Lisa beaming over a stack of her debut novel.

Lisa beaming over a stack of her debut novel.

I honestly don’t know where to start with this book – probably the most profound and important YA Novels written in recent years, and a brilliant sign of the YA market’s evolution in response to the outpouring of demand for more diversity in our books. If The Art Of Being Normal is a sign of things to come, along with UKYA authors like James Dawson, Non Pratt and Malorie Blackman flying the flag for inclusion in teen fiction, then we are on the edge of a golden age of superbly emotional contemporary stories, which I fully hope will spill out of the teen sections and into all books.

Characters! That’s where I normally start my reviews. Sorry, this book has addled my brain in the best way possible. I absolutely adore David, his melancholy personality tucked behind a flamboyant surface was a great way of presenting this character who is always performing, because he can never truly be who he wants to be. His personality immediately made me relate to him – I’m more than a bit camp myself, and he’s so grounded and so well explored both in front of others, and at home, that it’s impossible not to feel a tug at your heart every time he laments his man-sized feet or protruding Adam’s Apple. The later parts of the novel, when David experiments with being Kate, are absolutely beautiful, touching and emotive, and made me tear up – In the happy way! Leo is a complex, surly character, and his slow bloom outwards through his feelings towards Alicia and friendship with David is altogether brilliant and bright, as well as raw and angry. He perfectly encapsulates to the anger and confusion that laces the lives of many teenagers from troubled backgrounds – kids who have done nothing wrong and don’t understand why life keeps piling it on them. His flashbacks are some of the most harrowing passages in the book, and they quite often had me gasping and covering my mouth in horror, but his slow burning emotions are so powerful that no matter how cool and collected he tries to be, the reader gets to see just how dedicated and loving he is. Through flashes of his home life, and the gradual unfurling of his past, we start to understand his often over-boiling rage and frustration towards the injustices of his life. The support characters throughout the story are perfectly realised, equal parts flawed and flawless, with Essie and Felix being the sweetest couple, supporting their best friend in his struggles with his identity in a funny way – the way friends always should be. Alicia is a gorgeous character, so kind and fresh that I really wanted her to be my friend as I was reading. Although the book radiates acceptance and tolerance through many characters, there is still plenty of hurtful behaviour from the majority, and Lisa pulls no punches when writing the abuse from Harry and Becky, making the reader’s heart hurt and stomach churn. Even inherently loving characters (notably the adults in the story) have engrained prejudices that occasionally well up to their surfaces, re-enforcing the secrecy that David (and many other Transgender individuals) feel he has to keep.

My proof even got signed. What a special bunch of people.

My proof even got signed. What a special bunch of people.

On the surface of it, The Art of Being Normal has the chance to be a heartbreaking story of the downtrodden, and in a YA market so often saturated with tragedy and darkness, it’s refreshing to see such a powerful novel with such an uplifting voice behind it. Lisa writes with such bounce and brightness that her words lifted my spirits on many 7:30am train rides, but she also knows exactly how to punch to the throat, and the book has some upsettingly dark moments – but vitally so. These things happen, and sticking your head in the sand won’t make them go away. It’s a full spectrum of emotions, in the same way life is. Her voice permeates the book, creating life-like dialogue and believable teenaged characters, as opposed to John Green-esque poets, and that makes her book so much more accessible to readers.

Ultimately, this book demands your attention. It not only deserves to be read as a brilliantly piece of fiction (I did shout “OH MY GOD” out loud at one point), but as a step towards a more complete acceptance of the full diversity of the human species, and as a strike against this concept of normal. It should be on school reading lists and winning awards throughout 2015. I feel like this is the start of something very important, and I’m overjoyed to be here at the beginning.

How can you get involved? Join in the cover reveal FLASHMOB, that’s how! On the 21st of October, Lisa Williamson & the good people at David Fickling Books will be revealing the book’s official jacket, and they’re asking bloggers, reviewers and book lovers around the world to tweet and instagram it along with them using the hashtag #WhatisnormalFlashmob. More information can be found on the DFB Website Here.

Thanks for Reading,

D

P.S. – All my thanks to the wonderful Phil Earle, once more, for sending me a proof of this book. He gets it.

P.P.S – The Art of Being Normal will be published in Hardback in January 2015.

P.P.P.S. – Yes, I am listening to Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues whilst I write this review – A very angry punk rock album that manages to be energetic and beautiful, fronted by Transgender woman Laura Grace. I urge you seek it out.