Unboxed by Non Pratt

Unboxed is a short novel by the brilliantly talented UKYA author Non Pratt (author of Trouble and Remix), published by the wonderful people at Barrington Stoke who specialise in shorter books with intelligent and articulate plots designed to encourage reluctant readers without talking down to their audience. They also use fonts and paper colourations designed to help dyslexic readers. They really are superb – check out their website.

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Even the jacket makes me emotional

Unboxed is the story of four friends, who when they were younger created a time capsule of their perfect Summer. Time has passed since that Summer, and the friends have now drifted apart, in contact mostly through social media and memories. When they made the box, there was five of them, but stomach cancer claimed Millie a few weeks ago. So despite the wedge driven between them, they meet up once again to open the box and peer into the past, to a simpler, happier time. It isn’t easy – everyone’s changed in ways both huge and small. Alix has told none of them about her girlfriend, afraid they wouldn’t understand. The whole night promises to be a mess of dredged up emotions and awkward silences, but it was what Millie made them promise to do. You can’t break a promise to a dead friend.

I’ve said it before, and I am certain I’ll say it again – Non Pratt is hands down the most authentic voice in YA fiction. You can keep your poetically lyrical teenagers, Non’s characters swear and screw up, they’re awkward in ways that are frustrating as opposed to endearingly charming – she just writes real characters in a way I’ve never come across in YA elsewhere. Unboxed is no exception – from the very plot outline I knew it was going to break my heart (and I finished it on a train, naturally), but Non captures the teen atmosphere perfectly. It’s all there – the sense of hope, the frustration, the nihilism, the fear of alienation from your friends. The fear of not fitting in. Unboxed dredges all these ideas up and mixes them into a short, punchy story that aims directly for the heart and nestles in there for life. I’m never ever getting this story out of my head. Alix is the perfect narrator for the story, hesitant and filled with regrets, but each of the four friends are perfectly portrayed and effortlessly nuanced. In just 140 pages we get a brief snapshot of these people, of who they used to be, who they are now, and where they might going. It’s a masterpiece that absolutely encapsulates the fears and dreams that come with being on the cusp of adulthood. It’s achingly real, smart, and honest. It’ll take you an hour to read and it’ll change you. Give a short book a chance.

Thanks for Reading, as always.

D

P.S. You can pick up Unboxed, and all of Non’s books right here.

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A small letter to YALC…

This year I was lucky enough to be working at YALC, the Young Adult Literature Conference held as part of London Film & Comic-Con. I know, I’m showing off more than I little bit. Victoria Schwab gave me a cookie (it was delicious) and I fan-girled meeting Malorie Blackman. It’s a far cry now from the first YALC I went to – the very first one in fact, crammed somewhere in the back of Earl’s Court, besieged on either side by the usual LFCC crowd. It earned its nickname that year as the literal hell on earth, so warm and overwhelmingly stuffy, with no boundaries to help keep things in one place. I had fun, but it was still a bit of a sensory explosion that left me a little fractured. The shift to Olympia has made all the difference. Us YA lot now have our very own floor, and the atmosphere change that comes with it is so very welcome.

Oh, the atmosphere of YALC… It’s so wonderful to be in a place surrounded by other book lovers. Everyone there loves books, and so the empathy in the room is palpable – a sense of joy and understanding that you can taste on your tongue. When I was a teenager, I’d have longed for the chance to chat to other bookish teens, to sit and watch talks by my favourite authors, and to get an insight into the publishing industry, so for I felt so honoured to be a tiny part of this year. To talk to others in the book world and to engage with the passionate young readers and talk to them about their favourite books, it’s why I fell in love with this whole wonderful YA community in the UK in the first place. The open-hearted love is real, and it’s wonderful to behold.

I do hope publishers, literary agents and authors where watching and listening to those fans this weekend. I hope they saw the joy the books they make can create. I hope they saw the amount of teenagers there in head scarves who aren’t seeing themselves in the books they read – yet. I hope the UKYA community continues to strive towards full representation of our wonderful multicultural world. I’ve always believed books create empathy, and it the light of all the stuff 2016 has flung at us so far, we need all the empathy towards one another we can get.

His Dark Materials Western (Cont.)

A few months ago, I wrote a short piece of fanfiction, which I housed in the Old West of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials universe for my friend Laura, as she went off on an adventure to Australia. It was supposed to be a one-off. You can actually read it here, if you like. That’d be fab. Well, I couldn’t get the character out of my head. Or the universe. I found myself captivated by the idea of a woman tied to the railroad tracks, left by a dastardly moustache-twirling villain, having to accept her fate whilst left helplessly with her Daemon, accepting their demise. So I wrote it. And I linked it back to that first bit. You don’t have to read that first, but I’d like it if you did.


The railroad is a part of American history. Mighty spiderwebs of steel of steel that unite the country. An ambitious feat of engineering prowess. A triumph of human hubris over nature. In England the whole thing was done without nearly as much fanfare. All practicality, no romance. But in a country sodden with rain half the year, what do you expect? Anyway, you can walk the entire length of the country in less time than it takes to cross state lines.

“We also don’t often tend to hogtie women to the tracks” Emily sighed. Americans certainly had a flair for the dramatic, but positively no sense of subtlety. Her Daemon stared at her despondently, his sad little sparrow eyes breaking her heart.

“Maybe if I’d been something more useful…” he began, and Emily’s sorrow congealed into something hard and sharp.

“There’s am awful lot of ifs in the world Archie,” she groaned as the rope bit into her skin, “but not a single one of them offer us any practicalities in the here and now.”

His eyes lit up. “So you have a plan?” He chirruped.

Emily looked at the desert that stretched out to infinity on either side of her, at the arid sands that hadn’t seen rain in years. In the distance the landscape was dotted with cracked red rocky outcroppings that rose ominously into the sky like tombstones. She longed for the persistent drizzle of Oxford, which only months ago had driven her to despair. She also longed for a cup of tea. Neither seemed forthcoming.

“Not precisely, no” she admitted, “but God won’t abandon us. He always has a plan for us, remember?”

Archie hesitated, “and… if his plan is that we die out here?”

Emily stared stoically up at the garishly blue, cloudless sky.

“Then we accept it…” she whispered.

When Emily awoke, the sun was still hammering down its punishment like an earnest blacksmith, each hammer blow a lance of pain into her head. She tried to lick her lips, but her tongue was swollen and dry. She could feel cracked pain around her mouth where the skin had blistered in the scorching heat. Archie was sat on her chest, his eyes drooped and distant. Emily looked lovingly at the subtle brown hues of his wings, the defiant strength of his beak. He wasn’t the most fearsome of Daemons, she had to admit, but he’d pulled her out of more scrapes than she cared to admit. Her chest swelled when she thought of their adventures. She closed her eyes again, and began to imagine the glorious and sublime Republic of Heaven that waited for them both. She pictured the soft bliss that would surround them, the warm light that would bathe them. She pictured the loving embrace of God.

It was at that point that Emily’s face pulled into a frown. The light that was blasting red and harsh through her eyelids had diminished, leaving little dancing spots of colour in its place. Reluctantly, she pulled one eye open, dreading another encounter with that obnoxious American bandit. She’d have sooner died. Much to her surprise, a young girl stood over her. She had a hard face, with squinting eyes filled with mistrust, and sandy blonde hair crammed under a beat-up old cowboy hat which was far too big for her. On her shoulder he Daemon sat in the form of a Gecko, in muted colours that matched her hair. In her hand was a wicked looking revolver covered in cogs and levers. Home made weapon modifications where quite the style in the States, she’d heard.

“Well, hello there young lady…” Emily began, peeling her raw cracked lips back into a smile that she wore more like a grimace.

“I ain’t no lady,” the girl responded.

Emily took her in. She was probably only twelve or so. “Quite. Well, perhaps you could help me. You see, I’m in a bit of a bind-” she chuckled at her own joke nervously, “so perhaps your mummy or daddy could be of some sort of assistance? Could you give them a yell and ask them to come help me?”

The girl eyed her with her sharp, sceptical eyes, “Momma’s dead. Daddy too, for that matter.” She said it so matter-of-factly that Emily was stunned by how little emotion played across her face. But Emily was a trained member of the Church. She’d spent years learning to read people, to discover the things they kept locked away. To offer them salvation.

“Oh…” she put on her best counselling voice, the one she saved for widows and mothers of stillborn children, “Oh, you poor child. Was it a failed crop? Not enough water perhaps? Or maybe a terrible disease. You can tell me. I know it’s hard.” If she could earn this girl’s trust, she didn’t necessarily die tied to a train line in the desert. On her chest, Archie had tilted his head to one side too, mimicking her sympathetic tone.

“Nope,” the girl spat into the baking sand, “Man came and killed ‘em. And my baby brother too. Shot him right there in his crib.”

Emily blinked, momentarily stunned by the blasé way this girl reported such a horrifically barbaric act.

“Oh you delicate orphan!” she cried at the girl, who now rolled her eyes. “You must thank the lord God that you were spared. He must have a plan for you.”

The girl pushed her hat back, revealing more of her grubby face, coated with a waxy mixture of sweat, sand, and something darker.

“You reckon that plan was me following the man what did them in and emptying his brains out onto a canyon wall not two hours ago?” her face broke into a grin. If it wasn’t for the words she was saying, she’d have looked to Emily like any other little girl. Instead, Emily’s insides went cold.

“It’s all God’s plan in the end…” she told the girl,

“It God’s plan got you tied up like a prize pig at the county fair to roast under the sun, miss?”

“If that is his will then so be it, I am his humble-”

The girl interrupted her, which irritated her no end. Typical American, never taught any manners, raised like a wild child here in the arse end of nowhere.

“You someone’s slave?” she asked.

Emily felt her mouth flap up and down, shocked by the incredulity that she might be someone else’s property.

“I most certainly am not! What on Earth would make you think such a preposterous thing?!” she sputtered.

The girl considered her for a moment, then scanned the horizon, “’Cuz you’ve got the colour of the slaves I seen in the city. And you’re trussed up like a bindle. And your accent’s funny.”

“I am an Englishwoman I’ll have you know,” Emily growled. Archie had started flapping his wings ineffectually. On her shoulder, the girl’s Daemon stared unblinking and impassive, still in the form of a gecko. “And the only one who owns me is the Lord. Look, are you going to free me or not?”

“You gonna try any funny business?”

“I can assure you I shall not”

The girl seemed to take that under consideration, before nodding. In a fluid motion, she holstered her revolver and with the other hand pulled a knife the size of her forearm from somewhere beneath her battered looking trench coat. It caught the sun, making it seem like it was glowing white. One edge housed neat and lethal looking serrated teeth. It was with these that she began to saw at the ropes that kept Emily bound. Her Daemon was now sat staring out at the landscape, shifted into the form of a wily desert fox, his large ears scanning for trouble while the girl worked. Once the ropes were severed, the girl helped Emily to her feet, with sweat running down her hand. Emily tried not to notice.

“Thank you, that was very charitable thing you did there. God bless you.” The girl simply stared at Emily with the same squinted cold eyes. Archie was nestling affectionately in her hair, which was haphazard and straw-like, dried out by hours in the sun. “I don’t suppose you have any water to hand, do you?”

The girl reached inside her coat and tossed a metal canteen over to her. Emily caught it greedily with both hands, pouring what little water it contained into her mouth. It was hot, and tasted sharp and acrid, no doubt off the metal of the flask, but the relief burst through Emily like it was the very wine of communion. Without really thinking, she drank it dry.

“Good thing I got more, ain’t it?” the girl mumbled to her Daemon, “Anyways, you’re welcome Englishwoman. I need to be going.”

Emily sputtered, “Wait! Where’s the nearest town to hear?”

The girl sighed, her Daemon whispering close to her ear, “Tabernath is about half a day’s walk South East of here. Happens to be where we’re headed.”

“Would you like some company?”

“Not particularly. But given that you seem prone to finding yourself in near death situations, I suppose you’ll be needing a chaperone. Proper English rose like you and all.”Emily ignored the thinly veiled jab at her pride, and instead stretched out a hand to the girl,

“Lady Emily St Grace Mendel” she offered smartly. The girl looked at her waiting hand for what felt like an eternity in the stifling dry air. Eventually, she slid off a leather glove and spat on her hand. Before Emily had chance to react, the slimy little creature’s claw was grasping her own, hot and wet.

“Laura, ma’am. Let’s get walking.”

“And what are you walking towards, exactly, Miss Laura?”

Laura’s boots kicked up clouds of dry dust as she made her way off at a steady, measured pace.

“It’s just Laura, your Ladyship” she answered over her shoulder, “and I’m off to free the slaves.”


So there you go. I hope you enjoyed it. I of course do not in anyway own the universe of His Dark Materials, this is just a bit of fun. If Philip Pullman reads it, I hope he likes it. If he does, I will die.

Thank-you for reading.

D

Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

The “What’s it About?” bit

Caddy longs for something to happen in her monotonous, boring life. Going to a private all-girls school, she’s the high achiever who never gets in trouble and always does as she’s told, and she envies her best friend Rosie, who goes to a regular school, hugely. She longs to the spontaneous girl, the one that people talk about, but she doesn’t even know how. There’s a new girl at Rosie’s school though, and she’s about to shake things up – the enigmatic Suzanne, beautiful and confident, is all of the things that Caddy isn’t, and Caddy soon starts to worry that this enigmatic new friend is going to steal away her Rosie. So she sets about uncovering the mysteries that brought Suzanne to them, but what she discovers is more complex than she expected, and as she and Suze become closer, the lines between right and wrong start to blur.

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The “What I thunk about it” bit

ARRRGH THIS BOOK IS PERFECT. So perfect. I almost don’t know where to start. The characterisations are perfect – I related especially well to Caddy, the one always so eager to be good and to do the right thing, who messes things up when all they want is to do what’s best for someone else. Her earnest good nature, as well as her unravelling frustration at the pressures of the world around her, make her character arc wonderfully complex and easy to empathise with, too. Suzanne is so accurately written, though. It’s hard to write a character like her without portraying too much romance in her tragedy, but Sara has managed to make her sadness and her mania mix to create an intoxicating girl with many layers. Suze’s self-awareness lends her character a darkness, too, because she always knows just what she’s doing, and is always the first to acknowledge that she’s messed up, and while she might do some reckless, dangerous things, it’s impossible to hate her. Rosie straddles the line between the two of them, sharp and sarcastic, but with fiery love that burns through everything she does. She’s strident, certainly, but level headed, and her ability to call out some of the more reckless behaviour makes her an unlikely voice of reason. I also really enjoyed that she stood up for herself when she thought something was wrong, and she was perfectly willing to let others make their own mistakes. The book has an excellent group of supporting characters as well, with realistically portrayed parents (a rarity) and two excellent older siblings.

Beautiful Broken Things tackles some massive issues, and manages to do so with stark honesty and gentleness, which is what makes it such a triumph. But it also looks at the subtler ideas that come with growing up – conformity, friendships and fear of abandonment, and works those quietly into the story while the bigger arc is going on. Ultimately the book just kept me utterly glued to it, and every spare second I had was spent trying to fit another few pages in, because the pacing is so superb that the whole thing has that out of control feeling of certainty about it. You can feel the building anticipation of tragedy straight off the bat, and the way it’s hinted at throughout keeps you gripped by the story, like it’s woven hooks into your heart and brain, and each chapter ends leaving you absolutely aching to know what’s going to happen next, even though the horrifying twists feel like they’re going to emotionally break you into pieces.

A stunningly powerful début novel that I cannot recommend enough – Sara Barnard’s Beautiful Broken Things is a superb addition to the UKYA pantheon, sitting perfectly alongside other emotional driven contemporaries like Trouble or All of The Above.

Thanks, as always for reading.

D

P.S. Beautiful Broken Things contains some triggers based around abuse, self-harm and suicide.

The Sleeping Prince by Melinda Salisbury

Melinda’s debut, The Sin Eater’s Daughter, was last year’s best selling UKYA debut – a tragic mix of dark fantasy and rich romance that I thoroughly enjoyed. Shot through with a twisted “princess in the tower” idea, but much more sinister, the book hinted at a larger, older and fully fleshed out universe that I was really eager to get more from, always bleeding into the edges of the story but not quiet showing itself. Yeah, well The Sleeping Prince steps it up a gear or five.

Another hypnotically beautiful cover.

Another hypnotically beautiful cover.

Following a new set of characters in a different part of the world, and shortly after the events of the first book, The Sleeping Prince is the story of impoverished apothecary Errin Vastel – the sister of the first book’s character Lief. She lives a meagre life, scraping together potions to sell on the black market to attempt to keep herself fed and with a roof over her head. With her father dead, and her brother away working to try and bring in some extra coin, Errin has to support not only herself, but also her mother, whose rapidly deteriorating mental health is starting to become more and more taxing – and dangerous. War in Lomere, with the mythical Sleeping Prince soon starts to spill across the border and threatens to shatter Errin’s already unstable world, and soon she finds she has no choice but to flee her home with her mother, relying on the help of one of her customers – the mysterious and enigmatic Silas, who she has been selling potions and poisons to. She’s never even seen his face, as he stays constantly cloaked and shrouded in darkness. But who else can she turn to? As the Sleeping Princes army starts to murder and burn its way across Tregellan she must flee, and if the officials found out about her mother’s conditions they’d lock her away in an asylum. Errin can’t lose the only member of family she has left.

ALL BOOKS NEED A MAP.

ALL BOOKS NEED A MAP.

If I ever had one thing that I struggled with in TSED, it was a heavy romantic plotline – it’s not my usual thing. The Sleeping Prince moves in a very different direction though, examining the rapidly unravelling threads of a family in complete crisis. Errin is a brilliant lead, resourceful and smart, she’s filled with fear and doubt, but she constantly pushes through with the weary determination of someone who has nowhere else to turn. Her world, and the underhanded desperate measures she takes to survive make her feel a much rougher and more worldly main character than Twylla, filled with shades of grey and a ruthlessness that fills her decisions and actions with a manic sense of drive.

Where the first story is the slow burning tale of political subterfuge, book two is an out and out war novel, and it pulls absolutely no punches. Melinda uses the plot to examine the true horrors of war in a fantasy setting, but she never lets it be viewed through a rose-tinted lens. The horrifically brutal war crimes of the Sleeping Prince are told through hushed, terrified rumour, and the painfully close-to-home treatment of Lomere’s refugees that Errin sees on her travels is a stark echo of current events. The whole book is driven forward with the frantic pace of an invasion, with the swirling out of control sense of being just one person swept up in something so huge and impossible to fight against that the whole book is beautifully chaotic.

I stole this photo from Mel's website but it's okay. She thinks I'm all right.

I stole this photo from Mel’s website but it’s okay. She thinks I’m all right.

The Sleeping Prince was everything that I wanted the next step in this saga to take – it builds on the rich mythology that clearly Salisbury has been developing for years, and it ramps everything up to eleven – the drama is more dramatic, the violence more visceral and animated, and the characters are more ambiguous, cut-throat and determined. This is a world at war, with characters desperate for survival and success, and a story filled with so many twists and dead drops that it’s breathlessly compelling.

Well done, Melinda, you terrible, beautiful Queen.

All hail!

D

P.S. You can follow Melinda on Twitter here, and you should because she’s a wonderful human.

One by Sarah Crossan

One is one of those books that it seemed everyone was raving about last year. It’s been on my tbr pile for ages as one of those “Oh I really need to get around to reading that!” Books. Well I devoured it in two sittings – It’s an outstanding novel. Believe the hype.

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Grace and Tippi are twins. Conjoined twins, in fact – they both merge into one single body below the waist. Life as conjoined twins is hard though, especially in America, where health care eats up most of their parent’s income. Eventually, home schooling stops being an option for the twins, and they have to attend a regular school. It’s a huge transition for them, but as their father’s alcoholism increases, and their sister spends more time at the local dance studio, the twins are desperate to get out of their stifling home atmosphere. School presents a huge amount of challenges, but Grace and Tippi soon make two great friends and start to settle into a new life full of possibilities. As money becomes more of an issue, they need to decide whether or not to let a documentary crew into their sheltered lives – to let millions of people become a part of their daily struggle to be a part of the world. Will it be worth it, to help give something back to their family who have sacrificed so much for them?

One is something else. In the scale of YA novels, it’s something very special and totally different. The contrasting personalities of Grace and Tippi work brilliant together – Grace is soft, a reader and a deep thinker, where Tippi is brash and outspoken, and the two of them balance each other as the story examines what it means to truly never be alone. Their extended family is vibrant and damaged, difficult to read about but utterly engaging and real; and their school friends Yasmeen and Jon are fantastic – flawed but so honest and blazingly fierce, and the way they take the twins under their wing is inspiring and heart warming.

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One of the things that makes this book stand out so much is the writing style, though. Told using poetic stanzas in short, dramatic and lyrical chapters, the whole book flows from Grace’s mind in haunting broken verse. At points it’s aching, and at others it bounces like a song, all the while creating a huge emotional charge like an electrical storm within the narrative. The use of metaphor, of Grace’s quiet observations on the world around her, makes the book an absolute joy to read, and really makes it stand out in the YA sphere by introducing such a captivating combination of poetry and prose.

One is uplifting, outstanding, and made me cry buckets. I strongly urge people to give it a try, it’s something totally unique and special.

Thanks for Reading,

Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

So for those of you who maybe don’t remember – Alice’s debut, Solitaire, was one of my absolute favourite books in 2014. It was a smart, witty, apathetic coming of age story, a Perks of Being a Wallflower for the Tumblr generation or whatever. It was a great book. So when I was lucky enough to be emailed a final manuscript of her highly anticipated second novel, Radio Silence, I pretty much screamed. Out loud. On the shop floor. Which in a bookshop is frowned upon.

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Frances Janvier is Head Girl. Frances Janvier is a straight A student. Frances Janvier is on the fast track to an Oxbridge English Literature degree. She studies as often as she can, sleeping little and not really forming any friends – everything sacrificed for the hope of a place at one of the best universities in the country. The only creative outlet Frances allows herself is fan art for a podcast series called Universe City, where the androgynous Radio Silence battles a collection of horrific monstrosities in an inescapable science fiction landscape. As Frances steadily becomes more and more stressed out by her approaching exams and her entry interview for university, she starts to become more engaged in the fictional Universe City world. When she discovers that the mysterious Aled Last, who she’s lived across the road from for most of her life is also a massive fan of the podcast, she finally discovers what it means to have a true friend and starts to understand that life is more than academic achievement. But Aled’s life is a lot tougher than Frances realises, and while he helps her to grow, she starts to see the cracks in him. He needs her help, but he could never say it out loud – but his time is running out.

It’s better. Radio Silence is better than Solitaire. I KNOW. Big words, but I mean them 100%. Frances and Aled’s friendship is absolutely everything I want in a fictional friendship ever, and Alice deliberately allows their friendship to never bubble into a romance, which was SO REFRESHING. Frances is fraught, confused and passionate – all angles and manic energy, where Aled is softer, creative and submissive. I have a lot of feelings for Aled, and a lot of empathy to how he seems to drift along with life doing things that are decided for him but never truly grasping what he really wants. Their co-dependent friendship is flanked by some excellent supporting characters too, Raine being a big favourite, especially as she represents the opposite of Frances’ academic obsession. Daniel too is stony-faced, but his unravelling as a character is really sweet.

Still love you though, bae.

Still love you though, bae.

One of the biggest themes in Radio Silence is the idea that going to university is not the only route available to young people – and it’s such an important subject that is never tackled enough. There’s so much pressure on teenagers to start attending higher education, when no-one is willing to admit that there are plenty of other roads in life to take. Alice lets her own scepticism towards the education system flow through the story, making it clear that happiness can be achieved through all sorts of less “traditional” routes. One of the other amazing things about the book is that it is SO DIVERSE. Not a single character is 100% straight, but no character is defined by their sexuality either, and she even touches on ideas of asexuality too. And it’s racially diverse too, proving that there really is no excuse to not write with inclusivity. AND it touches on mental illness with honesty and care. Seriously, it manages to wrap up so many themes with a fun plot driven by beautiful dialogue that made Solitaire feel for real and down to Earth. Alice has the perfect YA voice.

Plus, as a massive fan of Welcome to Night Vale, the podcast theme was absolutely amazing! Universe City feels dark, vibrant and perfectly crafted, the excerpts really breaking up the story beautifully with pieces of hugely lyrical writing. I want it to be a real podcast. Alice if you’re reading this let’s make Universe City. Please.

It isn’t out until later this month, but I cannot recommend it highly enough. She knows what she’s doing, and she makes it look effortless. This is Young Adult Fiction done flawlessly.

Hey, Thanks.

D

P.S. – You can pre-order the book RIGHT HERE so you should do that thing.