Review: How Do You Like Me Now? by Holly Bourne

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll start by saying I’m a huge fan of Holly Bourne’s young adult writing. The Spinster Club series is one of my favourite things in YA, with its all-too-real portrayal of the everyday rigmarole of having to be a teenage girl in a world that isn’t always that kind to teenage girls. With How Do You Like Me Now?, her first foray into adult fiction, Bourne translates all the glorious humour and immense pathos of Amber, Lottie and Evie into the character of Tori, a thirty-something woman with grown-up versions of the problems we’ve seen in Bourne’s other work. And it’s brilliant.

In How Do You Like Me Now?, Bourne presents us with a hugely professionally successful woman; Tori has built her reputation and career in self-help writing thanks in part to her ‘happily ever after’ relationship with Tom. The problem is that Tom is not actually very nice to her and has more interest in the cat than in his girlfriend. I knew this book was working for me when I quickly found myself wanting to counsel Tori myself, so desperate was I for her to improve her situation and stand up for herself. This is what Holly Bourne does; she’s pretty much peerless in terms of writing characters you want to be friends with, despite – or sometimes even because of – their flaws. I think the relationship between Tori and Tom will make many a reader re-evaluate their own relationships (or, in my case, the relationships of other people they know, which is more fun and less alarming on a personal level). The sections devoted to Tori’s friendships are particularly hilarious, especially an ill-advised baby shower and the wedding at which she’s demoted to childless ignominy on the loser table. I could go on for ages listing these moments but that would spoil the book so just trust me when I say it’s awesome.

What I love about Holly Bourne’s writing is her ability to identify a near-universal point and incorporate it seamlessly into her characters’ stories. For example, in her most recent YA novel, It Only Happens in the Movies (which, surprisingly, I loved), there’s a hilarious and meaningful takedown of the “you’re not like other girls” line which is so pertinent that someone actually said it to me three days ago. How Do You Like Me Now? is full of such relatable moments, particularly in relation to the incredibly annoying things people say to unmarried, childless couples in critiquing their unmarried, childless status. Bourne is a genius at recreating such moments with genuine humour; I find it hard to believe that any woman in her thirties could read this book without nodding repeatedly and, on at least three occasions, spilling their tea with the vigorous nature of their “oh my God, that happened to me!” gestures.

After a long time away from Marian Keyes, I recently read her latest novel, The Break, and How Do You Like Me Now? gave me a lot of the same feelings; Holly Bourne shares Keyes’ skill in simultaneously showing the ridiculousness and pain of being a grownup and having to deal with other grownups. Both books made me laugh in that way that makes people in public places slightly scared of you, and both made me not want to be in a public place because quietly weeping over a book in Starbucks is a bit embarrassing. My love of Holly Bourne remains undimmed and I can’t wait to see what she writes next, adult or YA.

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YA Review: Out of the Blue by Sophie Cameron

out of the blue.pngFirstly, you should definitely read this book. It is awesome. And look at that lovely cover. Assuming, however, that you might want some more details and not just a vigorous but vague recommendation, here’s why.

Sophie Cameron combines two wildly different storylines to brilliant effect. On the one hand, you have the relatively familiar YA trope of a teenage girl, Jaya, mourning dead parent and LGBT themes. On the other, Jaya’s story takes place against a very original backdrop; as angels start falling from the sky, doomsday cults and fantasists all over the world get really excited, including Jaya’s dad, who drags his kids to Edinburgh to try to catch one. What nobody counts on is that it’s cynic Jaya who finds and saves a fallen angel.

 

I loved the diverse themes and plotlines of Out of the Blue; the supernatural/spiritual aspect of the book gives it something completely different to anything else I’ve read, especially in YA. It reminded me a little bit of Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, which I also loved. It’s really refreshing to read something so beautifully strange, and Sophie Cameron’s writing is more than up to the task of matching this, managing to convey a convincing voice for a teenage girl while also creating some extremely highlight-worthy sentences.

The fact that the book is set in Edinburgh only added to my enjoyment; I’ve been a few times and it’s a city that I love, which is always a big advantage when the setting features  so prominently. If you’ve never been, Out of the Blue will definitely make you want to. It’s set during the Edinburgh festival too, adding a tangible sense of creativity and chaos. Something else I liked: with big fantasy premises, I feel like writers either need a watertight explanation for events (which is often attempted but rarely achieved) or they just need to basically say “this is happening. Don’t ask why: the characters don’t know so you don’t need to either.” Here, Sophie Cameron seems to opt for the second option, and, rather than creating any sense of frustration, it all adds to the magic and mystery of the book.

Overall, I thought Out of the Blue was superb and I can’t wait for it to come out so other readers will experience its wonder too. I’ve already started bigging it up to my students and I’m writing this in November. Cameron is a really talented writer (as well as being extremely nice on Twitter) and I’m looking forward to seeing what she writes next.

YA Review: Goodbye, Perfect by Sara Barnard

I’ve read all three of Sara Barnard’s books and Goodbye, Perfect is by far my favourite. Telling the story of a fifteen year old girl who runs away with her grown-up teacher, it’s an affecting amd compelling read which quickly grabbed my attention and didn’t let go till the end (and actually I finished it last night and am still mulling over it, so it’s still got me even now). 

Using the perspective of runaway Bonnie’s best friend, Eden, is a clever way for Barbard to tell the story without making the reader unduly uncomfortable – I don’t know how anybody else would feel but, particularly as both a mum to a young girl and also as a teacher, Bonnie’s PoV would have been a bit too icky for me. I really liked Eden’s narrative voice; she’s a very convincing teen narrator with just the right amount of snark. Her own complicated background adds to the main plot without overtaking it: adopted as a child, Eden has been off the rails before but Goodbye, Perfect shows her to be impressively well-adjusted. I appreciated how Barnard uses Eden’s history tp justify her feelings but doesn’t let it distract from how Eden responds to her best friend running off with their music teacher. Hopefully, most readers will sternly question  the decisions Eden makes out of misguided loyalty to Bonnie, but, while I disagreed with what she was doing, Barnard makes her reasons for doing so very convincing.

There’s so much about Goodbye, Perfect that I enjoyed. I spend a lot of time with teenagers at school and so much of the dialogue and narrative sounded completely authentic to me. As usual, Barnard presents complex, intriguing, realistic friendships, involved and real-sounding parents and characters you will genuinely care about. Each of her books is better than the last and it makes me really look forward to her next one. I will be recommending this loudly and persuasively in 2018.

Review to be posted on blog on release day.

YA Review: Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

In Love, Hate and Other Filters, Samira Ahmed creates a believable set of characters. Maya Aziz longs to go to film school in New York, but her parents are determined for her to study law or medicine closer to home in Chicago. Maya harbours a secret crush on Phil, a jock from her school, while her mum and dad think Kareem, a fellow Muslim, is far more suitable. Things are complicated enough for Maya even before a Muslim-American sharing her last name is accused of committing a local terrorist attack. 

For me, this book split into two quite different sections. The first half, in which Maya finds herself in something of a love triangle, was familiar in its use of YA contemporary tropes, although the importance of the cultural differences displayed gives the book a more unique perspective. Somewhat inevitably given its high profile in 2017 and similar subject matter, this first part reminded me a lot of When Dimple Met Rishi; not in a negative way at all, I hasten to add, as both these books are hugely important and, aside from that, plain good reads.

The second half, in which Maya confronts more obvious racism as well as the overwhelming fears of her parents, creates a very stark contrast, which I initially found discombobulating, although this did help me to empathise with Maya’s feelings of shock and fear. It’s a brave move in a YA novel, perhaps one made possible by the huge success of Angie Thomas’ THUG. I love that we have books dealing with these kinds of issues in YA. It’s so important and so valuable.

Overall, Love, Hate and Other Filters was an interesting and involving read. I didn’t always feel much affection for the characters, but I empathised with the huge conflicts, both internal and external, that Maya faces. More politically minded YA will always be welcome.