YA Review: Moonrise by Sarah Crossan

moonriseThe Premise: Joe hasn’t seen his brother for ten years, and it’s for the most brutal of reasons. Ed is on death row. But now Ed’s execution date has been set, and this might be the last summer they have together.

Thoughts: Sarah Crossan has a proven record of writing things that break my heart a little bit. I can’t walk past the bookshelf where Apple and Rain sits without having a little sniffle and please don’t ever make me talk about One unless you’re prepared to watch me rock gently and weep for several hours. Moonrise fits firmly into this tearjerker category, with the story of Joe’s struggle to process his brother’s fate creating plenty of pathos.

As with One and Crossan’s other verse novel, We Come Apart, the nature of the poetry in Moonrise only amplifies the emotive aspects of the story, particularly when Joe dwells on his ambivalent feelings towards Ed and the catastrophic effects of his arrest on the family as a whole. Just seventeen as his brother faces the lethal injection, Joe has had the kind of fictional life that might seem overly tragedy-filled, but which is dealt with in such a nuanced way here that the reader can only sympathise.

I’m always interested in YA novels that deal with difficult or political issues, and Moonrise does both; through Ed’s situation, Crossan questions the morality and logic of the death penalty as well as detailing some of the legal processes involved, with various appeals and reflections on Ed’s initial arrest and court case.  Joe’s family is just getting by financially, and so Crossan adds another layer of topical plotting here, subtly conveying the idea that, the poorer you are, the less likely you are to be able to pursue justice.

In Conclusion: I thought Moonrise was really pretty stunning. It hit me in all the right places emotionally, it’s realistic despite its often dreamy verse, and it’s a story that’s compelling, relevant and not often explored in YA. What impresses me with Crossan’s writing is that she’s able to upset and challenge her reader without her books being depressing or mawkish. Moonrise is no exception, and it’s a book I absolutely recommend.

YA Review: Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody

daughter of the burning city.pngThe Premise: (from NetGalley) Even among the many unusual members of the travelling circus that has always been her home sixteen-yea-old Sorina stands apart as the only illusion-worker born in hundreds of years. This rare talent allows her to create illusions that others can see, feel and touch, with personalities all of their own. Her creations are her family, and together they make up the cast of the Festival’s Freak Show. But no matter how lifelike they may seem, her illusions are still just that—illusions, and not truly real. Or so she always believed…until one of them is murdered. Now she must unravel the horrifying truth before all her loved ones disappear.

Thoughts: aren’t circuses having a right moment? I feel like every other book I read right now is about a circus. Maybe this is because I really like reading books about the circus: who knows?

The set-up of Daughter of the Burning City is exquisite; the descriptions of Gomorrah (the travelling circus) drew me into the story straightaway and I loved everything about it. There are obvious parallels to be drawn with The Night Circus, which I don’t see as a bad thing; I am more than happy to keep reading books about creepy, mysterious circuses where people get murdered. I mean, the murders don’t thrill me, but you know. There’s so much that’s really creepy about this book; Sorina, for example, has no eyes. Somehow she can still see (I remain unsure about how that works) and there’s another illusion-worker/assassin person who literally has no heart. I am not sure of the science behind any of this but I am here for the weirdness. There’s a political edge to proceedings too, with conflicts between powerful people going on deep in the background that add to the overall tension of the plot.

So the setting is wonderful, in a reasonably disturbing way. Also incredibly mind-blowing is the family that Sorina has invented using her illusions; although I don’t think we see enough of all of these characters, it’s a fascinating concept and one that’s really imaginatively realised. It also lends itself to some wild developments and twists which I liked too, and which added to the general sense of shock and awe created by Foody’s writing. Sorina’s relationships with the other members of Gomorrah are enthralling too; her adopted father, the proprietor of the circus, is a particularly interesting figure.

The murder plot did, I will admit, confuse me a bit, but I am optimistic that this is the point. The denouement seems to be a complete shock, but, thinking back on it, I think it was hinted at throughout, so the plotting is clever too. I will also admit to being slightly bemused by the introduction of a character who appeared to be asexual, an orientation which turned out to be a little more fluid, and I’m not an expert so I will just say that this made me confused. I’m fine with it.

In Conclusion: a really impressive, richly immersive YA fantasy novel, with lots of fresh elements added to what I’m calling a trend because I have read three YA books set in circuses this year so it must be a thing. The fantasy elements are superbly realised and Daughter of the Burning City has provided me with one more fictional setting I really, really wish I could actually go to.

YA Review: A Semi Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland

semi definitive.pngThe Premise (from NetGalley): Esther Solar’s family is . . . unusual. Her father hasn’t left the basement in six years. Her brother is terrified of darkness. Esther isn’t afraid of anything – because she avoids pretty much everything. But when Esther is pickpocketed by her cocky old classmate Jonah Walker, Esther and Jonah become friends. Jonah sets a challenge: every week they must work their way through the world’s fifty most common phobias. Skydiving, horse riding, beekeeping, public speaking, reptilehouses – they plan to do it all. Soon their weekly foray into fear becomes the only thing that keeps them tethered to reality, and to each other. But each is keeping a secret from the other – a secret that threatens to rip them apart.

Thoughts: this book grabbed me from the beginning with its cast of eccentric characters and their various quirks. There’s a really intriguing backstory related through flashbacks in which Esther recalls the family curse which led to everyone being so affected by their phobias; I can’t think of another book in which the grandfather character encounters Death in human form during the Vietnam War, to be specific, and so this was another brilliantly original element to the book. As I mention often on this blog, I am slightly obsessed with books about dysfunctional families and that’s a mild way to describe the Solars; Sutherland executes a clever and abrupt shift in tone during the book, as, initially, the focus is on Esther’s eye-rolling coping mechanisms when dealing with her relatives, before events become more serious and potentially tragic. It caught me off-guard, which is an effect that usually guarantees my enjoyment of a book.

Honestly, though, the quirks of each character did become a little much towards the end; initially, I liked that Esther always wears costumes, particularly given that one of them is Matilda Wormwood, but after a while it felt a little self-consciously weird. As in so many YA novels, I also became quite frustrated with her parents. Yes, they have serious problems, but, as a mum, I find my well of sympathy closed off to fictional parents who don’t address their issues for the sake of their children.

In Conclusion: a different and unique YA novel, populated by characters who are both funny and tragic, A Semi Definitive List of Worst Nightmares is a book I’m glad to have come across. It becomes a bit more generic as elements of the plot resolve themselves, but there’s plenty here to set it apart. It is worth noting that there are some mental illness triggers in the book, particularly concerning depression, anxiety and self-harm.

YA Review: A Change is Gonna Come by various authors

a change is gonna come.pngThe Premise: an anthology of short stories and poems by BAME authors, all focused on the idea of change.

Thoughts: if there’s one thing in life I am almost guaranteed to enjoy, it’s a collection of short stories by a range of authors, all writing on a loosely linked topic. This one was no exception. There are some truly brilliant stories here; inevitably, not all of them will resonate with every reader, and there were a couple which didn’t grab me, but on the whole this is an excellent collection.

Catherine Johnson’s fictionalised account of William Darby, a 19th century circus performer better known as Young Darby, Negro Rope Dancer and Equestrian, is the kind of story of which I’d happily read a few more hundred pages; it’s a beautifully realised piece of historical fiction. Tanya Byrne’s Hackney Moon is just as beautiful, with a hauntingly detached narrator seemingly able to intervene in the life of Esther, a gay, black teenage girl leaving behind old relationships for better ones.

I’m already a fan of Nikesh Shukla, having followed his work in putting together The Good Immigrant, and I’ve read one of his novels too (Coconut Unlimited – it’s excellent, by the way); knowing he had a story in this collection was one of the reasons I was so keen to read it, and We Who? is a superb account of a friendship coming under pressure from prejudice and one teen’s internalising of his father’s anti-immigration views. The stories here may be short, but their impact is long-lasting, and Shukla’s is an excellent example of a narrative which stays in the reader’s mind long after reading.

Patrice Lawrence takes a dystopian view in The Clean Sweep, in which young offenders are transported to a secure location for the public to vote on their fates, reality TV-style. It’s a shift in tone from the previous stories, and one which invigorates and adds variety of genre. Magical realism also features in Phoebe Roy’s Iridescent Adolescent: the story of a girl who begins sprouting feathers. It’s a quite gorgeous addition to the anthology.

I also loved Mary Bello’s Dear Asha, about a teenage girl travelling to Nigeria to bury her mother. The depiction of Nigeria is so vibrant that the reader is swept away just like Asha, and it’s a really effective portrayal of cultural difference as well as human similarity.

In Conclusion: there’s so much to enjoy and admire in A Change Is Gonna Come. The book introduces new BAME talent as well as offering short stories by more established novelists, with Ayisha Malik and Irfan Master both featuring in addition to those I’ve mentioned. This is an excellent collection of topical, emotive, eye-opening fiction; it’s educational without being didactic, and it’s exactly the kind of writing that will help to create a better and more more open-minded world.