Saturday 3 October 2015

YA Shot Readathon: My Review Picks

About 18 months ago, we were very, very close to moving to Hillingdon in west London. It didn't happen in the end and I've never regretted so much as when I found out about YA Shot. This is a day-long festival involving 71 Young Adult and Middle Grade authors participating in talks and workshops across Uxbridge on 28th October 2015, with the event launching a year long series of author visits throughout the London Borough of Hillingdon.

Alas, I no longer live anywhere near Hillingdon and am absolutely gutted that I can't attend*. However, I can do the next best thing and read some of the books by some of the authors involved in YA Shot. The lovely Michelle over at Fluttering Butterflies has organised a YA Shot Readathon for the coming month leading up to the event and I've picked out 3 books that I'm going to devour and review before 28th October...

Banished by Liz de Jager

Banished (The Blackhart Legacy, #1)This one's been on my TBR list for a criminally long time, so I think this is the ideal opportunity to rectify that situation. I have a confession to make about YA fantasy - I don't read that much of it. Not because I don't want to, but more because these days, my reading tends to be done in short, sharp bursts and with fantasy novels, I feel like I have to have the space and time to completely immerse myself in that world. But I'm going to do my darndest to find that space and time for this book, I promise.

Bitter Sixteen by Stefan Mohamed

Bitter SixteenA book that I was absolutely convinced I'd already bought but after some investigation, it turned out I was mistaken, yet another situation I need to rectify. Anyway, I think I first heard about this one through following the publisher, Salt, on Twitter. I've always found their short story anthologies really interesting, so picking this one was a no brainer.

Monster by CJ Skuse

MonsterGod, there's so much to get excited about with this book, I don't know where to begin. A boarding school, a mythical (or perhaps not so mythical) beast, people disappearing...unfortunately I can't afford to buy a copy until after pay day (I mean, who else has a pay day in the middle of the month?), but when I do finally have some quids to spend, I'll be on it like a car bonnet.

I have my realistic spectacles on and I know it's very unlikely that I'll finish more than 3 books before October 28th, but I promise I shall review all of them as and when. Hopefully before then.


No, definitely.

*YA Shot attendance update! Since I started writing this post, I've realised that I might possibly be able to attend after all. So I'll see you there!


Wednesday 23 September 2015

1K a Day - My First Draft Journey

This is the first writing post I've done in quite a while and for once, one of the main reasons for my lack of blog posts isn't to do with stress or workload, or any of the other slightly depressing reasons I usually give, but because I've actually been doing some actual writing! Of a book! It's all very exciting. Well, for me it is.

I very much conform to the rule that writing shouldn't have rules, because everybody is different, everybody works in a different way. However, in the past I've found it very useful to read about how writers write, because in order for me to discover what way works best for me, I need to give different methods a go. In fact, I've gone through several years of trying a number of different ways to get that first draft written.

And most of the time I have failed.

But this is all part of the process, something I have to remind myself of on a daily basis.

This isn't the first draft I've ever started by the way. The first one I completed nearly five years ago and mainly came about through the process of spewing out a ridiculous amount of words with only a half-formed idea in my head. I'm not saying this might not work for some, but on that occasion it left me with something completely unreadable that I couldn't even begin to start editing. A year or two later I managed to get halfway through another draft based on the same idea. This was a bit more successful, but then a problem arose that I wasn't really sure how to approach - I fell out of love with my story. I suppose I had a choice, whether to battle on through or to abandon it and I chose the latter. I'm still not really sure whether this was the correct decision, but that WIP is still there, waiting for the day when I shall hopefully develop warm feelings towards it again.


After that I left a new idea to stew in my head. Some might call this procrastination (probably because it is procrastination), but I still maintain that letting it stew was the best possible thing I could have done. Every time I started to jot down notes on a piece of paper, I instinctively knew I wasn't ready and that with every word I wrote, I lost just a little bit more faith in the whole thing. So in order to feel like I was actually working towards something, I put my research hat on.

And this brings me up to the almost-present. I'm attempting to write historical YA and I was recently faced with yet another decision - when to stop researching and start writing. After consulting with my writing partner Jo, whose advice was something along the lines of 'just get on with it' (said in a much nicer way because she's a very nice person), I realised the time had come to begin another first draft.

In the past I've tried not planning, planning a bit, spending one day a week writing, getting up at 5 in the morning to write and writing in the evening, all with varying degrees of success. I used to be able to do plenty after I'd put the kids to bed, but these days my brain shuts down at 7.30 pm on the dot. I spent a while wondering why this was the case until I realised it was probably just came down to the fact that I'm now OLD and I for the time being I would just have to accept that evenings weren't my most productive period of the day.

Unless being productive means binge-watching Parks and Recreation, in which I case I'm the Queen of Productivity.

My brain now works best in short, sharp bursts, and it's peak performance time is when I've come home from dropping the kids off at school and I've had a least two black coffees. So this is when I write my 1000 words every morning, before I do any other work. I very rarely go over 1k because it then starts to feel like a chore.

And you know what? It's actually working for once. Not only am I getting words down, but I'm enjoying writing again. This book may not be 'The One', but right at this moment, writing it is making me very happy indeed and that's all I can really ask for.


But be sure to return at a later date when I write a post entitled 'THE SECOND DRAFT FROM HELL'.


Saturday 5 September 2015

Recent Review Round Up - Holiday Reading

Its'a amazing how many books you can go through when you give you brain a week off from everything else. Ok, so three and a bit books in two weeks might not sound like very many, but this is pretty impressive for my easily distracted brain right now. I'll start doing the odd full review again soon, but in the mean time here are three reads that got me thinking this summer...

The Paying Guests - Sarah Waters

The Paying GuestsThis is the first Sarah Waters book I've read and it certainly won't be the last. Is that enough of a review do you think? If I don't end here then I'm in danger of offering you up an essay about it, but I shall continue and try to keep it brief. I've made a resolution to start reading a bit more adult fiction, and this book has set the bar, quite frankly - a masterclass in how to write a well-drawn, living breathing character. I was slightly daunted by the length (as I said, I get easily distracted), but there wasn't a single wasted word. The story of how the arrival of Lilian and Leonard impact on the formerly well-to-do Frances Wray and her mother is tense and romantic in equal measure.

Am staring to think I should have written a full review of this because now, as I'm typing, I have ALL THE THOUGHTS. Oh well.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl - Jesse Andrews

Me and Earl and the Dying GirlI'm conflicted about this one. I enjoyed it. It was smart and funny (very funny) and refreshing, and I wish there was some way to bottle that feeling you get when you read something truly unique in YA fiction (sorry, but it just doesn't happen that often). I just wasn't entirely convinced by Andrews's attempts to subvert a the common dying teenager YA trope. It just felt like he should have pushed the button a bit more - tricky, I know - because I was just left with the feeling that the book hadn't quite managed to detach itself completely with that particular trope and that it had shied away from a few issues it touched upon. But whatever drawbacks I had with it, the voice is one of the most convincing I've read in recent months.

Since You've Been Gone - Morgan Matson

Since You've Been GoneI enjoyed Roger and Amy's Epic Detour and I was looking for a good contemporary YA to get my teeth into. This had been sitting on my kindle for a while and seemed to fit the bill. However, I was THIS (imagine me holding up my fingers to indicate a short distance) close to giving up on it about half way through - shy Emily may have felt realistic, but my patience with her as a main character was starting to wane, I still hadn't gotten any sense of who her missing best friend Sloane really was and the flashbacks felt cumbersome. BUT, exactly slap bang int he middle, it drew me in and I started to care, really care, about all of them. I adore YA books about complicated friendships and I'm happy to say this one ended up being incredibly moving. Plus, there were also some excellent playlists hidden in these pages (although I much preferred Frank's taste in music to Emily's - sorry country fans).

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Judy Blume Readalong - 'Forever'

I see the words 'Judy Blume readalong' crop up on my Twitter feed and my first thought is I'M THERE. Wouldn't that be everyone's first thought, surely? I had planned on my own read through of the Blume's back catalogue last summer after going to her talk at Waterstones in Piccadilly, but I only got as far as Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing swiftly followed by Superfudge. Might get around to writing those reviews one of these days...

Anyway, when I saw Keris Stainton had organised a Judy Blume readalong in preparation for the author's appearance at YALC in July, I was grabbing my copy of Forever off the shelf before you could say 'no, I really don't want to take a look at Ralph thank you', because, yes, the first book to be read was Forever, and the Twitter hashtag was #readalongralph. Anyone who read this book in their youth (or indeed their adulthood) knows all about Ralph.


My own memories of Forever are vague to say the least. I remember Ralph, of course, and I remember the rug and the events which took place on the rug but other than that, it was all a bit hazy. Basically I remember the sex. When I first encountered this book I was about 11 and I couldn't quite believe there was a book that talked about willies, and now, as a 35-year-old reading this is 2015, I'm still struggling to get my head around that fact. It's so strange to think that a YA book written and published in the 1970s with this much frank sexual content probably wouldn't be published now (or would it? My instincts think not. Maybe I'm wrong). Does this mean we're regressing, or that teens want less-in your-face sex in their books? Or that (more likely) we're underestimating teenagers' abilities to grasp the realities of sex, downsides and all?

ForeverThis leads me onto the book itself. There is a lot to love about Forever, but I'm not entirely convinced it worked as whole. I remember when I went to her talk last year, she said she wanted to write a book about teenagers having sex where no one died, and this is the thing I appreciated most about it - a realistic depiction of teenage sex that feels just as relevant now as I imagine it would have done when first released, and the fact that this sort of frankness isn't rally found in most contemporary YA means Forever is even more vital today. I loved the trademark Blume sense of humour, the rich selection of engaging supporting characters and perhaps most of all, I loved the positive depictions of women and girls - a grandmother who once ran for Congress, a supportive best friend who's mother is a leading film critic, a anthropologist sister - all this is depicted in a very naturalistic way, just as it should be, because it is natural to be surrounded by strong, clever, supportive women.

But the fact that these supporting characters were so well depicted shines a light on the shortcomings of Katherine and Michael. They were just a little bit dull in comparison. Katherine made a lot of mature decisions but I never really understood what she saw in Michael. It's never really explain why he is THE ONE, the only really indication being that she loves him because he shows an interest in her - realistic, perhaps but still not very satisfying from a reader's point of view, and I think that same sentiment can be used to sum up Michael too.

Forever still feels like a very important book and I'm glad I revisited it. However, in writing a book about sex, some other things that would have made this a better read, like plot, took a back seat. So a vital book, yes, but by no means a perfect one.

Just quick request for publishers to please keep in the small, beautiful reminders that this is a period piece in future editions - Katherine's brushed nylon nightdress, her joy at the mushrooms embroidered onto her jeans, a teenagers' fondue party (although perhaps this would happen today in an ironic way) and the icing on the cake, Theo and his glorious moustache.

Long live Theo and his glorious moustache!

Wednesday 10 June 2015

YA REVIEW: 'This is Not a Love Story' - Keren David (Atom, 2015)

Kitty dreams of a beautiful life, but that's impossible in suburban London where her family is haunted by her father's unexpected death. So when her mum suggests moving to Amsterdam to try a new life, Kitty doesn't take much persuading. Will this be her opportunity to make her life picture perfect? In Amsterdam she meets moody, unpredictable Ethan, and clever, troubled Theo. Two enigmatic boys, who each harbour their own secrets. In a beautiful city and far from home, Kitty finds herself falling in love for the first time. But will love be everything she expected? And will anyone's heart survive? (Synopsis from Goodreads)

This is Not a Love Story
It's no secret that I love Keren David's books (see here and here) - I don't think there's any other author that nails the British teenage experience quite like she does. Although I've haven't reviewed it here, her previous book Salvage manages to balance realistic characters, engaging plot and heart-rending issues, something that I imagine is far trickier than it looks. I hate describing reads as 'issue' books, because it somehow feels like a disparaging comment rather than a compliment, with an automatic assumption that for a book to deal with tough or diverse issues, it has to sacrifice something in terms of plot or character. Ok, this has been true of some books but as This is Not a Love Story shows, just as Salvage did, it's more than possible to write about issues without sacrificing anything at all.

This where the similarities with Salvage end, however. Whereas that previous book put me through the emotional ringer by confronting some of the darker parts of society, This is Not a Love Story beams positivity and is one of the most refreshing books I've read in a long time. In fact, I can't think of anything it really falls into the same bracket as at all. Kitty's optimistic outlook on life is infectious and seeps through every page. I adored Kitty, but then I adored Theo and Ethan too - can't actually choose between them and wouldn't want to! This is the most realistic depiction of modern teens I've read in a long time - they're funny, emotional, they don't always have all the answers and they make mistakes, but then they move on. Their small expat community reminded me a lot of my gap year interactions many moons ago - you arrive in a new place, you fall in with a group and you get along with people no matter what your differences.

This is the first YA book I've read about Judaism and I loved the way it was presented as both a uniting force and common ground between Kitty and Theo, but also showed how religion isn't one dimensional - their upbringings had more differences than they did similarities and this connection wasn't the be all and end for them. Also, a shout out to the structure of the story - the added element of mystery ensured this a proper, bonefide page turner.

So whereas This is Not a Love Story isn't a love story (or is it?...), this review definitely is - a love story between woman and book (imagine a heart emoji right here - I don't how to do one on my desktop, sorry).

Saturday 6 June 2015

Past on Paper: 1950s YA REVIEW - 'Out of the Easy', Ruta Sepetys (Speak, 2013)

It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. She devises a plan to get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Out of The Easy
I'm resurrecting my Past on Paper feature! Hurrah! And seeing as this book is set in 1950 then it will hopefully be the first of many more 20th century-set book reviews (the books are set in the 20th century, not the reviews, obvs).

I've been on a historical fiction binge at the moment which inevitably led me to this. Unlike pretty much everyone else in the universe, I've haven't read Ruta Sepetys debut, Between Shades of Gray so I was coming to this one without any preconceptions apart from perhaps the irresistable-sounding synopsis - I mean, hello? 'Mysterious death', New Orleans in 1950 - how could anyone NOT be excited by this?

I'm happy to say it didn't disappoint in the slightest. In fact, it might just be one of my favourite pieces of historical fiction, YA or otherwise. This is largely down to the expertly balanced combination of intriguing plot, brilliant protagonist and a coming of age tale that got right under my skin. This is a YA that isn't afraid of the seedier sides of life, with sex, power and frustration filtering through it's every paragraph. 

There is an impressive array of complex supporting characters. Much like she has used this historical setting to bring an authentic background to the story, I feel like Sepetys has done the same with all the players in this tale - from Josie's various surrogate parent figures in the form of brothel madam Willie, driver Cokie and bookshop owner Charlie Marlowe, to the characters who drift in and out of the story in a way to create a richer picture. Without going into spoiler territory, the romance element feel almost like a bonus, not integral to the story, more like a happy side effect, and it was all the more refreshing because of this.

However the very best thing about Out of the Easy was Josie. The description 'bad ass book lover' may sound a bit cringey but it perfectly sums her up. More than aware of the cards her upbringing has dealt her, she remains focused and determined, using her experience of the slightly seedier side of the tracks to push her own agenda. 

I'd just like to thank Ms Sepetys for writing a book that bought me out of my reviewing slump and given me a renewed appreciation for the intricacies and power of great historical fiction (and great mysteries).

(Thanks to my old local bookshop, I have a copy of the US edition, rather than the UK, hence the photo)

Friday 5 June 2015

Anna calling...

Hello there.

It's been a while.

I've just scanned through my recent (ahem) posts and have noticed that I titled a blog post similar to this one as 'It's been a while' but I feel it needs to be said again because it has. Again.

Without going into a huge amount of detail, the last year was, on the whole, a bit crap. We moved house twice, my dad died and a lot of things, including this blog, fell by the wayside.

The thought of writing reviews put me off reading books in the first place, and recently, without the pressure of making myself have an opinion on them, I've found myself enjoying books again. I've been reading a lot more widely than I used to and the result is that, in not forcing myself to review, I've actually wanted to to, as it the way of life sometimes. So I'm making tentative steps towards blogging again, not just writing about YA books this time, but also other stuff, including posts about my own writing, something that also fell by the wayside last year.

However, some good stuff has happened. We are now the owners of two gorgeous cats, I started posting a lot more pics on Instagram (cat ownership may or may not have something to do with this), and I'm starting to become a lot more active on Tumblr (well, more at the re-blogging rather than the actual blogging but it's a start).

Anyway, it's good to be back xxx