Young Adult Fic­tion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - Claire Hen­nessy

There’s noth­ing quite like a prop­erly funny novel to coun­ter­act the gloom of Jan­uary, and there’s a wel­come ti­tle amid this month’s young adult of­fer­ings. With Un­preg­nant (Chicken House, £7.99), screen­writ­ers Jenni Hen­driks and Ted Ca­plan prove that it’s pos­si­ble to wrest hu­mour out of even the grimmest of sce­nar­ios: this is a road trip with an abor­tion clinic as the ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion.

Nar­ra­tor Veron­ica is the perfect girl – good grades, good boyfriend, good church-go­ing fam­ily. Her friends are all sim­i­larly whole­some; theirs is a re­la­tion­ship “built on suc­cesses, not fail­ures”. A pos­i­tive preg­nancy test in the last weeks of high school is not some­thing she feels she can share with them, but her former best friend, Bailey, now the school’s res­i­dent “black hole of anger and dark­ness”, stum­bles across the se­cret. With re­stric­tive laws around un­der­age pro­ce­dures, the near­est clinic is nearly a thou­sand miles away – and Bailey just hap­pens to have a car.

The two set off, ten­sion crack­ling and di­a­logue fizzing, with Bailey’s sar­donic hu­mour oc­ca­sion­ally slip­ping to let us see the vul­ner­a­bil­ity be­neath. Mean­while, Veron­ica be­gins to con­front her own yearn­ings to be su­pe­rior to oth­ers; the prospect of turn­ing up at a clinic sleep­de­prived and un­washed is hor­ri­fy­ing be­cause then, she won­ders, “How would peo­ple know I was bet­ter than this?”

Along the way the girls are thwarted or aided by an un­likely cast of char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing a pawn­shop lady with a heart of a gold and a strip­per with a heart of ice, and al­though the story hits all the notes you would ex­pect – of course these new­lyre­con­nected friends will squab­ble just as they need each other the most – it’s an ut­ter de­light to read. Hen­driks and Ca­plan per­suade us to care fiercely for these char­ac­ters, and to root for a friend­ship based on ac­cep­tance rather than ap­pear­ances.

And al­though it’s far more than an “is­sue book”, it’s a pleas­ing re­minder that se­ri­ous top­ics need not mean solem­nity; it is pos­si­ble, af­ter all, to write “a comedic abor­tion friend­ship story with lots of curs­ing” (as the au­thors put it in their ac­knowl­edge­ments) with­out ever triv­i­al­is­ing the mat­ter. 2020’s YA list is off to a su­perb start.

Melissa Al­bert’s sec­ond novel, The Night Coun­try (Pen­guin, £7.99), asks what hap­pens af­ter es­cap­ing a dark fairy tale world? Alice yearns for nor­mal­ity, even as she ac­knowl­edges she’ll never quite achieve it; she is marked by “the loneliness of sin­gu­lar­ity”. There are oth­ers like her, a “junk drawer of ex-Story odd­balls”, but she shies away from their de­sire to hold on to their re­main­ing scraps of magic, their sense of su­pe­ri­or­ity over hu­mans.

What pulls her back is mur­der: sev­eral of them, rit­ual killings that sug­gest these former fairy tale fig­ures are be­ing hunted down so that some­thing – or some­one – can be built. So that the Night Coun­try, a realm that bends it­self to its cre­ator’s will, can rise. At the same time, letters from another world ap­pear in the strangest of places – in a pa­per flower, or within the text of a classic novel – letters that can only be from a boy Alice be­lieved she’d said good­bye to years ago.

This is a lush and en­chant­ing tale, if oc­ca­sion­ally (as be­fits a fairy tale world) grue­some; Al­bert ef­fort­lessly draws on a wide range of lit­er­ary ref­er­ences and builds a world where magic re­ally does emerge from pages and where books are not just fig­u­ra­tive but lit­eral doors. Dreamy and dis­turb­ing in equal mea­sure, it’s the perfect an­ti­dote to a grey win­ter’s day.

Slightly dis­ap­point­ing is Adam Sil­vera’s move into fan­tasy with In­fin­ity Son (Si­mon & Schus­ter, £7.99), in large part be­cause his con­tem­po­rary nov­els – of­ten with a spec­u­la­tive twist – are so skil­fully done. Twin broth­ers Emil and Brighton in­habit a New York full of “ce­les­tials” and “specters”, he­roes and vil­lains, and be­come caught up in the fight of good ver­sus evil. Re­gard­less of moral al­le­giance, char­ac­ters on both sides suf­fer from a fond­ness for clunky ex­po­si­tion, and oc­ca­sion­ally lapse into dis­tract­ing cliches. There are, how­ever, many in­trigu­ing de­tails about this world, in­clud­ing its pol­i­tics, and I sus­pect ur­ban fan­tasy fans who have not primed them­selves for “an Adam Sil­vera novel” will get a kick out of this first in­stal­ment in a se­ries.

To be the child of im­mi­grants is to carry their bag­gage, their sac­ri­ficed dreams. The nar­ra­tor of Abigail Hing Wen’s de­but, Love­boat, Taipei (Si­mon & Schus­ter, £7.99), knows this all too well. De­spite a love of dance, Ever un­der­stands her role as el­der child is to “earn back the cost of two lives” and to at­tend med­i­cal school. Be­ing sent on a sum­mer pro­gramme to Tai­wan is sup­posed to in­stil in her the proper Chi­nese virtues; in­stead it be­comes the chance to be truly her­self for the first time in her life.

If not quite ground-break­ing in terms of its plot or themes, the spe­cific fo­cus on Tai­wanese cul­ture means that this novel of­fers some­thing dif­fer­ent from the typ­i­cal sum­mer-of-self-dis­cov­ery story, as well as a sat­is­fy­ing and swoon-wor­thy ro­mance.

Af­ter an as­sault at a party per­pe­trated by a group of prep school boys, Jade seeks out vengeance. She is not a victim; she and her friends are girls “with knives where they think our hearts should be”. With their help, she in­fil­trates their elite cir­cle, en­list­ing the am­bi­tious Mack as an ally in her at­tempt to top­ple the ex­ist­ing power strug­gle.

Han­nah Capin’s Foul Is Fair (Pen­guin, £7.99) is Mac­beth re­told through the prism of Heathers and Kill Bill – which is to say it’s a dizzy­ing, deliri­ous re­venge fan­tasy that sim­ply can’t be put down. With an energy level as high as its body count, it will have you long­ing for Capin’s next book.

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