Monday, 30 November 2020

100 Must-Read YA Releases Of 2020 In The US

This post - which I'm really proud of - is now live for ALL readers, not just subscribers (who got it a week early) over on Patreon! Check it out, and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Book Review: In The Role Of Brie Hutchens by Nicole Melleby

In The Role Of Brie Hutchens by Nicole Melleby (Algonquin Young Readers) - Brie is horrified when her religious mom walks in on her just as she's accidentally looking at inappropriate pictures of an actress she has a crush on. To distract her, she blurts out news that she knows will delight her mother, telling her she's been chosen to crown the statue of Mary in a big ceremony at school. It works - but Brie's lying, and the job only ever goes to a top student, which she certainly isn't. Can she somehow get out of this mess, and will star student Kennedy, who's suddenly looking a lot more attractive than Brie ever realised before, be able to help her?

This is a gorgeous coming-of-age story and as a fellow soap fan I loved the way Brie turned to soaps to prepare for a drama school audition, as well as figure out things about her own sexuality. I was especially impressed by the way that Melleby portrayed the conflict between Brie and her parents - most coming-out stories I can think of seem to include family members who are either supportive pretty quickly, or really terrible. This goes for a middle route, and is no doubt going to be useful and reassuring to teens finding themselves in a similar position. (But I loved that Brie had a really supportive friend and two teachers who were brilliant at backing her up.) It also looks at financial insecurity - Brie's father has recently lost his job and both parents are struggling with this - and does a great job of exploring that too. Massively recommended.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

100 Must-Read YA Releases Of 2020 In The US - Preview

My much anticipated 100 Must-Read YA Releases Of 2020 In The US post will be going LIVE here a week today.

If you want to read it a week early, subscribe to my Patreon at any level and you'll be able  to read it from November 22nd. Is it worth paying for? I thought I'd share a preview, showing what I've written about 4 books, to help you decide.
A couple of disclaimers - firstly, the idea here is to go for books which people can pick up and read with no prior knowledge of previous books. That means I've gone for standalones and series starters, rather than continuations. I had to use my judgment on a couple of books which are companion novels to earlier ones rather than direct sequels; I've noted where this is the case.
Secondly, not everything here is something I've read myself. However, everything which I haven't read has been recommended highly by multiple people whose opinion I trust.

This Train Is Being Held by Ismee Williams (Amulet Books) - Romance between two teens - a Cuban ballet dancer and Dominican baseball player - who fall for each other at a time when both have their own problems. Dancer Isabella's life is falling apart as her mother and brother struggle with mental health issues and her father loses his job, while Alex's father is pushing him into a baseball career he's unsure he wants for himself, and being hard on his younger brother, and a friend is being dragged into a gang.
This is utterly gorgeous, with a great central romance seeing the pair get together after a few subway meet-cutes, and support each other through difficult times. Perhaps even more so than the incredible chemistry, though, it's Williams's superb handling of tougher issues like the bipolar disorder that Isabella's mother and brother have, and the racism which Alex - darker-skinned than Isabella - suffers from to a much greater degree than she does which make this one of the very best contemporaries of the year.

Grown by Tiffany D Jackson (Katherine Tegen Books) - With her family struggling for money, being discovered by R & B star Korey Fields seems like a dream come true for Enchanted Jones. Not only can the 17-year-old help support her parents, but she can find fame - and possibly even love, because the older man seems to see her as more than just a protégée. Except, when we first meet Chanty, before we see what led up to this moment, she's finding Korey's dead body. How did it come to this?
Tiffany D Jackson is phenomenal at writing books with layered MCs, twists and turns in the plot, and gripping action, and this is no exception. Fields is a repulsive villain but it's easy to see just why Korey falls for the charm which he can turn on so quickly, and how hard it is for her to extricate herself from the situation when things inevitably go downhill. The 'did she or didn't she kill him' plotline had me guessing right until the end, and, as ever, Jackson delivers a satisfying conclusion. A masterful thriller which has a lot to say about exploitation, grooming and rape culture.

The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones by Daven McQueen (Wattpad Books) - In 1955 Alabama, biracial teen Ethan Harper has to spend the summer with his white aunt and uncle. While most of the town, unused to seeing Black people, eyes him with suspicion, town oddball Juniper Jones - already unpopular amongst the locals - becomes a firm friend and the pair adventure together.
While I've cried numerous times reading books over the last few years, this was one of the most heartbreaking that I can remember. The strong friendship between free spirit Juniper and the much calmer Ethan was wonderful to read about. Daven McQueen moves between the highs of their joyous adventures and the lows of the problems they face with expertise which would be impressive in an experienced author and is even more so in a debut. Massively recommended to fans of incredibly emotional reads.

Crownchasers by Rebecca Coffindaffer (HarperTeen) - Alyssa Farshot would much rather continue to have adventures exploring different planets than follow in her uncle's footsteps as emperor. But since his dying wish is for representatives of each of the empire's prime families to compete in a crownchase to find the hidden royal seal and win the throne, she feels obligated to take part. When the chase turns deadly, it becomes clear it's not just the fate of the empire at stake.
I don't have this yet and I really need it! The most common thing I'm seeing in reviews is people talking about how incredibly fun this book is, along with praise for great representation of various sexual identities (the lead is pan, and there are numerous other queer characters). Both the lead and her himbo love interest are getting a ton of love and the relationship between them sounds like it's fabulous. Despite the generally light-hearted tone, I'm also seeing lots of people saying great things about the way it explores topics like colonialism and responsibility.

If you'd like to read my thoughts on another 96 must-read YA releases, plus 100 MG releases, and a bunch of UK books not released in the US yet - then subscribe at any tier to get early access over the next week! (Or, if you're happy to wait, they'll be right here a week later.)

Upcoming Patreon Schedule
Sun November 22nd - 100 Must-Read YA Releases of 2020 in the US - Patrons get Early Access! (Won't be available publicly until Sun November 29th.)
Wed November 25th - 100 Must-Read MG Releases of 2020 in the US - Patrons get Early Access! (Won't be available publicly until Wed Dec 2nd.)
Fri November 27th - 50 Must-Read YA and 50 Must-Read MG Releases of 2020 in the UK - Patrons get Early Access! (Won't be available publicly until Fri December 4th.) Please note - there will be overlap between this and the previous two lists, as some of my favourites have been published both sides of the Atlantic, but it will also contain UKYA and UKMG books which haven't made it to the US yet.

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Patreon - Why I'm Monetizing My Blog After Ten Years

Today, I’m launching a Patreon based around this blog.

Given there has been, over the last few years, what seems like hundreds of thousands of words written on blogs, and Twitter, about whether monetizing a book blog is a good/valid/terrible thing to do, I wanted to talk a little bit about why I’m doing so.

I’ve been considering monetizing for a couple of years now - even back when I was on a hiatus from blogging due to having a leadership role at college, I was wondering whether I should try it when I returned. I will admit that I was someone who, at one point, saw it as being something that bloggers shouldn’t do, just because that was the prevailing wisdom of most people I saw talking about it. But then I thought about it for a long time, read varying different opinions on it, and changed my views.

Changing My Mind

One of the things which most changed my mind on it was seeing the amount of wonderful content Jen over at Pop! Goes The Reader has been able to produce over the last year or two. I’ve been a Patron of hers for coming up to a year now, and it’s the best value for $5 a month that I can imagine. She posts incredibly comprehensive lists of upcoming releases every month, in addition to gorgeous wallpapers and fabulous recommendations guides on books on particular topics.

Doing things like this takes an incredible amount of time. I’m currently working on a couple of posts with 100 YA/MG recs, one for UK readers and one for US readers, and I’m enjoying it because it’s reminding me of so many fabulous books published this year, but I’ve spent the best part of 6 days on it so far (picking books as well as writing) and while I’d love to do more detailed posts along these lines, it would be nice to at least have the possibility of getting paid for them.

What's On Offer

That said, I really want as many people to be able to read them as possible, and I know that some of the target audience may not be in a position to pay, and don’t want to exclude them. So to start off with, I’m experimenting with early access to some of my bigger blog posts - starting with the aforementioned 2020 ones. They’ll be going up for everyone on the weekend of November 28th - 30th, but I’m going to give Patreon subscribers the chance to read them roughly a week early. I am going to be doing some exclusive content in the forms of recommendations lists for books on particular topics, with the aim being to do them twice a month, for people paying $3 or more, but the vast majority of what I write will still be free for everyone to access.

Finally, I’ve seen one or two ‘book recommendations’ services and as I pride myself on a pretty great knowledge of YA and MG books and knowing what will fit people’s tastes well, I’m going to include a tier allowing people to get personalised recommendations. While I’m always happy to give quick recommendations to people who tweet me, these will be a little more in-depth, with a couple of sentences on each book explaining why I think the person will really enjoy it. I’m going to try $5 a month for 3 recommendations, and will be happy to check out people’s Goodreads etc to do my best to make sure I’m not recommending them books they’ve already read. Of course, people will be able to ask for specific genres, books similar to a particular one they loved, or pretty much anything they can imagine. (Although once we venture away from YA and MG, my knowledge goes downhill fast, so from a value for money perspective, you may want to stick to them!)

The Future

I'm also really open to new ideas - if there's something you'd like to see me offer, please suggest it! You can comment on this blog post, or message/tweet me on Twitter @yayeahyeah.

How successful am I expecting this to be? I honestly have no idea. But for someone who’s tweeted a lot about book bloggers valuing themselves, and having the confidence in their output to consider charging for it if that’s what they want to do, it feels it’s time to back my words up by trying it for myself.

If you’d like to take a look at it, head over to my Patreon page to check it out and, hopefully, subscribe. Otherwise, I promise there’ll still be a lot of free content over here to enjoy!

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Book Review: Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai


Noura Alwan and Jordyn Johnson are two twelve-year-old girls who've lived very different lives, who meet when Jordyn becomes Noura's school ambassador. Noura is an immigrant from Syria, along with the rest of her family, and the pair quickly become friends. Meanwhile, their parents are also getting to know each other, with Jordyn's mother - grieving a recent miscarriage - teaching English to Noura's mother, who repays her with cooking lessons. But not everyone in the community is as welcoming as Jordyn and some of the girls' other friends, and both Jordyn and Noura have to find their voices to stand up to hatred.

This is a really sweet dual narrative story looking at the problems faced by both girls. Jordyn feels guilty for not really wanting a baby sibling until her mom miscarried, while her mother, in particular, is struggling to come to terms with her loss. Noura and her family have fled to safety, but it's hard for them to feel safe when they see the Muslim ban on a national level being discussed (the book is set in early 2017) and protests closer to home as well. Both girls' hopes and fears are well-portrayed, and I loved the school community. While there is some hatred - as you'd expect from the summary - there is much, much more friendship and compassion shown by both fellow students and staff. There are lovely scenes with Jordyn and her swim coach gently teaching Noura, who's initially terrified of the water because of something which happened to her friend back in Syria, how to swim, and there's a very positive portrayal of therapy, which Jordyn goes to to help deal with her anxiety. There's also great religious rep - in addition to Muslim Noura and Christian Jordyn, there's a Jewish boy, a Hindu girl, and a girl whose family don't practice organised religion, all of whom come together to support each other and the main two. 

While there's never any sugarcoating of the level of anger some people feel towards Muslims, or of the anxiety attacks Jordyn suffers from, it's nowhere near the bleak book that it could have been - the friendship and the warmth shine through and make it an enjoyable read as well as an important one. (Perhaps particularly in the mouth-watering descriptions of various foods!) Massively recommended, and this is one that I could see being a great class read in schools. 

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Book Review: Kent State by Deborah Wiles

Told in verse, Kent State is a book about people looking back on the event of May 4th, 1970, in which four American students - Sandy Scheuer, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, and Bill Schroeder - protesting the Vietnam war were killed by National Guardsmen.

This is an impactful read which will definitely stay with me - as a Brit who wasn't born at the time, I knew vaguely of the terrible events the book covers, but wasn't aware of any of the details. Wiles conveys the full horror of the shootings, and the events of the weekend leading up to them, using the powerful technique of having six voices - representing students both white and Black, townspeople and the National Guard - look back on the events and argue over their interpretations of them. We find out little about the speakers themselves, other than getting a rough idea of what group they're representing; an interesting stylistic choice which for me added to the book by making it read more like a non-fiction book than a novel. 

It's a bleak book, as you'd expect from the subject matter, and Wiles doesn't hold back, describing the exact injuries which killed the four victims. But it's also a powerful one, which does a great job of looking at why people hold different views of tragic events, and a timely one given the current political climate. I would definitely recommend this as a read which, despite its short length, will give you plenty to think about for a long time after reading.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Sunday, 8 November 2020

November Releases I'm Excited For

Second in my new monthly feature, looking at 10 books coming out each month I'm excited for. Once again, it was REALLY hard to narrow these down.

Also once again, if you're looking for a much more comprehensive guide to upcoming releases I can MASSIVELY recommend signing up for the Pop! Goes The Reader Patreon, which has saved me a ridiculous amount of time because it has pretty much everything I could ever dream of wanting to read included! 

If you want to buy any of the below books, you can find them on my Bookshop on this page - please note, I get a percentage if you use this. 

The Girl Who Wasn't There by Penny Joelson (3rd Nov, Sourcebooks Fire)

I know what I saw.

Nothing ever happens on Kasia's street. And Kasia would know. Her illness keeps her home for days at a time, with little to do but watch the world from her bedroom window. So when she witnesses what looks like a kidnapping, she's not sure she can believe her own eyes...

So she sets out to find the only other witness. The girl in the window across the street. The girl who was also watching when things went down.

But what Kasia discovers shocks her more than the kidnapping itself.

There is no girl.

Why I Can't Wait To Read It: Joelson's debut, I Have No Secrets, about a girl with cerebral palsy who knows her carer's boyfriend committed a violent crime but is unable to communicate this, was a gripping thriller. Jemma, the MC, was an outstanding lead, and I'm looking forward to another exciting read and to meeting another of Penny Joelson's heroines. 

White Ivy by Susie Yang (3rd Nov, Simon & Schuster)

A dazzling debut novel about a young woman’s dark obsession with her privileged classmate and the lengths she’ll go to win his love

Ivy Lin is a thief and a liar—but you’d never know it by looking at her. Raised outside of Boston, she is taught how to pilfer items from yard sales and second-hand shops by her immigrant grandmother. Thieving allows Ivy to accumulate the trappings of a suburban teen—and, most importantly, to attract the attention of Gideon Speyer, the golden boy of a wealthy political family. But when Ivy’s mother discovers her trespasses, punishment is swift and Ivy is sent to China, where her dream instantly evaporates.

Years later, Ivy has grown into a poised yet restless young woman, haunted by her conflicting feelings about her upbringing and her family. Back in Boston, when she bumps into Sylvia Speyer, Gideon’s sister, a reconnection with Gideon seems not only inevitable—it feels like fate.

Slowly, Ivy sinks her claws into Gideon and the entire Speyer clan by attending fancy dinners and weekend getaways to the Cape. But just as Ivy is about to have everything she’s ever wanted, a ghost from her past resurfaces, threatening the nearly perfect life she’s worked so hard to build.

Filled with surprising twists and offering sharp insights into the immigrant experience, White Ivy is both a love triangle and a coming-of-age story, as well as a glimpse into the dark side of a woman who yearns for success at any cost. 
Why I Can't Wait To Read It: Dark obsession, coming-of-age story, and classmate tick so many boxes for me - I love reading about college students and ghosts from the past resurfacing!

Rent A Boyfriend by Gloria Chao (10th Nov, Simon Pulse)

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before meets The Farewell in this incisive romantic comedy about a college student who hires a fake boyfriend to appease her traditional Taiwanese parents, to disastrous results, from the acclaimed author of American Panda.

Chloe Wang is nervous to introduce her parents to her boyfriend, because the truth is, she hasn’t met him yet either. She hired him from Rent for Your ’Rents, a company specializing in providing fake boyfriends trained to impress even the most traditional Asian parents.

Drew Chan’s passion is art, but after his parents cut him off for dropping out of college to pursue his dreams, he became a Rent for Your ’Rents employee to keep a roof over his head. Luckily, learning protocols like “Type C parents prefer quiet, kind, zero-PDA gestures” comes naturally to him.

When Chloe rents Drew, the mission is simple: convince her parents fake Drew is worthy of their approval so they’ll stop pressuring her to accept a proposal from Hongbo, the wealthiest (and slimiest) young bachelor in their tight-knit Asian American community.

But when Chloe starts to fall for the real Drew—who, unlike his fake persona, is definitely not ’rent-worthy—her carefully curated life begins to unravel. Can she figure out what she wants before she loses everything?

Why I Can't Wait To Read It: I raced through both American Panda and Our Wayward Fate last weekend and thought both were fabulous - Gloria Chao is a new favorite author of mine on the strength of them, and I'm super-excited to have discovered her just before a new book came out! She writes complex family dynamics perfectly and since fake dating is a favorite trope of mine, I'm hugely looking forward to this book.

Teen Killers Club by Lily Sparks (10th Nov, Crooked Lane Books)

Framed for the murder of her best friend, a young girl joins a super-secret society of teenage assassins to avoid a lifetime behind bars--and discovers her own true self--in this mesmerizing debut novel.

Seventeen-year-old Signal Deere has raised eyebrows for years as an unhappy Goth misfit from the trailer park. When she's convicted of her best friend Rose's brutal murder, she's designated a Class A--the most dangerous and manipulative criminal profile. To avoid prison, Signal signs on for a secret program for 18-and-under Class As and is whisked off to an abandoned sleep-away camp, where she and seven bunkmates will train as assassins. Yet even in the Teen Killers Club, Signal doesn't fit in. She's squeamish around blood. She's kind and empathetic. And her optimistic attitude is threatening to turn a group of ragtag maniacs into a team of close-knit friends. Maybe that's because Signal's not really a killer. She was framed for Rose's murder and only joined the program to escape, track down Rose's real killer, and clear her name. But Signal never planned on the sinister technologies that keep the campers confined. She never planned on the mysterious man in the woods determined to pick them off one by one. And she certainly never planned on falling in love. Signal's strategy is coming apart at the seams as the true killer prepares to strike again in Teen Killers Club.

Why I Can't Wait To Read It: This sounds like the kind of plot which has the potential to be either utterly amazing or entertainingly terrible. Thankfully, early Goodreads reviews seem strongly on the side of it being fantastic. I love mismatched groups and the idea of an innocent girl with a sunny attitude rubbing off on (presumably?) actual killers just sounds hilarious.

Light For The World To See by Kwame Alexander (17th Nov, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

From NPR correspondent and New York Times bestselling author, Kwame Alexander, comes a powerful and provocative collection of poems that cut to the heart of the entrenched racism and oppression in America and eloquently explores ongoing events.   A book in the tradition of James Baldwin’s “A Report from Occupied Territory,”  Light for the World to See is a rap session on race. A lyrical response to the struggles of Black lives in our world . . . to America’s crisis of conscience . . . to the centuries of loss, endless resilience, and unstoppable hope.  

Includes an introduction by the author and a bold, graphically designed interior.

Why I Can't Wait To Read It: A few years ago, I'd never have described myself as a poetry fan, but I've read some amazing books over that time and fallen in love with several poets - Kwame Alexander up there with Elizabeth Acevedo as the absolute best. The Crossover, The Rebound and Booked are all outstanding and I'm excited for this collection.

Love & Olives by Jenna Evans Welch (10th Nov, Simon Pulse)

From the New York Times bestselling author of Love & Gelato comes a Mamma Mia–inspired tale about a teen girl finding romance while trying to connect with her absent father in beautiful Santorini, Greece.

Liv Varanakis doesn’t have a lot of fond memories of her father, which makes sense—he fled to Greece when she was only eight. What Liv does remember, though, is their shared love for Greek myths and the lost city of Atlantis. So when Liv suddenly receives a postcard from her father explaining that National Geographic is funding a documentary about his theories on Atlantis—and will she fly out to Greece and help?—Liv jumps at the opportunity.

But when she arrives to gorgeous Santorini, things are a little…awkward. There are so many questions, so many emotions that flood to the surface after seeing her father for the first time in years. And yet Liv doesn’t want their past to get in the way of a possible reconciliation. She also definitely doesn’t want Theo—her father’s charismatic so-called “protégé”—to witness her struggle.

And that means diving into all that Santorini has to offer—the beautiful sunsets, the turquoise water, the hidden caves, and the delicious cuisine. But not everything on the Greek island is as perfect as it seems. Because as Liv slowly begins to discover, her father may not have invited her to Greece for Atlantis, but for something much more important.

Why I Can't Wait To Read It: The Mamma Mia comparison and the idea of someone bonding with their father over Greek myths would definitely have me interested whoever wrote it - I was obsessed with Greek myths as a kid, while Mamma Mia is me and my wife's favorite movie to watch together - but in addition, Love & Gelato is a cute contemporary I adored, so more from Jenna Evans Welch is always good! 

Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon (17th Nov, G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers) 

From the bestselling author of Frankly in Love comes a contemporary YA rom-com where a case of mistaken identity kicks off a string of (fake) events that just may lead to (real) love.

When Sunny Dae—self-proclaimed total nerd—meets Cirrus Soh, he can’t believe how cool and confident she is. So when Cirrus mistakes Sunny’s older brother Gray’s bedroom—with its electric guitars and rock posters—for Sunny’s own, he sort of, kind of, accidentally winds up telling her he’s the front man of a rock band.

Before he knows it, Sunny is knee-deep in the lie: He ropes his best friends into his scheme, begging them to form a fake band with him, and starts wearing Gray’s rock-and-roll castoffs. But no way can he trick this amazing girl into thinking he’s cool, right? Just when Sunny is about to come clean, Cirrus asks to see them play sometime. Gulp.

Now there’s only one thing to do: Fake it till you make it.

Sunny goes all in on the lie, and pretty soon, the strangest things start happening. People are noticing him in the hallways, and he’s going to football games and parties for the first time. He’s feeling more confident in every aspect of his life, and especially with Cirrus, who’s started to become not just his dream girl but also the real deal. Sunny is falling in love. He’s having fun. He’s even becoming a rocker, for real.

But it’s only a matter of time before Sunny’s house of cards starts tumbling down. As his lies begin to catch up with him, Sunny Dae is forced to wonder whether it was all worth it—and if it’s possible to ever truly change.

Why I Can't Wait To Read It: I love rom-coms, I love people lying about who they are, and I love characters developing in confidence through the course of a novel. 3 for 3 here, by the looks of things! 

Malcolm and Me by Robin Farmer (17th Nov, SparkPress)

Philly native Roberta Forest is a precocious rebel with the soul of a poet. The thirteen-year-old is young, gifted, black, and Catholic—although she’s uncertain about the Catholic part after she calls Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite for enslaving people and her nun responds with a racist insult. Their ensuing fight makes Roberta question God and the important adults in her life, all of whom seem to see truth as gray when Roberta believes it’s black or white.

An upcoming essay contest, writing poetry, and reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X all help Roberta cope with the various difficulties she’s experiencing in her life, including her parent’s troubled marriage. But when she’s told she’s ineligible to compete in the school’s essay contest, her explosive reaction to the news leads to a confrontation with her mother, who shares some family truths Roberta isn’t ready for.

Set against the backdrop of Watergate and the post-civil rights movement era, Malcolm and Me is a gritty yet graceful examination of the anguish teens experience when their growing awareness of themselves and the world around them unravels their sense of security—a coming-of-age tale of truth-telling, faith, family, forgiveness, and social activism.

Why I Can't Wait To Read It: There have been lots of superb YA books looking at civil rights over the last few years; most I've read have been contemporary, though. I was hugely impressed by Christina Hammonds Reed's The Black Kids, set during the Rodney Kings Riots, and this sounds like another excellent book about a pivotal time in US history.

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong (17th Nov, Margaret K McElderry Books)

Perfect for fans of The Last Magician and Descendant of the Crane, this heart-stopping debut is an imaginative Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai, with rival gangs and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.

The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.

A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.

But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule. 

Why I Can't Wait To Read It: I'm a huge Romeo and Juliet fan, who loves retellings, so this sounds very up my street. Add in gangs, flappers, monsters, and a fight for a city, and I'm SOLD! Doesn't hurt that Chloe's awesome on Twitter and I've been desperate to read this since I first saw her tweet about it.

Friday, 6 November 2020

Interview: Unlucky In Lockdown Author Julianne Benford

Super excited by today's post! I get to interview one of my best friends, the incredibly talented Julianne Benford, whose Unlucky In Lockdown novella is a wonderful read about the developing friendship between two flatmates caught in the early stages of the first UK lockdown.

Unlucky in Lockdown does a great job capturing the strange feeling of the first couple of weeks of the lockdown period in the UK. How important was it to you that the novella was released while this was fresh in people's minds?

Vitally important. I decided to self-publish it because I wanted people to be able to read it while they were still living through it and the immediate fallout. I wrote it as a way of exploring my own feelings about what was happening and I knew I was very lucky to be able to do so. Lots of writers were saying that they couldn't write at all, that the pandemic was too overwhelming, which I totally understand, but I had the opposite experience and felt like all I could do was write - to try and make sense of everything, or to at least get my emotions out of my head and onto a page where I could dissect them. And I was desperate to read stories about people coping with the situation in whichever ways they could. I read a lot of non-fiction pieces about life in lockdown, but they were all very short. I wanted something longer and I wanted fiction, so I thought it was quite reasonable to assume that there would be some other people out there that also wanted that, people longing to see their own experiences and emotions in a story now. I wanted it to help people feel less alone while they live through the pandemic, and I think it has achieved that - lots of readers have messaged me saying that they see themselves in the characters' attitudes and feelings.

Cora finds the lockdown incredibly stressful right from the outset, worrying about being unable to see her grandmother for fear of infecting her, while Xandra is initially significantly less concerned - although she obviously has her own problems. Which of the two characters do you feel your own attitude was closer to?

Definitely Cora. One of my colleagues came down with what was probably Covid-19 (this was back when nobody could get a test) two days after we were in an office together and I did not enjoy that. I pretty much self-isolated just in case! I also think a lot about my nans, both of whom live alone, though thankfully both in London near my parents, and so far they have been okay. One of them had her 85th birthday in August, which we celebrated outside in her garden. 

I completely understand why people don't want to worry, and it is very difficult for our mental health to not be able to see family and friends as we normally would. But life is precious. The vulnerable people in our lives are precious. I couldn't have written about characters that didn't believe that, so although Xandra is slow to catch on she does take it all seriously once the lockdown starts.

How do you think the book will read in a few years' time when (hopefully!) this is all a distant memory and the world is somewhat more normal again?

Good question! I have no idea and I don't mind. I don't think all literature needs to be timeless - I'm okay with it becoming a historical artefact rather than something that people find fully relevant and relatable for the rest of time. However, although Covid-19 will hopefully become a thing of the past, friendship won't, so I hope that readers will still be able to get something out of that part of the story, even if the scenario itself is something they hopefully won't have to experience.

And - also post-lockdown! - where do you envision Cora and Xandra being in five or ten years' time? (And would you ever write about them in the future?)

I have never thought about them in five years time before but I know exactly what they would be doing! Cora will pack in her current job and go work for a small business where she's the sole graphic designer and feels more like an important part of the team. She'll buy a one-bedroom flat, probably shared ownership because that small business won't pay that well. Xandra will (mostly) be living with Daryl, but hopefully she'll have found a better, more creative day job, and will still do weird experimental theatre stuff in her spare time, and some form of panto! Will they be friends? That would be telling.

I have had a few requests for an update so I think once Covid-19 is over or at least under control (fingers crossed for that) I'll have a go at writing a sequel that drops in on them every few months, so we can see how they cope with the shifting situation. I don't think either of them are going to be big fans of Rishi Sunak...

I love the friendship between Cora and Xandra, which is at the heart of the novella! Who are some of your favourite pairs or groups of fictional friends?

Thank you! Obviously, the Scooby Gang in Buffy is one of the best friendship groups of all time, they literally save the world together! When I was a teenager watching it I idolised their friendships, but as an adult I have realised they're far from perfect and admire the writers for making them so complicated and yet solid. My favourite more recent TV friendship is Taystee and Poussey in Orange Is the New Black. I loved them both so much and that show broke my heart. 

I've read quite a few books this year that have amazing friendships in. During (the first) lockdown I read The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson, which is about a girl in pre-World War II Britain who first gets a scholarship to an alternative boarding school full of delightful weirdos, then befriends a very lonely prince on a school trip! Loads of children have to extend the conspiratorial hand of friendship in order to rescue him from the Nazis, it's so much fun.

I also love the friendships in The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, published in the 1920s, which is about two dowdy and bored middle-class women who, despite having never met before, decide to book their dream holiday together and find some other women to share the cost. They recruit a beautiful aristocrat who desperately wants to be left alone, and a wealthy snob who looks down on all of them. But the Italian Riviera works its magic and as they relax and shake off their ordinary lives, they start to open up to each other.

I really loved the relationship between Bilal, the protagonist of This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik, and his best friend, the local vicar. When Bilal announces his plan to build a mosque in their village, it makes things a bit awkward, to say the least, but their friendship endures.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, The PLAIN Janes by Cecil Castelluci and Jim Rugg, and Boy Queen by George Lester are all YA books with amazing friendships that I've read over the last few months. I especially love reading YA novels that focus on friendship because YA is all about becoming the person we want to be, and friends not only help us work out who that is, but support us as we grow.

My reading has varied wildly during lockdown, between losing the will to do any early on, and getting a ton done recently because there's nothing else TO do (until I get my Social Security Number and can work again, at least.) How about you - have you been reading much? Anything good?

I have been reading a LOT. I read a bit less when I was working on Unlucky in Lockdown, but books have really been my lifeline. I have read 90 books since lockdown began! I've spent several weekends doing almost nothing other than reading. At first I wanted to read purely to escape, to travel inside my mind while I was stuck indoors, but now I've turned it into a bit of a challenge, to see how many books I can read and then give away to new homes! I'm hoping that by the time this is all over my bookshelves will be a lot tidier, I won't have any random proofs from 2014 lying around unread, and I'll be able to donate an enormous stack of read YA novels to local schools via BookBuddy.

As well the the books I already mentioned in the friendship question, I've read and loved: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild, 26a by Diana Evans, The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary, Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron ed. by Jonathan Strahan, Piglettes by Clémentine Beauvais, 7 Days by Eve Ainsworth, The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo, Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Outsiders ed. by Alice Slater!

In addition to the book and your blogs and YouTube channel, you also have several courses on Udemy, looking at igniting your passion for reading, running a book club, and planning your work wardrobe. What first got you interested in doing courses like this?

Money! It's true. I got really into personal finance a few years back and one of my favourite blogs, Can't Swing a Cat, featured a guest post by Louise Croft, who creates lifestyle courses on Udemy and has done really well out of it. She offered a code for a free enrolment on one of her courses and immediately I decided I wanted to create courses of my own as a "side hustle" (phrase used with great amounts of eye-rolling).

But although I got into it for the money, I created Ignite Your Passion for Reading: Fall In Love With Books for love. It's a free course targeted towards adults who have either fallen out of love with reading or never quite managed to click with it, designed to help people who know nothing about the online book community find recommendations and get involved in all the fun. I have no intention of ever charging for it, it's got over 5,000 students and my only hope is that it continues to grow and grow. 

Is there any question you've always wanted to be asked in an interview? And if there is, what's the answer?

No! I have daydreamed about being interviewed, but never got as far as imagining what the questions would be! So thanks, Jim, for asking me such interesting questions, despite having nothing to live up to!

Book Description:

Cora and Xandra have been flatmates for over a year, but they’ve never been friends. It’s not been a problem before – Cora likes her peace and quiet, and Xandra’s happy to leave her to it, spending most of her time partying elsewhere. But when the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold, and the UK is put under lockdown, they find themselves forced into spending a lot more time together. Will they put their differences aside and learn to tolerate each other’s company? Will familiarity breed further contempt…or will they find common ground and develop a true friendship?

Unlucky in Lockdown is a 26,750 word novella set during the first two weeks of the UK’s lockdown.

Download it for free via the links at Julianne's web page.

You can also check out Julianne's video about the book