Congratulations to Louise O’Neill, whose debut novel Only Ever Yours has won the first ever Bookseller YA Book Prize. It was a clear favourite with a majority of my fellow judges. Unfortunately I was in Ireland and couldn’t attend the ceremony last week, but I’ve being a part of this first YA Book Prize. Only Ever Yours was part of a very strong shortlist, which was (mostly) a pleasure to read.
Here are a few of my favourites…
Say Her Name by James Dawson
I’ve never liked horror or ghost stories, so you can imagine my delight when I realised I was going to have to read one – I was prepared to be both frightened and bored. But Say Her Name turned out to be a cracking book. The story of a vengeful ghost who is summoned by saying her name three times while looking in a mirror may be a familiar one (possibly not if you’re fourteen) but James Dawson uses it as the bass for a highly atmospheric page-turner. The girl’s school setting was well-drawn, the mystery was intriguing, and there were frequent scares and cliff-hangers which made it hard to stop reading. Above all, the characters were great; I cared about them, which is probably what makes it work.
A Song For Ella Grey by David Almond
A modern-day reworking of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, David Almond’s latest is a remarkably beautiful piece of writing, and a remarkably beautiful book, with some bold illustrations by Karen Radford (uncredited on the cover) and a whole section of reversed-out white-on-black pages for the descent into the underworld. I say it’s a ‘modern-day reworking’, but it’s not really concerned with the details of daily life – a mobile phone plays a key part in the story, but the internet doesn’t seem to intrude into the lives of these young people; it could be happening in any year since about 1960. The place is very specific, though; Newcastle, and the beaches and sand-dunes of the north-east coast, all drawn in clear, spare prose. It’s about love, and death, and art, and being young, and it is masterful.
The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick
The Ghosts of Heaven is made up of four long-ish short stories.
The first is about
and is told
in blank verse.
Then there’s a tale of a 17th Century witch-hunter in northern England, one set in an American lunatic asylum in the 1920s, and the final story takes place on a spaceship where most of the passengers are in cryogenic suspension a la Cakes in Space – though of course the influences here aren’t Reeve and McIntyre but Moon and 2001 (the sole waking crewman is called Kier Bowman).
Linking all four stories is the recurring image of the spiral, seen in everything from snail’s shells and the flight of hawks to the whole of the galaxy. You’re supposed to be able to read the four stories in any order, but I’m not sure why you would want to – the order they’re arranged in has an arc to it which would be lacking if you went backwards. It’s all a bit portentous – if the other books on the shortlist were pop songs, this one would be a prog rock concept album with a gatefold sleeve and a ten minute drum solo – but at least it assumes YA readers will be interested in big, strange, philosophical ideas. If I was a Young Adult rather than an Old Adult, this would have been my favourite.
It also has the best cover. (Not the best cover on the shortlist – the best cover ever.)
Salvage by Keren David
This is another book which I wasn’t looking forward to reading. Four of the books on the shortlist were written in my least-favourite form, in which the narrative is split between two first-person narrators. Why this should be so popular, I can’t imagine: I can’t think of a better way to throw the reader out of the story every couple of pages. Admittedly, most of the shortlisted books were well enough written that I eventually overcame my irritation, but when I picked up Salvage and found that it was broken into chunks subtitled Cass and Aidan, I nearly didn’t bother reading on.
I’m very glad I did, though, because it’s absolutely flippin’ brilliant. Cass and Aidan are brother and sister, but have parted company in childhood when Cass is adopted by a Conservative MP and his cosy upper-middle class family, while Aidan is left to struggle through the care system and various disastrous foster placements. By the time the book starts he’s living with his older girlfriend in a flat above an architectural salvage shop in London, clinging onto a job by his fingertips. Cass, meanwhile, has her own troubles. Her foster-father, like every other Tory MP in modern UK fiction ever, has been having an affair. When news of this hits the tabloid press it’s seen by Aidan, who recognises his sister’s photo and contacts her via Facebook. Cass, caught in the crossfire of her foster parents’ divorce, agrees to meet him, and the rest of the book details their uneasy attempts to get to know one another again.
The book has great generosity of spirit. There is a villain of sorts – a hard case called Neil, resurfacing out of Aidan’s murky past with a bad attitude and a Chehkovian gun – but in almost all the other characters Keren David uncovers some core of decency; they don’t always behave well, but they always have their reasons. Aidan is trouble, and quite unpleasant in some ways, but we care about him, and come to understand why he is the way he is. Cass and Aidan’s mother has her own story too; even Cass’s foster father is doing his best (unlike every other Tory MP in modern UK fiction ever). The he said/she said format is used to advantage here, contrasting Cass’s considered, past-tense narrative with Aidan’s much rawer, present tense account, which feels as if being spoken rather than written. And it somehow manages to deliver an ending which feels happy and satisfying while leaving almost all the central relationships unresolved. It’s a wonderful achievement.