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YA fiction: back to the past in June’s best books for teens

Reviews: Friends Like These; When You Call My Name; Spin Me Right Round; The Writing on the Wall; The Butterfly Assassin; Twin Crowns

“The best thing about having Edie for a friend was the invincible feeling it gave her ... Edie knew where to go, what to do, how to act, who to talk to and who to avoid.” In the swelteringly hot summer of 1983, suburban Beth arrives in New York for a prestigious journalism internship and falls in with the effortlessly cool Edie, a city native who takes the newcomer under her wing and then — inevitably — betrays her.

Meg Rosoff’s Friends Like These (Bloomsbury, £12.99) gives Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters a serious run for its money in its depiction of a toxic yet compelling female friendship. In falling under Edie’s spell, Beth is humanly vulnerable rather than painfully naive; part of the appeal is that Edie is, like the city itself, a contrast to her more repressed origins. “In the suburbs,” she reflects, “everyone pretended to be fine, disguising drug addiction, infidelity and mental illness behind closed doors and lawn ornaments.”

Rosoff’s prose feels effortlessly lyrical, moving from straightforward description to devastating emotional truth in the blink of an eye. There’s also a delicious wryness that will be familiar to readers of her previous work; when Beth is mugged while queuing at the bank, she isn’t certain “whether no one had noticed the gun, or whether New Yorkers were just so pathologically nonchalant that no one would give up their place in line simply because a violent crime was in progress”.

This is a smart, stylish summer read drawing us back into the pre-internet age, and Rosoff is not alone among this month’s YA authors in sliding back to the past. Beth’s New York is at the beginning of the Aids epidemic, and if we move forward seven years we’ll meet Adam and Ben in Tucker Shaw’s When You Call My Name (Penguin, £7.99). These two gay teens are coming of age at a time when HIV is impossible to ignore even as those in power seem determined to do just that.


The depiction of how politicised a health crisis can become is the backdrop rather than central concern of this novel, and its resonances with the Covid-19 pandemic are subtle rather than heavy-handed. The coded way of speaking about sexuality — a boy being “sensitive” or “creative” — is also deftly done. At times, though, the nods towards future events land more awkwardly: the idea that flatscreen TVs will never happen is one thing, but having a character declare “Nothing here lasts forever” while another looks out at the World Trade Center towers is something of a sledgehammer moment.

All that said, it’s a moving read, a slow-burn love story that serves as a reminder of the different challenges each generation faces. Time-slip story Spin Me Right Round (Bloomsbury, £7.99) by David Valdes operates in a similar vein, though the tone is much lighter. Modern-day Luis is in the middle of a fight to change the rules for his school prom so that he can bring his boyfriend when a blow to the head lands him back in 1985 — in high school with his parents.

Time-slip narratives often involve the present-day character needing to put something right, and Luis, as a savvy reader and viewer, quickly identifies his “mission” — to save Chaz Wilson, his “ghost of gayness past” and the boy who allegedly took his own life at the prom in this very year. The knowingness here is satisfying, allowing the story to skip over the typical protagonist-confusion in favour of letting Luis note the differences between the eras: the way being given a phone number on a slip of paper feels like “being handed a letter from a Civil War general”, or how an absence of smartphones allows for being genuinely “present” in a moment. This is a funny, heart-warming book with deliberate echoes of Back to the Future.

Comedian and writer Jenny Eclair uses a similar premise in The Writing on the Wall (Orion, £7.99), although the “how” of the time travel is clearer here. Stripping the wallpaper in her new room, 250 miles away from her beloved London, Hermione finds the scribbles of the girl who lived here in 1975. Shortly after this, she boards an old-fashioned bus and encounters her in real life. Fifteen-year-old Helena, immersed in a world of landlines, print magazines and Marc Bolan, is not quite as sophisticated as a 21st-century teenager, but over the course of the summer she becomes Hermione’s best friend.

There is a “mission” for the time traveller here, too, but it’s a more minor element of the plot — perhaps even a little tacked on — and the real strength of this book is its depiction of a positive, empowering friendship amid the many uncertainties of adolescence.

In all four of these novels, the authors are writing about the era of their own youth, and it’s worth noting that despite the occasional flickers of glamour and nostalgia, the consensus appears to be that things are far better today, particularly for women and minorities. The message isn’t quite as didactic as advising today’s young people to count their blessings, fortunately, but collectively these titles do provide some context in an era of hyperbole and five-second memories. The challenges of the 2020s may feel overwhelming, but there are areas in which progress has been made. There is space, in other words, for gratitude and hope.

Other writers choose to slide sideways into alternate history. Debut author Finn Longman’s The Butterfly Assassin (Simon & Schuster, £7.99) takes place in a world not quite our own, where the closed city of Espera pitches itself as “the City of Hope, which took in refugees from bombed-out cities across Europe and gave them security and a new life behind its high walls”, rather than “Espera, the City of Fear, which murdered its way to independence and built those walls in the first place”.

Protagonist Isabel Ryans, a teenage assassin trying to have a “normal” life, is ideally placed to let us see how this city operates, particularly when she becomes the victim of poisoning and is forced to engage with the sinister forces she ran from, including her parents. This is an immersive, fast-paced thriller that does a superb job at presenting a situation that resonates with, but does not precisely duplicate, experiences of chronic illness and childhood abuse in our own world. Admiring readers will be glad to know it is the first in a trilogy.

Established writers Katherine Webber and Catherine Doyle pair up for Twin Crowns (Electric Monkey, £8.99), which takes place in another realm entirely. Wren and Rose were separated at birth — one raised as a witch, the other as a princess. As Rose’s coronation and marriage to a neighbouring prince approach, Wren takes her place in an attempt to restore the witches to their rightful place in Eana.

If occasionally clunky on exposition, this is nevertheless an appealing blend of fantasy, adventure and romance. With its strong twin protagonists, girls who are determined to be active participants in their own fates, it’s a book for anyone whose love of The Princess Bride comes with a footnote of yearning for the female characters having a bit more to do.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in reviewing young-adult literature