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February’s YA titles: The joys of love and the dangers of virtual reality

Brief reviews of This Time It’s Real; Glow Up, Lara Bloom; Game Over Girl; Every Gift a Curse; and more

The season of feel-good romantic comedies is upon us as we look at this month’s teen fiction picks, ready for Valentine’s-themed displays in bookshops and on social media. Cute and hopeful books about first crushes, often with pink on the cover, are what some people assume to be the default in this field, but in truth it can sometimes be difficult to find a newly published love story on the YA shelves that doesn’t also involve an important social issue, a supernatural threat, or a dystopian government to be rebelled against.

For YA advocates this is sometimes pleasing – look at how serious and important these books really are! How dare you imply they are trivial! – and sometimes exhausting. Fiction for adult readers incorporates a wide range of genres and brow-levels; so too does this sector of the market. There is space for delight, and swooning, and an awareness, as Ann Liang beautifully puts it in This Time It’s Real (Scholastic, £8.99), that “hope is not weakness. It’s oxygen, a crack in the window, the pale slash of moonlight across a dusty room.”

Liang’s book is an instant charmer, with protagonist Eliza finding herself in a bit of a pickle: making up details for a school assignment has led to an essay about meeting the (entirely fictional) love of her life going viral. With a chance to intern at her favourite publisher suddenly on the line, she forgoes truth in favour of scheming, and presents the following PowerPoint to her actor classmate: “A Strategic, Mutually Beneficial and Romantically Oriented Alliance to Help Further Our Respective Careers.”

As someone used to moving around a lot, thanks to her mother’s high-powered job, Eliza has never quite fit in; her sense of feeling “fundamentally unlovable” is all too real while her fondness for organisation makes her endearing. The tensions between her international background and Chinese heritage are woven deftly into the plot, with Beijing serving as both home and unfamiliar territory. And like the best modern romantic heroes, love interest Caz is not so much there to “save” or “fix” Eliza as he is to be a partner in this strange business of living, and pursuing the things that bring one joy.


Another take on the “let’s pretend to date” trope appears in Anika Hussain’s This Is How You Fall In Love (Hot Key Books, £8.99), with rom-com aficionado Zara realising that “fake relationships are so much harder than they show on telly” after attempting this ploy with her best friend Adnan. It’s part attempt to show both sets of parents – determined to not be “like your typical Desi parents” but still apparently over-invested in their children’s future marriage prospects – that a romance between the two childhood pals won’t work, and part cover-up for Adnan’s real relationship with Cami, whose strict father doesn’t want her seeing anyone. This appealing debut includes a few unexpected swerves from a seemingly predictable set-up, as befits a protagonist (and author) with an extensive knowledge of a genre that is adjacent to, but not a replica of, real life.

The journaling of a 14-year-old football captain in Dee Benson’s Glow Up, Lara Bloom (Hot Key Books, £7.99) recalls the hilarity and warmth of Louise Rennison, complete with mean girls and their minions (“flying monkeys”), a cute boy at school and a series of incredibly embarrassing incidents. The cringe factor of early adolescence is captured beautifully (or terrifyingly), with disaster moments always made better with a pack of good friends and a quest for self-improvement (the titular “glow up”) that includes more than just a physical makeover.

Bestselling romance author Talia Hibbert focuses on younger characters than usual in Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute (Piatkus, £9.99), with Celine and Brad still in school rather than having sparks fly in a workplace setting. The two used to be best friends until (according to Celine, anyway) Brad “threw himself headfirst into the gelatinous beast that is popularity and was sucked away and transformed”. Brad’s version is that Celine “very seriously dropped me like a hot potato”. Forced to team up as part of a competitive survival quest in the woods that could change both of their lives, they begin to reconnect.

Hibbert incorporates what we might think of as “issues” – parental abandonment, OCD, discrimination due to both race and class – into this novel, but always in service of the plot. Like the other authors here, her interest in “diversity” and “representation”, which in certain hands can be mere buzzwords, is both informed by her own experiences and skilfully translated on to the page. The love stories here are fun but they also serve as reminders of a multiplicity of experiences on this planet we all share.

For those resistant to such tales, worry not, there is still a place in YA for exploring anxieties over technology and the sinister uses giant corporations may put it to. Naomi Gibson’s sophomore novel, Game Over Girl (Chicken House, £8.99), uses virtual-reality gaming as an opportunity for the newly orphaned Lola to hide from her dark secrets. At her new boarding school, she is one of a select few chosen to play “the game”, where she recreates her old home, but threats to her invented space come from both within and without. This creepy psychological thriller kept me turning the pages.

In a similar thematic vein, a new series launches with Irish writer and producer Triona Campbell’s A Game of Life or Death (Scholastic, £8.99). Campbell’s world is broader in scope, presenting a near-future London that has lived through a second global pandemic and become the new “centre of the engineering science world” thanks to Zu Tech, a corporation specialising in virtual reality. Sixteen-year-old Asha has grown up benefiting from Zu Tech’s outreach programmes, which have allowed her to develop her coding gifts – skills that come in useful when her older sister and guardian dies suddenly.

Only recently released from the social services system, a world of “bouncing from care home to care home” and where “no one cares if you live or die”, Asha refuses to return. Instead, she tasks herself with finding out the truth behind her sister’s death – a quest that inevitably leads to Zu Tech and a mysterious special project involving virtual-reality gaming. Asha draws on old contacts to wrangle her way on to an eSports team and into a high-profile tournament, where victory in the digital world may be the only way to save the physical one.

The high stakes and clever pacing here make up for some occasionally clunky dialogue, and there is a richness to the world and its cast of supporting characters that neatly paves the way for future books.

Last but not least, Caroline O’Donoghue concludes her gripping tarot-themed supernatural trilogy with Every Gift a Curse (Walker Books, £8.99), a deeply satisfying and moving ending to a story that has captured teenage friendships and concerns with unerring precision throughout. This final instalment sees sinister forces attempt to fracture the connections between Maeve and her friends, accurately sensing the potential power of their combined gifts, and reveals the complicated, messy truth about the mysterious Housekeeper figure. Coming of age plus magic, done exceptionally well.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

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