“I’m not trying to absolve myself of responsibility. I should make that clear. I made my own decisions, some of which ended up causing a great deal of damage. All I’m saying is that I had to respond to a situation that was often beyond my control, and even further beyond my comfort zone. This continues to be something I struggle with.” Writing a letter – or perhaps a confession – to her dead mother, 16-year-old Phoebe earnestly explains the year in which her best friend, Bethany, “went off the rails”. It begins with a car stuck on the beach of the tiny island she has grown up on, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and includes a grumpy elderly poet, a chess club, a doomed love affair and a variety of secrets and lies that will upend Phoebe’s carefully-regulated world.
Gavin Extence’s Finding Phoebe (Andersen Press, £8.99) is dedicated to his young daughter and inspired by her diagnosis of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Phoebe is a voracious reader and excellent strategist, but she finds “the larger ecosystems of secondary school hard to cope with”. Adolescence has proven a particular challenge, “when I’d had to adapt without warning to a whole new set of expectations and hidden codes of behaviour, to new ways of speaking and acting and being. Sarcasm was suddenly rife. Clothing and hairstyles became more intricate. Information was conveyed in silent glances – meaningful to everyone else, and frequently impenetrable to me.” If you were ever a teenage girl, shivers of recognition should be making their way down your spine at this point.
Phoebe’s distinctive voice – filled with both yearning and intelligent analysis – is the great strength of this novel and is one of the finest examples I’ve encountered in YA fiction of depicting neurodiversity as genuine difference, rather than as disability or superpower. As a reader, you are sympathetic to her without pitying her, and often impressed with her. It makes for a richer story, and a more rewarding emotional experience. This is an utterly gorgeous book.
And speaking of gorgeousness, over to a world where beauty standards reign supreme. In Holly Bourne’s You Could Be So Pretty (Usborne, £8.99), girls are either Pretty or Objectionable. The Doctrine tells them that they have a choice, but in reality there is none: “Because if we don’t follow The Doctrine, there are significant consequences. We are denied love. We are denied work. We are denied friendship. We are denied respect. We are denied safety. We are denied visibility. It’s not a choice and we must remind ourselves of that.”
Classmates Belle (Pretty) and Joni (Objectionable) are competing for a scholarship, and develop an awkward, secret half-friendship after Joni rescues Belle from an attempted attack. They inhabit a world that is, despite vaguely futuristic-sounding nods, more fable than dystopia; readers expecting complex worldbuilding here will be disappointed, while those familiar with Bourne’s work will enjoy this new slant on her typical feminist teen fiction.
Building on her previous historical fiction exploring the restrictions on women in society, the award-winning, always-excellent Sally Nicholls moves to the late Victorian era in her newest venture, Yours From The Tower (Andersen Press, £14.99). Three boarding-school friends write to one another as they begin their very different new lives – Tirzah, “trapped” as the new companion to her strict grandmother; Sophia, the ”poor relation” being given a chance at the Season by a generous aunt; and Polly, teaching in an orphanage.
Despite an ostensibly modern education, things have not quite worked out how any of them had hoped. “Somehow at school we seemed to have more options,” Sophia writes as she does her duty and tries to charm a rich gentleman into proposing. “We were always learning about Florence Nightingale, or the Brontë sisters, or Queen Victoria. It seemed quite likely that we would all grow up to be great women, probably without having to try very hard. Real life, it turns out, isn’t like that at all.” Fairytale references are woven throughout, but also interrogated; we root for these girls to get happy endings while understanding the confines of their world. This immersive, uplifting book is an absolute delight.
Authors often speak of the “second-book slump”: the challenge of producing another novel once one has arrived on the shelves (and somehow, thoughtlessly, not magically fixed everything in that writer’s life). It is true that second novels do sometimes end up simply replicating what a writer imagines made the first one work - but it is also true that writers sometimes knock it out of the park with a second book, firmly establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with. This is what fantasy author Helen Corcoran has done with Daughter of Winter and Twilight (The O’Brien Press, €14.99), an elegant, gripping tale that is both sequel to her first book and something completely different.
Teenaged Emri, daughter of two ruling Queens, understands that although “the Edaran Court was no longer the vipers’ nest from when my parents were young, […] power was a constant desire.” As heir to the throne, all her friendships are political, and she has accepted this: it’s “what royal Courts were like. People’s lives and secrets and hopes: all pieces on the chessboard, ways for others to jostle for power”.
The Court intrigue soon takes second place to Emri’s strange encounter with a creature thought to be mere myth, a character to dress up as during a ball: Lady Winter. A goddess, a terror; Emri can’t look straight at her but “angled my face to catch brief glimpses: the snowfall-flicker of her gown, the dark claw tips of her right hand, the sleek fall of her raven hair. Her gaze pressed upon me like water closing over my head before it dragged me to the depths. Magic crawled over my skin like a creeping frost.”
The thoughtful characterisation of Emri, and of the other young royals the goddess has forced to accompany her on a dangerous quest, is one of the great strengths of this novel. Corcoran’s care with exploring the impact of trauma in fantastical worlds, particularly the harm those trusted with protecting young people can inflict, is reminiscent of Kristin Cashore’s work. Superb.
Marshall, hero of Keith Gray’s novella The Den (Barrington Stoke, £7.99), is also familiar by being let down by those in charge. His father has been on prescription painkillers since a devastating accident; Marshall has “learned the hard way not to try telling him he wasn’t meant to eat them like Smarties.” Finding an abandoned underground bunker seems to offer an escape – but his best mate Rory wants to tell others about it, including the classmate who beat up Marshall not too long ago.
YA fiction (unlike almost all other areas of literature) does sometimes stumble at its representation of the full range of male behaviour, with a few too many thoughtful and overly-articulate love interests; it is tremendously pleasing to see the sort-it-out-with-a-fight approach and its distinctive logic appearing on the page here. This nuanced, authentic portrayal of boyhood echoes Gray’s previous novels as well as the work of Melvin Burgess and Brian Conaghan; its length and care with language will particularly suit reluctant or struggling readers.