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Grit and ghosts: November’s best YA picks

David Arnold’s writing is stylish, featuring the kind of smart teens one finds in John Green or David Levithan books

“Sometimes I think that people like us are always alone in this world. Hidden away and stuck inside our Treacle Towns. Unequal and unrecognised. Driftwood floating down our manky canal; surviving day to day, unable to plan for anything or get excited about the future. No pleasure. No prospects.” The award-winning Brian Conaghan is in flying form with his latest fearless novel, Treacle Town (Andersen Press, £8.99), a fierce indictment of Tory governments, class and inequality.

In Coatbridge, Conaghan’s own hometown near Glasgow, eighteen-year-old Connor has just seen his best friend murdered by a rival gang. “Biscuit, my mate. Our mucker. One of the troops. Lying there in his crisp shirt and tie like some posh waiter. Not as much as a scratch on his chops. Zero hint of carnage. Peaceful. Adorable. A proverbial angel. He’d probably have preferred to be in his North Face trackie right enough. He loved that thing. Mint, so it was. Didn’t tell him that though. Should’ve.” Violence is rife in this world, and it’s “safer to be a stabber than a grasser in these parts.”

Connor’s mates have vowed revenge for Biscuit’s murder and expect him to join in; at the same time, he’s discovering the world of slam poetry and the power of the arts – a space he’s felt excluded from – to express himself and to speak up about the reality of his life. In another pair of hands, this could be twee, but Conaghan firmly resists any neat, cosy resolution. (Connor’s distinctive dialect, complete with plenty of swearing, also helps.) The anger and frustration that come with the lack of opportunities and the deliberate neglect of community resources (cinemas, sports pitches, arts centres), is captured brilliantly on the page. YA literature, despite its ongoing calls for diversity, is often terribly middle-class and views working-class communities as places only to escape from; Conaghan’s voice is a welcome change.

The dangerous pursuits young men can get caught up in is also explored in Luke Palmer’s Play (Firefly Press, £8.99), echoing his first novel, Grow, in its unflinching depiction of teenage masculinity. Four boys grow up creating games, finding ways to mess around and distract themselves, until the summer when it all gets more serious, when troublesome Mark gets caught up in drug dealing, with its attendant risks and rewards. “I make two hundred quid some weeks. Before expenses, that is. It’s like in Business Studies – gross profit and net profit. I guess I am learning something useful at school.”


The in-jokes and camaraderie among the lads are depicted skilfully, with shorts thrown up into trees as “undeniably hilarious” and seemingly silly rituals treated with solemnity. This exploration of “the rules of boy-friendship” has both grit and tenderness, with a devastating yet fitting ending.

We move into slightly gentler territory with David Arnold’s I Loved You In Another Life (Hot Key Books, £8.99), although cancer, grief, and alcoholism all feature in this account of two troubled teenagers falling in love. What softens the blow here is the magical-realist element, a mysterious song that only Evan and Shosh can hear and one that brings them together when they each need someone to listen. Snapshots of centuries gone by, with their own love stories, are interspersed between the present-day chapters; it’s an intriguing device but a tad underdeveloped. Even without it, we’re rooting for these two: anxious Evan, unsure about abandoning his brilliant, bullied younger brother when he leaves home, and former golden child Shosh, completely lost after the death of her older sister.

Arnold’s writing is stylish, featuring the kind of smart teens one finds in John Green or David Levithan books; his characters analyse both the world and themselves. Evan reflects: “When you think about it, most families boil down to the same core elements: geography (this is our house); biography (this is who we are); and philosophy (this is where we’re here). More than a foundation, it’s a mutual agreement. A code. So when someone you live with leaves, it’s more than a departure; it’s the arrival of a new code.” Bonus points aplenty for this musing not being prompted by a suspiciously-apt homework assignment, as is so often the case in this field. A gorgeous read.

Miranda Sun’s debut, If I Have To Be Haunted (Magpie, £14.99), also gives us a love story with a magical twist. In this case, overachiever Cara and her intensely annoying rival Zach are brought together by his death; her skills as a “ghost speaker” allow her to see his spirit after a bite from a mysterious snake, and send them on a quest to find an antidote within seven days. Initially, she’s doing it for the cash he’s promised her; very quickly they’re falling for each other.

Alongside the familiar enemies-to-lovers trope, there’s an exploration of legacy and family expectations. Cara’s grandmother, who she’s only known as a ghost, shared this gift, but her mother has denied her own talents. “To her mother’s eyes, Cara had failed her the moment she’d been born, ghost speaking abilities slumbering in her veins.” The intergenerational tensions here deliberately reflect the challenges of the children of immigrants, caught between assimilation and honouring their heritage – which in this instance involves some pretty nifty magical powers. It adds an extra layer to this sometimes-predictable, but still enjoyable, romantic adventure.

Living up to parental expectations is also a challenge for Milo, hero of the wondrous Frances Hardinge’s Island of Whispers (Two Hoots, £14.99), a dark fairytale with stylish illustrations from Emily Gravett. “His father was right,” Milo thinks, “you had to keep your guard up when ferrying the Dead. You needed enough alertness to see when they were close, but it was dangerous to be too aware of them. If you let yourself wonder about them, or imagine how they might feel, that left you open.”

Despite “his usual wave of frustration and inadequacy” washing over him, Milo has no choice but to take over his father’s job and ferry the Dead to the Island of the Broken Tower, all the while trying to outrun those who want to reclaim the souls for themselves. Alongside a beautiful moral – Milo learning that his imagination, his empathy, his kindness is a strength rather than a weakness – there are unsettling details of the kind Hardinge specialises in. Among those who pursue his boat are headless birds, “mottled like old cheese” and in possession of “clever, little monkey hands”. Reality becomes uncertain in a swirl of “falter-moths, grief-wringed”. Gravett’s accompanying images manage to be both gentle and sinister as we follow Milo on his quest. This slim, elegant volume, coming in at slightly over one hundred pages, is an ideal gift book for both reluctant teen readers and enthusiastic readers with a penchant for the macabre.

Sometimes less really is more; the initial simplicity of cartoonist Alex Norris’s non-fiction work How To Love (Walker Books, £12.99) ends up saying an awful lot of smart things about navigating relationships – both romantic and platonic – in a series of comic strip sequences. “The closest thing we have to psychic powers is talking,” one page tells us, while another depicts rejection as being thrown off a cliff. Cute, yes, but also thoughtful.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

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