We are all prone to certain parts of the media consumed in our childhood leaving their mark on us. For me a key text was Sleepless in Seattle, a movie its director and co-writer Nora Ephron once explained thus: “Our dream was to make a movie about how movies screw up your brain about love and then if we did a good job we would become one of the movies that screwed up people’s brains about love forever.” (Cheers Nora.)
There’s something pleasing and immensely satisfying about works that acknowledge, dissect and interrogate the tropes of a particular genre while also replicating the best of them – works that recognise that their reader or viewer or consumer is savvy and critical but still in love with story and the building blocks that help the story along.
Irish writer Ciara Smyth's debut, The Falling in Love Montage (Andersen Press, £7.99), is a perfect example. The protagonist, Saoirse (to always be pronounced the proper Irish way, the novel reminds us, never mind what "national treasure" Ms Ronan has to say), believes the alleged comeback of the rom-com is "just a nineties hangover trying to crawl its way back into relevance".
Having just finished her Leaving Cert and still dealing with a break-up alongside her mother’s early onset dementia, Saoirse is sceptical about “true love”. She does, however, believe in “wanting to get the shift. You know, maul, snog, lob the gob, feek, meet, wear… or as the French say, kiss.”
Meeting the beautiful Ruby prompts a search for loopholes in her rules for not getting attached to girls who might actually like her back. But as they deliberately explore rom-com cliches (“no, you hang up!”) as options in this not-quite-relationship, it becomes clear there’s a connection there.
Plot-wise this is, of course, to be expected, but what really sells it is Smyth’s knowing-yet-hurting, snarky-yet-caring teenage voice. Saoirse feels incredibly real, and is both sympathetic and difficult; I wish we had more characters like her in YA fiction. While “coming out” stories are still important and relevant, it’s important that they so not represent the “single story” of what it means to be gay, or queer or whatever identity might apply.
With this in mind, another welcome addition to the YA field is Phil Stamper's debut, The Gravity of Us (Bloomsbury, £7.99), set at an astronaut training camp and featuring as its narrator a teenage journalist-in-training.
Cal’s ambitions – “I want to make a name for myself. I want the mainstream media to know that this new form of reporting matters, and that it can make a difference” – are complicated by, but neither formed nor dismissed by, his sexuality as a gay teenage boy. His attraction to a fellow teenager in this strange world, where so much of what happens appears on social media, presents problems – and not because they’re both male.
This book is a wonderful example of how several issues can be tackled at once without delivering a heavy-handed lecture; there’s (rightly) scepticism about mainstream media without descending into conspiracy theories. Ultimately it leaves a reader feeling bruised but optimistic: it will take energy, but someday we might, in fact, boldly go where no one has gone before.
Let's step away from potential futures for a moment. Elizabeth Wein revisits the world of Code Name Verity with her latest second World War aviation thriller, The Enigma Game (Bloomsbury, £7.99). Spies and uncertainty shape this narrative of three different characters seeking to find meaning of some kind in their contribution to the war.
Wein uses her expert knowledge of aviation to offer up insights into the thrills and terrors of piloting: “It sometimes doesn’t feel real when you’re there. You’re so focused on flying and firing. Afterwards, you feel choked up or frightened – especially if it’s gone badly, and you have miles of an empty sea to cross in a broken plane, and your mates are dead.”
For those on the ground (including Louisa and Ellen, another powerful portrayal of female friendship in extraordinary circumstances from Wein, and one that incorporates an examination of class and race during wartime), it is equally uncertain: particularly when choosing whether or not to trust a German spy, or to use the codes given to unlock potential secrets.
This is another thriller from a master of the genre, a novel that manages to be both gripping in its own right and vital in terms of casting light on a particular area of war-time resistance.
Horror offerings this month include Kathryn Foxfield's Good Girls Die First (Scholastic, £7.99), a Stephen King-esque tale of a group of teenagers, all with potentially damning secrets, trapped within an abandoned carnival. A few too many characters makes it tricky to relate to or care for any, including the protagonist at times, but the fast-paced plot is satisfying.
Kat Ellis's Harrow Lake (Penguin, £7.99) focuses on the teenaged daughter of a celebrated horror film-maker, and the small town obsessed with his work. Lola is all too aware of how ridiculous she must be to believe that there's something supernatural going on, and how her father would say it's "pure superstitious nonsense", yet the evidence keeps mounting in this sinister and compelling offering.
Crime/thriller-wise, Karen M McManus returns with One of Us Is Next (Penguin, £7.99), an engrossing new mystery set in the world of her first book, influenced by what's gone before without trying to mimic or replicate plot points.
Similarly, Holly Jackson's Good Girl, Bad Blood (Egmont, £7.99) revisits a previous protagonist, a teenage podcaster who uncovered the truth about a local murder, now aware of the threats doled out to anyone who speaks up and reluctant to get involved in a new case. Sequels need not be disappointing – these are excellent.