Fifteen years after first introducing the world to brooding vampire Edward Cullen, Stephenie Meyer revisits the story of Twilight from his perspective. Fans have been waiting for the already-bestselling Midnight Sun (Atom, £14.99) for almost as long, being disappointed when Meyer set the project aside in 2008 after early chapters were leaked online.
When you love a franchise, part of the joy in any new material is simply that you get to spend more time in that universe, and that’s really all readers will get here. It’s thin on new insights, revisiting the original book scene by scene, with added inner turmoil. “I was a predator. She was my prey,” Edward thinks, imagining killing Bella Swan – which might make for a suspenseful read if we didn’t already know the story. He declares himself to be a “nightmare, destroyer of lives, mutilator of dreams”, but it sounds theatrical rather than genuine.
Instead of seeming glamorous, Edward comes across as a garden-variety emotional abuser. He’s not alone among romantic heroes in that, of course, but here the writing isn’t good enough to let a reader slip into a fantasy world that does not need to play by our rules. This instalment is 756 pages long, and it feels like it.
Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep (Walker, £7.99) arrives on this side of the Atlantic having already garnered several American accolades, including a National Book Award. In short, intense chapters, 15-year-old Caden slips between lives. In one he is an ordinary high-school student, daily becoming more isolated from his family and friends. In another he is a member of a crew, and its resident artist, on a strange and perilous voyage to the depths of the Marianas trench.
The illustrations that accompany the text, provided by Shusterman’s son, Brendan, reflect the surreal nature of the latter universe, and only gradually do we understand that this is a manifestation of schizophrenia (although the trickiness of precise labels is addressed within the text). “Do you know how it feels,” Caden asks, “to be free from yourself and terrified by it? You feel both invincible and yet targeted, as if the world – as if the universe – doesn’t want you to feel this dizzying enlightenment”. He finds patterns everywhere, “truths no one else can see. Conspiracies and connections as twisted and sticky as a black widow’s web.”
Shusterman succeeds in offering us a gripping drama without ever glamorising or oversimplifying mental illness; this is a powerful read not simply for “the issues” but for its frustrating, endearing, memorable protagonist.
Samira Ahmed’s Mad, Bad & Dangerous To Know (Atom, £7.99) features the kind of frustrating protagonist who never quite makes it into the “endearing” category. Like the protagonist of Ahmed’s excellent Internment, Khayyam is both Muslim and American. On her regular summer holiday to France, she constantly refers to her privilege and her otherness, often betraying a painful self-absorption (there is a single breezy reference to the hijab as Khayyam lectures a French boy on how things are harder in the US) that seems as though it must be setting up a character journey that involves moving past lazy cultural stereotypes.
Instead, Khayyam and the aforementioned boy uncover the mystery of Leila, the fictional muse of both Byron and Dumas. Their commitment to honouring the past is undermined by an attitude to French historical artefacts that’s cavalier at best, however, and the protagonist remains firmly on her high horse throughout. Had she ever dismounted, this would be a far better book, and a more convincing exploration of what we owe to the forgotten voices of the past.
A debut from Kat Dunn, Dangerous Remedy (Zephyr Books, £10.99), also takes Paris as its setting. June, 1794: the height of the Terror. A ragtag bunch of teenage misfits rescue prisoners, cheating the guillotine of at least some its victims – including a girl with strange electrical powers, wanted by both the revolutionaries and the royalists.
Dunn’s novel offers up vivid period detail – particularly around clothing and food – while abandoning all pretence that these characters are genuine 18th-century figures in their speech or sensibilities. “We’re living in a city that cut off its king’s head. I think anything goes at this point,” one says cheerfully; another references Arthur C Clarke’s declaration that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And it completely works for this fast-paced adventure – readers will be delighted to know a sequel is already scheduled.
Hipper than thou
The world of children’s and young adult literature rarely presents the opportunity to be a sneery hipster, but let me try here with reference to Dame Jacqueline Wilson: “Oh, you got into her after Tracy Beaker? Some of us are aware she was writing ground-breaking YA fiction all the way through the 1980s, but whatever. And have you even read her 1970s crime novels?” She’s been publishing for 50 years, most recently concentrating on historical fiction for children, and she has a particular gift for understanding the inner, often imagined lives of young people.
This has not often extended into romance, even with her titles for teens, but in her latest, Love Frankie (Puffin, £12.99), she conveys the dizzying heights of first love with pitch-perfect details, belying her claim to not really “get” social media and modern teens. Frankie analyses a text message from Sally, the cool mean girl and object of her affections, “as if it were a passage of Shakespeare”; being “girlfriends” is both fraught and something to notify grandmothers of. It’s one of her best books – no mean feat for a writer with over 100 titles to her name – and one of the most joyful reading experiences I’ve had in 2020.