YA Fiction: From black poverty to a new vampire slayer

Angie Thomas’s novel about what it means to be black, female and poor is powerful

Angie Thomas: her new novel meets expectations and then some

Angie Thomas: her new novel meets expectations and then some

 

The immense critical and commercial success of Angie Thomas’s debut, The Hate U Give, involving both a movie adaptation and a long-standing slot on the New York Times bestseller list, means the pressure is on for her second novel, not helped by the slightly cringeworthy marketing decision to pitch her as “the voice of a generation” (did we learn nothing from Girls?). Nevertheless, On the Come Up (Walker Books, £7.99) meets expectations and then some.

On a superficial level it is less overtly political than her first novel, but the exploration of what it means to be black, female and poor is incredibly powerful. Narrator Brianna, labelled aggressive in school whenever she speaks up, is a teen rapper who unexpectedly goes viral with a song that audiences misinterpret; she’s also a kid fiercely anxious about her mom losing her job. This seemingly low-level tragedy is one the author has experienced herself, and is depicted with tremendous empathy.

As with Thomas’s first book, there’s a satisfying complexity to the story that ensures that while readers will certainly learn much from Brianna’s account of her own life, they’re never being lectured.

“Sometimes surviving wasn’t enough. A person needed more than a roof and food. She needed to hope, to believe she could do something.” Seventeen-year-old Camille, the heroine of Gita Trelease’s Enchantée (Macmillan Children’s Books, £7.99), is responsible for keeping herself and her younger sister alive, now that her parents have died. Part of how she manages this is through le magie ordinaire, an everyday magic that allows her to temporarily transform bits of scrap metal into coins.

But it’s not enough at this particular moment in time – Paris in 1789 is full of starving, struggling people, and Camille realises she must draw on a grander sort of magic if she hopes to escape poverty. The glamoire allows her to disguise herself as a noble and take part in the card games at Versailles, and although this proves fruitful at first, the magic is physically draining and it becomes increasingly clear that being found out will put her in danger.

The delicious conceit of this book is that it is magic that holds the ancien regime together and is responsible for the ostentatious nature of Versailles; the excesses of pre-revolutionary France are portrayed as glamour spells that are slowly fading. It’s a compelling metaphor and a skilful way to blend the fantastical with the historical. This is a treat of a novel, and readers will be pleased to know that a sequel is forthcoming.

“I can’t help that I’m smarter than my doctor,” Hannah thinks smugly as her psychiatrist tries to get her to talk about the incident that has led to her hospitalisation. She knows what she has to do to get out – convince everyone that it’s all “an enormous mistake”, that whatever put her best friend in a coma was an accident rather than something deliberate.

Alyssa Sheinmel’s A Danger to Herself and Others (Atom, £7.99) sets itself up as a psychological thriller, with Hannah as the deliberately unreliable narrator we very quickly suspect of being a murderer. As entertaining as her cynical and manipulative thought process might be, we also hope that she is found out and pays for her crimes.

Then the story swerves as Hannah’s grip on reality is questioned – and it becomes clear that no one is out to get her. This is not a murder mystery – this is a story about a teenage girl coming to terms with a profound mental illness and a tragedy that can’t be undone. What’s particularly pleasing about this shift in tone is that thrillers can so often lean on a fuzzy sense of “insanity” to justify a character’s behaviour, but the handling tends to be superficial; here it proves devastating. This is already one of my favourite books of the year.

“When she is angry she forgets her shyness, enjoying the looks of surprise the knowledge that she is different. She was not born to be like other girls; she was born to be like her mother. An outlaw. A radical.”

Sharon Dogar’s second novel, Monsters (Andersen Press, £12.99) pulls us into the early 19th century and the world of Mary Shelley, daughter of two important liberal thinkers and constantly haunted by the loss of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. When she meets Percy Bysshe Shelley it is not long before they elope, and so begins both a tumultuous love affair and the novel Frankenstein, still read 200 years later.

With the real-life events so dramatic that even to recount them is to tell a good story, Dogar adds another layer by focusing not just on Mary but on her stepsister, Jane, who accompanied the couple on their adventures. The historical details are deftly woven into this riveting tale. A book to curl up with.

In a world where franchises are never allowed to die, we have Kiersten White’s Slayer (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), the first in a planned series that continues the story of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a rebooted TV show is also in the works). The focus is on a new Slayer, Nina, and begins a few months after Buffy “broke all magic on earth”.

The amount of backstory White is faced with covering is daunting, but the exposition is generally handled well, with the book able to serve an audience whose familiarity with the show and its follow-up comic series will vary. Casual allusions to how often apocalypses are due or how prophecies can be tricky serve to make this feel like a worthy and legitimate addition to the Buffyverse.

Claire Hennessy is a writer and YA commentator

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