Young adult fiction: Delightful distractions for January

Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan’s Unpregnant wrests humour from an unlikely place

In Unpregnant, a positive pregnancy test in the last weeks of high school is not something Veronica feels she can share with her family. Photograph: iStock

In Unpregnant, a positive pregnancy test in the last weeks of high school is not something Veronica feels she can share with her family. Photograph: iStock

 

There’s nothing quite like a properly funny novel to counteract the gloom of January, and there’s a welcome title amidst this month’s young adult offerings. With Unpregnant (Chicken House, £7.99), screenwriters Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan prove that it’s possible to wrest humour out of even the grimmest of scenarios: this is a road trip with an abortion clinic as the ultimate destination.

Narrator Veronica is the perfect girl – good grades, good boyfriend, good church-going family. Her friends are all similarly wholesome; theirs is a relationship “built on successes, not failures”. A positive pregnancy test in the last weeks of high school is not something she feels she can share with them, but her former best friend, Bailey, now the school’s resident “black hole of anger and darkness”, stumbles across the secret. With restrictive laws around underage procedures, the nearest clinic is nearly a thousand miles away – and Bailey just happens to have a car.

The two set off, tension crackling and dialogue fizzing, with Bailey’s sardonic humour occasionally slipping to let us see the vulnerability beneath. Meanwhile, Veronica begins to confront her own yearnings to be superior to others; the prospect of turning up at a clinic sleep-deprived and unwashed is horrifying because then, she wonders, “How would people know I was better than this?”

Along the way the girls are thwarted or aided by an unlikely cast of characters, including a pawnshop lady with a heart of a gold and a stripper with a heart of ice, and although the story hits all the notes you would expect – of course these newly-reconnected friends will squabble just as they need each other the most – it’s an utter delight to read. Hendriks and Caplan persuade us to care fiercely for these characters, and to root for a friendship based on acceptance rather than appearances.

And although it’s far more than an “issue book”, it’s a pleasing reminder that serious topics need not mean solemnity; it is possible, after all, to write “a comedic abortion friendship story with lots of cursing” (as the authors put it in their acknowledgements) without ever trivialising the matter. 2020’s YA list is off to a superb start.

Melissa Albert’s second novel, The Night Country (Penguin, £7.99), asks what happens after escaping a dark fairy tale world? Alice yearns for normality, even as she acknowledges she’ll never quite achieve it; she is marked by “the loneliness of singularity”. There are others like her, a “junk drawer of ex-Story oddballs”, but she shies away from their desire to hold on to their remaining scraps of magic, their sense of superiority over humans.

What pulls her back is murder: several of them, ritual killings that suggest these former fairy tale figures are being hunted down so that something – or someone – can be built. So that the Night Country, a realm that bends itself to its creator’s will, can rise. At the same time, letters from another world appear in the strangest of places – in a paper flower, or within the text of a classic novel – letters that can only be from a boy Alice believed she’d said goodbye to years ago.

This is a lush and enchanting tale, if occasionally (as befits a fairy tale world) gruesome; Albert effortlessly draws on a wide range of literary references and builds a world where magic really does emerge from pages and where books are not just figurative but literal doors. Dreamy and disturbing in equal measure, it’s the perfect antidote to a grey winter’s day.

Slightly more disappointing is Adam Silvera’s move into fantasy with Infinity Son (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), in large part because his contemporary novels – often with a speculative twist – are so skilfully done. Twin brothers Emil and Brighton inhabit a New York full of “celestials” and “specters”, heroes and villains, and become caught up in the fight of good versus evil. Regardless of moral allegiance, characters on both sides suffer from a fondness for clunky exposition, and occasionally lapse into distracting cliches. There are, however, many intriguing details about this world, including its politics, and I suspect urban fantasy fans who have not primed themselves for “an Adam Silvera novel” will get a kick out of this first instalment in a series.

To be the child of immigrants is to carry their baggage, their sacrificed dreams. The narrator of Abigail Hing Wen’s debut, Loveboat, Taipei (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), knows this all too well. Despite a love of dance, Ever understands her role as elder child is to “earn back the cost of two lives” and to attend medical school. Being sent on a summer programme to Taiwan is supposed to instil in her the proper Chinese virtues; instead it becomes the chance to be truly herself for the first time in her life.

If not quite ground-breaking in terms of its plot or themes, the specific focus on Taiwanese culture means that this novel offers something different from the typical summer-of-self-discovery story, as well as a satisfying and swoon-worthy romance.

After an assault at a party perpetrated by a group of prep school boys, Jade seeks out vengeance. She is not a victim; she and her friends are girls “with knives where they think our hearts should be”. With their help, she infiltrates their elite circle, enlisting the ambitious Mack as an ally in her attempt to topple the existing power struggle.

Hannah Capin’s Foul Is Fair (Penguin, £7.99) is Macbeth retold through the prism of Heathers and Kill Bill – which is to say it’s a dizzying, delirious revenge fantasy that simply can’t be put down. With an energy level as high as its body count, it will have you longing for Capin’s next book.

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