Young adult fiction: the best of the current crop
Derek Landy is back, with Aaron Starmer, Moira Fowley-Doyle and Sarah Carroll
Derek Landy: Valkyrie Cain and Skulduggery Pleasant are back for ‘Resurrection’, the 10th instalment in Landy’s popular series. Photograph: Alan Betson
‘So much has changed, and not only with me,” a traumatised Valkyrie Cain tells her former mentor, the sharp-dressing skeleton detective Skulduggery Pleasant. The duo are back for a 10th instalment of Derek Landy’s popular series; this revival is aptly titled Resurrection (HarperCollins, £12.99). The action- and dialogue-heavy scenes leave little room for thoughtful characterisation, but existing fans will be delighted to see several familiar faces appear, and more of Skulduggery’s past revealed.
The new protege, Omen Darkly, the disorganised younger brother of a much-feted “Chosen One”, feels slightly flat; the subversion of the “hero” ideal is always pleasing but has been handled more skilfully by other writers in recent years. At the same time, Omen is not given much space here; despite this having been originally pitched as “a second series” about Skulduggery et al, it is very much reliant on fans’ knowledge of previous titles and understands that they are inevitably more invested in characters they’ve lived through nine books with.
American author Aaron Starmer has previously written for young children; Spontaneous (Canongate, £7.99) marks his entrance into the YA world, and what a wonderful and weird entrance it is. In her final year of high school, Mara witnesses a girl spontaneously combust in front of her like “a balloon full of fleshy bits”.
It’s the beginning of a series of explosions and constant uncertainty about what will happen next – the perfect metaphor for growing up, of course, but also handled skilfully as a story device in its own right, complete with official government investigations, media intrusion and conspiracy theories.
The greatest strength of the novel is Mara’s unsentimental voice as she relates the events: “Here’s what happens when a guy blows up during your group therapy session that’s supposed to make you feel better about people blowing up. The group therapy session is officially cancelled. You do not feel better.” This is a protagonist who is fairly sure she’s a terrible person, who makes inappropriate jokes about death, and who is deeply – sometimes uncomfortably – relatable.
Moira Fowley-Doyle’s second novel, The Spellbook of the Lost and Found (Corgi, £7.99), offers up a whole range of characters to fall in love with (and indeed, some of them fall in love with each other). In a small town in the west of Ireland, there is an annual summer party, and this year everyone seems to have lost something there. Pages of a diary revealing a spell has been cast over some clues, and a new friendship with a group of runaways provides others.
The intensity of adolescence and the importance of friendship in the often-fraught school environment is captured beautifully. “Together,” one of the narrators writes, “we are a three-headed dog, facing an army of hundreds of staring eyes and leering, open mouths.” The romance – both straight and not, pleasingly – is tender and dreamy without veering towards cliche, and there’s an openness about female sexuality still rare in novels for teenagers. This is a superb book.
Christoffer Carlsson’s October Is the Coldest Month (Scribe, £7.99), translated deftly from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles, is one of the first Scandi noir books for teens to be published in the UK. In a small rural community, the arrival of a police officer at the front door prompts 16-year-old Vega to find her older brother, Jakob, and uncover the truth about what happened the night a man died. The desolate landscape is the perfect backdrop for this taut tale of old family feuds and unfurling secrets.
Irish writer Sarah Carroll introduces us to the inimitable Sam, who faces homelessness and neglect with astonishing resilience and imagination in The Girl In Between (Simon and Schuster, £7.99). “They feel sorry for us cos they think we sleep out on the streets. They don’t know that we don’t do that any more. They don’t realise that the mill is our castle and we’re safe in here.” In a pitch-perfect Dublin voice, Sam relates the events that led up to her and Ma being “invisible” as far as society is concerned. Although inevitably a commentary on the homeless crisis, the novel never preaches, and its handling of grief is both subtle and surprising.
The title of Karen M McManus’s One of Us Is Lying (Penguin, £7.99) brings Abba to mind, but her debut novel is nothing like a cheerful pop song. In a homage to The Breakfast Club, the novel begins with five very different high school students in detention together. Only four walk out alive. The dead boy, Simon, was best known for the school’s gossip app and revealing everyone’s darkest secrets – and as the investigation proceeds, it seems that he was about to share devastating secrets about all four of the students who were there when he died. This is a slick psychological thriller that makes excellent use of the role social media plays in modern life.
American author Sarah Dessen is the most recent recipient of the prestigious Margaret A Edwards Award for an “outstanding contribution to young adult literature”. Her 13th novel, Once and for All (Penguin, £7.99), is familiar territory for her – over the course of a summer, a cautious girl learns to take chances – but it’s a solid and thoughtful novel. Louna, like many of Dessen’s protagonists, has an interesting job – helping out at her mother’s wedding-planning business.Rather than fill her with bubbling hope and romantic notions, it’s led her to be deeply cynical about love.
While we know very well that this will change by the summer’s end, the journey – peopled with nuanced and vivid supporting characters – is very much an enjoyable one.
Claire Hennessy’s latest young adult novel is Like Other Girls (Hot Key Books)