The YA genre can be a bit hit-and-miss for me. I’m now 25 and some YA novels that I might have obsessed about 10 years ago now seem twee, slushy and/or overly predictable. However, recently I read two British YA contemporaries that were hard-hitting, completely unpatronising and that dealt with serious issues in a mature and thoroughly compelling way. What was even better is that they were both unsolicited proofs that I picked up at work and read with little or no expectations whatsoever. Both of them were pretty much single-sitting reads and dealt a pretty powerful blow to my YA cynicism. I love books that surprise me and challenge my expectations, and I will be very interested in reading anything else written by these two authors.
Truth or Dare by Non Pratt
It was very close to the end of the day at work and in a brief quiet moment I randomly picked up one of the books we’d received in the post that day for a little nosy. I kid you not, 20 minutes to half an hour later I came back to myself with a guilty jolt and realised that I was, in fact, at work and that I should probably get back to it. That’s the power of a good book, I guess. Truth or Dare is an excellent example of a YA novel that is not afraid to unflinchingly tackle some pretty weighty issues, to introduce a diverse and representative cast of characters who are flawed and quirky and more than a little frustrating, yet relatable, funny and thoroughly interesting, to tell a story that’s sometimes messy and in which things don’t always go perfectly, but which captures the imagination and tugs on the emotions.
16-year-old Claire and 17-year-old Sef couldn’t be more different, but are thrown together by Sef’s urgent need to raise money for the care of his older brother, who has been severely disabled in an accident. With Claire’s help, Sef sets up a YouTube channel on which the pair, disguised as ‘Truth Girl’ and ‘Dare Boy’, perform dares and challenges in exchange for donations. As they become increasingly invested in the channel, they spend more and more time together and the chemistry between the two becomes undeniable. Unbeknown to Claire, beneath Sef’s cocky and confident exterior a war is taking place. Eventually, he is forced to choose between his growing feelings for Claire and his need to do right by his brother – and to decide the lengths to which he is willing to go in the process. Interspersed with this main narrative are subplots dealing with friendships, family dynamics, race, sexuality and the power of social media (both to help and to hinder).
One of the book’s most unique and interesting aspects was its clever narrative style – narrated in the first-person until halfway through by Claire, this first-person perspective is then picked up by Sef. Upon reaching this halfway point, you have to flip the book upside down and continue reading from the other side as though from the beginning. In a way, you are: Sef’s story doesn’t simply pick up where Claire left off, but spirals back to the beginning, providing his perspective on events already recounted by Claire. Let me tell you, there are some shocks. Claire’s assumptions and evaluations of certain things are pretty wide of the mark. I spent a fair bit of time furiously re-evaluating most of what I thought I knew about Sef and his feelings for Claire (another very refreshing point – insta-love this is not) and about his brother.
In fact, the sheer amount of emotional depth and complexity that Non Pratt has infused into these two young lives is where this novel shines. Her portrayal of Sef’s struggle to cope with his brother’s accident, his intense guilt and his desperation to somehow put things right, is particularly well done. Although I really liked both characters, and the dynamic and chemistry between Sef and Claire really had me rooting for them, it was Sef’s perspective that really put the ‘adult’ into this young adult book. I really came to care about him.
If I had a minor sticking point, it was that some of the side plots involving Sef and Claire’s friends and family, which were very interesting in and of themselves, weren’t given room to fully develop. Two examples that spring to mind are Claire’s asexual friend Seren, who is having difficulties dealing with misconceptions surrounding her sexuality, as well as some attempts to deal with prejudice encountered by Sef and his family as British Muslims. Both examples are encouraging for their representation and the normalisation of diverse issues and representation in books, but they both sort of just faded out without any definitive conclusion as the main plot thickened. Also, this is a real nitpick, but I don’t think the cover does the book justice; it makes it look like a more typical, uncomplicated insta-romance and I think that it’s so much more.
Keep your eyes peeled for this one. I believe it’s been out for around a week now and I really encourage you to pick this up, young adult or adult. It’s funny, refreshingly normal, cleverly written and unpatronising. Anyway, I’m off to read more by Non Pratt. If her other novels are anything like this one, I’m in for a treat.
Star Rating: 4.5/5
I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson
This has to be the most uniquely narrated novel I’ve read in a long time. 14-year-old Jemma has such severe cerebral palsy that she is unable to move or communicate. She is a very intelligent young woman with a very clear and perceptive insight on the world around her. She sees everything that’s going on; she just can’t tell anybody about it. When she learns a shocking secret about a recent murder in her neighbourhood, she is powerless to act. One night, her carer goes missing, and although she believes that the disappearance is linked to the murder, she is reduced to watching events unfold – until she and her parents learn about a potential new device that might help her to communicate with the outside world. Part thriller, part contemporary, this is just a wonderful, page-turning novel that provides a voice to a character who has, up until now, had no voice of her own.
I loved this novel because of its direct, unflinching and unapologetic approach to disability; while sympathetic, it is not at all patronising. Her parents, who she calls Mum and Dad, are in fact foster parents and have two other children in their care: Finn, who is severely autistic and also non-verbal, as well as Olivia, who has behavioural problems. All three children are portrayed as individuals who are reacting to and coping with the world around them in the only way they know how. This book gives humanity, humour and a unique voice to a minority so frequently overlooked and misunderstood. Jemma observes people’s reactions to her appearance and her wheelchair with a patient maturity that belies her years; even when a new carer mistakes her for a mentally disabled patient and reads her The Little Mermaid and plays her nursery rhymes (something that I found intensely embarrassing and uncomfortable to read), she actually feels sympathy for the carer, despite her obvious and understandable humiliation.
While the disability theme running through the novel is obviously predominant, I found that it didn’t overpower or overshadow the thriller element, which is what really had me turning the pages (I literally read this in a single sitting). We are faced with a situation whereby we as readers are privy to everything that Jemma knows (which is a lot more than her family does), but we are forced to experience Jemma’s feelings of powerlessness and frustration along with her as she listens to the conversations and conjecturing of those around her, wondering about who could be responsible. You literally want to shout into the pages and tell them everything that Jemma knows – I felt that this was a very clever way of getting the reader to experience at least a fraction of Jemma’s feeling of helplessness and vulnerability.
Despite the seriousness of the themes running through this book, I found it nothing but uplifting. Jemma’s journey to communication, the love and support she receives from her wonderful foster parents, her fierce intelligence and maturity – all of it combined to create a real feel-good factor that stayed with me long after I’d turned the final page. She also makes discoveries about her birth family, a revelation that is woven into the main plot and that is heart-breaking and inspirational in equal measure. To sum up: please read this book. It manages to juggle some really serious themes and concepts but in no way makes you feel sorry for its protagonist. Instead, I felt inspired, uplifted and came away with a new understanding of what it must be like to live with severe disability. Penny Joelson, I take my hat off to you.
Star Rating: 5/5
Have you read either of these books? What did you think? Or have you read a really great YA contemporary recently like these two that you can recommend? I’d love to hear from you!