This post is sponsored by Julianne Benford, author of Unlucky In Lockdown – thanks, Julianne!
Cora and Xandra have been flatmates for over a year, but they’ve never been friends. It’s not been a problem before – Cora likes her peace and quiet, and Xandra’s happy to leave her to it, spending most of her time partying elsewhere. But when the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold, and the UK is put under lockdown, they find themselves forced into spending a lot more time together. Will they put their differences aside and learn to tolerate each other’s company? Will familiarity breed further contempt…or will they find common ground and develop a true friendship?
Unlucky in Lockdown is a 26,750 word novella set during the first two weeks of the UK’s lockdown.
One of the features I’m most excited to be running will look back at the last decade of indie releases, with various people sharing their favourites. Most posts in this series will consist of me talking about five books and another guest sharing their own five. Today, though, I wanted to have it all to myself. That’s because there are 11 books which are some of my absolute favourites in my logo (beautifully illustrated by my talented friend Sarah!) So I wanted to talk through just why I love these 11 so much.
Under The Lights by Dahlia Adler (Spencer Hill Press) is an f/f contemporary which is the best celebrity romance I’ve ever read. Vanessa is a Korean-American actress who’s falling hard for her agent’s daughter Brianna. This isn’t ideal, especially because she’s not sure either the people she works with OR her family are ready for a queer relationship. Meanwhile, she’s got a new temporary co-star in her soap opera – bad boy Josh Chester, who she can’t stand. But Josh may have (very) hidden depths; can she rely on him as a friend?
This was my third book of 2021 – it’s also the third time I’ve read it – as I prepared interview questions for Dahlia for an upcoming feature. It’s one which I absolutely adore because it has two fantastic leads with wonderful voices. Strangely for a romance, it’s not the central pairing who narrate, but Van and Josh.
Van is a wonderful lead whose relationship with Bri is clearly both exciting and terrifying for her, Josh is an obnoxious prick but has a few redeeming qualities – mainly his willingness to help his friends. (And as terrible as Josh is, his mother is far worse and we can see WHY he’s this way.) The developing relationships Van has – the romance with Bri and the surprising friendship with Josh – are both perfectly portrayed. It also gets a ton of bonus marks for a non-fade to black queer sex scene, beautifully showing two girls talking to each other to work out what they’re comfortable with. (Oh, it’s also a companion novel to Behind The Scenes, which is another great read – however you DON’T need to have read BTS to enjoy this one!)
Dangerous Remedy by Kat Dunn (Zephyr Books) is the YA historical fantasy book I will never tire of recommending. This is partly because I was an early beta-reader for my friend Kat when she first wrote it. It’s mainly because it’s a sensationally great French Revolution-set story of found family and daring escapades. The Battalion des Mortes are used to cheating death by saving people from the guillotine. What they’re not prepared for is rescuing someone who’s supposedly an aristocrat but is actually a mysterious girl with dangerous powers. Can they keep her safe when so many people are out to get her?
The Battalion des Mortes, especially leader Cam and love interest Ada, are a gloriously ragtag band of unlikely heroes. I adore the worldbuilding here; I totally felt transported to 18th century France. However the main draw is the wonderful spirit of friendship and trust between the members of the Battalion, who are all brought brilliantly to life. Razor-sharp dialogue and a plot full of twists and turns which left me gasping (and filling in the spreadsheet I was using for beta-reading notes with many variants of “WHAT THE ____?!?!?!”) just add to the fun. Sequel Monstrous Design, coming in June, is one of my most-anticipated of the year.
Queerleaders by MB Guel (Bella Books) is a glorious YA contemporary with a zany plot that could have come right out of a 90s teen movie. It’s also, unlike most 90s teen movies, incredibly queer. Social outcast Mack pretty much has only one friend at her Catholic high school – BFF Lila. While Lila is great, and her parents are supportive, Mack’s bullied. Life gets worse when she’s outed in public by the vile boyfriend of her crush, head cheerleader Veronica. One thing leads to another, and Mack ends up betting the football team she can steal their girlfriends.
This is, for the most part, zany fun, although I should warn people there are a couple of super-homophobic scenes which may be an issue for some readers. However, Lila and Mack’s parents are incredibly supportive in helping her deal with the fallout of the initial outing. The cheerleaders she’s aiming to get are well-portrayed, and it’s interesting having the bet be public from the start. Mack is a sympathetic character, although not always a likeable one, especially in the way she starts to ignore Lila as the cheerleaders prove surprisingly interested in the plan. It’s a really well-paced novel with everything eventually building to a climax at – where else? – the prom. And the ending is a really warm one, full of joy and hope. A superb debut.
The Invincible Summer Of Juniper Jones by Daven McQueen.(Wattpad Books) is a hugely emotional historical novel tackling racism in a small-town in America. Set in 1955, we follow Ethan Harper as he’s sent to stay with his aunt and uncle in Alabama. While many people seem incensed by the presence of a mixed-race boy, free spirit Juniper Jones becomes a firm friend.
Ethan and Juniper are a fantastic pair of friends, but what’s perhaps most impressive about this scintillating debut is Daven McQueen’s complete mastery of her reader’s emotions. She swings between joyful highs and soul-destroying lows here and brings home the horror of the racism Ethan faces, while also showing the lighter moments of his adventures with Juniper. The ending felt absolutely cataclysmic and wrecked me in a way that few books have in the past few years. I can’t wait for McQueen’s next novel.
Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos (Kids Can Press) is a taut, tense thriller with a fantastic heroine and a plot which kept me glued to its pages. Caroline’s girlfriend just left her to move across the country, and her best friend Madison has now vanished. Trying to solve the mystery of her disappearance, Caroline finds Madison is just the latest in a line of girls who’ve gone missing. Can Caroline rescue her?
Main character Caroline is appropriately furious here – at the parents who previously sent her to a conversion camp, the police who are focusing solely on one suspect, and the world in general for ignoring so many missing girls until one who’s NOT from the wrong side of the tracks disappears. I found the mystery continually wrong-footed me, but always left me desperate to know what had happened. The book is gorgeously written, whip-smart, and builds to a stunning, but heartbreaking, ending. I’m already eagerly anticipating Contos’s Out Of The Fire, coming in October this year.
Kerb Stain Boys by Alex Wheatle (Barrington Stoke) is a short but utterly gripping contemporary, perhaps my all-time favourite read from a really wonderful publisher. With his family struggling for money, Briggy gets caught up in his mate’s plan to rob the Post Office – what could possibly go wrong?
For readers unfamiliar with Barrington Stoke, they’re one of the UK’s most unique publishers. Their books are aimed to make reading easy for anyone who struggles with it. This plays out in two ways – firstly, they’ve worked with experts to develop and choose fonts, layouts and paper which are especially suited for dyslexic readers. Secondly, they have a sensationally great list of authors consisting of a huge number of UKYA’s brightest stars, writing books which are shorter than their usual novels but just as wonderfully written.
Alex Wheatle, author of the superb South Crongton trilogy, returns to that setting – a London estate – for this book. I love all of the Crongton novels, and as ever the characters are brilliantly brought to life, the dialogue is outstanding and the grittiness of the plot is balanced by Wheatle’s love for his characters and fantastic sense of humour. I love the central trio of Briggy, best mate Terror, and cool chick Caldonia as they try to pull off the robbery. A fabulous read.
Dating Makes Perfect by Pintip Dunn (Entangled Teen) is a wonderful romance with a gorgeous central couple. I love childhood friends to romance, and this is spectacular in the way it develops. Winnie – dutiful Thai daughter – has resigned herself to not dating; her parents have never allowed her or her twin sisters to go out with guys. When the twins explain to their mom and dad that, as a result of this, they won’t be able to get married for many years as they’ll be busy going out with lots of guys to see who they like, their parents have a rethink. Winnie’s now not just allowed to date – she’s required to. Drawback number one is that the ‘dates’ will be fake ones as a practice, pre-arranged by Winnie’s parents, based on their favourite rom-coms. Drawback number two is that her first partner will be ex-best friend turned bitter enemy, Mat Songsomboon.
The dynamic between Winnie and Mat is perfect here; they clearly care deeply for each other but have been at odds for ages. The gradual revelation of what drove them apart as friends is really well-handled, as is the growing spark between the pair. I also really loved Winnie’s family and Mat’s single father, all of whom really clearly care about Winnie and Mat. The dates themselves are hilarious and this strikes the perfect balance between cheesy comedy and intense romance. Stunning.
Hold Back The Tide by Melinda Salisbury (Scholastic) is a spooky read about Alva, who’s convinced her father murdered her mother and has spent years planning to leave their home in the Scottish Highlands. But when she finally tries to escape, things go terribly wrong.
Following two excellent series, Melinda Salisbury delivers a stunning stand-alone here with this atmospheric novel. It’s hard to say too much about the details – this is definitely one where you want to be as unspoiled as possible – but I loved the characters, especially Alva, the Scottish setting is incredibly atmospheric, and the book has a sense of dread building to a completely unforgettable climax. (It’s over a year since I read it and it’s STILL seared into my mind.) Outstanding.
Summer Love by various authors (Duet Books) is my absolute favourite short story collection ever. Interlude Press are a wonderful publisher and YA imprint Duet Books are especially great. In this anthology, numerous authors from across the LGBTQ+ spectrum treat us to stories of summer love in all its forms. .
There’s absolutely something for everyone here, with my personal highlight being Naomi Tajedler’s “What The Heart Wants”, a coming-out story/girl-meets-girl romance set at an art class. Other highlights are the gorgeously evocative carnival-set 1950s romance “The Fire Eater’s Daughter”, by Amy Stilgenbauer, and another historical one, “The Willow Weeps For Us”. In that latter one, Suzey Ingold brings to life a gay romance between two men just before World War II breaks out. An outstanding collection which is still a favourite 6 years after originally reading it.
Sawbones by Catherine Johnson is a thrilling historical adventure story which brings Georgian London vividly to life, in all its diversity and harshness. Former slave Ezra, now a surgeon’s apprentice, is employed by magician’s daughter Loveday Finch to find the truth about her father’s death. The pair quickly find themselves in the midst of a ton of trouble, needing all their resourcefulness to survive.
Catherine Johnson has an incredible gift for creating both wonderful characters and superb settings, and that’s definitely in evidence here. Both Ezra and Loveday are excellent characters and I loved the way they learned to work with each other. The adventure is an engaging one – and incredibly tense. While the ending is excellent, do yourself a favour – if you’re planning on reading this, make sure you have sequel Blood And Bone lined up soon afterwards. You won’t want to wait for more!
Queen Of Coin And Whispers by Helen Corcoran (O’Brien Press) is a breathtaking fantasy packed full of political intrigue and Sapphic yearning. Newly-crowned teenage queen Lia brings Xania into court as her spymaster, to protect her from plots against her. Xania takes the job in order to find out who murdered her father, and get revenge. As the two work closely together, they fall for each other – but machinations are putting both of them in danger. Can they survive?
I fell hard for a significant number of the cast of characters here – while the two leads are both wonderful, I also adored Xania’s family, especially her supportive stepfather, and her grumpy boss Coin. I really enjoyed the worldbuilding (and yay for a fantasy setting where queer people are totally accepted) and the slow-burn romance is amazing. In addition, the plot is strong and the constant power struggle at court is really well-written. It’s also nice to read a YA fantasy that’s done in one book, although I’d love to see more in this intriguing setting.