February being the lovey-dovey, hearts-and-flowers Valentine month, there’s a special focus on romance in the latest crop of young adult novels.
Just kidding — in YA, every month brings its crop of book-length romantic propaganda instructing predominantly teenage girls, and a few gay boys, that if you just mesh with the one, life is going to turn out fine. But lurking in the heap are a few titles seasoned with a dash of originality or reality, and every so often there’s even an offering that dares to mess with the rules and subvert the genre altogether.
Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya Menon (Hodder & Stoughton, RRP£7.99) can be forgiven for taking a straightforward line on romance. Jaya Rao, princess of a fictional Indian kingdom, is a new girl at St Rosetta’s, an elite co-ed boarding school in Colorado. It’s an unrecognisable establishment where the headteacher humbly asks wealthy pupils if she can be of service, and a girl’s valuable ruby pendant is not confiscated on sight.
Jaya has one aim: to break the heart of Grey Emerson, fiendish scion of a British aristocratic family that has been the sworn enemy of her own since the days of the Raj. Grey is gigantic, described as both lupine and bearlike (on the same page), with hands likened to paws. It’s a strange way to describe the love interest, until you twig that this is a revamp of Beauty and the Beast.
Grey has been brought up in terror of the family curse, laid by Jaya’s vengeful ancestor, so he’s highly resistant to her regal wiles. It’s pure, fantastical escapism with a tiny critique embedded in the privilege that it so joyfully describes.
“Every happy teenage girl is the same, while every unhappy teenage girl is miserable in her own special way.” Jenny Lee’s Anna K (Penguin, RRP£7.99) is another textual revamp, this time mashing up Tolstoy’s classic of doomed love with Crazy Rich Asians — the strapline “Young. Rich. Crazy in Love” is entirely deliberate.
Lee transposes Anna Karenina to New York in a densely textured tale with a high character count and endless product placement. “He pretty much ruined Hermès for me. Like forevs,” says one lovelorn young lady. Filled with near-impenetrable teenage slang and references, it risks collapse from the first, bathetic line: “The whole thing was a f***ing disaster.”
However, it soon becomes clear that Lee can spin a narrative at breakneck pace and fill it with irresistibly witty dialogue. Half-Korean Anna K is a wise 17-year-old who advises her peers and elders on affairs of the heart until a dashing boy nicknamed Count Vronsky makes off with her own heart. What about the train? I hear you ask. No spoilers!
Meanwhile Kat in Diary of a Confused Feminist by Kate Weston (Hodder, RRP£7.99) manages to tumble to the ground right in front of Hot Josh, flipping her skirt over her head, thus baring her knickers and untrimmed pubic hair. What’s worse, her Mooncup rolls out of her bag towards his feet. Kat refuses to be period-shamed or body-shamed, but being an ardent feminist in today’s mixed-up world entails many problems and contradictions.
Kat has that old standby, a gay best friend, and two female friends whose emotional inconsistencies continually knock Kat’s confidence. Weston, a former stand-up comedian, chucks gags around like fireworks until the story takes a darker turn, tackling social anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. However, the jacket photo of the author’s cat playing with a Mooncup is enough to cheer up anyone.
Jamie is another hopeless klutz, managing to knock over a shop display of tangelos and later, a table full of food at a Ramadan fast-breaking dinner. These incidents tend to happen whenever he is in the vicinity of former friend Maya. Their interactions, eager on his side, surly on hers, are described in alternating chapters of Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed (Simon & Schuster, RRP£7.99).
Jewish Jamie and Muslim Maya are brought together by the timely device of a post-Trump political campaign to get a Democrat elected to a traditionally Republican seat in the US House of Representatives. The pair build a touching friendship by canvassing, initially reluctantly but with growing urgency as the Republican candidate begins to show a cloven hoof of religious and anti-gay bigotry. Since happy ever after is rarely the outcome when it comes to politics, thank God for romance.
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