Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

YA picks for April: From disordered eating to a believable time-slip mystery

Louder Than Hunger by John Schu, Jenny Ireland’s second book, The Boy Next Door, The Midnight Clock by Jamie Costello, Looking for Lucie by Amanda Addison; and Royal Scandal by Aimee Carter

“I don’t belong here,” 13-year-old Jake repeats when he finds himself admitted to the adolescent unit at Whispering Pines Hospital. Despite being so ill he needs to use a wheelchair, he refuses to admit he has an eating disorder, or to share his feelings in either group or one-to-one therapy. Inside, the toxic and ever-present Voice screams at him, insisting he can’t trust anyone.

John Schu’s verse novel Louder Than Hunger (Walker Books, £9.99) captures the insidious nature of mental illness, allowing us into Jake’s panicked head as he tries to cope with his hospitalisation – or imprisonment, as he views it. “I want to be the sickest, / but I also want to go home,” he thinks, willing to pretend to be “good” if it will get him out of there and able to return to his familiar patterns of starvation.

Being “the best” at not eating is the one thing he’s able to do, in a world where horrendous bullying at school goes ignored by teachers and where he can’t do anything to prevent his beloved grandmother’s death. It has its own strange logic, as frustrating as that is to those on the outside, including Jake’s parents. His winding road to recovery is realistically complex, as he battles both his maladaptive behaviours and the “underlying issues”. It’s a welcome addition to eating-disorder literature for young people – accessible but not simplistic, hopeful without being saccharine.

“I know I’m supposed to be grateful that I’m alive. But I’m finding it really hard to be grateful for a life that doesn’t feel like mine.” Eighteen-year-old Molly has spent years trying to be perfect and beautiful, but life throws her a curveball in the form of a sudden brain injury, leaving her in hospital for weeks and prone to exhaustion and headaches even when she gets out. Not to mention the physical side effects. “How shallow was I that I cared about my shaved head and my repulsive scars? But I did care.”


Astute readers will quickly realise that Molly’s concern about her appearance is not just “regular” teenage-girl angst, although society’s expectations of women certainly play a role (sorry, patriarchy, you’re not entirely off the hook). Among her mother’s many terrible utterances in this novel, this one said as Molly lies in a hospital bed: “You’d think being on your feet all day would mean the nurses would be slimmer.” Toxic feels like too mild a label for this woman.

Jenny Ireland’s second book, The Boy Next Door (Penguin, £8.99), follows the pattern of her first in some ways: a sick girl and an emotionally wounded boy fall in love. In this case, the titular boy next door is Finbar, who used to be friends with Molly when they were younger, and who awkwardly finds himself back in her life and reminding her of their shared childhood as she recovers.

He’s the only one who thought to call an ambulance when Molly collapsed – he’s all too aware of how fragile people are. His mother died of a brain haemorrhage, and researching Molly’s surgery drags up a lot of feelings for him. “There was nothing anybody could do. That’s what I was told.”

But he now discovers aneurysms can sometimes be spotted in time. “Maybe if Dad had got home earlier, he would have noticed the signs. Maybe there were signs long before that day. Dad was a doctor; he was supposed to know these things. And he’d missed it.”

Is it perhaps a little too convenient that Finbar’s mother’s experience echoes Molly’s, or that something as horrific as a traumatic brain injury can lead to two old friends falling in love?

Maybe, but Ireland’s writing is strong enough to distract the inner cynic; the best romances work not because they’re unpredictable but because the characters feel authentic and we want for them what we want for anyone we care about – happiness and love in an imperfect, ugly world.

Jamie Costello, the YA alter-ego of crime writer Laura Wilson, delves into time travel in her second book for teens, The Midnight Clock (Atom, £9.99), in which Millie discovers that her father’s new flat is on the site of a former women’s prison. In 1955, 19-year-old Annie was put to death here, one of the last executions in Britain. Able to slip back to the days before Annie’s death, Millie meets her brother, Joe, who’s convinced of Annie’s innocence.

Millie’s response is pitch-perfect: “surely if Annie was – is – innocent, someone would have proved it already, and there’d be a podcast or a series or something?” Similarly, her scepticism about ghosts existing makes space for having a go at her dad’s irritating new girlfriend: “if this place is properly haunted, wouldn’t Skye have picked up on it, seeing as she’s always banging on about how she’s such a ‘spiritual person’ and sensitive or whatever?” Asides like this make the time-slip mystery feel completely believable, and keep us eagerly turning the pages.

Amanda Addison’s Looking For Lucie is occasionally a little clunky but heartfelt in its exploration of family and identity

“Where are you really from?” is a question Lucie’s sick of being asked, knowing her dark skin sets her aside from the rest of her family and her predominantly white neighbourhood. Determined to find out something about her birth father, who her mother refuses to talk about, she takes a DNA test, and then – in an excellent example of how technology can be used to complicate plots, rather than resolve them too quickly – gets locked out of the app when her phone breaks. Turning to her new friend Nav for help is also a way for her to learn more about her south Asian heritage.

Amanda Addison’s Looking For Lucie (Neem Tree Press, £8.99) is occasionally a little clunky – there’s a tendency to over-use exclamation points, and a few more points of view offered than are strictly needed – but heartfelt in its exploration of family and identity. There’s a gorgeous sequence at the end involving an art exhibition, drawing on Addison’s own artistic background; it’s impossible not to be moved.

Eighteen-year-old Bel doesn’t need the reminder, but the director of the true crime documentary provides it anyway: “You weren’t even two years old when Rachel went missing ... You were with your mum when she disappeared ... if someone did take Rachel, abduct her from the car where it was found abandoned with you inside, that means you must have seen exactly who it was. You saw them. At one point in time, you must have known, however briefly, the answer to the mystery.”

Holly Jackson is back with another addictively twisty mystery in The Reappearance of Rachel Price (Electric Monkey, £14.99), following Bel’s shock and uncertainty when her mother reappears, older and traumatised and possibly (well, certainly; we understand how this genre works) lying to her husband and daughter about what really happened. One to gobble up.

Finally, Aimee Carter’s Royal Scandal (Usborne, £8.99) is a satisfying and gossipy read about an alternate-history British royal family, narrated once more by Evangeline Bright, the king’s newly revealed illegitimate American daughter, or “Bright blight” as the tabloids would have it: “it’s becoming painfully clear that no amount of media and etiquette can turn this American frog into a princess.” Tightly paced; tremendously enjoyable.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in reviewing young-adult literature