Becoming Dinah by Kit de Waal

Becoming Dinah is a YA novel that takes the story of Moby Dick and turns it into one about a teenage girl running away from her unusual upbringing and the mistakes she’s made. Dinah is seventeen and grew up in a commune. She shaves off her hair, packs a bag, and is about to try and hitch her way south when she is persuaded by Ahab, a grumpy man with one leg also from the commune, to illegally drive a VW campervan on a quest for him. As they travel, she reflects on what she is running from and tries to work out if it is really the right course for her.

This is a touching and powerful novel that requires no knowledge of Moby Dick, though it may then inspire people to read the original. The narrative is carefully revealed and the novel leaves a lot unspoken or not discussed until near the end, so the reader is also on a quest, to find out why Dinah is running away. Despite the commune upbringing, there are a lot of relatable parts to Dinah’s story as it touches on topics such as families splitting up, sexuality, and feeling like an outsider.

Moby Dick may seem like an unusual choice for a YA modern reworking, but actually it allows themes of obsession and freedom to be explored through the eyes of a memorable protagonist.

Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Starling Days is a novel about mental health, bisexuality, and how you can’t be healed by a single person. Mina lives in New York City with her husband Oscar, who has to come and fetch her when she’s found standing on the edge of a bridge and is unable to convince the officers she wasn’t about to jump. A chance need for a trip and a desire to get away lead them to travel to London, where Oscar tries to sort out selling some flats for his father and Mina finds herself drawn to Phoebe, the sister of one of Oscar’s oldest friends, whilst she tries to manage going off her medication.

This is a novel deeply about mental health, about how a person perceives their own illness and their suicidal thoughts, and how their husband both tries and fails to understand and to help. It doesn’t shy away from looking at Mina’s thought processes, but also tries to balance thoughts with narrative and with Mina and Oscar’s different perspectives. Phoebe brings another crucial element, not only about attraction, but about how Mina hopes for someone who can bring the sun when she is feeling awful, only for that to not be as easy as it might seem. A thread about Mina’s research into classical women who survive brings interesting parallels and also a comment on how women are treated, though it stays as a background thread rather than coming to the foreground.

Starling Days is moving, a sometimes blunt and sometimes understated novel that explores mental health and human relationships. 

An Honest Man by Ben Fergusson

An Honest Man is a novel about love and Cold War tensions, set in West Berlin in 1989. Ralf is eighteen and is waiting for his exam results to see if he’s going to university in England. He and his friends spend their time together, enjoying the days of summer before they all part ways. When Ralf meets Oz at a swimming pool, he is intrigued by the man, and they are drawn closer as Oz reveals dangerous secrets about possible spies and divided loyalties. Suddenly Ralf must question what he knows about his family and his neighbours and who is really telling the truth.

The novel is a mix of low key Cold War drama, with the threat of people quietly spying on you, and coming of age novel, with a main character falling in love as he is about to leave home. This gives it a real focus on characters and interpersonal relationships, and it has a good level of drama and tension as well as details about German and English culture around the fall of the Wall as well as the lives of teenagers at this point. Ralf is a gripping protagonist, flawed in the way he lashes out but also sympathetic in his sense of betrayal and confusion at the situation he has been caught in. His narrative has twists and turns, and is cleverly written to withhold exactly what happens until the end.

This is historical fiction with a focus on the people and relationships, about someone growing up and falling suddenly in love whilst also dealing with the tense political and social realities of divided Berlin. The tense plot drives it forward, but it is the story of Ralf and Oz which gives it a real heart.

Supper Club by Lara Williams

Supper Club is is a riotous and cutting book about food, taking up space, and female friendship. Supper Club is started up by Roberta and Stevie for fellow hungry women, looking for a chance to eat and drink to excess and to exist in ways and places that society doesn’t want. Roberta got into cooking at university, feeling alone and looking for something to take up her time, something to feel, but now, aged twenty-nine, she finally wants to revel in sharing food together. She and Stevie gather women looking for something else, fed up of other people and men and societal expectations, looking for a way to fulfil that hunger.

This is a clever, modern novel that focuses on bodies, anger, and relationships with other people. It moves between the story of Supper Club and Roberta in the present, and the story of Roberta at university and how she was formed into the person she is. Williams mixes in with these descriptions of cooking and recipes that make the book feel fully infused with food and with the joy of it, the smells and textures and processes. It is a very visceral book, reflecting the subject matter, and will delight anyone who enjoy modern stories with satirical edge and a harsh eye on women’s treatment in society.

A book that will make you hungry and disgusted at once, Supper Club is a bacchanal for the modern day and a story of female friendship and power.

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Patsy is a powerful novel about a Jamaican woman who leaves everything behind to go to America, at times heartbreaking and happy, and a moving look at identity and belonging. Patsy manages to get a visa to America, where she hopes to follow her childhood best friend and secret love Cicely who she hasn’t seen in years. To do so, she has to leave behind her young daughter Tru, who she cannot connect with like she feels she should. But America isn’t what she expected and Cicely’s life is different now. As Patsy grapples with years as an undocumented immigrant, trying to fight her own feelings and loneliness, Tru lives with her father’s family in Jamaica and is dealing with her own identity and with the abandonment by her mother.

This is an immersive and emotional novel that delves deep into Patsy’s mindsets and life, but also manages to weave in Tru’s story and the heartbreaking ways in which they are paralleled or separated. Patsy’s journey is often bittersweet, with her attempts to find the life she wants to lead often not working out as expected, and immigration being far from her dreams, but at the same time the novel is hopeful and asserts the importance of living your own life and being who you want to be. It provides an insight into race in America, especially as an undocumented immigrant, and into life and class in Jamaica, as well as the gender roles that can be oppressive and not fitting the individual. The combination of Patsy and Tru’s stories makes it particularly powerful, bringing a lot of the emotional moments as the novel grapples with ideas of parenting and what is actually best for the people involved, both mother and child.

Written in a way that feels immediate and vivid, Patsy is a novel that draws you in and gives a voice to questions of immigration, sexuality, and gender. It feels like a novel that will linger with you long after the last page, and hopefully will provide some of the representation that Patsy feels is so missing when she goes to America, unable to see people like her in certain places, from both Patsy and Tru’s depictions.

Bunny by Mona Awad

Bunny cover with an image of a rabbit

Bunny is a novel about an outsider who ends up involved with a college clique, but it doesn’t go down how you’d expect. Samantha is an MFA student at a prestigious college, resentful of the rich girls who all each other ‘Bunny’ that she has to share workshops with. Her only friend is Ava, a weirdo from the local art college, who hates Samantha’s college and the people there. Out of the blue, the ‘Bunnies’ invite Samantha to their mysterious ‘Smut Salon’, and it seems like she is being let into the fold. However, things start to get sinister and surreal as Samantha is drawn deeper into their world.

From the summary, the book sounds like another college clique campus story, but it really isn’t. Samantha may seem like a classic heroine of such a novel—lonely, brooding, poor, unable to write despite it being how she will graduate—but the narrative is not. Instead, it takes a kind of twisted unreality and uses it to satirise writing (particularly the kinds of writing that the Bunnies are shown to do, variously pretentious and trying to be profound and dark) and to question what is happening to the characters. At first the style can be a bit irritating, but it settles down and feels purposeful (particularly the endless repeating of ‘Bunny’).

Bunny is a novel that some will find too bizarre, some will question what it really means, and others will enjoy the ride. There are some similarities with Heathers, but also with a blend of literary and teen horror; it is a book that defies reality, but also pokes fun at writing and trying to do what the novel itself is doing.

Everything You Ever Wanted by Luiza Sauma

Everything You Ever Wanted cover

Everything You Ever Wanted is a novel about escape, sometimes eerie and sometimes heartbreaking as it charts finding a new life on a new planet. Iris works in London creating digital content, hiding her depression and anxiety, trapping in after work drinks and strategy meetings. The Life on Nyx programme sounds both insane and enticing: 100 people moving to another planet, free from social media and employment and everything else, but with the caveat that you can’t come back. And with it, maybe Iris has found her way out.

The combination of a detailed and powerful account of difficulties in modern life with an uncanny escape narrative about the failings of a space utopia works strangely well. The point at which these parts collide—where Iris chooses to leave her old life for a new one—is emotional, working on both the literal narrative level (another planet over dealing with your issues) and a more metaphorical one. The Nyx parts were better than expected for someone who isn’t big on sci-fi, much more focused on Iris’ perspective and the realities of her choice than the practicalities of them being there.

Everything You Ever Wanted takes a story of youthful burnout and mental health issues and combines it with light sci-fi and a sharp look at social media obsession. The result is a novel in an engrossing style that draws you into the central character’s mindset, with a narrative that keeps pushing forward.

Meat Market by Juno Dawson

Meat Market cover

Meat Market is a gripping novel about the modern fashion industry and how a whirlwind success story can expose its dark side. Jana Novak is sixteen, lives on a south London estate, and is about to start sixth form when she is scouted at Thorpe Park by a modelling agency. She’s always been mocked for her height, but now it seems it’s a good thing. Soon she is learning the ways of the fashion industry—castings, shoots, fashion week—and being catapulted into the spotlight, but the fashion industry has a dirty side beneath the veneer and Jana quickly becomes acquainted with it.

Dawson turns her trademark bite towards the fashion industry, creating a YA novel that doesn’t shy away from topics such as drugs, sexual assault, and eating disorders, but also looks deeper at the loneliness of the industry and of teenagers becoming famous. What makes Meat Market distinctive is both the no-nonsense approach to these topics and the details of being a teenager. Jana is trying to stay grounded, but the details make the novel itself stay grounded despite the storyline that will be far beyond most readers’ experiences. Jana’s friendships twist and change in a realistic way, but also show that despite the often horrible and seemingly competitive nature of the fashion world, she does make some real connections with people in it that allow the narrative to reach its climax.

As she did in Clean, Dawson shows the young adult novels can (and should) tackle some intense themes, not hiding behind dystopia or alternate universes but make the world feel realistic and yet something most readers won’t experience. For some the subject matter might be a bit too much, but for others it will show the world beyond the Instagram photos.

Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy

Water Shall Refuse Them cover

Water Shall Refuse Them is an retro coming-of-age novel with a horror edge, set in a heatwave in 1970s rural Wales. Sixteen-year-old Nif, her little brother Lorry, and her parents are spending the summer in a cottage in Wales following the death of her sister. Instead of healing, the sweltering atmosphere and isolation only exacerbates their problems: her mother’s grief, her father’s frustration, Nif’s own belief in strange rituals that might bring her answers. Nif meets a strange teenage boy, Mally, who has his own secrets, but neither he nor his mother Janet seem to be quite what the family need and the locals seem to hate them.

The sense of atmosphere in the novel is impressive and unnerving, a kind of haze where heat and grief and twisted rituals float like logic. The combination of mundane and folk horror elements with retro coming-of-age give the story a real charge, and it feels like a very British twist on a style that may seem more American, from authors like Shirley Jackson. Grief and adolescence are made strange, whilst the logic of superstition and the power of belief are almost tangible. The senses are crucial too, with sound and scent prevalent and there being a feeling of the heatwave hanging over the entire story.

This is a debut novel that allows for ambiguity and doesn’t tell the reader everything, building up atmosphere and a really eerie sense of what might happen. In her wild and unsettled protagonist, Lucie McKnight Hardy creates a character both sympathetic and menacing, and in some ways the whole novel feels like following a trail littered with bad omens, much like the dead animals littered throughout the book. The writing and atmosphere is what really makes it memorable, as well as the unnerving line between superstitious horror and twisted human nature and emotion.

Fabulous by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Fabulous cover

Fabulous is a collection of short stories that retell famous myths in modern Britain, twisting ancient tales into relatable modern snippets. Orpheus, Psyche, Tristan and Isolde, the Pied Piper, and Mary Magdalen are just some of the figures given fresh new versions of their stories, mixing criminal gangs, immigration, estate agents, pest control, love and more.

The stories are knowing and witty, using observations and comments on modern society to try and make these very famous tales fresh. As expected, they vary in how they engage with the source tale, but the original myth is always central to the narrative and characters. Stand out highlights include the story of Diana and Actaeon with estate agents, Pasiphae and the minotaur with seaside gangsters, and adding further complications and some pink pills to the story of Tristan and Isolde. The two Biblical ones—Joseph and Mary Magdalen—are interesting, but may be more appreciated by someone who doesn’t have more knowledge of Greek myth and Arthurian legend than Biblical material.

It is the kind of book that is perfect for picking up and reading single stories, dipping in or choosing the figures that most interest you. The modern retellings are clever and fun, and the end has a quick guide to the original tales for anyone who didn’t know (or Google) them previously. There’s a delight in how famous the original stories are and how ordinary the characters in these versions can be.