Afterlove by Tanya Byrne

Afterlove is an unconventional YA love story about not being separated by death. When Ash Persaud falls in love with Poppy, the girl she met on a school trip to the local wind farm, it seems the world has opened up for them, but then Ash dies not long afterwards. However, Ash doesn’t leave Brighton, but instead is called upon to join a team of local reapers, pointing souls towards their journey to whatever comes afterwards. Ash is desperate to see Poppy again, but it’s not so easy when one of them is dead and the other alive.

This is a fresh novel that shows a whirlwind romance and then a story that takes a very different approach to teenage love and loss, focusing on the afterlife, fighting for someone, and what really matters. The book really comes in two parts, and they are notably different: the ‘before’ section focuses on Ash, on her relationships with those in her life, and her falling in love with Poppy, and then the ‘after’ section is more about the rules of being a reaper and Ash and Poppy getting to see each other again. Ash and Poppy’s story starts as a fun first love tale after Ash’s repeated disappointments with other girls she’d met (it’s great to see her supportive best friend looking out for her) and then becomes something different, with higher stakes but still whirlwind emotions. It’s cute, but also when you step back from the story an interesting look at relationships and youthful love and how you view the future.

Afterlove combines a contemporary lesbian love story with an afterlife plotline and a Brighton setting to make a quirky book that a lot of readers will enjoy. The characters, including Ash’s new reaper friends and those from her ‘life’, are vivid and interesting, though due to the narrative format it did feel a shame to no longer see into the lives of the latter supporting characters later in the book. There’s a fair amount of YA that features death in similar and different ways, but this one handles it in a quirky way that gives it a romcom feel without lessening the reaper/afterlife element.

The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons

The Passing Playbook is a young adult sports romcom about a soccer-loving trans teenager who has to fight for his right to play on his school team. When Spencer moves schools to Oakley, the most liberal school in Ohio, after trouble at his previous school, he wants to focus on football and finding his feet, and not telling people he’s trans. It’s going great—new teammates, a guy who might be something more—until an Ohio law about birth certificates and a rule from the league sees him benched for every game, and Spencer has to decide whether to publicly fight for his rights or not.

This book is such a breath of fresh air in how it treats Spencer: he has a supportive if sometimes too overprotective or not quite ‘getting it’ family, a trans best friend from summer camp to talk to, and within the narrative, he gets to come out to people by telling them himself, which is often not the case in YA novels set in schools. The story is centred around him fighting for what he wants, but with a wider underlying plot around the importance of fighting for rights for others too, like supporting a classmate who is arguing they should push for gender neutral bathrooms.

The romance has arguably the heavier plotline, with Spencer’s love interest Justice being a gay kid from a not-well-off conservative Christian family for whom a soccer scholarship is his means of escape, but it’s still sweet too. Everything comes together in a feel-good way (there’s actually a comment about whether Spencer and Justice like musical comedies and feel-good made for TV movies respectively, which is kinda what this book is a combination of) which makes it good for readers looking for a book that isn’t focused on the trauma or flaws of the protagonist, but on him still growing as a person by realising he wants to fight for his and other people’s rights.

Having high school sports trans narratives is crucial at a time like this, when restrictions on trans teens’ right to take part in sports are happening and are in the news, and the fact the sport is soccer rather than American football (being British I have to make that distinction) possibly gives this book a more international appeal. The book has a powerful message, but more importantly, it’s fun and shows a regular teenager living his life, albeit in a romcom universe where things work out a little more smoothly. It’s good to have complex narratives in YA, but it’s also good to have books like this that provide a feel-good yet gripping experience.

Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

Only Mostly Devastated is a YA reimagining of Grease, in which a summer fling becomes a complicated school situation. Ollie and Will’s summer fling seemed perfect, but when Ollie didn’t go back home to California but stayed with his family to help look after his sick aunt, he finds himself at a new school in North Carolina. It turns out Will goes to the school too, and the guy from the summer isn’t the same amongst his straight basketball team friends. Ollie doesn’t want to spend all his time pining after someone who isn’t ready for a relationship, but his new friends aren’t enough to distract him, and Will seems conflicted about what he wants.

The first thing to say is that I’ve never seen Grease. I know many of the songs and some ideas from it, but otherwise nothing, and this wasn’t detrimental to enjoying the book at all. The book seemed most focused both on the difficulties of not being straight in high school and navigating that, as well as other teenage issues and family emergencies. The tapestry of different characters and their personalities worked well to make it more than just the synopsis, though Ollie made a good protagonist, caring but also in need of realising when he was being self-absorbed. The amount of the plot that deals with someone trying to make sure nobody realises they aren’t straight did make me worry that it would feature someone being outed against their will (pun unintended), but the plot lampshades this as an issue earlier on rather than doing it.

Only Mostly Devastated is a fun YA romance that knows it is updating a few tropes and playing around with different high school romance narratives. The protagonist is three-dimensional and is given more going on in his life than the romance or the circumstances that cause the plot, and the story is enjoyable if not groundbreaking.