Paperback, 352 pages.
Release date: March 20th 2014.
Rating: 3½ out of 5.
Source: Received from publisher for review.
Reviewed by: Arianne.
Francis Wootton's first memory is of Kurt Cobain's death and there have since been other hardships much closer to home. At fifteen, he knows all about loss and rejection, and if he's honest, Francis - would-be poet, possible intellectual - feels he is wasted in Tyne and Wear. Lower Fifth is supposed to be his time: but when he is diagnosed with leukaemia, a whole new world of worry presents itself. There's the horror of being held back a year at school, the threat of imminent baldness. But he hadn't reckoned on meeting Amber and finding a reason to tackle it all - the good the bad and everything in-between - head on.
I have very mixed feelings about In Bloom. On one hand, it's got all the hallmarks of a classic UKYA issue book with the added bonus of a fabulous female lead and a surprisingly well-written romance. On the other hand, it's impossible not to wonder if long-time YA fans will feel as if they've seen it all before.
Francis Wootton is one Tyneside teenager who’s about to learn that spending your days wishing you were somewhere else is no way to live. Because Francis has been diagnosed with leukaemia, and suddenly, he’s got more to worry about than the impulsive antics of his big brother Chris and the general dullness of his ordinary hometown.
Let me make one thing clear here: Matthew Crow is not the next John Green. In Bloom may take on the same subject as The Fault in Our Stars but it pales in comparison to its NYT-bestselling counterpart. In Bloom’s prose is unsophisticated and lacking in sensitivity. Hero Francis is more Adrian Mole than Augustus Waters, and I can assure you, he is anything but book boyfriend material. His attempts at wit are lukewarm at best and let’s just say he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to, well, pretty much everything.
His love interest Amber, in contrast, is a breath of fresh air. Cut-glass sharp and tough as nails, she pulls Francis from his dreary existence, showing him that a life with cancer is still a life, and you’ve got to make the best of what you’ve been given, no matter how hard it is. And Francis, like the reader, falls for Amber hook, line and sinker.
The theme of family has a huge influence over this novel. In Bloom is a surprisingly short book, with a slightly erratic timeline and frequent line breaks just to make sure you’re kept on your toes, but the same familiar faces pop up time and again, ensuring there is at least some semblance of continuity throughout.
Francis has the kind of family everyone can relate to; the kind you love, but sometimes you wish you weren’t stuck with for the rest of eternity. You can never be sure if Chris really has his little brother’s best interests at heart, but he’s undoubtedly entertaining and he’s a good guy (very, very) deep down. For me, twenty-something Chris was more real than Francis – from the way he goes through phases of unreliability to the way he regularly drops by his mum’s house to raid the fridge. The mother in question is, you hope, mostly well-meaning (though she’s not exactly about to be nominated for Mum of the Year anytime soon). My favourite character by far, however, was the grandmother. She’s a true Geordie, hilarious without even trying. That’s the kind of characterisation I wanted to see more in this book – natural and realistic instead of imitative and forced.
That said, Crow doesn’t shy away from showing the harsh realities of Francis' new life, and I appreciated that. In some ways, In Bloom embraces the 'cancer book' label – for example, showing how Francis and Amber’s bond is strongest during the tough times – but in others, it half-heartedly tries to shrug off the name – for example, when we’re subjected to endless pages of Francis trying to be smart and failing. Ironically, I think I'd be most likely to recommend this book to people who haven't read The Fault In Our Stars (or to people who don't read YA in general) as without the influence of comparison or the benefit of reading experience, I can see where and why it would be loved.
The romance in this book is very much of the whirlwind variety, but it stays with you – it’s passionate and troubled, full of sarcasm and adventure. Like all good romance novels, this book ends with a wedding (unfortunately for cynics like me, this is just another attempt to copy the format of The Fault in Our Stars) but I certainly won’t be telling you which characters are getting married! In Bloom is worth reading just for the journey alone, but is a little predictable.
In short: In Bloom is a good book. It’s solid UKYA (in fact it's so thoroughly British it’s practically the book equivalent of eating fish and chips while listening to Oasis on a London street corner) but you can't help feeling that this is a story we've seen before. In truth, it all rests on whether or not you like the main character – I didn’t, and I think that’s why this is a book that hasn’t found a place in my heart quite yet.