Wednesday 4 November 2015

Reviewed by Arianne: Counting Stars by Keris Stainton.

Product details:
Publisher: Hot Key Books.
Paperback, 324 pages.
Release date: September 3rd 2015.
Rating: 3½ out of 5.
Ages: 14+
Reviewed by: Arianne.

 Big city, big dreams, no money, no problem...

Six 'friends', one flat, big dreams... what could go wrong? When eighteen-year-old Anna leaves school and moves to Liverpool, she feels like her life is finally beginning. She's landed her dream job at a theatre, and she's moving into an exciting (if not slightly run-down) flat on a buzzing street lined with shops, bars, and buskers. Best of all, her new flatmates are kind, welcoming and a lot of fun - what more could she ask for?

But although her new life is fun, it's also a little overwhelming. Anna's job quickly falls through, and then she realises that although her new friends are great, they're also a little mixed-up... and it's not long before Anna starts using her blog to talk about her experiences, from the hilarious to the ridiculous to the little-bit-scary. But when Anna spills a bigger secret than she can handle, suddenly the consequences are all too real. She'll have to prove she has the mettle to make it in the big city, or risk losing everything she thinks she wants

Famous for fun, light novels like Jessie Hearts NYC and Emma Hearts LA - and of course as an avid champion of One Direction – Counting Stars sees Keris Stainton, one of the most recognisable names in UKYA, take on a very different kind of book. A uniquely British blend of comedy and drama, Counting Stars is a tale of housemates, heartbreaks, relationships, mistakes, family, vlogging, job-hunting and general life disasters. It’s messy, uncompromising and perfect for fans of Skins and Gavin & Stacey: you can almost hear the TV show springing to life around it. 

Anchored by newcomer Anna, Counting Stars delves into the intertwining lives of a cohort of young housemates in Liverpool. Stainton has the cast dancing like marionettes to her tune as each plot unfolds. Anna, Nina, Sean, Molly and Alfie share both camaraderie and conflict as they navigate the intense highs and lows of independence. It’s an easy read, with a straightforward, down-to-earth writing style, with Stainton clearly hoping to appeal to an audience of readers and non-readers alike. Long-time fans of YA may wish for more description or more challenging prose, but when it comes to story, Counting Stars packs a punch. 

This is a type of book you rarely see on the shelf: gritty and realistic, yet big-hearted and intriguing, with some great LGBTQ+ characters and moments of humour. If you’re tired of YA where sixteen-year-olds have trust funds and everyone has a summer house in the Hamptons, Counting Stars could be for you: it’s not for younger readers, but it features teens living a more ordinary life, watching telly and doing the weekly shop. There’s even a romance between Anna and cute, hard-working love interest Alfie to root for and the potential for a whole saga of sequels. 

It’s set in a fantastic city, too. Stainton’s Liverpool is vibrant and friendly, unique and familiar; like any city it has its own thriving heart, and Stainton fills it with everything from kind people to dodgy streets to strong friendships. Cities like Liverpool are brimming over with untapped potential when it comes to YA, and I’d love to see more authors take advantage of that. It’s a breath of fresh air to see any UKYA set outside London, and here, Liverpool is the perfect backdrop.

Unfortunately the book isn't without its downsides. Anna is a little too ‘relatable’ and docile – I know she’s supposed to be the reader’s eyes, but she’s not supposed to be invisible. The other characters, while plausible and chatty, seem more like teens from a ‘90s-era comedy-drama than a modern YA novel. They’re more realistic than the characters of Paper Towns or The Potion Diaries, but there are scenes and anachronisms that make it very difficult to picture this book as taking place in 2015. There’s plenty of swearing, for example, but not enough slang, and the secondary characters’ improbably lack of interest in social media is of course very convenient for Anna as she tries to keep her vlogging habit hidden. The book isn’t without its problematic moments and unlikely storylines, either. Thrown from one subplot to the next, it lacks the depth of consequence and exploration readers may be looking for.

The biggest issue I had with the book, however, is that it’s not really a YA novel at all. I'd wondered why the cover so resembled that classic adult fiction chick-lit look, and it’s because this book is closer to adult fiction or chick-lit than YA. Many scenes are unnecessary and detract from story’s appeal, and I won’t be recommending it as often as I’d hoped.  Re-shelved as an adult book, it could do well - it could even be described as that elusive ‘new adult, but about the actual realities of being a new adult’. As YA fiction, however, it’s not so enjoyable, since in the hunt for an older tone, it loses the warmth and charm we read YA for in the first place.

In short: Fresh, chaotic and full of drama, Counting Stars isn’t perfect, but has a brilliant premise and a fantastic setting. It’s messy, unglamourous, and very, very British - UKYA fans will love it.


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