A great day is a day of an unexpected book delivery. So the day we were delivered not one but four delicious Hot Key books to the office, I was like a kid on Christmas who had just been bought a Scalextric (90s kid, me).
One of these books, was All of the Above by James Dawson which I’ve been dying to read and I’m pleased to say it was one of the most enjoyable, relatable and emotional books I’ve read.
‘When sixteen-year-old Toria Bland arrives at her new school she needs to work out who her friends are, all in a crazy whirl of worry, exam pressure and anxiety over fitting in. Things start looking up when Toria meets the funny and foul-mouthed Polly, who’s the coolest girl Toria has ever seen. Polly and the rest of the ‘alternative’ kids take Toria under their wing. And that’s when she meets the irresistible Nico Mancini, lead singer of a local band – and it’s instalove at first sight! Toria likes Nico, Nico likes Toria . . . but then there’s Polly. Love and friendship have a funny way of going round in circles.’
Bear with me after I say this okay? At first, I felt a little overwhelmed. It seemed like everybody in this book had an ‘issue’, or a problem, or something that made them different and I felt a bit like, there’s too much. How can it be about sexuality, mental health, self harm, abuse and more in just one friendship group? But then I realised that’s the point. If it wasn’t staring me in the face the whole time, I needed to remind myself of the title. I realised that a group dealing with all those things is just reality. As is every other part of this book, it so accurately presents what it’s like to grow up, the things you worried about and the feelings and fears that consumed you.
That’s what really got to me about this book because not one bit felt like fiction, or sensationalised or unlikely, it all felt like someone had crept into my brain and taken every thought and feeling I’d had and put them on a page, disguised in different characters. You forgot the author. You forget it’s someone in their mid-20s writing, and it feels as though it really is Toria, telling you about her life and you can imagine these friends, the crazy Polly and insecure Beasley and their golf course. It could be any group of people as much as it has to be this group, because every single person probably is battling something and it makes you realise that you’re not a freak if you’re anorexic, or if you’re so anxious you struggle to walk into a crowded room and you’re not alone either. It makes it feel like a community, something the YA bloggers are brilliant at anyway but James invites you in to join this group of people who are a bit different, welcomes you with open arms and makes you feel part of it. Because really, everyone feels different. I don’t know many people who are 100% comfortable in their own skin and that’s what this book represents. Any teenager can connect with this book, there’s a character in there who you can identify with and say ‘yeah, that was me’ and it shows just how difficult it is just to survive being a teenager, let alone enjoy it.
I don’t want to spoil bits, but normally with romances, it feels so obvious and the protagonist is lamely waning after them, or they’re well aware they are battling their feelings against someone they think they shouldn’t love. But James shows it for what it often is: slow-burning. Someone who starts as a friend, someone you can look at in awe who gives you that buzz of excitement and jealousy at the same time and it’s very carefully and beautifully done. Enough so that you don’t completely see it coming, nor do you feel it’s come out of nowhere when it does and he masters the ‘oh it was there all along’ romance, when other authors can’t get that fine balance right.
It was a joy to read. He writes with such vividness and electricity that the book becomes dynamic, it feels cinematic. The dialogue flows so naturally, plus it’s hilariously funny. Other than Lobsters I really can’t think of any other books recently which just made me laugh. On the other hand, I also cried which pretty much sums up my teenage years perfectly. He captures every single teenage fear and the difficulties but also the joys of friendship. It made me want to go and hug all my friends just for being my friends because it made me relive every happy memory I had with them and every moment I felt loved by them.
The Guardian reviewer said ‘I want to read it over and over again, because it’s like reading a diary that is and isn’t your own at the same time.’ and I just wanted to remind everyone of it because that pretty much sums it up for me.
I feel like I’m saying the same things over and over but it’s just so brilliantly accurate, I feel like I needed this book to be handed to me when I was 14, to make me feel like I’d be okay. James Dawson just gets it and I’m pretty damn grateful he shared that with us. Excuse me whilst I go and buy all his other books.