Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen: review by Kelly McCaughrain

I know you’re supposed to mention it if you know an author you’re reviewing, and if you look at the cover of my book you’ll see Susin Nielsen has given me a lovely review quote for my YA novel, but I hasten to add that this isn’t because she and I are great mates! I’ve never met her, and the reason she read my book was that I’m such a huge fan of hers I asked my publisher to send her one. I never thought she’d read it, I just thought it would be really cool to think that she had a copy.

Anyway, the point is, she’s my favourite YA writer.  I’ve loved all her books and Optimists Die First was no exception (and what a fab title!). I love books that are firmly character-based, where the characters are so beautifully drawn and endearing that you really don’t need to add an explosion or a melodramatic vampire every three pages to keep readers hooked. Nielsen’s characters grab you from the first page and stay with you.

Which isn’t to say there’s no plot. Her books deal with some serious issues and heavy stuff – I think every one of them features the aftermath of a death – and they deal with it well, but still manage to be light and funny, which is a skill I really admire. They’re the sort of books where you laugh the whole way through and then find yourself crying at the end (how does she do that!). They’re beautifully written and she’s brilliant at making you feel for the characters without adding an ounce of unnecessary sentiment. There’s absolutely no mush – the tagline of Optimists Die First, ‘A Love Story for Cynics’ is very apt.

In this latest book, Petula’s family is imploding since the death of her little sister. She believes she is responsible for the accident that killed Maxine and is now completely obsessed with calculating the risk of death in any given situation and avoiding it. Unfortunately, this means avoiding living her life too. She has adopted pessimism as a survival strategy, which is working fine until she meets optimist Jacob – the mysterious ‘bionic man’ – in her therapy group.  

As well as being a love story between two characters we care about, there’s plenty of comedy in the shape of cat videos, truly awful counsellors, and quirky minor characters who all have poignant stories of their own.

I’ve been sharing Nielsen’s books with my teen writing group (13-16s) and they all love them, boys and girls, younger and older. In fact, I asked one of them for a quote for this review:

Sophia (13) on Optimists Die First: “Relatable and heart wrenching”

I couldn’t have put it better.

Kelly McCaughrain is a YA writer and her debut title Flying Tips for Flightless Birds will be out in March 2018 from Walker Books. Visit her at www.KellyMcCaughrain.com. @kmccaughrain


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