Saturday 20 July 2019

'Girl Online' by Zoe Sugg - as sugary as a frosted cupcake

YouTube star Zoe Sugg's bestselling first novel, 'Girl Online', is not quite as bad as she expected.

YouTube star Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, who has become the fastest selling debut novelist since records began, outselling the likes of JK Rowling and Dan Brown.
YouTube star Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, who has become the fastest selling debut novelist since records began, outselling the likes of JK Rowling and Dan Brown.

Anita Singh

There is a moment in Girl Online, the debut novel from British YouTube superstar Zoella, where our heroine realises she is falling in love.

"Even though I still don't really know very much about Noah, on some deeper level it feels like I've known him forever," sighs Penny. "Is this what it means when people talk about meeting their soulmate?

"I get the sudden urge to write a blog post."

Of course. What else would a girl do? Welcome to the world of Zoella, where nothing seals a romance like the validation of strangers on the internet.

If you're unfamiliar with Zoella, then you're probably old. She is Zoe Sugg, a 24-year-old from Brighton who started off blogging about her life to a handful of followers and now has six million subscribers to her YouTube channel, where she vlogs from her bedroom on everything from fashion to beauty, hairstyles and panic attacks (she suffers from anxiety).

She comes across as funny and warm and self-deprecating, and it is her ordinariness that has made her so extraordinarily popular. At her book launch three weeks ago - held at a secret London location to prevent fans from mobbing the place - the CEO of Penguin Random House,Tom Weldon, announced he had put £10 on Zoella's book to be the Christmas number one in the UK. He had put £5 on his other prize author, Jamie Oliver.

She landed a two-book deal with Penguin earlier this year. Weldon said he was initially doubtful about the wisdom of signing a YouTube star but did so after consulting his 13-year-old god-daughter. "She said, 'Oh my God, you should buy Zoe's first novel, she is amazing, the book will be a huge bestseller'," Weldon said.

Out of the mouths of babes... in its first week the book had the highest first-week sales for a debut author since records began. Girl Online sold 78,109 copies in the UK that week - more than JK Rowling, Dan Brown or EL James achieved in first-week sales with their first books. It's also doing well in Ireland - Nielsen book chart figures last week showed that it sold 1,366 copies here, making it the No 8 bestselling book overall and No 3 in children's (classified as YA) behind Wimpy Kid and David Walliams for that week.

Girl Online is the first in a two-book deal aimed at teenagers, and is very good at capturing the pressures of growing up in a world of social media. The lead character, Penny, is a Year 11 pupil struggling with the age-old problems - boys, spots, mean girls - and some very modern ones, such as perfecting a selfie pose and agonising over whether to end a text with kisses or a smiley-face emoticon. She also suffers from panic attacks. Like Zoella, she starts blogging about her problems and soon attracts a supportive following.

It is a sweet story with its heart in the right place. After falling over at a school play and showing the world her knickers - captured on video and posted on YouTube and Facebook for the ultimate humiliation - Penny joins her parents on a trip to New York. There she meets a "Rock-God-tastic" boy called Noah, who has chiselled cheekbones and chocolate brown eyes and a tragic backstory involving an avalanche. And he has a secret, which you may or may not work out two pages after you meet him.

There is comic relief in the form of a gay best friend who says things like "Holy swoon-gate!" and lovely parents who haven't quite caught on to this social-media lark: told that Penny is "about to go viral", her concerned dad says: "I thought you looked a bit peaky, love. Do you want a Lemsip?"

Disclaimer: I am not Zoella's target market. I was once a teenager, but times must have changed because the teenagers in this book bear no resemblance to any I have ever met. On their second date, Noah and Penny share a flask of tea on a tartan picnic blanket. This is an excellent date if you're 83, but doesn't strike me as terribly realistic for an 18-year-old rock musician from Brooklyn.

Left alone in the house, Noah leads Penny down to the basement where he reveals. . . a tent festooned with fairy lights and the handwritten sign: "This here is Penny's tent. Keep Out!. . . unless your name is Noah!" There is a sub-plot about a doll called Princess Autumn that set my teeth on edge. Even Winnie the Pooh might regard it as a bit twee.

It is all so innocent, but Sugg has tapped into a truth: navigating those teenage years can be hellish, and for every moment spent wishing you could become an adult there is another spent secretly yearning to stay a child, when a hug from dad and a mug of hot chocolate could make everything seem all right again.

The charm of Girl Online is the message that growing up doesn't have to mean leaving childish stuff behind. The book is sugary as a frosted cupcake, but so is Zoella and six million YouTube subscribers love her that way.


Girl Online

Zoe Sugg

Penguin, hdbk, 352pp, €19

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

She didn't actually write it

It turns out now that Zoe Sugg did not actually have to, like, write the book. She's probably far too busy vlogging anyway. Although they initially kept it quiet, her publishers have now admitted that the book was largely ghost written.

"Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own," Penguin said in a clarification this week. In fact, this will come as no surprise to attentive readers who will have noticed that in the acknowledgements page in the book Zoe Sugg said: "I want to thank everyone at Penguin for helping me put together my first novel, especially Amy Alward and Siobhan Curham, who were with me every step of the way."

Alward is a Penguin editor. Curham is an award-winning writer of Young Adult books and is said to have "helped" Sugg write the book in six weeks flat. This week Sugg responded with a Tweet, saying: "Everyone needs help when they try someting new. The story and the characters of Girl Online are mine."

Poor Zoella! Roy Keane never got grief like this, even though Roddy Doyle wrote his book.

S O'Neill

Book worm by John Boland

Everyone loves a good mystery story and there was no bigger literary mystery this year than the identity of Elena Ferrante. Was she a woman? Was she a man? Did she exist at all?

Well, yes, because her novels, six of which are now available in English translation, have been greeted with acclaim, first in her native Italy and now globally, even though no one knows who she is or what she looks like, which has even led some Italian critics to speculate that her books might actually be the work of male novelist Domenico Starnone.      

Ferrante seems unlikely to clear things up, having declared 20 years ago that books, "once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won't". And she has stayed true to this belief, refusing any interviews that would involve her coming face-to-face with her interviewer and divulging nothing of her life. Indeed, all that's tentatively known about her is that she was probably born in or near Naples in the 1940s and may once have been married.       

Her abiding subject is the fraught position of women in post-war Italian society, and her most recent exploration of it is in a quartet of novels about two women, Elena and Lila, who grew up together in Naples. I've just started reading the first of these, My Brilliant Friend, and can already sense the raw intensity of Ferrante's vision and the frankness of her personal and social insights.      

The latest of these novels to be translated is Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and it's been named as book of the year by quite a few writers and critics, as has a poetry collection called Accepting the Disaster by 45-year-old New Yorker Joshua Mehigan. I mention this for those readers who are mindful to ask why poetry doesn't rhyme anymore.       

Well, Mehigan's poems rhyme, and so adroitly that you'd imagine you were reading Philip Larkin. I'm glad I discovered him.



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