Quickfire mini-reviews (grown-up books!)
Lisa Owens’s Not Working is a funny and neatly-observed tale about a woman in her late twenties who quits her job to ‘find herself’ and figure out ‘what she really wants to do with her life’. Fortunately, she doesn’t decide she wants to be a writer – which is where I feared it was going – but instead we find ourselves questioning the idea of whether your work needs to be completely fulfilling, and what the trade-offs are. As someone fascinated by work and people’s relationships to it, I really enjoyed this.
The Other Side of Silence by Linda Gask is a memoir about depression by a psychiatrist, offering us a look at two sides of the fence. Gask draws on her own experience as well as what she’s seen with her patients, and provides insights into treatment and theories. A surprisingly quick read.
For your inner nerd, Set Phasers to Stun by Marcus Berkmann explores fifty years of Star Trek, although the bulk of the material focuses on the original series and The Next Generation with very little to say about later series in the franchise. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes gossip, but it’s also incredibly critical of many of the episodes and decisions made – which feels strange coming from a self-professed fan.
Liz Nugent’s Lying In Wait is one to zip through because you’ll need to know how it all turns out. The novel begins with a murder and skips on from there, with the narration alternating between an unbearably snobbish society wife, her son, and the dead girl’s sister. If you like your suburban gothic you’ll eat this up.
Fat Chance by Louise McSharry is an incredibly honest and inspiring memoir about growing up under tough circumstances, with an alcoholic mother, and also what it means to be ‘fat’ and what bodies are there for. Here’s a story we don’t hear very often: woman loses weight. Woman is praised for losing weight. Woman is losing weight because she has cancer. But it’s more common than you might think, and the idea of weight loss as only a ‘bad thing’ if one is of an ‘acceptable’ weight already is downright dangerous. If the ‘beach-ready body’ bullshit has crept its way inside your brain, have a read of this.
Quickfire mini-reviews (YA books!)
I do love reading something and immediately needing to go buy the author’s other books. This happened to me with Tanya Byrne’s For Holly, which is narrated by a teenage girl addressing letters to a mysterious ‘Holly’, explaining a situation that slowly becomes clear. Lola hates living in Paris with her horrific stepmother, and deeply misses her mother; her father doesn’t understand her and never takes her side, and all the while she just wants to escape. But when she finds out that her wicked stepmother has a secret, she plots her revenge – which we already know will have dangerous consequences. Suspense-filled and authentically teenage.
Another girl with a dark secret is Zoe – at least, that’s the name she’s chosen. Annabel Pitcher’s Ketchup Clouds is similarly structured to For Holly, told in epistolary format, but here Zoe’s writing to a stranger – a man on death row who she feels sure is the only person that could understand the horrible thing that she’s done.
This led to more Annabel Pitcher – her latest novel, Silence is Goldfish, begins with Tess planning to run away. She’s discovered that the father she’s always trying to impress is not really her dad – and she’s heart-broken to discover that he didn’t feel like her dad when she was born, either. A nuanced story about family and identity.
Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable was first published in 2005, a chilling look at how date rape looks from the point of view of the perpetrator. Keir is the golden boy, an athlete, not someone who would ever do something ‘bad’ – and yet he has. In the sequel, Irreversible (out next month in the US), he’s in his first year of college, still not having entirely confronted the reality of what he’s done and the reality of who he is, how he blames other people for his own failings. An interesting – if painful – look at the entitlement of young male athletes, while still urging some sympathy for Keir.
The prolific David Levithan has teamed up with Nina LaCour for his latest novel, You Know Me Well, depicting the friendship between a gay boy in unrequited-love with his best friend, and a lesbian artist yearning for a girl she’s only ever heard about. It offers up insights into what it is to be young and queer – taking place in San Francisco and partly during Pride – but it also leans a little too heavily on some familiar tropes in Levithan’s work, in particular the ‘one wild night’/’quirky chain of events’ idea. Very readable but not startlingly new.
Some recent scribblings elsewhere
A few bits and pieces from around the interwebs:
Book Review: Opal Plumstead
Opal Plumstead is the plain and clever one in her family, unlike her beautiful older sister. While her sister works in a shop selling beautiful things to rich ladies, Opal is a scholarship student looking up to her writer father. But her father is keeping secrets from the family – and when he is taken away to prison in disgrace, it’s off to work for Opal.
The Fairy Glen sweet factory seems like a dream job for modern readers, but we quickly learn how difficult the work is and how cruel the other girls are to Opal. As with Wilson’s more modern work, we also see what it means to have to struggle with money, to have to think about each meal and expense very carefully.
Opal’s ‘step up’ in the factory – to painting the pictures on the chocolate boxes – seems like a dream come true, and she soon comes under the influence of the factory’s owner, who introduces her to the suffragette moment. For a time it seems like it all might work out – but Wilson refuses to give her readers a fairytale ending.
This is an incredibly engrossing look at pre-war Britain, which is in some ways so distant and in other ways very familiar. Opal’s story twists and turns in unexpected ways – and nothing is sugar-coated for a young reader. Although it’s pitched at her typical 9-12 audience, teen readers would enjoy this too. One of my very favourite Jacqueline Wilsons (of the hundred or so that prolific lady has penned) and highly recommended.
Book Review: The Privileged
“They all drank, often too much, and took drugs, because sometimes it was easier to be drunk or high than to be uncertain, hopeful, horny.”
Stella. Laura. Amanda. Friends since their teens and an all-too-familiar incident at a South Dublin disco, they’re now verging on their thirties and about to be reunited: Amanda’s in crisis once again. While Stella and Laura are comfortable, middle class, working hard at their jobs, Amanda lives in a world of privilege that has been a gateway for them since their adolescence – and has been able to fund a drug problem that has haunted her since then.
While it’s refreshing to see a focus on female friendships, the modern-day quest to find out what’s going on with Amanda isn’t quite strong enough to work as a framing device for all the background between these three women, and Amanda’s charisma is never quite compelling enough to justify their fondness for her. There are plenty of Amandas out there, butterflies who charm caterpillars, but she is not as vivid on the page as she should be. Still, it’s an interesting read and Laura’s role as a journalist weighing up ethics versus friendship is particularly intriguing.
Book Review: The Last Boy and Girl in the World
“The strange reality is that just because your town is almost washed away doesn’t mean you stop being in love with a boy.”
After severe flooding, the town of Aberdeen are told they’re going to have to evacuate permanently. Keeley Hewitt’s family have lived there for generations, on a street named after her great-great-grandfather, and her dad takes up the cause and leads the campaign to save the town. He’s been despondent ever since an accident left him unable to work two years ago, but now he’s full of energy – he has something to fight for.
Keeley’s mother is less thrilled by it all, especially as more and more of the town’s residents sign deals and leave. And Keeley, although she wants Aberdeen to survive, is caught up in her dream-come-true scenario: Jesse Ford, the boy she’s been in love with from afar forever, likes her. Between the two of them they plot zany events that take advantage of the increasingly-deserted town, like a prom night in their old principal’s now-abandoned house.
But Jesse isn’t nearly as perfect in real life as he is in fantasies – and as the town disintegrates around her, Keeley’s relationships are also crumbling. Her best friend Morgan feels distant from her, and she betrays the trust of someone she’s starting to realise she really cares about. Siobhan Vivian’s characterisation is fabulous – all these characters are nuanced and flawed, and Keeley in particular is the kind of jokey, silly, daring girl we so rarely see in fiction. She makes mistakes and messes up, but she’s also incredibly real.
I completely adored this book. It’s complex, looking at everything from corruption in local government to the small kindnesses or cruelties that we offer to others, but also very readable, with weather reports kicking off each chapter and becoming more and more ominous. Despite the unusual setting, the characters and their responses to impending disasters are easy to relate to, and there are no easy or simple fixes for anything. Highly, highly recommend.