Book Review: Girls On Fire
“Girls had to believe in everything but their own power, because if girls knew what they could do, imagine what they might.”
Hannah Dexter is a loner, a bland nothing among the pretty girls in her small town. She’s “filed the dream of a best friend away with my Barbies and the rest of my childish things”, has been alone for so long that she can’t even identify ‘loneliness’ as what she’s feeling. She’s pretty much the girl most readers will have been at some point – waiting for excitement, for drama, for something to shake things up and make her feel like a real teenager.
Enter Lacey, who rechristens her ‘Dex’ and sweeps her into a world of philosophy and grunge music – it’s the early 90s, and Kurt Cobain is their god. Enter Lacey, who tugs her out of small-town safety and into possible Satanic rituals. Enter Lacey, her best friend and soulmate – who’s nevertheless keeping secrets for her.
This is that gorgeous kind of love story, the kind that exists between best friends in a way that only can if it begins at that hyper-intense point in adolescence where it’s you and them against the world and everything is ecstasy or despair. But it moves beyond the typical ‘bad-girl-influences-good-girl’ trope – told in alternating chapters, the girls reveal they are both ‘bad’ and ‘good’, that the clichés they invent for one another crumble under scrutiny.
And then there’s – of course – the school bitch, Nikki, who’s shunned Dex and who has a history with both Lacey and the boy who committed suicide in the woods last year. The same woods the three of them will end up in, sooner or later. (Cue the omnious music.) The dynamics between all three are complex and shifting, leaving us on edge as to which pairing will survive.
Girls on Fire is a delirious, exhilarating read for everyone who’s ever had that kind of best friend or wished they had, for everyone ready to vicariously experience that rollercoaster of adolescence where nothing is quite as it seems and everything and anything is possible. Published for adults for content, but likely to appeal to older teens as well, particularly those who know their Nirvana. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it.
Some NTAG updates (with a touch of neurosis)
On the tellybox (Ireland AM).
I-HAVE-A-BOOK-OUT-NOW time, sorry, do please indulge me. People have been really lovely – here are some of the kind and complimentary things about Snarky Anorexic Ghost Book.
(Is there a way of posting about this stuff without feeling horribly self-indulgent and or attention-seeking? Seriously. Is there a classy way of going ‘here are some really nice things that people have said about this thing I made and am proud of’ without it being ‘oh just shut up you wagon’? Or is it always the case that we expect women – especially Irish women, we don’t do compliments – to just shrug off anything nice ever, to refuse any praise, to be noble and miserable and only concerned about other people? Irish mammies in the kitchen making tea for everyone but themselves.)
(Answers on the back of a postcard please.)
Right. The nice stuff people have said. SURE IT’S PROBABLY ALL RUBBISH DON’T LISTEN TO THEM. I’ll just be over here in the corner being virtuous. Or something.
- “While eating disorders and body image are portrayed with great insight and sensitivity, this is absolutely not an issue book: it’s extremely readable with plenty of snark and humour.” – The Bookseller
“It’s very wise… she writes about relationships in an incredibly nuanced way…I read it with awe.” – Marian Keyes’s World of Writing
- “a carefully crafted masterpiece… She has successfully, and beautifully, characterised the ana voice… Nothing Tastes as Good is clever, clever clever… a fresh take on the realities of anorexia and binge eating, and you absolutely need to read it.” – A Series of Erraticism
- “This is a truly original and poignant insight into the minds of two girls in the grip of eating disorders – reinforcing how slippery that slope can be and how fast someone can fall.” – Sarah Stewart, YA Shelfies
- “…a beautifully complex depiction of relationships and body disorders.” – Zoe Jellicoe, The Dublin Inquirer
“This book was incredibly relatable, because every one of us has an Annabel inside us. Telling us we’re fat, ugly, everything we’ve ever doubted about ourselves.” – Pretty Purple Polka Dots
“…a clever narrative device… original and engaging” – Sarah Gilmartin, The Irish Times
“an utterly unique piece of YA fiction that speaks to you whatever your waist size” – The Book Bag
“A truly exceptional vision; unique and riveting. Read it!” – Mary Esther Judy, Fallen Star Stories
- “Fusing reality with a supernatural element, this is so much more than an ‘issues’ book – this is a Young Adult novel that really packs a punch.” – Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop
- “This is the kind of book teenage girls (and boys) need, a book that challenges the stigma around ‘the silly things that teenage girls do to themselves.’” – Jenny Duffy, The Books, The Art and Me
“a thought provoking, hard hitting and raw novel dealing with serious issues such as teenage life, mental health and relationships. One of the best books I’ve read this year.” – Shannon Bookworm
Book Review: Mad Girl
“… mental illness does not always fit the binary, black-and-white terms given to it in the media, books and films. This is also why it is such a bastard. It is good at hiding, evading capture, putting on a show. It is the world’s greatest actor.”
Mental illness memoirs are often written by those in the public eye, who type earnestly about their time spent in bed or struggling without ever addressing the fact that despite their health issues, their lives have hints of glamour and privilege that are completely ignored in their narrative of suffering. It’s not that these things make you immune to mental illness, of course, but they do mean that it’s easier to afford a doctor, or counselling, or time off work. Working-class sufferers of mental illness don’t write books about it; we don’t seem to be interested in that.
Bryony Gordon, successful columnist with the Sunday Telegraph, deviates from the typical pattern not because of her lack of privilege – this is a lady doing well for herself – but because she acknowledges that even as she was in a very dark hole mentally, her work was going well. She writes about the fun stuff, about how her drug and alcohol dependency facilitated both socialising for work and penning cheeky columns about her life as a ‘single lady’. Though, as she admits, the older one gets in this role, the more awkward it becomes and the more pitying looks one gets: “No single woman in her thirties wants to be described as a character. We should – it’s good to be a character, much better than relying solely on your looks – but we don’t.”
This is Gordon’s second memoir, but it’s her first to address the OCD that kicked in aged twelve and had her on medication by age seventeen. Despite the severity of this condition – and she conveys the repetitive, terrifying, unstoppable thoughts expertly on the page – she also handles it with a lightness of touch and casual asides, cheerfully acknowledging her worries about her alopecia preoccupying her over things like bringing the iron to work so that she won’t have to worry about it having been left on. She is scared all of the time: worried she’s done something terrible despite all evidence to the contrary. Worried she’s capable of it.
This is the origin point of other problems that plague her throughout her twenties and thirties. She develops an eating disorder, reflecting that, “My body had never felt like mine, not really. I realise that now, with age and lines and fat and the tiniest bit of wisdom. Does any young woman feel as if her body is hers, anyway?” Making herself throw up feels normal, yet it also must be hidden. On the surface it looks like she’s doing well. Later, when she recovers from this and stops taking cocaine, the weight gain is visibly disapproved of by various peers, even as she is healthier and happier. We don’t mind how unhappy women are if they’re thin, after all.
Then there are the bad relationships, the toxic liaisons that she’s particularly susceptible to in a quest for passion and excitement. While she takes responsibility for her commitment to these various problematic men, it’s also clear that they are the sort who seek out vulnerable women. And after all, she is ‘crazy’ – it’s so much easier to gaslight a girlfriend who already has a diagnosis.
“Relationships like this, they creep up on you slowly. They wouldn’t happen any other way. Like praying mantises, they dance seductively in front of you to lure you in before biting your head off. They work by stealth, and before you know it you are declaring undying love to a man who seems sometimes to hate you. Except what you’re feeling isn’t love, not really. It’s fear. It’s fear of him, fear of yourself, fear of being alone.”
There is a happy ending of sorts to all this – Gordon is now married with a small girl – but despite some of the coping mechanisms having been put in their place, she still has OCD, and is still prone to relapses. An epilogue reveals how writing the book triggered one of these, how difficult it is to write about mental illness without it tugging at you. The honesty here makes this a more, rather than less, optimistic read. Good things can happen to messed-up girls and women. But they also need to help themselves, to be open to it, to do what they can and seek help for the things they can’t. This is a book that’s both breezy and smart, funny and insightful. Gordon is the antithesis of self-pitying without being a Pollyanna, and is firm about the purpose of the book: not to lecture anyone else, but to share her story in the hope that others might speak up too.
Book Review: Nina Is Not OK
‘Do you think your drinking is a problem? Do you get drunk when you don’t mean to?’
I always mean to.
This is comedian Shappi Khorsandi’s first novel. Let’s get her writing more of these, please. Seventeen-year-old Nina drinks too much. She sort-of knows this and sort-of doesn’t. It’s just that things were easier before her longterm boyfriend Jamie met the love of his life on a plane and broke her heart. And things were definitely easier before that night she can’t entirely remember – the night she got kicked out of a nightclub for publicly giving a blow job to a random guy and ended up in a taxi some time later clutching her knickers in her hands.
As you might guess, this is not quite for younger teens, but I do hope that older teens as well as adults will pick up this coming-of-age novel. Nina goes through a lot: she feels “upside down, inside out and back to front. I was myself, just the worst ‘version’ of myself.” After the drinking gets out of hand and she does something utterly mortifying, destabilising the family she’s staying with while her stepfather, mother and half-sister are abroad, she ends up in rehab, where she notes:
…feeling rejected is how most of us got to be in this place. No one says in a meeting: “I’ve always felt like I belong! Now if I could just sort out this silly drinking habit I could skip back off to my perfect life!” AA is not for those people.
This is a terrific exploration of sexuality, from the ways in which alcohol gets tangled up in decision-making (and in Nina’s and many girls’ cases, also leads them to blame themselves for the actions of predatory creeps) to what it means to be attracted to both men and women. I also loved Nina’s friend Beth, who has many feminist rants throughout the novel and points out some of the double standards that Nina can’t quite accept, blaming herself for an assault. It’s absolutely heart-breaking in places, and feels incredibly real: I loved it.
Susan’s Bad Poetry competition winner!
And the winner of the Susan’s Bad Poetry Competition is… Lorelei Summers, with this poem:
I find a feather from a swan
Or perhaps a pigeon
And think if only you had
Flown the way that I did
I want to go back and fix you
Because you were broken
Instead I go to centra to buy wine
And a pomegranate
Here’s what Courtney had to say:
“I performed it aloud twice for different people… it was objectively the best worst poem and the most unapologetically hilarious too. I could see Susan sitting at her desk marvelling at the depth of her own actions. That somehow buying wine and a pomegranate was angsty and meaningful, and that referencing Centra showed she was grounding the poem in reality.”
And here’s me:
“This is perfectly Susan. This is so perfectly Susan, with the pretense that it is all about Annabel but really it’s completely about her and her Journey and ‘flying’, oh god, it is delightful.”
It was only after making our decision that we became aware of Ms Summers’s Secret Identity, and as she already owns a signed copy of Nothing Tastes As Good (and owns very many YA books) she is more than welcome to let us know whether she would like the other titles in the bundle, or whether she would prefer the prize be donated to a school, library or other organisation of her choice. Update: Ms Summers’s Alter Ego will be donating some shiny YA and MG books to the very fabulous Fighting Words!
Many thanks to everyone who submitted and help bring more bad Susan-y poetry into the world!