Book-review post!

And back to YA-land for this next set of book reviews.

Alina Klein – Rape Girl
A little on the short side, and sometimes feeling a bit rushed, this is the account of a sixteen-year-old’s rape at a party – and what happens to her when she reports it. It’s fairly realistic, which makes for harrowing reading – the responses from her friends and those at school tell her she’s looking for attention, she must be making it up, it wasn’t really assault, etc. Would have really liked it to have been a bit longer and explored these things in more detail, upsetting though it is.

Cammie McGovern – Amy and Matthew: A Love Story
Published as Say What You Will in the US, this relates the friendship between two high school students – Amy, who has cerebral palsy and although academically accomplished has no friends, and Matthew, who speaks to no one and is isolated by virtue of his untreated OCD. When Matthew is assigned as one of Amy’s aides for their final year of school, he learns to get her sense of humour, and to understand how she communicates through her computerised voicebox; Amy learns the ups and downs of friendship and helping others. After a disastrous prom night, though, they stop speaking; it’s not until Amy realises how much she needs him that their friendship – or more – resumes. This has been compared to The Fault In Our Stars a lot – a ‘sick lit’ romance, I guess – but it’s very different; Amy’s living with a disability and although she struggles with it, she’s also a tough cookie who has more going on for her than just a body that feels like it fails her. Matthew has his own issues, and the helping-each-other aspect isn’t too pat; this feels like a real connection. Worth a read.

Abigail Haas – Dangerous Boys
Oh, twisty and delightful. A love triangle gone dark. Told from both before and after a fire that leaves one brother dead, this relates how Chloe got to know the two Reznick brothers – and become romantically involved with both of them. It’s twisty and screwed-up and very readable. I want more girls like Chloe in YA fiction.

A S King – Ask The Passengers
From a small town where it seems impossible to be yourself if that means being in any way different, Astrid tries to figure out her sexuality, her relationships, and her identity – while all the time watching the planes fly overhead and sending out messages and love to the passengers. This magical realism element adds a unique slant to this coming-out novel, but it’s also beautifully written and has gorgeous characterisation. Really loved it, and it made me want to read more of AS King ASAP. (She has a new book out this month – Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future – which sounds utterly amazing.)

Sarah Moore Fitzgerald – The Apple Tart of Hope
While she’s away for six months, Meg’s best friend Oscar goes missing. She comes home to find that he’s acquired a new best friend in the meantime – and that the way everyone talks about him doesn’t match up with the boy she knew and loved. Everyone except Meg and Oscar’s younger brother Stevie is convinced that Oscar’s dead – but as time goes on it becomes harder and harder to keep hope alive. This dual-narrator book is beautifully done – exploring bullying and adolescence and attraction and friendship in a way that is quite likely to have you reaching for the tissues. Do read.

That time of year again…

It’s October, which means Children’s Book Festival season, in association with those lovely folks at CBI and taking place in libraries and schools and arts centres all around the country.

Like many other kids’ and YA writers, I’ve been doing my share of visiting libraries, talking to groups of kids and teenagers and delivering writing workshops and answering questions about books, writing, ideas, publishing, the idea of ‘suitability’ in teen fiction, and favourite foods (but of course).

I’ve also been petting copies of the CBI Recommended Reads guide, which is a free resource available from your local library. I was section editor for the 12-14s this year, and also reviewed a few titles for it, so let me just take the chance to mention some of them:

  • The Pointless Leopard (Colas Gutman, illus. Delphine Perret, trans. Stephanie Seegmuller) – ages 5-8, featuring a small boy and some animals who want to know exactly what the point of him is
  • A Drowned Maiden’s Hair (Laura Amy Schlitz) – ages 9-11, set in the Edwardian era and featuring a feisty orphan who gets caught up in the world of spiritualism
  • The Great War (various) – ages 9+, an illustrated collection of WWI-themed stories
  • This Book Is Gay (James Dawson) – ages 14+, non-fiction, and a handbook on all things LGBTQ+ that should be in every school library

All terrific reads – do check them out, and make sure to pick up a copy of the guide. Your to-read list will likely increase, yes, but it’s a risk you simply must take.

Book-review post!

And now some books for adults…

Maeve Binchy – Chestnut Street
A collection of linked stories – some more effectively than others – set on Chestnut Street in Dublin, although the times and sometimes places feel a bit vague. Lovely to get these last stories from the late great Maeve Binchy, but there is a perhaps inevitable sense of unfinishedness about this collection as a whole.

Sinead Crowley – Can Anybody Help Me?
‘Chick-lit’ meets police procedural in this story about online parenting forums and a dead body that turns up in an abandoned apartment. The story moves between the (necessary) preoccupations of new mothers and a tough, pregnant cop trying to solve the mystery. Without saying too much about the ending, I think it says some very intriguing things about pregnancy and motherhood and how people are treated in those circumstances. A second book is forthcoming.

Gwyneth Lewis – Sunbathing in the Rain
Musings, quotes, and analysis of depression from Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis, who views the illness as an opportunity to rebalance one’s life, and suggests approaching it as a detective at a crime scene. There are lots of interesting points in here and it’s not too floaty and woo-woo – certainly one to check out.

Cathy Kelly – The Honey Queen
A recent widow comes to Ireland and finds herself sorting out the lives of her newly-discovered younger brother and other women in the village. A comforting, hopeful read that in typical Cathy Kelly style focuses on the strength of friendships and the difficulties women face in modern life.

Robert Galbraith – The Cuckoo’s Calling
Rowling under a pseudonym writes about a war veteran turned PI, Cormoran Strike, and his eager new assistant, Robin, as they take on the case of apparent suicide Lula Landry. The police are convinced that the famous model killed herself – but her brother isn’t so sure. At first Strike is thinking only of his mounting debts, but as he explores further, he discovers compelling evidence of murder. And then one of Lula’s friends turns up dead… This is a fun, readable mystery and the dynamic between Cormoran and Robin is sufficiently compelling to make me want to read the others. (I finished this and quickly moved onto the second… but more on that later.)

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (trans. Anna Summers) – There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself
Lovely collection of modern fables – sometimes it’d be good to see these as longer pieces (fables, by their nature, resist in-depth characterisation) but there are some nice twists and the writing is intriguing. Sucked in by that title, too – brilliant.

Anne Tyler – Back When We Were Grownups
This had been on my to-read shelf for an absurd amount of time, and once I started I couldn’t put it down. Rebecca is a widow in her early 50s, the matriarch of a big family and a party-organising business who finds herself looking around at her life going: how the hell did I get here? Her life is full of her stepdaughters and her daughter and their partners and children, who think of her as a cheerful outgoing sort – when in fact in her own head she is a quiet, learned sort who fell in love with an older man and fell into his life, with everything that went with that. I couldn’t put this down. Not a huge amount happens necessarily, but the small details, the insight, the emotion… gorgeous. Utterly gorgeous.

Book-review post!

Still playing review catchup. YA titles, with a bit of kidlit thrown in.

Louise O’Neill – Only Ever Yours
freida and isabel (whose names deserve no capitalisation in this world) are eves, bred to be either companions, concubines or chastities – and in their final year at school, isabel pulls away, with a secret she can’t or won’t reveal to her best friend. This book is along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale, but in a girls’ boarding school, and with a sharpness and specificity in the ways that teenage girls are nasty to each other, and oh god just read it. I’ve been recommending this all over the place – it’s one of the best dystopian novels I have ever read, with so many moments that shed a light on contemporary society without it ever feeling too forced. The writing is elegant and precise, and the focus on female friendships – though there is still the obligatory male love interest – sets this apart from other recent YA dystopias. I can’t wait to see what O’Neill does next.

Veronica Roth – Allegiant
I held off on reading this third and final Divergent book on account of hearing it was not so great (the ‘shock’ ending didn’t deter me), and while I did like it more than I thought I would, there is something frustrating about the reveals of previous books being constantly undermined. In an attempt to create tension and drama there’s a sense that things are being made up anew every book, which I don’t think is the case, but it can feel like it. The reveal about the world of this trilogy was both satisfying (it makes sense now, with the factions and all!) and disappointing (oh, haven’t we seen this kind of scenario before?). The dual viewpoints – Tris and Four – also sometimes blur a little close together; their voices are very similar. Not fabulous, but I’m really interested to see what Roth does next.

Stephanie Perkins – Isla and the Happily Ever After
Speaking of trilogies. The one thing that bothered me about this book – which is set in a Parisian boarding school, so wins many points for that straight away – is that it feels like there’s too much of an attempt to link it to previous Perkins books; Isla thinks a lot about Josh’s old group of friends and about how pretty Anna is and how great St Clair is, and it just feels a little forced. All the characters – including Lola and Cricket – reappear towards the end, and I’m not crazy about that moment, either. But. All that aside. Perkins writes romance and friendship really well – the tiny moments that matter, the things that add up to something, the overthinking and analysing and worrying and being insecure, the sheer thrill of being with someone. And this is how it is with Isla and Josh – who get together early on and then are separated by distance and later tensions and fears. I’d have liked to seen more of Isla’s insecurities and feelings of unlovability, but all in all it’s a lovely, sweet, heart-melting read.

Sarah Crossan – Apple and Rain
Apple’s mother turns up after eleven years away, sweeping in dramatically and taking fourteen-year-old Apple to live with her, away from her strict grandmother. What she hasn’t told Apple is that she has a younger sister, Rain – a girl who carries around a doll and insists it’s a real baby, and who isn’t the least bit happy to have competition for their mother’s affections. It becomes clear that their mother – prioritising acting auditions and large glasses of wine over childminding – can’t quite handle taking care of them, but Apple isn’t sure who she can turn to. Alongside her first-person narration are the poetry assignments her new teacher has given out – both the ‘official’ versions she hands in and the real ones that express how she’s feeling. Very much in the vein of The Weight of Water, and makes me hope for more novels-in-verse from Crossan.

R.J. Palacio – Wonder: The Julian Chapter
This novella features a ‘missing chapter’ from Wonder, from the bully’s point of view, and it does that very worn-out thing of having a story about the Nazis be told to the character so that he can Learn A Lesson. I had issues with Wonder, in which Auggie is presented as saint-like simply by virtue of his difference, but I suspect those who adored it may like this bonus scene. For me it was even more didactic than the book. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Book-review post!

Little bit of feminism, plus some fairytale retellings while we’re at it.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett & Holly Baxter – The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media
Focuses on women’s magazines and the screwed-up messages within. There is nothing wildly illuminating in here – women’s magazines are, y’know, evil – but the analysis is good and the history of particular publications is interesting. Instead of dismissing women’s magazines, it dissects them and explores the tensions within, the yay-women! combined with headwrecking stuff about how women should/do behave or look or think. It also explores why women – even those who identify as feminists – read these magazines, and has some nice bits of snark about some of the typical advice from these publications. Not the most groundbreaking feminist work ever, but then again, it’s not trying to be.

Mara Altman – Bearded Lady
Extended essay on ladies and body hair, part personal memoir and part social history. Interesting read but ends a little too suddenly.

Tim Manley – Alice in Tumblr-land and Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation
These ‘fairytales for 20somethings’ collected in book form are delightful – short and illustrated little fables for the digital age, with references to Tumblr and Instagram and Facebook aplenty, and lots on dating and body image and gender and identity. A quick but enjoyable read.

Caitlin Moran – How To Build A Girl
Like many modern young women I have the requisite amount of adoration for Caitlin Moran, whose first grown-up novel doesn’t have nearly as much masturbation and sex as some reviews would have you believe. You have been duly warned. It is similar in tone and theme to How To Be A Woman, but still very much a novel, a cohesive whole about a teenage girl from a welfare background who becomes a music journalist. There are some painfully relatable bits about sex and relationships (and also some very funny parts), but the real strength of this is in the depiction of being dependent on benefits and how difficult it is to do anything or get anywhere from that (Johanna, the heroine, is trying to familiarise herself with modern music but can only borrow a certain number of albums from the local library; travelling places requires careful consideration because of the cost, etc). It’s funny and sharp and I want to read more.

Going Too Far – YA panel recap

Having been called ‘a swot’ by certain fellow YA writers for scribbling notes throughout the Going Too Far? YA discussion panel at the ever-lovely Mountains to Sea festival in Dun Laoghaire, I figured I might as well put together a little recap for bloggish purposes.

The panel was chaired by Elaina Ryan, CBI director and former editor at Little Island, and included David O’Callaghan (Children’s/YA buyer at Eason’s), Louise O’Neill (YA author of Only Ever Yours), Sheena Wilkinson (YA author of Taking Flight and Grounded), and Aaron Williams (‘actual teenager’, and a former teen curator for Mountains to Sea).

David O’Callaghan noted that YA books have existed for a long time, but it’s really only since he’s been kidlit/YA buyer for Eason’s (last 14 years) that the media have been this aware of it, and also that there’s edgier content now. He pointed to the relatively recent separation of ‘teen’ and ‘YA’ in Eason’s to allow for the more grown-up books to fit in there. Aaron Williams added that he’s been reading the Cherub series since age 12, and noted a particularly graphic drug-taking sequence – ‘it was grand!’ he said.

Elaina Ryan pointed out that banned books have been there for ages too – citing in particular Go Ask Alice, the allegedly-anonymous-diary about a teenage drug user. Louise O’Neill added that she’d read Flowers in the Attic when she was younger and that titles of that kind were available to teens even if they weren’t marketed as YA. She also made the point that teens often do view the world as a dark place, and rightly so – they see what’s actually going on in the world. Sheena Wilkinson noted that ‘dark’ content can be found in places other than books, for example TV soaps. Sheena’s reading as a teenager included Judy Blume’s Forever, and she wasn’t phased by the sex, but did note that Ralph was her grandfather’s name.

In terms of writing for teenagers, Sheena’s ideal and imagined reader is 14+, even though 12-year-olds may be reading. Louise didn’t specifically set out to write YA and didn’t censor herself, but also found she remembered very clearly what it’s like to be a teenager. She tried to strike the balance between not being triggering – especially as part of her book deals with eating disorders (she noted Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls as a triggering eating disorder book) – and being honest. She also pointed out that simply being out in the world can be triggering – but with a book you can put it down, and it’s a safe way of dealing with issues.

David hasn’t been shocked by anything that’s come across his desk, but had a rant about New Adult fiction – ‘sexytimes books for young adults’ – which seems very similar and predictable and not that great. Aaron spoke about growing up with a series, like Skulduggery Pleasant, and finding that it gets darker as it goes on – but it’s less shocking because you’re growing into it. He also made the point that ‘issues’ in a book can be a great thing – even if you disagree with it. The presence of something in a book doesn’t imply author endorsement.

More on intended readership – Sheena noted that now readers in their mid/late teens are finding YA books, rather than viewing these titles as too childish and not for them. The ‘John Green effect’ means that books are more likely to get into the hands of the age group the author hopes for. Louise added that while younger readers – 11ish – have read her book, they tend to focus on the romance elements and not pick up on the more disturbing implications that concern older readers. She feels that YA authors don’t set out to glorify an issue, and Sheena suggested gatekeepers in teen fiction can be a positive thing, making it a safe space rather than a place where there’s titillation around certain things. When she was researching suicide online, the uncurated information available was very graphic and shocking. On the issue of gatekeepers, David sees himself more as an advocate for the books, and noted that there’s too many people with opinions on YA who haven’t read the books. Louise noted the distinction between parents saying their kid can’t read a book versus saying no one should read a book – even if it’s not ideal, it’s a parenting thing as opposed to censorship.

In terms of editing to suit a YA audience, Louise was asked by a number of editors to change the ending of her dystopian novel and to make her main character ‘spunkier’ (‘the Katniss effect’), but she was firm on both these things (it’s an abusive environment, after all). She did tone down certain scenes which were a little too graphic but found that the pared-down versions were actually more powerful, implying more rather than stating outright. Sheena spoke about the issues with language (cursing from a West Belfast lad, heavens!) in Taking Flight, which despite being an award-winner was disapproved of in some schools – Elaina, her then-editor, noted that it hadn’t struck her, and Aaron pointed out that bad language is usually there for a reason and makes a world more authentic, that if it’s not there it’s more problematic. For her second book, Sheena said, ‘I decided I was allowed two fucks’.

Next up for discussion was hopeful vs hopeless endings – often the definition of YA is that there must be some hope in the ending. Elaina pointed to recent Carnegie Medal winner The Bunker Diaries (Kevin Brooks) and asked the panel if hopeless endings fit within YA. Aaron said yeah, absolutely – and when you’re young sometimes things do feel like the end of the world, so hopeless endings can echo back to you and feel very real. David finds there are other things worse than bleak endings – ones where the author pulls back from letting anything too bad happen (Harry Potter, Twilight). Sheena spoke about how the rules of the world affect how you view hopeless endings – with Louise’s book a dark ending fit the world, but with Brooks’ work there is still some uncertainty about the rules of the world.

Do Irish books go far enough? Getting better but not there yet, seemed to be the consensus. Over to questions, and kidlit critic Robert Dunbar noted that a lot of the books referenced had been recent and overhyped ones (which can be less interesting, he feels, than others – citing in particular Aidan Chambers). He also raised the issue of content that’s not necessarily taboo but might go over a young reader’s head, citing the level of knowledge of myth etc needed to fully get David Almond’s latest. Sheena pointed out that many adult readers wouldn’t ‘get’ that stuff.

Finally, why do some books get categorised as YA? Louise felt hers was put into YA because the characters were young but also because it’s a healthy market; David noted the danger of books that don’t quite fit into kidlit/YA making their way into that category because it’s doing well.

Ultimate consensus: we’re not particularly worried about YA fiction being too dark or scarring teenagers for life, and view books as a safe space to address difficult and potentially upsetting issues. There was a tiny bit of preaching-to-the-choir, I think, but not having to constantly deal with the ‘won’t somebody please think of the children?’ angle did mean that the discussion was allowed move on to a more reasoned analysis of particular texts.

Personal thoughts: I would have loved to have heard more about older edgy YA (Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, Aidan Chambers, Norma Fox Mazer, even 80s Jacqueline Wilson, etc) for context purposes, and also perhaps discuss the narrowing gap between the UK and US YA markets. Then again, I would have gladly sat there for twice the length of time discussing these things. Finally, YA people are lovely – there were many familiar faces there and it was marvellous to catch up. Next Mountains to Sea takes place March 2015, if you’re planning ahead!