Catching up on book reviews of those books that are written for the grown-up variety of human…
Rosita Sweetman – Fathers Come First
A novel from 1974 republished by Lilliput last year, and (fun fact) featuring cover photography from a former Trinity classmate of mine. This is the story of a middle-class girl’s coming-of-age in a society that values women mainly for their relationship to men, and hovers between being very much of its time and very pertinent to today’s world. I think I preferred it thematically more than aesthetically, but it is a book well worth checking out.
Emma Healey – Elizabeth Is Missing
This is a heartbreaking book with a decades-old mystery at its centre but is more memorable for its wonderful portrayal of an unreliable narrator – Maud, who is slowly losing her mind, who can’t remember huge parts of her day, who clings only to this one thing she is sure of: Elizabeth is missing. Her well-meaning family and neighbours try to reassure her, but are also frustrated with her; the blanks we see in Maud’s memory leave us feeling confused and upset in the same way she is. This is a gripping read – but an intense one, too.
Anne Enright – The Green Road
(review copy from NetGalley)
I have a lot of feelings. Oh, a lot of feelings. I love this book, first and foremost. It’s gorgeous, it’s compelling, it’s a family-reunion-story that swoops around the world and across time while also having amazing short-story-levels-of-intensity moments about each of the characters. It does not have as much of the Enrightish things that I love – namely, difficult Irish women in the first person (the more typical Enrightish telling of this tale would be all about Hanna, and I would read the hell out of that book) – but it also has many pleasing things (I keep describing this book as having ‘a pleasing amount of gay sex’, which I probably need to stop doing, but yeah). I wanted it to be twice as long, not because there is anything missing from it but because there is so much in it and I wanted more; I could have easily read about these characters for another 400 pages or so. I don’t know if I love it as much as, say, The Forgotten Waltz, but I think it is probably in scope and ambition and story her best book yet. Out in May. Read read read.
Meg Cabot – Royal Wedding
(review copy from Edelweiss)
I am not as crazy about this book as I’d like to be, even though I love Meg Cabot’s adult fiction. I think taking a character from a YA series into adulthood is always tricky, and one of my main problems with this was that all the old characters are still around, even though Mia’s in her mid-twenties, so it does feel rather contrived. I liked the pop culture commentary and the challenges of being an adult royal and public figure, but other aspects – like Mia having lost her stepfather – didn’t quite ring true. It’s basically seeing more of the characters we already know, rather than exploring the realistic changes that might take place as someone grows up. A fun read but not necessarily one to rush out to get. (Also out this summer: the first in the spinoff MG series, about Mia’s newly-discovered half-sister.)
Miranda July – The First Bad Man
Reviewed for Arena (RTE).
Just a little heads-up about some upcoming teaching of creative writing I’ll be doing in Dublin over the next while, at the lovely Big Smoke Writing Factory:
a Beginning To Write Fiction class, for absolute beginners or for people who’ve written a bit but want some idea about the basics (how to develop characters, think about plot, consider viewpoint, approach dialogue, etc) [6 weeks, Tuesday evenings from April 14th]
- a Novel In Progress workshop, which is for people who’ve taken classes previously, are familiar with getting and giving constructive criticism, and are working on novels of all genres [6 weeks, Thursday evenings from April 23rd]
- a half-day seminar on Cover Letters and Synopses, for anyone getting ready to send work out to publishers or agents [Saturday April 25th]
- a one-day Introduction to Children’s Fiction, for anyone who’s ever thought about writing for kids or teens but doesn’t know where to start [Saturday May 2nd]
- a one-day Children’s Fiction Workshop, for people who know they’re writing for kids or teens, have a project on the go, and want to get feedback on that work [Saturday May 23rd]
- a session on our Inverse writing workshop for LGBTQ+ youth (17-20), which I’m really excited about [course begins Saturday April 11th]
- I’ll be teaching on our summer Dublin Young Authors programme along with the legendary Dave Lordan – for talented and ambitious teens aged 14-17(ish) [Monday July 29th – Friday July 3rd]
Thoughts on some YA and MG I’ve been reading recently…
Becky Albertali – Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda
I adored this book. It’s a funny and charming coming-out story, reminding us that although there are more LGBTQ+ stories to be told aside from coming-out, it’s still important; as the characters note, straight people still don’t have to ‘come out’. Simon is an adorable sixteen-year-old with a warm, realistic family and a close-knit group of friends; he’s also madly in love with a boy Blue he’s met online, who he knows attends his school. But who is Blue… and could he possibly be who Simon hopes he is? And when an awkward guy with a crush on Simon’s best friend starts blackmailing him, things get even more complicated. Great voice, very funny, do read.
Sally Nicholls – An Island of Our Own
My full review of this will be in the next Inis magazine but for the moment let’s just say it’s a very charming update to typical treasure hunt quests, and will tug on your heartstrings (but the ‘by Sally Nicholls’ part probably gave that bit away anyway).
Ann M Martin – Bummer Summer
Ann M Martin’s first book, published over 30 years ago, but quite pleasing; Kammie’s father and stepmother have sent her off to camp because she’s struggling with the new family arrangements. She’s not delighted to be there – but she also doesn’t want to be at home with her bratty stepsiblings. An authentic and still relevant MG tale.
Hannah Moskowitz – Not Otherwise Specified
This book touches on topics over-simplified by other YA. There’s eating disorders and dance and musical theatre and bisexuality and all kinds of good stuff, but at the heart is Etta – a girl who’s never been skinny enough to be perceived as sick, even during her eating disorder; a girl whose lesbian friends have disowned her because she dated a guy, even though she’s always said she waas bisexual. A girl who doesn’t quite fit in with the ‘normal’ kids or with the clearly-labelled ‘others’, and who hasn’t danced ballet ever since she was told she needed to lose weight. A girl who wants to make friends and follow her dreams and stay in recovery. This is a smart contemporary read, the kind of book I wish I had been around when I was a young ‘un.
Some recent writings: two pieces of flash fiction to be found in online literary magazines this past month, ‘My Mother Gets On With Things’ (The Weary Blues) and ‘This is not the Story’ (The Incubator). Meanwhile, some non-fiction for you: Little Things (The Bogman’s Cannon) and In praise of Marian Keyes (The Irish Times).
Banshee, a new literary journal that I’m co-editing with two of my favouritest writer friends in the world, is open for submissions for its inaugural issue this month. Just sayin’, like…
In Irish folklore the banshee keens for the dead and mourns their loss. Our Banshee would prefer to bid farewell to the past, and to look firmly at our present, in all its particular pleasures and problems, and towards the future. Writers and readers alike – we’d love you to join us.
- ‘New Literary Journal Banshee Seeking Submissions’
Three more YA reads worth checking out…
Gayle Forman – I Was Here
Cody’s charismatic best friend Meg has killed herself, and Cody’s determined to find out why. Her laptop contains old emails and information about a guy named Ben, as well as a pro-suicide ‘support group’, and Cody’s determined to figure out who’s to blame for pushing her friend over the edge. Her quest begins to lead her into other possibilities, though – like, did she really know Meg at all? This is one of many books about mental health issues out this year, but the topic is in good hands with Gayle Forman. Cody’s own grief is handled wonderfully, and what the book is good on, more than anything, is the nature of small-town life: the assumptions that are made, the secrets that are kept, the fears underneath the surface. Well worth reading.
Rachel McIntyre – Me and Mr J
This terrific and funny diary-style debut tells the story of fifteen-year-old Lara, who’s being horrendously bullied at school. Falling for her new English teacher (always the English teachers!) is a distraction and then a saviour; as time goes on, he not only helps with the bullying but also seems to be interested in her. Her reactions are brilliant – on the one hand, you’re rooting for her, and on the other hand, you’re going ‘oh dear god no no NO’. This does a really good job at handling the tricky situation – yes, Mr J is at fault, but no, he’s not ‘grooming’ her. (Compare to Amanda Grace’s The Truth About You and Me, where the girl is blamed entirely for lying about her age, or Jacqueline Wilson’s Love Letters, which paints it entirely as a thwarted love story. It’s a difficult topic to handle in a way that is respectful of teenagers while also being mindful of the responsibilities adults hold, and this book does it really well. Plus is a delightful read.)
Jenny Hubbard – And We Stay
Poetry. Boarding school. Emily Dickinson. Oh, this book has it all. Set in the mid-90s, the novel focuses on seventeen-year-old Emily Beam, a new student at an all-girls’ school in Amherst, who uses poetry and the new connections in her life – including with the house Emily Dickinson used to live in – to process the upsetting events of the past year, including the loss of her boyfriend Paul. Gorgeously written.