Book Review: Opal Plumstead

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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

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“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

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“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.

Book Review: Girls On Fire

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“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.

YA LGBTQ+ recs for Pride!

  • Sara Ryan’s Empress of the World is not only, delightfully, about a bisexual girl falling in love at a gifted summer camp, but also fabulous on communication within relationships, and features a vivid cast of friends.
  • Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan is a classic – a fervently optimistic take on a world where sexuality has stopped being an issue, with a gorgeous love story at its heart.
  • Again with Mr Levithan, Wide Awake is about both sexuality and politics – set twenty minutes into the future with a presidential campaign that could change the country for good.
  • Pink by Lili Wilkinson looks at both sexuality and also typical-girl-ness, with what it means to fit into certain groups at school.
  • If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo is just out and offers up a hopeful tale of post-transition life for a trans teenage girl.
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  • The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson is another moving story about trans teens and friendship.
  • Love & Lies by Ellen Wittlinger (sequel to Hard Love) is about a smart and flawed lesbian writer who develops a crush on her writing teacher. Very readable, very real.
  • Hannah Moskowitz’s Gone Gone Gone is set in 2002, amidst a series of mass shootings in Maryland, and features two incredibly real boys trying to make this thing between them work.
  • Also from Hannah Moskowitz – Not Otherwise Specified explores dance and body image and also what it means to be ‘not quite gay enough’ and the anti-bi vibes within the queer community.
  • Geography Club by Brent Hartinger and its sequels are terrifically readable – a group of kids set up a secret LGBTQ support group but decide to call it something so boring no one will ever want to join.
  • Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters is about an intense and ultimately abusive relationship between two teenage girls.
  • She Loves You, She Loves You Not…, also by Julie Anne Peters, is a compelling story about a lesbian teen reconnecting with her birth mother after a bad break-up. Some awkward implications about bisexuality here though.
  • Dramarama by E Lockhart is set at a performing arts summer camp and features The Gay Best Friend and his relationships. Delightful read, especially for musical-lovers.
  • Baby Be-Bop by Francesca Lia Block is a magical-realist coming-out story, part of the Weetzie Bat series.
  • Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda is a funny and warm love story about a teen boy coming out.
  • The gorgeous The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle also features a romance between two teen girls as a subplot.
  • Emily Horner’s A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend is an absolutely incredible and real story about a girl dealing with the loss of her best friend who she maybe had a crush on, while also forging a friendship-or-maybe-more with the mean girl at school.
  • Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun features a gay main character along with so, so much more.
  • Juno Dawson’s All of the Above has bisexual and queer characters as well as so many more teen issues, all told in an incredibly real teen-girl voice.
  • Flick by Geraldine Meade offers up a rare Irish lesbian teen character as she struggles to come to terms with her sexuality.

Some NTAG updates (with a touch of neurosis)

On the tellybox (Ireland AM).

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