Book-review post!

Just the one this time, because I had a lot to say…

Belinda McKeon – Tender
I keep thinking about this book. It’s one of those books that falls into the ‘wary of because of hype’ category for me, although in this case the hype was to do with McKeon’s first novel, Solace. But there were good murmurings about this, and even though I feel like we dwell far too much on the past in Irish literary fiction, the slipping back to the 1990s wasn’t at all unpleasant. I’m not that much younger than the characters, though a few years makes a big difference at that age; this was a time that I’d lived through as opposed to being something known only through the elders’ stories. And it’s a world I know, if hazily; Catherine, the main character, is studying English and History of Art at Trinity and the courses she takes in her first couple of years are utterly faithful to the English Lit curriculum of the time. There’s college parties and then slipping into the adult world, and society hacks and charismatic artsy types (people I knew of, but never knew, as an undergrad).
But more than those little cultural familiarities is the utter honesty of the novel. Catherine is naive. And intense. And imperfect. When she meets James, he’s the best friend she’s ever had. And he’s gay, and she’s delighted in some ways – the cultural cache of it being something she uses, although not consciously, in her college life. She’s not a selfless kind type – she’s obsessed. And in love. She is in love with this boy who will never love her back – which is not to say that intimacy between them is entirely ruled out. The tiny details of this are just glorious – I have never been madly in love with my charismatic and sometimes annoying gay best friend but I feel like I have. This is heart-on-the-page stuff, not in the sense of being biographically true necessarily (and I know McKeon has alluded to this in interviews) but being emotionally true, and human, in all the messiness and selfishness that youth brings with it. (And non-youth, too, if we’re honest.)
As the novel progresses we move closer to a historical event that I wasn’t quite sure we needed, though in retrospect I think it does fit; we also jump forward to ‘now’ and see how the characters are in the alleged ‘real world’. I wasn’t mad about this, and I don’t think we needed quite so much of it, or for it to be quite so tidy, but the ending is gorgeous. And I’ve thought about it, and discussed with people, and the novel as a whole has filtered into my consciousness more than most books ever do. Oh, Catherine, I think. And then, oh, James. And oh, all of us, and the people we love and how badly we love them sometimes.

Book-review post!

Books for adults that you might have heard about…

Jennifer Weiner – All Fall Down
I adored this book, a look at addiction to prescription medication. Allison Weiss seems to have it all – handsome husband, beautiful daughter, dream job, perfect house in the suburbs. In reality, the husband is selfish and distant (the extent of his ick-ness is not entirely appreciated by the text, I think), the daughter’s a brat, the ‘dream job’ involves being subjected to online harassment (in the way that women having thoughts online seems to promote), and her dad’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. Allison’s frustration and stress comes across all-too-authentically, and her use of prescription painkillers – first from her doctors, then ordered online – begins to seem understandable, even as it spirals out of control. Loved this. Well worth reading.

Judy Blume – In The Unlikely Event
New Judy Blume for adults! Joy! Loved this. The story takes place in the early 50s, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and is based on three real plane crashes that happened close to each other at that time, mysterious and unsettling. The central character is fifteen-year-old Miri, though we step inside a number of different heads, and the discussion around the plane crashes echoes the way adults talk to kids about all important issues – or rather, don’t. The period comes alive through all the tiny specific details, and the overall feeling is one of immense sympathy for all the characters. A delight to read.
(Related: myself and a number of other kidlit and writerly types talked to Sarah Bannan about why we love Judy Blume…)

Paula Hawkins – The Girl On The Train
Rachel drinks too much. She knows this. Every morning she takes the train to London and every evening she takes it home, to continue the fiction that she is still employed. And out of the window, where the train regularly stops, she sees the road she used to live on – the house where her husband still lives with his new wife. She sees another house, too – where a seemingly-perfect couple live. She names them, imagines their lives, and then one day she sees the wife kissing another man. The next week, the newspapers reveal that this woman’s gone missing – and Rachel is the only one who knows about this kiss and a possible suspect. She also knows she was in the area that evening – and can’t remember what happened. This is a gripping read, though not as amazingly-omg-breathtaking-brilliant as its ongoing presence in bestseller lists might suggest, and ticks several boxes for me (non-chronological storytelling, difficult women…).
Spoilerish thoughts:

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Gone Girl, another Big Hit, and its polar-opposite heroines. Amy is the kind of cool girl (or snarking-about-cool-girls cool girl) we think we want to be, until we realise, oh, jesus, no, that’s a step too far). Rachel is not – she’s a mess, and she’s been hurt, and she’s what we don’t want to be, but also fear we are (too sensitive, too melodramatic, too much). And she’s dealing with the turned-up-to-eleven version of what happens when there’s the man you love who’s keeping something from you or has wronged you and there’s some minor horror that really you’re overreacting about, that you’re gaslighted (gaslit?) about. And she’s validated in the end. This is not as gorgeously-written as Gone Girl, but I do think culturally it’s doing something that we seem to need or want, and I think that’s why it’s been doing so well. (That and success tends to breed more success.)

Book-review post!

And some more YA…

Sarah Dessen – Saint Anything
Dessen’s twelfth book has been pitched as darker than her others, but for me Dreamland will always be that book. In this latest, Sydney deals with being an invisible girl – the one in the shadows in her family, as attention is paid to her charismatic and troubled older brother Peyton. The novel begins with Peyton sentenced to jail time after a car accident that left a kid paralysed; Sydney’s haunted by the thought of this kid, while her parents are more concerned with how Peyton’s getting on. When she makes friends with a family that includes a supportive new friend, Layla, and potential love interest, Mac, she sees their problems too – an ill mother and a recovering addict sister – and starts to process what’s going on in her own life. There’s also a really intriguing subplot about a creepy guy, a friend of Peyton’s, who’s hanging around and not doing anything that pushes the boundaries just yet – but who Sydney finds unsettling. A great read for Dessen fans – I’m not sure it’s her Best Ever but it’s damn good.

Alyssa Brugman – Alex As Well
This book broke my heart. I liked it, but found it horrifying. The central narrator is fifteen-year-old Alex, who’s been raised as a boy but now identifies as female – and what she has never been told is that she was born intersex and the meds she takes are hormones to make her more ‘male’. The mother, in particular, is an utterly awful parent; we see her yammering in parenting forums and people basically supporting her total lack of supporting her kid, and it’s all just a little unsettling. It’s an interesting but not especially in-depth look at gender issues and terrible parenting.

Liz Kessler – Read Me Like A Book
Ashley’s never particularly liked school, but when her new English teacher, Miss Murray, comes along and encourages her talent for debating, it opens a number of doors for Ash – including her interest in women. This coming-out story was fifteen years in the making and is a great addition to the UK queer YA canon. (Interview with the lovely Liz forthcoming in Inis magazine later this year.)

Lisa Williamson – The Art of Being Normal
I adored this. Everyone presumes David’s gay – only his two best friends know the truth. David identifies as female, but has never openly dressed as such or used his female name of choice. New kid Leo just wants to stay out of trouble, but ends up sticking up for David after an incident involving David’s secret notebook – and an unlikely friendship forms. The narration splits between the two characters and explores gender identity alongside bullying, friendship, family and being yourself. This is… I think perhaps the best way to explain what it is for trans YA reads is that it’s its Boy Meets Boy – an important, optimistic read that goes beyond coming to terms with your own identity and instead focuses on what next, and what other things are going on in people’s lives. Highly, highly recommended.

Book-review post!

And now some YA for ya…

Julie Murphy – Dumplin’
(Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy.)
Willowdean is a small-town girl in Texas, the kind of place where not much happens – until the annual beauty pageant rolls around. Her mother’s a former winner and obsessed with it, like pretty much everyone else – but Willowdean, nicknamed ‘Dumplin’, is the kind of fat girl that no one would ever dream would enter. There’s a lot more going on in this book – Will is grieving her aunt, and starting up something with her coworker Bo – but the pageant is what it all centres around, especially when Will decides to enter, along with a group of other misfits. (Sidenote: I think everyone who reads this wants a sequel about Hannah Perez.) It’s smart and feminist and optimistic without getting preachy – Drop Dead Gorgeous with heart.

Sophie Kinsella – Finding Audrey
This is one of my favourite YA books of the year – a really funny book about mental health issues. Audrey’s been out of school since a bit of a meltdown, but that’s not really what’s caused her anxiety – it’s her ‘lizard brain’, and she’s trying hard to get better. Her therapist suggests she make a film about her family, which is where most of the zaniness comes from: her mum’s a compulsive reader of the tabloids and is convinced Audrey’s brother Frank is addicted to computer games, and the war between these two is hilarious and authentic. She’s also trying to be more social, which includes a date to Starbucks with her brother’s friend… This is a lovely, uplifting read that nevertheless addresses the reality of mental illness and the idea of recovery as a process. Most pleasing indeed.

Alice Oseman – Solitaire
Tori is a snarky, isolated teenage girl bored with school and life – very realistic, in other words. But the arrival of an old friend and a new boy, along with an internet presence called Solitaire that seems set on disrupting the school, things change. I liked a lot about this, especially the handling of Tori’s brother, Charlie, and his own issues, but it ultimately didn’t wow me as much as I’d expected.

E Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski & Lauren Myracle – How To Be Bad
Road trip stories are not necessarily my favouritest thing ever (they are such an American genre, and I do not get them, entirely) but I did like this back-and-forth novel. The three narrator – Jesse, Vicks and Mel – all work together, but they’re very different. Jesse and Vicks have been friends for ages, while Mel is the new rich girl who’s just moved to town. They all have things they won’t talk about, and they all have their own idea of what a ‘good girl’ is, which is challenged over the course of the novel. I zipped through this.

Book-review post!

A quick roundup of some of those ‘books for adults’ you might have heard of…

Doreen Finn – My Buried Life
A disclaimer: Doreen was in a workshop I taught years back and wrote gorgeously; she’d send around her excerpts and we’d be all there seething in envy at the prose. Also, she’s lovely. So I am biased about this book, her first to make it out into the world, and not only that but it’s about a poet-academic-type woman returning to Ireland after her mother’s death and dealing with her past, including her brother’s suicide and her own troubled relationship with alcohol. Eva, the main character, is not necessarily likeable, but she’s immensely relatable; the subject matter isn’t especially original but it did, more so on reflection, strike me that this is the story we typically hear from the male perspective. This is a troubled, alcoholic woman coping with the sins of the fathers and the changing society, and the prose is – as indeed I suspected – terrific.

Maire T Robinson – Skin, Paper, Stone
This is another one from New Island’s Fiction Firsts series – good year for Irish literary women, this is. Young people in Galway, linked in different ways, and mainly focusing on the love story between PhD student Stevie and tattoo artist Kavanagh. Wonderful portrait of the city, even though I’d have loved more on Stevie’s doctoral research (looking at sheela-na-gigs) – she is the most intriguing character in the novel, and I was more fascinated by her than the others. Looking forward to seeing what Robinson does next.

Fionnuala Kearney – You, Me and Other People
This debut focuses on what happens when a marriage breaks up, and the secrets that keep unravelling. The narration is split between songwriter Beth and her husband Adam, who’s been having an affair; Adam comes off as an asshole right from the beginning (judging Beth for swearing – like, dude, you keep cheating on your wife, what’s with the superiority complex?) and even though we learn a lot about the traumas of his past, I couldn’t quite warm to him or to Beth either. Some of the plot twists were a tad familiar, too. Not a bad read exactly, but not one I’d be urgently pressing into people’s hands either.

Sinead Crowley – Are You Watching Me?
(Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.)
This is just out in the world now, the second in Crowley’s series about Sergeant Claire Boyle, now juggling a six-month-old baby with investigating what’s going on at a drop-in centre for unemployed/retired/homeless men, and how that relates to the threatening messages its public face – the young-with-a-troubled-past Liz – has been receiving. Liz is a really intriguing character and her backstory is handled well; she’s utterly indebted to the owner of the centre, Tom, who seems as though he might be behind the mysterious death of one of the regulars… Plenty of twists and turns here, with the mystery angle well balanced with Boyle’s strained home life and the difficulties of having a demanding job and a small child. I hope we get to see more books in this series soon.

Book-review post!

Some recently(ish) read YA and MG titles…

Cathy Cassidy – Looking Glass Girl
Cathy Cassidy’s most recent standalone novel ties into the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, with a modern-day Alice falling down the rabbit hole – and into a coma. The story flits back and forth between her dream-like encounters with strange creatures (plenty of explicit nods to Lewis Carroll’s work), her family and friends reaction after her accident, and the months leading up to the slumber party that seems to have gone horribly wrong. There’s optimism but also acknowledging of how cruel kids can be to each other and how hard it is sometimes – a great addition to the Cathy Cassidy canon.

Nancy Ohlin – Consent
(Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy. The book will be published in November.)
Bea’s looking back on the relationship that shouldn’t have happened – with Dane Rossi, the young music teacher that’s helped her finally realise what she wants to do in life and who’s supported her love of piano, a passion that hasn’t been supported at home ever since her mother’s death. Great voice and an avoidance of oversimplification makes this one to watch out for.

Robin Stevens – Murder Most Unladylike
So. It’s a 1930s boarding school murder mystery for 9-12s. How can you not want to read it? The first in a series, this book takes on its historical setting with a light touch, acknowledging colonialism, racism and homosexuality within the school without ever getting preachy. The narrator, Hazel, is in charge of writing things up – her best friend Daisy is the dynamic one, and (naturally) the leader of their detective society – and through her we learn about all the boarding-school peculiarities. Up until recently, the Wells & Wong Detective Agency haven’t had much to do – their classmate’s missing tie was the most exciting mystery up for solving. But now the science mistress has been found dead – and then her body disappears. It’s up to Hazel and Daisy to investigate. I utterly adored this book, and immediately leapt into the second…

Robin Stevens – Arsenic for Tea
… even though the second does not take place during term-time, thus depriving us of boarding-school gorgeousness, but the big-house setting during the holidays proves to work just as well. It’s brilliant to see this classic murder-mystery trope play out for young readers, and to watch as Hazel and Daisy investigate the poisoning of one of the guests at a tea party. When Daisy’s father looks very suspicious, it threatens to tear apart the girls’ friendship, adding a new layer to this instalment of the series. Thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this book – I’ve been recommending the series to lots of people. The third book, First Class Murder (taking place on the Orient Express!), is out in July.