Some things (with links)

–> Recent interview with Sophie Kinsella, whose new book I’ve Got Your Number is just out. In which the interviewer is a tad condescending and Kinsella is mightily zen. (There’s a follow-up piece as well.)

–> On a related note, a piece about reader-shaming and genre fiction.

–> Over at DIY MFA, there’s a great post about what you promise the reader in the opening pages of a story or novel.

–> On the non-writerly, personal side of things, there is a super piece here about bad relationships. Aimed at teenagers, but worth reading at any age.

–> And on a happier TV junkie note, some fabulous bits of Cougar Town Season 3. (I may have mentioned my love of this show previously. It is very very funny, and has a super cast. YAY for season 3!)


Aha, yes, it has been a while, hasn’t it? Thoughts on recently-read books, some more detailed than others.

Stephanie Perkins – Anna and the French Kiss
This debut from Stephanie Perkins is adorable, and funny, and sweet, and painful, and deeply deeply romantic. Anna is spending her senior year of high school at an American boarding school in Paris (Paris!) but despite appreciating that it’s, you know, Paris, she’s also nervous about being in a new city alone, without speaking the language, and wishes she’d been given a choice. Very quickly, though, she makes friends, including the delicious Etienne (actually British, despite the French name), who she very quickly falls for. Trouble is, he has a girlfriend. The will-they-won’t-they plot is handled beautifully, woven in throughout Anna’s other friendships and relationships (both in Paris and back home in Atlanta) and her exploration of Paris. I loved that Etienne was a history nerd (not the exact phrasing used in the book, but, oh, gosh, he so is, and it’s delightful), and afraid of heights, and so very much not perfect. Theirs is a very messy but very authentic and sweet story, and one that’s definitely worth reading. (Plus. Boarding school. In Paris. These things make me happy.)
(Also – there is a bonus scene on the author’s website in which Star Trek is discussed. Oh my.)

David Levithan & Rachel Cohn – Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares
Another collaboration between Levithan and Cohn, a he-said she-said romance which travels around New York and mentions The Strand bookstore an awful lot. I loved reading this – it’s full of the usual quirky, insightful teen characters that you’d expect from these two, but it also let me live vicariously through them and do Christmas-in-New-York. Worth reading.

Melissa Hill – Something From Tiffany’s
This was another book with a Christmas-in-New-York part, strangely enough, though it concentrates on the less bookish corners. After an accident, two Tiffany’s boxes get mixed up, and widower Ethan, who’d been planning to propose to his new girlfriend, instead finds a charm bracelet. Meanwhile, restaurant co-owner Rachel can’t stop herself from peeking in her boyfriend Gary’s Christmas shopping – and when she finds a ring she’s absolutely delighted. The mix-up scenario, and the fall-out from it, is made plausible, and there are a few extra twists and turns along the way. Highly enjoyable.

Melvin Burgess – Kill All Enemies
To be honest, every time I’d heard about this book it had been linked with the London riots, so my impression of it before reading was that it was some kind of dystopian nightmare. It isn’t – it’s the story of three teenagers in PRUs (pupil referral units) in England, the acting-out types who all have reasons for it. Much more optimistic than I was expecting, and well worth checking out.

Ella Griffin – Postcards from the Heart
Fun, readable and moving chick-lit from a debut author. Really enjoyed this and looking forward to her next book in 2012.

Orla Tinsley – Salty Baby
I found this fascinating – a life of illness and campaigning but also much more generally about growing up in Ireland and having passions and interests and being stubborn. I know other people have noted this, but it would have been so easy to present a sanitised, polished, glossed-over life here. Instead it’s incredibly honest. Tinsley doesn’t always come across as the nicest, saintliest person, but it makes for a much more interesting read this way.

Cecelia Ahern – The Book of Tomorrow
The first Cecelia Ahern book I’d ever read – particularly drawn to this one as it has a pretty cover and is about a teenager rather than a proper grown-up. Tamara’s father has just died, and she and her mother move to the country to live with her aunt and uncle, near the ruins of a castle. The take on Celtic Tiger Dublin is really well handled – in some ways I’d have loved to see this as a realistic teen novel rather than chick-lit with a magical twist. Tamara finds a book, a diary, that reveals what’s going to happen the next day, but that device is less important than all the secrets lurking beneath the surface of the family and the castle. The ending felt like a little too much, pushing the bounds of plausibility even as far as the story’s world was concerned, but until then it was an interesting read.

Maria Duffy – Any Dream Will Do
Very cool to see Maria Duffy’s first book out so quickly! Jenny Breslin has Twitter friends on their way to stay with her – but she’s never met any of them in real life before and is a little concerned how things might go. Rightly so, as it turns out – they’ve all got secrets of their own, things they haven’t been 100% honest about on the internet. Fun, funny and fast-paced – a great holiday read.

Jennifer Weiner – Then Came You
The story of a surrogate pregnancy as told from the points of view of the rich mother, the egg donor, the surrogate, and the half-sister. There’s a rich backstory for everyone involved and it all comes together beautifully in the end. I’ve heard so many great things about Jennifer Weiner’s books – will definitely be reading more of them after this one.

Leigh Fallon – Carrier of the Mark
Paranormal romance centred about an American girl who comes to live in Ireland. Picked up mostly for the setting – there are a couple of nifty scenes in Trinity, especially.

Jeff Kinney – Diary of a Wimpy Kid #6: Cabin Fever
Funny as ever. It’s holiday season, and Greg’s looking for a way to make money. Disaster inevitably ensues.

Author Appreciation Post: Marian Keyes

Hearing that Marian Keyes has a new novel out in 2012, and having been rereading several of her books for the past few weeks, I think it may be time for a Marian Appreciation Post.

I once heard someone – a very bright girl, PhD-at-Oxbridge type – talk about Marian Keyes’s books in a very general, dismissive way. They were about shoes and shopping apparently. “I just think they’re so dangerous,” she said, without a trace of irony, shaking her head.

Part of this is obviously a much broader disdain for ‘chick lit’. It is astonishing the number of people who will agree and nod when you talk about genre snobbery, defending all the great things about, say, fantasy, and then immediately turn into one of those genre snobs when they say, ‘but I mean obviously chick lit is different, it’s rubbish’. And. Oh, we could go on about this for hours, couldn’t we? Days. Years. Every few months I see something rehashing the same old arguments about why chick lit is rubbish and demeaning to women and superficial and blah blah blah, and then a flurry of writers and readers getting irritated by it, and defending the books with arguments that range from ‘yes, but it’s supposed to be fluffy’ to ‘no, it’s not fluffy, actually’.

Look. Do we count Marian Keyes as chick lit? Well, yeah. Yeah, we do. Unless we’re praising her so much that we say she’s too good for the chick lit label. Which happens. But she’s not. She’s the perfect example of why chick lit, like any genre, is at its best absolutely extraordinary – because it’s being damn good fiction as well as being damn good at its particular genre.

The reread began a few months back, with The Other Side of the Story. I wanted something about publishing and writing and being the other woman. We get strange cravings sometimes. Two things that always strike me about that book: how the styles of the three characters are so different, particularly Lily’s, and how gender-in-the-workplace politics play out. But the reread really began in earnest a few weeks ago. Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married. It had never been my favourite, but when I reread it I was struck by how sad it is. It has this silly, absurd premise – a girl going to a fortune teller and hearing she’s going to be married soon – and so much sadness and pain underneath. I was struck by how unusual it is to see a depressed female character who’s genuinely depressed, but living with it, and who finds love but is not fixed. And how hilarious it is, too. (And sexy! Oh, Daniel.)

It is so, so hard to write something that is both hysterically funny (not just sort-of wryly amusing) and achingly sad. It is so hard to write something that is whimsical and zany and still has characters that feel real.

I reread the Walsh family books after that. I’d read Rachel’s Holiday several times – it’s one of my favourite books of all time – but what I noticed on this intense reread was how similar (and excellent) they all are. How Irish. Because most of these women – Rachel, Maggie, Anna – cannot handle their disasters. They can’t talk about them. They want to pretend that they don’t exist. They want to shove things under the rug and hope they disappear.

And they’re funny. They’re all hysterically funny, even though they are all horribly sad at the same time — Claire’s realisation that her husband has been manipulating her, Rachel’s epiphany about being an addict, Maggie holding on to that teenage secret and pain, Anna’s grief. (Anybody Out There? is heartbreaking. I’d only read it once since it came out, except for rereading that one scene with Anna and Rachel, after she has the dream about Aidan – you’ll remember it if you’ve read it. It has zany elements – like Helen’s exploits as a private investigator – and it has glossy elements – like Anna’s job in make-up PR – but they don’t make it a ‘quick beach read’ so much as keep it from being completely bleak.) But they’re not ditzy. They’re not fluffy. Compulsively readable, yes, but not instantly forgettable.

(People sometimes compare books to food – this idea that chick lit is dessert and that we all like junk food and it doesn’t mean we won’t eat our broccoli. I don’t know. I think chick lit is more like pizza – you know, you can get the takeaway stuff or you can have a homemade, exquisitely crafted one. Like it’s food and it’s not so much that it’s bad for you so much as any food consumed all the time probably isn’t going to do you much good.)

Life is a very sad place sometimes. And dreadful things happen, and hard things happen. And some of these things happen to women, or are more likely to happen to women, or are experienced differently by women, and there is an awful lot of that in Keyes’s books. There’s domestic abuse. Being widowed. Being abandoned by the father of your child. Abortion. Infertility. Alcoholism. Rape. Caring for a parent when others in the family won’t step up. Being treated a certain way at work because of being female, or how you’re being female, or the way you look. And sometimes these are resolved in happier ways than they might tend to in real life, but more often than not they are hopeful without being saccharine – more about moving on than finding a magical fix-it.

These are books in which the things that happen to women matter, and are what the book focuses on. They’re books that are serious without being heavy-handed and solemn, and funny without being dismissive or trivial. It’s so hard to do, and anyone who’s ever rolled their eyes at a writer who can pull it off and say ‘oh, I could write one of those, if I wanted to’ is a fool. And anyone who thinks they’re somehow harmful… well. The world is a harmful place, but stories that acknowledge that, and are hopeful and funny despite it all, make it a little bit better, not worse.

“I want there to be more to my books than romance. I want there to be pain, and real issues to be faced.
I tried to walk a fine line between humour and telling quite a grim story. Because there is always humour. I’ve learned that myself.”
Marian Keyes, on writing ‘Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married’


Jodi Picoult – Sing You Home
I absolutely devoured this book, because apparently Jodi Picoult books are sort of like my crack cocaine. Sing You Home is a trademark Picoult novel in that it focuses on an Issue, offers up differing perspectives, and makes things messier and tougher with a court case of some kind. This time Picoult is looking at same-sex marriage, rights of the unborn, and the religious right – what makes up a family, and who gets to decide? The story is told through the eyes of Zoe, a music therapist who’s suffered two miscarriages and a stillbirth; Max, her husband, surf lover, and recovering alcoholic who leaves Zoe after their infertility crisis gets to be too much; and Vanessa, a school counsellor who first works with Zoe, then becomes her wife. There are viable frozen zygotes left from Zoe and Max’s IVF treatment – when Zoe and Vanessa want to use these to start a family, Max needs to give his consent. Unfortunately, he’s found Jesus in the meantime… It was great to see a novel dealing with same-sex partners, especially as it’s something that tends not to turn up in her work all that often. I’d love to see it continue to be a recurring theme, because although this veers from cliche in many ways, it does – like so many books – ultimately have characters labelling themselves as either gay or straight with no middle ground, which is frustrating. There’s a lot going on here, and I’d love to have seen more of some of the other characters, particularly Lucy and Liddy – Picoult’s books generally have five/six viewpoint characters and dealing with just three felt a little odd. The end felt a little rushed, but I wonder how much of the feeling of needing more comes from not listening to the accompanying CD while reading. (I tried, but I got impatient and just kept reading.) Despite this, though, it is a pageturner – completely compulsive reading particularly for JP fans.

Aidan Chambers – Dance on my Grave
When Chambers is good, he’s very very good. Dance on my Grave is good. Told from the point of view of Hal (sixteen, troubled) and the social worker assigned to him to figure out why he was dancing on a boy’s grave and disturbing the peace. I’m not entirely convinced how plausible it is that proceedings would be brought against someone for this kind of thing, but nevertheless it’s a nice hook for the story, which is about obsession and love and lust and identity and all those other good things. Chambers takes his characters seriously, and they are detailed, nuanced and complicated – faced with genuinely confronting the world in all its horrors. This also wins bonus points for having characters in a same-sex relationship without it being All About Being Gay, which works well. Published in 1982 – a nice reminder that YA has been interesting for several decades, not just recently.

Geraldine Meade – Flick
I’d been waiting for this one for a while. Universe, do you know how much Irish YA fiction needs more LGBT characters? Do you? This – the story of Felicity Costello, known to friends as Flick – goes a long way towards remedying that. Flick is sixteen, into girls but won’t admit it fully to herself, and a brief encounter with her brother’s girlfriend doesn’t help matters. There’s an awful lot going on here – rape, depression, sexual identity – and at times I would have loved Meade to let Flick linger a little longer on these things. (It was cut down quite significantly from the first draft so that may have something to do with it – it’s easy to see how many of the issues dealt with could be over-written, but a little more space would have been nice.) Still, though – it wins many many points for going beyond a simple coming-out story, instead focusing on attraction and complications. Looking forward to the sequel.

Denise Deegan – And By The Way
Let me confess: I was both worried and excited about this one. I adore Denise Deegan’s adult books, and the setting for her new YA series – a South Dublin school for the ‘Kids Of’, offspring of rock stars and diplomats and other wealthy high-profile types – seemed like it might lend itself to a little too much glitz ‘n’ glamour. Briefly put: it doesn’t. The narrator, Alex, is the daughter of a rock star, but the thrills and dangers associated with this are simply another part of her life, handled realistically. Alex is grieving after her mother’s death and her father’s distance from the situation – but when she experiences love for the first time, it’s an opportunity to let herself be happy again – or another opportunity to be hurt. Along the way there are friendship stresses and tensions, work experience, and school concerns – all blended together in a compelling mix of dramatic realism. It’s fast-paced without being frivolous – and Alex’s voice and priorities are absolutely spot-on. Very much enjoyed reading it and am eagerly anticipating the next novel in the series, And For Your Information, out later this year.

Abby McDonald – Boys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots
Jenna is seventeen, a Green Teen spending her summer in the Canadian wilderness while her parents spend the summer apart (something she’s trying not to think about). Cute boys, a bitchy roommate, a best friend gone to extremes, adventure sports, and environmental issues help make up this fun and thought-provoking read from Abby McDonald – worth reading.

Sophie Kinsella – Can You Keep A Secret?
A very quick, very funny read. That being said, it’s possibly best not to read it on a plane – it begins with the narrator spilling her guts to an absolute stranger on a plane in horrendous turbulence, convinced she’s about to die. When she survives, she discovers he’s the head of the corporation she works for, at a very junior level, and he’s keeping an eye on the London offices for the time being. I love the way SK writes about workplace difficulties and relationship woes – and the way that you never quite know how things are going to turn out. Adored this.

Some questions on a Friday

Some questions I have been posing over on the ol’ twitter as of late and wish to ask in a more extended manner:

1. Does anyone have any recommendations, or know of, any work that would/could be categorised as ‘chick lit’ while also dealing with a heroine or supporting character’s chronic illness? Not something like cancer (which does feature in quite a number of books) where there’s room for either a tragic death or an improvement in one’s condition, or mental/psychological issues like addiction or depression which can involve definite ‘improvements’? I’ve been thinking about the genre and the way in which so much of it is a kind of coming-of-age or discovering of identity, but it strikes me that while chronic illness issues do turn up in kids’ and teen fiction, they appear less so in ‘chick lit’ novels. Maybe it’s because certain kinds of illness instantly mark out a book as ‘too serious to be chick lit’? I’m also surprised that chronic conditions specific to women, like endometriosis, don’t turn up more often, but again, it’s a wide genre and there may in fact be plenty of books out there dealing with various conditions! Any thoughts?

2. A shorter query: anyone know of any academic/critical works which focus on The Babysitters Club series? There’s a book called ‘Sisters, Schoolgirls and Sleuths’ which looks at girls’ series fiction but in a broad way – am just curious.

3. What’s your favourite fairytale adaptation? (Okay, mostly I just love fairytales. But they seem to be more fun to twist and warp than simply tell.)


(The last of the 2010 reads…)

P R Prendergast – Dancing In The Dark
Jessie’s brother James died six months ago – not that it’s made much of a difference to how much they bicker. He still has a tendency to turn up in her room – or in school – and offer his take on what’s going on, including an upcoming dancing competition. Sharply-observed story about bullying, grief, school and family life; well worth checking out.

Anna Carey – The Real Rebecca
Anna Carey’s first book for teens, though hopefully not the last. Rebecca’s mother writes books – mostly romantic fiction with lots of interfering motherly types, the kind that her new English teacher utterly adores – but it’s never been too embarrassing, until her next novel is revealed to be for teenagers – inspired by the ‘antics’ of 14-year-old Rebecca and her older sister Rachel. Now everyone – including the bitchy girls at school, and the cute Paperboy – will think Rebecca really is as dreadfully silly as her fictional counterpoint. Unless, of course, she proves them wrong… This is a fun read which gets some of the genuine craziness of teenage girls (Rebecca’s classmates – she and her friends are mostly normal-ish) spot-on.

Maeve Binchy – Minding Frankie
Binchy manages to be warm without being unrealistic in this tale of family life, featuring some new characters as well as old (Muttie and Lizzie, the twins, Ciara and Frank and the others at the heart clinic, etc) – Noel sorts out his life in order to take care of his baby daughter, Frankie, but it’s a tough road ahead and one with a few inevitable tricky spots. Maeve Binchy fans will enjoy her latest – and have their hearts broken just a teensy bit along the way.

Kody Keplinger – The DUFF
Bianca is the DUFF – Designated Ugly Fat Friend – of her group, or so man-whore Wesley tells her. So clearly he’s the last person in the world she should be sleeping with in order to distract herself from what’s going on at home – right? A fun read about contemporary adolescence and sexuality.

Deirdre Sullivan – Prim Improper
Primrose is thirteen, has just started secondary school, and is adjusting to a new life living with her businessy moustachioed father after her mother’s sudden death. This makes it sound like a very tragic grief book, which it isn’t, though there are some bits that will break your heart. Prim is comfortable in her own skin, funny and analytical, and precocious while still being a bratty teenager in many ways. Looking forward to seeing what Deirdre Sullivan writes next.

Sophie Kinsella – the Shopaholic series
Only recently got into the Shopaholic series and devoured the lot of them (six, including the latest, Mini Shopaholic) over the holiday season. Becky Bloomwood is a shopaholic with a heart (and credit card) of gold; the books follow her throughout her mid- to late-twenties with all the wackiness that ensues, including various career dilemmas, relationship traumas, family woes, and… shopping issues. Becky’s often-clueless but always-funny narration is regularly interrupted by letters from banks and other financial organisations, offering up some social critique along with the shoes et al. Very very funny books – Sophie Kinsella does what she does extraordinarily well.