What I Read in June

Well, it’s been yet another sluggish reading month. To be fair, I am deep in dissertation hell now, but also I completed Pokémon Moon yesterday, so at least part of the problem is about how I’m choosing to spend my free time.

BY THE WAY! If you’d like to help me with my dissertation, which obviously you would, you can! If you work in a public library, or publishing, or you’re a published author, or you like to go down the pub (okay, not the last one, but hey if you’re in Edinburgh…) you would do me a tremendous favour if you filled out this survey: Click here

Moving swiftly on to books I’ve read this month, then.

31683270BONE GAP by Laura Ruby – This had been on my radar for a long time, and I was pleased when Faber picked it up in the UK. Not pleased enough to get round to reading it, though, obviously. Finally I saw it in the library a few weeks ago, and thought, “Why not here? Why not now?” Bone Gap is a strange, dusty town in America where everyone knows everyone’s business, though business is often a little odder than you might be accustomed to. Finn and Sean are missing Roza, the beautiful stranger who brought nourishment back into their lives after their mother left them for a new life of her own. Finn saw her being kidnapped, but no one will believe him. He doesn’t know where she is – and neither does she. Offbeat and lovely, this book is fantastic in every sense. Bone Gap is a small town full of quirky characters and full of a sense of strangeness. Reality is hushed by the waving corn. The plot is clever, the atmosphere skewed somewhere between a sleeping nightmare and a living one. The situations the characters find themselves in are the stuff of fantasy, but the magic intrudes on lives that are real – especially when depicting the violence we do each other, physical or not.

9781408866627THE PEARL THIEF by Elizabeth Wein – Readers might be familiar with the indefatigable Julia Beaufort-Stuart from Wein’s (deservedly) beloved Code Name Verity. Here we find her fifteen years old, already yearning for adventure, and in the middle of selling off her recently deceased grandfather’s estate. It doesn’t take her long to get into trouble even on home turf, but when she wakes up in hospital after a bang on the head, she is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Who attacked her and why? And is the other developing missing person case actually a murder case? The atmospheric setting and compelling mystery are propelled along by a charming main character. Code Name Verity is stuck in my heart, and knowing what’s ahead of Queenie and what’s behind her gives both books an extra layer of bittersweet beauty. There’s plenty to enjoy besides the adventure of the stolen pearls; the prejudice faced by the “tinkers” is a significant plot point, which I found particularly interesting as I’ve not encountered many Travellers in fiction. I also loved the gentle exploration of Julie’s burgeoning sexuality, which she approaches with the same curiosity and sense of play as she does the rest of the world.  The twisty plot wasn’t too predictable, and the whole book is suffused with the nostalgic ache of the last of the summer holidays.

9781408855652HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE by J.K. Rowling – I’ve reread Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire fairly recently, and I’m listening to Order of the Phoenix at the moment, but I haven’t read this book for at least six or seven years. It’s markedly less complex as the later books, so I expected to be bored, but it’s charming and supremely readable. The series develops in maturity so organically along with Harry, one of the iconic protagonists of children’s literature. I got quite upset about his treatment at the hands of the Dursleys, which is a little ridiculous because in this book at least, they are so cartoonishly awful. The level of abuse is parodic, but having grown up alongside him, Harry is just psychologically and emotionally very real to me. Other stray thoughts: It’s striking how little Dumbledore features in this book. Hermione’s character development is rapid – perhaps too rapid – and as always when I read these books, I wonder how different everything would be if she had a female friend. There’s a weird recurring anti-library motif: Harry doesn’t get post, not even rude letters from the library asking him to return books, Madam Pince is not at all helpful, Ollivander’s is like a strict sort of library… ALSO sending 11 year olds into the Forbidden Forest for detention will never not be a bad idea, McGonagall’s the boss, the Norbert subplot is pointless, and there’s way too much aimless wandering the castle at night. Overall though, I adore these characters, this world, and this book.

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What I Read in May

According to Goodreads, I only read two books in May, which doesn’t seem like it can possibly be right?!?! Goodreads is always putting my books in unexpected places. I blame the app. I’m too much of an oldster for any of this. (Btw, I now have more than four friends on Goodreads! You can be one of them.)

51DajNvVaLL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_THE DARK CIRCLE by Linda Grant – This book is on the Baileys Prize shortlist, which is another shortlist I have not managed to complete in time for the prize announcement this year. (Once upon a time Sarah liked books…) I listened to this over the whole month. When people asked me what I thought of it, I told them it was “weird”, which I stand by. Lenny and Miriam, two teenage East Londoners, get sent to a sanatorium as the institution’s very first patients paid for by the burgeoning National Health Service. Their rough manners generally scandalise and amuse the residents, providing a little bit of variety in the long, dull days of the rest cure. I really didn’t know what to make of this book, but eventually the characters got under my skin. It’s a book in which little happens, but the non-events change the characters’ lives forever – which is perhaps a true chronicle of illness. It’s a vivid portrait of a momentous time in British history. Without getting all political about it, now seems an excellent time to extol the virtues of the NHS. The great levelling effect of universal healthcare is explored: rich or poor, we all have bodies that sometimes fail us. The Dark Circle is a funny novel about class, sickness and shadows, city and country, and post-war politics. I’m still not sure what I make of it.

51c2LE-2pFL._SX379_BO1,204,203,200_THE MONSTROUS CHILD by Francesca Simon – Speaking of shortlists… I picked up The Monstrous Child on the strength of its YA Book Prize shortlisting. I’m familiar with Simon as the author of the Horrid Henry series, but didn’t know she had also written YA. This is a novelisation of Norse mythology’s Hel, narrated by the woman herself, who is just your ordinary half-corpse teenage girl. The narration is sharp and fun, but not enough to carry the book, which really is just a retread of the myth, with very little in the way of suspense or character development. Still, the book itself is a dark and gorgeous thing. More illustrated YA, please!

spellbookSPELLBOOK OF THE LOST AND FOUND by Moïra Fowley-Doyle – Thank you to Harriet Venn & PRH Children’s for the chance to read this early in exchange for an honest review. The Accident Season is my favourite book of the past few years, so this was my #1 most anticipated book of 2017. After a summer party in a small town, things start to go missing – or are they being taken? Olive loses her best friend, and isn’t sure who it is she’s found when Rose turns up again. Mysterious teens with botanical names start sprouting up in the most unexpected of places. And diary pages are scattered like clues in the fields and hedgerows… This is a strange, messy book, with tales taking root between the lines of unreality. Moïra’s writing is wonderfully evocative; I’ve never been to Ireland but reading her words, I can feel the rain and smell the soil. (Not to mention the poteen.) Most importantly, her teens are just so real: conflicted, affected, smart, wholehearted. Her characters ground the more fantastical elements of the story in a truth made of injokes, chocolate digestives, eyeliner, and hope. Spellbook of the Lost and Found isn’t as perfect as The Accident Season, but it is its own beast, something meandering and beautiful. I’ll be thinking about it for a while yet.

REVIEW: Girlhood by Cat Clarke

Cat Clarke’s latest was sold to me as “queer Malory Towers with a dash of Single White Female.” Honestly, they had me at “queer”, but the rest of the pitch is intriguing too – a psychological thriller set at a boarding school? Sign. Me. Up.

Girlhood opens with a midnight feast, and it only gets better from there. Our narrator is Harper, newly rich and living under the shadow of her twin sister’s death. At the exclusive Duncraggan Academy, she has a tight-knit group of pals, including her best friend, roommate Rowan. Boarding school is like a sleepover with your besties every day, and this is their last year together before university and the real world outside the Academy’s walls. It’s shaping up to be a year to remember even before the new girl, Kirsty, joins the group. Harper and Kirsty have so much in common, naturally they become fast friends – but this new addition to the group threatens to throw off the whole dynamic, and Harper soon finds herself having to make unexpected choices, with the formerly solid bonds of friendship looking ever more fragile…

I read this book in one sitting. It’s as intense a page-turner as anything I’ve ever read, with the emotional stakes deeply compelling. It’s also intensely unsettling. Clarke digs deep into the relationships between these girls to create a psychological thriller where the worst thing that can happen is for them not to be friends any more. For any teenager, friendship is vital social currency, but in boarding school, it’s your whole life. Imagine eating every meal, sitting in every class, even sharing a bedroom with the same person every day. Now imagine what it’s like when that person isn’t talking to you any more. The claustrophobic setting is skilfully evoked, and although Harper isn’t blameless, the way disagreements escalate into feuds when you are living in each other’s pockets made me positively vibrate with sympathy for her.

The relationship between Harper and Rowan is one of my favourite things in the book. Rowan is a great best friend: she’s funny, loyal, and cares a lot about dental hygiene. Like Harper, she’s queer (she began QueerSoc at Duncraggan!) and although it’s refreshing to see two queer characters who are just friends, if there aren’t dozens of Harper/Rowan fics on the internet soon, I will be disappointed. Their relationship is so supportive, it makes it all the more disorienting when it is threatened with being taken away. Along with these sharply drawn relationships, there is a background story about Harper’s twin, Jenna, and her death resulting from an eating disorder. This serious subject is navigated sensitively by the author, but it’s wrenching to see how the disease has shattered the family, and particularly Harper’s struggle with survivor’s guilt. It’s worth remembering that Harper has always been one of a pair: after Jenna there’s Rowan, and when Kirsty comes along it’s second nature for Harper to seek the other half of her whole, intensifying the already acute nature of teenage girl friendship.

Girlhood‘s bright pink cover is scattered with burnt matches. When Kirsty is left in the dark, she doesn’t use a single match, because she has a torch. She doesn’t need to make her own light in the dark: Harper has given her light. In the face of Harper’s indifference, Kirsty is desperate to rekindle their friendship, and so she tries until something catches. But in the closed environment of boarding school, rumours and lies spread faster than a forest fire, and Harper soon finds herself in danger of suffocation.

At the end – when the fires have burnt down – the girls rise from the ashes. Despite the darkness of grief and deceit, it’s ultimately a hopeful book. It’s a coming of age story that reminds you healing is slow and difficult, but possible. Love helps, love hopes, and there is nothing like the love between teenage girls. Girlhood: complicated. Girlhood: highly recommended!

I need to read Cat Clarke’s (gorgeously rejacketed) back catalogue immediately. Any recommendations, anyone?

REVIEW: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

This is the tenth of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’ve now read and reviewed each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS. We did it, folks!

David Piper has a secret. His family and classmates think he’s a pretty weird teenage boy. What they don’t know – what he’s too afraid to tell them – is that he’s really a girl. David knows that he’s trans and what that means, but the next step is to explain it to his parents. As if adolescence and school weren’t hard enough! At least he has his friends. And there’s a new boy at Eden Park called Leo Denton. David is fascinated by Leo, but he can’t figure out why. Maybe it’s that Leo has secrets of his own.

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The Art of Being Normal is one of the most important YA novels of the past few years, a necessary addition to the LGBT literature canon, and a fantastic teen contemporary to boot. It’s explicitly concerned with gender identity and trans issues, but the characters are so warmly written there is no danger of the story becoming exploitative. There has been a call recently for more stories about marginalised people that are written by marginalised people. Trans people remain under- and misrepresented in the media, and lived experience goes a long way towards creating accurate representation. That said, at one of the many, many diversity panels I’ve attended since I started going to book events, someone pointed out that “trans people shouldn’t have to write all the trans books.” Lisa Williamson is writing from a well-researched and genuinely felt place, and The Art of Being Normal comes endorsed by many real life trans people. Hopefully this book will herald a new wave of slice-of-trans-life stories, in which characters get to live their lives without their gender being sensationalised. David is desperately lonely until he meets Leo, who understands what he’s going through. For a generation of teens, this book could be a reminder that they are not alone.

So it’s important, but is it good? To my shame, I had forgotten how good it really is until I reread it for the purposes of this review. David and Leo are compelling, sympathetic heroes, even if Leo’s a bit grumpy sometimes. Williamson does a skilful job of bringing out the two narrators’ different voices, and also their different experiences of class. Leo’s embarrassment about the council estate where he lives is subtly done. The little details are so effective; I’m always particularly struck by Leo’s little sister having had salt and vinegar crisps for breakfast. Both of their families are, like all families, a complex mess of love and resentment. Leo’s mum, for all her failings, is unswerving in her support for her son. It’s refreshing to see a trans teen in conflict with his parents for reasons other than his trans status. Likewise, Leo’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his dad is wrenching and realistic.

The family relationships are one of the book’s strengths for me, but teenagers do sometimes leave the house. (Or at least, these teens do. I’m not sure I did.) The party scenes are delightful: atmospheric, chaotic, full of friendships and flirting. The Christmas ball especially is so visual I need to see The Art of Being Normal: the TV special now. And of course, the “road trip” is the high point of the novel. Secrets, adventure, karaoke, friendship, heartbreak, bingo, and underage drinking – what more could you possibly want from a YA contemporary, or indeed any kind of novel?

The Art of Being Normal shows that normality is a moving target. We shouldn’t try to achieve someone else’s idea of “normal” – that’s no way to be happy, and no one’s normal is the same. Perhaps the only way to be normal is to find people who are willing to expand their definition of normal to include yours. Lisa Williamson’s novel might help a lot of people establish a new normal through her beautifully written characters, and that’s an achievement worth celebrating.

 

REVIEW: One by Sarah Crossan

This is the ninth of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’m going to be reading and reviewing each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS. One more to go, folks!

Grace and Tippi are conjoined twins. Sisters. Best friends. They’ve spent sixteen years sharing absolutely everything, including a body. For other people the very idea is a nightmare, but they’ve never known any different, and is it such a terrible thing to share such a bond with your sister? Changes are on the horizon: new school, new friendships, money troubles, and more dangerous kinds of trouble, too. Soon, Grace and Tippi will have to make a massive, life-changing choice about the future.

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I went through several phases of reading and writing poetry for pleasure as a teenager, so I’m not a complete stranger to it, but this might be the first novel I’ve read entirely in verse. I loved Apple and Rain, Crossan’s previous novel, which included poetry as part of the story-telling, and I really need to read The Weight of Water because it’s set in Coventry! With a shoutout to the ring road and everything!

Anyway, One… It’s a verse novel about conjoined twins and it’s nominated for the YA Book Prize, and that in itself speaks volumes about UKYA and what an exciting scene it is to be (no matter how small) a part of. This poetry strips language down, makes it looser and more direct, which makes the reader feel closer to the characters. What I’m trying to say here is that this book made me cry at least three tears. I’m always sceptical about supposed tearjerkers because I possess a cold, dead heart, but One is genuinely wrenching and beautiful. The blank verse is never a gimmick, but instead a tool for chiselling away at the reader’s emotions. Is there any other medium that can make your stomach drop with line spacing? It’s the closest the written word comes to music. The novel is actually presented as a poetry collection, though read chronologically it tells a fairly conventional narrative. The titles of each poem variously add context, irony, emphasis; it’s tempting to tear through the book because it’s a quick read, but it’s worth spending time with the text. This will surprise approximately nobody who’s ever read a poem, but each word is placed for maximum effect, with multitudes of meaning.

Individuality is an essential part of identity; we recognise ourselves as separate from others, as possessing some innate selfhood. At the same time, we define ourselves by our relationships with others. For the twins, who share things other people consider definitively private, their identities as separate people are complex. Grace is our sole narrator. The book’s title is One. These are clues as to the end of the book, but also strong statements about the girls’ individuality. It urges us to remember that even those in the unique situation of not having a body to themselves still possess everything else. Grace likes to read, Tippi likes Hitchcock films. They have separate therapists, separate passports. They fall in love with different people.

Only when we appreciate Grace and Tippi as distinct characters can we understand the depth of their bond with each other. It’s this bond of love and sisterhood that sustains them, and the novel itself. It’s this bond that makes the book so absolutely devastating. Grace has never woken up or fallen asleep without Tippi at her side. Throughout the novel, the twins come up against people who think this must be a curse, but they insist to deaf ears that they don’t mind, that it’s always been this way, that they love each other. They are in an extreme situation. Being conjoined twins is certainly not all joyful love-ins all the time: medically, it’s dangerous and expensive. They will never lead a “normal” life – people staring is the least of it. Grace’s descriptions of the difficulties of this life are unsparing. It makes for painful reading at times, but it shines a light on issues I had never had cause to think about before.

Gosh, this book! Your heart will take a battering, but what a beautiful battering it will be.

REVIEW: The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

This is the eighth of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’m going to be reading and reviewing each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS.

Twylla is fair of voice and red of hair. She lives at the top of a tower in the castle. She is betrothed to the prince. One day, she shall be queen. For now, she is the executioner: poison runs through her veins, she kills with a single touch. The guards that flank her day and night are there to protect the rest of the world from her as much as the other way around. When she is assigned a new guard, Twylla is surprised to find that Lief isn’t afraid of her. At the same time Prince Merek, long abroad, has returned, and Twylla now has the attentions of two extraordinary young men to deal with.

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This is fairy tale subverted. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is a fable about the harm done by non-physical violence; the threat of the queen’s “mercy” is ever present, but the devastating effect of her control over Twylla is that Twylla is as trapped by the fortresses in her own mind as she is by the castle gates. Taken as an extended fantasy metaphor for an abusive family, The Sin Eater’s Daughter is very effective, with a skin-crawling depiction of narcissism, control, and gaslighting. The queen knows the best way to keep Twylla captive is to make her complicit in her own captivity, so she is instilled with the idea that the gods – who are always watching – will strike her down for ingratitude.

Again, taken as a metaphor, there is a reassuring message here: keep your head down and you’ll get out. Captain Awkward, an internet advice columnist whose blog genuinely changed my life, talks about “a small, quiet room that is just yours, where you are safe and you are free” in this old post. (Read the whole last paragraph.) And Twylla does make it there. Her happily ever after is a place to herself where she learns to read. She is asked to choose between two men and she picks neither. The epilogue might just be my favourite part of the book.

But as much as I appreciated the ending, I struggled to see the feminist themes elsewhere in the book. I’m all about promoting the different ways in which “strong female characters” can be strong. I’m a big Sansa Stark fan. Twylla and Helewys are essentially Sansa-and-Cersei-lite: the naive young girl and the evil queen in a battle of wills and court politics. No doubt for some readers, Twylla’s journey is a resonant story of survival, and I would like to be with them, but I just found her so boring. The entire book is about her being rescued by men. The other female characters are similarly uninspiring: the queen is probably the most relatable character because she also hates everybody else in the book. The queen, incidentally, is the most politically powerful person in the kingdom, but she’s a) insane and b) infertile and therefore unable consolidate her power. I loved the rich, mysterious symbolism of the Eating and enjoyed the Sin Eater as a character, but she wields her power spitefully and is an indifferent mother. Maryl, Twylla’s sister, exists solely as a spectre of Twylla’s self-pity. The Sin Eater’s Daughter depicts sexist structures without delving deep enough to problematise them.

…I saw the look in my eye. It was the look of wanting: lust, bright strawberry-flavoured list. And I can’t allow myself to want, because I am betrothed to the prince and if I touch anyone else I will kill them.

For example, the above quote is a brilliant twist on the shame around female sexuality and… it’s just there. Twylla’s touch is literally toxic. Her body is contaminated. The metaphor is ripe, but it’s left unplucked. What a waste! (Admittedly, Twylla realises she is not poisonous and has sex with a cute boy, but… only after the cute boy tells her she’s not poisonous. And kisses her. Without asking.)

Lief’s story of the Sleeping Prince is more interesting than the plot of the actual novel, and it’s part of some intriguing world-building. I’m a sucker for fictional religions and folklore and I really liked that aspect of the story. As I said, I found the Sin Eating fascinating, and I love that the book’s title refers to Twylla as the Sin Eater’s daughter rather than Daunen Embodied. In Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the eponymous character is more correctly called Hedda Tesman, Gabler being her maiden name. Ibsen meant to imply that Hedda should be considered her father’s daughter rather than her husband’s wife. Should we infer that Twylla is her mother’s daughter, not daughter to the gods? She seems to abandon both, but perhaps eventually she will come into the elemental power she admired in the Sin Eater. Hopefully she’ll become the hero of her own story.

In summary: I liked this book’s cover a lot more than I liked what was inside it. SORRY.

REVIEW: Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

This is the seventh of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’m going to be reading and reviewing each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS.

Emma O’Donovan is eighteen and beautiful, queen of her small Irish town. She isn’t perfect; she’s a normal girl. A good girl. When she drinks too much and take drugs at a party, she ends up with a stretch of time she can’t account for. She doesn’t remember how she ended up collapsed on the porch that morning. There are photos on Facebook of a girl called Emma, but how can it possibly be her that the men in the pictures are doing those things to? Even as she struggles to apply the word “rape” to what happened to her, the town is turning against her. Those golden boys would never do a thing like that. It must be her fault. She was asking for it.

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I still don’t know how to review this book. I first read it back in September last year and didn’t manage to formulate a coherent review then. It’s just so visceral, it’s difficult to consider the book objectively. Emma’s story is too real. It’s uncomfortably like trying to critique news headlines.

I loved Only Ever Yours, and while Asking For It is similar in its themes and tone (i.e. they are both devastating) O’Neill’s second novel does not have the extended sci-fi metaphor to help distance us from the events of the novel. This is heavy subject matter. The contemporary setting is perfectly drawn – the use of social media in this book is among the most convincing I’ve seen in YA, and the teen dialogue is apparently very authentic too. The relationships between Emma and the rest of her squad, Ali, Maggie, and Jamie, are all too real in their petty cruelties. Within just a few pages, we get a strong sense of these girls’ lives and rankings within the friendship group. The web of connections between the characters is deftly done, and creates a feeling of claustrophobia. This is a small town. Everyone knows everyone’s business.

This is a book about rape culture, and it opens up discussion around consent and assault in a relatively safe way. “I wish another girl had been the one to start the national conversation,” Emma thinks, after her case has blown up in the news and on social media. Young adult literature is an important place to start these conversations, because through fiction we develop empathy, and can talk about complex, emotive topics with the remove of it all being about a made-up person.

Asking For It is a difficult read because nothing ever gets better. The hopelessness experienced by Emma is realistic, and makes the novel the gritty read it is. Even at the very end, when she finally realises a way out, she has been stripped of her agency. She is unable to examine her own needs, since everyone has been telling her what she needs to do and who she needs to be this whole time. It’s a bleak depiction of what it is to grow up female in a misogynistic world. Be a good girl until you break. If you break, it’s all your fault. What did you expect? Her brother Bryan tries to support her, but his version of not giving up on Emma involves her just doing exactly what he wants her to do. In therapy, Emma tries to give the therapist the answers she wants. The only people there for her in a meaningful way are Maggie and Conor, and she can’t bear their kindness. She genuinely does not know how to exist in a space where her choices are for her own benefit. Emma is a victim. It would have been more satisfying to see her reclaim some power, but her character’s journey is chillingly true to life. It’s so much easier to give up. To stop asking for anything at all.

This is an angry, desperate book, searingly important and brilliantly upsetting. If you don’t wind up furious and worried about young women everywhere, you haven’t been reading properly.