Since I read The Power (I’m still churning through a review backlog, apologies!) it has famously gone on to become the first science fiction work to scoop the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. That probably tells you all you need to know about the calibre of this novel – although I’m not sure I would classify it as SF myself (maybe because I think labels are for jam jars, not for books).
“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”
In The Power, something has recently shifted in the dynamic of the world. Slowly, teenage girls appear to be evolving the capacity to inflict agonising pain and even death through their hands. This power can be traced to a ‘skein’, undiscovered as dormant in most older women – although anyone with the power can activate another woman’s skein for her. In a short period of time, the entire dynamic of the world changed. What would happen if women could protect themselves and each other? What would happen if one gender could literally wield huge power over another? How do we see gender dynamics when the power is placed elsewhere?
“One of them says, ‘Why did they do it?’ And the other answers, ‘Because they could.’ That is the only answer there ever is.”
Frankly – I adored this book. It’s been my go-to birthday present to people for months. It doesn’t just flip gender roles, it explores gender based violence; sexual violence; family; morality; organised religion; and military motivation in a systematic way – holding up a dystopian mirror to the reality we live in through a rollicking story focusing on the convergence of a diverse group of young women. I spent the first half of the book thinking “fuck yeah!” and internally high-fiving, and by the second half battling an increasing queasiness as Alderman forces her readers to think clearly about the balance of power. If you haven’t read this one yet – make it your next one.
The Power is published by Viking. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of this book, and gobbled it up in a day – but thanks to the unexpected appearance of the wondrous orb of the sun in Irish skies I haven’t been inside with my laptop to tell you about it. The rain is back, so now you get to hear about a book I have wanted to read since I heard the author say what it would be about at DeptCon2 last October. I knew this would be a YA book that would bring home the reality of the Eight Amendment – I didn’t expect it to do the same for gender identity and mental health, but after reading it I will be recommending it to every teenager I know. (If you’re not Irish and wonder what the Eighth Amendment is, click here.)
“I am a groupless, friendless creature in a sea of chat…”
Lauren has all the usual teenage reasons to feel awkward in her own skin, plus a few more – her mother has become principal of her all-girls school; her classmates don’t know she is bisexual; her boyfriend is a grade A git, and her capacity for critical thinking isn’t exactly going down well with her religious teachers. All this before she faces every teenage girls worst nightmare. Pregnancy with nowhere to turn is always terrible, but in a country with the most restrictive reproductive rights in the EU riddled with misinformation it is horrific. Hennessy does an admirable job of telling Lauren’s story with clarity and dignity. Lauren is a smart, acerbic girl who, while occasionally confused by her sexuality, is never ashamed of it. She is not perfect – and this is what makes her an authentic character. She is not just a cipher on which to hang an ‘issues’ book.
“I have felt trapped in this body since I was 10 years old and discovered that, contrary to the impression that Judy Blume had given me, periods were neither magical nor one-off things that happened to turn you into a woman.”
Aside from one scene (when Lauren is called to the office by her mother to discuss a personal matter, something so out of character it was jarring) this book is close to flawless YA, and excels at capturing the feeling of being different/other/wrong. One of its key strengths is the gradual revelation of many other people who feel just as alienated as Lauren – although for different reasons. Many of Lauren’s darkest moments are when she stays in her room, obsessively pouring over social media; the brightest are when she opens up to those around her. This book is a perfect promotion of the importance of open communication and friendship to mental health. YA is at its best when you know it is shining a beacon of empathy and understanding to young people who feel alone, and we have never had a book that has dealt with the reproductive realities of modern Ireland. Like Other Girls is a book that needed to be written – now it needs to be read!
Like Other Girls is published by Hot Key Books and is available in good bookstores. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
You know how if you really love a book it’s hard to rationally recommend it to people, you just push it on them saying “you just have to read it, it’s brilliant, just read it”? Well, The Call is a bit like that for me. Sometimes it’s harder to review a book you loved than one you quite liked, or one you hated. I am not quite sure what I expected from The Call, but I can tell you I was surprised by how much I LOVED it. I fell headfirst into the world of the book and only emerged twice – once to seriously consider putting it in the freezer because I was freaked; and once when my other half looked over and said “Jesus! Your face!” because I was reading through a distorted mask of facial tension. It’s that good.
The Call is like a mash-up of the darkest parts of Irish mythology and teen survival stories… albeit more Battle Royale than The Hunger Games. Let’s call it fantasy horror folklore, if we must genre it at all. Set in an Ireland where the Sídhe (fairy folk) have sealed the borders of the island and ‘call’ the youth of Ireland one by one to fight for their survival in the Grey Land where the Sídhe were banished thousands of years before. The call lasts three minutes of our time; twenty four hours of theirs. But the Fair Folk don’t just want to hunt their prey… they want to play with it.
Our heroine Nessa is a student at Boyle Survival College, one of several schools throughout the land where young people prepare for The Call that hardly any survive. They train to fight and to hide, study hunt theory and learn the enemy tongue – but for 25 years the population has been rapidly dwindling. Nessa is intelligent, beautiful, and a total badass who is determined that her disability will not stop her surviving the Call. Her pacifist vegan love interest Anto was definitely my favourite character (what? ethics and empathy are sexy!), and unusally for a teen ensemble piece the supporting characters were well developed. But it is well structured plot, the skillfully built up tension, and the twisted brilliance of the scenes in the Grey Land that sold me on this one – honestly don’t ask me to summarise it. Just read this one asap.
This is the very definition of YA not just being for young adults, it is a stonker of an adult read. That said, if you have young people in your life – they need this book and you should buy it for them immediately. Parental types – many are the excellent life lessons. Aunts/Uncles/Older siblings – there’s also loads of warped scary gross stuff, it’s a cool book to give, and the season of giving approaches!
Author Interview – Peadar Ó’Guilín
I met Peadar at the Easons brilliant DeptCon2, and despite my initial nervous burble I got it together enough to ask him to grace the blog with an author interview, which he did, because he’s only marvellous:
Welcome to Eats Plants, Reads Books Peadar! First up – I absolutely loved this book, it’s unquestionably one of my books of the year. When did you get the idea for The Call, and can you tell me a bit about the process of writing it?
Thank you! I always think you need to marry at least two separate ideas together to form a book. In this case, the first idea was just an image of somebody disappearing in the middle of a crowded room. Where had they gone? What was happening to them? The answers to these questions were provided by earlier short stories I’d written about the Sídhe and my conception of what their homeland must look like.
Did you spend a lot of time researching the Sidhe/Tuatha de Danann/faerie folk, or did you draw more on your cultural memory of these stories?
No. I did no research outside of what I grew up with. But that was considerable and I had always loved the stories, so a lot of it stuck. I didn’t worry about changing things, though. I’m a writer: I love to make things up and I’m pretty sure there’s not one person who touched those stories over the centuries without altering them in some way.
Despite the fantastical premise, this book felt totally grounded and real. Reading it I wondered what my impression would be if I wasn’t Irish/aware of Ireland’s folklore… was it hard to pitch to publishers outside of Ireland?
Not at all! You have to remember that a lot of people read SF and Fantasy, not because they want to visit the same old places again and again, but because they’re looking for a book to take them somewhere truly different. The UK and US publishers both bought publishing rights straight away. And a lot of translation deals are in the works too. I think the words “evil fae” are enough to get readers of any culture on board!
Two sentences into Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s The Smell of Other People’s Houses and I thought to myself – this is not the book for me. It opens with a vivid description of dismembering a recently shot deer, and a small child being brought “a still-warm deer heart” in a bowl. Luckily I didn’t have to read on too much further to realise that this story was about much more than hunting, and is both a fascinating snapshot of 1970s Alaska and a powerful examination of teenage pregnancy; family; society; judgement, and forgiveness.
The book is a coming of age story told from four different teenage viewpoints: Ruth, raised by her stern Catholic grandmother; Dora, living with a loving family that is not her own and haunted by the abuse she was raised with; Alyce, torn between her dreams of dancing and not losing touch with her estranged fisherman father; and Hank, who has led his brothers to run away from home to protect them as a family. Looming over everything is the coming of age of Alaska itself – recently granted statehood, with ingrained class and racial divides (Alaska has more than 200 different native tribes). The epic scale of this wild place – where eking out a living can be brutally difficult; rivers burst their banks and sweep away towns; car journeys can take weeks; whole fishing fleets can be wiped out in one storm – gives extra poignancy to the human suffering in this story. In a world where everything can be washed away at any moment, how do we know what to hold on to? The importance of a smell; a touch; one red ribbon; one bunch of wildflowers or a homemade pie when they are such tiny things amid vast coldness is heart-breaking.
This is not a book with a religious focus per say, but Ruth’s story has some of the best reflections of being raised Catholic I have read outside the Irish setting: “’How did you get them all to believe it was a virgin birth?’ I ask her, but of course she doesn’t answer. I notice that her eyes are cast off to the side, as if to deflect questions like this from girls like me”. The lives of the leads weave together cleverly, and the first person viewpoint allows us to see new facets of all the characters. Tiny offhand observances relating to the title reveal a multitude – Ruth’s house smells of “mould in second-hand furniture…guilt and sin” to her, but when Dora visits it smells so overwhelmingly of cleaning products that she doesn’t know how to be comfortable in a house so well cared for. It’s difficult to do justice to this nuanced debut – this is a totally absorbing, beautiful book that you should read and discover for yourself.
“I would like to make things beautiful, but a tawdry and repulsive kind of beauty. A braver sort than people have from birth. Sexy zombies on a bicep. That sort of thing”
The best books are ones that transport you to other places, other worlds, and allow you vicariously live other lives, albeit briefly. The important books put you inside those places so completely that you comprehend things that you haven’t lived yourself; you empathise in a more rounded way than perhaps you did before; stay with you and change how you perceive the world. Needlework may not be an easy read, but Deirdre Sullivan has written an important book. Much like Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It, it should be required reading for everyone who is/was/plans to have a teenager.
Ces is seventeen and wants to be a tattoo artist. She practices her designs on pig skin she buys cheap, using a homemade tattoo machine. She keeps her hobby hidden. Ces has had a lot of practice keeping things hidden. She knows that the same people who buy endless ham from the deli she works in, the people who are the reason she has to constantly operate the terrifying slicer, would deem her disgusting for tattooing the skin of the same animal in her home. It’s one of hundreds of observations of hypocrisy in the book. Ces has a lot of practice spotting the difference between words and actions.
“There’s something really sad about looking at children. I mean, they are so easy to destroy. All it takes is words if you are good with words. A child will love you no matter what. They don’t know any better, do they, children? They don’t know that Mam and Dad are people and that people suck and always disappoint you in the end”Continue reading “Needlework – book review”→