Author Spotlight: Louise O’Neill

OK, today we’re doing something a bit different. I’m not sure how this will go, but I have so many feelings about this author I just had to go for it.

Louise O’Neill is an Irish writer of young adult fiction, whose work has been praised by Jeanette Winterson and compared to Margaret Atwood. She has two published books and contributed in 2016 to I Call Myself A Feminist, a collection of essays published by Virago from women under 30 explaining why they see themselves as feminists. Asking For It was a number 1 Bestseller in Ireland, named Book of the Month in September 2015 by the Irish Times, and awarded Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in the same years. O’Neill has also worked on a documentary of the same name about rape culture in Ireland. She writes a weekly column for the Irish Examiner.

Her first novel, Only Ever Yours, was extolled by not just the YA community but across the literary world as an astonishing piece of feminist fiction. Only Ever Yours is a dystopian novel in the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale, in a world where girls are taught in school to fit into a set of female roles – wife, teacher, concubine. The girls compete with each other to be the prettiest, bitching and undercutting their peers through their own form of social media. I have heard some describe it as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Mean Girls, which may be the most appropriate description. I powered through it in a single train journey; even though sometimes it hurt to read I couldn’t unglue myself from the pages until it was done. It is harrowing from start to finish, not least because it remains witty and insightful throughout.

However, it was with her second novel, Asking For It, that O’Neill started popping up everywhere. It seemed like every blogger, every reader, every BookTuber I followed was talking about this book. Only Ever Yours was an excellent book, but Asking For It was extraordinary. In this novel, O’Neill takes several steps closer to home. Based in modern day Ireland, Asking For It tells the story of an Irish teenager who is raped at a party, and the book follows the fallout. I knew this going in, but I was not prepared. Like Only Ever Yours, this novel does not shy away from the difficult and problematic facts of the events that unfold. It is unflinching and essential reading.

I had heard all this before I started reading, but I was still astounded by the quality of this book. It is a compelling and utterly gruelling treatise on rape culture, treatment of victims of sexual abuse, and the societal impulse to believe in innocence until guilt is proven, un-raped until proven raped. From the moment Emma, the main character in Asking For It, begins to uncover the pictures of herself and her assault on social media, and sees the jeering, awful responses from her classmates, it is hard to believe it is going to get worse – but it does. It is unbearable, but I could not and would not stop reading.

Louise O’Neill has proven herself, with these two books as well as her online presence and activism, to be one of the most important voices in Young Adult fiction right now, and possibly of all time. I urge you to follow her on Twitter, read her columns, and pick up her books. She will make you think, and feel, and make you desperate to change the way things are.

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Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

Truthwitch-UK-TPB-Dennard.jpg

I put off buying this for a long time. Almost a year. I kept hearing about it. The blogosphere, social media, booktube – it kept popping up. I was convinced by the hype, and the blurb, but every time I read the first page in a bookshop, I put it down again. I couldn’t understand it. Two baddass magical women having adventures? Why couldn’t I get myself to read it?

All Safi and Iseult want is their freedom. But with war coming, treaties breaking and a magical contagion sweeping the land, the friends will have to fight emperors and mercenaries alike to survive.

COME ON. Doesn’t that sound great?

So when it came out in paperback I bit the bullet and bought it. It still took me a little while to read it… I was so anxious I would be disappointed.

I was not.

It was great.

Let me tell you more about it.

Synopsis

Safi and Iseult are witches who have a habit of finding trouble. Iseult is a Threadwitch: she can see the threads that connect people. Safi is something rare, however – a Truthwitch, who can discern truth from lies, and some will stop at nothing to get their hands on her. When they clash with a powerful Guildmaster and his ruthless Bloodwitch bodyguard, they must flee their home.

Adventures ensue.

Things I liked

To be honest I’m not sure what I’m going to put in the things I didn’t like section, but here we go with this one anyway.

Safi and Iseult: you might have seen in my review of Caraval that I wasn’t so convinced by the sisterly relationship at the centre of this – well, this relationship convinced me. It helps that it was mirrored in other sets of characters. Safi and Iseult are each other’s ‘Threadsisters’: connected by something more soul-felt than friendship. Individually, too I loved this pair. Besides the abundant cosplay potential, these are some of the most fun and well-developed characters in YA fantasy that I’ve read recently. Iseult is one of the Nomatsi and experiences a certain amount of racist abuse, but she remains kind and strong, merciful and fierce. Safi is sometimes rash, but warm and able to admit to her mistakes (able to make mistakes – hurrah for nuanced characters), stubborn and unforgiving, but loving, too. Throughout I kept switching between who I thought I preferred…and couldn’t choose.

The love stories: this is a small one because I don’t want to get into it much, but they are satisfying and while they have the YA trope of an inexplicable tug of the heart towards another character, they are also built on engagement between characters.

I also really enjoyed getting to grips with the magic system and the world here. The world-building is terrific and the magic system is inspired and plays on some traditional magic systems to make something that feels quite new.

Things I didn’t like

I realised one of the reasons I put off reading this for so long – it was the hardback cover design.

I know, I know, don’t judge yada yada… but it just didn’t convince me! It wasn’t bad or anything. I wasn’t drawn in by it. I actually liked it, which is the weird thing. But it felt…wrong somehow. This is what it looks like, anyway.

Truthwitch-RHB-Web-194x300

 

Let me know if you figure out why I had an adverse reaction to it.

Should I read this?

Yes, of course you should. Was that not clear? Yes, please read it. I want more people I know to read it. And I just realised it has an endorsement from Robin Hobb on the cover, so you don’t have to just take my word for it.

“This book will delight you.”

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Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Caraval-150x225‘Welcome to Caraval, where nothing is quite what it seems…’

Throughout last year, this was probably the debut I heard about most. It was all over social media, at YALC we were constantly being alerted to contests to win proof copies. This is a book that was published really, really well. I was not lucky enough to win an advance copy, but when I finally picked it up I did understand why so much weight had been thrown behind it.

Synopsis

Scarlett has lived on her tiny isle of Trisda all her life, protecting her sister Tella and trying to survive their ruthless, abusive father. From a young age she writes to Legend, the enigmatic man at the centre of the mystical Caraval, a travelling, week-long event, begging him to come to visit their isle. When she turns eighteen, and she writes to tell him she is getting married and if he was planning to finally come to Trisda then he shouldn’t bother, he finally writes back.

Legend sends her an invitation to join him at Caraval as his special guest, promising adventure, intrigue, danger, and self-discovery.

When Scarlett and Tella arrive, Tella vanishes, and Scarlett must solve the riddles of the Caraval and navigate its winding world to find her sister before the last day of Caraval.

Remember, it’s only a game…

Things I liked 

I suppose the thing that stands out most is Caraval itself. Garber embraces the carnivalesque and adds her own twists. There are fortune tellers and tricksters, strange and magical rules, a Carousel of Roses, a Glass Tavern, and the prevailing sense that nothing is as it seems. Scarlett and her unlikely guide cannot trust anyone, even each other. One scene I feel is representative of the weirdness and originality of the Caraval world involves Scarlett paying for an item with days of her life. This kind of thing happens quite often in fantasy writing, but it’s not so often they take the days there and then.

There is some excellent YA romance writing in this. It does all the right things – it’s a bit dangerous and there’s some mistrust, but there are acts of kindness and loyalty, too. Mostly it’s just quite sexy, which is always a winner.

The mystery of Legend himself. Ever present yet inaccessible and unseen, Legend watches over Caraval and controls all the players. There are stories about him, his life, how long he has lived and whether he has done some awful things. If he is truly a magician or a fraud, if he is a good man or a villain. Scarlett and Tella are both drawn to different sides of him. I love a character like that.

Can I say the cover design? The designs of the proofs and the finished books are GORGEOUS. In the UK edition of the hardback, there are four foiled designs concealed under the already stunning dust jacket.

caraval four covers.jpg

Things I didn’t like

I love the idea of the sisterly love at the centre of this, however I didn’t feel totally convinced by Scarlett and Tella’s relationship all the time. I liked both of their characters separately, I liked them a lot. But I don’t know, something just…didn’t feel right.

Along the same lines, their dad felt a little two-dimensional. There was an attempt toward the end to humanize him a bit, but ultimately I wasn’t convinced.

 

Should I read this?

I was going to give this 3 or 4 stars on Goodreads at first. I thought it was good, atmospheric, and enticing, though a bit flawed. Then I realized I spent over an hour in an increasingly tepid bath just to race to the end, so I bumped up the rating.

So if you’re looking for an addictive YA adventure with romance and mystery and a wonderful carnivalesque setting, then you could definitely do worse than to spend a few hours lost in these pages.

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Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

three dark crowns covers.png

I’ve been reading some reviews of this over the past few weeks and found very few I could fully agree with, so I thought I’d throw my own review into the mix. I bought this book for many reasons – partly because Jay Kristoff recommended it on his twitter, partly because the blurb had me utterly hooked, and partly because I found a proof in an Oxfam bookshop (ssh). Here’s a quick recap of the plot:

Three sisters. Three queens. One crown. Rumours abound around each of them.

Katherine is a poisoner, skilled at mixing deadly concoctions and able to withstand even the strongest of poisons.

Arsinoe, the naturalist, can bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest lion.

Mirabella, the strongest elemental in generations, able to conjure up flames and storms on a whim.

Each sister must fight the others for the crown. Only one will survive.

If only it were that simple. Katherine is indeed a skilled poisoner but, despite years of training, cannot stomach even mild poison, let alone anything stronger. Arsinoe is unable to help even a weed to grow. They, and the people around them, have been keeping their vulnerabilities a secret. But as the time for battle draws closer, who will survive?

So I absolutely love the concept for this book, and overall, I think it is really well executed. Immediately, I loved the idea that two of the three sisters have no natural talent for their destined gifts at all. However, it didn’t play out at all as I expected.

Many other reviewers have noted the slow burning narrative, some longing for more action and less of the dramatic build up. For me, the slow storytelling was great. It allowed me to get to know the world of this absurd island, Fennbirn, with its insane traditions that sets sibling on sibling. It also allowed me to get to know the secondary characters, who were absolutely my favourite part of this book.

Each sister is placed in a different area of the island, surrounded by those who can aid the development of their gifts – Arsinoe is sent to naturalists, Katherine to poisoners, and Mirabella to the temple. Each sector is desperate for their queen to win the contest, but they are not merely ambitious. Arsinoe’s friends/adopted family are the most openly loving to their queen, and they were some of my favourite characters. The poisoners with which Katherine is placed are much colder and much sneakier, keeping secrets from her and teaching her how to seduce the suitors who come to the island for a chance to become a queen’s consort, but in their own way, they obviously care for her (one thing I enjoyed about the poisoners – they treat poison like spices, any dish is duller without a touch of poison). The temple, however, are much crueller and more controlling of Mirabella, the only one of the three sisters with any actual power.

The dramas, romances, heartbreaks and rumours that built up within each camp and between them were all enticing and believable.

None of the queens was what I was expecting from the blurb – I’d be interested to know how other people reacted to them. Arsinoe and her cohort were probably my favourites, or at least the ones I identified with the most.

There were also a couple of things that didn’t 100% work for me which I will briefly detail here..:

  • occasionally a side character would say something about one of the queens, denote a specific quality as though it were obvious, which would then not necessarily play out in the action
  • the ending… I’m excited to see where this goes, definitely, but that was the only time I felt the pacing was a little off and there was something of a rush to the cliffhanger reveal
  • naturalist and elemental are a little bit too similar to be two different sets of powers…especially when poisoner is so far removed from either of them. In my opinion.

OVERALL I really enjoyed this. I’m very excited for the sequel and looking forward to re-entering this world when it comes out, although I am quietly worried that all of this excellent build up might lead to an unsatisfactory ending (don’t let me down, Blake!). Despite my reservations I gave this four stars on Goodreads (follow me here). It was so different from what I expected, much darker and richer in characters, history, world, and intrigue than I was anticipating. If you’re at all intrigued by this one, I say go ahead and try it.

Also, don’t you love that they made three different covers to represent the three queens? I always fall for stuff like that.

And I Darken by Kiersten White

andidarken

Last week I was on holiday and I read four books – so stay tuned for more reviewing!

Contrary to my usual format, I don’t know if there’s going to be a ‘what I didn’t like’ section for this book. I blasted through this in a day, even though it is 400…500? pages long (I don’t have it with me, awks). This book was released the day before I went on holiday, and I stayed in all day (partly doing dissertation work and packing…partly in anticipation) to wait for my pre-order to arrive. I’m so glad it did, this was a highlight of my reading month. Let’s get into the review.

Synopsis

And I Darken is a retelling of the life of Vlad the Impaler – but in this case, Vlad is a girl, Lada. The blurb markets her as a princess the likes of whom you have never experienced. And while I was initially doubtful this book would deliver on that promise, I can safely say it did. Lada is fierce and fiercesome, determined, proud, loyal but not blindly, and entirely self-centred. Against the rich backdrop of the Ottoman Empire, Lada and her exact opposite brother, Radu the Handsome, must navigate the complicated political terrain, wrestle with their own constantly warring feelings toward each other, and figure out once and for all where their own loyalties lie. Initially, they are unwilling to trust Mehmed, who is after all the son of the sultan who holds them hostage against their father, but soon the three of them come to love and rely on each other in an environment where they can trust little else.

What I liked

Let’s start with the obvious: Lada. She was just great. Flawed in unexpected but un-irritating ways. Quite human, and yet utterly inhuman as well. I related to her more than I thought I would. Radu and Mehmed too, are wonderfully crafted characters. Radu and Lada hold the main third-person narration, and while I connected with each of them in different ways I didn’t find myself placing my own character on them – I liked them, as if they were people I knew and I was invested in what they were trying to achieve. Brilliant characterisation.

The setting. This is a period in history (and geography) I know very little about. Fascinating reading – can’t comment on the accuracy of the research but it was flawlessly utilised in the storytelling, not imposing or overwhelming but (certainly from the perspective of a know-nothing Ottoman-ignorant like me) felt real. Well-composed, narratively astute and complementary to the story.

The length. This is an odd one to choose, probably. But as much as I love a chunky book, this one was on the short side of an epic and the long side of a YA novel. It was just the right length for a day of sofa-bound reading when I got sick on holiday. It didn’t drag, and it didn’t rush.

What I didn’t like

Had to put this section in here just for standard formatting sake but do I have anything I didn’t like?

Not really. I felt pretty good about most aspects of this.

I guess, could have had a bit more of the Dad? Prince Vlad of Wallachia The whole conflict on his side of things sounded quite fun, with forces amassed against him, and him an uncaring, spineless and selfish leader. BUT I reckon we’re going to get more of the conflict in Wallachia in the next book, and through a more interesting lens too (but here there be spoilers, so I shan’t elaborate).

Should I read this?

If you’re in the market for some historical epic, without conventional romances or history itself quite as you know it, or if you want to complex, engaging, and morally dubious characters, or if you have been hearing about this and weren’t sure whether to pick it up, then YES. Do read it. Then let me know what you think. Can’t wait for book two.

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This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab

Last year I read V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic. As soon as I finished that I sought out another of her books, Vicious. This year, she has released two more books. One was a sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic, called A Gathering of Shadows, which was also excellent. The other was This Savage Song, the first in a new dystopian-YA-urban fantasy series, said by the author to be partly inspired by the Sandy Hook shooting.

SavageSong.jpg.size-230Synopsis

Verity is a city divided. Following a catastrophic event, it is overrun with monsters and divided in two – those who pay Callum Harker for protection from the monsters whom he allows to run free, and those who don’t.

Kate is Harker’s only daughter, relegated to boarding school after boarding school, kept out of Verity and her father’s life. The first chapter opens with Kate methodically burning down the chapel of the painfully forgiving Catholic boarding school, an act which sees her finally sent to a public school in Verity. Kate is determined to prove to her father that she is as ruthless as he is.

August Flynn is one of the monsters feared by the citizens of Verity. Born from a tragedy of human violence, he is constantly warring with a darkness within himself that, when unleashed, leaves a trail of death in its wake.

The fraying truce between the Flynn and Harker families begins to crumble when an assassination attempt forces Kate and August into an uneasy alliance, and between them they begin to uncover secrets in both their families that will change their understanding of the world in which they live.

Things I liked/LOVED

I loved August and Kate. I liked their awkward friendship and how they help each other, even before they are forced to team up. And I also enjoyed the castlist of other interesting characters, particularly those in Flynn’s camp, although Schwab definitely knows how to write a compelling villain.

I loved the interesting monsters, the different types, what they do and how they behave, and what they mean. In particular, I liked the human element to the creation of the monsters.

I loved how different this was to all of Schwab’s other books, she is a chameleon of fantastical YA fiction. Also, so far removed from all other YA dystopian series that it was incredibly refreshing.

Things I didn’t like

I came to this fresh out of a month of essay-writing and found that the slow exposition of what the monsters were and what certain little signifiers meant difficult – I was all in for immediate gratification, and while I was reading this before bed or on the bus it wasn’t quick enough. I resolved this issue by sitting still for a few hours on my day off and finishing it in one go. If I’d been feeling more luxurious and languishy I think I would have appreciated the art in the drawn out reveal.

I also felt that there could have been more development on the other students August becomes friends with at school, they felt a little bit like padding rather than actual people. However this is more than made up for in the complexity of the central cast.

Should I read this?

Yeah. Go on then. Then go read all of V.E. Schwab’s other books. I don’t have enough people to talk to about them.

The Book Depository

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A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

Long time no see, bookworms. Beware, here there be spoilers.

I like Sarah J. Maas. She writes great rollicking adventures with a varied cast of characters, fun villains and interesting leads. Last year I read A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first in her new trilogy, a beauty and the beast retelling set in a world where humans and fae are separated only by a wall. It’s hard writing a review for a sequel, so here’s a little spoiler-y synopsis of the first book. As a bonus.

In A Court of Thorns and Roses, our herione, Feyre, a 19-year-old human huntress who despises the fae people and is struggling to feed her family, ends up killing a fae and in return must go to live on their side of the wall. She lives within the Spring Court, under the dominion of Tamlin, the High Lord there. Beauty goes to live with the beast, so you know how that story goes. However, there is another, darker power on the fae side of the wall, in the form of the fae conqueror Amarantha. Late in the book, Tamlin is held captive by Amarantha. Feyre risks everything for him, making a bargain with Amarantha and undergoing many life-threatening tasks, at one point forced into making a deal with Amarantha’s pet High Lord, Rhysand, reminiscent of Hades and Persephone – that if they defeat Amarantha, she must spend one week of every month with Rhysand at the Night Court. With his help, Feyre defeats Amarantha but dies in the process. BUT the High Lords of all the courts, united by their shared experience of Amarantha’s tyrannical rule, band together and use their power to resurrect Feyre. However, when she wakes, she is no longer human, but fae.

ACOMAF

Synopsis

A Court of Mist and Fury begins with Feyre and Tamlin at the spring court, soon to be married. Feyre and Tamlin are both suffering from the events that took place in Amarantha’s keep, Under the Mountain. Nightmares and high stress punctuate their previously idyllic relationship. Passions still run high and, unlike many YA books, they explicitly have regular sex. But Tamlin’s fear makes him controlling, he prevents Feyre leaving the grounds while he rides out to protect them. He keeps all manner of dangers and secrets from her. Three months after Amarantha’s defeat, the day of Feyre and Tamlin’s wedding, Feyre finds that she wishes she could escape from the impending marriage, the duties of being a consort to a High Lord and all the restrictions that come with them. And, as she hesitates walking down the aisle, Rhysand appears to make good on his bargain, to whisk her away to the Night Court.

Rhysand, despite his efforts and good looks, fails to charm Feyre on her first visit, but insists on her learning how to read and write, so she spends much of her time alone. When she returns to Tamlin and the Spring Court, she is quizzed on everything she saw and heard. Tensions escalate, Tamlin is barely able to contain his rage and fear for Feyre, despite her new, stronger, fae form. Finally he crosses line Feyre cannot forgive, and is rescued by one of Rhysand’s inner circle. She remains there, and learns more about the Night Court and the secrets of its mysterious High Lord.

Things I liked

The change of romance. I was all team Feylin in the first book. Tamre. Whatever the correct portmanteau is (the internet can’t seem to decide). Many people thought early on that there should be a Feyre-Rhysand ship. But I was all about Tamlin. The early stages of this book showed how the trauma of what happened under the mountain exposed cracks in their relationship. The attempts of both Feyre and Tamlin to maintain what was good about their relationship before are there, but their respective inabilities to deal with their trauma drives them further apart, when they could have found comfort with each other. That leads me onto another thing I liked…

The portrayal of trauma. Many heroes have an enormous traumatic experience and are fine the next time we see them. These characters went through an ordeal, and they have to cope with what happened to them and what they did under the mountain. It’s nice to see.

Feyre as a heroine. Despite now being fae, she is very human in her emotions, her flaws, and her talents. I believe her, as a character.

There were some big steamy moments. That was refreshing.

Things I didn’t like

I dunno. I had a great time reading this. Wasn’t expecting to write a review. It was..quite long? But I still devoured it in a few days.

Oh – the ending was a little anti-climactic perhaps. The old second book in a trilogy issue. But it was a great lead up to the final instalment…

Should I read this?

Obviously not if you haven’t read the first one. But if you have read it, and maybe you thought it was good but not great, maybe you thought it wasn’t what you wanted after reading Maas’s Throne of Glass series, maybe you were all about Feyre and Rhysand from the very beginning, I urge you to pick up the second one.

The Book Depository

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