YA fiction reviews: from suffragettes to spies
New releases make the most of International Women’s Day with plenty of female stories
Matt Killeen’s “Orphan Monster Spy” (Usborne, £7.99) takes us back in time to the outbreak of the second World War
Claire Hennessy is a writer and YA commentator
“I didn’t realise that capturing historic events for posterity would be such hard work,” the endearing Mollie Carberry writes to her friend, detailing her involvement in a suffragette protest. Mollie on the March (O’Brien, €8.99), Anna Carey’s second historical novel, is just as charming as the first. Mollie’s sense of adventure is balanced against the authentic worries of a respectable middle-class girl in early-20th-century Dublin: “I feel a bit cowardly because, really, I should be prepared to do anything for the cause, including breaking the law. But I don’t want to go to prison if I can help it.”
With her parents disapproving of “the cause” and the wretched Grace to contend with, Mollie’s engagement with meetings and marches is as much about a struggle to sneak out of the house as it is about injustice and inequality. It adds up to a deeply relatable story and is a welcome reminder that Irish history has more to it than nationalist rebellions.
Today’s feminist struggles are depicted in Laura Steven’s much-talked-about debut, The Exact Opposite of Okay (Electric Monkey, £7.99), which delves into what happens when explicit photos are shared of teenage girls. Rest assured, though, that Izzy is no “pitiful Oliver-Twist-meets Kim Kardashian-type figure. If you’re seeking a nice cathartic cry, I’m not your girl. May I recommend binge-watching some sort of medical drama for the high calibre of second-hand devastation you’re looking for.”
Izzy’s sassy, smart voice won my heart from the first page, and as the story progresses the slivers of vulnerability that are revealed make her all the more real. This is an unapologetic and hilarious teenage feminist with a keen eye for all the lingo; at one point she addresses the reader with, “Later in the book I plan to address your problematic concerns about my promiscuity in a personal essay entitled ‘Old White Men Love It When You Slut-Shame’.” Her relationships with both her friends and lovers are expertly drawn, with a particularly sharp take on “the Friend Zone”, and the call-to-arms ending is well-earned. I utterly adored this book.
For more feminism (YA publishers have taken advantage of International Women’s Day this month), Laura Dockrill’s Big Bones (Hot Key Books, £7.99) presents us with Bluebelle, who wonders if “every girl is secretly on a diet” and uses her nurse-ordered food diary to rant about “the skinniness-equals-happiness myth” and rave about her favourite foods (“I have an actual physical and emotional relationship with vinegar”). Despite being happy with a larger body, she does sometimes “flirt with the idea of being tiny and how much easier that might make my life . . . To not feel like I’m in the way”.
It’s these mixed feelings that make Bluebelle interesting; despite thinking of herself as “body positive”, she still views her body in terms of image rather than activity, until an accident tilts her perspective and prompts a change. Alongside this, she’s trying to find a career path that doesn’t involve going back to school, a thread that’s handled in a pleasingly realistic manner. Dockrill, who is also known for her performance poetry, captures the cadences of contemporary teenage life brilliantly.
Brigid Kemmerer’s More Than We Can Tell (Bloomsbury, £7.99) offers up a tremendously satisfying dual-narrative romance between Rev, haunted by his abusive biological father, and Emma, a game designer dealing with a vicious online troll. They begin the novel aware of each other “the way outcasts are always aware of each other” and slowly begin sharing their respective experiences with bullying and (in Rev’s case) “torture”. Their support for one another lends them strength, without the novel ever suggesting that romantic relationships are the one true cure for what ails you. Kemmerer’s second contemporary novel is topical, psychologically astute and – yes – swoon-inducing.
For something completely different, there’s Peadar O’Guilin’s The Invasion (David Fickling Books, £10.99), the sequel to the highly-acclaimed The Call. After Nessa’s return from the Grey Land, where the Sidhe torment humans, she, boyfriend Anto, and their fellow survivors must face the broader world of an Ireland that is “desperate to live”, where the government “decide who gets medicine and who does not” and “apportion guilt without courts”.
The larger scope of this second volume will appeal to fantasy and horror fans, and O’Guilin has impressively managed to make it even more gruesome than the first. There are some politics woven in there, as one might expect from any novel about war, but it’s far too much fun to ever feel didactic.
Similarly thrilling, Matt Killeen’s Orphan Monster Spy (Usborne, £7.99) takes us back in time to the outbreak of the second World War. Newly orphaned Sarah falls in with a British spy in Berlin, under slightly implausible circumstances, and begins training for the role of a lifetime: a good German girl at an elite Nazi school.
The power of Nazi propaganda is skilfully explored, with Sarah angry at the Nazis but also with “the other Jews for whatever they’d done to bring this on them all”; when she inadvertently attends a screening of Triumph of the Will she finds it “beautiful, like an extended dance routine . . . The order, the grace, the majesty. Who wouldn’t want to belong to that?” At the school, Nazi ideology meshes well with adolescent cruelty, leading to a depiction of bullying that’s historically specific but still resonates today.
Sarah’s mission, leading to her infiltrating the house of a nuclear scientist, offers up excitement and tension without turning her into a full-blown superhero. Brave and talented though she is, she is also relatable and flawed: a compelling protagonist in what is a thought-provoking and incredibly page-turning debut.