“Nobody really wants us here. The Catholics see us as Protestant do-gooders, the Protestants think we’re fenian hoors; everyone’s suspicious of us. Nobody seems to understand why women would want to live without men. They call us the coven.”
It’s 1921, Belfast. In a divided city, a progressive home for young women is driven by high-minded ideals, despite struggles within and without. Into this world comes a new girl, 15-year-old Polly, who the nuns always predicted would “go to the bad”.
Welcome to Sheena Wilkinson's latest historical novel, Hope Against Hope (Little Island, £6.99), the final volume in a loose trilogy exploring Northern Ireland in the early 20th century. Polly, originally hailing from a small town on the newly identified Border, is ideally placed to notice and comment on everything going on.
She is, essentially, the new girl in a school story, and Wilkinson (whose doctoral thesis focused on the genre) allows her heroine awareness of how similar the worlds are, with Polly trying to “read’” the other girls through this bookish lens.
The school story appreciation also enables an historically accurate framework for contemplating alternative sexual orientations, with Polly noting first the "secret kinship" she feels with the girl at home whose second-hand Angela Brazil books she now owns, and then the way her heart skips a beat when she looks at another girl. "Having pashes on girls was all right in school stories; I wasn't sure if you were allowed them in real life."
It’s an incredibly satisfying treatment of the topic, one of many “issues” touched upon in a moving, clever novel that expertly depicts how the big political concerns of the day impact on individual lives.
Rom com in politics
Established American YA authors Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saaed team up for a look at how the individual can impact big politics, in Yes No Maybe So (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), a he-said she-said romantic comedy in which the "meet cute" involves door-to-door campaigning for a local candidate.
Jamie and Maya’s differing heritages (his family is preparing for a Bat Mitzvah; her family is celebrating Ramadan) present small cultural clashes for them to overcome, but mainly their non-Christian experiences bring them together and provide a compelling reason for their fear of the opposing white supremacist candidate. “This isn’t how history’s supposed to work,” Jamie thinks. “The timeline’s not supposed to work backward.”
These are characters coming of age and trying to deal with the messiness and scope of national politics; they are at times overly earnest and dramatic, in a way that is entirely fitting for teens stepping into the world of campaigning and activism. An entertaining, authentic and hopeful novel.
Cruelty and great kindness
How do today's schools deal with bullying? In Danielle Jawando's powerful debut, And The Stars Were Burning Brightly (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), a furious Nathan is told: "You rise above it, and then you come and tell us. You know we have a strong Be Kind policy." Words, after all, can't hurt, and never mind that Nathan's rage is entirely proportionate for a situation that's led – even if he's still figuring out the precise details – to his brother's suicide.
As per the Samaritans guidelines on the topic, let me note that of course it’s a more complicated issue than that, and indeed much of Nathan’s journey throughout the novel involves moving from finding someone to blame to accepting the tragedy.
But it’s certainly fair to note that consistently toxic bullying and shaming is the sort of thing to erode even the most resilient of individuals, and that there’s a chilling acceptance of its inevitability, particularly in the virtual world. It’s just “banter”, one character insists, noting that “everyone gets s**t said about them online”.
The way in which “banter” or “just words” have been used against Nathan’s brother (a talented artist whose yearning for university marks him as “different” in a working class community) is revealed as the mystery unfurls; it’s compelling but also devastating.
Alongside this cruelty, though, there is great kindness – real kindness rather than a well-intentioned and ineffective school policy – and Nathan’s discovery of the power of sharing feelings with others, rather than embracing male taciturnity, is moving.
Rebelling against oppression
Oppression inflicted by society as a whole, rather than a few bad eggs, is at the centre of Liz Hyder's Bearmouth (Pushkin Press, £7.99). Narrator Newt, whose idiosyncratic spellings may grate on some readers' nerves, tells us that really Bearmouth, first named so "cos it was near the surfiss wi its wyde open maw so us could walk strayte into the mine" but now the depths of the mine mean that a better name would be "center o the earf".
In the mines, any potential for rebellion is squashed by obedience to "the Mayker", but the arrival of a new boy sparks a change. The world, inspired by the working conditions for children in Victorian England, is an intriguing one, and although the story is somewhat predictable, its resolution is still pleasing.
One to pick up
There's another fascinating universe depicted in Darren Charlton's post-apocalyptic Wranglestone (Stripes, £7.99), in which an isolated mountain community must ward off the Restless Ones, creatures that are particularly dangerous as winter approaches and the lake freezes over. Peter's skills are more domestic than military, but he's nevertheless called to play a part, and it brings him into closer contact with the boy he's watched from afar for years.
Cooper is that romance-novel archetype, the Hot Cowboy, whose use of the associated slang may feel a tad corny, but the budding relationship between the two – with a nod to Brokeback Mountain – is gripping, and provides a solid psychological base for the adventures of the second half of the novel. This fun, smart take on zombie lore is definitely one to pick up.