Book Review: Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill


Shelved: Young adult fiction (science fiction)
Buy: Hive
More: Goodreads

I purchased Only Ever Yours after it won the YA Book Prize. It was one of the few books on the shortlist that I didn’t already own or hadn’t read, but it was one everyone was talking about.

Louise O’Neill describes Only Ever Yours as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Mean Girls. It is startlingly, painfully real. I’ve read a lot of young adult dystopian fiction and I’ve been reluctant to think of Only Ever Yours as ‘dystopian’  – it’s more ‘speculative’. Even though our society doesn’t mirror freida and isabel’s exactly, if you break it down and deconstruct every judgement, expectation and attitude that the girl’s are subject to, we’re almost already there.

freida and isabel are two of many girls waiting to see whether they will be selected to be wives to wealthy, powerful men and go on to bear his sons. They have grown up in a school that teaches girls how to be pretty and, in the near future, will progress into one of three career paths: companions, concubines or chastities. They don’t get to choose which. Popularity comes with being the most beautiful and the girls are ranked based on how they look and how thin they are. Eating disorders are encouraged and the girls are given opportunities to judge each other constantly. In one particularly dark scene, a girl stands naked in front of the class while improvements from her fellow students are thrown at her. Every time you think Only Ever Yours couldn’t possibly get any more bleak, it does.

Only Ever Yours is a dazzling, well-crafted feminist satire. It all unfolds when isabel can no longer live up to what society wants her to be and we watch as frieda struggles to deal with what she thinks she ought to do and what she feels is right. It’ll make you angry, shocked and outraged – and you’ll want to tell everyone.

Asking For It is Louise O’Neill’s upcoming book, about eighteen-year-old Emma O’Donovan, who is raped at a friend’s party. It is a much-needed novel and will likely be even more difficult to read than Only Ever Yours…

Published: 3rd July 2014 (UK) 12th May 2015 (US)
Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 392

Book Review: We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

Book Review: We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

Shelved: Young adult fiction (contemporary, science fiction)
Buy: Hive
More: Goodreads

“The best books, they don’t talk about things you never thought about before. They talk about things you’d always thought about, but that you didn’t think anyone else had thought about. You read them, and suddenly you’re a little bit less alone in the world. You’re part of this cosmic community of people who’ve thought about this thing, whatever it happens to be.”

We All Looked Up was the May pick for my informal we-actually-just-want-an-excuse-to-meet-up-and-chat book club and I was really looking forward to reading it. I’ve read a lot of young adult sci-fi but We All Looked Up is different – a mix of science fiction and contemporary, one of my favourite genres. I tweeted about We All Looked Up when I started reading it, saying it was The Breakfast Club meets the apocalypse, and I still think that’s true. But our four teenage protagonists are confined to one town rather than one building!

Before the asteroid, four teenagers lived their lives defined by four neat labels: athlete (Peter), the outcast (Eliza), the slacker (Andy), the overachiever (Anita), but now that the world’s changed, they have the opportunity to think about themselves, others and the world around them a little bit more. I love how We All Looked Up is told, in alternating chapters narrated by our protagonists, going back and forth between the present and the immediate past. I used to think of myself as someone who would pick ‘plot’ over ‘characters’ but while others are perhaps a little disappointed in the lack of wider world-building – what’s happening in the rest of the world as  Arden is approaching and what governments are doing to stop it – I didn’t feel that that was the point of We All Looked Up. All of the teenagers are flawed and the asteroid is just a device through which we get a modern coming-of-age story.

As with any young adult contemporary novel, we still get our love stories, family arguments, difficult choices and complicated friendships. Peter’s dealing with breaking up with his girlfriend and dreaming about his brief romantic encounter with Eliza – who went from shy to ‘slut’ as a result – and is in competition with Andy, who is amongst the wrong crowd, while Anita is struggling to live up to her parents’ crushing expectations. She takes the opportunity, as it is likely the end of the world after all, to pursue her desire to be a singer. We All Looked Up gets complicated and messy – adolescence often is – as the characters become closer, and I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in their journey.

We All Looked Up is a wonderful, poignant look at what it means to grow up. It makes you wonder whether you have the determination to change the course your life is on, whether you’ll ever have the opportunity to look up.

Published: 26th March 2015
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK & US
Pages: 384


The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (Classic #3)

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (Classic #3)

Shelved: Classic (science fiction, post-apocalyptic)
Published: 1955 by Michael Joseph
Rating: ★★★
Challenge: Classics Challenge – #3
Buy: Hive
More: Goodreads

Here’s my third post for the 2015 Classics Challenge!  It’s not too late to join me (and 160+ other people) in reading one classic per month.

David Storm’s father doesn’t approve of Angus Morton’s unusually large horses, calling them blasphemies against nature. Little does he realise that his own son, and his son’s cousin Rosalind and their friends, have their own secret aberration which would label them as mutants. But as David and Rosalind grow older it becomes more difficult to conceal their differences from the village elders. Soon they face a choice: wait for eventual discovery, or flee to the terrifying and mutable Badlands…..

WHEN I Discovered This Classic
I bought The Chrysalids and The Day of the Triffids in 2013 when I visited Daunt Books, Marylebone, one of my favourite bookshops in London. I knew that his books were science fiction modern classics and that the two I picked were his most well-known novels.

WHY I Chose to Read It
It had been a while since I read my first John Wyndham novel. I read The Day of the Triffids in April 2013 and haven’t picked up a John Wyndham novel since, even though I own five now! I read an older classic in January and a children’s classic in February, so it was time to read a modern classic in March.

WHAT Makes It A Classic
All of John Wyndham’s novels are said to be modern classics because they were published during the era of great science fiction. One of the things I noticed while reading both The Chrysalids and The Day of the Triffids was how fresh and timeless they feel – they could have been published today. The Chrysalids also tackles religious fundamentalism and eugenics, issues that are still relevant today. David lives in a world where there are ‘offences’ (unusual plants and animals) and ‘blasphemies’ (humans with something unusual about them). If something is seen as being out of the ordinary – whether it’s a horse that’s a little too large or human with an extra toe – it is banished from society or destroyed, and it was easy to see that this kind of thinking is still prevalent today. It’s why I think science fiction – whether classic or contemporary – is such an exciting genre; it makes you think.

WHAT I Thought of This Classic
I loved The Day of the Triffids when I read it and I hoped that I’d enjoy The Chrysalids just as much, but unfortunately it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I still enjoyed it, especially as it has a few unexpected twists and turns that make it exciting at times, but sometimes I found the religious aspect of the story to be a little too simple. It’s perhaps because the concept no longer feels that new. I loved the adult and child protagonists; they really brought the story to life. I read an article that said The Chrysalids was also a coming-of-age story, and that encapsulates it very well. Although it’s a post-apocalyptic story about living in a society where those who are seen as ‘different’ are eradicated, it’s also about young people growing up and questioning everything they’ve been told. In The Chrysalids, our young protagonists are much more open-minded than their adult counterparts; they’re curious, inquisitive and open to re-evaluating the morality they’ve been taught.

WILL It Stay A Classic
If you love post-apocalyptic fiction, there’s so many novels to choose from, so will The Chrysalids stand out another 50 years from now? It’s difficult to say because it seems like we’re in a time where science fiction isn’t just read by people who would browse the science fiction section of bookshelves, but perhaps people will continue to keep coming back to John Wyndham.

WHO I’d Recommend It To
People who love science fiction and want to delve into some of the top science fiction novels from the 1930s-1950s. People who adore young adult science fiction novels like The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. People who want a quick classic to read (this one is only 200 pages).

Have you signed up to the 2015 Classics Challenge?

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Shelved: Adult fiction (science fiction, post-apocalyptic)
Buy: Hive
More: Goodreads

I really love children’s and young adult fiction; it’s what I’m most passionate about. I also equally enjoy adult fiction, but I just don’t get the chance to read it as much. I named March “a month of adult fiction” and despite the fact that I failed terribly and only read two books, I’m so glad I got the chance to read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I was a little apprehensive because I used to adore post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction before it exploded, but when so many people started naming Station Eleven one of their favourite books of 2014, I finally bought a copy – I didn’t want to miss out!

Station Eleven is a delicious, vividly rich story spanning several decades. It follows individuals whose lives are interconnected before and after a highly-contagious and fast-moving flu virus wipes out most of the world’s population, leaving only a smattering of people to figure out how to survive in a new world without electricity. Yet Station Eleven isn’t a story about how to survive in a post-apocalyptic world after a devastating pandemic, but how people survive with each other.

Jeevan Chaudhary is at the theatre watching a rendition of King Lear when one of the actors, Arthur Leander, has a heart-attack. Because he is a trained paramedic, Jeevan jumps on stage but he is unable to save Arthur. Kirsten, a young actress, is watching him from afar. Fifteen years later, she is part of a Travelling Symphony, a small group of travellers who create moments of happiness for the remaining settled communities, from performing dramatic Shakespearian acts to colourful melodies that spark memories. Station Eleven tells the stories – both present experiences and past exploits – of some of these individuals and the relationships they forge.

Station Eleven is so beautifully written that it doesn’t feel like a post-apocalyptic novel. Sometimes in science fiction, characters can be an insignificant device through which the plot develops, but this story wouldn’t be what it is without its characters – a magnificent and vast exploration of people, whether a creative young PA or a dangerous religious prophet. Station Eleven‘s array of characters is its strength. It has just enough world-building to satisfy the reader, but not so much that it overwhelms or becomes unnecessary. It doesn’t feel like a story with a typical beginning, middle and end – Station Eleven could keep on going if you let it.

Station Eleven is my first adult (non-classic) book of the year and it reminded me why I love fiction so much. It’s beautifully written, clever, thoughtful and incredibly exciting, despite the lack of action and adventure – it doesn’t need it.

Because survival is insufficient.

Published: 9th September 2014 (US) 10th September 2014 (UK)
Publisher: Knopf (US) Picador (UK)
Pages: 339

Book Review: The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Book Review: The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Shelved: Adult fiction (horror, science fiction)
Buy: Hive
More: Goodreads

The Girl with All the Gifts was another book I bought because everyone was raving about it. (I promise I don’t just read books everyone else loves, but I do hate missing out!). It’s a positive sign that I read it shortly after buying because it usually takes months to years before I finally get around to reading a particular book from my teetering bookshelves. I purposely avoided knowing too much about The Girl with All the Gifts before starting, although I don’t think this is necessary to enjoy the story because you find out all you need to know pretty quickly. It’s littered with bold statements all over the cover, including ‘the most original thriller you will read this year’. I think this rests one particular aspect of the story: Melanie.

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.

Before you begin the book, this is all we know about Melanie. We know she’ll be the main focus of the story, but I didn’t quite understand how invested I’d become in her character. To put it simply, she’s a curious, intelligent 10-year-old girl who love stories and learning, especially Greek Mythology, particularly when accompanied by her favourite teacher, Miss Justineau. But Melanie doesn’t live in a normal world where young girls can enjoy going to school and reading books. It’s a future, alternate United Kingdom where most of the population has been destroyed and the rest are hidden away, attempting to protect themselves.

Yet, although I have not read many horror novels, The Girl with All the Gifts feels different. Our five characters – Melaine, Miss Helen Justineau, Sergeant Eddie Parks, Dr. Caroline Caldwell and Private Kieran Gallagher – are all trying to survive, but have very different views on the best ways of survival. It’s now a world where ethics are the least of everyone’s worries, which is why it’s a common theme throughout the novel. And that throws up all sorts of problems for our five survivors.

The Girl With all the Gifts is wonderfully thrilling and cinematic – full of believable science, emotion and fear. I was particularly taken by a scene where the team come across a car full of thousands of pounds rolled up. They comment on the ridiculousness of it – at the thought of someone treasuring these pieces of paper that no longer matter – and throw all the money like confetti all around them. Can you imagine living in this world? It’s easy to imagine the apocalypse as either gruesome or comical, but what about the in-between? The Girl With all the Gifts provides us with a horror story that isn’t black and white. Read it. See if you feel the same.

Published: 14th January 2014 (UK) 10th June 2014 (US)
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 512