Tag Archives: Louise O’Neill

Savidge Reads’ Books of 2015 Part One…

So we have hit the penultimate day of 2015, where does the time go? Back by popular demand (well David kindly asked me) is the first of my two lists of the books that I loved most in 2015. Today’s selection for your delectation are the books that I have loved the most this year that were actually published originally before 2015 (yes, even the ones that came out in paperback in 2015 but were in hardback before then) which means some classics have given way to more modern books but this really reflects my tastes in general. More on that another time though. Without further waffle or ado, here are the first twelve books I really, really, really loved in 2015; you can click on the titles to go to my full reviews, with one exception…

11.

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2015 has been a year that has seen me devour and enjoy more graphic novels and memoirs than ever before and I have loved it. Undoubtedly that love was started this year with The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg which combines history, myths and fairytales (with a slightly wonky twist) to create a wonderful visual world of Vikings, giants, gods, eskimo’s and more and celebrates the marvels of great stories and wonderful storytelling. A delight from start to finish.

10 (=).

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If you’d told me back at the start of 2015 that one of my books of the year would involve giant mutant preying grasshoppers /praying mantises then I would have laughed in your face. This would have been a) cruel and b) completely wrong. Grasshopper Jungle is a thrilling, gripping and entertaining rollercoaster of a read that looks at love, sexuality, friendship and how to survive if mutant killer insects who only want to breed and eat take over the world. What more could you ask for?

10 (=).

From the off, and indeed throughout, the world in Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is, to be frank, pretty f***ed up. (I honestly tried quite hard to not use ‘the f bomb’ but it is the only word that seems apt.) Girls are now bred, yes bred, for three reasons. They can become a companion to the men in society who can afford it and have babies, which will only be boys as these girls have been bred to be breeders of the male line; they can become a concubine, and have sex (with no babies) with all the men in society who can afford it; or they can become chastity’s and shave their heads, wear black gowns and raise more manufactured young girls to keep the cycle ticking along. See, I told you, f***ed up, and that is only the beginning. I have a feeling Louise O’Neill is one of those authors whose careers we are just going to watch grow and grow and grow. Atwood, watch out, ha!

9.

Before I read it, I had some really odd preconceived ideas about H. G. Well’s The Invisible Man. First up I thought that it was a tome of some several hundred pages, wrong, it is a novella. Secondly I thought that it was set in the 1970’s (impossible as it was written in 1897) and involved some old man in a mackintosh who smoked, wrong, that is just something I naively surmised from an old 70’s edition of the book my mother had on her shelves. Thirdly I didn’t think I would enjoy it in any way shape or form, so wrong. What I got was an incredibly dark and sinister novel that suddenly becomes both incredibly moving and incredibly disturbing as you read on. Naturally with that in mind, I absolutely loved this book.

8.

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Imagine if Thomas Hardy and Cormac McCarthy had a bastard lovechild… He would be Benjamin Myers in my humble opinion and I think Beastings testifies that notion. I almost don’t feel I need tos say more, but I will. We know it is raining, we know that a young woman has fled the house she was living in with a baby that isn’t hers, we also have the sense that both her and the baby were in danger. We soon learn that she is being followed, although hounded/stalked sounds more sinisterly appropriate, and is heading for a secret island somewhere off the coast. Because on an island in the ocean no-one can sneak up on you. The question is if she can get through the forests and mountains of Cumbria and head to the ocean without being caught and without hardly any supplies. And with that, we are off…

7.

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I only recently devoured Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None yet it shot straight into my top ten without hesitation. Ten strangers are sent to an island under false pretenses, they are soon all accused of murder or implicated in a death, then they start to die one by one following the pattern of an old nursery rhyme. The premise is impossible, yet as Agatha Christie’s fantastic novel unfolds we soon come to learn that anything is possible, no matter how chilling or unbelievable it might first appear. An utterly stupendous thriller, once you have read it you understand why it is the biggest selling murder mystery in the world, ever.

6.

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Sometimes all I want as a reader is a bloody good story. I want a twisting plot, characters that walk of the page and that you love, hate or preferably a bit of both. I want mystery and intrigue. I want to be taken to a world I know nothing about and get lost in it and its entire atmosphere. I can be a right demanding so and so however Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist delivered all this to me in abundance as it took me on a gothic journey with Nella as she walked onto the threshold of Brant house in Amsterdam 1686.

5.

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2015 has also been a year where memoirs have been a hit, in several cases centring around grief and this is one of those. H is for Hawk is an incredibly special kind of read, which all the above culminates towards, simply put it is a generously open, honest and brutal yet beautiful book. Helen Macdonald takes us completely into her life and her world at a time when she was at her most broken and vulnerable and shares that with us in all its technicolour splendour of emotions. You will laugh, you will cry and you will have felt incredibly privileged to have spent time in the company of Helen, Mabel the Goshawk and the writer T.H. White.

4.

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Until this year I had never read a word of Patricia Highsmith’s, well don’t I feel a fool after reading this. Deep Water is one of the most entertaining, snarky, camply dark, vicious and twisted psychological thrillers I have read. It is also one of the most unusual as the reader watches a sociopath come to the fore from their normally meek mild mannered self… and we egg him on and like him, even understanding him oddly, the whole time. It is a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer, if this is a prime example of what Highsmith fondly described as “my psychopath heroes”, I can’t wait to meet the rest.

3.

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It seems that 2015 was the year of insects in fiction for me, this time with bees and heaven forefend ones that talk. From this alone I should have had some kind of anaphylactic shock to this book (see what I did there) however I was completely won over by the story of Flora as she works her way through and up the hive in Laline Paull’s wondrous debut The Bees. I have been talking about this book ever since and also been boring as many people as possible with the fascinating facts I learnt about these winged beings as I read. A book which for me had it all; brilliant writing, fantastic pace, fantastic facts and a real heart looking at class, religion and women’s rights.

2.

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Now then, this is the book I have yet to review and yet is a book which took over my life as I was enravelled in the whole life of another man, Logan Mountstuart. A man which I am still struggling to believe isn’t real as his diaries from 1923 – 1998, which make up William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, take us through school romps, to wild affairs, marriages, more affairs, wars and gossip with famous people through the decades and give us not only a vivid encounter with the recent history of Britain and its endeavours (which take us all over the world) but celebrate the lives of us strange folk and the power of the pen and the written word. Ruddy marvellous and a complete and utter nightmare to review hence why I haven’t managed as yet. You can hear me talking about it here though.

1.

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I talked about book tingles earlier in the year, that wonderful feeling you get when you read a book and the words just wash over you and you know everything in this book in front of you is going to encapsulate everything you love about reading. Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike had that for me within paragraphs of it’s very first story. In this collection we are taken to places all over the world, to all walks of life and never given the story we expect in the beginning but something so much more; be it funny, dark or magical. It was a book that arrived completely new to me, no hype or anything and completely bowled me over. I adore this book with all my heart, it brought joy to my beardy face for the whole time I read it.

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So there we are the first half of my books for the year. I do feel like I should give some honourable mentions to Susan Barker’s The Incarnations, Susan Hill’s I’m The King of the Castle and Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart, but that will be deemed as cheating. Let me know your thoughts on those in my first list you have read and do pop and see my next list tomorrow. What have been some of your books of 2015?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2015, Random Savidgeness

Only Ever Yours – Louise O’Neill

When lots of people tell you over a very small space of time that you simply have to read a book you should listen. This was the case with Louise O’Neill’s debut novel Only Ever Yours, which won the inaugural YA Book Prize earlier this year. I think four if not five very esteemed people I was on several panels with at a conference raved about it endlessly in the space of one and a half days. So naturally I had to pick it up at the nearest bookshop I fell into on the way back to the train station. I started it on said train and suddenly the 5 hour journey had absolutely flown by and I was left looking like something that should be left in lost luggage (a bit battered and worn out) when I got to Liverpool. Yes, Only Ever Yours is one of those books that grabs you and simply will not let go… even now, months later.

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Quercus Books, 2014, paperback, fiction, 400 pages, bought by me for me

I am a good girl. I am pretty. I am always happy go lucky.
The robotic voice spills down the walls and crawls along the floor, searching for a receptive ear. And we eves are more receptive when sleeping. We are like sponges, absorbing beauty, becoming more and more lovely as we dream. More and more valuable.
Except for me.

From the off, and indeed throughout, the world in Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is, to be frank, pretty f***ed up. (I honestly tried quite hard to not use ‘the f bomb’ but it is the only word that seems apt.) Girls are now bred, yes bred, for three reasons. They can become a companion to the men in society who can afford it and have babies, which will only be boys as these girls have been bred to be breeders of the male line; they can become a concubine, and have sex (with no babies) with all the men in society who can afford it; or they can become chastity’s and shave their heads, wear black gowns and raise more manufactured young girls to keep the cycle ticking along. See, I told you, f***ed up.

It is in the interior of one of these schools/factories/compounds that we join frieda and isabel who have been friends since they can remember (no my spell check hasn’t backfired, these girls – or the eves as they are called – have no capital letter at the start of their names because they are lesser and need to know it from the off) who now at sixteen enter their final and defining year when they will be introduced to boys for the first time. These teenage boys will define the girls roles in society based in some part by how they interact with them, which is a tricky beast as we discover, though mainly on their looks which have to be perfection. So the pressure is on and the claws are out, this is the year when their lives will change and no one wants to be less than a companion.

The screen snaps back into a mirror. S41 Delicate Iced Chocco hair. #66 Chindia Tellow eyes. That’s me. That’s what people see when they look at me. I peel off my nightdress and throw it into a trapdoor implanted in the wall underneath the vanity table. The cupboard opens, beeping loudly until I step in, the steel trap closing like a greedy mouth around me.
‘You have gained weight.’ The voice fills the cupboard. ‘You are now 118.8 pounds. I will recommend in your weekly report that you are to take extra kcal blockers until your weight stabilizes between 115 and 118 pounds.’ 

It is a grimly fascinating yet ultimately plain disturbing setting and plot that Louise O’Neill creates. Here is a world where everything is wrong with you if you are less than perfect, even the slightest blemish can ruin you. This of course breeds elitism to the point where it isn’t just weight or height that distinguish, so do race and even when you first menstruate. This is a world where the ideal is to be two dimensional, what do you need the third for after all when all you need to do is look pretty, be able to hold a simple conversation and have male babies every few years? Yet of course by being human, even if manufactured, these girls have feelings, insecurities (which are to be encouraged), fears, jealousies, bitterness and rage. None is particularly likeable, but I imagine I would be a Grade A bitch in such a situation, it is survival of the fittest and prettiest after all so even your closest friends are a threat.

‘Nice? Nice? NICE?’ megan shouts. I try to shush her but she is beyond reason.
‘Yes. You’re nice,’ agyness lies again, looking perplexed at this reaction.
‘Who cares about nice?’
‘I do. I think personality matters.’
‘Are you brain dead? Personality does NOT matter. All that matters is being pretty, you…’ she stammers with rage, ‘you feminist.’ There’s a horrified gasp. ‘Well, it’s true,’ she says defiantly. ‘Being pretty is all that matters.’

In a book like Only Ever Yours there is almost too much to talk about, though this is not a bad thing. I haven’t even started on the whole ‘sex as a powerful weapon vs. weapon of self destruction’ part of the book which I found fascinating – when the girls are given alone time in what seems to be a broom cupboard with the boys – or the way she discusses cyber bullying. However I am worried that anyone who hasn’t read the book yet and hears about all this might be worried it is all too much or all too preachy. I don’t think it is either. I think O’Neill holds back in some aspects; it could be grimmer, it could have had a lot more in it, yet less is more and the fact that O’Neill holds back to a degree, whilst writing a ripping yarn that doesn’t let you put it down, makes it all the more sinister because it is all the more possible. Well, I say possible, this is happening in the world now. I found this also stopped it from being preachy, it is a book designed to make you think and that it does in abounds, praise be.

There were also two things that had particularly stuck me by the end also. Firstly was the fact that O’Neill keeps the world in which the reader enters very confined. It doesn’t really matter that the world has gone to hell outside the four walls we remain in because actually the truly terrifying stuff is happening within them. This is all the more scary because we see the world doing it now. Girls (and the attention is shifting to boys now) are judged on their looks, size, gait etc now by the media and society as I type this, it makes the horror of O’Neill’s world close in on you all the more. Secondly what I think was a master stroke was that O’Neill gives us a group of girls whip are designed to compete with each other, almost in their DNA by default, their bid for freedom means they must one up or destroy their friends, so why do we (women and men) do it so often when we have so many options and so much more freedom than mere generations ago. Remember what I told you about it making you think on.

Then if that all wasn’t enough, there is the ending! I won’t give it away but I will say that it delivered a wallop that was almost winding, yet made your head snap and then realise how powerful it was in its brutal brilliance. Louise O’Neill, if you ever read this, I think you are an utter marvel for this book. So pertinent, so engaging, so important, so well written – I hope this book is now stocked in every school possible, it should be on the curriculum. It is certainly going to be high up on my list of books of the year.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Louise O'Neill, Quercus Publishing, Review

Grasshopper Jungle – Andrew Smith

When I was at Booktopia last year one of the books almost everyone kept raving about was Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. They were all saying that it was their books of the year. As the synopsis they gave me was that it was about ‘the importance of love while giant horny mutant grasshoppers take over the world’ I thought they were all mad. Well guess what? I must also be mad because one of my books of the year is Grasshopper Jungle, and it is about the importance (and confusion) of love whilst giant horny mutant grasshoppers take over the world. Yes, first it was bees and now it is grasshoppers, insects in fiction are clearly my thing.

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Electric Monkey, paperback, 2014, young adult fiction, 400 pages, bought by me for me

Austin Szerba is trying to work the world out. He is trying to work school out, he is trying to work his family out, he is trying to work his friendships out and if he loves his best girl or boy friend the most, plus he is trying to work out what the point of everything is and how it all interconnects both in Ealing, Iowa, and outside it in the great beyond. You know, all the stuff you spend hours and hours pondering over when you’re a teenager and start to freak out about. Only soon, after an incident he is involved with, Austin and his best mate Robby unleash something which gives them something to worry even more about; they unleash a hidden capsule of the strain plague 412E, which can turn people into giant horny mutant grasshoppers who just want to eat, mate and take over the world. This is far more threatening and concerning than his worries about his own sexuality and who he loves surely?

At that moment, Grant Wallace fell down in his bathroom while taking a piss. Grant hit his head on the rim of his toilet. It was not a Nightingale. Grant Wallace’s head broke open. It didn’t matter. Grant was hatching. The bug that came out of Grant was young and powerful. He was hungry and also very horny. He needed to eat, he needed to find Eileen Pope. He could smell and hear Eileen Pope,  even though she was four miles away from the Wallace home.

I have to admit that from the start of the novel I was sceptical to say the least. How on earth was a book about mutant grasshoppers a) going to interest me b) make me give a monkeys c) leave any lasting impressions on me? Well, blow me down because it did all three. From the start of the book I was pretty intrigued by both Austin as a character and also as a storyteller. Before all the big (six foot tall, green armoured) drama starts, we get into the mind of a boy whose mind is all over the shop. He is a mass of hormones and questions. He thinks about sex all the time, both with his girlfriend Shann and openly gay best mate Robby – a friendship which also gets him constantly bullied He also manages, well sometimes between sex and more sex, to think about so much else including history (personal and world), the power of language, books, philosophy, science and human nature vs. animal (or insect) instinct. I instantly felt for him and was engaged by him.

So I was already intrigued before the green monsters of menace arrived onto the scene, then I became hooked. I know, me who doesn’t really read science fiction or fantasy – utterly gripped. Smith writes with a thrillingly gritty and gross style that appeals to the part of me that is still in my teens and likes to spend stupid amounts of money on Jelly Belly’s just because he can. I loved the gross descriptions of how the grasshoppers are born and how they then go on and rampage, killing and mating left, right and centre. You feel like you are in an utterly bizarre yet totally brilliant movie frankly, and you don’t want it to end.

Pastor Roland Duff continued, ‘Masturbation can also turn boys into homosexuals.’
When he said homosexuals, he waved his hands emphatically like he was shaping a big blob of dough into a homosexual so I could see what he was talking about.
That frightened me, and made me feel ashamed and confused.
Then he called my mother into the office and talked to her about masturbation too.
Up until that day, I was certain my mother didn’t know there was such a thing as masturbation.

Before you all start thinking that this novel is just a huge crazy romp, which for the most part it is an unashamedly so, there are some really interesting and much deeper things going on beneath the surface of the best monster movie we have yet (though apparently soon) to have watched. One of the things that Smith looks at, through the eyes of Austin, is how we need to find our place within the world and also connect with it. No matter who we are we have spent, and occasionally still spend, hours and hours mulling about this.

There is the sexuality theme, which is done brilliantly – I can’t imagine people reading it and thinking ‘eww that’s gay’, even though it sort of is – and is actually more about love defying labels or not being labelled at all (rightly so). It also looks at how hard is it to talk about, ask about and (with society and schooling being the way it can be) even think about. There is also the theme of longing for a connection with what has gone before us so we feel part of society and the bigger picture and also so that we can conquer the future, whatever awaits us. Though hopefully for most of us it won’t include having to try and save the world from a giant insect riddled from of Armageddon.

What I also really liked about it was that at no point did I feel patronised and nor did I feel that the young adult market, for which it is primarily aimed, would feel this way either. Smith writes Austin’s voice with authenticity and in a quick, speedy, frank manner which engages, entertains and makes the reader think as they read on. It is also one of those brilliant books which is bound to send it’s reader, again as it has done me, to want to go off and read lots and lots more books, starting with the ones it features. I have already bought Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and will be reading that in due course.

As I said earlier Grasshopper Jungle is going to be one of my books of the year without a shadow of a doubt. It has it all; thrills, thoughts, death, destruction, emotion and some very, very funny moments with some very moving ones. I also think it could make a huge amount of teenagers feel a lot better about some of the questions that are going through their heads; that it is ok to be gay, straight or whatever. It does all of that without ever preaching or persecuting whilst also being a whole load of fun. It’s a book that will educate and entertain adults and young adults alike.

Who else has read Grasshopper Jungle and what did you make of it? Have you read any of Andrew Smith’s other novels? I have The Alex Crow on the shelves and will be reading that after I get to The Chocolate Wars. As always, I would love any other recommendations of some corking, entertaining and enlightening YA novels (I will be recommending Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours to you all soon) that you have read and really rate.

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Filed under Andrew Smith, Books of 2015, Electric Monkey Publishing, Review