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Claire Hennessy (Dublin, Ireland)

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Girls on Fire
Girls on Fire
Price: £6.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A delirious, exhilarating read for everyone who’s ever had that kind of best friend or wished they had, 28 Jun. 2016
This review is from: Girls on Fire (Kindle Edition)
“Girls had to believe in everything but their own power, because if girls knew what they could do, imagine what they might.”

Hannah Dexter is a loner, a bland nothing among the pretty girls in her small town. She’s “filed the dream of a best friend away with my Barbies and the rest of my childish things”, has been alone for so long that she can’t even identify ‘loneliness’ as what she’s feeling. She’s pretty much the girl most readers will have been at some point – waiting for excitement, for drama, for something to shake things up and make her feel like a real teenager.

Enter Lacey, who rechristens her ‘Dex’ and sweeps her into a world of philosophy and grunge music – it’s the early 90s, and Kurt Cobain is their god. Enter Lacey, who tugs her out of small-town safety and into possible Satanic rituals. Enter Lacey, her best friend and soulmate – who’s nevertheless keeping secrets for her.

This is that gorgeous kind of love story, the kind that exists between best friends in a way that only can if it begins at that hyper-intense point in adolescence where it’s you and them against the world and everything is ecstasy or despair. But it moves beyond the typical ‘bad-girl-influences-good-girl’ trope – told in alternating chapters, the girls reveal they are both ‘bad’ and ‘good’, that the clichés they invent for one another crumble under scrutiny.

And then there’s – of course – the school bitch, Nikki, who’s shunned Dex and who has a history with both Lacey and the boy who committed suicide in the woods last year. The same woods the three of them will end up in, sooner or later. (Cue the omnious music.) The dynamics between all three are complex and shifting, leaving us on edge as to which pairing will survive.

Girls on Fire is a delirious, exhilarating read for everyone who’s ever had that kind of best friend or wished they had, for everyone ready to vicariously experience that rollercoaster of adolescence where nothing is quite as it seems and everything and anything is possible. Published for adults for content, but likely to appeal to older teens as well, particularly those who know their Nirvana. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it.

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future
Glory O'Brien's History of the Future
Price: £4.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Her best friend Ellie lives in a possibly-cultish commune across the ..., 15 Jun. 2016
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Glory O’Brien: seventeen, recent high school graduate, haunted by her mother’s suicide and her father’s inability to use a real oven so that everything tastes of radiation and death. Her best friend Ellie lives in a possibly-cultish commune across the road, and one day they drink the remains of a mummified bat mixed with beer and receive transmissions from the past and future every time they look at someone. For Glory, this means flashes of a world where new restrictive laws are passed against women, where a new civil war splits America apart, and where something terrible will happen in a tunnel years from now.

All this makes this novel sound like an action-packed sci-fi thriller, maybe a little too zany for its own good, but it is mostly a gorgeously-observed, thoughtful coming-of-age story about a girl on the brink of her future, a girl who’s never been entirely sure if she even has one. As she pieces together her ‘history of the future’ and discovers her mother’s darkroom and photographic secrets, that uncertainty of almost-adulthood comes through beautifully, and while there’s weird stuff happening it still feels incredibly real.

I loved A S King’s Ask The Passengers and this one is even better – a novel about feminism that never lectures, a story about a girl dealing with grief without getting sentimental. Highly recommended to readers both teen and adult.

Way I Used to Be
Way I Used to Be
by Amber Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.20

5.0 out of 5 stars as if getting taken advantage of would be the worst thing that could happen, 15 Jun. 2016
This review is from: Way I Used to Be (Paperback)
'“You’re drunk, Edy. You’re really drunk and that guy was trying to take advantage of you! You’re lucky I came in when I did,” he says, dead serious, as if getting taken advantage of would be the worst thing that could happen, as if that wasn’t something that happens to girls on a daily basis.'
This debut from Amber Smith begins in the immediate aftermath of fourteen-year-old Eden’s rape by her brother’s best friend. From the very start, Smith will break your heart – there are so many gorgeous, tiny details and insights that are spot on, like Eden’s mother seeing her daughter with blood on her sheets and assuming it’s her period, instead of really seeing what’s just happened. As we follow Eden through all four years of high school, we see her slide from ‘good girl’ into ‘troubled’ – not just as a result of being assaulted, but as someone who hasn’t been able to tell her parents, her friends or her beloved brother about what happened. Friendships splinter, relationships rise and fall, and we witness not just Eden but her friends as they change over the four years – I really loved that the time span let us see how the awkward kids develop as they edge closer to adulthood. Eden is sad, angry and some might say unlikeable – but she’s a very real character whose behaviour, even at its most self-destructive, is also very relatable. One of my favourite YA books of 2016 so far.

Essential Maps for the Lost
Essential Maps for the Lost
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars living in a world where terrible things happen and there are no easy answers, 15 Jun. 2016
“A husband might ditch the joint, but a daughter never can,” eighteen-year-old Mads reflects. Having graduated high school early, she’s now living with her aunt and uncle taking an intensive community college course so she can get her realtor’s licence, and join her mother’s practice. Never mind that it’s not what she wants – that her dream is to study English at university – this is the path that’s been set out for her. And she’s drowning in it.

This sophisticated YA novel by the prolific Seattle-based Deb Caletti, who’s produced a book a year for over a decade, is set near the water, and drowning both metaphorically and literally is at its heart. On a morning swim, Mads encounters a dead body and pulls it to shore, an experience that pushes her further into the depression that she’s struggling with. She becomes obsessed with the drowned woman, who threw herself off a nearby bridge, and goes to her old home – where she meets her nineteen-year-old son, Billy, for the first but not the last time.

Billy is a decent guy, but haunted by his mother’s death and the years of upset before that; now he lives with his unsympathetic grandmother and steals badly-treated dogs from their owners, then deposits them at the shelter he works with, claiming that they’re ‘lost’. Without hammering the point home, we can see that both he and Mads are lost in their own way, living in a world where terrible things happen and there are no easy answers. “A why without an answer,” Mads thinks, “is the worst kind of lost thing – a lost thing you never had to begin with.”

And then there are maps – the maps that can help lost travellers along the way. Billy’s mother’s favourite book was From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by E L Konigsburg, and he still carries around the map from within the novel – a floor plan of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, where the two characters in the book run away to. Mixed-Up Files becomes a touchstone for Mads and Billy, and this novel – deviating from Caletti’s usual tendency to write in the first person – uses the same ‘God voice’ that Konigsburg adopts, allowing us to see two rounded, imperfect characters trying to figure out how to deal with the different kinds of grief that hit us in life – and how to handle the love that sometimes feels too scary or fragile to trust.

Caletti’s prose is fresh and quirky without ever getting irritating; optimistic without being saccharine. As in her other YA novels, the teenage protagonists being the central focus doesn’t mean that the others – the adults, the children, and the dogs – in their world aren’t carefully characterised as well. Fans of Gayle Forman’s I Was Here or Jennifer Niven’s All The Bright Places should pick this one up.

How Hard Can Love Be?: The Normal Series
How Hard Can Love Be?: The Normal Series
Price: £1.89

5.0 out of 5 stars Spinster Club forever!, 15 Jun. 2016
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“Sometimes I think it would be so much easier if I wasn’t a feminist. I could just concentrate on looking pretty, and turn on the TV and not feel sick with rage that there’s hardly any female MPs on the news channel, and all the other women on TV don’t have any clothes on. I could pick a boyfriend who’s just such a macho douche, and think he’s the bee’s knees, and shower him with blowjobs and bake him cookies and think how lucky I am that he chose me. But it’s not the right thing to do!”

So rages Lottie, one of three members of the Spinster Club, on a transatlantic Skype chat with Amber, narrator of the second volume in Holly Bourne’s ‘Normal’ trilogy. Lottie will get her own story in the third volume, and we’ve already heard from Evie, whose struggles with boys and OCD formed the basis for Am I Normal Yet? But this is very much Amber’s story – Amber who is tall, redheaded and just a little bit scary. Amber who drinks maybe just a little too much despite – or sometimes to spite – her mother’s alcoholism, a situation leading to her parents’ divorce and her mother’s absence from her life for the past two years. Amber who just wants to spend the summer with her mum – even if that means putting up with her new partner, ‘Bumface Kevin’, and helping out at the camp he runs in the Californian mountains. Amber who just needs so many hugs and to be loved – because while she has two best friends that are like family, she can’t help feeling haunted by her mum’s abandoning of her.

While Holly Bourne has described this as lighter than Evie’s story, a summer camp romance published in time for Valentine’s Day, it hits just as hard and is just as funny. The balance between serious issues and comedy is often tricky for writers, but Bourne makes it seem effortless. Amber’s first love – with a former Prom King, at that! – is handled beautifully, with both characters coming off as real and authentic and flawed but also very much attracted to one another. And as with the first book, there are so many gorgeous small details that charmed me – the way Kyle is into musicals and concept albums because he likes music that tells a story, the references to Harry Potter and the outrage of removing Slytherin as a camp team name.

I’m completely smitten with this trilogy. How many YA novels feature characters discussing the work of Ariel Levy and applying it to their lives? (I can’t wait until we see Lottie – who is the most academically-minded of them all and has read every single key feminist text – tell her story.) Feminism in their world is real and immediate and important – it’s not a distant theoretical concept but something that shapes how they think about the world and how and why they strive to make it better. It’s also a thing that brings girls together rather than separates them – even though Amber can’t stand the overly-flirtatious girls at camp, there is still some empathy and an attempt to understand why people adopt certain behaviours. It’s something that strengthens the bond between the Spinster Club members – three smart, passionate girls who care deeply for one another and who can (and do) lust after boys without sacrificing their friendships. And who can have a laugh, too. If there is a teenage girl in your life who hasn’t encountered the wonder of Holly Bourne’s work, get these books into her hands now.

Beautiful Broken Things
Beautiful Broken Things
Price: £3.66

5.0 out of 5 stars What makes a 'good friend'?, 15 Jun. 2016
There are not nearly enough YA novels about the passionate intense friendships that characterise so many teenagers’ lives, where it’s not just the people you’re kissing but the people you sneak around with, or share secrets with, or fight with, who occupy your thoughts and feelings. Sara Barnard’s debut novel is about female friendships in all their intensity – from the hero-worship and resentment of a new girl arriving into the mix, to the exhilaration of having a friend who makes you brave and inspires you to have the kind of adventures and significant life experiences you’ve always wanted.

Caddy is sixteen, and a nice girl – a quiet, uneventful sort who goes to a private school and excels academically but isn’t as much of an overachiever as she’s expected to be, in that environment. She dreams of having things happen to her, of losing her virginity and falling in love, of being the sort of interesting person that her best friend Rosie is. Caddy knows that bereavement and mental illness don’t make your life more worthwhile, but yet she’s fascinated by trauma in a way she can’t quite articulate – and perhaps a little guilty and jealous at the same time for not having anything of the sort in her own life.

Rosie’s new friend Suzanne is at first a source of worry for Caddy. Suzanne is beautiful and sarcastic and fun – infinitely more fun than Caddy. Suzanne attends the same (normal, non-overachieving) school as Rosie. Suzanne is a threat. But after a little online stalking, Caddy discovers that there’s something troubling in Suzanne’s background, and manoeuvres a group conversation to prompt Suzanne to get upset, and then reveal, the abuse she suffered within her family and explain why she’s now living with an aunt.

Caddy doesn’t quite want to ‘save’ Suzanne, but there’s also another part of her that feels privileged to be chosen as her friend, to be the one trusted enough to hear some of the secrets and join her on midnight wanderings. The friendship that develops is as intense as any crush and just as potentially heartbreaking; after a fight where Caddy realises she hasn’t been included in all of the secrets, and Suzanne lashes out at her, she reflects:

“There’s something deeply upsetting about having your deepest insecurities not just laid bare by a friend but thrown in your face. I knew I was not in any way exciting, that there was nothing going on in my life that could be remotely confused with interesting. I’d always worried that this made me boring and that that was what people thought of me: Caddy Oliver – nice, but dull. And now, clearly, that was true.”

Being Suzanne’s closest friend is hard work. Caddy understands that her life is difficult – but she’s also not privy, until much later, to some of the more upsetting and dangerous elements of Suzanne’s behaviour. And she wants to support her friend without letting her get away with murder: after an apology from Suzanne, Caddy thinks, “I didn’t say anything, torn between reassuring her that I wasn’t about to desert her and pointing out that she’d acted like a bitch.” The fact that her parents disapprove of the friendship doesn’t help – Caddy finds it hypocritical that her mother, who works with the Samaritans, isn’t interested in helping someone in real life; her father, a doctor, is equally more concerned with saving people at work than in seeing what’s going on at home. What’s wrong with being a good friend to someone who clearly needs one?

This is in some ways Jacqueline Wilson’s Bad Girls for an older audience, and in other ways like stepping back into your teenage brain. The authenticity of the girls’ exchanges – the in-jokes, the intense appreciation for one another, the bitchiness – is incredible. Beautiful Broken Things is already one of my favourite YA books of 2016.

The Thing about Jellyfish
The Thing about Jellyfish
by Ali Benjamin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.68

4.0 out of 5 stars Friendship & science meet in this MG novel, 15 Jun. 2016
“There was a time when my mom knew what had happened to you, when the weight of it had already hit her and I was just running through the grass like it was any other day. And there was a time when someone else knew and my mom didn’t. And a time when your mom knew and almost no one else on the planet did.
And that means that there was a time when you were gone and no one on Earth had any idea. Just you, all alone, disappearing into the water and no one even wondering yet.
And that is an incredibly lonely thing to think about.”

Suzy – ‘Zu’ to her mom – is weird, the kind of weird she never had to think about until sixth grade. Even though her parents chastised her for talking too much, for excitedly sharing facts and trivia about the world rather than listening to others, her best friend Franny always got her. They swore they’d tell each other if they ever became the kind of girls obsessed with boys and popularity and cosmetics. They’d have a sign.

But when it happens – when Franny becomes one of the cool girls who shuns Suzy for her oddness – the message hasn’t been agreed on. And when, that summer, Franny drowns in a freak accident, Suzy can’t forgive herself for what’s happened, or shake the feeling that if she’d only known the last time they saw each other was the last time, things would look very different.

Suzy’s seventh-grade science teacher assigns them a report, and those instructions shape the structure for the novel – the book is divided up into ‘hypothesis’, ‘variables’, ‘procedure’ and so on. After a trip to the New England Aquarium and an exhibit of eerie creatures that seem like ‘ghost hearts’, her research leads her to jellyfish – and a particular deadly kind that she’s convinced caused Franny’s death. She may be barely talking to her parents, her therapist, or anyone in school, but her mind is whirring: which experts can she talk to? Who might help her uncover the truth about what happened?

Ali Benjamin’s background as a science writer is evident throughout the scientific facts dotted throughout the book – covering not just jellyfish but stars, the universe, and the sterility of urine and sweat – but Suzy’s enthusiasm and curiosity invite the reader to gobble up the trivia too. The driving force behind Suzy’s quest is, we discover, ultimately guilt: she wants to find a ‘villain’ in the story, someone worse than her. A particularly poisonous type of jellyfish seems like an ideal target for a twelve-year-old girl trying to make sense of a world in which bad things can ‘just happen’.

Alongside the progression of her research, we see the flashbacks of her friendship with Franny, from its beginning until its ugly dissolution. Middle school, as Suzy’s elder brother constantly reminds her, is hell, and the particular cruelties of this age group are captured in Benjamin’s straightforward but elegant prose. It’s a time when childhood friendships can all too easily crack under the forces of changing interests and peer pressure – the desire to be cool, to fit in, to be like the other girls – and unlike many other explorations of this topic (I was reminded of Frances O’Roark Dowell’s The Secret Language of Girls and Mariah Fredericks’s The True Meaning of Cleavage), there’s no hope for reconciliation at the end of this.

The ideal reading range is ages ten to fourteen, with the usual caveat that a good book is a good book is a good book. Adults who adored RJ Palacio’s Wonder or Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me will love this, too.

(originally published at[...])

Mad Girl
Mad Girl
Price: £7.49

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars OCD, bulimia, drug abuse, toxic relationships, humour & hope, 15 Jun. 2016
This review is from: Mad Girl (Kindle Edition)
“… mental illness does not always fit the binary, black-and-white terms given to it in the media, books and films. This is also why it is such a bastard. It is good at hiding, evading capture, putting on a show. It is the world’s greatest actor.”
Mental illness memoirs are often written by those in the public eye, who type earnestly about their time spent in bed or struggling without ever addressing the fact that despite their health issues, their lives have hints of glamour and privilege that are completely ignored in their narrative of suffering. It’s not that these things make you immune to mental illness, of course, but they do mean that it’s easier to afford a doctor, or counselling, or time off work. Working-class sufferers of mental illness don’t write books about it; we don’t seem to be interested in that.

Bryony Gordon, successful columnist with the Sunday Telegraph, deviates from the typical pattern not because of her lack of privilege – this is a lady doing well for herself – but because she acknowledges that even as she was in a very dark hole mentally, her work was going well. She writes about the fun stuff, about how her drug and alcohol dependency facilitated both socialising for work and penning cheeky columns about her life as a ‘single lady’. Though, as she admits, the older one gets in this role, the more awkward it becomes and the more pitying looks one gets: “No single woman in her thirties wants to be described as a character. We should – it’s good to be a character, much better than relying solely on your looks – but we don’t.”

This is Gordon’s second memoir, but it’s her first to address the OCD that kicked in aged twelve and had her on medication by age seventeen. Despite the severity of this condition – and she conveys the repetitive, terrifying, unstoppable thoughts expertly on the page – she also handles it with a lightness of touch and casual asides, cheerfully acknowledging her worries about her alopecia preoccupying her over things like bringing the iron to work so that she won’t have to worry about it having been left on. She is scared all of the time: worried she’s done something terrible despite all evidence to the contrary. Worried she’s capable of it.

This is the origin point of other problems that plague her throughout her twenties and thirties. She develops an eating disorder, reflecting that, “My body had never felt like mine, not really. I realise that now, with age and lines and fat and the tiniest bit of wisdom. Does any young woman feel as if her body is hers, anyway?” Making herself throw up feels normal, yet it also must be hidden. On the surface it looks like she’s doing well. Later, when she recovers from this and stops taking cocaine, the weight gain is visibly disapproved of by various peers, even as she is healthier and happier. We don’t mind how unhappy women are if they’re thin, after all.

Then there are the bad relationships, the toxic liaisons that she’s particularly susceptible to in a quest for passion and excitement. While she takes responsibility for her commitment to these various problematic men, it’s also clear that they are the sort who seek out vulnerable women. And after all, she is ‘crazy’ – it’s so much easier to gaslight a girlfriend who already has a diagnosis.

“Relationships like this, they creep up on you slowly. They wouldn’t happen any other way. Like praying mantises, they dance seductively in front of you to lure you in before biting your head off. They work by stealth, and before you know it you are declaring undying love to a man who seems sometimes to hate you. Except what you’re feeling isn’t love, not really. It’s fear. It’s fear of him, fear of yourself, fear of being alone.”

There is a happy ending of sorts to all this – Gordon is now married with a small girl – but despite some of the coping mechanisms having been put in their place, she still has OCD, and is still prone to relapses. An epilogue reveals how writing the book triggered one of these, how difficult it is to write about mental illness without it tugging at you. The honesty here makes this a more, rather than less, optimistic read. Good things can happen to messed-up girls and women. But they also need to help themselves, to be open to it, to do what they can and seek help for the things they can’t. This is a book that’s both breezy and smart, funny and insightful. Gordon is the antithesis of self-pitying without being a Pollyanna, and is firm about the purpose of the book: not to lecture anyone else, but to share her story in the hope that others might speak up too.

The Luckiest Girl in the World
The Luckiest Girl in the World
by Steven Levenkron
Edition: Hardcover

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Sickeningly simplistic, 28 May 2002
As in his previous work of fiction, The Best Little Girl In The World, Levenkron explains a disorder away with family problems, in this case a father who left and a mother who physically abused her child in order to "encourage" her. This girl is conveniently surrounded by people who care about her, in particular "Sandy Sherman", the ever-so-wonderful psychologist (featured previously in The Best Little Girl...) who jots down notes about her progress, letting the reader know how well our Katie is coming along. It simplifies a complex disorder into "family problems and too much pressure make little girls want to cut themselves". Levenkron, in the guise of Sandy Sherman, explains that Katie has a personality disorder which triggers her moments of "spacing out", something which is *not* common to self-injurers and should not be used to explain it. A final word of warning to anyone who hurts themselves, or has recently stopped - this book is *extremely* triggering, and should be avoided.

Here's to You, Rachel Robinson
Here's to You, Rachel Robinson

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant!, 1 Dec. 2001
"Here's To You, Rachel Robinson" follows on from "Just As Long As We're Together", narrated by Rachel's best friend Stephanie. Rachel is a straight-A student, talented musician and incredibly gifted 13-year-old. But she's also endearingly human, and that's what you'll love about her. Rachel remains my favourite fictional character to date, and I first read this book more than five years ago.
Rachel's brother Charles is a bit of a troublemaker. Although his comments on paper don't sound overly dramatic, as other reviewers have mentioned, when you imagine living with someone so hostile you understand their reactions. Either that, or Judy Blume is commenting on how a perfect family react to an average teenager and how they really can't cope in the way that others might be able to. It's up for debate.
Charles returns home from boarding school and sends family life out of kilter, but there are other things going on in Rachel's life. Too many extracurricular activities threaten to overwhelm her, and she has developed a crush on Charles's tutor Paul. Meanwhile Jeremy Dragon (of the famed chartreuse dragon jacket, as anyone who's read "Just As Long..." will remember) is developing an interest in her.
I loved this book. I still love it. I strongly recommend that you buy it for the overachiever in your life. Trust me, they'll appreciate it.

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