Trilogy Recommendation: Marie Rutkoski’s “The Winner’s Curse”

Okay, I want to talk about The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, but I actually want to recommend the trilogy it’s part of as a whole. Because the trilogy is brilliant. The books work so well together. So, I’ll only talk about the plot/premise of the first book, to avoid spoilers, but seriously, you should read them all.

Now we’ve got that cleared up…

The Winner’s Curse takes place in the fictional country Herran, ten years after it has been conquered – and its population enslaved – by neighbouring empire Valoria.This setting has some really interesting aspects, with the Valorians living in houses built for the conquered Herrani and absorbing parts of their culture – for example, knives and forks were a Herrani invention, never used by Valorians before the invasion. It sets up a fascinating dynamic I felt was explored extremely well (Rutkoski has mentioned being inspired by the history of Greek slaves in the Roman empire).

The protagonists are Kestrel, the wealthy daughter of the general who led the invasion, and Arin, a slave she buys in the opening scene of the book. Kestrel, despite whose daughter she is, is not an accomplished fighter and doesn’t want to kill. But she has a skill for strategy and for games – she is clever and almost cunning. I had never encountered a character before who was strong in quite the way she is. It also works very well as she and the other characters run careful rings around each other, particularly in the later books. However, there is more to her than that. She is a nuanced, developed character who has more kindness and humanity than most of her fellow Valorians (perhaps as a result of a Herrani childhood nurse, she can see the slaves as people). I liked that her relationship with her father is also really crucial to her character and therefore to the plot, particularly in the later books.

Arin is also a beautifully developed character. He’s a leader, but with a sense of insecurity not often seen in male protagonists in books marketed the way this one is. (By  the way, I do take issue with the how gendered this particular cover is. It’s unnecessary and may deprive some readers of the opportunity to enjoy the book). However, the dual narrative which shows us his thoughts is only introduced gradually, so I won’t say too much about him. I’ll just say that I loved both Arin and Kestrel. They are incredibly compelling.

The writing itself is really beautiful, with lots of lovely metaphors and language which you don’t get veeeery often in YA. This did get slightly tedious at times by the third book, but only slightly.There were things in the story that I would have done slightly differently had I been writing it (for example, not the biggest fan of such frequent battle scenes),  but that’s not a complaint because the things that were done were usually excellent. And I don’t even wish I’d written it myself, because then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading it.

I loved all three books, and it’s been a really long time since I’ve come across a trilogy so well constructed. For example, appropriate tribute was paid to the first book in the second two. (It niggles if things that were important in the first book suddenly don’t matter in the sequels.) A good example of this was how one of the villains of book 1 was referenced in both the others, not just as a piece of the past but as something recent and relevant. Kestrel was still shuddering at the memory.

It’s also rare to find a sequel that’s as good as the first book and enjoyable in its own right to the extant that The Winner’s Crime was, or a trilogy that ends with a satisfying third book (The Winner’s Kiss). It’s often necessary for later books to expand and show us parts of the story’s world not encountered before, and this can be tedious because they’re not the parts that made you fall in love with the story in the first place. But in this case, the new settings were incredibly  enjoyable and compelling in their own right. New characters were also skilfully introduced, which can be tricky for the same reasons. By the time I was reading the third book, I really loved the characters (one in particular) introduced in the second.

So there you go. What could you possibly be waiting for? Off you go to get these books. 🙂 x

 

On taking control of your writing

I personally could use some cheering up after the U.S. election, not gonna lie. So for this (very late! Blogs have taken a back seat, I’m sorry!) post, I’m going to get all excited about a thing that I love. In other words, my newest book, part 3 of the Mirrorworld series, Reckless: The Golden Yarn by Cornelia Funke.

reckless-photo
Look how pretty it is!

Funke has been my go-to favourite author for years. I kept the third book in her Inkheart trilogy beside my bed for a whole year when I was younger, and dipped in and out as needed, until I knew each page. I didn’t think I could love anything of hers as much as the Inkworld until I picked up Reckless. But once again (even in a book she now calls unfinished: a rewritten version has been published as Reckless: The Petrified Flesh), she showed her ability to seamlessly weave stories together. She is a master of language (extra impressive considering her books are translated from German) and of story-telling. I read the sequel to Reckless immediately when it came out, and had been waiting for book 3 ever since.

In case you can’t tell, Cornelia Funke was already something of a hero of mine thanks to her writing. But last year I discovered she had, after a disagreement with her publishers over suggested changes to The Golden Yarn, decided to set up her own publishing house. This way she could print her books herself, in the way that she wanted them to be read.

I thought this was brave and brilliant. I don’t intend to criticise her previous publishers at all; but the professional publishing industry is one which sometimes grants the creators of books less control over the finished product than they would like. To see an author I admired so much able to stand up to that aspect of the industry, and taking control of her own writing in that way, was incredible to me and I admired her so much for it.

Naturally this only added to my excitement over the third book in the series, The Golden Yarn. And naturally, a new publisher initially launching in the US would take even more time to come across seas (which I completely understand, that was something I was prepared to accept as the only drawback to the news… but… the English translation of book 2, Living Shadows, was first released in 2013. And it ends with a serious cliffhanger. That’s a long wait.) I could have bought the online version – at times I was tempted – but the book looked so pretty.

SO. Last month I was VERY EXCITED to find the new, pretty versions of books 1 and 2 in while browsing a bookshop. They have been republished with Pushkin Press. (I actually had a very excited chat with the bookseller about it.) Book 3 arrived on the third of November.  The Golden Yarn is sitting beside my bed right now and making me ridiculously happy.

There’s so much to look forward to – I’ve barely begun. In fact, I’ve got to go. I’ve got some reading to do…

Books of the summer: mini-ish reviews :)

These are some of the prettiest books I read this summer. 🙂

Ruth Frances Long, A Crack in Everything: I love books involving mythology, and I love books involving Dublin, so this was perfect, really. Based on Irish legends, this story involves the fae world Dubh Linn running alongside our own. Protagonist Izzy stumbles right into it. I liked the insights into Dublin itself (the description of Smithfield, for example, was especially interesting). A dark and twisty tale.

Claire Hennessy, Nothing Tastes as Good: This book is narrated by a teenage girl (Annabel) who has died of heart failure due to anorexia, but been assigned as a spirit helper to one of her classmates (Julia). This narration device is genius in that deals with extremely difficult topics while making the reader laugh – Annabel’s irritation over her own death, and her snarky, sarcastic humour mean that, on a page-to-page basis, the book is darkly funny more often than sad. I’m not going to say too much on this one because I don’t feel like I have the authority to comment on the eating disorder-related parts (this is an excellent, informed review which covers those aspects). However some things I especially loved were 1) How Annabel having access to the thoughts of everybody gave depth to the minor characters, e.g. we see the motivations and merits of the bitchy character, not just her mean side. 2) The pleasing feminism throughout.

Becky Albertalli, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda: This may be the gorgeous-est love story I’ve ever read. So so good and so readable. Also has really insightful things on e.g. what it means to “come out”, and how the rest of the school might react to that – as in, yes, there will be some people who are awful, but there will also be more than a few who are not. Simon is blessed in that coming out won’t put him in any danger necessarily or lose him any friends, but it’s still something that people need to get their heads around and adjust to. This book did a great job of demonstrating how people can be unsure how to react or behave while still meaning well and doing their very best to be supportive. (Only thing that bugged me: At one point Simon ditches one of his friends, then basically gets annoyed with her for being annoyed, and eventually she forgives him. That is not an acceptable way to treat your friends. Just saying.)

Robyn Schneider, Extraordinary Means: Ahhh, so lovely. I generally prefer books that have an interesting premise. A story set in an isolated sanatorium (to treat total-drug-resistant tuberculosis, which is fictional, though multi-drug-resistant TB is not) was entirely new to me. This book feels like a depiction of what that experience would actually be like, if it were a real thing and it happened to you. Looking at your old Facebook account, having an ex-girlfriend who essentially wrote your obituary for her college application, trying to talk to your parents on the phone, having healthy teachers who are a little scared of you, having rule-breakers who deal in biscuits from the outside world instead of in drugs…It all feels accurate, so that it wasn’t until the author’s note at the end of the book that I was completely, 100% sure the concept was fiction at all. What was more, the big-old-house-in-the-woods setting gives a lovely boarding-school vibe. There’s lots of humour and banter between the friends. And also the writing is just really good, really atmospheric with plenty of interesting observations and pretty metaphors. The main thing that made this book work for me, however, was the main characters, Lane and Sadie. Lane is determined upon arrival not to let this illness obstruct his life plans, and Sadie has already been there for so long that the mere idea of living in the real world scares her. They are both complex and beautifully constructed, and I could relate to both of them in different ways – this was some of the loveliest characterisation I’ve come across in a long time. (Two small things – warning, SPOILERS: 1. It goes almost without saying that a book with this premise is going to get pretty sad. 2. I was a little wary of the treatment of the character Nick. Diversity is always good, but it seems a liiiittle dodgy when the main character of colour turns out to be one of the story’s main assholes.)

 

This will be brief.

Okay, I know I’m technically on a blogging break, but there are a couple of things I want to share. In the past month, I’ve had a few pieces published on the lovely aforementioned Germ magazine.

Firstly, there were 2 book reviews of Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It and Only Ever Yours. I made a fuss of not being able to read her books during term time last September, but once I got round to Asking For It I never actually shared my thoughts on it. So here you go.

Secondly, my under-300-word story Life is Good was published on Germ. This story appeared in Brilliant Flash Fiction in 2015, but it is very exciting to see it again – it has its own picture now and everything.

Right, that’s the last you’ll hear from me for another month or more. I mean it this time.

book reviews

Granny O’Grimm and some news

This little video is pure GOLD.

In this bedtime story by Brown Bag Films, an ominous, babysitting granny tells her own version of Sleeping Beauty; she seems to have a very personal connection with it. I saw this one a few years ago and I loved the sinister music, the appropriate thunder and lightning, the two different types of animation and the Irish-ness of it. Plus, fairytale retellings are always great.

Seriously, worth a watch, do enjoy.

(Also – news! A couple of weeks ago the lovely U.S. magazine Rookie published one of my poems. Rookie is super pretty and artsy and support-the-teenagers-y, and I’m really pleased to be a contributor. Also, this is my first time to have a poem published, so. 🙂 You can read it here. Hope you enjoy.)

Silver Apples Mag Issue 6: Frostbitten

As I mentioned in my last post, the magazine Silver Apples have made their winter issue Frostbitten free to download here. (You should read it! It’s free and it’s good!) I’ve finished my copy, thoroughly enjoyed it, and would like to tell you which were my favourite pieces and why I liked them. If you haven’t read it yet, go download your copy and then get back to me!

Like last time I did a review of a magazine, this list doesn’t include all of the ones I liked. This is just a sample, I actually had to cut the list down…

  1. The Boyfriend Shop – Arron Ferguson: Absolutely hilarious.
  2. Silver Bracelet – Faye Boland: This poem  was heartbreaking and beautiful. Perfectly put together.
  3. Let it Snow – Cassandra Schoeber: I loved the premise of this little tale. I’m a big fan of rewrites of myths or fairy tales, and I liked the idea of a reluctant, near-human Jack Frost.
  4. Coldest on Record – Michelle Coyne: Ah, this story was great craic! I enjoyed the humour, the slangy language, the impression given that something maybe-supernatural is going on…and also the depth, provided by the Grandad’s disgust at his daughter being a single mother.
  5. The Elsa Dress – James Holden: So cute. The relationship between husband and wife was great (“50p. Or is it a pound for an eff?” “I don’t care about the sodding swear box right now.”) But I also really liked the discussion about trying to raise their daughter free of pressure from gender roles, and yet discovering that everyday life enforces those roles all the same.

(I don’t have a picture of the cover because I read a virtual copy, but the cover is gorgeous.)

If you enjoyed Silver Apples, here is their lovely website. Maybe you could buy their next issue…OH and they have submissions opening soon for anyone who’s interested, on the theme “Places We Have Travelled”. Good luck. 🙂

Christmas reading haul

A very happy new year to you. I was lucky enough to be given lots of new things to read for Christmas. I’d like to share some of my favourites with you:

the mothLit magazines: First of all, there are two literary magazines, Crannóg and The Moth. Both are so very pretty, and I’m looking forward to them. I haven’t started either yet – I’m saving them for during term time, because I’ve found short pieces are less inclined to suck you in and consume brain space. However, I have been reading Frostbitten, issue 6 of Silver Apples magazine, which they have kindly released for free as a Christmas present. (You can download your own copy here.) I’ll be doing a quick run-through of my favourite pieces soon.

Books: Books-wise, my two favourites are Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne, and Carol by Patricia Highsmith. I’ve yet to read Carol, but the movie was beautiful (I mean, my name is Carol. I had to see it…teaser trailer here), and I’m excited to read a lesbian romance that had an unconventionally hopeful ending for its time (it was originally published as The Price of Salt in 1952.) I’m delighted to have been made aware of its existence.

I LOVED Am I Normal Yet? It tells the story of Evie, a girl restarting school while coming off meds for her OCD. It portrayed so well her experiences as a teenager/girl with mental health issues, and her frustration with the ignorance of the wider world. But it also accurately conveyed the feeling of being a teenage girl, full stop. For one thing, this book did not pretend teenagers are self-absorbed and only interested in themselves or their clothes. Evie and her friends had fun and had laughs, they went to parties, they talked about boys, but they were also real people. They liked books, they liked learning things. They had interests in art, or in movies as an art form. They talked about sexism. They explored feminism – with some confusion at first, but conviction by the book’s end. I would definitely recommend it.

In other presents/news, I also received a lot of Cadbury’s chocolate. So not a bad Christmas overall.

Something for the Christmas list

So, something slightly more light-hearted this week.

Christmas is a-coming and I have a suggestion for the wish list:

– The movie Song of the Sea is absolutely beautiful. It was made in Ireland by the studio Cartoon Saloon. This year it received an Oscar nomination for best animated feature (like The Secret of Kells before it, which was made by the same studio and nominated in 2009). I loved the snippets of Gaeilge (Irish language) and all of the Celtic symbols woven into the animation – the backdrops were so detailed, each still frame was in itself a work of art. The storyline was also excellent: endearingly stubborn characters, a touch of modern-day Dublin, a giant fluffy dog and Irish legends all rolled into one. I loved the way each human character had a faerie counterpart. I also found it thought-provoking: for example, the use of “medicine” is echoed by the use of magic to numb emotions, and numbing emotions with magic results in being turned to stone…

Obviously as an Irish person there was a lot of cultural value in Song of the Sea for me, but this is a story for everyone and the creators should be very proud. You can see the movie’s Facebook page here and watch the movie trailer here. Enoy. 🙂

Happy Christmas and I’ll write again in the New Year.

The Addictive To-Read List

A couple of months ago I wrote an open letter to  author Louise O’Neill, complaining that I did not have time to read her latest book Asking For It. (I finally got a chance at Halloween, and just so you know, you should read it too.) But, as it turns out, there’s a growing list of books which look dangerously addictive. So here are a few more of them:

  1. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding: I found it in my attic and the first page was very entertaining so I put it down quick.
  2. The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan: It was the original Percy Jackson series that I fell completely in love with. The Heroes of Olympus books are pretty good stories, though they don’t really have enough of the old characters to keep me happy. I read them all, except this most recent one – which, I’ve just discovered, is also the last in the series. I guess I’d better get my hands on it.
  3. The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger: This has been sitting on a bookshelf for years, but recently a friend highly recommended it, so now I want to read it and I can’t and oh it hurts.

There’s also a couple I actually have read, but which should be approached with caution:

  1. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North: You really should read it. Not if you’re busy. It’s very intense. But you should read it.
  2. Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín: I’d been wanting to read this ever since last Christmas when I watched my sister swallow it whole. Over midterm, this was the other book I made time for (mostly because I wanted to go to the movie.)

(I thought that both the book and the film of Brooklyn were excellent, although in different ways. There weren’t many changes, but somehow it felt as though they told different stories. This is one where I’d recommend reading the book before seeing the movie – if you have time before it goes out of cinemas.)

Banshee – a gorgeous little lit journal

Banshee, issue 1The lovely Claire Hennessy, Laura Jane Cassidy and Eimear Ryan have created a new literary journal this year (which is really very cool of them). The first issue of Banshee can be bought here, they are on twitter @bansheelit, and  you can have a peek at their webiste here (although their submissions won’t open for another while now).

I loved reading this journal. There were some beautiful pieces. For anyone else who’s come across it, I’ve put together a list of some I particularly enjoyed:

Feamainn – Ali Brennan: I think this was my overall favourite. It’s atmospheric and eerie and each word fits perfectly, but the best part is the twist at the end. It appears to be going one way, but after the last paragraph, the story has completely flipped – I wanted to read it again from the start.

All poems by Elizabeth O’Connell-Thompson: Poetry is great. However, I am someone who thinks the words in poems are pretty, but who finds prose much easier to actually understand. I rejoiced in how accessible these poems were. Simple lines revealed really clever ideas. I enjoyed them thoroughly.

Hair – Sinéad Gleeson: I haven’t come across too many non-fiction essays before. As the first piece of writing in the book, Hair set a lovely precedent. It has a perfect structure: personal experience, reference to historical events, and literary quotes woven seamlessly together. The author’s own observations take hair – something that is so normal, so everyday – and show us how firmly it is linked to society and culture. (And self-expression, and stereotyping, and…)

Small Nuclear Family – Mel Pryor: I think there may be a metaphor in here that I missed, but I liked how “pieces of myself” didn’t just refer to physical body parts (favourite line: “a scattering of frowns inside the tumble drier.”) The descriptions got increasingly interesting and fun to imagine as the poem went on.

Girls – Annie Wiles: I’m not quite sure how to describe what I liked about this one. But I liked it a lot.

This is only a handful. Flicking through the pages to double-check the authors’ names, I found so many more that had me dithering over whether to include them. If you are looking for something to read – even if you’ve never gotten a literary journal before! Give one a try – I would seriously recommend Banshee.