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

 

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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…

To cheer you up: Irish comedy group

Anybody heard of Foil Arms and Hog?

They are an Irish comedy group with a Youtube channel full of sketches and who also do live shows (I went to see them in May, and they were brilliant). I think one reason I personally enjoy them so much is because there’s almost always something distinctly Irish about their videos. For example, in the recent “Last Minute Holiday Panic“, the family wanting to bring a suitcase full of Irish sausages abroad. They’re also often relevant, making videos this year related to the European football championships and the Olympic boxing controversy  as these events were on-going. During the Irish general election a few months ago, I found “Election Time in Ireland” and “New Irish Government” delightful.

As an Irish person, I love to see the Irish language used. I watched the series “Ceol agus Ól” a fair bit while preparing for Irish orals this year.

Finally, these comedians are clever and (99% of the time) don’t need to rely on stereotypes or dirty jokes to get a laugh. Their humour is based around the characters being played as opposed to e.g. the gender of the character. They are also very skilled at dancing along the line between making a statement, and going a little too far, without ever really crossing it (and while being hilarious). See “How not to Offend People“, or the recent, glorious and all-too-relevant “The World is F**ked“.

Okay, back to the good bits: Besides the ones I’ve just mentioned, my favourites include “How to Speak Dublin“, “A Kerryman Gives Direction” and “The Ryanair Song” – relevant lines of this one will echo through your head as you’re booking a flight or rushing to catch your plane.

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

Spore – short film recommendation

I really liked this short film; it was effectively eerie and a clever concept. Perry Spore is visiting Earth, but it all goes fascinatingly wrong…

It was lovely to see Lizzie Bennet actors Ashley Clements and Mary Kate Wiles all goried up. But what especially impressed me was the fact that MK Wiles started the project herself. I have a tendency to not attempt things if I’m not sure how to go about doing them, so to me this initiative is impressive. By vlogging throughout the experience, Wiles also gives us a really interesting insight into what work is involved in making a film like this. I thoroughly enjoyed both the film and the accompanying Behind the Scenes vlogs.

Okay, I’ll stop fangirling about MK Wiles now.

(Side note: After this post, I’m going to take a blogging break for a little while, at least until the summer. I have some big exams that are getting scarily close, and I need to cut down on things-that-require-brain-space. I’ll be back soon. In the meantime, I’ve a pretty big archive by now! There’s plenty to keep you busy.)

Germ magazine

Today I want to talk about an online magazine that I absolutely love called Germ magazine.

As explained on their website: “Germ [noun] — the origin of something; a thing that may serve as the basis of further growth or development (as in “a germ of happiness”).”

Germ was inspired by the book All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, in which (among other things) the main character starts her own online magazine of the same name – Germ. (It’s a beautiful book, just by the way. You should read it.) One of the things I really like about the magazine is how, clicking into the website for the first time after reading the book, you can spot all the links: references to wandering, quotes, and of course the menu option for “Bright Places”.

The site itself is gorgeous. It has a bit of everything, really: poetry and stories, movie reviews, beautiful photographs, interviews, articles. (Articles, may I add, about almost anything under the sun, from funny to serious to inspiring.) I particularly like when activism-related, let’s-achieve-things pieces come along.

Germ was also the very first magazine ever to publish one of my stories. They’re open to submissions and that means they’re filled to the brim with the writing of people finding their voices, from all over the world. It’s a really wonderful resource and community to have, and the general atmosphere of let’s-make-the-world-better-while-also-making-it-prettier always leaves me feeling motivated.

So, why not go have a look around? You might like it too…

And now some music: Hudson Taylor

Singing for StrangersThese guys are Irish, so I suppose I’m biased in their favour – maybe that’s why I feel the need to share. But whatever.

Harry and Alfie are brothers whose music I came across on Youtube. My sister bought their first album, Singing for strangers, last year; every song is distinctive and there is not one I don’t like. The songs tell stories, and the lyrics have actual meaning (“Put me in a box and tick it/don’t tell me I can’t be who I am”; “There’s no one hanging ’round since they ripped out the soul of the town.”) Also, I went to their concert in the Olympia (in Dublin) last May and it was an amazing night. The atmosphere was incredible; it was one heck of a show.

Obviously music is even more subjective than some of the other things I’ve recommended on here, so there’s no particular reason for you to agree with me. But do have a listen.

A few of my favourites are Battles, Care, Holly, and Weapons.

Hudson Taylor ticekts

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. 🙂