Louise O’Neill: Asking For It (2015)

They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.

What a book! I finished it a while ago but I’m still stunned. Sometimes you read a book and the topic shocks you. Then you read a book and the topic and your reaction shock you. This is what happened when I read Louise O’Neill’s brilliant novel Asking For It.

Asking For It is set in a small Irish town where everyone knows everyone. Eighteen-year-old Emma O’Donovan is the local beauty and most popular girl. There’s hardly a boy who can resist her and many girls want to be her friend. She loves to party, drinks, takes drugs and hooks up with random boys. You could say she’s pretty wild. One evening, like so often, she does drugs and has casual sex with a guy and then things get out of hands. The next afternoon, her parents find her asleep on the verandah with a serious sunburn and no idea what happened before and after she passed out. She’ll find out soon enough. Because someone filmed it and posted it on Facebook. Now she’s not popular anymore, she’s just a slut.

Emma’s first reaction is to suck it up and forget all about it but people tell her she has to report what happened as rape. From the moment, the word is said and charges are made, things go even further downhill for Emma. The ending was a real shocker but realistic.

It’s a sad and sobering story and the way it is told is so powerful and eye-opening because of Louise O’Neill’s choice of main protagonist. If Emma was just a beautiful, wild girl, it wouldn’t have had such an impact on me. I would have felt sorry for her and sided with her but Emma isn’t a likable character. On the contrary. She’s possibly the most obnoxious character I’ve ever come across. She’s narcissistic and has to be the center of attention all the time. She loves to steal other girls’ boyfriends or seduce the boys they fancy. She’s also jealous and downright nasty, mean, and offensive. Since she’s the first person narrator we get to know her very well. She’s a real piece of work.

At first I didn’t understand O’Neill’s choice of character but when I noticed my reaction, I got it. I’m ashamed to admit but my first thought was – she really had it coming. That gave me pause and I had to ask myself “seriously – because she’s unlikable she deserved what happened?” and that’s when I had to say – no, of course not. Nobody deserves something like this. And nobody is asking for it. And that’s when I began to admire Louise O’Neill’s choice because it shows what an explosive topic this is. What horrible reactions victims might have to face. It’s easy to feel empathy with a likable girl – wild or quiet – but obnoxious girls like Emma deserve understanding and support as well. Emma is a 21st century girl. In some ways she’s maybe an exaggeration, but in many other ways she’s not. Many teenage girls drink, party, do drugs, and have casual sex but that doesn’t mean they are asking for being abused and raped. And they certainly don’t deserve it.

Asking For It looks at important aspects of the discussion around rape. Just because a girl/boy, woman/man was drunk or unconscious that doesn’t mean it’s not rape. Dressing in a provocative way, doesn’t mean someone wants to be touched  . . . It’s appalling that these things still need to be said. The idea that they are punished for behaving the wrong way is so deep-rooted that some women don’t even dare calling what happened to them rape. The book also shows how easily society turns against the victim.

Asking For It is powerful. The writing is strong and tight. Emma’s voice is so distinct, I could still hear her after I finished the book. The bragging Emma and the one that was shamed and humiliated. Sadly, Asking For It is an important book. We need books like this. They raise awareness, offer food for thought and topics for discussions. Documentaries like The Hunting Ground show all too well how real “rape culture” is.

The review is my first contribution to  Cathy’s and Raging Fluff’s Reading Ireland Month

Ursula Poznanski: Erebos (2011)

Erebos Poznanski

Are you playing the game – or is the game playing you? A highly addictive thriller about power, manipulation and revenge.

‘Enter. Or turn back. This is Erebos.’

Nick is given a sinister but brilliant computer game called Erebos. The game is highly addictive but asks its players to carry out actions in the real world in order to keep playing online, actions which become more and more terrifyingly manipulative. As Nick loses friends and all sense of right and wrong in the real world, he gains power and advances further towards his online goal – to become one of the Inner Circle of Erebos. But what is virtual and what is reality? How far will Nick go to achieve his goal? And what does Erebos really want?

Enter Erebos at your own risk. Exciting, suspenseful and totally unputdownable.

I must honestly say, when Lizzy suggested Erebos as her readalong title, I wasn’t thrilled. I couldn’t tell you why. Certainly not because it’s a YA novel. Maybe because I wasn’t sure whether it was some sort of fantasy or a realistic thriller? And because I was worried about the writing. Some recent German thrillers that have made it into translation were anything but well written. Imagine my surprise when I detected that Erebos wasn’t only well-written but so gripping and believable, I couldn’t put it down. It might be the thriller of the year for me. Unfortunately for this review, part of the appeal is that we don’t really know what’s going on. Is it realistic? Is it fantasy? Science-fiction? I don’t want to say too much. Only that I think it would appeal to anyone, whether you like more fantastic stories, or only read realistic novels.

So what’s it about? At a school in London, students exchange a computer game. Those who play it are not allowed to talk about it. Those who don’t, either want to be part of what feels almost like a secret society, or they openly hate the game.

Nick is at first one of those who don’t play the game. He watches his friends and is worried. What happens to them? Why are they sucked into this game like this? Finally someone passes the game on to him and he tries it out. Initially, he’s skeptical but that passes quickly and he, like all the others, is sucked into the world of Erebos.

Being addicted to a game might be bad enough, but this one seems to have an agenda of its own. It seems to know the players and their secrets and uses this against them. Part of the game are assignments in real life, and soon the virtual danger become very real.

I deliberately kept this summary very short because, as I wrote earlier, part of the appeal is discovering what’s going on.

Nick is a great protagonist and we root for him. He’s likable but flawed and undergoes important changes.

I really loved how Ursula Poznanski described the world of the game and the addictive part was shown in a very believable way. Once the assignments in the real word start, an entertaining read turns into an eerie thriller. I couldn’t stop reading, wanted to find out what was behind it all. So often thrillers have disappointing endings. Here again, Erebos is an exception. It’s pitch perfect from beginning to end. A must read for those who love YA novels and for fans of original, futuristic thrillers. I’m not surprised that Erebos has won the Deutscher Jugendbuchpreis, the German prize for Children’s Literature. It’s captivating and topical.

I finished this book before the attacks in Paris but meanwhile, I’ve heard that the terrorists also communicate via computer online games. A communication that’s particularly hard to decipher. All of a sudden, Erebos his even more topical. It certainly has a lot to say about addiction, manipulation, and retribution. Don’t miss it.

Cassandra Clare: City of Bones (2007) Mortal Instruments I Book and Movie

City of Bones

A couple of weeks ago I watched the movie City of Bones and liked the imagery and the story so much, I had to pick up the book. The movie got dreadful reviews; it seems I’m the only one who really liked it. The book was said to be much better. It’s tricky to read a book after having watched a film with such stunning visuals. For the first 200 pages I didn’t really see the descriptions of the book but the movie images. After that I got a better feel for the book because it contained some major plot elements which had been left out in the film.

The story might be familiar to you by now. Clary and her best friend Simon live in New York City. One night they go to the Pandemonium Club and Clary witnesses a murder. Funny enough Simon can’t see anything. Neither the murder, nor the people who commit it. When Clary’s mum is abducted a little while later, and Clary is attacked by a demon, it dawns on her that the life she has been living might have been a lie.

Together with her friend Simon, Jace, one of the guys who committed the murder, and his friends, she embarks on a big adventure. Clary like Jace is no real human. She is a shadow hunter. Shadow hunters kill demons, but they co-exist with downworlders like werewolves and vampires. I’m not going to write much more about the plot as it’s one of those that is easily spoilt.

I thought the movie did a good job at tightening the plot. Maybe if I had read the book first, I would have missed the scenes and episodes that were cut but I thought they were not that gripping. Clary’s interior monologue in the book is often silly, like when she wonders why there are only good-looking vampires. I’m going to spare you her reasoning. It’s NOT clever. Interestingly though, the greatest appeal of the book are the dialogue sections. Jace, Clary and Simon and not only witty but very sarcastic, which made me chuckle quite a few times.

Overall I would say, book and movie both have their strengths, but I prefered the movie because I absolutely loved the imagery and the interiors they created – the club, Clary’s house, the church in which the shadowhunters live.  I also liked that they made the plot so much tighter. And I thought the cast was perfect.

What I didn’t like so much in both lies in the nature of this specific type of story. There are numerous ways to tell (urban/dark) fantasy stories. I tend to prefer those in which magic/fantasy are part of the world the characters live in, and their existence are known by everyone, or when the main character is part of the paranormal world. Normal humans who are thrown into a paranormal situation or who discover at the beginning of a book that they aren’t entirely human are just not as appealing to me. I find that these stories stretch believability too much. At the beginning of City of Bones, for example, Clary is a normal teenager and after only one day, she’s immersed in a paranormal world she never knew existed, her mother’s abducted, she’s attacked by demons, werewolves and vampires, but she accepts this without questioning it too much. This premise can work sometimes. Neil Gaiman made it work in Neverwhere, but often it feels unrealistic.

Anyway, it’s an entertaining book and I might even read part two, if only for the dialogue. If there is another movie, I’ll certainly watch it.

This is my first contribution to Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge. Don’t miss the review site, which can be found here.

Kate Scott: Counting to D (2014)

Counting to D

I knew when I accepted a review copy of this novel that I wasn’t the ideal reader for it. Not because it’s a YA novel, but because it’s not the kind of YA novel I normally read (Fantasy Dystopian,  . . .). Still I accepted it because I thought it deserved attention. Kate Scott has chosen a hairy topic, one that deserves more understanding and one she knows better than most.

The narrator of Counting to D is 15-year-old Sam who has just moved from San Diego to Portland with her architect mother. Leaving behind best friends is hard. In her case even more so than in the case of other people because she has a special bond with one of her friends, Arden. Arden isn’t only her best friend she’s the person who opens a door for Sam, which would normally stay closed – the door to books and reading. Since they were little Arden reads to Sam. Sam is dyslexic and at the age of 15 she still can’t read any better than a 7-year-old. But Sam is unusually intelligent, a math whiz with an audiographic memory. She can memorize every book that has been read to her and make the most stunning calculations in her head. Math is her joy and her refuge. Whenever things get emotionally stressing, Sam curls up inside of her head, counting and calculating. At times she’s suspected to be autistic.

In her old school Sam was seen as too clever and too dumb at the same time. Leaving San Diego and going to a new school could be her chance to start anew.

The story which follows is one of  hope and encouragement. Sam makes new friends, falls in love for the first time, takes baby reading steps and overcomes prejudice and biased thinking.

While not entirely my cup of tea, I must say, this was a cute, warm book with endearing characters. I would highly recommend it to discussion groups, people who know someone who is dyslexic, parents with dyslexic kids, teachers and, thanks to a special font, it’s a great choice for dyslexic kids too.

The most amazing thing is certainly that Kate Scott is dyslexic herself and that she wrote a novel is a message of hope for all the kids who try to overcome their illiteracy. I have never met a dyslexic person, so it was interesting to read about this. It’s a sad fact that even nowadays once students are labelled “special ed”, many of their co-students will think of them as dumb.

I have no idea how often dyslexic kids show the traits Samantha shows in this book. She’s a genius, only one that cannot read.

Counting to D, which will come out in February, is a cute and important book with a hopeful message.

Thanks to Mindbuckmedia and Elliott Books for the review copy

Lauren Kate: Teardrop (2013) Teardrop Trilogy I

Teardrop

Seventeen-year-old Eureka won’t let anyone close enough to feel her pain. After her mother was killed in a freak accident, the things she used to love hold no meaning. She wants to escape, but one thing holds her back: Ander, the boy who is everywhere she goes, whose turquoise eyes are like the ocean. And then Eureka uncovers an ancient tale of romance and heartbreak, about a girl who cried an entire continent into the sea. Suddenly her mother’s death and Ander’s appearance seem connected, and her life takes on dark undercurrents that don’t make sense.

I’ve been interested in Lauren Kate’s Fallen series ever since I first heard about it but somehow never managed to read it. That’s why I was so pleased when I was sent a review copy of Teardrop, the first in her new YA series.

Eureka has lost her mother in an accident. A rogue wave washed over a bridge and threw the car into the ocean. Eureka who was in the car with her was miraculously saved. We know from the beginning who saved her but we don’t know why her mother had to die.

Eureka has a hard time coping. She even tries to take her own life. That her father’s second wife bullies her into going to therapy doesn’t help. Slowly Eureka loses interest in in everything and she’s angry that nobody understand that you can not just forget an accident and a loss like that.

Nobody seems able to reach Eureka, not her family, nor her friend Cat, or her best friend Brooks who changes in odd ways. But there is Ander. A guy who appears seemingly out of nowhere at every moment.

Her mother has left Eureka a strange book and a mysterious stone. She finds an old woman who is capable of translating the book which seems to date back to Atlantis.

As if Eureka’s life wasn’t difficult enough, Brooks disappears and she is followed and threatened by a group of people Ander seems to know. Questions upon question arise, the most confusing one: Why is Eureka not allowed to cry?

There were a few things I really liked about Teardrop. First of all the setting. The story is set in Louisiana, somewhere near New Iberia. I loved the descriptions, loved how Eureaka runs in the rain, the evocation of humidity and lush vegetation. I think I even liked the setting and the atmosphere far better than the characters or the story. Eureka is a girl I felt for. She is isolated in her grief and surrounded by people who have not the tiniest bit of empathy. I think that was captured well. The love story was a bit too superficial for me but maybe there will be more depth to it in later books. The story which circles around the myth of Atlantis is unique, unfortuntaley the foreshadowing that Lauren Kate uses takes away some of the surprise. The end is a cliffhanger and if book two was already out,  I’d pick it up. I really loved the setting, the importance and symbolism of water and I’m interested to see where this is going.

Thanks to Random House for the review copy

John Marsden: Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993) An Australian Page-turner

When Ellie and her friends go camping, they have no idea they’re leaving their old lives behind forever. Despite a less-than-tragic food shortage and a secret crush or two, everything goes as planned. But a week later, they return home to find their houses empty and their pets starving. Something has gone wrong–horribly wrong. Before long, they realize the country has been invaded, and the entire town has been captured–including their families and all their friends. Ellie and the other survivors face an impossible decision: They can flee for the mountains or surrender. Or they can fight.

Sometimes you want to read for pure entertainment, something that is fast-paced, action-packed but still interesting. Tomorrow, When the War Began is exactly like that, a real page-turner. I discovered the book on Jenclair’s blog last year and am really glad I read it. I am not too much into  series but this start into the Tomorrow Series was really gripping. Too bad that it isn’t an independent book. It’s rather a series in the spirit of the TV series Lost. It always ends when it’s most supenseful, when something big happens. You really have to go on reading if you want to know what’s going to happen next. Jenclair has read all the books meanwhile. You can find her second review here.

Ellie and her friends go camping instead of participating in a cattle show that takes place during Commemoration Day. They make a trip into the Australian mountains and discover a place that very possibly no one has ever seen before. Or only one person, a hermit, who is said to have lived there. The hermit is a man who has been accused of the murder of his wife and baby and escaped into the mountains.

The place they discover is enchanted. It seems to belong to another world, untouched by civilization. They enjoy their stay a lot and leave only reluctantly. When they arrive at their homes, the coming back is a brutal one. Their houses and farms have been abandoned, their animals are dead or dying. Bit by bit they discover that Australia has been invaded and all the people are captives.

The adventures that follow are numerous and dangerous. They first need to find out what happened, then they need to make decisions. How are they going to live and where? How will they hide, what will they eat? It seems natural that they return to the hidden place in the mountains. The country is swarming with foreign soldiers and every expedition is a trial.

We never hear who has invaded the country but we learn why. People in neighbouring poor countries couldn’t accept that a lot belongs to a few rich people and they came to redistribute what is here.

What I liked particularly is the setting. I have never been to Australia but I have seen movies and it is a country whose landscape fascinates me. The setting is rendered very well, in a very descriptive manner. I liked the exploration of topics like war, murder, social justice and injustice. I was just wondering for a moment if it is ethical, to base a book on the idea that poor people or a poor country could act in such an aggressive way. I think what Marsden had in mind, was raising the awareness that there are people less well off than those in the Western hemisphere. Another question that arose was whether they would have the military power to invade.

The characters are not all equally well drawn, two stay a bit schematic but that may change in the future books, maybe they will be more developed.

If you want to read something that is really absorbing, this is a good choice.

Did I mention it is a YA novel? I often enjoy the topics they explore and this is no different. Part one of the series has been made into a film. I haven’t seen it, no idea if it is any good.

Do you like series and if so which ones?