YA Review: Who Runs the World? by Virginia Bergin

The Premise: in a future where men have been basically wiped out by a virus, guess what? There’s no war, problems get solved by people talking to each other and everyone loves the environment. So teen River is fairly befuddled when she comes across what she initially doesn’t realise is a man; aren’t they all supposed to be kept safe in Sanctuaries, protected from a world which they can no longer survive?

Thoughts: I had such high hopes for this book; I’m really interested in novels about gender, especially in YA. Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is a great example of how a dystopian novel can address gender in the YA genre. And Who Runs the World?, aside from its Beyonce-quoting title, sounds like it should be intriguing; reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, a feminist utopia, the society of women presented in the book has so many interesting features, like the many references to the Granmummas, the only people who remember a world with men in it. The most interesting bits of the book, for me, were the short sections in which River explained what happened to make all the men die, and the drama surrounding it; attempted escapes, male babies being given away to hopefully save them – it had the potential to be a fascinating novel, presumably one which demonstrated exactly why we need both sexes.

As you can probably tell, it didn’t quite work for me. There are a couple of big problems which limited my enjoyment of the book. The first is the plodding structure; River finds the man, Mason, right at the beginning, takes him back to her village and then about two-thirds of the book consist of people talking about the fact that this has happened. Additionally, River’s narrative voice is a problem; she’s a teenager, and a teenager with a slightly limited education due to the whole effective-end-of-society thing, but, even so, the style of her narrative is annoyingly juvenile. SO MANY CAPITAL LETTERS! It’s just not necessary.

In Conclusion: clearly, I was disappointed here. Perhaps my hopes were too high, but there just wasn’t enough development of the parts that actually interested me. As always when reading something with a feminist context, I wanted it to be a YA The Handmaid’s Tale and it just wasn’t.

Review: Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan

hold back the starsPremise: Carys and Max float in space, adrift from their ship, with just 90 minutes of air left. All seems hopeless. The only thing they can do is reflect on the relationship that led them here and the world that pushed them together.

Thoughts: firstly, I thought this was YA and it quite clearly isn’t. Aside from anything else, the main characters are 25 and 27. If that’s young adult, that makes me feel quite youthful. Hold Back the Stars appears on a lot of ‘other customers bought this’ lists when you scroll through new YA books on Amazon, which is how it caught me out. Just so you know.

Anyway, aside from my genre-based confusion, there was loads for me to enjoy here. I love space-set stories, so the alternating chapters focusing on Carys and Max’s increasingly doomed plight really grabbed me. Khan creates a genuine sense of peril and fear in these sections, which kept me quite enthralled. The other thing I loved in this book was the creation of an actually-pretty-believable futuristic society. ┬áIn the novel’s present, America and the Middle East have destroyed each other, and the remaining countries have united to prevent conflict from causing such horror again. The main philosophy is that nobody is allied to a particular nation; from childhood, everyone goes “on rotation,” spending three years at a time in different territories. It’s isolating and disorienting, but it keeps focus on the individual, and individuals are less likely to cause mass destruction ( although the book may become more and more relevant in real life, thanks to recent political developments…). I was fascinated with the world Khan has created; it’s just out there enough to dazzle, but seems oddly sensible when you think about it.

The issue with all this is love, of course; moving every three years means you can’t develop a relationship, which is the whole point. The Man does not want people settling down until they’re 35, which causes a problem for Max and Carys; there’s a bit of a Never Let Me Go vibe to the middle part of the book, which is no bad thing. Overall, the romance aspect of the book engaged me less than the politics, but Carys and Max are both believable and interesting: people with whom I was happy to spend a few hours’ reading time.

In Conclusion: I really enjoyed Hold Back the Stars; it’s the kind of space-set story I seek out and it works well as a kind of grown-up older sibling to Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s Starbound trilogy, which I also love. Khan has created a genuinely fascinating world with enthralling plot twists and relationships to root for. I really recommend it.

Review: Relativity by Antonia Hayes

Premise: Ethan is an exceptionally smart 12 year old, with vast swathes of knowledge of physics and maths. He’s never known his dad, who left when Ethan was just a baby. But then odd things start happening to Ethan and his dad reappears, and the truth eventually emerges.

Thoughts: there were parts of Relativity that I liked. Child characters, especially precocious ones, can often be really off-putting, but Ethan isn’t; he’s believably gifted and convincingly naive, and the depiction of his gradual discoveries of his past is intriguing. From the title, you might guess that science plays a large part in the book; I am the least scientifically minded person on the planet so some of the physics went over my head, but the principles of Ethan’s newly discovered talents were interesting.

Ultimately, I developed some serious issues with Relativity, largely down to the backstory and both of Ethan’s parents. The presentation of Claire was a little cliched: she’s a single mum who gave up her dreams to raise Ethan alone, and forever blames herself for the terrible events that changed the family’s lives forever. It felt a bit hackneyed, but worse was the way in which Ethan’s estranged father was portrayed. I soon found myself really, really hating him, which I don’t think is the point. The whole plot involves him and a terrible thing he may or may not have done; this isn’t mentioned in the synopses I’ve read and, if it was, I honestly don’t think I’d have read the book. I didn’t like how the book seemed to be pulling sympathy towards him. It just all made me feel quite uncomfortable.

In Conclusion: if you know what you’re getting going into Relativity, and troubles families a la Picoult are your thing, this book won’t trouble you as much as it did me. My personal philosophy of right and wrong is very rigid (obviously because I am perfect and all my actions are beyond reproach) which meant the moral dilemma at the heart of the book was an easy call for me, rather than something I agonised over along with Claire and Ethan.

Review: The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney

Premise: readers of McInerney’s debut, The Glorious Heresies, will remember Ryan, teen drug dealer with the tempestuous relationship with Karine. Ryan returns here, sinking deeper into the dark underbelly of Cork’s criminal scene. And playing the piano.

Thoughts: the follow-up to the Bailey’s Prize-winning The Glorious Heresies leaves behind the different narrative strands of the first book to focus on Ryan, the young, troubled drug dealer. Other characters from McInerney’s debut do pop up, so it’s helpful to flick through that book in advance as a refresher. It’s also an enjoyable tie to the first book, particularly when Maureen reappears; the world depicted here isn’t exactly charming, but Maureen definitely is. There are added complications; Ryan’s difficult relationship with his father remains a problem, and his efforts to diversify into club culture prove trickier than he expected. There’s the added complication of a break-up with childhood sweetheart Karine and a new liaison with Natalie. If Ryan was a real person, I would strongly advise him to be seeking fewer issues in his life rather than more, but I suppose that would make for a far less interesting book.

As a big fan of McInerney's first book, I was not disappointed by The Blood Miracles. The gritty world she set up in the first book is maintained here, showing the seedy underbelly of Cork and its criminal population. It's not a world you'd particularly want to live in, but it's absorbing to read about. I really like McInerney's writing style; it's as unflinching here as it was in her first book and, as someone whose reading doesn't usually include this kind of story or setting, I find it really refreshing and vibrant.

Would she mind if he detailed reality? It's about moving around all day, talking shite and throwing shapes at those in the same boat but knowing it's all chestnuts and mottos and platitudes, like you're working off a script. It's meaningless but you're disassociated and with disassociation comes hangovers, a bad diet, a smoker's cough. It's a false and empty function and there's no point to it, no comfort in it; you're a boil on the arse of your own country. So you deflect reality with notions like brotherhood, loyalty, hierarchy. Stupid dick-clutching fantasies. Stories Natalie wants to hear.
This is not part of Ryan. It's something Ryan does to keep the wolf from the door, even though the bears are inside picking their teeth by the fire.

As with The Glorious Heresies, there's a real sense of menace pervading The Blood Miracles. Subject to the violent whims of the bosses of the criminal underworld, the sense of danger Ryan lives with is palpable; I actually felt quite stressed reading this. It's not like Ryan's a particularly loveable character, but those around him are so unpleasant it's hard not to root for him.

In Conclusion: I definitely recommend this to fans of The Glorious Heresies and, if you haven't got to that book yet, you absolutely should. McInerney has such a gritty and refreshing style; it's brutal and at times alarming and disturbing, in a way that marks her out as a really unique voice. The Blood Miracles is an excellent follow-up to a superb debut; I can't wait to see what she writes next.