Event Round Up: We Love YA! DeptCon at ILFD

As you can see from my past event round-ups, DeptCon has become something of a staple in the Irish YA scene.

“But Arianne,” you whisper, aghast, “doesn’t DeptCon usually take place in… October?”

Yes, it does! This year, however, there was SURPRISE appearance from the DeptCon squad with their summertime We Love YA! event as part of the ongoing International Literature Festival. There were three panels plus signings, and I was lucky enough to attend (and bring back all the deets for you).

“Writing myself into this country”: Muhammad Khan, Emma Quigley and Mary Watson talk ‘New Voices’, chaired by Shane Hegarty 

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L-R: Shane Hegarty, Mary Watson, Emma Quigley, Muhammad Khan

The first panel, themed around the idea of ‘New Voices’, featured three debut YA writers (though Watson is an award-winning South African writer for adults, The Wren Hunt is her first book for teenagers). Hegarty’s questions drew answers on inspirations, writing routines, what they’d be working on next, and more.

Muhammad Khan’s biggest influence has been his time as a maths teacher and tutor in a school where most students are from BAME backgrounds. His students contributed to drafts of what became I Am Thunder, inspiring everything from Muzna’s shyness to the fact that he had the book’s cover artist thicken her eyebrows so that they’d be suitably “on fleek”! He decided to tackle themes like radicalisation and racism in YA partly because of the UK government’s Prevent strategy, which he realised was causing students to clam up in case their questions or experiences got them into trouble. His advice for young writers: “Write a book that you want to write…. don’t follow trends, because by the time you finish your book that trend will be over”. He’s currently working on another contemporary featuring different characters, exploring toxic masculinity ‘through the eyes of a very gentle boy’.

Emma Quigley’s début Bank (out from Little Island Books) is the comedy-drama story of a group of teen boys who decide to start money-lending to classmates, only to make a series of increasingly risky investments as their plans begin to unravel. Quigley wanted to write about friendships between teenage boys but also ended up mirroring twenty-first century financial crises. She spoke about how her son was a reader who often said his friends weren’t – she wanted to write something that would appeal to that drop-off point of readership, and Bank actually sounds really exciting! It was also revealed that her son wrote the tagline for the book: “Lunch money just got serious”!

Mary Watson became fascinated by the Irish tradition of the wren hunt – in which a real or stand-in wren is chased and hunted on St. Stephen’s Day (the day after Christmas Day) – after moving to Ireland from South Africa. She wanted to write a book that she could only have written here, even though The Wren Hunt is technically a fantasy or magical realism novel, full of “quiet magic, everyday magic”. She cited Diana Wynne Jones as an influence and spoke with real feeling about the wealth of African literature that doesn’t always make it to mainstream audiences in the Anglosphere. Watson’s was the only book I’d read of the three before the panel, but I think the discussion did its job because by the end of it I was so intrigued by I Am Thunder and Bank.

“The nineties were dull as dishwater”: Brian Conaghan, Derek Landy and Katherine Webber in ‘Nerd Alert!’, chaired by David O’Callaghan

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L-R: Katie Webber, David O’Callaghan, Brian Conaghan, Derek Landy

Most literary festival panels (naturally) focus on the literary side of life, but this panel was more about pop culture and what it meant to three writers growing up. They talked about the extent to which you can make pop culture references in a book but otherwise concentrated on beloved films, TV and music. There was a lot of love for the ’80s, but most of the ’90s  love was for Webber’s Wing Jones, which is set in 1996 Atlanta – read more about it here!).

Katherine Webber can quote much of Clueless; Conaghan made an impassioned speech on behalf of Grease and declared his belonging to a small global cult following of its much-maligned sequel; Derek Landy apparently owns half the prop department of multiple comic book adaptations, including the original Superman costume and cape. Katie credits Sailor Moon (only half-jokingly) with piquing her interest in Asian culture – she later studied Japanese, then Chinese, and moved to Hong Kong to study. Conaghan was into eternally cool bands, while Webber is an unashamed pop fan.

The conversation returned to literature to discuss favourite childhood books. Katie loves A Wrinkle in Time so much that it featured in at least three different ways at her wedding (shoutout to husband and Sam Wu co-writer Kevin Tsang for highest number of cameo mentions), while Landy commented on the past dearth of YA which once meant going straight from children’s books to crime fiction. Perhaps most interestingly, Brian Conaghan was frank about the fact that he was 17 when he first read a novel and had a reading age of 12 when he was 16, partly due to lack of access to a library or books at school. I so admired Conaghan’s work on We Come Apart and really appreciated someone pointing out that not all readers or writers come to books in the same way.

“I always felt like a changeling. I never felt like I belonged”: Louise O’Neill and Deirdre Sullivan talk ‘Dark Fairytales’, chaired by Elaina Ryan 

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L-R: Elaina Ryan, Louise O’Neill, Deirdre Sullivan, wearing ‘Repeal’ gear

There was something of a uniform for this event on feminist retellings of fairytales. Both Louise O’Neill and Deirdre Sullivan have recently released fairytale retellings: O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks takes on The Little Mermaid, while Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine is a collection of twelve short stories which draw on not just The Little Mermaid but fairytales like Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty (you can read more about the book here!).

This was the only panel in which the authors were asked to read from their books, which was a fantastic way to introduce or reintroduce the audience to the stories in question. It was O’Neill’s first time reading from The Surface Breaks at an event (she read a scene featuring a character called Sadhbh, a name she insisted on because “the English find it very confusing and I find that very amusing”).  Tangleweed and Brine is almost like prose poetry, making it chillingly effective when read aloud. Both books are quite dark – but that’s because, as O’Neill and Sullivan pointed out, the source fairytales are also quite dark. The Little Mermaid’s original ending at the hands of Hans Christian Anderson, for example, is incredibly unsettling.

There was plenty of talk about that most famous of fairytale strains, the Disney film, but it’s not all bad – there was definite agreement that movies like Frozen and Moana have appreciably feminist moments (in Elaina Ryan’s immortal words on Moana: “she seems like good craic”). And indeed, it is the complicated, sometimes sanitised history of the fairytale that seems to provide such scope for feminist reinterpretation, as both Louise and Deirdre would write another fairytale retelling if they had the chance. O’Neill would love to get her hands on Beauty and the Beast, while Sullivan would like to pair the ‘earth and water’ theme of Tangleweed and Brine with another collection on what I thought would just be ‘air and fire’ but was actually termed the far more poetic ‘breath and ember’.

So there you have it! Did you attend this edition of DeptCon? Have you read any of the books mentioned? Are any of them on your TBR?

 

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Now I Rise by Kiersten White // a brutal, bloodthirsty sequel

Today on the blog, I review another of my most anticipated reads of the year! You can check out my review of the opener to this trilogy (And I Darken) here, or see a full list of my anticipated YA reads of 2017 here. Warning: this review may contain mild spoilers for both books!

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Author(s): Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi/PRH
Publication date: 6th July 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (The Conquerors’ Saga #2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are taken from this copy and may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Lada has only ever wanted one thing: the Wallachian throne. But foes stand in her way at every turn. She has no allies. No influence. Even her small band of soldiers is dwindling. 

After failing to reclaim Wallachia, Lada is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her path. She storms the countryside with her men, including her childhood friend Bogdan, looking for a way in, but brute force isn’t getting her what she wants. She needs another tactic. But her silver-tongued brother, Radu, remains in the Ottoman Empire and thinking of Mehmed – now the sultan – brings little comfort to her stony heart.

Unbeknownst to Lada, Mehmed has sent Radu to Constantinople. He wants control of the city, and for that he needs a spy. Radu envies his sister’s fierce self-possession, but for the first time in his life, his tangled loyalties lead him to reject her requests of him. He must succeed in Constantinople if he is to ever to make the young ruler look upon him with the same longing Radu does. 

The Dracul siblings must decide: how much they are prepared to sacrifice for power? How much are they willing to risk for love? And as nations quake and fall around them, will either goal be what they imagined? 

A ruthless, bloodthirsty, fifteenth-century what-might-have-been saga about a genderbent Vlad the Impaler may be an unlikely choice of subject for young adult fiction, but it’s certainly an eye-catching one. After the success of trilogy opener And I Darken – it went straight to number four on the NYT bestseller list – Kiersten White is back for more of Lada Dracul’s vicious clambering toward the throne. Sweeping and dark, it’s a sequel that commands the reader’s attention.

One does not simply walk into power in Wallachia, and the ferocious Lada has come up against foes which have her bouncing around medieval Eastern Europe like a particularly murderous ping-pong ball. She finds an unexpected ally in the formidable John Hunyadi. The relationship between Lada and Hunyadi – the closest Lada may ever come to a ‘positive’ father figure, and even then only because he’s a celebrated warrior whom she grudgingly helped out of a skirmish – is a fantastic addition to the book. Lada’s still not quite as heartless as she thinks is, and watching her wrestle with newly-complicated decisions was riveting.

This series is, however, told in dual perspective. Radu fits into noblemen’s courts with a patience and diplomacy Lada could never achieve, and their split to opposite fringes of the Ottoman empire makes for a narrative in which he can really test his wings. Unfortunately, this doesn’t preclude him from making poor choices (the Dracul siblings, really, specialise in those). His blind belief that Mehmed will suddenly return his feelings if only he does the sultan’s every bidding can get a little repetitive and tiresome, but the story as a whole is rich and engaging. It’s rare that both halves of an interwoven narrative are equally compelling. I was so absorbed by each section I kept forgetting there was a different storyline coming up, and after I got over the momentary surprise at a switch, it’d happen all over again.

Resolute, clear-headed Nazira was given welcome prominence, while newcomer Daciana quickly makes her presence known. Her relationship with a rather bemused Stefan is an effective and balancing subplot. Long-suffering soldiers Nicolae and Bogdan (poor Bogdan, Lada is treating him much the same way as Mehmed treats Radu) also return. Mehmed himself takes up less of the narrative but still manages to make himself less likeable in that time, while the holdovers of a ‘romance’ between Mehmed and Lada seem rather redundant when it’s clear neither of them are willing to love anyone the way they love power. Or themselves.

A busy, action-packed plot is driven by Lada’s ambition in the lawless wilds of Wallachia and Radu’s activities as a double agent in Constantinople. It was this latter backdrop – much of the book takes place during the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 – that made the book stand out for me. It’s an immersive, brilliantly-conjured plunge into a superstitious, crumbling city. I’d like to see more YA set there. White’s writing style is closer to functional than illustrative, with some unnecessary intrusions from modern terms (e.g. ‘block’ for a street) but it does the trick. There are even flashes of flair (‘The moon did not take sides. But the blood-washed expanse of the Byzantine full moon seemed to promise otherwise’, ‘the teeth of the castle and the people it devoured’) and even, very occasionally, humour (‘the sultan is the son of a donkey!’) (donkeys get a very bad rap in this book, tbh). That said, it is at times too brutal, unnecessarily grim, and it definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It reads like the middle of a trilogy, with plenty yet to be resolved. I would’ve liked even more detail and history – though it is even clearer here than in And I Darken that this is reimagined historical fiction, and it remains to be seen if White will throw in some unpredictable twists for the finale.

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Now I Rise is compelling, effective and demanding alternate history with a vicious female lead, increasingly developed characterisation and a rich choice of setting. Sweeping and unputdownable.

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A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston // a retelling in need of a bit more pace

252441111Author: E.K. Johnston
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s/Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: 20 October 2015
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

This lush reimagining of A Thousand and One Nights weaves out of Scheherazade’s well-known origins a different tale to the one we usually hear. Not wishing to lose anyone else to the monstrous Lo-Melkhiin, its heroine decides to take her sister’s place as his next bride so that she may save her life. Her kingdom is trapped in a nightmare which can only be ended with hope, courage and dreams of a kingdom peaceful once more, where each is free to choose their own future. 

A Thousand Nights tells the story of a girl who weaves whimsical tales not just for herself but for all those she has left behind. The love in this book is that of sisters, families and their people. Shrouded with illusion, spilling over with myth, and crowned by magic, its blend of genres – fantasy, adventure, magical realism, pseudo-historical fiction – creates a shimmering and surreal quality: every word is carefully chosen, every page a step further into a spell. It has a stunning cover, too: a luxurious swathe of deep purple, spun with gold, pink and blue.

Even more surreal is the idea that most of the book’s cast are not given names. Much of our heroine’s family is referred to only be their relation to one another, and readers may be put off by this lack of individuality. Even the heroine of the story – resourceful, self-sacrificing, and finding herself wielding an eerie, strange kind of magic in the face of oncoming wrath and war – never names herself. We are left with only an imprint, an afterimage, of the person she is striving to be. It’s hard to put a protagonist on your list of favourites when she’s not given a name. However, I liked the focus on stories, particularly those of women. A Thousand Nights makes a case for the idea that just because we don’t know a heroine’s name doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell her story.

Lavish imagery and constant metaphors are characteristic of a distinctive writing style which is at its best beautiful, but at its worst cloying. It verges on purple prose and it’s not the most engaging style; it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. A dramatic finale is well-earned, but the plot is meandering, occasionally dull, and, perhaps due to the characterisation, is easy to lose interest in. For me, there was always just something off about it, the absence of that indefinable ingredient which takes books from ordinary to extraordinary. For a more action-packed alternative, try Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton or The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi.

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Lush  and lyrical, A Thousand Nights is a story of the nameless, of the unknown heroine, and acts of bravery and adventure which have been lost to time. Delicate and well-spun as a tapestry, it’s vagueness and slow pace are, however, major drawbacks.

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And I Darken by Kiersten White // ambitious, enthralling alternate history

25324111Author: Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi Children’s/Delacorte
Publication date: 7 July 2016
Category: YA
Genre: alternate history, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: Series
Source: I was kindly sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

No one expects a princess to be brutal.

In the perilous courts of fifteenth century Europe, there’s only one person Lada Dragwyla can rely on: herself. Abandoned by their father and used as pawns in a distant conflict, Lada and her brother Radu know their new home in the Ottoman empire is more prison than palace. Survival, let alone revenge, appears a slim possibility – but then Lada is no ordinary princess.

Lada has a thirst for power, but first she must find a way out of danger and back to the throne she believes is rightfully hers. A skilled warrior and a sharp tactician, even friendship with the sultan’s son, Mehmed, cannot quell Lada’s dreams of home – or her ruthless heart. Soon, however, Lada will find that the tangle of intrigue and suspicion which surrounds her is more complicated than she thinks.

A sweeping, elaborate alternate history with a ferocious cast, And I Darken is Kiersten White’s most ambitious project yet. I’m a fan of The Chaos of Stars – a tale of starcrossed love, sunny San Diego and mythological sass, it’s Stephanie Perkins meets Rick Riordan with a great heroine. Also, when I reviewed it this happened:

(I JUST REALLY LIKE BOOKS OKAY AND SOMETIMES THIS MAKES VERY WORDY AND FULL OF FEELS also I’m doing my best to make this review one that, while enjoyable, will not provoke sobbing??)

YA is full of retellings, and still the premise behind And I Darken could make you do a double-take: it’s the story of a genderbent Vlad the Impaler, an idea most would never imagine as YA. It almost shouldn’t work – but somehow, it does. It’s rare that a writer’s work matches up so fervently to their premise.  To pull off its demanding hook, And I Darken has to commit to the possibilities of exploring alternate history. Kiersten White doesn’t underestimate her audience, but doesn’t assume they’ll invest in the idea either, and the result is bold but careful storytelling. The writing style is detailed but familiar, weaving strong plot, page-turning intrigue and an interesting cultures into a novel which is both busy and clearly just the beginning of an epic saga. Throw in twists, turns, betrayals, lush backdrops and a well-written central trio, and this is enthralling historical fantasy. By the end, you’ve forgotten Lada is supposed to be anyone but herself.

Lada is vicious, audacious, and prepared to do whatever it takes to save her own skin. I wrote that The Chaos of Stars’ Isadora is the kind of person you’d want on your side in a fight, but Lada is a person you’d want to be as far away from as possible, because she’s probably there to beat you. She longs to see her childhood friend Bogdan again, has her curiosity piqued by new acquaintance Mehmed, and while she treats her brother Radu with the long-suffering sighs of someone fed up of her charge falling over and needing her to right them again, she does love him. Radu is the sun to her shadow, a welcome narrative relief who reveals secrets of his own. Mehmed is young, just finding his way around power, and may find that crossing Lada is a mistake not many would be brave enough to make.

However, while the first half of the book is solid, the second half meanders, in spite of action sequences. There’s a lack of positive relationships between Lada and other women, at least initially. White seems to notice this at one point, however, and while the book stops short of having Lada form deep, lasting female friendships, there are important female characters: power-hungry Huma; savvy, cynical Mara; bouncy, optimistic Halima; beautiful, coy Nazira. There are LGBTQ+ characters, several of whom I’d like to see more of in the sequels. As the book tends to jump from place to place, I would’ve liked more vivid description to conjure the many scene changes. Fortunately, the book’s satisfying, unusual take on history was more than enough to keep me reading.

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And I Darken is fantastic historical fiction. Compelling, detailed and full of drama, it’s a challenging and unusual read with a ferocious heroine and an accomplished narrative voice. I’d love to see more YA take on ideas as ambitious as this. One of Kiersten White’s best books yet.

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