CELTIC REVIVAL: recommending (recent-ish) Irish YA

So you’ve heard all about Irish authors bursting onto the YA stage of late, with their award wins and their YALC appearances. You’ve read books by Eoin Colfer, Louise O’Neill and Moïra Fowley-Doyle. But what to read next? Where’s the rest of it? And did Irish YA even exist before 2015?

In answer: it did! As for what to read next and finding the rest of it, we’ve got you covered. I’ve chosen fairly recent (read: 21st century) releases here, but I may do another post with older reads or upcoming releases. If you’re new to Irish YA: welcome! No, no need to take off your shoes. Cup of tea? 

(And yes, Irish YA has pretty much always been this bleak. Irish children’s and early teen fiction is madcap stuff. Then YA is all like BAM. Hormones. Adolescence. Darkness. Eyeliner.)

25613853If you liked Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden (a tale of orphans, an ancient order of knights who keep comic-book style monsters at bay, and a boy with the unlikely name of Denizen Hardwick – reviewed in more detail here), you’ll like…

Death and Co. by D.J. McCune

If this was American YA, Death and Co. would be a high-concept, big budget action adventure in the style of Rick Riordan or Maggie Stiefvater. Instead, this Northern writer’s début takes a more down-to-earth approach.

17313512For generations, Adam’s family have been tasked with guiding the newly deceased into the afterlife. It’s a role his brothers are happy to fulfill. They, like their father Nathaniel, feel a sense of responsibility in bringing peace to the departed. Adam, on the other hand, would rather be at school with his friends than upholding a supernatural duty and has trouble even keeping his breakfast down when faced with the prospect of coaxing souls into the light. But the Lumen rules are clear: follow in the family footsteps, or consider yourself no longer a part of the family at all. A page-turning urban fantasy from Hot Key Books.

6609851If you liked Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It or Only Ever Yours (two hard-hitting, headline-grabbing titles which tackle tough topics and have female leads), you’ll like…

Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd

Holly is sick of being in care – of social workers and too-nice foster families, of her nagging school and being stared at – but as far as she knows, she’s stuck there. Until she finds the wig. Long, flowing blonde locks transform her, and Holly becomes Solace: a girl so mouthy, daring and fearless she’ll run away from care and hitch-hike h7509075er way back to Ireland, where she hopes her mother will be.

Siobhan Dowd’s novels remain striking and sharp long after you’ve read them. Holly is an unreliable narrator, refusing to acknowledge the false hopes she’s woven into her memories of her mother and her life before social services stepped inbut her story is her own. A Swift Pure Cry is probably closer to O’Neill’s stark examination of social and cultural conditions which litter Ireland’s recent history, but it’s also one of Dowd’s more famous books, and while Solace is gut-wrenching and gritty, it’s perhaps a little more accessible.

23346358If you liked Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s The Accident Season (a spellbinding, shimmering story full of strange magic, evocative prose and characters who keep secrets even from themselves – I’ve also reviewed this one and already want to know more about Fowley-Doyle’s next book), you’ll like…

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

Who knows where the time goes? There never seems to be enough time in Kinvara, or anywhere else in Ireland for that matter. When J.J.’s mother says that what she really wants for her birthday is more time, he decides to find her some. But where to look for more time in a world which seems to have less and less of it to spare? A talented musician with a mystery to solve and a penchant for stumbling into places of ancient magic, J.J. soon finds himself tangled up in a tale as old as time – in a place where time stands still. 

1500903A welcome exception to the usual so-bleak-you’ll-need-ice-cream-and-a-Netflix-binge-to-recover rule. The New Policeman (which isn’t really about a policeman) is a gorgeous, intricate piece of storytelling. It embraces lore and magic with generosity and wit. It’s interspersed with traditional music and it’s one of the best depictions of Irish myth and folk tales I’ve seen in young adult fiction. This book’s mischievous trickster god Aengus is probably my definitive Aengus, to be honest, and Thompson’s portrayal of The Dagda (he’s like, the boss god of Irish mythology’s godly cohort, the Tuatha Dé Danann) is pretty spot on, too. There are two compelling sequels: The Last of the High Kings and The White Horse Trick. One of my favourite books on this list.

27861590If you liked Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan (a searingly written, visceral take on a tough subject narrated by sharp-tongued, angry teenager Ces, who longs to be a tattoo artist), you’ll like…

Flick by Geraldine Meade

A fast-paced contemporary which focuses on a teenager who, like her friends, is caught up in school, family, and boys – except not boys, because protagonist Felicity, 9489814known as Flicklikes girls. It’s not quite as dark as Needlework (which, while a well-told relatively short read, definitely warrants a trigger warning) but it has the same boundary-pushing intent. Fans of Emma Donoghue and David Levithan may find this book is up their alley. It’s been a while since I read this one, but on a sparsely-populated shelf, this exploration of identity and sexuality is a title worth noting.

29908200If you liked One by Sarah Crossan (a heartbreaking, bittersweet, award-laden verse novel about sisterhood, friendship and loss from one of the most elegant voices in YA verse fiction), you’ll like…

Illuminate by Kerrie O’Brien

While not strictly YA, this collection from one of the most lauded young poets on Ireland’s contemporary poetry scene echoes some of the themes of loss, grief, love, separation and self-expression found in One. It’s more abstract and intransigent than plot-focused books like coverThe Weight of Water or her more recent collaboration We Come Apart, and embraces more traditional forms than Amanda Lovelace’s The Princess Saves Herself In This One. Written in spare, sometimes haunting verse, if you’re looking to expand your poetic repertoire beyond teen fiction or assigned reading lists, Illuminate may be the book for you. And besides, look at that cover! SO PRETTY.

And there you have it: your guide to exploring more Irish YA (and MG, and poetry). Have you read any of the books on the list? Have you added any to your TBR?

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We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan // a verse novel with grit and verve

25310356Author(s): Sarah Crossan, Brian Conaghan
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 9 February 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): verse, contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Acclaimed authors Brian Conaghan and Sarah Crossan join forces to tell the story of Nicu and Jess, two troubled teens whose paths cross in the unlikeliest of places.

Jess and Nicu are from different worlds. Tough city girl Jess doesn’t trust anyone, hiding the violence of her home life behind a mask of arrogance and disillusion. Nicu has emigrated from Romania and is struggling to find a place in his new home. When they meet, what starts out as an unexpected friendship turns to romance as the two bond over their painful pasts and hopeful futures. But with their worlds catching up to them, will they be able to save each other, let alone themselves?

I was lucky enough to read quite an early copy of this book, and let me tell you: it was worth the hype. (And you know how I feel about hype). Compelling, gritty and a little devastating, We Come Apart somehow emerges from the thunderous rumblings of pre-release anticipation with both surprises up its sleeve and writing that lives up to expectations. Crossan and Conaghan, already at the top of their game as individual writers, prove once again why they are critically acclaimed Carnegie and Costa winners respectively and reveal that collaboration has indeed sparked something new in their repertoire. With a keen sense of story and an eye for detail, this dynamic dual narrative is a back-and-forth of fearless proportions. It is unflinching, engaging, sharp and occasionally, totally heartbreaking.

We Come Apart is is helmed by two tour-de-force leads with distinctive verse voices. Jess is a gobby, streetwise London teenager turned truant who feels fed up with school and with adults who try to tell her what to do when they can’t – or won’t – see what’s right in front of them. Nicu, on the other hand, is what you’d call “a good egg.” He is naive, kind, straightforward, and big-hearted, but lives in a life, bound by the confines of culture and the traditions of family, in which it is difficult to be so. Both long for understanding, friendship and freedom. Both discover it, at least for a while, in each other. In a novel where every word is up for scrutiny, their presence dominates and leaves the rest of the cast for dust.(Nicu is an easy favourite. He will be everyone’s favourite).

This book is striking partly because Jess and Nicu’s story at first seems like one that doesn’t belong in poetry. This is poetry with shoplifting, criminal records, peer pressure, community service, and class in. It explores immigration, racism, prejudice, and clashing cultures. It features characters who experience disenfranchisement, distrust, and domestic violence. But is is also rarely about those things: instead it is often about friendship and strength and kindness and hope. It’s about loyalty and betrayal and realizing that, for better or worse, everyone has a choice when it comes to who and what they want to be. There is a sense that it is very deliberately saying to readers, “Look what we can do with poetry. This story belongs in poetry, too.”

For an audience often forced to stare at stanzas until their eyes fall out or the carefully-highlighted exam-worthy words lose all meaning, We Come Apart will be a bit of a shock, but it’s a worthwhile read. It may, in the hands of an open-minded gatekeeper, find favour in classrooms and library recommendation shelves or even persuade the skeptical that poetry is, every now and then, more than daffodils, metaphors and toffs with nothing better to do than write melodramatically about their feelings or the weather. (The Daffodils, by the way, was probably about the French Revolution). And of course, there’s plenty to satisfy the seasoned YA reader, too, including a page-turning pace, a handful of plot twists, and an effective narrative style.

The book is not without fault – it could use more heart or humour, the verse isn’t perfect, and, often bleak and far more bitter than sweet, it’s a difficult read, so it’s probably not the best to choose if you’re looking for something cheery. There are stereotypes, it may be triggering and it’s problematic. But that’s kind of the point, because the story is certainly strong: Conaghan and Crossan have set out to take the unpoetic, the sometimes unpleasant, and prove their ability to give it poetic form, and in that they have succeeded. As with many verse novels it’s quite a fast read, but it’s not easily forgotten. Fans of Phil Earle, Keren David and Benjamin Zephaniah will find an ideal recommendation in this poetic turn. Expect to see it up for multiple awards this year.

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Sharp, unflinching and well-written, this novel-in-verse marks a milestone collaboration for Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan. Moments of hope and friendship litter the bittersweet story of Jess and Nicu, two very different but very human characters. 

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