Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

I first learned about Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill on Twitter, when it was described as “Mean Girls meets The Handmaid’s Tale“. I love Mean Girls, and I have not read The Handmaid’s Tale yet, but I love everything Atwood writes, and I am sure her masterpiece is no exception. So I requested a review copy, and Alainna Hadjigeorgiou at Quercus books made sure I got one within the week.

OnlyEverYours Review

Only Ever Yours is a dystopian, feminist novel. I am not shocked at all that many people have compared it to Atwood’s fiction. O’Neill herself read English at Trinity College in Dublin, admiting that “I was always drawn to the more feminist modules, taking classes such as Gender and Sexuality studies and Post-Colonial Women’s fiction” (source). The main character, freida – yes, like the painter, no, no need to use a capital letter in O’Neill’s work when referencing women – is facing her last year at an all-girls school where women are trainned for their life in the EuroZone, that is, what is left of Europe after we, lovely human beings, almost destroyed Planet Earth. But this school is different to what we understand as education nowadays. The girls are weighed-in and taken pictures of every morning. Standards must be upheld! These are the wives of the future leaders of the Euro Zone. These are the women that will give birth only to sons. These are the women that – in a survivial of the most beautiful, and patriarchal-oriented – are going to destroy each other to be chosen by the best husband.

O’Neills narrative about the struggle of these girls against the constant images they are subjected to feels painfully familiar. ‘You are never enough’, the subtext that 21st century women are constantly subjected to is turned into an overt narrative: Never thin enough, but too thin if you take it too seriously. Never enough made-up, until you go too far and look like a whore. However, there are deeper concerns in Only Ever Yours, feminist concerns that I would like readers to discover by themselves, because I found out the ridiculousness of these arguments while reading the novel, and next time those same arguments cross my mind – and they will, they always come back – I will laugh out at them and remember that constant improvement, and perfection, do not exist.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I have long wanted to watch Atonement, which I tried once a few years ago, and then gave up on minute four. Because, if a film is that good, how is the novel it is based on supposed to be? Well, Ian McEwan’s most famous work is the masterpiece that I thought, and even more.

It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you

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Atonement tells the story of Briony Tallis, her older sister, Cecily Tallis, and the family long-time friend, Robbie Turner in 1935 England. Briony is thirteen, and she wants to be a writer, she has even transitioned from fiction to drama as her cousins from the North arrive to her Surrey residence to escape a scandal in the family. So, while waiting for everyone to join rehearsals, Briony is witness to a suspicious scene: her sister, Cecily, is getting out of the fountain, while Robbie simply looks. Briony feels there is something wrong with it, but what? And this is where McEwan’s genius comes into full force: by describing the very same scene from the point of view of the three main characters, he manages to put the reader in the shoes of Briony, Cecily, and Robbie, in a way I had never experienced before. For Briony, there is something wrong born out of her coming-of-age own personal narrative. For Cecily, it is the first stage in the recognition of her own romantic feelings. And for Robbie, it is the beginning of his narrative.

Because Atonement is such a masterpiece, I am not giving away anything more. I really think this is a book that will appeal to a wide audience. The characters’ voices are so clear and well-defined, that it is worth a study on characterisation. The themes are so many, and treated in such complex ways, that the novel deserves a full- Humanities approach to get the analysis it deserves. The historical depiction of the troubled and uncertainty that made the 1930’s in England could very well make for a History thesis. And, one of the themes in especial is so close to feminist studies, that I wish I had read this book years ago, so that I could have written an essay during my degree on it.

Many people on my Twitter feed had told me that the 2007 film adaptation – starring Keyra Knightley as Cecily, James McAvoy as Robbie, and Saoirse Ronan as Briony – is one of the best they have seen. I do not doubt it, but I am still mourning the last few chapters of the book. Not since Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life had a book left such a strong impression on me. Loss, death, and frustration come high on the list of feelings that Atonement presents to the reader, but there are still images flashing on my mind from a love scene at the library. And I hope, they will never go away.

For the moment, there seemed no way out with words.

The Truth and Other Lies by Sacha Arango

I was given The Truth and Other Lies by Sacha Arango by the lovely Elizabeth Preston on my last visit to London, and I could not be happier, because I have to admit that I would not have picked the book for myself in a book shop. Elizabeth is a great friend of mine, and she knows what I like to read – we finally met in real life at this year’s CrimeFest, talk about common interests! – so, I trusted her when she said I would love this book. She was right.

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Fiction is the truth inside a lie.

The Truth and Other Lies tells the story of Henry Hayden, a best-selling author leading a tranquil life in a little town with her wife, Martha, while working on his next novel. Until everything falls apart. We soon learn that it is not Henry himself who writes the novels, it is his wife, but trying to escape all fame, and success, she lets him publish the texts under his name. Martha writes at night, art for art’s sake, while Henry leads a socially active, and very public life. The dualism between the couple, the way they complement each other, reminds the reader of old-fashioned narratives, and I could not but resent the way Martha was relegated to the private, domestic sphere – Martha does not even accompany Henry to literary festivals or readings – while Henry did all the social activities related to being a writer. However, Arango goes beyond this simply gender-biased construction of social roles, using some meta and postmodern techniques that I’d rather let you discover by reading the novel. This is one of the things that I loved most about the novel: because it is a writer’s story, there are constant references to writing, narratives, and images, that make the novel a very complex text.

The book is compared to Patricia Highsmith’s work, and I can see why. The characters, as well as the themes, felt very classic, and I wondered a few times while reading, if Arango is trying to pay homage to mid-century crime fiction writers. However, his writing is strong enough to stand on his own, and I plan on keeping an eye on him. It took me only three sittings to finish the novel, and even though the female characters were somehow irritating – I quote: “Man is his own worst enemy; women’s worst enemy is other women”– I loved the little surprises that the meta-text gifts the reader with. And, above all, I loved the way Arango made me want to know more about Henry, and about Martha.

Currently Reading…

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By the time this post goes up, I hope I’m already enjoying my short, but well-deserved (and PhD-Supervisors’-forced) summer break, on which I plan to go with a case full of books to our house by the beach and spend my days reading and writing – until I get really bored, which should happen by day 3, and then I’ll enroll on some kind of course. Meanwhile, I’ve finally started Atonement by Ian McEwan, bought in September 2014.

No Other Darkness (Marnie Rome #2) by Sarah Hilary

No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary is the second installment in the very successful Marnie Rome series. If you have not heard about Sarah Hilary or Marnie Rome yet, and you are looking for a great crime fiction series, skip this review and go back to Someone Else’s Skin, read our exclusive interview with Sarah herself, or our article on her now famous main character, feminism and women in crime fiction.

No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary (review)

No Other Darkness starts soon after Someone Else’s Skin‘s ending. DI Marnie Rome, now safe back home, and recovering from her own personal ordeal, is called along DS Noah Jake to a peculiar crime scene: a bunker under one of Bristol’s most recent suburbia, where the corpses of two children have been found. The existence of the bunker, unknown to all neighbours, will start one of the most traumatic investigations in crime fiction I have ever read.

My experience reading crime fiction is that most readers have some taboo subjects that they will not consider reading about at all – one of mine is the Holocaust – but crimes against children seem to be a popular one. So, if you fall into this category, do not consider No Other Darkness, because although Hilary treats the victims with the respect, and sympathy they deserve, she does not omit the most violent details. If with her first Marnie Rome novel the author took a chance with the resolution of the crime, then, with No Other Darkness Sarah Hilary is positioning herself among the most subversive crime authors nowadays.

This second novel also puts DI Rome’s personal life besides to focus in DS Jake’s one. No surprise here, except for the fact that Jake’s position as a Black, gay man, with a troubled family life is a shout-out to the lack of racial, and sexual diversity in crime fiction, even in 2015. I especially liked how the reader is presented with love scenes between Noah and his boyfriend, and the glimpse we get into homosexual desire, which locates it equally – in many ways – to Marnie’s own heterosexual desire for her boyfriend.

So, I really enjoyed No Other Darkness, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Someone Else’s Skin, but I would also recommend reading the series in order: there are only two books, and Rome’s personal journey is worth doing the effort. As for Hilary, I think she is one of the UK’s most complex, and subversive crime fiction writers nowadays, not only because of the crimes she writes, but also because of the inclusiveness of her writing: gender issues, sexuality, race, mental health, and body issues make of her stories top crime fiction.

Forensics by Val McDermid

Forensics (2015) by Val McDermid is a non-fiction book, and the official companion to the Wellcome Trust’s exhibition with the same name, that runs from January until June, 2015. Because of the theme of this blog, and my PhD, fellow crime fiction academic Mrs.P encouraged me to pay my first visit to London to see the exhibition. After much thinking and planning, I made it to the City a month ago, and what can I say? I fell in love with it.

Forensics by Val McDermid - Review

Reading Forensics has been one of the most pleasurable readings of 2015. I had been trying to get back to my normal reading for some months, and this book played the trick perfectly. Val McDermid has organised the book thematically, so that each chapter is devoted to a different forensic science. You can find anything from DNA profiling to fire scene investigation, and experts back up all the narrative, so that the reading feels well-researched, and accessible at the same time. However, the book is not simply a non-fiction exploration of forensic science, and McDermid’s voice is present throughout the narrative, so that we get glimpses of her own life experience with forensic science. And not only that, but her admiration for forensic experts percolates the pages as well. Sue Black from the University of Dundee is a forensic anthropologist and the person that, during my reading, appreciated the most. I don’t know if it was because the chapter on forensic anthropology hit close to home, or if McDermid herself has a special relationship with Dr. Black, but I know regard her with special fondness.

Now, Forensics – the book – is the companion to the Wellcome Collection exhibition under the same name, currently open at the Wellcome Collection building in Euston Road, London. The book follows the exhibition in its organisation, so that there are five rooms, each devoted to a different stage in the investigation of a crime, from the crime scene itself to the courtroom. I visited it last Friday, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in crime fiction, because the curators have found the perfect combination between science and art, all accessible for the general public. However, there is some sensitive content, so, please make sure you are aware of this before visiting. For crime fiction fans, the exhibition could very well be Heaven, because the Trust has made available original manuscripts from the Jack the Ripper cases, as well as some medical evidence. There are also short videos in which forensic experts explain their roles during a criminal investigation, and artistic recordings of – please, sit down – the first cut performed on a corpse during an autopsy.

So, if you are incurably curious about forensic science, I think you should visit the Forensic exhibition before it closes its door on the 21st of June, 2015. However, do not read Forensics by Val McDermid before your visit. Let the place surprise you, and then you will be able to remember bits, and explore forensic science more in depth if you decide to purchase the book. I made the terrible mistake of studying the book before the visit, and I felt it was just offering me glimpses of the text.