Review: The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington

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The Red Ribbon

Lucy Adlington

Hot Key Books, 2017

YA – Historical

When women arrive at Birchwood they are stripped of their clothes, their belongings and their dignity. They are given striped sacks to wear and wooden shoes, their hair shorn and their name replaced with a number. Those who are able are put to work, those who aren’t disappear. Fourteen-year-old Ella is a seamstress, but the workshop she works in is in Birkenau-Auschwitz and her clients are the guards, the wives of the officers and the commander.  Ella’s dresses are her key to extra bread and to items she can barter, but she is also creating couture for the enemy. And at any moment, she could be out of favour.

This is a compelling and moving read. The characters are complex and varied, and show us the different ways people survive, the ways they hold on to their sense of self. Ella, the protagonist, is often quite conflicted. Her best friend Rose is an idealistic dreamer, their boss Marta is a hard-edged fighter. There is also a guard, Carla, who strikes up a complicated friendship of sorts with Ella. Each character is fleshed out and interesting.

This book really made me think about the importance of clothing – in terms of identity, dignity and self-expression. As Ella says, clothes don’t seem trivial when you don’t have any, and are left vulnerable and frightened. Each section is given a different colour, which links to the mood and to material items in the story. The red ribbon of the title is key to the book – a symbol of hope, of wish for liberation and a happier future.

The book is well-researched, and features plenty of detail. I will definitely be checking out Adlington’s book, Stitches in Time, about fashion history.

With its memorable characters, emotional depth and historical detail, The Red Ribbon is an absorbing read. Highly recommended!

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Review: Tangleweed & Brine by Deirdre Sullivan, illustrated by Karen Vaughan

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Tangleweed and Brine

Deirdre Sullivan, illustrated by Karen Vaughan

Little Island Books (2017)

YA/Crossover

Old stories new, you’ll venture where you will

Tangleweed and Brine is a collection of 13 witchy fairytale retellings.  The book is divided in two, each element of the title being one half. The Tangleweed stories are earthier and filled with ash, while the Brine tales are infused with water. The elemental nature of the stories reflects the way that fairy tales connect to the very core of our being. This collection is no exception, filled as it is with darkness and light, pain and pleasure, fear and longing. Dark, beguiling and feminist, these are haunting tales that will linger in the reader’s memory, stories that reward multiple readings. Sullivan focuses on the female experience in her tales – she allows the reader enter deeply into the minds of her characters, and does not deny the darker elements of these tales.

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Ash Pale illustration by Karen Vaughan

This is illustrator Karen Vaughan’s first book, and she is definitely one to watch. Her intricate pen-and-ink illustrations catch the tone of the tales perfectly, and add an extra layer of richness to the book. Her work shows the influence of Harry Clarke and Aubrey Beardsley, in a way which ties the collection into the long tradition of illustrated fairytale books, yet she has a style of her own. I particularly like how her illustrations, like the tales themselves, make room for other types of bodies in the fairy tales. This book is not filled with dainty perfect princesses, but with women who would be considered too tall, too fat, too small or altogether too much for such tales.

She wasn’t soft threads woven into silk, but thick rough cables pulsing like muscles on the chests of fishermen. Functional.

There is a strong focus on bodily experience, on being a woman. On the body as functional and a source of power, on the body as a trap.

You like your arms that make things, grow things, mend.

Beauty and a womb. That’s all you are.

There are no quick fixes, fairy godmothers or happily-ever-afters in these stories. The endings are often ambiguous and unsettling. The heroines must rely on their own courage and resources. Some tales will resonate with readers, some will empower them, some will linger on long after reading.

With its poetic and beguiling prose, it is easy to become tangled up in Tangleweed and Brine. This is a book to savour and to treasure, beautifully written, illustrated and designed.

 

Review: The Loneliest Girl of the Universe by Lauren James

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The Loneliest Girl in the Universe

Lauren James

Walker Books, September 2017

YA – Science Fiction

Romy Silvers is the commander of The Infinity, a spaceship travelling to a new planet on which Earth 2 will be established. She is also only 16 years old. A tragedy left her as the sole-surviving crew member, with full responsibility to steer the spaceship to its destination and secure the future of humanity. Romy is completely alone in space, she hasn’t had direct contact with another human in five years. Then, she learns that there is another ship, The Eternity, sent to help with the mission. It will catch up with her, she will have an ally. When she receives an email from the commander of the other ship, she finds an unexpected friend in J. They communicate by email, with lags of months as their messages travel through space, but even still Romy finds herself falling for J. Can you love someone you have never met, someone who is lightyears away? However, news of dramatic events on earth could affect their mission and the ghosts of the past that haunt Romy refuse to fade away…

Described as a ‘romantic thriller’ this is a gripping read that I struggled to put down. Romy is a well-developed character who readers will root for, and Lauren James shows the strain Romy’s mission puts on her in a very palpable way.  Her feelings – the trauma, the stress, the longing – come across strongly, and she is a believable and complex character. She is a very admirable heroine – she is strong and capable, because she has to be.

For someone like myself with little knowledge of physics, the aspects of how time works in space were a bit confusing but I soon got my head around it, and James did not include a lot of technical information, focusing instead of character and plot. This was a book I didn’t want to put down. It is a real page turner, and definitely one I will be recommending in the bookshop! Space travel really intrigues me, so if you have any recommendations of other books I should read please do leave them in the comments.

I received a proof copy of this book at the AmericYA panel event in Easons O’Connell Street.

Review: Like Other Girls by Claire Hennessy

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Like Other Girls

Claire Hennessy

Hot Key Books (2017)

YA, Contemporary

Like Other Girls is the story of Lauren, a 16-year-old bisexual girl grappling with the sometimes harsh realities of being a young woman in contemporary Irish society. Lauren is struggling with her identity – with the expectations of perfect femininity espoused by her all girls school, with dismissive attitudes towards bisexuality she finds even within the LGBTQIA community, and with her relationships, particularly with her boyfriend and the best friend she is still somewhat in love with. Then, she finds out she is pregnant. Readers familiar with Irish law will know the implications of this for Lauren, as she journeys alone to England for an abortion.

Lauren is a complex protagonist, and one in an incredibly difficult situation. She makes some bad choices, and Hennessy doesn’t shy away from showing Lauren’s darker and more ‘problematic’ (to use a much discussed word) thoughts. At times this can make for uncomfortable reading, particularly when Lauren is dealing with a close friend (whom she still has feelings for) coming out as transgender, or considering the degree of privilege you have as a cisgender woman in a country that denies women bodily autonomy. I do wish some of Lauren’s attitudes had been challenged a bit more, the transphobia in the book did make me uncomfortable, however her friend Ellie does call her out and at the end of the book there is a sense of Lauren growing as a person. Besides, in other ways Lauren’s flaws are a strength of the book and part of the way it pushes back against the pressure on girls to always be perfect.

Hennessy’s book is incredibly timely and will make readers angry. She uses articles very similar to those Irish readers will have encountered over the last few years, and a chilling scene in which her protagonist is given misleading and false information at a ‘counselling’ service. It evokes a very true-to-life sense of what it is like to be female in a country in which you don’t have bodily autonomy, in which abortion is illegal, and in which girls and women like Lauren must travel to the UK every single day for a medical procedure that should be available safely and legally in their home country. The trauma Lauren goes through makes the book painful to read, and shows how damaging the lack of access to abortion in Ireland is. Acclaimed Irish writer Marian Keyes has said that this book ‘all but quivers with righteous anger’, and I think its readers will too.

Like Other Girls tackles a number of very sensitive topics without falling into that dangerous trap of becoming an issue novel, without moralising or preaching, and without demonising its protagonist or giving her an unrealistic ‘happily-ever-after’ type ending. It is also a funny book, filled with pop culture and musical references, and with a strong, snarky voice at its centre. It also has a fantastic cover – it’s a label! for a book about labels! – designed by Leo Nickolls.

To sum up – Like Other Girls is a fierce, feminist book that while not an easy read, is an important one. We need stories like Lauren’s, and we need to repeal the eighth amendment.

Like Other Girls will be launched tonight, May 25th, in Dept 51 at Eason O’Connell Street at 6pm.

Review: Release by Patrick Ness

I love Patrick Ness’ writing and think he is one of the best YA writers working at the moment. I was delighted to receive an ARC of his latest book, Release, from LoveReading4Kids to review.

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Release

Patrick Ness

Walker Books (May 2017)

YA

Taking place over a single Saturday in summer, Release is the story of a day that will change seventeen-year-old Adam Thorn’s life forever. He feels trapped in his devoutly religious family, his crappy job, his mixed up personal life…he learns to escape and be able to really live. Meanwhile, across town, someone else is having an extraordinary day of their own…

Ness has stated that Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Judy Blume’s Forever influenced this book. The opening line is a nod to Mrs Dalloway, as is the one-day structure and some of the style. I think Release is most akin to Forever in its frankness and openness about sexuality and teenage life, arguably it could be seen as an LGBTQ Forever, or a modern day Forever. However, the nods are subtle and the reader does not need to be familiar with these texts. Release is unmistakeably a Patrick Ness book and showcases the power of his writing and the depth of his characters. Personally, I much preferred the Adam Thorn storyline to the supernatural/ghost story, and was found myself keen to get back to this when the narrative switched.

The book is set over a single day, this structure lends it an intensity and gives the reader a sense of being at a pivotal moment in Adam Thorn’s life, of the tumult and change of adolescence, in a powerful, poignant punch of a book. This book is one that will stay with me, and Adam is an incredibly well-drawn character.

Raw, powerful and moving, this is a book that draws the reader in, one they won’t want to be released from. Fans of Patrick Ness will not be disappointed.

 

 

Review: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

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The Upside of Unrequited

Becky Albertalli

HarperTeen (2017) – YA/Contemporary

Molly Peskin-Suso is seventeen years old, and has had a string of crushes (twenty six, to be exact) but has never had a boyfriend. Now that her twin sister Cassie besotted with Mina, Molly feels more alone than ever. But Mina’s friend Hipster Will is attractive and seems to be into Molly. Maybe this is a way for Molly to burst her cautious bubble, and to not be left behind by her sister. However, there’s also Reid from work, the guy who totally isn’t Molly’s type. yet who she can’t stop thinking about…

I loved Becky Albertalli’s debut Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and so have been eagerly anticipating this book. While I didn’t love it quite as much as her first book, I found The Upside of Unrequited to be a very enjoyable read with diverse and complex characters.

Albertalli makes very effective use of social media in the book; for example the texting and emoji made it feel current,  and definitely a modern romance. Albertalli is one of my favourite contemporary YA writers at the moment, for her pop culture references, her ear for dialogue and nuanced exploration of all kinds of relationships.

She excels at creating very sweet romances, and like with Simon, she shows a diverse range of relationships here. However, while the romance was very swoon-worthy and well developed, I was pleased by the focus on sisterhood and friendship, and the changing nature of such relationships over time. Sometimes growing up does mean growing apart, and this is something that really is explored in this book.

Albertalli’s books are part of the growing body of wonderful LGBTQIA YA books out there.  One of my favourite things about this book was how diverse it was, without any tokenism or characters being shoehorned in. Molly and Cassie have two mothers, who are very much involved in the story and whose relationship and family are also explored. There are characters of different ethnicities and sexualities, and while different experiences are explored it never feels like an issue book. The more I think about this book, the more I realise just how much there is in it. Molly’s anxiety (and the matter of fact way in which her medication is discussed), her issues with body image, the layered relationships between the characters…

The Upside of Unrequited is an excellent book exploring a variety of relationships – romance, family, friends, self – with memorable characters and sweet romance. Highly recommended for fans of Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, or fans of brilliant contemporary YA!

Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

A YA novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas has been getting a lot of (much deserved!) attention lately. It is topping bestseller lists, and is to be made into a movie. Best of all, it is creating much needed dialogues.
Angie Thomas will be at Dept 51 in Eason O’Connell Street at 6pm this evening, and will be interviewed by YA author Deirdre Sullivan.
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The Hate U Give
Angie Thomas
Walker Books (April 2017)
YA Contemporary
What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?
Sixteen-year-old Starr is caught between two worlds, the poor neighbourhood she calls home and the posh high school in which she feels like an outsider. She isn’t quite sure which Starr is the ‘real’ Starr, and how to balance the different aspects of her life. When she witnesses a police officer shooting her friend Khalil, her world is shattered. Khalil was unarmed when their car was pulled over, but this isn’t the story the media is telling. If Starr speaks out she could put herself and her family in danger; but if she doesn’t, how will this prejudice ever change? Her voice is her weapon, but will she use it?
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a gripping and powerful read that I think should be essential reading for teenagers and adults alike. Thomas gives an emotional insight into the life of a black teenager grappling with racism and police brutality. The Hate U Give is a striking look at racial prejudice in the 21st century, both in tragic events like shootings and the insidious effect of racist remarks and slurs.
Starr’s struggle to get justice for Khalil is moving and heart wrenching. She is a complex character, and a very believable one. Starr is a brilliant heroine, she is real and conflicted and her voice is very strong. Angie Thomas really conveys the trauma Starr is going through after the loss of Khalil, and the impact of another death when she was a child. The family dynamics are also very well done and the dialogue is snappy and on point.
This is a brilliant and important book, one I want to press into people’s hands, it’s such an important book. It is a very impressive debut, and I look forward to reading more books by Angie Thomas in the future.

Review: The Space Between by Meg Grehan

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The Space Between

Meg Grehan

Little Island (March 2017)

YA

Beth has decided to take a year of solitude. Hidden away in her house, she lives according to a schedule, it makes her feel safe and secure. She has her own little world, and everything is under control there. Then, one day a dog called Mouse arrives at her window. Mouse brings Beth a rare and unexpected burst of joy, but it is his owner Alice who really changes Beth’s world. But Beth’s anxieties are still there, her year of seclusion rolls out, and letting someone else into her life is strange and scary.

This is a beautiful book in so many ways. The cover (designed by Paula McGloin) is gorgeous, and sets the tone for the book. The Space Between is a tender love story; quiet, emotional and moving. Grehan really conveys Beth’s anxiety and the ways in which her phobias trap and restrict her. At times the book can be difficult to read, and I felt panic setting  in myself reading some of the poems.

Just do the same thing

at the same time

just do it again and

again and again and

again and again and

again and again and

again until it sinks in

until your brain accepts it

until you can pretend

until you can pass as a person

Beth’s connection with Alice, the progression from friendship to something more, is handled tenderly. This relationship was built up slowly, in a manner that felt very realistic. Grehan explores the complexity for Beth of having a connection to the outside world once more. Beth has cut herself off from the rest of the world, and Alice’s ability to navigate it and to do things Beth isn’t able to do anymore is a source of tension. It is always good to see more LGBTQ love stories out there, particularly one portrayed in such a positive light. At times it did feel a bit too rosy, but of course I was glad Alice and Beth got their happy ending. I also would have liked the book to have been a bit longer,  I was enjoying it so much!

I also loved the fact that Alice, while playing a major role in Beth’s recovery, was not a knight in shining armour and Beth has to rely on her own inner strength to get better. Alice says to Beth at one point ‘I can’t be your reason.’ The Space Between shows how love and friendship can enrich your life and bring healing, but in the end Beth is the one who must take the steps, who must save herself. The ending is hopeful, but it is clear that Beth still has a long way to go and there is a sense that her recovery will be an ongoing process, with ups and downs. In this way, Grehan portrays mental illness in a very realistic way. Beth’s anxieties are by no means romanticised or beautified, and we really see how difficult coping with her agoraphobia, anxiety and depression is.

Above all, this is a beautifully written work. Even in the third person, we get right inside Beth’s head. The poems bring us right into her consciousness, and they flow beautifully. The formatting and typesetting are clever, and Grehan plays with the forms of the poems. I loved the part in which Beth is focusing on her breathing. In verse novels, words carry so much weight, and Grehan deftly weaves a moving tale of anguish, love and redemption. It is a short book, yet it has impact. Verse novels are much more prevalent in the US than in Ireland or the UK. Sarah Crossan is the most popular and prolific verse novelist in these parts, and it is great to see a new talent like Meg Grehan working in this format. Here’s to more Irish verse novels in the future!

The Space Between is an honest, delicate love story in verse, a book that warmed my heart and made me cry.

The Space Between will be launched in The Gutter Bookshop on Thursday March 30th by Deirdre Sullivan (author of Needlework and the Primrose Leary trilogy).

Space Between Launch

Review: …And a Happy New Year? by Holly Bourne

Oh how I love the Spinster Club! This is the series I wish could have been around when I was a teenager. I have had the new (and final, sob) book since DeptCon2 but I had been putting off reading it because I didn’t want this wonderful series to end. However, last weekend it was exactly the book I wanted to read. Now I have read it, I am happy to report that fans of Holly Bourne and the Spinsters will not be disappointed.

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…And a Happy New Year

Holly Bourne

Usborne (2016) YA

Same bench. Same view. Same girls.

And yet totally different girls…

…And a Happy New Year? is set at Amber’s New Year’s Eve party, and sees the Spinsters reunited after their first term of university. The distance and their new experiences has altered their friendship, and they are all keeping secrets.

Amber has made a life-changing decision, she just hasn’t found the right moment to tell her best friends yet.

Lottie is not enjoying university life in London, but she is too ashamed to admit it.

Evie’s boyfriend has had a relapse. She is afraid for him and for herself, but she is also afraid of her friends’ reaction.

With all these terrible secrets, this will be a New Year’s Eve to remember…

This is shorter than the other Spinster Club books (a novella rather than a novel) and switches between the POVs of the main characters. All three voices were distinctive, and using this format gave us an insight into each character.  I also loved the ‘countdown’ aspect of the book. There are some wonderful quotes about how New Year’s Eve is actually kind of terrible.

It’s about feeling let down by life. It’s about a sinking feeling in your stomach that the night should’ve worked out better. It’s about your high expectations being dashed. It’s about your feet getting really cold watching shit fireworks. It’s about worrying everyone is having a better time than you. It’s feeling, only ten seconds after midnight, that actually, yes, your problems are still here and you were a deluded idiot for thinking a new year could change that.

As ever, Bourne’s writing is both funny and moving, and she writes brilliantly about friendship, feminism and mental health. What I loved was how this book explored the complexities of growing up (and sometimes growing apart), showing how expectations and reality can differ. Each character’s story was strong and their struggles felt very real. I like that Bourne did not opt for a ‘happily ever after’ ending to her series.

And I was angry at the world and the future and growing up and becoming an adult and all the other things that just do not turn out how they’re supposed to.

This book (and this series) is very much focused on feminism. Romance comes into each character’s story, but the focus really is on their friendship. Bourne explores the difficulty of maintaining friendships when you are all off having different experiences and adventures. Her characters are faced with the question of whether growing up means growing apart.

My favourite of the three characters is still Evie, and her story was very moving in this book. Bourne evokes Evie’s anxieties in a real and honest way. She shows both Evie’s own struggles, and how Evie copes with her boyfriend’s relapse. Exploring this connection between mental health and relationships is a very important part of the book, and I liked that Bourne engaged with the complexities of this issue.

We’d both worked so hard to get better. Us, our love, was our reward. We were supposed to be basking in the harvest of our efforts, not tumbling back down into dark rabbit holes.

Amber and Lottie’s stories were also emotional, and this book has all of the best things about a Spinster Club book – feminism (Does any Christmas movie pass the Bechdel test? Is the New Year the most feminist of all the holidays?), great dialogue, friendship, cheesy snacks etc. etc.

This is a beautifully produced book. It was released in a lovely hardback edition. The dust jacket (pictured above) is gorgeous and festive, and the self cover with its foil design is also lovely.

I adored this book and it is definitely one I will re-read at New Year’s. While I am sad to leave the Spinsters (this book made me very emotional) I am looking forward to Holly Bourne’s next book, due out in 2017!

Author Interview: Ruth Frances Long (Dubh Linn trilogy)

I interviewed the fabulous Ruth Frances Long when A Hollow in the Hills, the second book in her Dubh Linn trilogy, was released last year. Now that the final volume, A Darkness at the End, is out in the world I caught up with Ruth to chat fantasy, trilogies, mythology, YA and more…

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1)   A Darkness at the End, the finale of the Dubh Linn trilogy, was published this autumn. What was it like to finish the series?

A bit of a rollercoaster, to be honest. I had a difficult time with the second book, A Hollow in the Hills, so I thought book three, A Darkness at the End might kill me. But as it happened, the story came together quite easily and the characters behaved themselves for once. Even the ones who did not want to die. It is actually incredibly fulfilling to know the complete story is out there now and I’m really pleased with the way it worked out.

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2)    There were some fantastic locations in the third book – was there one that stood out for you? I loved the scene in the National Gallery.

So difficult to choose just one so I’ll cheat a little. There’s a sequence where three characters go through the tunnels carrying the River Poddle until they reach St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then go to Marsh’s Library which is one of my favourite parts of A Darkness at the End. There’s a lot going on with the characters at this point, especially with Clodagh and there’s a certain symbolism tied in with this underground journey. Usually when researching a location I would go there, but with the Poddle, being a subterranean river, I couldn’t do that. Luckily I was able to find some documentary footage and photos online of the route and used that for reference.

 

3)      Which of your characters are you most like?

If I say Brí will it frighten everyone?

In reality, there is probably a bit of me in all of them, and a bit of all of them in me.

 

4)    Did you have a favourite character to write, or one whose head you found difficult to get into?

The Magpies became my favourites to write over the course of the three books. They were minor characters to begin with, hired thugs who didn’t have that much to do, but they grew into something much more and I was so sorry to say goodbye to them at the end. Not that I’d want to hang out with them or anything!

As for difficult to pin down, I was very worried about including the Morrigan in the final book because she’s such a huge and important character in so much literature and I wanted to do her justice.

 

5)    Do you prefer the first draft stage, or the editing stage?

A mixture of both. There are moments in the first draft when the story is flowing and it all just feels like magic. However, the editing stage often feels more solid and rewarding to me.

 

6)    Could you tell me a bit about the Morrigan in the third book – when did she come into your mind, and what did the research process for this character involve?

I always wondered if she would show up in the books. She’s a very difficult character to pin down and I didn’t want to make mistakes. I read a lot, of course and winnowed through various legends where she appears. I also spoke to a friend dedicated to the Morrigan, and we discussed her various aspects at length which was really eye opening and fulfilling. She’s often portrayed as a goddess of death, but she’s more like a goddess of life lived to the full on the edge of death. She’s a war goddess, and there’s a tremendous amount of energy in that. I see her and Brigid (who I portrayed as Brí) as being two sides of a coin, intricately linked together and immensely powerful for that.

 

7)    You have really strong female characters in the trilogy, particularly with the matriarchs. Was creating a female power structure in the books something you did consciously?

When you look at Irish legends there are incredibly strong and determined women running all the way through them. Because of the Christianisation of these stories when they were written down they are often given a very bad ending. But we still remember the likes of Maeve and Gráinne as the key character in the tale.  I really wanted hierarchy in Dubh Linn to reflect that, so the matriarchs came about quite naturally. They’re also very strong characters so it’s hard to imagine them being told to sit down and be quiet and putting up with that.

 

8)    There are some dramatic (and devastating!) moments in A Darkness at the End. What have reader reactions been like?

Throughout the series I’ve tried to confront dark moments head on. The biggest reactions I had from readers were from the end of A Hollow in the Hills and a certain death in A Darkness at the End. My husband is still only tentatively speaking to me about it.

 

9)    I love how you bring figures and creatures from Irish mythology into the Dubh Linn books. Are there other legends or mythologies you would like to explore in your writing?

I’ve always been fascinated with legends and folklore so there are many. I’m currently thinking quite a bit about Arthurian legends so I’d love to explore them some more.

 

10)  What are your favourite YA books you have read this year?

In no particular order… Caramel Hearts by Elizabeth Rose Murray, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín and Nothing Tastes as Good by Claire Hennessy.

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Thanks to Ruth for her fascinating answers, I can’t wait to read more of her books! If you are a fan of fantasy, romance or mythology (or all three!) be sure to check out the Dubh Linn trilogy (A Crack in Everything, A Hollow in the Hills, A Darkness at the End)

Ruth Frances Long’s website