ONE of the problems with writing a Christmas round-up of young adult books is that the best are frequently flecked with more than a little darkness.
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They are dystopias, bleak fantasies, and works of realism tackling the tough truths that come with being a teenager.
Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It (Quercus, £12.99), is not exactly a jolly festive book, rather it’s a raw, harrowing examination of how the events of one drink-fuelled night out turn 18-year-old Emma O’Donovan from local beauty into “The Ballinatoom Girl”, a victim of gang rape whose character is debated across national media, while the actions of the four men are shrugged off as “boys will be boys”. The author of Only Ever Yours, an examination of misogyny, winner of the inaugural YA book prize, has brought us another razor-sharp look at gender issues.
To her credit, O’Neill doesn’t start the book by delivering Emma O’Donovan as a sympathetic character: she’s selfish, preoccupied with her looks, mean to her friends, and far from a feminist. She is the girl who wears the short skirt, drinks the vodka, takes the drugs and flirts with all the guys. Do we say she was asking for it? What do we feel about the orgy of public humiliation and vocabulary of slut-shaming? An important, necessary book, for boys as well as girls.
By comparison, even the darker fantasy published this season seem like gentle tales of hope. Two Scottish authors bring us engaging works. The Secret of Skara Vhore by Jennifer M Calder (Troubador, £9.99), is the author’s debut and the first of a trilogy, which follows Katie, a girl originally found by a social worker in a dingy room next to her dead mother, as she is adopted by distant relatives on a Scottish island. There it becomes clear that she has a powerful connection with the past. Cathy McSporran’s second novel, The Few (Freight, £8.99) takes as its premise the story that Winston Churchill is said to have employed witches in his fight against the Nazis, and creates from that a gripping wartime tale which is less about arms and strategy, and more covens and magic.
McSporran is not the only YA writer with an urge to rewrite the war from a fantasy perspective, because there is also Wolf By Wolf by Ryan Graudin (Hachette, £10.99), a thrilling page-turner set in a world in which the Allies have lost the war and the Third Reich rules Europe. Its heroine is Yael, a former concentration-camp prisoner who is also, as a result of an experiment, a skin-shifter, and is now entering a cross-continental motorcycle race as a means to kill Hitler.
Also captivatingly inventive, is Carnegie winner Philip Reeve’s Railhead (OUP, £9.99) , a dazzling ride of a book, in which it is trains, and railroads, that transport people through gates in space.
Perhaps most readable of all is The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (Walker, £12.99), which has the feel of a dusty old classic, a Louisa M Alcott, or Charlotte Bronte, only grittier and often funnier. It is the memoir of 14-year-old Joan Skaggs, living in poverty in Pennsylvania who, when her father burns the books that have been her lifeline (Ivanhoe, Jane Eyre and Dombey and Son), decides to head for Baltimore and become a servant. She lands in the household of a Jewish family who own a department store, and determinedly earns her place there.
A delightful riff on some old favourite literary heroines, seen through the prism of history and feminism.