The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill
A dark, feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid set off the Irish coast, The Surface Breaks has all of Louise O’Neill’s hallmarks. I often find myself still thinking about her books weeks (or years) later - and this is no exception. I think The Little Mermaid might be ruined for me for life, now - I cried when I watched the Disney movie a week after finishing The Surface Breaks because, far from being a departure from the original tale, this book just amplifies what is already there.
Gaia, a young mermaid who dreams of freedom from her controlling father and her predatory fiancé, becomes obsessed with a human boy when she is finally allowed to swim to the surface. She longs to join his world and discover the truth about her mother’s disappearance when she was a baby, but to do so she has to sacrifice her voice… and that is far more precious than she realises.
At first, I found the book a little heavy-handed with the feminism (which is something I never thought I would say!). It feels like the point is laboured over and again that women are merely objects to be possessed by men, that beauty is all they have to offer and that they should be seen and not heard. But, as she made the decision to visit the Sea Witch (who was the best part about the whole book) and the story unfolded, I was hooked and the ending was tense and triumphant. There was no romance to redeem the men as in the Disney version, just a sharp depiction of the daily abuse that women face and the discomforting reality that the human world is certainly no better than the menacing world of the mermaids.
Vox by Christine Dalcher*
Set in an America where women are only allowed to speak 100 words a day, tracked by counters on their wrist, this is a harrowing look at the ways in which freedoms can be slowly eroded in the face of strong religious rhetoric. Dr. Jean McClellan is a linguistic scientist, slowly going mad in a domestic prison of the government’s making, fearful for her daughter who is being trained not to have a voice, and for her son who is a signed up member of the ‘Pure’ movement governing the country. When she gets the opportunity to reclaim her voice, what will she do with it?
This is going to be one of the standout books of the year; with a background of the #MeToo movement, the domination of the religious right in America and a self-confessed sex criminal as President, the issues in this book could not be more pertinent. The story is shocking, yes, but isn’t that the point of dystopian fiction? To put a mirror up to society and show us how bad things could get. Far-fetched, but not so far-fetched that we can’t imagine this world come to pass.
Though fairly short, this book packs in a lot, from an incompetent President acting as a puppet for darker forces, to the struggle of being in a heterosexual marriage in a world that punishes women (whilst the situation in the book is extreme, how many women have felt frustrated that their husbands or boyfriends don’t really understand #MeToo, not at their very core?). It’s about the importance of speech and of having a voice, and perhaps most pertinently, about using it before it is too late. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending (which I won’t spoil for you here) but it definitely gave me a lot of food for thought, and I think is one that will stick with me for a long time.
The Governess Game by Tessa Dare*
After her means of making a living literally slips through her fingers, Alexandra is forced to take on a post as a governess to two wild young orphans, whose guardian, Chase, is an infamous rake and, rather unfortunately, the subject of many of her daydreams after their meeting in a bookshop months before. Of course, his determination not to form any attachments (including those with his young wards) and her trepidation about risking her heart are both tested as they are thrown together by two impossible little girls.
It is well documented that I am a sucker for a historical romance, and Tessa Dare is one of my favourite authors. If you want to know why… read this book. I am in love with this book and this story and these characters, and it has everything I adore in a romance novel. A feisty, independent heroine who knows her own mind, a devil-may-care hero with a penchant for witty banter, and heart-melting moments aplenty. The two girls add such a wonderful element to the book, as the relationship between all four characters grows. Obviously, I’m particularly soppy when it comes to kids these days, but I defy anyone not to love these girls and their pirate games and their obsession with killing their dolls in all sorts of gruesome ways, all for the chance to stage a funeral with the guardian whose attention they crave so deeply. Ugh. I’m crying just thinking about it. This is a beautiful and perfect love story that might my heart soar, and I demand you all read it immediately.
The Plus One by Sophie Money-Coutts*
Polly is fine. Sure, she’s single, turning thirty and stuck at Posh! magazine writing about royal babies. Oh, and her best friend is getting married so she needs a plus one… and soon. As New Year dawns, Polly makes a pact to get her sh*t together, starting with a trip to interview the infamous Jasper, Marquess of Milton, and his somewhat eccentric family. She vows not to succumb to his charms… but who can resist a dashing Marquess?
If a book is endorsed by Jilly Cooper, you know I’m so there - and Jilly didn’t disappoint with her recommendation on this one. I rarely pick up ‘chick lit’ books these days, but every time I do, I am reminded of why I love them - and why I devoured so many as a teenager. The heady mixture of escapism with real life emotions, loveable side characters and a guaranteed happy ending? Well, you can’t say fairer than that - and that exact combination had me racing through this book at a rate of knots. I didn’t love the ending, but that didn’t stop me turning the pages as quickly as I could, falling deep into Polly’s world of ridiculous, social-climbing bosses and unspeakably posh colleagues, a sweet but slightly batty mother and best friends you wish you could hang out with yourself. A great read, for sure.