Contributor Review: Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks by Jennifer Gouck

Today’s review comes from soon-to-be PhD candidate, Jennifer Gouck. Jennifer’s doctoral research will consider the“Manic Pixie Dream Girl in YA Literature, Media, and Culture,” particularly with regard to gender, masculinity, and femininity.


Publication Details:

The Surface Breaks: A Reimagining of The Little Mermaid (9781407185538)

Scholastic, £12.99 (Hardback)

3rd May 2018


In a merkingdom deep beneath the cold Irish sea, young mermaid Gaia (also known as Muirgen) dreams of freedom, of breaking the surface and leaving her controlling father behind. On her fifteenth birthday, she realises her dream and swims to the human world for the first time – but she sees a terrible shipwreck on her visit. Drawn to a boy, Oliver, whom she saves from drowning, Gaia longs to return to land to join him forever; how much will she have to sacrifice to be with her the human she loves?


Having read Louise O’Neill’s previous two YA novels (Only Ever Yours [2014] and Asking for It [2015]) as well as her first non-YA novel, Almost Love, published in March of this year, I was more than a little bit excited when I received an ARC of The Surface Breaks through my work as a Senior Bookseller in Waterstones. Hailed as a searing feminist re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid with dark, twisted undercurrents, I was interested to see how O’Neill’s latest YA offering would bring Andersen’s tale into the twenty-first century. But: did it live up to the hype?

The answer is yes and no. O’Neill paints a stunningly detailed picture of the Merkingdom in which Gaia (re-named Muirgen by her father in the wake of her mother’s untimely death) lives. The Kingdom is courtly, reminiscent of the sort of society we would associate with eighteenth century England; Gaia sits on a throne of coral in her bedroom, and the ball thrown in honour of her fifteenth birthday is extravagant, with “gem stones embedded in the coral walls. Blood-red streamers hanging from the ceiling, woven from every sea-flower within the vicinity of the palace.” (19). Gaia’s obsession with humanity is established by the second page, her room an underwater museum of human artefacts pulled from shipwrecks and sailors from the world above. O’Neill’s attention to world-building runs deeper still; the name ‘Gaia’, invokes the Greek goddess who presided over the earth, while ‘Muirgen’, the name Gaia’s father gives to her after her mother’s death, means ‘born of the sea’ in Gaelic. Grandmother Thalassa’s name is also water-based, meaning ‘of the sea’ in Greek, while Gaia’s mother Muireann’s name means ‘sea white’ or ‘sea fair’, sharing its origins with Muirgen in Irish legend.

This level of nuance, however, crumbles elsewhere in the novel, and I found myself rolling my eyes at the heavy-handed nature of the characters’ symbolism. Take, for example, The Sea King. Gaia’s father rules the Merkingdom with a strict hand. Each of his daughters is (or will be) ‘bonded’ to a merman of his choosing, based on what is best for the Kingdom. The Sea King also prioritises the ‘purity’ of his people above all else; to enforce this, many years ago he banished the Rusalkas, a ‘sub-class’ of mer-folk, to the land beyond the Kingdom. With his all-male army at his right hand side, The Sea King expects the mermaids in his life to be beautiful, highly decorated, meek beings who should not speak unless spoken to. Indeed, at Gaia’s birthday ball, he arranges his six daughters, each with pearls sewn into their tails, in a line behind him from most to least beautiful. At one point, The Sea King makes a Trumpian comment that, were she not his daughter, he would choose Gaia for himself.

Did you get it? The Sea King is The Patriarchy! Subtle, right? Let’s try another…

Ceto, the Sea Witch, and her Rusalkas occupy the gloomy, decaying space beyond the Kingdom known as The Darklands. When Gaia goes to visit Ceto, she is shocked by what she sees: “A tail so black that it dissolves into the gloomy sea … Skin pale, and so much of it – rolling into ruffs of flesh around her neck, spooling around her waist … I did not know such a body was allowed to exist” (112). Ceto is overtly comfortable with her body, oozing sexual energy. To top it all off, she even wears – gasp! – red lipstick! Meanwhile the Rusalkas, green in colour, are the women the world rejected. They are orphaned, had their babies taken from them, or were abused while they walked the earth; the sea gave them new life.

Did you get that one? Yes, that’s right: Ceto is a third wave feminist, a ‘new woman’, and the Rusalkas are those (Irish) society left behind. #RepealThe8th, anyone?

It was in moments like these I found myself frustrated with O’Neill, a writer I know and love for her subtlety and nuance. In a nod to Andersen’s original, The Surface Breaks is fairy-tale-esque in its style and tone, almost poetic in its language. But, in blurring this with her feminist re-telling, O’Neill’s trademark multi-faceted writing became hidden under a clumsy first layer. Unlike her previous work, the ‘message’ here is used to violently smack you in the face over and over again. Perhaps this is homage to the original fairy-tale form which, of course, was known for its didacticism. Or, perhaps, it is to indicate that, on the issue of our patriarchal society, where Gaias everywhere are attempting to find their voice, the time for subtlety has passed. Either way, this approach sadly left me underwhelmed on the first reading, and it was only as I spent more time with the novel that I began to appreciate the quiet details that had been overwhelmed by O’Neill’s thunderous writing elsewhere.

To sum up, The Surface Breaks wasn’t quite the tour-de-force I was hoping for. That said, it is a solid feminist re-telling of the original fairy-tale. It is as visceral and unsettling as O’Neill’s other work, with Gaia falling into the ‘frustratingly unlikeable yet often relatable’ category of women O’Neill is famous for crafting. Overall, though, the novel fell short for me. I felt that it fell into that old trap of telling me about the mer-folks’ patriarchal society, about how Gaia’s painful walk on land was just as suppressing as her swim beneath the sea, about the weight of societal expectation which women with tails and with legs both have to bear. The Surface Breaks didn’t just lead me to the water, it forced me to drink from the very spot in the well of its choosing. An invocation of folk- and fairy-tales gone by? Perhaps. But O’Neill’s audience is not Andersen’s, and her intelligent readership, young and old alike, may find this technique tiring – an approach from which the novel should, like Gaia, have broken free.

3 out of 5 stars.





Schedule #YALMCSharedRead 2018

I really meant to write this post BEFORE announcing the first #YALMCSharedRead, but sometimes things have a tendency to happen more quickly than you expect!

The idea for a shared read came from Patrick Cox, a YALMC member. Early in the year, he and I were Twitter chatting about more ways to do what we love (read YA) and how to share that love with other people interested in YA. Thus, a “shared read” was born.

Initially, Patrick and I thought a book a month with a Twitter chat at the end of the book’s reign. We’re still going to do this, but we’re also going to do more! We’ve actually already started doing more! Namely on Goodreads. Oops. 😉

I ‘blame’ the Goodreads oops on Ikram Belaid — now a contributor and co-conspirator. Ikram reached out to me (Leah) because she’s starting a PhD on YA here in the UK (I’m very excited). In our conversations, she suggested we take the #YALMCSharedReads to Goodreads too. So, we did.

That’s the story, now the details.

We’re aiming to read 1 book a month. There is a space to “chat-as-you-read” on Goodreads. For our first book, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, check out the Spoiler Free Zone. On both Goodreads and Twitter, there will also be a chat at the end of the reading period.

“Ready-By” dates will be mid-month, with Twitter and Goodreads chat dates TBC each month:


April – Children of Blood and Bone 

Children of Blood and Bone

MayLove Simon (and Simon Vs the Homo Sapien Agenda)

Love Simon    simon.jpg

JuneInk (and Spark)

images     51uuYsO+YnL

July – Nowhere Girls

nowhere girls

AugustLove, Hate and other Filters

Love hate

September – S.T.A.G.S.


OctoberThe Dangerous Art of Blending

dangerous art

November – Going Green


DecemberOrphan, Monster, Spy

Orphan monster spy






Djinn by Sang Kromah


I’m rather tempted to spend this book review singing the praises of Sang Kromah herself but — aside from giving HUGE praise to Project: Girlspire — I’ll resist. Djinn is worth a read and a review. Besides, Kromah tells you a bit about it in the Q&A following my review!



When sixteen-year-old Bijou Fitzroy and her grandmother, Gigi, move to Sykesville, Bijou finally gets the chance to lead a normal life: attend high school, make friends, and enemies. Only, it doesn’t stay normal for long. Set apart, not just because of her changing colour and an uncanny ability to feel what other people are feeling, Bijou is different, and she’s quickly sucked into a world intrigue and mystery as mythical creatures become real. With the help of Sebastian and Amina, Bijou begins to navigate a world she didn’t know existed, finding powers within herself she never knew she had.


Admittedly, I wasn’t sure how hard I’d fall before starting it – I’m not usually a fan of fantasy set within our world – but from the beginning, I was hooked. Bijou’s story drew me in – I had to know how her mad desire to attend high school would play out (I HATED high school). In the end, I also adored the contemporary US setting. It’s where Djinn needs to be:

“Western civilization … has romanticized the djinn by turning it into a friendly blue creature that resides in a magic lamp, granting wishes… They have turned what most Africans and scholars refer to as Mami Wata into a singing girl with a tail and call it a mermaid, but if you were to encounter the real deal, it would be nothing to sing about” (Loc 941).

How do we see things? What stories are we told? are both at the heart of Djinn.  Western culture is a sponge, absorbing and sterilizing (academic me would say homogenizing) characters, and stories from across the world. For the people and groups whose stories are taken, this absorbing isn’t a particularly nice process, which is why stories like Djinn are so important. They help those of us enmeshed in Western culture see beyond the trappings and packagings we’re fed by mainstream media. Kromah’s interweaving African, especially Liberian, folklore into contemporary Western culture — fans of Buffy are certainly in for a treat — unwraps the packaging allowing readers to see, to know, more about the world.

“Seeing more” is reflected in Bijou’s empathetic abilities.

“With the Typicals, their emotions rub off on me when they’re in close proximity. It’s even worse if they happen to make eye contact; I see things — sometimes truly horrible things” (Loc 60).

Dividing the world into Typicals (humans) and Others (something else), Bijou can see more than a person’s external packaging, and I think this is where the true beauty of Kromah’s book resides… For the rest, you’ll really just have to read! (I’m more than happy to talk about the 9-million other things I loved once you have!!). — Leah

I recently had the change to ask Sang a few questions about YA, Djinn, her favourite stories from childhood, and the power of words – plus a sneaky little slipping in of GirlSpire. I’m thrilled to share her responses!

1) What drew you to YA? It’s a field I adore — must do, I did a whole PhD on it (#DorkLove) — so I’m always curious to know why others want to write it, write about it.

First let me just say, I think it is so cool that you have a PhD in YA. If I had known that was a possibility, I would have definitely done that as well.

I write YA because childhood is a time of simultaneous uncertainty and fearlessness. That’s what YA represents. I think there are so many older readers of YA because it’s unapologetic. The characters are finding their place in this world, and whether we’d like to admit it or not, most adults don’t have it all together and can still relate to this uncertainty. But the thing about YA is that it has the power to humble readers because many times these characters are going through so much and they find a way to deal with it, while being so honest about it. I think that’s beautiful. I went through a lot as a young adult. My parents were always opening our home to others and often my younger brother and I felt like we got lost in the cracks. My adoptive sister was terminally ill and sadly passed away, and so much more. I constantly remember wishing I was an adult and wishing that part of my life was over. But having to go through that made me impeccably strong. I often find myself reminiscing about those days because, in all honesty, they were the best days of my life. Writing YA reminds me of that strength because I often need a reminder of how strong I can be and what I’m capable of.

2) I desperately want to read more (more about) West African folklore. Any favourite stories? I adore trickster figures…

You would love my parents. As a kid, my parents wouldn’t read stories like Cinderella to me, because I could read those on my own time. They’d tell us stories from Liberia. Many about the djinn, which are calla jena in Liberia, stories about Mami Wata (mermaids), or Spider (Anansi). Spider is the most infamous of all the tricksters. One story comes to mind where greedy Spider gets invited to two parties, but rather than accepting one invite and declining the other, which was in a neighboring town, he accepts both, not wanting to miss out on any food. The plan was to tie a rope around his waist, and when the food was ready at one party someone was supposed to pull at the rope, so he could go to that party. The problem arose when both parties decided to serve their food at the same time, resulting in the rope being pulled at both ends, all at once. Spider screamed and screamed, but he was being pulled from both directions. When the pulling ceased, Spider’s waist was so small that his entire shape had changed. And this is how Spider got a small waist.

Another story that may be semi-familiar to those who read Djinn is the story of Femeni and a notorious jena/djinn named Zoom. Femeni was known for being disobedient. She never respected her elders and no amount of discipline changed her behavior. There was a lagoon that the town’s children used to swim at, but everyone knew that it was forbidden to swim there during a certain time on Fridays. One Friday, Femeni daringly went to the lagoon and spent the afternoon swimming, declaring that nothing would happen to her. That evening as she began her walk home, the moon was full and soon, the ground began to shake. Femeni heard a voice begin to sing in Mandingo, “Where is Femeni? Femeni was here. I’m looking for Femeni.” As Zoom sang his song, Femeni ran as fast as she could back to town, knocking on doors, but as she approached, singing in Mandingo, “Help! Help! It’s Femeni. Open the door. Zoom is After me,” door after door shut before her. As Zoom got closer, Femeni was certain, this was the end for her, but as she ran she realized she was drawing closer to a familiar house. Her grandmother’s. When she knocked on the door to announce herself, her grandmother asked, “If I open the door, will you behave yourself from this day forward?”

Femeni answered, “Yes Maman!”

Her grandmother then asked, “Will you respect your elders from this day forth?”

Once again, Femeni answered, “Yes Maman!”

The door flew open, and Femeni to her grandmother, who shut the door before Zoom, saving Femeni from what could have been death or being taken to the Otherworld.

As you can probably tell, Femeni’s story was my favorite and over the years I’ve written countless stories about Femeni. ‘Djinn’ is the story of Femeni’s daughter.
There are so many stories, but the problem we face is that most of our stories are told orally and as our worlds become bigger and we leave our places of origin, many of these stories die with our old people. This is why it’s important that we write our own stories before they’re all lost.

3) I feel like within Djinn there’s a real sense of “the power of words,” the power to speak things into existence… I’d love to know more about your sense of the power of words, stories, representation.

Think about how in many of the stories we read and here, simple words are what changes the state of a character’s world. It could be a spell or a threat. Words, if not chosen carefully can save or cost a life. Think about Rumplestiltskin and the power vocalizing his name held over him. Or even historical figures; it’s their words that live long after they’ve perished. Once they are uttered, they can’t be withdrawn. Growing up, my grandmother always puts an emphasis on being conscious of the words we speak. She used to say, “Our mouths are like prayer books, speaking things into existence.” She used to tell me to be careful of what I say because you never know what/who is listening. Those words have always had a great impact on how I speak and what I say. With all the stories of djinn I’ve heard and some of the things I’ve seen, I don’t doubt at all, that there’s some truth in the cautionary tales we’re told.

In ‘Djinn’, diversity is at the forefront. Most of the character’s names aren’t common and everyone looks like they’re from a different part of the world. This was very important to me, because growing up, characters that looked like me and the people in my world weren’t represented in the books I read. We come in so many hues with such rich histories, and I wanted my book to show that. Growing up, I would read beautiful books, and always find myself wondering, why can’t fantastical things happen to people like me? That type of diversity is necessary, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t necessarily fit into the defined boxes society has created for us. For example, even though I was born in America, both of my parents were born in Liberia, from very diverse backgrounds. I was very proud of my heritage and my very ethnic name, but going to school was difficult. Although I’m black, I didn’t necessarily look like the other kids at school and my full name is very African, so I was called an “African booty scratcher.” And then, I moved to the suburbs, and I spent many years as the only person of color in most of my classes until high school. In these situations, bullying arises or silly questions are asked due to the lack of positive examples of people that are different. This is why it was so important for me to create characters that don’t quite fit into those designated boxes I mentioned earlier.

In the second book of the series, it delves deeper into the past, allowing Bijou get a better understanding of where she comes from with the introduction of Rugiatu, who you met in “The Curse of the African Bootyscratcher,” the short story I recently published on Project GirlSpire.

4) I *know* we’re meant to be talking about Djinn, but Project READ and Project GirlSpire? Tell us more, please!

Project READ (Restoration Education Arts Development) is a female-led library initiative I started. The plan is to open a public library in Liberia that is run and managed by an all-female staff with programs specifically tailored for girls. It will be a safe place for girls…something that is drastically needed in Liberia.

Project GirlSpire is a digital media platform I started for women and girls, where we create the narrative. I am passionate about this because the biggest flaw in the current media landscape is that our stories get lost in translation because someone else is speaking for us. With Project GirlSpire, I have created an interview series which sheds a light on who successful women were at 15, who they are now, and asks what message they have for their 15-year old self. It’s a fun way of revisiting their younger selves, facing their pasts, and relishing in the women they’ve become. Most importantly, this is a great way of letting today’s girls know, it does get better. Many of our writers are in high school and college with notable guest writers like Newberry Medal-Winning author, Erin Entrada Kelly.


Kromah’s Djinn is a captivating #ownvoices YA fantasy novel and a part of an exciting new chapter in YA fantasy (I’m currently revising a whole book chapter on this topic!). It’s out on the 20th of March, so not long to wait!






“Adolescent Identities: The Untapped Power of Young Adult Literature”

BIG AI.png



I’ve a bit of absolutely brilliant news to share: Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold and Dr Leah Phillips (me!) have been awarded just over £6k to run a pilot study on representation in YA by University College London (UCL) under their Grand Challenges mega-theme of Adolescent Lives.

We. Are. So Excited.



UCL’s Grand Challenges supports cross-disciplinary collaborations that explore joined-up solutions in six areas related to matters of pressing societal concern: Global HealthCultural UnderstandingSustainable CitiesHuman WellbeingJustice and Equality and Transformative Technology.


Perhaps even more thrilling: YALMC is the reason this project is happening! It was Melanie’s reaching out to join that directly led to our collaboration. Going through emails this morning to find the project’s beginnings, there’s a flurry of “I’d love to read your book!!” “Wow, our interests seriously overlap,” “we should work on a project together” – in the YALMC email account. And, while I’m beyond thrilled to be running Adolescent Identities and to be working with Melanie and Laura, I’m maybe a teeny tiny bit more thrilled that YALMC is doing the very thing I created it to do – connecting people interested in and working on YA.

Project Synopsis:

Can I see ‘me’ in this book? Can I see ‘you’? Does it matter? (It does.)

Young adult fiction (YA) is a vital resource for adolescent identity formation. However, there is a lack of YA reflecting the increasingly plural and intersectional makeup of contemporary British society: fewer than 8% of YA titles (2006-2016) were by authors of colour (MRB). The identities predominating YA are overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, cisgender, and heterosexual — refusing to acknowledge difference through omission. How does this lack of diversity effect adolescents who do not align with those norms? Adolescents who do, as they exist with those who do not?

Given increasing multiculturalism and rises in hate crimes/anti-immigration rhetoric (‘Brexit’), YA reflecting the complex nature of British society is vital. This project seeks to understand the effects of YA’s homogeneity while quantifiably identifying the need for diverse YA, through reading groups open to adolescents throughout the UK, an online discussion with the global YA community, and an ethnographic study of the UK’s only YA convention. Additionally, this project will increase, especially underrepresented, adolescents exposure to UCL while also affording them a safe place to discuss issues of identity in a fractured Britain.

More details coming soon!



Mikko Azul – The Staff of Fire and Bone

Staff+CoverFive Stars

An excellent example of mythopoeic YA – vibrant fantasyland, deeply woven, and thrilling.

What’s the story?

Cédron is, complicatedly, the heir apparent of Muralia. His father, of mixed Askári-Tawali blood, is Regent. However, Cédron is also Shäeli. His mother is a Shäeli demon, and while the people of Muralia are open to and tolerant of people whose heritage is Askári, Tawali, or any combination of the two, the Shäeli are vilified. Owing to his mother’s heritage, Cédron is hated by the very people is meant to lead, a hatred that peaks as Cédron comes into his power.

At the centre of clashing worlds, Cedron must decide if he’s to be the hero fate has positioned him to be or if he’ll embrace the dark magic available to him.


There are so many things I loved about this book! Cédron’s such a relatable character — pulled in so many directions, unsure of where to go, who to become, and who hasn’t felt exactly the same at some time or another?

“Cédron’s eyes hardened to green ice. ‘I know that I’m called a demon and an abonimation, that everyone wants me dead because I’m diffeerent and because I have powers. What nobody understands is that I’mt trying to use my abilities to help, to heal and to support my family. I didn’t mean for the wildfire to get out of control. It was an accident” (Loc 3806)

There’s also a healthy dose of magic and myth, and Azul does some pretty fabulous world-building creating a world in which the Cédron’s makes sense. The Staff of Fire and Bone is YA fantasy, but it also does things differently. In all the YA fantasy I have read (and that’s a lot), I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a girl being transformed into a “staff of power”… but to find out who and why, well, you’ll have to read the book!