Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Adorkable, by Sarra Manning

AdorkableHere is the text conversation I had with my friend Claire about Adorkable:

Monday morning
me at 10.07: I just started reading new Sarra Manning book ‘Adorkable’ - reckon you’d probably get a kick out of it...
Claire at 10.27: Great title. Sounds awesome. Maybe distracting books about boys and make up are a good thing
me at 11.17: This one has boys, feminist dorks, jumble sale dresses and twitter
Claire at 11.21: It sounds proper awesome. Published or still proof?
me at 12.03: Its out now. Just read some more and revise my previous statement to totally awesome.
Claire at 12.17: Just downloaded to Kindle.That’s tonight sorted.
me at 1.33: Am now about half way through. Not often books make me laugh out loud.

Tuesday morning
Claire at 9.30: Read all of Adorkable last night. I loved it vair muchly. Proper fabby. Was awake till 2 reading

This pretty much sums up how awesome Adorkable is. ‘Proper fabby’ is probably exactly what Jeane Smith, star of Adorkable, would say if she was reading a book like Adorkable, and its my sentiment too.

The Essence of Adorkable-ism
I’d tell you its a good old-fashioned romance, but there’s very little that’s old-fashioned about it. Jeane, 17, is pretty angry about a lot of stuff. Like how apathetic most of her generation are, and the injustices being done to women around the world. But she’s also pretty lonely: as an emancipated teen she lives on her own, and as a dork she doesn’t have many friends at school. What she does have is half a million followers on twitter and a lifestyle brand, Adorkable. Started as a blog to talk about “all the wierd, wonderful and randm things I was into,” she says, “but very quickly Adorkable became a mission statement, my USP, a call to arms...”

Jeane is a dork and she’s proud of it, and she doesn’t plan on letting anyone tell her what she can and can’t do. She’s against corporations selling “us a whole bunch of crap that we don’t need or want,” and is for “ripping the logos off all your clothes or inking them out with Magic Markers.” So how is it that she keeps finding herself kissing the biggest anti-dork of them all, Michael shops-at-Abercrombie-and-Fitch Lee? She’s on a roller-coaster to finding out who she really is, what she really wants, and she’s taking Michael along for the ride. Can she avoid the temptation to sell out and let Adorkable become all that she despises? Can she find a way to be true to herself when the pressure gets too high?

There are lots of really great things about this book. The first is that its British. Woo hoo! I actually can’t remember the last time I read a really a good teenage book of this ilk that wasn’t American or set in America. In fact, I had to keep reminding myself that it was British, so accustomed am I to assuming everything is told from the trans-Atlantic perspective. Secondly, I love what a complex character Jeane is. There’s a customer review for Adorkable on which says they had trouble connecting with Jeane and criticises the character for being hypocritical. The fact is, Jeane is a little hypocritical. She doesn’t always practice what she preaches, and she changes her spots quite quickly - but this is the whole point. It’s an epiphany for her toward the end of the book when she realises that simply the act of telling other people how they should be, how wearing brands etc is wrong, is going against her belief that everyone has a right to dress or to believe in whatever they want. She realises that instead of trying to get dorks as accepted as anti-dorks, trying to show that everyone, dork or not, is equal, she’s actually just been trying to make everyone into a dork. And with this realisation she’s able to accept both herself and everyone else’s choices. Now that’s empowerment.

The Adorkable bug
Sarra Manning sees modern teenagers - Generation Y - with a critical but sympathetic eye and she has hit the nail on the head; she has pinned the tail on the donkey. The only thing I wasn’t really sure about with Adorable was some of the language. There is a lot of ‘totes’ and ‘whatevs’. Do teenagers really talk like this, I wondered, or do adults just think that teenagers talk this? I suspect it’s a little of both, and I suspect that it depends what area of the country they’re in. London may be a bit more than my southern corner of Cornwall. What did hit me hard, though, was Manning’s analysis of the state of teenagedom and their prospects. This is a definitely a book of today.

 “Generation Y are everything you feared,” Jeane says. “They’re lazy, apathetic, unoriginal, scared of innovation, scared of difference, just plain scared... Shallow. Narcissistic. Self-involved. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, Gen Y knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”

Sounds a bit harsh at first reading doesn’t it? My first thought was that, well, this is a bit of a sweeping summary, but when I stop and think about how everyone - teenagers and adults alike - spends so much time on their smartphones, twitter-ing and facebook-ing, and how full the TV schedules are with programmes like The X Factor and America’s Next Top Model, it does start to make me wonder at the blandness of it all. But then it goes on:

“The thing is,” she says, “ unless [teens] do get hurled into the arms of that bitch called fame, the future for Gen Y is pretty darn bleak. They’re the first generation who’ll earn less than their parents. They’re the first generation who won’t be expected to better themselves by going to university, because what’s the point in running up thousands of pounds or dollars in debt for tuition fees and student loans when there’s little chance of being able to find a job at the end of it?” It’s no wonder we’re all a little bit scared.

But Sarra Manning/Jeane has hope. There is a flip side. This really got me thinking. “And as the recession continues and our prospects look bleaker and bleaker, I’m excited. I look to the past to see what our future will be like. And in times of economic hardship and harsh governments, of pointless wars and mass unemployment, there was pop art and there was punk, there was hip hop and grafitti, there was acid house and riot grrrl.
“There was art and music and books that could bring you to your knees with their utter perfection. Because, when everything else is gone, all we’re left with is our imaginations.
“So, you know what? I’m not ready to write Gen Y off just yet and neither should you., because I think we’re going to grow up just fine. Yeah, it pains me to admit it, but the kids are all right.”
Dorks like Jeane stand out from the crowd because they dare to think differently. They dare to raise the stakes. They dare to make us wonder at what else could be, and this is amazing.

I heart Adorkable
Sure Jeane is outspoken, and sometimes this means she doesn’t always see everything that’s going on around her, but at least she knows how to stand up for herself. And sure she can be kinda selfish, but when she’s always had to fend for herself that’s pretty understandable. What Adorkable says to me is that there’s a little bit of dork in everyone. There’s a little bit of that need to conform in everyone too, and both of these things are ok. Being true to yourself is what counts. Standing up for what you believe in is what counts. And not putting others down for daring to be different is what we should look for in our future. We should all be reaching for the stars.

I heart dorks and I heart Adorkable.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Gold, by Chris Cleave

GoldI was recently reminded of the Robert Frost poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay. The idea that what we value most is impossible to grasp hold of permanently is strongly resonant of a lot of things in life. Gold: a soft, yellow, precious metallic element that is highly valued. We fight for gold - for the achievements it represents, for the monetary value, for the idea of perfection - but once we get there, what does it mean? And what do we have to sacrifice along the way?

Chris Cleave’s new book is the story of two athletes fighting for gold. They are at the top of their sport, Britain’s number one and two in track cycling. Zoe has already won twice at the Olympics; surely it is Kate’s turn now. Over three simple days, Cleave builds up the story and all its tangled threads, all its tensions, lining us up for the starter gun on day four, the race, the climax, the question: who will win, who will lose. It is outstanding. Reading in every spare moment I could find, I was completely caught up by the rhythms of the race, by the rhythms of the lives of these two women and the others caught up with them, their trainer Tom, Kate’s husband Jack and their poorly eight year old, Sophie.

What do they race for? Are they racing toward something, toward their future, or are they racing away from their past? How far are they willing to go - do they put themselves first every time, or are they able to put others first when it really matters?

Cleave’s writing is astounding. A race in itself, page by page he increases the momentum, until the wheels are spinning and the adrenaline is pumping. The story itself and the way he lays out the chapters resemble the strategies his cyclists use in their races, powering forward, hanging back, using the slipstream, the juxtaposition of storylines and character crises, then the final push to the finish line. Even Cleave’s language embodies the rhythms of the race. And, just when you think it’s all over, another battle is there, waiting at the sidelines, ready to pounce.

Gold begins in 2004, at the Athens Olympics, before jumping ahead to 2012 and preparations for the London games. Kate and Zoe, best friends and best rivals, look set to be winners, but as the days unfold Cleave starts to undo the assumptions I initially made: this is not the story of a simple rivalry - their lives are tangled together in more ways than one and they’re headed for a fall. Zoe is the selfish one, the one who puts winning above and beyond everything else, while Kate has sacrificed winning in the past for the sake of her family. Will she have to do the same again? Her daughter, Sophie, is fighting leukemia and, not wanting to worry her parents, is hiding just how much pain she’s really in. Kate, Zoe and Sophie are zooming towards crisis point and its anybody’s guess who will come out the other side, if anyone at all. Is it all worth it, in the end, for that one moment, that one instance, that one small piece of gold?

The blurb for Gold says: “Gold is about the limits of human endurance, both physical and emotional. Gold is about what drives us to succeed - and what we choose to sacrifice for success. Gold is about the struggles we all face every day; the conflict between winning on others’ terms, and triumphing on your own.” The truth is, Gold is all of these things and more. It’s painful, it’s heart-pounding, and it will take your breath away.

Here is a short interview with Chris Cleave talking about why he wrote Gold:

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Skulduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy

Skulduggery PleasantThe first in a series, this is the tale of Skulduggery, a ‘wise-cracking detective, powerful magician, sworn enemy of evil’ (as the blurb on the back of the book states). The twist is that dear Skulduggery is a skeleton.

Actually, I tell a lie. Really, this book is about Stephanie Edgley. As a twelve-year-old girl aching to get out of her small home town, circumstances lead her to a meeting with Skulduggery, during which he saves her life and she discovers not only his status as an undead skeleton, but also that magic exists, and in the most unlikeliest of places too.

Sound a bit odd? Well, yes, but then odder things may happen, especially in this particular world. Stephanie and Skulduggery embark on a detective mission that ends up with them saving the world. Very fortunate for us ignorant mortals. There are lots of good things about this book, the most outstanding one being the constant wit and humorous banter between the two leading characters:

Stephanie: “So you won’t keep anything from me again?”
Skulduggery: “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
Stephanie: “Ok... Though you don’t actually have a heart.”
Skulduggery: “I know.”
Stephanie: “ And technically, you’ve already died.”
Skulduggery: “I know that too.”
Stephanie: “Just so we’re clear.” *

Peopled with vampires, monsters and magicians, this is not one for the innocent of heart, but it is a romping good adventure, full of fast-moving fight scenes that wouldn’t be amiss in a Hollywood action movie. The non-magical inhabitants are typically two-dimensional and stupid, with the possible exception of Stephanie’s parents, though even they’re portrayed as fairly ditsy and judgemental. I think this is quite standard fare for children’s books - that the children know better than the supposedly mature adults - and one I found fairly amusing. I had a couple of writing quibbles and found the ending a little rushed and a tad unrealistic, but really the only significant thing I felt was missing was a bigger emotional storyline - sure its an adventure filled with magical mayhem and jeopardy, but I never really felt terribly worried about any of the characters. I expect, though, that this is my adult perspective getting in the way, that I am used to the emotional maturity seen in books written for teenagers. I doubt that those who are younger would be aware of the difference, nor that it would concern them.

Lastly, one massive thing in Skulduggery’s favour is that it can be enjoyed equally by girls and boys. A lot of fiction written for children is quite biased toward boy brains or girl brains (think Daisy Meadows and Steve Cole), and understandably so given the scientific evidence showing that there are significant differences in the way that boys and girls, men and women think, react and behave, but it is refreshing when an author is able to bridge the gap so succinctly. A strong female heroine for the girls, action and skeletons for the boys. What more could anyone want?

*Please note: the wording is this quote is changed slightly from the book (I left out the actions that were written so as to highlight the banter between the two characters).

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Looking for Alaska, by John Green

Looking for Alaska
In Looking for Alaska, Miles leaves his cosy, parental home for an Alabama boarding school. Sixteen years old and searching for ‘The Great Perhaps’ - aka, looking for his life to begin - on his first day at Culver Creek, Miles meets the Colonel, smokes his first cigarette, and falls in love with Alaska. Troubled wild child, Alaska is a mystery waiting to be unravelled. Swinging hot and cold, she gives glimmers of her past before shutting down and heading off to the next thing. Can Miles uncover her truths? And does he really want to?

In the children’s department of Waterstones Truro, John Green has the status of something akin to a god. Staff come and go, but for as long as I can remember there have always been at least two members of the team who worship him and his writing - to the point, even, where I’m kind of surprised there isn’t an actual shrine to him. And so, as the latest anointed member of ‘team kids’, I had to wonder, is he all that he’s cracked up to be?

Truth be told, I had my first encounter with John Green about two months ago with Paper Towns. This is the story of Quentin, high school boy, following - or attempting to follow - a set of obscure clues left for him by cute-girl-next-door, Margo. She has disappeared and Quentin is determined to find her, determined that somewhere in the weird messages she left him, there is clue to what happened to her and where she has gone. There was a point about half way through Paper Towns that left me just on the edge of bored, as Quentin’s search stalled and he became just a little too obsessed with his quest, but I was definitely impressed with Green’s style and story - impressed enough to want to read more.

Paper Towns is good,” my Green-o-phile colleague Natt told me. “But Looking for Alaska is better.”

And was it? Well, much like Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska is peopled with likeable characters and a compelling story. Both books are very well written (by which I mean that nothing grated, nothing irritated me, the language and the style were consistent), and both books are set in the real world (by which I mean there is nothing supernatural going on, and no re-imaginings of society). But what struck me most about Looking for Alaska is that, in essence, it was the same as Paper Towns. Same basic premise: slightly geeky teenage boy trying to figure out (or rescue?) troubled teenage girl. This left me wondering, is this all that John Green can write about?

At first, that question, that thought, made me feel disappointed. After all the amazing things I’d heard about this guy, are all his books going to be the same? But then I realised two things.

Firstly, they are not the same. Like Natt said, Looking for Alaska is a better book than Paper Towns. The absolute basics may be the same, but Looking for Alaska is a much more mature story - not more mature as in having more mature content (ie. sex etc, although there is a sex scene), but more mature as in how Green handles and presents the issues that Miles and his friends are dealing with.

And secondly, even though there are similarities, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: John Green writes about important issues, particularly those that growing teenagers are facing, with grace and aplomb.

Ooh, I really like that word. Aplomb. “Calm self-assurance and poise; from French a plomb, straight up and down,” my dictionary tells me. This does to seem to sum up Green’s writing quite succinctly. And, what’s more, reading the reviews that teenage customers have been writing for Looking for Alaska on, shows that this is exactly the kind of book that teenagers need, both for good quality reading and to assess the realities of life.

This explains Green’s following and the spawning of the nerdfighters: a community of people around the world fighting to ‘increase awesome and decrease suck’. Plus I find myself extremely impressed by John Green’s website/blog, on which he and his brother Hank post a series of short video logs tackling subjects as varied as farts, sex, video games, intellectualism and politics. Even as a grown-up and theoretically already versed in these things (I am so not versed in these things), I couldn’t help but find the video ‘Thoughts on romance and sex in an airport’ enlightening and wise. This is just the sort of guy that kids should be looking up to.

And so I must concede and bow down at the genius of John Green. Now, about that shrine...

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen

I Want My Hat BackJon Klassen is a literary genius. I Want My Hat Back follows the bear of the front cover as he meets and asks various different animals whether they've seen his hat.

The story is simply presented, with short, clear sentences on one page and a matching illustration opposite. This simplicity is just great for small children, with its repetitive style and the different coloured inks for the different animals, but the real genius lies in (a) the twist in the tale, and (b) the way that this twist is presented through the interaction of the words and the pictures - without looking at both, the reader wouldn't get the joke, because the words say one thing while, in the case of the twist, the picture says something different.

It's just brilliant. Whilst being simple, this particular interaction of words and pictures also makes it very sophisticated. I've had a couple of comments from customers in the bookshop to the effect that the pictures aren't very colourful and for that reason they haven't gone for my recommendation. Granted, the pictures use muted colours compared to the majority picture books out there, but I honestly don't think that deters from the book. For starters, who says that pictures have to be bright and full of colour for children to enjoy them? They are quirky and full of character, and adding glitter would only deter from this and from the impact of the tale - and the simplicity of these images are what makes the twist so enjoyable. Secondly, anyone who doesn't buy this book for the reason of colour alone doesn't have much faith in the intelligence or inquisitiveness of their child.

Both the words and the pictures of I Want My Hat Back are equally valuable and equally enjoyable. Have faith in the power of the story and of its telling and, dear reader, whether you are young or old, you won't be disappointed.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Communion Town by Sam Thompson

Communion TownCommunion Town is the story of one city, told by ten people. Ten points of view, ten different experiences.

Its a cool premise, the idea that every person who inhabits a place experiences it differently and has a different story to tell. Common sense, really, but rarely explored. From the foreigner passing through on her travels, to the immigrant seeking refuge, the Sherlockian private detective, the university graduate; each chapter gives the reader a different glimpse at life in this nameless, timeless place. Do they run parallel to one another or do the stories stretch over the years? How do they interconnect - or do they connect at all?

Comparisons are being made to David Mitchell, and understandably so: each storyteller has a different voice, a different style, almost a different genre. But Thompson isn't quite as adept at this as Mitchell - the differences are not as distinct or crisp. Perhaps, though, this was a deliberate choice: the book by no means suffers for it - if anything, it makes it easier to digest.

The best parts of Communion Town, though, are the hints of a macabre edge. In some chapters these hints are more subtle than in others, yet the idea of this oddness, this surreality remain almost unspoken, just out of reach. Some chapters reference a specific creature, The Flaneur, but he/it remains illusory. Who is The Flaneur? Is it the same person appearing every time, but viewed differently? Or is The Flaneur a myth that develops and changes over time? This would perhaps explain why he is represented slightly differently in each chapter. And - even where the name itself isn’t mentioned - each chapter contains a description somewhere of a shady character with a limp that corresponds with the physical descriptions each time The Flaneur is named. Is he the tramp with the carnation in his buttonhole? The strange, jumbled man the boy meets on the riverbank? The invisible entity haunting Stephen? A nameless monster who stalks the city at night, or merely a man bent on murder?

Wanting to know more, I looked up the word ‘flaneur’. Basically, it means ‘stroller’, ‘lounger’, ‘saunterer’. This makes sense: the flaneurs encountered in Communion Town all walk - or stalk - the streets of the city. But Charles Baudelaire developed the term further, extending it to encompass the idea that a flaneur is ‘a person who walks the city to experience it.’ This, then, enables Thompson to include most of his ten storytellers themselves as flaneurs - they all walk and experience the streets of the city, and regale the reader with their various experiences. And, furthermore, a flaneur can even incorporate a ‘complete philosophical way of living and thinking’, which reminds me of chapter seven, the story of Lazarus Glass, a city crime lord who has created a whole version of the city in his own mind - he lives and thinks the city, and cannot be separated from it; he is the city, or so he believes.

So, the whole idea of The Flaneur is itself embedded within the city and the book, far more deeply than is at first obvious. Very clever, and a sign - to me, at least - of careful thought and careful writing. This said, I did find some chapters more interesting than others. I was particularly intrigued by the ‘monsters’ mentioned in chapter one, but sadly they, or nothing similar to them, were ever mentioned again. Perhaps each person sees their own kind of monster.

Each storyteller ends their tale on a slight cliff-hanger, the hint of more story, which takes the risk of making them - and the book as a whole - feel incomplete. Yet it does feel complete - perhaps because we understand that the city continues outside the book and its story can never be fully told or finished.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Insurgent by Veronica Roth

InsurgentInsurgent, part two of Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, launches from the very moment at which book one, Divergent, finished. Literally. I think maybe a few minutes have passed, and this is just brilliant because I didn’t want to miss a single moment of Tris and Four’s story.

Insurgent manages to be different to Divergent and yet the same. I’m not going to say anything about the storyline for fear of raising Divergent spoilers, suffice to say that things have changed and Tris is fighting as hard as ever for the freedom to live as she chooses. The challenges thrown into her pathway - or whose pathways she decides to leap headlong into - are bigger, more life threatening, and have more far-reaching consequences than those she faced in Divergent. Roth has definitely stepped up the action and, while the choices Tris faced in Divergent were more personal, more about what was right for her and her small group of friends, those in Insurgent are more about honoring her parents’ legacy and seeking the greater truth.

The ever-dreamy Four, Tris’s love interest, suggests Tris is being reckless, but from her (and my) point of view, it it is more that she is trying to balance her Abnegation ideals and her Dauntless ideals, trying to do what she thinks and feels is right. And it turns out that the difference between her two factions are not that great: the Abnegations belief in selflessness is equal to Dauntless’ requirement of courage in the face of danger. Courage to do what is right, and courage to put others before yourself. Sometimes this requires self-sacrifice, something which the proud Four seems to have trouble understanding.

Actually, Four is rather blinkered throughout the whole story. Whether stubborn or prejudiced - or both - he refuses too see what Tris is trying to tell him (though, granted, she doesn’t really try that hard). While, as a reader, it gets a little frustrating that the two of them seem so doggedly stupid in their inability to simply communicate openly with one another, I guess they each have their reasons for shutting off. And, of course, this all adds to the tension. Not only did Roth keep me asking, ‘what is really going on, what is the truth?’ and ‘how is it all going to work out?’, but also ‘how are Tris and Four going to work out?’ The conflicts are well-developed; a relief because I think if done by a lesser writer, they could have been frustrating.

The biggest problem I have with Insurgent is that I am now going to have wait however long for the next installment. I would say to Veronica to hurry up and write it - actually, I will say exactly that - but with an amendment: take your time writing it, too, because I want it to be as good as parts one and two! And that’s no small pressure.