Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Hero on a Bicycle, by Shirley Hughes

Hero on a BicycleI grew up on Shirley Hughes’ picture books - Dogger, Alfie, and her illustrations for My Naughty Little Sister (I was a naughty little sister, so this series was particularly appealing to me). So, when I heard that she had written her first novel for older children (for 9-12s) I was eager to give it a go. With hindsight though, perhaps this particular author should stick to picture books.

Hero on a Bicycle is set in Italy during the second world war. The country is occupied by German forces, but the allies are on the horizon, and during the course of the story the allies invade, weakening the German hold with a little help from Italian rebels. Paolo yearns for a bit of action to interrupt his monotonous life, and that is exactly what he gets when his British mother is forced to harbor an escaped prisoner. How will their problems resolve themselves? Are they going to get caught?

It’s a fairly typical sort of war-based adventure story, but is sadly lacking in sophistication. The writing is a bit stilted and really quite desperately in need of a lot less ‘tell’ and lot more ‘show’. I found myself rushing through it as quickly as possible simply so I could get to the end, be able to say I’d read it, and thus move on to something more gripping. Because that’s what was missing: grip - that edge-of-your-seat, oh-my-goodness-I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening sort of scenario. And, I think, this is especially important when it comes to young children and their reading. It’s why books like Skulduggery Pleasant and writers like David Walliams are such a massive success.

On the flip side, my mum also read Hero, and she likened the style to Enid Blyton, an author who I have never actually read. Enid Blyton is still one of the most sought-after authors in the children’s department. Given my lack of experience with her writing I am not really in a place to comment, but I imagine her style is quite old fashioned, and this is perhaps why my mum has drawn this particular analysis. Given Blyton’s continuing popularity this, in turn, suggests maybe there are plenty of children out there who will enjoy reading Shirley Hughes’ new offering.

Never read Enid Blyton? Why on earth not? you may ask. Well, actually it’s because my mum doesn’t like her, so as a child I was discouraged rather than encouraged to read her books. Perhaps it’s time to remedy that and find out for myself what she’s really like. I think I’ll pass on any more novels by Shirley Hughes though and avoid another disappointing afternoon of reading.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Boy in the Dress, by David Walliams

The Boy in the DressEager to find out why everybody loves David Walliams, and to discover for myself if his writing is as funny as I’m told, I decided to start with his debut, The Boy in the Dress. Verdict? His writing is everything it is reputed to be.

The Boy in the Dress tells the tale of Dennis, a twelve year old boy living an ordinary life on an ordinary street in an ordinary town. Or, as Dennis would put it, living a boring life on a boring street in a boring town. But Dennis is neither ordinary nor boring, of course, and this book is all about accepting those differences both in oneself and in others.

Walliams’ voice is clear and friendly, using simple language and simple story-telling, but without talking down to the reader. In fact, sometimes he talks directly to the reader, very unusual but very effective, and adding to his humorous style. Although the main character is twelve, this book would definitely be suitable for younger readers as well. And - of course - it’s funny. Walliams writes like I imagine young boys think. It is full of little asides, jokes, even irony and sarcasm, and the humour is well balanced - as well as the obligatory fart jokes, there are smart ones too. I don’t often laugh out loud at books, but this one had me sniggering at the breakfast table.

“You poor boy, expelled just for not wearing the correct school uniform. Darvesh never told me, what exactly were you wearing?”
“Erm, it really doesn’t matter Mum...” said Darvesh. He attempted to hurry her out of his room.
“No, it’s OK,” said Dennis. “I don’t mind her knowing.”
“Knowing what?” asked Darvesh’s mum.
“Well,” Dennis paused, before continuing in a serious tone. “I went to school wearing an orange sequined dress.”
There was silence for a moment.
“Oh, Dennis,” she said. “What a terrible thing to do!”
Dennis paled.
“I mean, orange is really not your colour Dennis,” she continued. “With your light hair you would probably look better in a pastel colour like pink or baby blue.”

I liked that Walliams set the bigger story up by introducing the differences between Dennis and his best friend, Darvesh; and I liked that although Dennis liked looking at designer clothes, this didn’t mean that he is gay. Its particularly interesting to note that there’s no use of that term, or any of the slang associated with it, anywhere in the book. The focus is on the fact that he likes clothes, and this interest is not used to infer anything greater. In the end, doing something different doesn’t solve all of Dennis’s problems, but it makes life a little more interesting and brings a little more colour to his days. It tackles similar ideas as R. J. Palacio’s fantastic Wonder (the acceptance of others), but in a completely different, and perhaps more child-friendly, way.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsBeautiful. Intense. Heart-rending; heart-warming.

These are just a few of the things left floating around in my story-scarred brain after completing The Fault in Our Stars. I thought it was going to be one type of book, but it turned out to be something else entirely. Within the first chapter or two I had made a whole list of assumptions about where the story was going to lead me, only to have those turned upside down by the end of the book.

I knew it was going to be good - a whole raft of customer and bookseller recommendations couldn’t dispute that - but I didn’t expect it to be this good. I didn’t expect the writing to blow me away. I didn’t expect it to be so full of world-changing thoughts and wise words. I didn’t expect it to be so immensely beautiful, and now I regret rushing through it in my desperation to finish the story, to find out how it ends; to experience all the emotions in one intense day. How does he do it? The conclusion I have swiftly reached is that there’s no better role model for the world than a book written by John Green.

The story is this: Hazel has cancer. She lives with it and it lives with her. Depression, she says, is not a side effect of cancer, it is a side effect of death; it is a side effect of being consumed by your own, out-of-control cells. But, worried about depression, Hazel’s mother sends Hazel, much to her disgust, out into the world to attend a teen cancer support group. And so Hazel meets Augustus, which is, of course, the real beginning of this story.

Augustus is not all that he might be cracked up to be, given the premise of this story. He is not perfect. He has ideals that, as far as Hazel can see, neither he nor she can live up to, and it is heart-rending to see him fall apart in their pursuit. Hazel, in contrast, has a very simple set of requests for life, only to discover that life can offer a her lot more than she thought possible. I’m not going to lie: only the most hard-hearted and callous reader will be able to complete The Fault in Our Stars without shedding a few - or a bucketful - of tears. It is just that powerful.

The title references a Shakespearean quote that Green himself refers to about half way through the book: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.” The character is talking about ‘hamartia’, the idea that every hero has a fatal flaw, some unconscious weakness that reveals itself at the worst possible moment, creating their downfall. It’s a concept that crops up again and again in literature, and is particularly resonant in Greek tragedy. Thus, we cannot blame the stars for what goes wrong in our lives, but only ourselves. Green seems to turn this around in his title - it’s not, after all, called ‘Not the Fault in Our Stars’, but ‘The Fault in Our Stars’. Does this mean he disagrees with the concept of hamartia? Or is it simply that the overriding fault in his characters' lives - cancer - is not of their own making? My mind flip-flops through a whole series of contradictions and ideas while I think about this - hamartia versus stars, stars versus hamartia. Because where cancer is concerned, while it’s not our fault, it is something our bodies do to themselves without our choice, which is much how hamartia works. So perhaps cancer isn’t a fault in our stars, but in ourselves. Either way, hamartia is definitely something Green gets me thinking about. Are we to blame for the mistakes we make, or are they simple written in our stars?

Another theme riding through the story is the idea of how we as humans commemorate or remember people after their deaths. This is brought to the reader most directly through another Shakespeare quote, this time from the fifty-fifth sonnet. “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme; / But you shall shine more bright in these contents / Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.” The character  then points out that despite the sentiment of this verse, the fact that it exists to commemorate a particular death, today we actually know virtually nothing about the person for whom it was written. The idea of living on after we die, of wanting to make our mark on the world, consumes Augustus much as it does many people. Often, the need to achieve things with our lives, whether to prove that our lives have not been wasted, or whether to somehow make sure we won’t be forgotten after we’ve gone, spurs us on. Peter, who writes these lines in The Fault in Our Stars, tells us that we cannot immortalise the lost by writing about them. Ironically, this is exactly what he has tried to do and, I suppose, it is what Hazel is doing too. But, Hazel reminds us, Nothing gold can stay, wrote Robert Frost.

Overall, what I take away from this book is that love is transformative. It is transformative in every way imaginable, whether that is love for a lover or for a child. But death and loss, and the fear of dying are transformative too. It is a sad story, but it is an uplifting one too. It feels true, and it leaves me feeling wistful, and mindful, and with heartache.

“It seemed to me that I had already seen everything pure and gold in the world,” Hazel writes. “And I was beginning to suspect that even if death didn’t get in the way, the kind of love that Augustus and I share could never last. So dawn goes down to day, the poet wrote. Nothing gold can stay.”

It leaves me with a wish to be able to write as John Green writes. To be able to evoke beauty. To be able to find that essence of the human soul.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Second Chance Summer, by Morgan Matson

I dream of summers like this. Of the summer house with wooden floors, the porch to sit on and watch sunsets, of sand and water, of best friends and boyfriends. It’s like my youth - or an ideal version of how I wish my youth had been - wrapped up in a book. I don’t recall ever having summers that were actually like this, but I still hope that one day it’ll happen. Second Chance Summer may be, like its narrator Taylor says, the best of times and the worst of times, but its essence just encapsulates what a great summer should be.

Taylor is the difficult middle child. Her older brother is the smart one, her little sister the talented one. All she seems to be any good at is running away when things get tough. That’s exactly what she did five years ago, and it’s exactly what she wants to do right now. Her dad is sick and wants to spend one last summer all together as a family at their summer lakehouse. It’s been five years since they last went and five years since Taylor threw away the most important friendships of her life. How is she going to face Lucy and Henry again, and how is she going to face her dad’s illness?

I really enjoyed this book. I found it to be a really calm reading experience, yet I raced through it barely realising how much of the story I’d read. It has everything that I enjoy in a book of this ilk, evoking not only that summer setting I dream of, but also all the characters’ various emotions, and Taylor’s especially. I’m a big fan of Sarah Dessen and Second Chance Summer reminded me very much of her style and approach - a teenage novel with real people in real situations. Morgan Matson was actually shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize earlier this year for her first book, Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour, a book I haven’t yet read but have heard endless praise for - it is definitely going on my reading list now.

Ultimately, Taylor discovers she has a lot more to offer than she thought she did - she’s the one who keeps her family together, helping her shy little sister to make friends and her socially inept brother get a girlfriend. She is the heart. But when things start to get really tough can she stop her legs from twitching, can she stop herself from running away from all that makes things too difficult?

I’m itching to talk more about this, but can’t without giving the storyline away, so get out there and read it now!

Friday, 8 June 2012

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

WonderHowever much praise I attempt to heap on this book is not going to be sufficient. It is - simply - wonderful.

August (Auggie for short) wants the same things that every other 10 year old wants: friends and the ability to run around and play freely. To be normal. But other people find him scary to look at. Born with a severe facial deformity, in and out of hospital for most of his life having reparative surgery, until now he has always been home-schooled, but his parents have decided: it’s time he went to proper school. This asks one very big question: how are his new classmates going to react to him?

Wonder is told from the perspective of a small handful of different characters, Auggie and his big sister included. Each and every one is funny and smart, real and brave, Auggie especially. The story has a good balance of ups and downs, and I think the different points of view lend to this admirably. One thing that really stood out was the adult responses to both Auggie and the events of this story. Tellingly, a certain group of adults were the ones mostly responsible for Auggie’s problems: their negative, ignorant attitudes, and how they chose to pass that on to their own children. I was incensed by the injustices directed at Auggie and overwhelmed by his spirit at dealing with them.

There is really not much else to say other than to urge everyone to read this one for themselves. It is so well-formed and well-executed I am left almost wordless. Absolutely one of the best books around at the moment, for children and adults alike.

(visit R. J. Palacio's website)

Monday, 4 June 2012

Shadow of Night, by Deborah Harkness

Shadow of NightSince reaching the end of the last sentence on the last page of Deborah Harkness’s debut novel, A Discovery of Witches, I have been itching to get my hands on the sequel - Shadow of Night - to find out what would happen next.

A Discovery of Witches
In A Discovery, we meet Diana, descendant of a powerful family of witches. She, however, has always had trouble with her innate magics so instead of following the family footsteps she chose to become an academic. But it seems that magic is not going to let her forget quite so easily - whilst researching the history of alchemy she discovers a lost text that sets a series of life changing events into motion, and introduces the reader to a world of daemons, vampires, and mystery. Pursued around the world by daemons and vampires, and other witches, Diana is not only forced to face her past, but also deal with quite a bit of trauma in her present.

Reading part one was like peeling the layers of an onion - mystery after mystery, layer after layer revealed themselves the further in I got, and the more intrigued and hooked I became. Harkness introduces so many different ideas and concepts, weaving and binding them together into a compelling and warm story. Its not often a writer manages to combine scientific concepts, history, magic and folklore all in one space.

Shadow of Night
Unwrapping the parcel that my copy of part two arrived in was very exciting. My first impression of Shadow of Night was of heft: this sequel has a pretty serious 768 pages. It begins where A Discovery finished: Diana and her paramour Matthew have travelled back in time to Elizabethan England in an attempt to (a) escape their pursuers, (b) find someone who can help Diana harness her powers, and (c) attempt to uncover the secrets of the book that started everything and that is, of course, the key to everyone’s future. But this, sadly, is where Harkness gets lost.

Harkness, much like Diana, is a history professor, and the result of this is most of the first half of the book basically seems to be an exercise in putting as many famous Elizabethans on the page as possible, from Christopher Marlowe and Walter Raleigh to Queen Elizabeth herself. Consequently, very little happens with the progression of the real story - not until 400+ pages in do they (a) finally meet someone Diana can trust with her magic, and (b) get a sniff at the location of the book they’re hunting. Up until this point it was almost as if they’d forgotten why they’d gone back in time in the first place - they pootle along, finding their feet, alternately making love and arguing with one another. It’s a bit trashy, actually. There are hints of political issues and discussions of witch trials, but none of this is ever explained fully enough to be really effective, which was also a little disappointing. Compared to A Discovery, instead of a dozen lines of thought and intrigue, there is only one, and it’s not particularly intriguing other than in its account of Elizabethan life. A Discovery was full of questions, mystery, the old ‘what’s going to happen next’ in every paragraph, and this is sorely missing from Shadow of Night. What happened to the spider’s web of layers, ideas and action from book one?

As the book progresses, it does pick up, but never quite finds it way like A Discovery of Witches does. Harkness has written in glimpses of what’s happening in the present time, and these work well, showing a set of small ripples that Diana and Matthew have created in time as a result of their travel to the past. There are quite a few ‘timeslip’ novels around, and these always raise the question of cause and effect. Aside from these ‘future’ glimpses Harkness has steadfastly avoided all discussion of such concerns, which is probably wise given the hornet’s nest of problems it can create, though I did feel that she made Diana a bit too blase about the whole thing.

By the end of the book, where are we? Have Diana and Matthew achieved what they set out to do? Yes, although in a rather roundabout way, with just the odd bit of drama here and there. Shadow of Night is worth reading, especially for anyone who loved A Discovery and wants to find out what happens next, as well as for anyone who loves Elizabethan history - just don’t expect the intricacy of book one. And I definitely plan to read part three when it comes out - (a) because I still have a whole load of questions from part one that Shadow of Night hasn’t answered, and (b) because the final ‘future glimpse’ chapter of Shadow indicates a lot of drama and intrigue has yet to be revealed. Fingers crossed that Deborah Harkness has got her yen for Elizabethan history out of her system and part three quickly catches up with the stride and standards introduced in A Discovery.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Lunchtime, by Rebecca Cobb

LunchtimeRebecca Cobb is my new favourite illustrator. She has previously worked with Orange prize-winner Helen Dunmore, illustrating two of her books, The Islanders and The Ferrybirds, and later this year will be releasing a book with the Waterstones’ Children’s Laureate, Julia Donaldson.

Lunchtime is lovely. The little girl who stars in the book is far too busy to eat her lunch - she’s not really hungry and she’d much rather carry on with her important work than go and eat. But her mother insists, so she sits at the table but steadfastly refuses to touch her lunch. While she’s sitting there, being all stubborn, zoo animals star to appear under and around the table, a bear, a crocodile. At first she thinks they’re sniffing out her, but it turns out they’re much more interested in sniffing out her lunch.

The pictures are simple but engaging, and I’m guessing they are pencil drawn as they exude basic lines and brushstrokes. The animals in particular are lovely and very expressive. I can just picture it all happening in real life. The story is simple and effective, but also a bit ambiguous. The little girl lets the animals eat her lunch, seeing as they’re so keen and she’s so determined that she doesn’t want it. From my boring adult perspective, I took this to mean that the girl actually ate it herself, thanks to the animals persuasiveness, but that she used the animals as an excuse to maintain her initial refusal. But, later on, there are consequences to her duplicity: by the time supper comes around, she is starving, her tummy grumbling. Presumably, if she had eaten her lunch, this wouldn’t be the case? Which makes me wonder if her lunchtime visitors weren’t so imaginary after all...