Thursday, 30 August 2012

Why We Broke Up, by Daniel Handler

Why We Broke Up is the story of Min Green and Ed Slaterton. Well, actually, it’s the story of Min Green and her six week relationship with Ed Slaterton, beginning to end, including, of course, why they broke up. Min collected all sorts of bits and bobs while they were together - beer caps from the first night they met, a toy truck Ed found at a party and gave to her, a note he slipped into her locker - but now it is time to let them go, to give them back. She’s going to thunk them down on his front step in a box with a quote from her favourite song written on the lid: “You either have the feeling or you don’t.” And she is writing him a letter to go with it.

Why We Broke Up is Min’s letter to Ed, each chapter brought to focus around one of the objects in the box. How it came to be, the memory she associates with it, what happened around it, with it or to it, why it is important. Its a story of first love and, ultimately, first heartbreak. Its a story of trying to beat the odds, of being yourself and how, in the end, Ed, too, was himself. It’s brave and daring and familiar and new, and heartbreaking and uplifting and scary and sad all at the same time. It’s intelligent and thoughtful, and there’s very good reason why its being billed as a “John Green if you like, you’ll love” book. Why We Broke Up is overflowing with all the great qualities that John Green brings to his writing, but it’s different too. It’s as good as John Green, but not a John Green copy. It’s an ode to relationships and to boys and to love and to being yourself. It’s complete and cathartic. I loved it.

And there’s not much more that I can add to that, except by telling you to visit the Why We Broke Up Project. Post your break up story, and read those of others. Oh and, by the way, Daniel Handler is also known as Lemony Snicket. How cool is that?

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Siege, by Helen Dunmore

The SiegeThe Siege begins with springtime, with the release from winter’s grip, with the melting of the snows and the budding of new life. It begins with Anna planting her vegetable garden, and tending the children at the nursery where she works. Such new growth stands in stark contrast with the winter that has just ended, and in even starker contrast with the winter that is to come: for this is Leningrad, 1941, and the Germans are on their way; Leningrad is a marked city.

Helen Dunmore builds this story beautifully. From the fresh spring we travel with her and her characters through the summer, to autumn and the approach of war; from the early preparations for the winter stores to the preparations for siege, barricading the city, battening down the hatches, and all that that brings. As winter takes hold, she conjures an ice-filled world of desperation. This is a world where gold jewellery must be bartered for a single loaf of bread, where your mother’s precious dressing table must be sawn up for fuel, where the simple process of walking up the stairs is an act of endurance.

The Siege is harsh but feels incredibly real. One of the things that I am often struck with in war images - whether on the page or on film - is how cities and lives become transformed. How a person can go from leading an everyday life, going to work, eating, drinking, to this other life, this life of horror and hardship; how a city goes from a place of living to a place of bombardment and destruction. In her subtle way, Dumnore shows us how this happens. She writes:

“Sector by sector, building by building, barricades are going up. Pillboxes, bunkers and machine-gun nests are being set up, trenches are being dug, and key defensive positions identified. A new map of the city is emerging, which has nothing to do with homes, shops, schools, parks or restaurants. It is do with patrols at every crossroads, with mined bridges, with sight-lines, steel tank barriers, pillboxes, and the artillery positions which everyone calls Voroshilov hotels...
“Even the trees in the parks have become something else. Now they are defensive positions, behind which a man can crouch, watching, alert, his cheek pressed against bark which is carved with lovers’ initials.” (pg. 136)

I am reminded of an image from the HBO series Band of Brothers: the soldiers are marching through a bombed out German town, the buildings are ruins, shells, and yet there are people there, living there, trying to eek out some form of survival amid this utter destruction. It’s shocking an incredulous all at once. My maternal grandfather fought in the first world war, and something my mum always says he told her was that, “You can get used to anything.” It is scary how destruction and hunger can become the norm, and this is essentially what happens to Dunmore’s characters in The Siege. They are desperate, they are scraping their lives together, boiling leather bookbindings to get whatever nutrients they can out of them, and yet they maintain their dignity whilst also fighting for their own individual survival - which means, ultimately, putting yourself above all others, and your little brother above yourself.

Two other things really stood out for me whilst reading The Seige. Firstly Anna’s father’s tale of General Hunger and General Winter. This is a story told fairly early on in the book, supposedly recounting another war, but it serves as a clever warning for what is to come, the shadow on the horizon of the warm springtime.

Second is Dunmore’s way of switching point of view. Most of the book is written in third person, telling Anna’s story, looking over her shoulder. But, on occasion, there are snippets of second person point of view, which is quite unusual and generally regarded as a risky way of writing. This is because second person uses ‘you’, basically addressing the reader directly. Done poorly, this can be alienating, but Dunmore uses the technique carefully and extremely effectively - here, it enables us to become part of the story, to be in the city, to feel the cold, to more fully participate in the story and understand what her characters are going through.

“If you read one book this year, it should be The Siege,” my cousin told me. I had heard the book praised before, but this particular advise is what made me finally pick it up and read it. I’m glad I listened - for anyone who wants to read real quality writing with a digestible story, The Siege should absolutely be on your list.

Monday, 20 August 2012

The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket, by John Boyne

Barnaby Brocket has a problem. At least, his parents tell him he has a problem (well, to them its a problem). Ok, let’s face it: he’s just not normal - or not by their standards, anyway. Barnaby Brocket’s problem? He floats. Mr and Mrs Brocket just want to fit in, to not stand out, to be N-O-R-M-A-L, and Barnaby’s insistence on floating is causing havoc in their lives. For a start, people are noticing and surely people will soon begin to talk, and this is not what Mr and Mrs Brocket want. They want to be normal. But then, what exactly is ‘normal’?

The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket is not so much a story about the terrible thing that happened to him as it is a story about what happens after the Terrible Thing happened. It is a Terrible Thing, but it leads to an amazing adventure and to meeting lots of different people - people who some (Barnaby’s parents, for instance) might consider to not be entirely normal. Along the way Barnaby discovers that ‘normal’ is just an idea, and that it’s not only perfectly okay to not be ‘normal’, but that it’s usually a lot more fun too.

“ ‘Anyway, the point is, just because your version of normal isn’t the same as someone else’s version doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you.’ [said Marjorie] 
‘Quite right Marjorie,’ said Ethel. ‘If I’d listened to my mother when she said 
there was something wrong with me I’d have lived a very lonely life.’ 
‘And if I’d listened to my father, I’d have been miserable.’ 
‘Who wants to be normal anyway?’ cried Ethel. ‘I know I don’t.’ ” (pg. 92)

This is a very simple story and a very simple idea told absolutely beautifully. John Boyne has woven one concept - what is ‘normal’? - into a dozen different threads, presenting the idea in several different forms that repeats his message without actually, well, repeating himself. Each character reveals a childhood where parents have tried to make their children in their own image, to make them fit within the borders of their idea of an ideal life, only to reject their children when they try to step outside of those walls. Ironically, even Barnaby’s own mum and dad chose a different pathway to the one their parents tried to push them down, and I spent much of the book wondering whether or not Mr and Mrs Brocket would realise the extent of their hypocrisy by the end. Will they learn to accept their child as an individual or will they still try to change him? And what will Barnaby choose? Is it more important to him to accept who he is or to be accepted by his parents?

I hadn’t really intended to read this book, but I picked it up for a peek and then couldn’t put it down. It’s got to be one of my favourites for this age range (9-12) so far this year, though any adult is likely to find it as equally enjoyable as their youngster. In places it reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Matilda - the child who is so much smarter and more aware of the world than the parent is.

“And who was to say that he wasn’t the one who wasn’t normal anyway...” [Barnaby asks] “Was it even normal to want to be so, well, normal all the time?” (pg. 273).

It is brilliant, full of humour and lightness. Even when Barnaby finds himself in potentially scary situations - and is himself quite scared - he remains calm, accepting that he is where he is and that he can’t do much about it. I was nervous for him, but, somehow, he never got all that nervous for himself. Watch out for a lovely Harry Potter reference, enjoy the Oliver Jeffers illustrations, and - if you’ll forgive the pun - float away for the afternoon.

Friday, 17 August 2012

You Against Me, by Jenny Downham

You Against MeYou Against Me is the story of Mikey and Ellie. Mikey’s fifteen year old sister, Karyn, has been raped, or so she claims. The perpetrator? Ellie’s brother, Tom - but he says he’s innocent. When Mikey goes round to confront Tom, Ellie answers the door. It’s not love at first sight, but Mikey figures if he gets to know her, he might learn something useful that can help his sister. But Ellie quickly draws him into her world and things become complicated: what will happen when Ellie finds out who he is? What will happen when Mikey’s sister finds out who he’s dating? And, most importantly, who is telling the truth?

This is a difficult and sensitive subject well tackled by author Jenny Downham. By writing from the perspectives of Mikey and Ellie, who are involved but are on the sidelines, rather than the two people to whom the event in question actually occurred, it enables Downham to take half a step back from the rape itself, creating an additional story outside of it and thus preventing the book from becoming too overbearing. It’s also a very clever method of story construction because, like the two characters we are hearing from, until a certain point in the story, I could not be entirely sure who was telling the truth. I started off absolutely certain that Karyn was telling the truth, but once I met Ellie and saw her brother through her eyes, doubt crept in. Downham kept me questioning for about half the book, at which point she introduced some changes that made it clearer what the truth was, which then made me question whether or not that person would come forward with the real story. Outcome? I spent the whole book on tenterhooks.

Overall, I found You Against Me quite compulsive, with very well constructed characters who got into my head to the point that, when I put the book down, I kept thinking about them and their story until I could pick the book up again. I think the most outstanding thing, though, is the fact that Downham very subtly raises an incredibly important set of moral questions around both rape and feminist issues. Is a girl ‘asking for it’ if she wears ‘slutty’ clothes? What about if she kisses a guy and then says no to sex? Does that make her a tease? If someone goes out with several different people in a short time, why does that make a girl a slut or a slag, but a boy just a player or a ladies man? Is it ok to get someone really drunk so they’ll agree to have sex with you? Or, is it ok to sleep with someone when they are really drunk, even if they seem up for it? Because they’re not really capable of giving informed consent, is that simply taking advantage or is it rape?

These are a million questions teenagers and adults alike bandy around. Just because something is accepted as the social norm, does that make it right? What Jenny Downham has done - extremely successfully - is to somehow make the reader think about these issues, but without specifically naming them; instead of stating the questions specifically they kind of work their way into the story through some sort of word-based osmosis. She got me to think about it without preaching about it. This is exactly what good ‘issues’ fiction should do, especially when it comes to teenagers: they’re more likely to take serious thought about it after reading the ideas in this manner, than if they were presented by rote in a classroom. ‘Show not tell’ at its best.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Tigers in Red Weather, by Liza Klaussmann

Tigers in Red Weather “The epitome of East Coast glamour, scene of vodka martinis and moonlit conspiracies, Tiger House is where the beautiful and the damned have always come to play,” reads the blurb for Tigers in Red Weather. When I first read this, it sounded glamourous, romantic even - I pictured that idyll of lounging in the summer sun, not a care in the world; the rich husband, the green expanse of lawn, the white painted boathouse. But reading it again, I can see what it really says, the clues it is giving as to what this book really contains - “moonlit conspiracies” and “the beautiful and the damned” jump out at me, and it sums the book up quite perfectly. I am naive and perhaps picked this book up thinking the wrong things, but ironically, this is exactly what the story inside gives away: what looks like glamour and perfection on the outside inevitably has a dark undercurrent running through it.

Set predominantly in the late fifties, Tigers shows a post-war society where women have a certain role they are expected to play: happy housewife and social entertainer. Told by the five main characters - firstly the women, Nick, her cousin Helena, Nick’s daughter Daisy, then the men, Nick’s husband Hughes and Helena’s son Ed, gradually piecing together an entirely different picture. A picture of unfulfilled matrimony, of frustrated histories, of secrets and hidden bitterness.

Its a gentle story, beginning in 1945 as Nick and Helena separate after wartime hardships to start their lives anew as married women, before jumping twelve years ahead for the reader to see where their lives have taken them. This is the summer of 1959 and they have all gathered at Tiger House. Daisy has her first crush and is bent on trouncing her sugary rival, Peaches, in the annual tennis championships, but things are turned upside down when she and Ed find a dead body, though it seems to have a bigger impact on the adults than it does on her. Hughes, after years of essentially ignoring his wife, suddenly finds he can’t resist her, but is he too late to win her back? Helena, demoralised and unhappy seems to be completely oblivious of everything going on around her, but is she really as ignorant and soft as she appears? And Ed. There is definitely something odd about that boy, but Hughes is the only one to see it - where will it lead and what will the consequences be?

Tigers greatly reminded me of Joanne Harris’ more recent work, her darker novels like Gentleman and Players. Everyone has a role that they must play and on the outside everything looks pristine. Its like that old saying about the duck: calm on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath. Ed hits the nail on the head on page 324: “I told you,” he [says], “no one says anything they really mean. None of it’s real.” At the end of the day, they are all pretending - saying one thing, when what they are really thinking, or what they wish they were really doing, is something quite entirely different. It makes the reader wonder how much you can ever really know another person.

I really enjoyed the book. Each character has a secret embedded within them, something that trails around behind them, a weight on their back, that they don’t want to admit to themselves let alone to those closest to them. It’s a very revealing experience to read. There is Hughes and his wartime affair. Nick and her love for a man who for years has responded to her only by pinning her into the housewife role she hates, rather than treating her as an equal in their marriage. Helena and her nasty, abusive husband; in her weakness, instead of turning against him, she turns against the only person who genuinely wants to help her. Daisy who cannot admit that her fiancee is her more interested in her mother than in her. And, again, Ed. Ed is the one who is closest to seeing it as it is, and even saying it as it is. But he has his own secrets. It is extremely clever of Klaussmann (who is, incidentally, the great great great granddaughter of Herman Melville) to leave his viewpoint until last - through everybody else’s stories, she leads us to our own conclusions regarding Ed’s role in the unravelling of Tiger House - but, even then, do things really play out quite like the reader thinks they do?

What at first appears to be light is shadowed by darkness. There are the trappings of the big house and the big summer party, but all is not as it seems. “If there’s one thing you can be sure of in this life,” Nick says, “It’s that you won’t always be kissing the right person.” But who is the right person? And how do you know? How long can you hide from yourself?

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Recruit, by Robert Muchamore

The Recruit: Bk. 1 - CHERUB Bk. 1
The Recruit is the first book in Robert Muchamore’s massive ‘CHERUB’ series. Until I started working in the teen and children’s department at Waterstones it wasn’t a series I had paid much attention to, but in recent weeks a great number of quite grown up people - handsome boys in particular - have waxed lyrical about the wonders of Muchamore, so I felt it was something I really ought to try - especially if I want to call myself a children’s bookseller. This turns out to have been a very wise decision (I am now struggling to resist the urge to go and buy the entire series - another 19 books, if I count the two spin-off series as well).

CHERUB stands for... Well, actually no-one knows what CHERUB stands for (though I’ve been reliably told this is revealed in the spin-off, Henderson’s Boys). The premise is simple: MI5 for kids. Not Anthony Horowitz / Alex Rider style - lone teenager becomes spy - but an entire branch of the British Intelligence Agency consisting of children. Why? Well, because no-one suspects kids, right? Kids are just around, doing what kids do, they’re not going to be bugging the house or watching you to gather intelligence. Kids are background. Kids are the perfect cover.

In The Recruit we meet James. Inner city kid, no dad to speak of, just him, his mum, and his little sister. He gets by, he’s smart but doesn’t apply himself, he doesn’t seek out trouble, but it usually manages to find him nevertheless. I found the start of the book a little bit stilted, the writing a little bit stiff, but then events take over and the story kicks up a gear. And then another gear. And then another gear. Invited to take the CHERUB entrance test, will James pass? Is he up to the physical and mental challenges ahead? Muchamore has written a story with the perfect balance of action and characterisation; he raises a number of moral issues in a subtle manner, draws the reader into the events that ensue, and then rounds things up nicely at the end. I couldn’t ask for more.

On the back of the book is printed a ‘not suitable for younger readers’ warning. Interestingly for a title that is categorised as teenage fiction, though, is the fact that the main character, James, is only twelve. Honestly, I don’t think it would be a problem for the younger range of teenagers to read this book - they might not pick up on the subtleties, but there wasn’t anything drastically gruesome or harrowing. It is perhaps the concepts that could be considered inappropriate for younger readers, but I can’t imagine too many thirteen year olds having a massive problem with them.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is another massively popular series in the 9-12 fiction range. It’s presentation  is pretty unique, and makes it the perfect book for struggling readers or for younger readers within the age grouping - it’s produced in a diary format which includes a lined paper effect, a font that emulates handwriting, and is packed to the brim with the diary-writer’s sketches. This diary style means not only that the story is broken up into short, easily digestible chunks, but the sketches add both an extra level of humour and an extra twist on the story that isn’t necessarily described in the written part of the story, whilst not making the book seem childless - in fact, the images are so integral that if they were removed, much of the story would be lost.

The Wimpy Kid himself, Greg Heffley, is pretty average. He’s not a geek, but he’s not one of the cool crowd either. Essentially, he’s just trying to do his best to get through school with the smallest amount of hassle as possible - both from others, and on his own account. He does the bare amount of work to get him by, and he’ll help out in school only if there’s something in it for him. Its funny and cringe-worthy all at the same time, and thus the perfect combination.

As an adult, I found Greg just that little bit too annoying and selfish - and he's so horrible to his supposed best friend. But then, like I said, I’m an adult and not a ten-year-old boy (and even when I was a ten-year-old, I leaned toward the geek side of the school classroom). In other words, this book was not written for me, therefore my feelings on Greg’s irritatingness means not a jiffy. I have yet to meet a young customer who isn’t completely addicted to the series, and I can see why: Jeff Kinney definitely knows his audience. Gotta go and watch the movie now...