Sunday, 30 December 2012

Doppler, by Erlend Loe

Erlend Loe's Doppler is definitely the quirkiest book I’ve read all year, and I absolutely loved it.

This is the story of a man - Doppler - who decides he has had enough. He has had enough of playing the game, of toeing the line - enough of being ‘nice’. When we meet him, he has already shirked his responsibilities and is quite contentedly living in a tent in the forest above his home city, Oslo, in Norway. It’s not exactly remote, or cut off, but it’s peaceful and he’s able to mind his own business. The question is, though, how long will things remain this way?

Let’s not be shy about this, Doppler does what he needs to to survive without becoming a part of the capitalist machine. This involves a bit of minor breaking and entering, a bit of bartering and, on page one, the killing of an elk, the main consequence of which is that, following a hilarious game of chase and tag, the elk’s baby moves into Doppler’s tent with him. Now, I’m not too familiar with elk. I have never met one, but I generally imagine them to be pretty big creatures, so either Doppler has an unusually large tent, or baby elk are quite tiddly. Either way, though, Bongo - as Doppler names him - quickly becomes an integral part of Doppler’s life.

As for Doppler’s shirked responsibilities, these soon come calling, namely in the form of a pregnant wife, a teenage daughter and a young son. The miracle of this story is that despite the fact that Doppler has, to all intents and purposes, abandoned his family, I cannot look down upon him for it. I think at first they - and I - have a little trouble understanding it, but ultimately it’s impossible to not accept it: this is simply the way that Doppler is. He means no harm by it, but he just cannot live the way he used to any longer. His son, Gregus, joins Doppler in the forest, cold-sweating his way through kiddy-TV withdrawal, and his wife simply says, go, do what you need to do, and there is a beautiful simplicity to these words and actions, the trust and love inherent within them.

Of course, things are not quite that simple - otherwise Doppler wouldn’t have a tale to tell. First there is the brilliant scene where he is captured breaking into his regular ‘theft’ house, and the scene where on a rare night in his family home, he awakes to find someone breaking in there too. How does Doppler react to his intruder? Offers him coffee of course. And gradually, as Doppler spreads - intentionally or unintentionally? - word about the simplicity of forest life, he finds the very things he went there for being subtly removed from him. This is perfect irony: he wants everyone else to understand what he is doing and to acknowledge that its the better way to be, but if they’re going to follow suit, he’d really much rather they did so somewhere else, please.

And all the while in the background is a running theme of fatherhood. Doppler is grieving the death of his father and, whilst questioning his own fathering abilities, becomes a father-figure not only to Bongo but to the others who follow him into the forest. What conclusions is he ultimately going to come to? What does being a father mean? And what does being alone mean?

The tag line on the front of my copy says, “An elk is for life - not just for Christmas,” and I’d say the same for Doppler. A simple fable that works perfectly.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Skin Deep, by Laura Jarratt

It is eight months since the car crash that tore apart Jenna’s village, killed her best friend, and left her face with an angry burn scar. In her mind, she is ugly; she cannot bare to look in the mirror and when she leaves the house it feels like everyone is staring. She misses her friend and doesn’t know how to be herself anymore. And Stephen, the boy responsible, the boy who was driving, is walking around as if nothing happened.

A new town, new people. Again. Ryan is used to upping sticks and moving on: he and his mum are travellers, living on a boat and moving from place to place. When they moor near to Jenna’s house, he and Jenna strike up a friendship that is set to change them both. Used to being looked down upon and judged, Ryan finds in Jenna someone who can see him for the person he truly is. But as their relationship develops, circumstances out of their control seem set to tear them apart.

This was a surprising story that ran deeper than I was expecting. Instead of being a simple teen romance, the plot develops in all sorts of directions - including murder. After the accident, Jenna’s dad set up a campaign group for traffic safety - he wants to bring reckless drivers to justice, but Jenna hates the attention it brings on her, especially when the family becomes a target for harassment on top of everything else. Why won’t he just leave things alone? And Ryan has a knack for attracting trouble too: protecting Jenna’s honour gets him into a fight with Stephen. Can he protect both Jenna and his sick mum, or will he have to sacrifice one for the other?

Skin Deep is a good read and covers several different issues in a calm manner without making a big deal out of them - bullying, sexual harassment, low self esteem, bipolar disease, child carers. This sounds like a fairly grizzly list when written out like that, and could make it seem as if this is a misery-filled book, but it is not. Far from it. These are simply the everyday sort of things that the various different characters encounter during the story, and they deal with them as and when they need to in a positive and healthy manner. In this way, author Laura Jarratt writes in a very natural manner. Neither the writing nor the storyline come across as contrived or constructed; instead it feels very much as if these could be real people going through just these same things somewhere in a sleepy little English town. All credit to Jarratt.

Ultimately, Jenna and Ryan both manage to find a way through their problems - or, at least, begin to learn how to live with their circumstances - and there are a few real live truths tucked away in their story. Skin Deep is not likely to attract a cult following to the extent that authors such as Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins have, but it is a strong offering in a sometimes indifferent teen market that will sit well alongside authors such as Jenny Downham.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Lovely, Dark and Deep, by Amy McNamara

I was thinking about being a grown-up and reading an ‘adult novel’ this week, but instead found myself irresistibly drawn in by the beautiful cover and the poetic title of Amy McNamara’s debut teen novel Lovely, Dark and Deep.

This is the story of Wren, who has fled her New York home to hide away in her father’s house in the Maine woods. All she wants is to be alone, to not talk, to not have to answer to everyone’s expectations. She wants to be cold and hard, to block out the person she was before and the accident that changed everything. But the world has a way of slipping its way back in - will she let it, or how far is she willing to go to block it out?

McNamara’s portrayal of Wren’s grief is immense and realistic, a story that clearly comes from her heart, and there is some essence of beauty wrapped up within the book that struck deep within me. Some people expect Wren to just get up one day and be better, an attitude that simply drives her deeper, until she quietly, gradually, gathers people around her who inspire subtle changes - handsome Cal, who has his own difficulties to work through, her quiet father, and Zara, who has, perhaps, the best kind of words Wren could hope for.

I was pulled into Wren’s drowning world right from the beginning, but what I loved best about Lovely, Dark and Deep was the symbology interwoven between the cover, the title, and the story within. The image of a snow-covered tree speaks firstly of the cold desolation Wren is feeling, secondly of a particular event in the book where she becomes lost in the dark woods surrounding her father’s home and, thirdly, of the perfectly scripted title, a quote from Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. And then there are the papercut snowflakes scattered around the girl in the picture, referencing a second event in the storyline that is itself incredibly symbolic: after being pushed into reading a set of her friend’s letters, thereby being forced to retread a period she’s trying to move away from, Wren rebels by grabbing a pair of scissors, folding the letters up, and cutting them down into paper snowflakes, an act of turning something ugly into something beautiful and a transformation similar to that which Wren is seeking to perform on herself.

McNamara ties all these elements together with a seemingly effortless ease, subtly entreating Wren - and me - to consider the importance of being true to who you are and how you feel, an idea that is not always easy to adhere to, but one worthy of remembering. Wren must navigate the title, the deep dark woods of grief; the miles to go before she sleeps, but she’ll get there. Wonderful.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

My Best Friend and Other Enemies, by Catherine Wilkins

This book is brilliant; I absolutely loved it. The title alone is utter genius, and the story inside is perfectly balanced, completely living up to expectation.

My Best Friend and Other Enemies tells the story of Jess. She and Natalie have been best friends for ever, but since new girl Amelia came along, Jess finds herself increasingly pushed to the sidelines. This, understandably, is pretty hurtful, especially when she learns that Natalie and Amelia have started a secret club to which Jess is explicitly not invited to join. What do you do when your best friend suddenly stops being particularly friendly? And, worse, when she starts hanging out with someone who is only capable of being nasty?

God, this is such familiar territory. I can remember pretty much exactly the same thing happening to me at school, as I am sure it has happened the world over to girls of the ‘tween’ and early teen age. Jess suddenly has to endure taunts in the classroom, being ousted from after-school activities, and even has dirty tricks played on her. While these events get Jess down she manages, somehow, to not actually let them get her down. Not only does she bite back, developing tentative friendships with some other girls and forming their own club, but she remains upbeat and positive about herself throughout the book. “I am brilliant,” is an Jess’s oft-repeated refrain, both in good times and bad times, and is really something I should learn to tell myself more often. It certainly seems to work for Jess.

“I knew this would be brilliant,” she tells herself. “I should listen to myself more often. I’m brilliant. I knew I was. What was all that worry about glasses being half full and half empty before? The rule is: I’m brilliant. That should just be a rule.” (pg. 68)

Jess is not big-headed, though, far from it. Surrounded by her quirky family - overactive little brother Ryan, anti-capitalist older sister Tammy, and parents on an economy drive - by being herself and sticking to her guns she makes friends with a whole variety of people, girls and boys alike, ultimately making a name for herself through amusing cartoons as well as sorting things out with Natalie and Amelia without too much of a massive and hideously unhealthy showdown. Everything works out in the end, though it is a bit of a struggle along the way.

It probably helped that I really, really related to Jess, but I do think this is one of the most awesome girls books I’ve read all year. I don’t imagine for a moment that either Jess or I are alone in feeling the things we do and having the friends trouble we’ve had; as such it’s a book that is likely to appeal to a huge number of readers. Let’s face it, girls can be really mean. It’s also incredibly funny, with a style strongly reminiscent of Louise Rennison, except aimed at younger readers and with more focus on friendships than on boys. It was so natural, with a beautiful flow, and it really made me snigger. Cartoons scattered through the pages are a nice touch, but the positive attitude that Jess maintains throughout - and the positive ending - are what really stands out. Catherine Wilkins is definitely an author to watch out for.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Geekhood: Close Encounters of the Girl Kind, by Andy Robb

(1) a circus freak or sideshow performer.
(2) a strange or eccentric person.
(3) a creep or misfit.

This is my dictionary’s definition of the word ‘Geek’. It seems a bit harsh, really. Creep? I think not. That 'geek' was originally used to describe the circus ‘freak’ is familiar, but today I think the term has a much, much wider remit; one that my dictionary clearly cannot put its finger on. What is a geek, after all?

In Archie’s world - the star of Andy Robb’s Geekhood: Close Encounters of the Girl Kind - being a geek means being a gawky teenager with a particular obsession in fantasy and fantasy realms such as Lord of the Rings, intricate role-playing games, and the painting of model figures to be used in the playing of said games. It represents that difficult period of trying to figure out who you are and where you fit in - and, of course, how to talk to girls.

At its heart, Geekhood is a story about figuring these things out. There’s a lot going on in Archie’s life, and he keeps most of it hidden underneath the surface. Coping mechanisms include delving into fantasy land and a slightly bitter but amusing interior monologue:

“I’ve developed a VERY LOUD interior monologue that works completely independently from from what my face and body are doing. For example, at the moment, while Tony is examining my prized goblin warrior, my face has crinkled into the approximation of a sleepy smile, while my hand scratches at my head in a pantomime of tiredness... However, at the same time that my exterior is sending all these signals of muzzy cheeriness, my Interior Monologue is saying something along the lines of: Put that bloody thing down, you Tosser! It’s not there for you to laugh at; it’s there as an expression of my need to escape this world and embrace a realm where anything is possible!” (pg. 11-12)

But then a gorgeous goth girl walks into his life - and, low and behold, talks to him. Sarah acts as a catalyst for change. In his slightly blundering but well-intentioned attempts to woo her, Archie introduces the reader to the scary and often hilarious workings of the teenage boy’s mind...

Exhibit A: The smallest glimpse of female flesh and any mention of the word ‘bra’ results in complete mental breakdown.

Exhibit B: The various meaning of the word ‘dude’, depending on its use within a sentence and the type of emphasis placed on it during pronunciation.

Exhibit C: The art of teenage conversation. “The Golden Rule of Non-Specific Conversation: You NEVER refer to the heart of the matter. I know he knows what all the clothes and aftershave are for and he knows I know that he knows what it’s for - but you NEVER refer to it.” (pg. 126)

But what is the deal with Archie’s nightmares? Will his mum’s boyfriend ever stop trying to ‘bond’ with him? And is his interior monologue getting out of hand?

Geekhood was a big hit with the teenage reading group in the Waterstones store where I work, and it fits in well with the John Green generation, steering away from the vampire/dystopia tendency of many of today’s teenage authors. Plus it’s British, and it’s original in the perspective that it doesn’t involve girls swooning over some boy with movie-star good looks. And another gold star goes to it’s bittersweet ending which, like most of the book actually, is reassuring in its basis in reality. Overall, an amusing and enjoyable read that both the male and female of the species will relate to equally well.

And the geek factor? Well, although Archie is perhaps a little more overtly geek than the average teenager, personally I think there’s a little geek in all of us, and we shouldn’t shy away from it. While some may argue that being a geek can make life more difficult, as Archie discovers, it’s much better to be true to yourself.