Monday, 28 January 2013

Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

I read so many fantastic books during 2012, adult and children’s fiction both, that to pick one as ‘the best’ is an impossible task. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, though, would have to be near the top. Kingsolver is an award-winning author, perhaps most famous for The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna, both of which I own but have yet to read. Flight Behaviour is her latest offering and, following the hideous weather patterns exerted upon us over recent weeks and months, its theme of climate and global warming is exceedingly apt.

Kingsolver’s storytelling is extraordinary. This is not a book full of scientific terms and global warming doom-mongering; instead it subtly reveals the small everyday impacts of  real climate change, things that each on their own may not seem like a global catastrophe, but when added to the whole, show an entirely new picture. This is a book about hard-working people, the lives they lead, and the judgments they - and we - make.

Dellarobia is a young mother trapped into her life by a series of poor choices and bad luck.  Pregnant as a teenager, she married her child’s father to become the farmer’s wife, effectively entrapped by her judgemental and controlling in-laws. This is the Bible belt, the farming belt; hicktown, the people at the bottom of the pile. Every day is jeopardy in her life, the farm is failing, her marriage is failing, it’s an economic showdown and the future is questionable. It almost seems like kismet, then, when she discovers what appears to be a miracle on her mountainside. The moment of its discovery is enough to save her from another bad decision; perhaps it will be enough to save the farm too? But this ‘beautiful and terrible marvel of nature’ is tragically representative of greater, worldwide issues. Climate change was already in Dellarobia’s backyard in the shape of storms and torrential rains eating away at the farmland and her family’s traditional farming practices; they just didn’t know that that was what it was. The ‘miracle on the mountain’, though, introduces the idea with a certainty that makes it inescapable.

Equal parts social study and middle finger to climate skeptics, Flight Behaviour also touches on consumerism, greens, politics, soft racism. Some might say Kingsolver tries too much, but I think she has gotten the balance just right. Through Dellarobia’s eyes the absurdity of many modern lifestyles and attitudes are highlighted, whilst Ovid, the scientist who turns up to study Dellarobia’s miracle, uses quiet language and clever metaphors to demystify media and skeptic-generated global warming confusion. His likening of global temperature rise to a child’s fever stands out, as does his and Dellarobia’s discussion of the ability to believe in things you can’t see: “A photo cannot prove a child is growing, but several of them show change over time.”

One of best parts is perhaps Dellarobia’s run-in with a man named Leighton Akins, who’s made it his mission to get people to sign a sustainability pledge to reduce their carbon footprint. When he reads the pledge’s suggestions to her, it quickly becomes apparent how absurd the lifestyle assumptions are. In most categories listed, Dellarobia and her family already comply completely, simply out of a necessity of survival. They cannot afford to eat out, so taking tupperware to a restaurant for leftovers is hardly relevant; ditto for the use of bottled water and the purchase of red meat. “Find your local re-use stores,” he tells her - but she only shops in second-hand stores anyway; ‘new’ is an unimaginable luxury.

Dellarobia’s fight to save her mountain miracle, and everything she learns about the world and about herself along the way, reflects the fight she is in to save herself, her marriage, her children. Is it all worth it? Throughout, Kingsolver weaves together her different strands into a carefully considered tapestry, before winding up her story and then - wham, hits us with a dramatic and mind-reeling end that serves to make us question everything the future has to hold.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Days of Blood and Starlight, by Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor has got to be one of the best new fantasy writers around at the moment.

First, in 2011, there came Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which was introduced to me care of the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton’s, nice little marketing campaign: a plain-bound proof with virtually no plot details, and a feather. A real feather floating out of its envelope. And inside the book I discovered a character and a world that gripped and amazed me. This is a book that truly crosses over; one of those stories that doesn’t begin overtly as a fantasy novel and so will win its way into the hearts of any die-hard anti-fantasy reader, before turning on them to become something else altogether.

And now Laini has written part two of her trilogy, Days of Blood and Starlight, which takes what she began in Daughter, both continuing her story and introducing a whole new level of awesomeness and new dimensions.

In Daughter of Smoke and Bone, we meet Karou. She leads a strange sort of double life.   Living in Prague, going to art school, hanging out and laughing with her friends. But Karou has no parents or family; instead she has Brimstone. She was raised by him, taught by him, cared for by him. But Brimstone is clearly not of this world: horned, eyes like a crocodile, bestower of magic, he lives and works in a shop that is ‘Elsewhere’, endlessly stringing teeth onto necklaces. Where is Elsewhere? Who is Brimstone? And what does he do with all those teeth? Karou is boiling over with answered questions about this part of her life, but they always go unanswered. Until she sneaks out the other door to his shop and sees... things she can explain even less. And then it gets worse: after she returns to Prague, the door to Brimstone’s shop is sealed. Will Karou ever see him again? And will she get the answers she needs?

Adventure, mystery, love story, war story, and everything in between, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is simply fabulous. Taylor turns our preconceptions of good and evil on their heads, and creating a world that is by turns breathtaking and terrifying. And she absolutely follows up the good work in Days of Blood and Starlight. By the beginning of book two, Karou has uncovered both her hidden history, that of Brimstone, and that of her lover Akiva too. In some ways she is now whole and wholly understanding, but the last revelation that Akiva throws at her leaves her reeling and lost - and in the perfect place to be preyed upon by the manipulative Thiago. How much of what Thiago tells Karou is truth and how much is lies?

Days of Blood and Starlight finds Karou and Akiva caught up in the rivalries of their peoples, each of them lost and alone and struggling to find again the things they used to believe in. They hopelessly entangled in a war on that feels like its on biggest scale imaginable, yet its about to get a whole lot bigger. I don’t want to give away all the careful plot details, but this is a story that just gets better and better. How Taylor came up with her ideas and her story arc is beyond me; it is just awesome. The secrets and lies that everyone weaves, the political machinations, the world-building; every part is just brilliant, flawlessly constructed and perfectly written. The story moves at quite a pace and by the time the end of the book is near, Taylor has introduced several new dimensions to the overall picture, setting up a really intriguing launchpad for the final part of the trilogy.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

Isn’t it great when a book completely surprises you? I was sent Seraphina in a pile of review copies and wound up leaving it until almost last before picking it up. This turns out to have been a good thing because, whoa, what a dark horse. Out now in a much cooler paperback, the cover design and blurb on the hardback copy I had didn’t really do the story inside justice, hence the part where I had left it to the end. In short: Seraphina is fab, and how awesome to see some really interesting and different fantasy emerging into the teen market. Goodbye lovelorn vampires and werewolves: this is the real deal and treats the teenage reading audience with so much more respect.

Seraphina is set in Goredd, a world where humans and dragons coexist. For centuries they have been two peoples at war with each other, but finally, within the last human generation, they have reached a tentative peace and are learning to coexist in a more true sense: in a fascinating twist of world-building, the dragons in Rachel Hartman’s world have the ability to take human form. Thus they can walk in the city and learn human ways; for the humans’ sanity though, dragons must identify themselves as such by wearing a small bell, for the dragons’ sanity, they must undergo regular checks to ensure they are not developing emotions: for dragons, logic is everything.

Into this world steps Seraphina, a young woman who has taken on the role of music mistress in the royal palace. Little does she know how big her role in framing the future of Goredd is about to become. The peace between dragons and humans is as tenuous as a spider’s web, and there are some who would gladly break it. For starters, the prince has been murdered and all fingers point to the dragons. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? With her impressive knowledge of dragons, Seraphina is drawn into the investigation and drawn into the life of the palace. But this puts her own safety at greater and greater risk, for she holds a powerful secret - can she keep it hidden? Will it be her downfall, or will she be the key to saving the kingdom?

Seraphina starts off strong, and then simply moves from strength to strength. The plotting is careful and intriguing, quietly introducing more threads and ideas as it builds and builds. Who is the traitor? Who can she trust? Medieval and modern all in one, there is murder and darkness, humour, a touch of romance, secrets and mysteries and political masterminding, and some really fabulous world-building to boot. The dragons are fully characterised, Hartman giving us a taster of both their natural form and their human, telling us the story through both up-to-the-minute action and flashbacks, all whilst encouraging us to consider certain moral and ethical questions. This is where fantasy works at its absolute best.

Seraphina is a book that absolutely deserves to have made it onto the 2013 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize shortlist, but I would be at pains to point out that the quality and the storytelling is of such a standard that it is just as equally deserving of a place in the adult fantasy section. Dragon author Christopher Paolini made his name with Eragon and the Inheritance series; personally, I think Seraphina is better. Original and with a strong female lead who knows how to stand up for herself, there is little more I would ask of Hartman, except this: deliver an equally awesome part two please. Ten out of ten.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Quiet, by Susan Cain

Big loud parties have never been my style. Speaking up in front of a group of people makes me squirm. When it comes to sociability I like small gatherings in a quiet bar or hanging out with friends in their houses, lounging on the sofa and chatting. Doing new things and going to new places worry me - I like to plan and I like to be in control of my environment. Doing big things like flying to America alone or having to put on a ‘life and soul of the party’ persona can make me so anxious I’ll get cold sweats and stomach aches. At work I am confident, knowledgable and effervescent, but this is because it is my territory and I know it well.

For the longest time, I have thought these were negative things, that they are a mental state I should be able to force my way through and move past. But reading Quiet has shown me it is not a mental state. It is not something that is the fault of childhood experience or parenting: it is the way that my body physically works. I am an introvert and that’s ok.

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain investigates the differences between introverts and extroverts, why these differences exist, and how we can work within  and around them. Introverts “prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues and families. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.” (pg. 11) Extroverts, meanwhile, “tend to be assertive, dominant, and in great need of company. Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words... They’re comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude.” (pg. 11)

This is a book with the power to change lives, to help us understand both ourselves and each other a whole lot better. Exceedingly well written and readable, Quiet has the perfect balance between friendly writing style, scientific information, quotes from those in the know, and little real-life stories to support the facts - including some personal ones.

In part one, Cain looks at the world in which westerners live: a world geared for extroverts, in which people are encouraged to be loud, to be outspoken, to be dynamic and work in large sociable groups, and a world in which it is much harder to hear the quieter people, the people who like to think carefully before they speak - and the people who find it hard or embarrassing to have to speak or react on the spot. It is also a world which assumes that because talkers are talking, what they have to say is worthwhile, and that because quiet people aren't talking, they don’t don’t have any thoughts worth hearing. This is a scary world for introverts, and a hard one to break into - especially when introverts are often the ones with the big ideas. Think Ghandi; think Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (founders of Apple). It's a world that makes me anxious to participate in and yet one I can yearn to be a part of: I envy these people their ability to function loudly and proudly; it looks like they have a lot of fun and success doing it.

But perhaps the most important part of this book for me is part 2, which looks at why these different personality types exist. And it turns out that there is science to back it up. Essentially, it comes down to the amygdala, which “serves as the brain’s emotional switchboard, receiving information from the senses and then signaling the rest of the brain and nervous system how to respond. One of its functions is to instantly detect new or threatening things in the environment - from an airborne Frisbee to a hissing serpent - and send rapid-fire signals through the body that trigger the fight-or-flight responses. When the rattlesnake prepares to bite, it’s the amygdala that makes sure you run.” (pg. 102-103) Some people - introverts - have more excitable amygdalas than others, meaning that its more sensitive to threats and sends out a bigger response. Thus the same event experienced by an introvert and extrovert results in the introvert receiving a bigger panic response, thus making them more anxious and temporarily impairing their ability to think straight. It's not a mental choice - it's a physical reaction they have little control over.

Obviously though it's not just about the amygdala. Other parts of the brain have an influence, and there is clearly a role played by nurture, environment and personal history. And just because it begins with brain chemistry doesn’t mean we’re stuck permanently within that small barrier. Cain goes on to discuss how introverts can stretch themselves, either by gradually reducing the ‘fear factor’ (my term) or by exuding a faux-extrovert personality for a period of time. This goes for extroverts too - they can work on thinking more, on being quieter, and looking at the bigger picture before jumping in with a mad-cap response. But - and for me this is the really important part - we all need to revert to our true selves afterwards. That means it’s ok and natural for an introvert to want to leave a party early, go home and put their pyjamas on, or to need quiet time at the end of the day to stick their head in a book and not have to interact with others. In fact, this is a must for our mental health - because being out in the big wide world is so stimulating for introverts, having quiet or ‘loner’ time is crucial for us to be able to recharge our batteries - and failing to do so - or to acknowledge that some activities or environments involve just too much stimulation and unsurety - can be disastrous.

Quiet is a book that is clearly geared more for an introvert reader, but there’s no doubt that extroverts could learn just as much from it. Its revealing and reassuring and absolutely hits its mark. And it's nice to know I'm not alone.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Small Bunny's Blue Blanket, by Tatyana Feeney

I am absolutely loving Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket!

Small Bunny has a very special friend, Blue Blanket. Blue Blanket goes everywhere with Small Bunny and does everything that Small Bunny does. But, oh shock and horror, one day Mummy announces that she wants to wash Blue Blanket. Noooo! As anyone who had an item similar to Blue Blanket whilst growing up will know, washing is bad. Very bad. Aside from the separation period, Blankets are never the same once they are clean.

Confession time: one reason why I love this story so much is clearly because I have a Blue Blanket equivalent. My ‘Blue Blanket’ - or just Blanket - is not blue so much as whiteish grey. Granted, it doesn’t go everywhere with me anymore, but it still doesn’t get washed as often as perhaps it should. And yes, I am 32 years old. However, that said, there is more to this charming picture book from new author Tatyana Feeney than just a mutual love for Blankets. It is simple and sweet and Small Bunny is very very cute. It is especially cute when Small Bunny watches Blue Blanket going round and round in the washing machine. For 107 minutes. (Don’t worry, it doesn’t take 107 minutes to read the book.)

But wait... it all turns out ok: Blue Blanket returns from the washing safe and sound, and in almost no time at all, it is back to its old, dirty, well-loved self.

Irresistible and appealing, this is a storybook that is going to the top of my recommends list for younger toddlers. Even the tagline - A Tale of Love and Laundry - is inspired. And did I mention it’s cute?

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Dash and Lily's Book of Dares, by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares is a classic, modern, John Green-esque book that tells the story of two strangers in New York meeting and learning a little about each other through words. Told in alternating chapters - one from Lily’s perspective, one from Dash’s perspective - we learn how Lily leaves a moleskine notebook on the bookshelf in her favourite bookstore with a quest written inside for whoever finds it. That someone turns out to be Dash. After completing the first dare, which is supposed to culminate in him handing over his email address, Dash decides that two can play at this game and, instead of following instructions, sets Lily his own dare.

It’s interesting to think about because as the reader we get to know both Dash and Lily quite intimately, seeing their daily activities and hearing their innermost thoughts, and so it’s hard to remember that, as the story begins to grow, each of them knows the other considerably less well than the reader does. Dash and Lily are actually quite chalk and cheese: Lily loves Christmas and the fanfare it involves; Dash hates it. Lily is chirpy and full of beans; Dash’s nickname quickly becomes ‘Snarly’. And, of course, as they communicate only through dares and the written word, neither knows what the other is really dealing with in their life. This is perhaps why, when they finally meet, it doesn’t exactly go according to a romanticist’s plan. The romanticist in this case being not only Lily, but me. And this method of communication is also why, when they finally meet, I was surprised - disappointed? - that it didn’t go exactly according to a romanticist’s plan. Because, of course, I knew far more about them than they actually knew about each other.  This, however, is the beauty. It made me think; it made me question; and it made me reassess what I thought I knew about Dash and about Lily. In other words, it was made more real and realistic.

Set over the Christmas and New Year period, complete with snow and a dancing reindeer movie, this is obviously a good book to read in December. The story itself, though, will stand the test of reading at any other time of the year as well. It’s clever and funny - and gets funnier as the story goes on. Especially when Dash is unfairly labelled as a child attacker on a mommy website following an unlucky incident with a snowball. The fallout from this incident resonants into the final pages of the book in a rather wonderfully orchestrated final showdown between Dash and Lily themselves. Will they get it together or not? Either way, Lily comes out of her shell, and Dash does too, kind of.

David Levithan is a fairly prolific writer and is one of those authors whose name seems to crop up quite often yet who doesn’t seem to have become a UK household name in quite the same way that other teen authors have, like John Green - an author with whom Levithan has actually collaborated, on Will Grayson, Will Grayson. A similar tale resides with Rachel Cohn who, sadly, seems to have written more novels than are actually available in the UK. Having not yet read any of Levithan or Cohn’s other works, I don’t know exactly how well they’ll compare to John Green; after reading Dash and Lily, I’m sure  they’ll be good, but perhaps not quite as good - as lyrical - as John Green.

As for Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, it’s a lovely read, something a little different; something a little romantic without being sweet and sickly; a new take on an old idea without trying too hard. Kind of real and fanciful all at the same time; a touch of a fairytale, but tempered by normal life.