Wednesday, 27 February 2013

A Possible Life, by Sebastian Faulks

A Possible Life is a quietly interesting and intriguing book, and one that's quite hard to pinpoint onto paper. It's created through five individual stories, showing five different lives, different times, different countries, different perspectives, and it's probably a couple of months since I read it now, which makes reviewing it even harder!

So, five stories, five people. First there is Geoffrey, 1938, caught up in the second world war. Then Billy, 1859, growing up in the workhouse, a place virtually beyond the modern western imagination to comprehend. Elena, 2029, a strange, withdrawn girl growing up in Italy; Jeanne, 1822, whose story I remember the least; and Anya, 1971, a Californian singer-songwriter headed for the stars.

I could draw a comparison to Sam Thompson’s Communion Town or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, each of which are novels composed of different stories in a similar way to this one, but really that is the only similarity between them. Sebastian Faulks’ new book, for one, is subtler. Whilst reading it, I spent much of my time trying to identify what twists within each story linked them all together, which was a significant mistake on my part, for it is not the stories themselves that are linked, but rather their essence. The title is, after all, A Possible Life, and to me, I think that is what it's all about: possible lives.

In some cases the chapter is told from the point of view of the person named, in others it's another’s experience or memories of that person, and for the most part we are shown a sweeping view of each character’s life. As another reviewer has commented, each individual story is likely to speak to different readers differently. For me, I connected more strongly with Billy, Geoffrey and Anya than I did with Elena and Jeanne, though I imagine other readers may have a different response. What stands out are the themes of humanity that run through each character’s life: the search for love, connection, understanding. Each character finds - or fails to find - these things in a different way. Each life is a possibility: is it up to us what we make of it, or is it out of our control?

From an external vantage point, or before I had completed the book, I would have said the individual stories felt disparate and vaguely inconclusive, yet by the time I got to the end, somehow they had all coalesced in mind in a way that made the novel complete and whole. Strange and, as I said at the start, intriguing.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Turf, by John Lucas

The opening paragraph to John Lucas’ astounding novel of teen gangland warfare, Turf, says it all.

“When you’re fifteen, everything matters. I’m not just talking about the obvious stuff: what music you like, who your crew is, whatever. I mean everything. All the little details. The way you carry your bag, the way you wear your jeans... The way you cut your hair, the way you wear your hat. Where you cross the road - Traffic lights and zebra crossings are for pussies, bruv - to where you sit on the bus. Your postcode, your estate your, school.” (pg.1)

Jaylon is stuck in as many ways as you can name. He’s stuck on his estate, stuck in a turf war between his gang, the Blake Street Boyz, and the one on the rival estate, the Yoots. He’s stuck on where he gets to live, what his future will be, which friends he gets to make. You could argue this is a choice he made: he chose to join the Boyz, after all; or you could argue that he never had a choice: join the gang or be nothing. And now he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place: it’s time to prove himself and gang leader Shads has named his price. Jay must kill Ram.

And so Turf covers the period of time between Jay getting this instruction and the point at which he must carry it out. Its a scary and poignant snapshot into the life of those at the bottom of the pile, inner city estates and the dynamics of what might seem to me from the outside as petty warfare, but from the inside is life or death. Jaylon commits some terrible crimes and is put in some terrible situations, and it's impossible not to feel heartbroken for him, to not root for him. He so desperately wants to do the right thing, to break away from the place he finds himself in, but he just can’t figure out how.

Turf is intense and dark and not a story to be taken lightly. There is drug use; there is extreme violence. And there is also a surreal sort of edge to it. As Jaylon wanders the streets trying to figure things out, he meets a series of odd people - homeless pothead Leo, an old Rasta, a weird plant woman - who say cryptic things. Are they just the normal street effluvium, or are they something more? Spirit guides? Ghosts? Quietly, Jaylon descends almost into mental breakdown, haunted as he becomes by actions and choices, by these people and their words, and by strange hallucinations that plague him at home. Is it a result of drugs? Of malnourishment? Of stress and indecision?

I wonder whether Turf is a book that would fare better if repackaged for adults - the themes and subject matter, and Lucas’ expert treatment of them, makes it a book that surely deserves a type of accolade that is more likely to come from an adult audience and an adult reading perspective (think The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-time). This, of course, is not to say that teenaged readers won’t appreciate the content - they will, I am sure - but I don’t picture it getting the recognition it perhaps deserves through a teen audience alone. Repackaging it for adults would give it a wider and well-deserved readership that shelving it in the teenage section alone is likely to enable.

Ultimately, Turf ends the only way it realistically - and morally? - could. As the grafitti on the front cover image says, Jaylon’s is a world where you kill or die. The chances of escape are slim to none; hands down to John Lucas for beating the odds.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

North of Nowhere, by Liz Kessler

In North of Nowhere we meet Mia, who has been dragged away from her friends and down to the sleepy fishing village of Porthaven to help out her gran after her grandad goes missing. She’s bored, she’s lonely, and she doesn’t understand why her Gran has to be so shut off about things. Soon, though, she finds occupation playing with the dog on the beach, makes tentative friends with ‘D’, communicating in writing through the pages of D’s diary, and meets Peter, who’s on a fishing holiday. But then things start to get mysterious: first D fails to turn up for their arranged meeting, then Mia starts to get some funny looks when she mentions visiting the local island where D lives, and then Peter disappears.

This is a really enjoyable read from Cornish-based author Liz Kessler. Porthaven is never specifically referenced as being a Cornish village, but it’s as good as with the name and setting that Kessler has given it. And it’s a rather well-engineered timeslip novel too - I figured out what was going on relatively early in the story, but had to keep reading to find out how everything would work out in the end, and worked out rather nicely it did too. There are little flashback inserts to help entice the reader into the mystery, and everything unfolds very naturally.

I do have a couple of small niggles that my adult brain couldn’t help wondering about whilst I was reading... (i) why Mia isn’t more upset about the disappearance of her grandfather in the first place (and why more isn’t done about it by her mother and grandmother); (ii) why Mia and Peter’s sister don’t tell the adults when they find clues leading to Peter’s disappearance (surely in a real life situation this would be a major issue in a police investigation); and (iii) the ease with which both Mia and Peter’s families accept the outcome and their new reality. However, the addition of detail required by the author to flesh these things out would probably have taken away from the main flow of the story and it is, after all, only a story. And a story with time travel in it too, so I mustn’t get too nitpicky!

Overall, North of Nowhere is a nice little puzzle for young minds to immerse themselves in, and an adventure worthy of any Enid Blyton fan. I especially enjoyed the timeslip aspect of the story and the way several of the different characters got to experience it rather than just witnessing the outcome. I will definitely be picking up more of Liz Kessler’s books in the future.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

John Green talks The Fault in Our Stars at Cadogan Hall, London

What is the collective noun for a gathering of Nerdfighters? What, for that matter is a Nerdfighter? And why are they professing their love for John Green and his book The Fault in Our Stars?

Despite being the catalyst for a worldwide community, seven consecutive weeks at number one on the New York Times bestseller list and, along with his brother Hank, a YouTube superstar, Green was affable - and slightly bashful - as he addressed London’s packed out Cadogan Hall the first Sunday in February.

“Books only work when they are a gift,” he says. “I try to give a gift of the best story that I can make. I need to write the story generously, and that’s the only time when writing works.”

The Fault in Our Stars was ten years in the making for this very reason. The story of Hazel and Augustus, from their first meeting to their last, it’s a heartbreaking and heart-fulfilling love story of simultaneously small and epic proportions. They are smart, intelligent and funny teenagers with wishes waiting to be fulfilled, but for the incurable fault in their stars: cancer.

After a stint as a chaplain in a children’s hospital, Green “started writing all of these stories that were about a children’s hospital, except they weren’t about children or hospital: they were mostly about this 22 year old hospital chaplain, who was like me but super handsome. It was like, which lady doctor will he choose... it was pretty bad. And I think it was bad in retrospect because it was self-indulgent, it was about me, not just literally but also figuratively: I was writing it for me, not for you.”

And so he wrote some other books, and started the Vlog Brothers YouTube channel, and about a million other things too - the Nerdfighting community among them. Nerdfighters are “not people who fight nerds - that would be weird - it’s people who fight for nerds, and celebrate intellectualism and thoughtfulness.” And then he met one particular Nerdfighter: Esther Earl, to whom The Fault in Our Stars is dedicated.

“From the time that I met her she was very sick with cancer, and she died in August 2010, when she was sixteen.” As a result of their friendship, he says, “I came to think very differently about the story that I was writing.” Irritated by stories purportedly about sick people really being about healthy people - “ ‘Oh this sick person came into my life and as a result of having known her, and as a result of her untimely death, I now know to be grateful for every day’ ” - he set out to give voice to sick people themselves.

“In my experience, sick and dying people are every bit as funny and vivacious and interesting and angry and annoying and everything else as other people. I wanted to argue that it is not only long lives that are full and rich and good lives, but that a short life can also be a good life.” And so the handsome chaplain disappeared, and something outstanding took his place. Packed full of metaphor and symbolism and heart and resonance, it is meaningful in a multitude of ways, and I have yet to meet a single reader who has not fallen in love with its characters - or its writer.

After telling us the story of how The Fault in Our Stars came to be, Green reads a short extract and then welcomes his brother Hank to the stage for a quirky, musical interlude. Both brothers are incredibly articulate, answering questions from the audience with such panache and humour that teens and adults alike surely need look no further for better role models. As time begins to dwindle, questions and answers become more frantic, the scene dissolves into mild chaos, the camaraderie between the brothers in evidence. This, though - the mistakes, the goofery - is what makes them human and makes the show both fun and informative, just like Green’s characters, whose faults and imperfections, as much as their inherent goodness, makes us love them and their story.

Overall, he says, “This book is a collaboration between lots and lots and lots of people... You think that books are written by just one person, but that’s not the case at all, no book was ever written by just one person.” This magnanimity, alongside the fact that he treats both his characters and his audience with respect, perhaps explains why, while he essentially writes for teens, he has found just as dedicated an audience with adults. “I think all audiences are vulnerable, all human beings are vulnerable, we’re all afraid, scared and innocent. I don’t feel a particular responsibility because many of my readers are teenagers that I don’t feel for my adult readers. But I do feel a responsibility: I think that I have to write hopeful novels because I believe that the only true novels are hopeful ones.”

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Waterstones Children's Book Prize 2013

Woo hoo - the shortlist for the 2013 book prize has been announced! As a Waterstones children’s bookseller, my colleagues and I were lucky enough to take part in reading the longlist and telling those on high which books we thought were the best, so it’s very interesting to see what has made it to the shortlist. Some titles are a surprise and not necessarily what I would have chosen had it been just little old me - but that, of course, is what makes it interesting; it’d be boring if we all liked the same thing wouldn’t it?

The shortlist is divided into three categories: picture books, young fiction and teenage fiction. These are all books that were published during 2012, and by authors who have written no more than three books, thus are “hidden talent”. Dare I lay down my bets and pick a winner? Truthfully, I have yet to read all of the titles on the shortlist, so I can't honestly say which are the best until I've tasted all of them - and even then I don't know if I'd be able to pick a winner, they are all so different from each other. But... here is the shortlist, and my thoughts and personal favourites so far...

Picture Books
The Journey Home - Fran Preston-Gannon
The Worst Princess - Anna Kemp
Rabbityness - Jo Empson
Lunchtime - Rebecca Cobb
Oh No, George! - Chris Haughton
Can You See Sassoon? - Sam Usher

It’s easy to pick my favourite here: The Worst Princess is just awesome in all ways: funny and clever and witty, and turns gender and fairytale stereotypes on their head. Then I’d pick Oh No, George! as a runner up because it is just SO funny (especially the rather ambiguous ending).

I disliked The Journey Home because I don’t think it does what the author wants it too, and it seems to me that people say they like it simply because of what it is trying to portray than what it actually does. But, in my earlier review, one reader left a very interesting and worthwhile response countermanding my negativity toward it, so again with the 'wouldn't it be boring if we all liked the same thing?'

As for the others on the shortlist, Can You See Sassoon? is a fun book with a Where’s Wally feel to it that should bring hours of entertainment to little ones, and Lunchtime is a very sweet, simple and quite appealing story, though I have yet to figure out who really ate the little girl’s lunch! Rabbityness, though, while purportedly about dealing with grief, I found a little odd - there are much books out there that cover this issue.

5-12 Fiction
Atticus Claw Breaks the Law - Jennifer Grey
Wonder - R. J. Palacio
The Wolf Princess - Cathryn Constable

This is a bit harder. Wonder really stands out from the crowd, and it’s a book that absolutely lives up to its title, but I rather suspect that adults probably get more out of it than children of this age are likely to (not that they wouldn’t find it enjoyable - but as this is a children’s book prize, we should perhaps be thinking more specifically about what children will enjoy the most than what I enjoy the most). The Wolf Princess is a wonderful fairytale-type story in fairly traditional vein, but it is quite distinctly a girl’s book, while the fresh and funny Atticus Claw is more appealing cross-gender, has a great but subtle moral, and is likely to have grow into a lovely little adventure series.

But I have yet to read The Secret Hen House Theatre, The Chronicles of Egg, and Barry Loser... Ahh, so many books, so little time.

Teenage Fiction
Throne of Glass - Sarah J Maas
Seraphina - Rachel Hartman
Insignia - S. J. Kincaid
Ketchup Clouds - Annabel Pitcher
Skin Deep - Laura Jarratt

This is even harder to call as there’s a great selection this year. I have yet to read Insignia, but Skin Deep and Ketchup Clouds are both excellently written. Whilst ostensibly being ‘issues’ stories, they cover the whole confusing time of growing up and falling in love, figuring out who you are and what is right and what is wrong. And they are both very good in different ways, making it hard to choose between even just these two, before considering the rest of the pickings.

Meanwhile, Throne of Glass and Seraphina are wonderful examples of a fresh new sci-fi/fantasy take on teenage writing. Throne of Glass is great, and seems to appeal almost equally to boys as it does to girls, but personally I think Seraphina has the edge because of its originality and very strong female heroine who, while she does fall for someone, doesn’t let it cloud her judgement like the Throne of Glass’s heroine. Personally, I think I’d have to pick Seraphina as my teen winner because of sheer originality, brilliant storytelling, and intriguing characters.

Geekhood is fun, tapping into the world of RPG and geeks, which - considering the heaviest male book buyers in the teen world are quite often boys of this ilk - is surprising and slightly shocking that it’s not done more often. Geekhood has been tapped as an 'If you like John Green, you'll love this' - it’s not as good as John Green, though I can see the link between them, and the story’s conclusion is quite refreshing (while everything does work out, it doesn’t work itself out in quite the traditional manner).

So, to summarise, my favourites (so far) are The Worst Princess, Atticus Claw, and Seraphina. And overall? Ummm... errmmm.... how can you compare a picture book with a teen book with a young fiction book? No, I’ll leave that one to the panel!

Previous winners:
2012: The Pirates Next Door - Johnny Duddle (picture book)
2011: Artichoke Hearts - Sita Brahmachari (9-12 fiction)
2010: The Great Hamster Massacre - Katie Davies (5-8 fiction)
2009: The Thirteen Treasures - Michelle Harrison (9-12 fiction)
2008: Ways to Live Forever - Sally Nicholls (teen fiction)
2007: Darkside - Tom Becker (teen fiction)
2006: The Diamond of Drury Lane - Julia Golding (9-12 fiction)
2005: The Cry of the Icemark - Stuart Hill (teen fiction)

Friday, 8 February 2013

Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas

Celaena Sardothian is an assassin. Treacherous and uncatchable - that is, until she was caught. And now she resides in the Salt Mines of Endovier, a slave, no future, no escape - until the Crown Prince’s Captain of the Guard arrives and offers her a deal: the king is to hold a tournament pitting thieves and assassins against one another to find the best, his own personal ‘champion’, and Prince Dorian wants her as his representative.

And so Calaena is taken to the Glass Palace, the one place she possibly despises more than the Salt Mines, to be a puppet for the King, the one person she despises more than her slavers; the man who is her slaver. Yet this is an entirely new world for Calaena: a world where she must regain her strength and skill, a world where she will be challenged in multitudinal new ways; a world where politics and not just brute force reigns.

Author Sarah J. Mass is a great new force in the world of teenage fantasy. In Calaena she has created a - generally - strong female who definitely knows how to kick some ass, and in Throne of Glass she has created a world simpler than George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones series, but with similarities that tap into the reading phenomenon he and his TV adaptation has created. As Calaena settles into her new rooms at the palace and her new training and fighting regime, a series of brutal and unsettling murders begins to ripple its way through the competing assassins. Who - or what - is behind them? Myth and power and otherworldiness surge through the plotline and Calaena is drawn deeper and deeper.

“You must listen to what I tell you. Nothing is a coincidence. Everything has a purpose. You were meant to come to this castle, just as you were meant to be an assassin, to learn the skills necessary for survival... 
“Something evil dwells in this castle, something wicked enough to shake the stars quake. Its malice echoes into all worlds,” the queen went on. “You must stop it. Forget your friendships, forget your debts and oaths. Destroy it, before it is too late, before a portal is ripped open so wide that there can be no undoing it.” (pg. 186)

Mass writes her story with real confidence and she writes it well, with just one small niggle. Calaena is, in so many ways, a strong and worthy heroine, except just now and again when she behaves in a rather weak and slightly snotty-teenagerish way, predominantly where the male sex is concerned. The real love interest in Maas’ story is Captain Chaol, yet Calaena is irritatingly drawn to Prince Dorian, and often in this aspect of the story she behaves in a weak and faltering manner that seems contradictory to her otherwise kick-ass character, diminishing the strength of what would otherwise have been an extremely positive role model, seeming to imply that its acceptable for girls to become simpering in the company of men, and making her just that bit annoying. However, we all make mistakes in love, don’t we? Perhaps that is the lesson for readers here and Calaena will go on to kick ass in all areas of her life.

Overall though, Throne of Glass is awesome. Again, as with my recent review of Rachel Hartman’s excellent Seraphina, it is truly great to see new types of fantasy being written for teenagers: fantasy that features strong women fighting for all that is good, rather than simply falling in love with supernatural beings and mooning about for a couple hundred pages. And also fantasy that, even though the main character is a girl, boys can enjoy and get gripped by as well. Bring it on please.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner

This book is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding and real examples of dystopian fiction I have ever read. If not for its recent win of the Costa Children’s Book Award I probably wouldn’t have picked it up as neither the title nor the cover gave much indication of the hidden gem inside - but thank goodness I did.

Maggot Moon is the story of one brave boy - or one unlikely hero - standing up for the truth he believes in. Standish lives in the Motherland, a country with a ruling system reminiscent of a blend of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. It is 1956 and his government is on the verge of sending a man to walk on the moon. Or are they? Standish may be ‘impure’, an orphan, and virtually illiterate, but he sees more than they (the Greenflies, the soldiers, a man in a long leather coat) think he does, and his story gradually reveals both the ways of his world and what could be the greatest conspiracy theory of all time.

This is fiction writing at its absolute best. Sally Gardner’s writing is subtle and detailed yet simple and straightforward, and her characters literally leap off the page. Her language is effortless, switching from the simple to the intense and full of intent, with sentences like “Doubt is a great worm in a crispy red apple.” (pg. 72) There are themes of desolation and the moon, of rockets and space flight, and of other worlds - worlds with Croca Cola and Cadillacs. And the publishers have added an ingenious extra touch in the form of a flip story running across the pages featuring flies and maggots and a rather curious rat - sounds a bit gruesome I know, but it adds a fascinating extra dimension to the reader’s experience - and I know there’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet.

After Standish’s best friend Hector disappears, he begins to wonder how on earth he’s going to get through his day to day life. Hector was both friend and protector - now Standish is exposed again, vulnerable to the bullies who populate his school. But he won’t have to worry for long: a trip to the headmaster’s office sets off a series of events in a tumbling snowball. Or is that where it begins? Perhaps it began when the football went over the garden wall? Or maybe when Hector first arrived next door? What soon becomes apparent is that it’s up to Standish to show the world what’s really going on. Does he have the courage?

Standish’s actions and the quality of his character (despite his not-very-inspiring introduction of himself) have gotten me thinking about what it means to be a hero. At the start of his story, Standish makes himself out to be the kind of person least likely to become a hero. Essentially he is the runt of the litter, the bottom of the pile, but he gradually reveals himself to be entirely different to how others view him, entirely different from the person he at first seems to be. This is why I would describe him as unlikely hero, although when you actually start to dig deeper, he does actually possess - right from the beginning - the makings of a hero. But what actually makes a hero a hero?

My faithful dictionary says a hero is:
1. a man of distinguished bravery and strength; any illustrious person
2. a person who is venerated and idealized
3. in fiction, a play, film, etc: the principal male character or the one whose life is the theme of the story
4. originally a man of superhuman powers; a demigod

Do these apply to Standish? Some yes, others no; in truth, though, this simple definition doesn’t feel like it fully covers the extent of Standish’s bravery or the meaning of what he does. He and his actions are worth so much more and encompass so much more than a dictionary definition can credit. For a more refined idea of the hero, I'm led to Joseph Campbell. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces he lays out the typical hero’s journey, which seems to get a little closer to Standish’s truth:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Another big theme of Maggot Moon is that of acceptance. Firstly, Gardner’s story got me thinking of the 1990s film Wag the Dog, where a politician recruits a spin-doctor to create a fake war in Albania, thus distracting the media from the politician’s troubles. Its a film that I remember for the way it highlighted the power of the media - creating its own version of events, it showed our willingness to accept what we’re told without question. This idea is perhaps a natural reflection of the dystopian world - you can see it loosely in books like Matched and The Hunger Games - but in Maggot Moon it is really crisp and clear.

“You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see who the real idiots were here: Hans Fielder who believed he was destined for greatness, along with his merry gang. They were all bleating sheep, the whole maladjusted lot of them. They never questioned anything.” (pg. 72)

Although marketed for teens Maggot Moon crosses so many boundaries and contains both writing and storytelling of such quality that I would recommend it as enthusiastically to twelve year olds, fifteen year olds, twenty year olds, sixty years olds, and on and on. It is dystopia in its purest form, and stands alongside classics such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World - a good introduction to teen fiction for the younger generation, or a natural stepping stone between The Hunger Games and more adult titles. True class.