Thursday, 28 March 2013

And The Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

Our lives are made of stories: stories that we tell ourselves and of ourselves, stories that others tell of us, stories that we construct to help us understand the world and to help us reason. And The Mountains Echoed is, in one way, a collection of such stories and, in another, one story told from a collection of perspectives. There are a dozen different sides to every tale, as many different viewpoints as there are people involved, and this is something that Khaled Hosseini takes and plays with and transforms into something thoughtful and compassionate. The woman who from one person’s perspective is loud and brash and thoughtless is beautiful and enthralling from another’s view, or difficult and troubled from a third storyline. There is the girl who knows only a part of her story and the boy who knows far too much of it, the man who sees ruin where another sees hope.

And The Mountains Echoed is, altogether, the story of one family rocked by circumstance and difficult choices. It spans across decades, from the 1950s to present day, and around the world, France, Afghanistan, Greece, America. Moving from first person to third, letters to reminiscences, from now to the past and back again, Hosseini takes us on a journey, piling images and ideas into our minds in a quiet and subtle way. Where The Kite Runner was a man’s world and A Thousand Splendid Suns a woman’s world, And The Mountains Echoed breaches the gap, opening the story up for everyone.

Abdullah and Pari, brother and sister, are as close as close can be, but their father, recently remarried after their mother’s death, struggles to find work, to clothe and feed his family, to keep them warm in the harsh Afghan winter. But after he takes them on a trip to Kabul, walking the desert through day and night, he makes a choice no father should ever have to, setting their futures on a new course. Will this choice, this rift be permanent and irreparable? Where will it lead them and their family and into whose lives? What consequences will echo back at them from the mountains?

Hosseini sees people – sees into them – and reproduces this on the page with a rhythm and language reminiscent of poetry. I understand that Afghan poetry and literature traditionally uses certain meters and rhythms in its construct, and so I wonder: is this something Hosseini – consciously or subconsciously – has tapped into here? I have never been to Afghanistan, but he brings alive both its living beauty and its brutal history without being sentimental. Chapter by chapter, each one written with a different point of view, a different perspective, and each one a different little piece of the story, in parts related and unrelated to the overarching storyline of a lost little girl torn from her family’s heart. It exudes sadness, but in a touching way; whilst the stories told are in many cases tinged with sadness and difficulty, they are not depressing. Instead they are compassionate and caring, perhaps because of the conundrum introduced in the story of the prologue: what would you do for love?

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Bunker Diary, by Kevin Brooks

Wow. What can I say about The Bunker Diary? It’s captivating, intriguing, excellently written and, yes, very disturbing. (NB. This review includes minor spoilers in paragraphs 4 and 5)

Linus, the author of this diary, is trapped in a place with no windows, no doors; the only way in or out is the lift. Six rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, each one lined with cameras and microphones; each one triggered to spurt gas or give an electric shock if they’re tampered with, or if escape attempts are made. The Man Upstairs watches everything and controls everything with a God-like power.

As the days go by, Linus and his five bunk-mates have to figure out a way to live with each other and work out the rules of the bunker; if they work together will they find a way to escape? As his diary racks up the days, Linus has a lot of time to think about things, about where he came from, how he got here, about time and the human condition. And as his diary racks up the days, the Man Upstairs tests his inmates and in a myriad of ways - how far is this man willing to go?

The Bunker Diary raises all sorts of interesting questions, not least about the Man Upstairs and what levels of psychological torture humans are willing to endure. It’s between two and three weeks into his capture that Linus starts referring to his kidnapper with capital letters - He, the Man - which is also around the same time that he realises this man has been playing with time. Everything in the bunker is seemingly controlled by the clock on the kitchen wall - the life comes down at 9 o’clock in the morning, and back up at 9 o’clock at night. The lights come on when the clock says it’s 8 a.m. and they go off when it says it’s midnight. But what if the clock isn’t accurate? What if the man speeds it up or slows it down willy nilly? Linus suddenly realises he has absolutely no control over his life at all down here - not even the little things - and how he genuinely is one hundred percent at the mercy of this man. It is only inevitable, then, that he should begin to take on God-like proportions for those trapped beneath him.

The main questions I found myself asking was why? What are the kidnapper’s intentions? Is he just a creepy guy who finds pleasure in others’ pain, or is it some kind of creepy psychological experiment to see how people behave in the most inhuman of circumstances? It has tinges of the ‘Saw’ series of horror films, especially as the kidnapper  starts to play games with his occupants, not only playing with time, but turning the heat up and down, drugging their food, gradually adding in progressively more sinister tricks as the time ticks by. And the ending? Does he get arrested for the evidence of their kidnap that eventually makes it to the surface? Does he simply lose interest in them? Will he repeat the ‘experiment’ in the future with a new set of occupants?

Linus’s back story is subtly revealed through his diary’s pages, alongside the daily events in the bunker - though I have to wonder what is left out of his account, because the reader knows for a fact that, in his fear that the man is watching, Linus doesn’t tell us everything. I particularly like, though, his musings on time and how time works, and what it means to be a living and thinking organism - the latter of which is particularly reflective of the ‘challenges’ the kidnapper is putting him through. As time passes his thoughts become more disparate, more muddled, more philosophical, and it becomes harder to separate yourself from the story - instead of standing on the edge looking in, you start to wonder what you would do if you were there, in his shoes, thinking his thoughts. How would you behave? What would you be trying to do? How scared would you be? And this, of course, just makes reading it a creepier and creepier experience.

The Bunker Diary is harrowing and uncomfortable - and, although classed as a teenage book, it is definitely not suitable for younger readers in this age group. But with characters to root for and root against, all the ups and downs, the questions asked, the thoughts transmitted, it’s an outstanding piece of storytelling.

And the Winner is...

On Thursday evening, the winners of the Waterstones Children's Book Prize 2013 were announced... Drum roll, please...

Picture book category winner: Lunchtime by Rebecca Cobb

Children's fiction category winner: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Teenage fiction category winner: Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

And the overall winner for 2013 is: Ketchup Clouds. Awesome. Annabel Pitcher has written a lovely blog post about the awards evening - wouldn't it have been brilliant to be a fly on the wall of that party? A room full of some of the best children's authors around and the people that support them and children's reading. I also recommend watching this fabulous video that Waterstones commissioned to show off the shortlist...

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Requiem, by Lauren Oliver

Requiem is the much-anticipated third and final installment of Lauren Oliver’s entrancing series about a world in which love is considered to be disease. Its beautiful blue cover with silver writing is highly drool-worthy and the story inside lives up to expectation as Oliver’s characters grab you by the shirt collar and pull you into their world to fight for what they believe in.

Amor Deliria Nervosa was introduced to us in book one, Delirium – love, a disease that leads, among other things, to compromised reasoning skills and a distortion of reality. In the totalitarian world in which Lena and her best friend Hana live, love is something to be feared, to be trodden down and exterminated and so, at the age of 18, everyone undergoes The Cure, brain surgery that renders a person unable to love, that brings a fog over their emotions but purportedly brings clear thinking and rationality. It is only months until Lena will undergo The Cure, but then, just as her future is being mapped out for her, the worst thing happens: she contracts the Deliria. Perhaps, though, it’s not the worst thing? After meeting Alex, the source of her infection, Lena is led to question all that she has been taught and all that she has believed until now.

As Requiem opens, Lena has been living in the Wilds for upwards of six months – the unpoliced land outside the cities, a wild and ruined place where survival must be fought for on a day-to-day basis. She is a part of the resistance, fighting for freedom, and has found strengths she never knew she had, but still has a million questions. She has a tentative happiness here and has faith in her new beliefs and her new world, but is also discovering that much of what the City said about the Deliria is true. Love is complicated beyond belief – and can you love more than person at a time? Just as she finds a way to accept the loss of Alex and begins to make new connections, he steps back into her life and throws her heart into turmoil all over again.

Meanwhile, Hana has had The Cure and is counting down the days to her wedding to the most powerful man in Portland. It’s better, she feels, than it was before – she can keep the past at arm’s length, doesn’t have to feel the guilt, the jealousy and the multitude of other confusing synaptic pulses she had before. But as the past begins to slip back into her present, Hana finds herself questioning everything all over again. Is it her fault that Lena’s family is starving and ostracized? Is The Cure working properly on her? And who, really, is the man she’s got to marry?

Adrenalised and emotionally-packed, Lena and Hana’s alternating storylines take us into their minds and their worlds. Lena’s exploits for the resistance boil up into a dramatic conclusion, bringing her home to where her fight for the freedom to choose all began. Lauren Oliver’s final few paragraphs bring this to the foreground loud and clear, summing up the message behind all three books in a wonderfully succinct and emotionally cathartic manner:

Take down the walls. Otherwise you must live closely, in fear, building barricades against the unknown, saying prayers against the darkness, speaking verse of terror and tightness. Otherwise you might never know hell, but you will not know heaven, either. You will not know fresh air and flying.” (pg. 342)

Storywise, she has left the ending open – not really open to interpretation, but open enough for there to be more to the story. Some readers may prefer to have had every last detail wrapped up and ticked off (not that there are loose ends, it’s simply that there isn’t an "and they got married and lived happily ever after" conclusion), but I like the way it ends, it feels realistic, it fells like, well, the world is their oyster and they can choose what they do with it, where to go, who to be. Which is, of course, the point.

Requiem is a powerful and compelling conclusion to Oliver’s – and Hana and Lena’s – story that makes me want to go back to the beginning and read the whole series over again. Satisfyingly enjoyable, and great escapism. Perhaps teen readers out there could take it up a notch and try Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale next.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Mabel and Me, Best of Friends, by Mark Sperring & Sarah Warburton

This little book really, really appeals to me. It’s funny and cute and funny and clever and, oh did I mention? Funny.

‘Me’ is a little mouse with remarkably big ears (literally, not metaphorically), and he and his best friend Mabel are taking a stroll through their rather cosmopolitan town. In fact, Me tells Mabel that she is his bestest bestest friend, but Mabel’s response is - in a way that is so typical for a small child - “Why?” which leaves Me a bit stumped for an answer. As they continue on their walk, they encounter some people that make Me forget all about Mabel’s question, but ultimately the events that ensue remind him of one of the reasons why Mabel is his bestest bestest friend...

There’s a little bit of everything in Mabel and Me - a French photographer, a Prima Ballerina, dancing in a “boom-box, tap and jazz kind of way”, a counting page, ice cream, and a noisy photo booth. There are pigeons and pussy cats and a beautiful pond. The story is witty, with language that is both typical and atypical of a picture book. “Flash! click, flash! click, chugga, chugga, chugga,” goes the photo booth, but with words such as ‘diabolically’, ‘bristle’, and ‘extraordinary’, neither do the writers pander or look down upon the reader. In fact the language and the rhythm of the words has a lovely variety, chopping and changing and moving around the page to reflect the activity of the story.

And the pictures do the same: from a street overview with cars and buildings and an old-fashioned postbox in the background, to a closer image where you can peer in the windows of the houses behind (cute kitty alert on this page), to being focused even further on just the prancing photographer. The illustrations are lovely and detailed, full of character and very expressive. They have a slightly old-fashioned feel and a slightly European feel to them, conjuring idyllic yet real parks and streets. And they have a light feeling to them, even as Me gets progressively more riled by the things that people are saying. The dancing page is my favourite - it makes me want to boom-box and tap and jazz my own way down the street.

Mabel is very serene and doesn’t seem to be at all affected by the events of the story, while Me shows off a range of emotions. Rather beautifully though, when he gets very angry he quietly counts to ten until he has suitably composed himself, and then, instead of getting very upset and storming off when Mabel says something he wasn’t expecting, he is able to shake it off and laugh about it.

The End, happily ever after (with ice cream). I hope this is just the beginning of Mabel’s and Me’s adventures.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Born Weird, by Andrew Kaufman

Is there such a thing as coincidence? If there isn’t, what’s the explanation for “coincidences”? Fate? A greater being? Or a Grandmother with an unusually large heart?

“Until you realise that coincidences don’t exist, your life will be filled with them,” Grandma Weird said. “Everywhere you look there coincidences will be. Coincidence! Coincidence! Coincidence! But the moment you accept there is no such thing, they will disappear forever and you’ll never encounter another.” (pp. 9)

The Weird family - whose name is the result of a clerical error several generations ago - is a family of mysteries. They are both a family like every other and a family like no other. They argue together, play together, banter together, alternately resent each other and love each other. But as each of them were born, Grandma Weird bestowed upon them their own tailored blessing: Richard keeps himself safe, Abba always has hope, Lucy never gets lost, Kent can beat anyone in a fight, and Angie will always forgive. But, although meant well, as the years have gone by, these blessings have in turn become curses - or ‘blursings’ as the family comes to call them - and Grandma Weird has decided to take them back, to give her grandchildren a second chance, and tasks Angie with gathering her siblings together so that Grandma Weird can oblige. Not such an easy task: the siblings, now in their twenties and thirties, have scattered to the four (or five?) winds, and Angie has just thirteen days to track them down and persuade them to come.

In many ways Born Weird reads almost like a comedy of errors. Overflowing with quietly black humour and with a beautifully arranged plot, it is irresistible. In addition to the mystery of the blursings and Grandmother Weird’s uncanny and somewhat manipulative abilities (the Weirds’ nickname for her is, after all, The Shark), Kaufman weaves in the mystery of their father’s disappearance. Is he dead or alive? This, like the blursings, has shaped the sibling’s paths through life so far and if they are truly going to be able to make a fresh start, solving it is another nail they need to bang into the coffin.

I love the family dynamic of these five brothers and sisters; I love that each sibling has the exact same reaction to Angie’s story (“Good God why?”); I love Andrew Kaufman’s clean and unflowery style of writing. I love the idea of the blursings, and Kaufman’s quiet exploration of each one: how each was chosen, the positives they were meant to impart, their unforeseen consequences and how they have shaped the characters’ lives and choices. In a book full of apparent coincidences - though, as above, Grandma Weird makes it clear to us right from the beginning that there is no such thing as coincidence - the blursings bring me back to the question of fate: how much control do we really have over our lives? As far as the Weird siblings are concerned, it seems they have very little.

I was really fascinated by Kaufman’s writing style and spent much of the book trying to identify exactly what it is he does. Essentially he keeps to short sentences and doesn’t really go in for long descriptive passages, which I think helps to maintain clarity and focus on the characters and their foibles. He also surreptitiously taps into my internal paradigms - for instance, there is mention toward the beginning of the book of Grandmother Weird’s ‘Tone’. Although he actually says very little about the Tone, I know instinctively what Kaufman means, because I can relate his small comment to my own similar past experiences. This is ‘show’ not ‘tell’ storytelling at its highest form, and quite masterful.

In fact, Born Weird from beginning to end is masterful. Although they have barely spoken for years, as the Weird siblings gather together, revisit their pasts and reassess their futures, they interact with other almost as if they are still children playing and as if they have never been apart. They know each other, understand each other, trust each other. And that is beautiful.

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark

I entered into the reading of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with the idea that it was going to be a story somewhere along the lines of the Julia Roberts’ film Mona Lisa Smile, in which Roberts plays a teacher in a posh all-girls school in the 1950s. Somewhat unconventional, she tries to get her students to think outside the prim and proper boxes they have been placed in, much to the consternation of all those around her, keen to ensure the girls remain firmly within those boxes. As far as Miss Jean Brodie is concerned, the premise is quite similar, but the outcome - and the feel of the story - is entirely different.

Set in Edinburgh in the early thirties, Jean Brodie is labelled by her colleagues as a “progressive” teacher. Essentially what this means in terms of Miss Brodie’s particular teaching style is that she abandons all lesson plans and curriculum material, preferring instead to engage her students with stories of her own past experiences and love life. In my misconception that she was going to be playing the Julia Roberts role, I was expecting to find her a positive role model, to be a ‘modern’ woman fighting against the confines of a more uptight society. In this, it soon became apparent, I was wrong.

Very wrong. For, whilst being progressive in her way, I did not find Miss Jean Brodie particularly likeable. Are her teaching methods really any better than standard techniques? All that she really teaches her girls are her own opinions on things, forming a little clique of favoured students who quickly become known as the Brodie set. She bestows upon this particular group all of her time and her pearls of wisdom, ensnaring them into her rather pathetic and self-centered personal dramas.

The story is told predominantly from the perspective of the Brodie set (as opposed to Miss Brodie’s point of view), in particular that of Sandy, and it seems to me that the whole thing is rather unreliable. Firstly, Miss Brodie’s stories change over time depending on whatever her current reality is; secondly, the girls, young and impressionable as they are - not to mention socially uneducated in the modern sense - put their own spin on everything they hear, misinterpreting meanings and adding their own wild imaginations to the mix. Who knows where the truth of any of it really lies?

In the end, Miss Jean Brodie is a woman of little influence with only half a foot on life, who chooses to gain power and influence through the manipulation of her students. Her creation of the Brodie set is simply a way of gathering together a group of girls to worship at her feet - the girls are her possessions, much like her lover Mr. Lowther is a possession. When one of her girls eventually sees through her shiney surface and ‘betrays’ her confidences to her arch enemy, I found myself rooting for the betrayal rather than against it.

Muriel Spark has written a book full of nuance and suggestions, and hidden - or not so hidden - agendas. It was fascinating to read, to pick apart and consider all the different subtleties built into her characters, and wonder at what she was really trying to say. For anyone interested in writing this is a must-read because of the layers and intrigues that lie within - all of which are achieved in both a straightforward manner and in under 130 pages. Compelling and unsettling and a wonderful view into the inner workings of one self-centred woman’s slightly unhinged and misbegotten mind.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Ketchup Clouds, by Annabel Pitcher

Ketchup Clouds is absolutely compulsive reading. An epistolary novel, this is Zoe’s story told through a series of letters that she writes to a prisoner on death row. Why him? Well, she figures they’ve got a bit in common: they have both committed murder. Except Zoe has gotten away with it while Stuart Harris hasn’t. Zoe needs to confide in someone and this stranger is the only person she feels she can talk to, and quietly, bit by bit, she reveals the details of her secret.

A love story and a story of secrets, Annabel Pitcher has worked into her book many different layers, family tensions, and miscommunications, culminating in both the tragedy that Zoe cannot escape from and the beginnings of release from secrets held too close. It takes a real quality of writing to so successfully create the perfect balance between emotional catharsis and the story’s revelations that Pitcher achieves here. Her place on the shortlist of the Waterstones 2013 Children’s Book Prize is well deserved. In fact, personally, I’d say she’s in with a strong chance of winning.

At the beginning of her story, Zoe meets two boys: Max and Aaron. She begins two different kinds of relationships with them, which gradually descends into confusion as the lies and secrets begin to take hold - she knows what, or who, she really wants, but trying to get it right is a lot harder than perhaps it should be. As the different deceptions build up into the leaning tower of Pisa, Zoe very efficiently keeps us guessing as to which of the two boys is ultimately going to be the victim of her ‘crime’. Meanwhile, there are troubles at home. Zoe has two little sisters - Dot, the apple of their mother’s eye, and Sophie who is increasingly left out of the fold. Add to this the fact that their father has just been made redundant, and that there is some mysterious rift between the family and their grandfather. Why does Zoe’s mum refuse to get a job? Why does she refuse to let the children visit their sick grandfather? And why is she so obsessed about finding a ‘cure’ for Dot’s disability? Everyone in this family has something to hide.

Pitcher’s characters are lifelike, rounded and realistic. Zoe is a student of average capability and average popularity but is as equally unable to resist as I would be when the popular boy in school seeks her out, and she dabbles in teenage experimentation without taking it beyond the realm of no return, making this a well-balanced story for the average teenager (15+?).

The lead-in, “I know what it’s like... Mine was a boy. And I killed him. Three months ago exactly... No one has a clue and I’m walking around like that boy, Scot Free, saying all the right things and doing all the right stuff, but inside I’m sort of screaming,” is highly compelling and Zoe’s writing style is simple and easy to read, drawing you deeper and deeper into her story. My only slight irritation was the way in which, although neither parents were working, they seemed to have zero monetary concerns - if I remember correctly, the father drives a BMW for goodness' sake - in the real world in this situation, belts would be being tightened and arguing over who gets to look for a job wouldn't really be a consideration.

Ketchup Clouds subtly reminds us that one lie easily leads to another, and secrets can be dark and dreadful things, eating away inside you. An excellently woven story, and one that I can see myself reading a second time.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The One Dollar Horse, by Lauren St John

The One Dollar Horse is like a classic and a modern fairytale all wrapped up in one. It has that feel-good essence you get from really good chick-lit or from a younger children’s book like The Secret Garden or Ballet Shoes, but without the overly smoochy tendencies of the first or the old fashioned societal set-up of the second. I’m a girly girl in that I like stories with horses or ballet or happy-ever-after endings, so this was bound to be a win-win book for me, and with it’s hot-pink pages it’s definitely being aimed at the girly market. But, that said, I truly believe this is a book to be enjoyed by even those who wouldn’t normally pick up a horse book, and that is because, really, the horse story is just a side-line to the classic character arc, the ups and downs of pursuing your dreams, no matter what those dreams happen to be.

Casey Blue does not have the most auspicious of backgrounds, but living in a tower block in East London with her just-out-of-jail father doesn’t mean she can’t dream any bigger than the rest of us. Horse mad, she volunteers at the local riding centre and figures if she’s lucky she’ll train to be a riding instructor there one day. But then everything changes when she and her father save a horse from certain destruction. Downbeaten and starving, will the horse even survive his first night in the stable? I don’t think I’d be giving too much away by saying yes, and that he turns out to be rather a gem. Casey has always dreamed of competing at the Badminton Horse Trials: will the One Dollar Horse be able to take her there?

Lauren St John’s story covers an unusually long time period for an older children/teen novel as Casey slowly trains herself and her horse, begins competing, struggles, pauses, picks herself up and starts again. At least two years have passed by the time we reach the conclusion, a time period that other reviewers have argued is unrealistic in terms of horse training. But, really, that doesn’t matter. This is not a book you start reading in the knowledge that its story-arc is going to be entirely reflective of real life, and this fairytale aspect is what lends itself to the feel of modern classics like Ballet Shoes, and that One Dollar Horse emulates perfectly. It’s a story not about what it takes to train a horse for Badminton, but about following your dreams, believing in yourself, overcoming struggles, and seeing things through to their conclusion. It is, in short, a dream come true. The adults among us know full well that this is not the sort of thing that happens every day - and the people around Casey are apt to remind her of this fact too - but sometimes it does, and we all secretly hope that we’ll be the ones who get to experience it.

Casey’s struggles are topical and, mostly, realistic - money, social typecasting - and the fairytale storytelling is further affirmed by the presence of a fairy godmother-type character who comes to the rescue in moments of direst need. Although officially classed as a teenage title by Waterstones, the content is such that it is perfectly suited for younger children as well, perhaps from the age of nine or ten if they are strong readers - comments from a mum in my shop suggest that some of the themes (eg. Casey’s father’s criminal activities and their implications) may need explaining to younger readers, but that otherwise her eight-year-old enjoyed it and is looking forward to the next installment, Race the Wind, out in April. To this end, there was a particular storyline that wasn’t tied up at the end of One Dollar Horse, which I hope will be picked up again in the sequel. Something tells me that Badminton is not the end of the road for Casey, and I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next.

I must say how nice it is that there are still new stories like this one being written, that the traditions of authors like Noel Streatfeild and Eva Ibbotson are still alive and kicking. And also how nice it is that a book of this ilk is being aimed at teenagers, a genre so often swamped with dark romance and the assumption that the only thing teenage girls want to read are soppy love stories. Don’t get me wrong, soppy love stories definitely have their place, but there is so much more to life. In many aspects this book is a love story, but it’s not all about the boy and who’s kissing who; rather, its focus is on finding the positives in life and fighting for your place on the ladder instead of letting others decide it for you. If you enjoy it, try some of Lauren St John's other books, or Maggie Stiefvater's excellent The Scorpio Races.