Sunday, 28 April 2013

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity is an absolutely exceptional piece of storytelling; Elizabeth Wein has worked a thing of magic. Not only does it have a wonderfully constructed plotline, it brings alive the smells, tastes and sounds of wartime Britain, and reminds me of the unrivalled and uncommon courage of those who served their country at this time.

This is the story of two young women who, if not for the Second World War, would most probably have never met, and is told in two parts: Verity’s tale, and then Maddie’s tale. It is France, 1943, and Verity, after an infuriatingly simple cultural blunder, has been caught by the Gestapo. It is apparent from the beginning that she has been tortured and that what we are reading is her written confession to her captors, a promise to provide information on the British war effort to appease her German interrogator and hopefully bring some improvement to her living conditions. The story that she tells, though, is one of friendship, her friendship with Maddie, the pilot who brought her to France, and their story up until this moment in time.

Verity begins by informing us that she is a coward, that she has made a deal with the Germans, and we must believe that she is a traitor, that she is giving away British secrets. But is she? As the story progresses I found myself asking, What is truth? Verity herself shows through her words how good she is at acting, at pretending, and I started to wonder, how much are the two sides playing a game? How real are the pictures of Maddie’s burnt-out plane that the German interrogator shows her? How much of Verity’s story is true and how much is a ‘fudging’ to give her captors what they think they want to know? In writing terms, her account is what we would call unreliable: because it is written for a purpose, and that purpose is not to tell a happy story, but to provide her interrogators with information. There are lots of things about Verity’s story that begin to raise questions as you read on: how much humanity does the interrogator, who hides it so well, really have? What do the underlined sentences mean, and who has underlined them? And what about what Verity doesn’t tell us? Who’s to say what happens that she choses not to put into words?

In part two, Maddie’s story gradually unravels these conundrums and quietly, quietly shows us another side of the story, one that the Germans, the ones who extracted the above account from Verity, are not privy to. It is just brilliantly written and utterly gripping, but what stood out strongest for me, what has remained with me after I put the book down for the last time, are the ordinary and extraordinary acts of courage and heroism that these two women perform. There are real people who did these exact things, or at least very similar things, who endured the things these women endured and made the choices they did without blinking, without thinking, but just knowing it was what had to be done. This picture of war, of the places where it leads us – good and bad, physical and mental – is one that, sitting in my dry, well-heated, soft and comfortable home, I am apt to forget. Verity and Maddie’s determination is astounding.

“Every fresh broken horror here is something I just DIDN’T UNDERSTAND until I came here,” Maddie tells us (pg. 352).

Code Name Verity questions what is truth, honor, betrayal. It questions how far a person is willing to go to save the person they love – and even a person they don’t even know. Towards the beginning of her story, Verity recounts a day when she and Maddie went on an epic bike ride during which they listed their fears, all of which sound perfectly normal and reasonable to my ears, but as their experiences and knowledge of the world take on greater clarity, these fears change and warp, becoming things they are experiencing now or know they will have to face in the near future, causing their earlier worries to feel petty and to slip aimlessly into the background. And yet… And yet both of them face their new fears almost wordlessly, head-on, and with courage that no-one, until they are there, in the den, will know they possess.

I can’t begin to describe the layers, the hints and the games that Elizabeth Wein has written into this book without completely giving away the storyline or further rendering the experience of actually reading this book and figuring it out as you go along pointless. And so I say only this: read it. You will not be disappointed, it is as extraordinary as its characters.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

My Funny Family, by Chris Higgins

My Funny Family is a very sweet and simple story for young readers following the exploits of Mattie and her rather large and higgledy-piggledy family. It’s a really natural story with lovely characters who are easy to relate to, large, straightforward text, and pictures scattered throughout to help illustrate the story.

At nine, Mattie’s the second oldest of five children, has an artist father, full-time mum, a dog called Jellico, and a busy, bustling extended family who pop in and out of her house and her story. On the surface, it seems as if Chris Higgins has written a pretty simple story, but when you look deeper there are several different threads and concepts running through it, weaving together to create a compact, smart and thoughtful little plotline. Alongside the tender family dynamics is a storyline about seeds and growing plants, nature and hints of self-sufficiency, and also about Mattie’s tendency to worry about things.

A fairly sensitive young lady, Mattie picks up easily on the chatter that’s going on around her and the little messages passed between adults, but is too young yet to be able to pick apart the subtleties of adult speak. So when her mum makes a passing comment about having been to the doctor, and then her Gran makes a passing comment about her mum looking peaky, the worry knots in Mattie’s brain go into overdrive.

Mum says that when I get worried my brain changes to spaghetti and gets all tangled up.” (back cover)

She takes things to heart, and begins to worry and worry about what might be going on, but she is lucky enough to have a very caring set of parents used to untangling her worry-spaghetti. They’re never going to be able to stop her from worrying completely about stuff, but they can help her control them and allay her bigger fears.

As someone who is very good at getting her own worry-spaghetti tangled up, I completely related to Mattie, and found her story to be sensitive and caring and realistic. And it’s funny too - from an adult perspective! - which is a big thumbs up for any mums and dads in charge of bedtime reading. The first in a series of at least three titles, My Funny Family is a great book to have on a youngster’s bookshelf whether for their own reading or for reading aloud.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness

The Crane Wife. As beautiful, daring and thoughtful as I’ve come to expect from Patrick Ness. Oh to be able to construct stories such as this; he seamlessly blends myth and reality, and makes magical occurrences both ordinary and extraordinary all in one small sweep of his pen.

It all begins when George wakes up in the middle of the night to find an injured crane in his small back garden. It’s a strange experience that seems to both last forever and be over in an instant, as happens with so many moments in life. He’s a middle-aged man with a small commercial business, an ex-wife and a grown daughter. He suffers from being ‘too nice, too soft’; his daughter, Amanda, from being eternally angry. But when, the morning after George’s encounter with the crane, the beautiful Kumiko steps through his copy-shop’s door, the roots of their lives are uprooted and overturned. Kumiko is a mystery to everyone around her, revealing only the smallest pieces of herself, but George falls head over heels and together they walk down a path George could never have predicted.

Interwoven with George’s story is, firstly, Amanda’s unalloyed fight to find a place where she belongs, and, secondly, that of the Lady and the Volcano, an apparent myth that Kumiko reveals to George through her art work. But where does the line of myth and reality lie? Right from the beginning, the reader is subtly led to question whether Kumiko and the crane are one and the same. And as the characters move farther and farther down their new pathways, events take on a fevered sort of reality – yet even here it is hard to know what is really occurring and what parts George is creating for himself in his desperation to know and to understand Kumiko.

Ness plays on this blending of myth and reality, and on the construction of stories, throughout the book, indelibly reminding us that stories are endless and ever changing, and that every person will tell a story in their own way, framed as it is by their own unique perspective of events. Thus, when the denouement takes places, Ness gives us five different versions for how it begins – which one is the right one or the true one? Or, perhaps the better question: is there a true version? Perhaps they each equally accurate and equally true all at the same time.

And the myth of the Lady and the Volcano? This is the other half of Ness’s tale: just as stories are endless and ever changing, so are people. They fight and they destroy, they build and they make love, they hate and they burn and they forgive. ‘Anthem’ is the word that springs to mind when I try to think of describing The Crane Wife, though when I look up the definition in my dictionary it gives one that is overtly religious, which doesn’t seem so appropriate somehow. Yet anthem is the word that sticks in my mind, “a song of praise or celebration”. The Crane Wife is that bittersweet mix of happy-sad satisfaction, a beautiful something that stays in the mind in the hours and days after the book is closed and the reading finished, a consideration of who we are and what we seek in and from life.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Moomins and the Great Flood, by Tove Jansson

I love the Moomins. LOVE them. My mum read them to me at bedtime when I was a child, and I remember watching the TV series that was on the telly too. I remember Moomintroll, Moominmamma and Moominpappa, the Snork Maiden and Little My and Snuffkin, and I remember just soaking the stories up. I remember loving them, but, funnily, I don’t actually remember that much about the stories themselves. Except, of course, that they were always a little odd – or do I only remember them being odd because my mum tells me so?

The Moomins and the Great Flood is the first Moomin story that Tove Jansson ever had published, and only became available in the UK for the first time late last year. Published by Sort Of Books, it’s a rather beautiful clothbound hardback overflowing with Tove Jansson’s quirky sketches. Reading it is really fascinating, because it’s quite different to the later Moomin stories. The plotline is less developed (and much shorter, of course) than the full novels that were to follow - and the pictures are too, Moomin’s snout is much longer and snoutier, for instance – but the essence of Moominland is here, the array of strange and different creatures and Moomintroll’s brave little personality.

At the beginning of The Great Flood, Moominmamma and Moomintroll are homeless and looking for a nice place to tuck in and hibernate for the winter months. Moominpappa is not on the scene, having wandered off with a bunch of Hattifatteners and apparently gotten lost, but his wife and son are stoically brave and are simply carrying on as if this was the most normal thing in the world to have happened – an interesting reflection of the state of the world at the time this story was written, 1939, when many fathers had gone off or were going off to war and not expected to return. Moominmamma and Moomintroll enter the deepest part of the forest, forging their way onwards in hope of finding a better place.

The events that follow and the creatures they meet are surely a further reflection of the dark clouds and unsurety of the early 1940s – a Great Serpent, an old man who’s built a garden made of sweets and chocolate inside a mountain, the strangely emotionless Hattifatteners. But amid the dense blackness of the forest there is light too: glowworms twinkle, the eyes of a very little creature who will become a friend (and a precursor, I think, to Sniff) look out from between the trees; glowing flowers light their way and then sprout a maiden with long, electric blue hair; and a boy in a lighthouse, looking out for those storm-torn souls who make it to his harbour, invites them in for sea-pudding.

And then the Great Flood of the title descends upon them,

The water rose ceaselessly, and at last they had to climb up on to a small rock so as not to be snatched away by the current.” (pg. 45).

Whether an allegory for the tide of war and the destruction it leaves in it’s wake, or a religious reference to Noah’s great flood, this provides the opportunity for the Moomins to be stronger still in their quest, to help others despite their rather miniscule stature. Even though the Moomins in this story are clearly very tiny creatures (apparently, they traditionally live behind people’s stoves), they are not cowed by the great events taking place around them, and instead of throwing their hands up in the air and relinquishing control of their lives, they do what they can to soldier on, not only to find their way through the darkness, but to help others along the way. They never fear for their own lives, and when the floodwaters clear, the sun comes out and a happy ending is just over the page.


Saturday, 13 April 2013

Ask the Passengers, by A S King

After a great deal of mental resistance, I recently joined twitter (follow me @bookythought), and one of the first twitter feeds I looked at was John Green’s, on which he had posted the following comment: “People kept telling me @as_king's books are kinda like mine, but having read ASK THE PASSENGERS, I can report that in fact hers are better.” Which seemed like as good a recommendation as any.

Why oh why have I never heard of A S King before?

Ask the Passengers tells the story of Astrid Jones, a regular teenage girl growing up in a small American town, but with a secret. Actually, that’s not true, it’s not a secret. Rather, she’s in the process of figuring out who she is and who she wants to be, and her secret isn’t a secret because she’s not even sure if it’s true yet or not. She needs to reach a certain point of acceptance about it before the rest of the world should get a look in; this is, after all, her life and her feelings. The secret? She’s falling in love with a girl.

Astrid is smart and sensitive and she knows her own mind. She knows the difference between right and wrong; she knows how it feels to be pushed into things she doesn’t think are right and to do things she doesn’t want to do. She’s just trying to stand up for herself, but everyone else seems to think their expectations should come first. This is why, when she needs to escape the construct of her world, she sends her love to the passengers on the planes that fly overhead – she has so much love to give, but no-one else, right now, to give it to.

In a very John Green-esque way, King has intertwined a raft of interesting ideas through Astrid’s story, particularly that of the Socratic paradox, an idea introduced through Astrid’s humanities class, along with Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave and, as the ending draws near, the concepts of perfection and perception. Of the Socratic paradox - ethical constructs that seem to conflict with common sense - Astrid says,

The only way to disprove something that defies common sense is to ask why. Why would people desire evil? Why are people evil? Don’t they think they are doing good from their perspective? What is evil then, anyway? That’s exactly the type of thing Socrates was after. Making people think so they could find the truth.” (pg. 85)

And this is what Astrid wants too: to make people think. She wants to challenge the things that might otherwise be accepted as a given; she doesn’t want to put a label on herself, and why should she? Especially when it’s only others who will use that label; especially in a town where everyone likes to know everyone else’s business. What does it mean if she gay? Why does it have to mean something big, something groundbreaking? Why can’t it simply mean that she’s fallen in love?

It’s true that King’s writing has a similar feel to John Green, as do a whole raft of contemporary American authors who are just starting to trickle through to the UK book-waters (David LevithanMaureen Johnson, to name just two). Is she better? I don’t think you can say that any one of these authors is better than the others; rather, they each have a way of writing and tapping into the inner conscious in a way that British authors don’t quite match – it seems to be a style that is currently unique to the American culture, which is perhaps why it feels so fresh and exciting when these wonderful books arrive on British bookshelves. It’s like the teen version of ‘The Great American Novel’. And it turns out that King is a Printz Honor author, a prize that’s the rough US equivalent of the UK’s Carnegie Medal. Mental note: must read other Printz Honor authors.

King and Astrid together achieve what they set out to do: make people think; make readers think. And it’s achieved in a really beautiful way. It’s a story that is almost poetic; it flows and undulates, full of both hard edges and soft corners for the reader to work their around. Astrid’s family consists of a permanently stoned father, a hyper-intense mother, and a little sister who is desperate to fit in. Their behavior toward her, particularly her mother, is hideously caged and resistant. Following a particular incident about half way through the book, Astrid’s parents ask her if she is gay, but Astrid is unable to answer – not because she’s afraid of saying that word, but because she simply doesn’t know the answer yet. Instead of listening and being supportive, her mother’s response is, why are you doing this to us? Why are you lying? It riled me, made me want to get up on my soapbox, to support Astrid, to feel for her in a million different ways.

As other people’s words and stories and actions get blown out of proportion like Chinese whispers, all of a sudden Astrid is the bad guy in the room. Everyone wants someone to blame for the fact that – *shock, horror* – there are gay people in the town. And in this small-town world, Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave  seems even more relevant:

People chained in a cave are only able to see a wall. The wall has shadows cast from a fire they can’t see. They guess at what the shadows are. Their entire reality becomes these shadows.” (pg. 111)

People only see what they want to see, or what they think they know. It’s an almost impossible ask, sometimes, to get them to consider a new reality. Ultimately, I don’t think Astrid quite gets her parents to understand the new reality she is trying to present to them: that you don’t have to be one thing or the other. But she does find her own way around the mine, a way to be herself and to get them to accept her. She uses a label whilst simultaneously turning that label on its head, which is just brilliant.

Ask the Passengers is wonderful reading, compulsive and thoughtful, and I found myself sitting up until two in the morning reading, simply because I could not put the book down. And then the next day I went out and ordered King’s Everybody Sees the Ants, because I want to hear more of what this author has to say about the world.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Colin Fischer, by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz

Colin Fischer is a fourteen year old boy with high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome. He is very smart, has a remarkable ability to absorb information and detail, is interested in everything and anything to do with science and math, but has extreme trouble navigating everyday social circumstances, cannot function in the presence of loud sounds, and really really dislikes being touched. He also has trouble reading other people’s emotions and facial expressions and can’t tell when a question is rhetorical or a comment is sarcastic, instead taking everything as literal. This makes navigating the highways of school rather difficult, and makes him a high priority target for school bullies. But Colin is capable of more than he knows, as he's about to find out.

Colin’s hero is Sherlock Holmes, a character whom the authors, Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, quietly make a convincing argument toward being on the autistic spectrum himself. And Colin is a Holmes at heart too: he likes to understand how things work and why things are the way they are, which means that whenever a new mystery presents itself, he feels the urge to investigate. A mystery like a gun going off in the school cafeteria one day. Witnessing the event, Colin sees details that others don’t pick up on, and he quickly becomes convinced that the boy the school and the police are blaming for the incident is not actually responsible. Colin puts aside the years of bullying he has suffered at the hands of this child and sets out to prove the boy’s innocence and identify the real perpetrator.

In Colin, Miller and Stentz have created an insightful and likeable character with whom it’s easy to empathise despite his occasional unusual behaviours. While his younger brother is remarkably unfeeling (though the writers make it clear that he’s stuck somewhat between a rock and a hard place), the boys’ parents are well-attuned to Colin’s anomalies. They are rather super-parenty though: a mum who simultaneously holds a rocket science meeting, folds laundry and looks after her Asperger’s son? This sounds distinctly unrealistic to me. However, the main part of Colin’s story is fun and informative, and written in a manner that taps into Colin’s character extremely well, with notes he makes in his precious Notebook scattered through the text, and, here and there, a footnote with interesting facts that blend both actual fact and a touch of Colin, thus keeping it light, interesting and amusing at the same time.

If Colin’s parents are unrealistic overachievers, Colin’s school sounds typically American and well-balanced. An early encounter between Colin and his new PE teacher had me fuming (granted, I have a rather poor personal history with PE teachers, so was somewhat biased), but then the teacher’s ‘no s**t’  yet subtly thoughtful attitude morphed into being a really positive thing for Colin. There are lots of quiet truths mixed into this book, from the good teachers and the bad teachers to Colin’s accounting of the Kuleshov effect, and his attempt to create a map of the social structure of the high school. It all flows together rather nicely.

Colin’s Asperger’s status and his determination to solve the mystery of the gun has drawn comparisons among reviewers with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is understandable, but really they are two quite different books. Haddon is in a different league to Colin Fischer, but, that said, Fischer is a good read, enjoyable and with a simple but well thought out plot. For some reason Waterstones have classed this as suitable for the 9-12 age bracket, but it is really too grown-up for those readers I think, mainly because of one or two sexual references contained within. However, it serves as a good introduction to teenage fiction, is amusing and, as said before, quite insightful into Asperger’s Syndrome, thus also serving well as a pre-cursor to reading Mark Haddon. At it’s heart this is a book about friendship, making friends, being true to yourself, and finding your own unique place on the social ladder, and worth reading.

Friday, 5 April 2013

The Last Girlfriend on Earth, by Simon Rich

I don’t generally read books of short stories, but when a good friend recommended The Last Girlfriend on Earth (and Other Love Stories) because it is “made of awesome”, it seemed like too interesting an opportunity to miss. Especially because it turns out that my friend is right (no surprise: she usually is).

Simon Rich’s collection is eclectic, witty, funny and truthful. Split into three sections, Boy Meets Girl, Boy Gets Girl, and Boy Loses Girl, each story within is told from a different and always quirky perspective. There is the boy enchanted by a Siren, the Cupid who is shunning his duties, the caveman stuck in a love triangle, the boy being haunted by his ex-girlfriend’s stuff. And lots more besides, including, of course, The Last Girlfriend on Earth, where a mysterious disease has left a planet full of men - and just one woman. If she was your girlfriend, you’d naturally be a over protective wouldn’t you?

My personal favourites, though, have got to be the first and last stories in the book. Unprotected is funny and clever, and - despite being told from the point of view of an inanimate object - is very true to life; as an opener it’s a great introduction to what is to follow. Equally, Trade finishes the book off perfectly. After a chapter of break-ups and bittersweet tales (heavy on the bitter, though still amusing), Trade ends the book with a wonderfully uplifting note that made me feel all good about the world again.

There is a smirk or a snigger and a subtle truth on at least every other page, each tale being perfectly formed whether it is one or five pages long. Rich is both a master storyteller and a master reader and interpreter of everyday life and emotion. “Made of awesome” kind of seems like an understatement.

Monday, 1 April 2013

The Last Wild, by Piers Torday

The Last Wild is a charming animal adventure led by a young boy who is simply looking for answers and a place to belong.

Kester lives in a world ruined first by severe global warming and then decimated by a virulent virus. The remaining population lives in protected cities and watched over by Selwyn Stone, head of the governing corporation Facto. All the animals were wiped out by the virus - nicknamed Red-Eye for the effect on the sufferer’s eyes created in its final stage - and so the only food is the nutrient-rich gunk bestowed by Facto. Well, not all the animals: vermin remain, cockroaches and spiders and moths. And pigeons.

At least, this is what Kester has always been taught. After his mum died he stopped talking and he was taken away to live in a home for difficult children. But one night Kester wakes up to find not only that there is a flock of pigeons swirling about in his room, but that the pigeons are speaking to him. He can understand them, and they can understand him. In fact, they believe Kester is the boy in their prophecy, the boy with the Voice; the boy who can save them. But are they right?

The pigeons help Kester escape the horrible, unloving home he has been locked up in and take him out beyond the city and into the wild, where he discovers that not all the animals are dead after all. A few remain and they need his help. He must lead them back across the island, through enemies both natural and unnatural, to find his father, the only man Kester believes that might be able to help. What will be waiting for him when - if - he makes it?

Piers Torday has written a good little adventure with plenty of ups and downs to keep young readers enthralled. While the set-up sounds bleak, the fact of global warming is barely touched upon after the beginning as the story’s focus becomes the animals’ plight and - of course - the governmental enemy. There are a few plot holes (for instance, the background story of Kester’s world leaves many questions open) and the writing is just a tad stiff, but it’s good all-round entertainment and bound to ensnare youngsters in its web of adventure. Quercus (the publisher) have put together a lovely website which includes a map of Kester’s route across the wilds and provides some thoughtful questions about certain events in Kester’s pilgrimage - he has to make some tough choices along the way, so how does he know which ones are the right ones? Which ones would you take?