Friday, 14 November 2014

Hattie Peck by Emma Levey

Hattie Peck is an extraordinarily adventurous hen with a one-track mind: Eggs. She loves eggs. She loves eggs so much that she decides she will go wherever she can to get hold of some. And so her travels begin: all around the world, searching high and low for eggs. But when she brings them all home, what will happen?

The front cover of Hattie Peck is very appealing, the illustrations just the sort that appeal to me. And this is a very nicely put together book, the drawings fun and creative, working well with the words and the storyline. But Hattie herself is rather two-dimensional, and... she is a MASSIVE thief! Taking all these eggs without a by-your-leave and stealing them away for herself. She doesn’t seem to realize what it is she’s done, and I felt terribly worried for the families who have lost their offspring. And there are no consequences! Ok, Hattie might have a rather unusual collection of “children” at the end of the story – but she seems perfectly content with her lot.

I wondered at first if I was being a bit too picky about this, but have decided I’m not. I wouldn’t want my child to think that they can go out and take whatever they want from other people, just because they really like it. So, look at this book for the pictures and the adventures of a selfish hen – but then make up your own ending?

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Queen's Hat by Steve Anthony

The Queen (accompanied by loyal Corgi) is off to visit someone very special, but as she steps out of Buckingham Palace, the wind does a great swoosh and blows the Queen’s hat off her head! Can she catch it, or will she have to chase it across London?

I love the idea of the Queen breaking protocol, running through the streets of London to try and catch her hat. Not only the Queen, though: the Queen’s Guard, normally so stiff and erect in their red jackets and furry black bearskin hats, are determined to chase the Queen’s hat down as well. We see them clambering over a lion’s statue in Trafalgar Square, in a mele of animals in London Zoo, racing across Tower Bridge – hundreds of them in tiny detail – scaling Big Ben, and then floating back to the ground with black umbrellas a la Mary Poppins.

There’s clearly a very British feel to The Queen’s Hat – not just in the images of classic London sights, but in the bright red jackets of the Queen’s Guard as they make their way across the city, enhanced by Steve Anthony’s colouring of the images in predominantly muted blue-grey tones (which matches the greys of the buildings of course). I also enjoyed the changes in perspective in the images, from close-ups with just three or four soldiers in the frame, then sweeping out for a distance view of the London Eye or Tower Bridge. The Corgi can be seen in every image, of course – and someone else too…

The text and voice of this story is quite basic, more action orientated than character orientated, so all of the characterization comes from the pictures. But what the voice does do is introduce a great variety of different descriptive words for where the hat goes and what it does as Queenie chases after it: soared, whoosed, through, along, around, across, over, which is great fun to read and then follow through in the illustrations.

This book is fun for those who both do and don’t live in London, and there’s something solid and identifiable in the fact that the London sites we see in the story belong to me as much as the next person, even though I live way out in the countryside. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside – especially when we find out at the end who the special person is that the Queen has gone to visit!

[This book has now been shortlisted for the 2015 Waterstones Children's Book Prize!]

A Possum's Tail by Gabby Dawnay and Alex Barrow

Young Samuel Drew is off for a walk, accompanied by his little wheeled dog, and we follow him as he heads down the street, past the sights and sounds of London, and into London Zoo. Wending his way around all the different animals, he makes his way to see the little possums. They’re sleeping – but as he turns to leave they awaken, drop from their perch and, seeing Samuel’s little dog’s string tail, grab on tight. So, as Samuel heads back the way he came, he’s unknowingly followed along by this little collection of furry creatures. But what will happen when he gets home and discovers them?

I’m not really sure what to think of A Possum’s Tail – it starts off as one sort of book and then becomes something else! It has quite a traditional sort of feel, with it’s careful rhyming, illustrations that conjure a time just gone by, and straightforward layout, picture above, words underneath. I suspect that much of the content in the pictures are real places, but not being from London I’m only able to recognize the obvious ones. It feels lovely and circular to read – but then, when Samuel Drew gets home and discovers his possummy trail, the tone changes, and the perspective changes, and it suddenly wasn’t quite so comfortable a story anymore. Nothing untoward happens, not in the least, but it just felt a little bit silly after that, after such a lovely beginning. I’m sure, though, that this is probably an adult perspective, and that young children reading the story would most likely give a different response.

The book is a lovely package, and something just a little bit different perhaps from your average picture book. Give it a try and I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

She Is Not Invisible, by Marcus Sedgwick

Laureth’s dad has an obsession: coincidences. He’s been trying to write a novel about coincidences for years, but has gotten stuck in the research phase, bogged down by the questions of whether coincidences really exist, and what they might or might not mean. He’s away in Europe on one of his research trips when Laureth gets a strange email, an email that sends a shiver down her spine: her father’s notebook – full of his irreplaceable research – has been found by someone in New York. If her dad is supposed to be in Europe, what’s his notebook doing in New York? Why isn’t he answering his phone when she tries to call him? And why isn’t her mum more worried?

Anxious that something seriously bad has happened to her dad, Laureth “acquires” her mother’s credit card and heads to New York to track him down. Can she and her little brother get through security and onto the plane without anyone stopping them? Where will they begin when they get to New York? And what will happen when her mother finds out what Laureth has done?

I absolutely loved She Is Not Invisible. I’ve never really read anything by Marcus Sedgwick before, but now I want to read pretty much everything this brilliant British author has written. It’s really quite a remarkable book that at once meets and subverts typical YA criteria: we have a girl and a quest, but nothing works out quite the way you expect it to. Laureth is such a complete character that right from her opening sentence I wanted to know more about her, while her little brother Benjamin has his own very special set of quirks, and I really did not know what the ending would be or how all the threads would come together.

The extra element in the story is Laureth’s physical handicap: she is blind. But She Is Not Invisible is not a story about a blind girl – Laureth, as she herself says, does not (and does not want to) fall into blind superhero cliché. It is a story about coincidences in which the protagonist is a girl who happens to be blind. Nevertheless, this makes for a special kind of storytelling because, by her very nature, Laureth sees and experiences the world around her in a different way. The person that Laureth is – and how Sedgwick’s writing makes her and her world real – raises as many interesting questions and thoughts as the actual storyline:

There are the ways people around her respond to Laureth, and how their responses change once they become aware of her disability. There is the fact that nothing is ever given a physical description, and yet we still get just as strong an idea about surroundings and people and events – perhaps even more so – than we would with a sighted description. And there is the part where Laureth doesn’t make judgments about things in the same way as a person with sight does. Perhaps most striking in this is she doesn’t see colour, and so colour – especially in people – is meaningless to her (which is, of course, exactly how it should be for everyone). And the irony in all this is that it enables her to actually see more than another person might.

One thing: when you learn what she deals with, you might love the blind girl who knows that it’s never been her sight that she needs - that it’s trust, love, and faith also. Laureth is not flawless, though; she still makes judgments, it’s just that those judgments are, in large part, based on different criteria; she makes mistakes and assumptions, and perhaps puts more faith in her father’s notebook than she should.

I recently met Marcus Sedgwick at YALC and he told me that he left one deliberate coincidence in the book. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not sure exactly which coincidence it is that he means. It’s not that this is a book that is peppered with coincidences, but there a series of apparent coincidences within it, most of which I assumed were engineered – but perhaps one of them wasn’t. One question is, which one? Although another question is, does it matter? Like both Marcus and his characters say, coincidences are weird and striking to those whom they happen to, but for everyone else they tend to just bounce off without much impact.

And he plays with this in the story too: several events that you – or Laureth – think are going to be terribly important and meaningful just bounce away without having the effect you thought they were going to have. And in this way, perhaps Marcus Sedgwick has actually done what he thought wasn’t really possible: written a book about coincidence. There is also a boy who short circuits anything electrical, a raven named Stan, a rather creepy hotel, a brief scattered history of the study of coincidence, and a pair of men who I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to meet down a darkened alley at night. And there is also a number: 354. Laureth’s dad has been followed around by this number his whole life (or perhaps it is the other way around: he has followed the number), and it’s a number that crops up in the book here and there, and there again, not just in the story, but from the page count to the paragraph breaks, adding a beautiful little twist.

So, do you believe in coincidence? Do you believe that weird coincidences really just are coincidences, just chance happenings? If you don’t believe in coincidences, is this because you know the mathematical probability of a particular ‘coincidence’ means it isn’t by chance – or that the chance of this event is higher than you might at first think? Or is it because you believe that ‘coincidences’ means something? That they’re guided by fate or some greater force, some greater mystery? Will reading She Is Not Invisible change your position?

And at the end of our story, as Laureth exits stage right, she issues her readers with a final challenge. Is this challenge the result of the ‘true’ coincidence Sedgwick alluded to? I’m still not sure, and I’m going to tell you what it is either; you’ll have to read the book to find out. And yes, I did take Laureth up on it.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

William Bellman is a smart young man, who’s worked hard, taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves, and built himself a good life. But William Bellman is also a man who easily falls prey to obsession; he can use this to turn a penny or two in business, to dedicate himself to nursing his sick children to health, or to identifying the strange man, dressed all in black, who hovers in the background of every funeral William Bellman has ever attended. And when tragedy strikes, William Bellman’s life is torn asunder, not only by his losses, but by the ensuing conversation he has with a man in a graveyard, a man named – or so Bellman believes – Black.

Who is Black? Was he following William? Will he come back? And what will he want if – when – he does? If only William could remember the finer details of the bargain he is sure that they struck: that Black would save William’s daughter in exchange for William embarking on a new business: the business of death. And as he waits and wonders and frets and worries, Bellman turns his obsession to the realization of the seed that Black has placed in William’s mind: the construction of Bellman & Black, the Mourning Emporium. This, surely this, will be enough to appease Black. But what if it isn’t? What if Bellman & Black isn’t what Black wanted at all?

Diane Setterfield has followed up her extraordinary first novel, the gothic and mysterious The Thirteenth Tale, with quite a strange tale that leaves the reader wondering. She begins her tale with the recounting of a repressed memory from William's childhood: how, whilst demonstrating his prowess with a slingshot, hits and kills a rook in a tree fifty yards yonder across a field. He is repulsed by the act: it was never really his intention to kill the bird; he didn’t think he’d ever actually hit it. So he goes home and outs the memory aside. The rooks, however, we are told, don’t forget so easily. Thus, as we watch William grow into a man, become a husband, a father, an entrepreneur, the rooks are watching him too.

I enjoyed reading Bellman & Black, but I’m just not sure what exactly to make of it. Essentially, it’s the story of a man’s life, the changes, the tragedies and the hope that wend their ways through it, and how a particular event bounces him off onto a different path. As William becomes consumed by his new business, to all intents and purposes shutting out the one thing he loves most – the one for whom he bargained – I couldn’t help but wonder where the Bellman we knew before had gone. But the chapters following Bellman’s life are intersected with snippets from the rooks and ravens: so are the choices Bellman makes his own, or are they influenced by something other? Is Black a rook? Or death itself? Or are the rooks somehow a representation of death? It’s easy, after all, to associate corvids with graveyards.

Rather than fretting over how it all links up, perhaps I shouldn’t try to read too much into it. We make our choices and we live by them. And we die by them. What begins as a tale of a smart and eager young man making good on his meagre beginnings becomes one of tragedy as obsession and loss take their toll. Like I said, it’s a strange book, but no less interesting and no less readable for all that. It’s definitely an interesting choice, especially for readers who are looking for something with gothic undertones, or for something to leave them questioning.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The One and Only Ivan

Ivan is a Silverback Gorilla whose domain is a small glass, metal and cement cage in the Big Top Mall just off the I-95. He has been there for a long time.

Ivan is kept company in the Big Top Mall by an elephant named Stella, a handful of humans (some nice, some not so), Bob the stray dog, and some other animals he doesn’t talk to so much. The Silverback’s job in the wild is to protect his family, but Ivan hasn’t had a proper family to protect for a long time. Until Ruby arrives. And then he makes a promise, a promise that is going to prove very hard to keep: a promise to protect Ruby and to make sure she doesn’t spend her life where he has.

The One and Only Ivan is really wonderful. It’s fantastically written and has a really beautiful character at its heart who is at once strong, brave and caring. Ivan likes art, not that many of the humans can understand what he is drawing; he likes bananas and sleeping, and throwing me-balls; he has a quiet heart and uses his words carefully, but when he finds someone to protect, his natural instincts are called to the surface and he must find a way to get people’s attention.

Despite winning America's Newbery Medal in 2013, the only reason I came across this book was thanks to a passing comment by the author’s husband, and so it feels like a really special discovery, and a book that I’m really eager to share with everyone. I read it in 24 hours because I just did not want to put it down. The writing has an almost sparse, careful quality, and some of the turns of phrase are quite magical, like when Ruby hits out at the brutality of her keeper:

“It is the beautiful mad I have ever heard,” Ivan tells us. 

And when it comes to denouement, Ivan is pretty scared. Things are changing and they are changing fast, but if he wants to save Ruby, he has to show her the way. Is it the right choice? Can he take those important, final steps? Does he have the courage to follow her?

Katherine Applegate was inspired to write the story by a real gorilla, also named Ivan, who spent 27 years in solitary captivity before animal welfare groups secured his transfer to Zoo Atlanta, but as she began to think about Ivan, another story emerged – thus most of the other characters are fictional, but the story still feels impeccably true. A perfect book for anyone aged 9 to 90.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Has Anyone Seen Jessica Jenkins? by Liz Kessler

Jess doesn’t have the best attention span in the world, especially when it comes to geography class, but when she nods off in the middle of the lesson one afternoon, she never would have dreamt what happens next… According to her best friend Izzy, Jess’s arm starts to disappear. What? It can’t be true, can it?

Except it is. As Jess discovers her new secret power and figures out how to control it, she uncovers the sort of conspiracy you wouldn’t normally expect in a small town like hers. Like the fact that she’s not the only one who’s experiencing strange things, and her and her friends are not the only people who know about it either. What will happen if the wrong people get their hands on this secret? And on the special serum that’s made it all possible?

Liz Kessler has a particular talent for writing books not only with a vein of the supernatural running through them, but with veins of adventure, mystery, discovery, bravery and – arguably the most important thing of all – friendship. Easy going, friendly, fun and with a snarky touch of sarcasm to her sense of humour, Jess has always been a loyal friend, but she’s about to discover what true friendship really means, that the assumptions we make about people aren’t always true, and that when you get to know someone a bit better they can surprise you.

Has Anyone Seen Jessica Jenkins? Is fun, funny, and little bit different. With strong male and female characters, and a bunch of superpowers for the taking, don’t let boys be put off by the pink sneakers on the front cover. Plus it’s an adventure story that keeps you guessing, with something new around every corner. And I really like the quirky chapter headings – illustrated by Emily Twomey they bring together all the different things that will feature in each stage of the story and are just itching to be coloured in.

Jessica Jenkins might feel like the power of invisibility makes her ‘slightly superhero’, but maybe she’s always had what it takes to be a hero, superpower or no superpower…

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Angelfall, by Susan Ee

Angelfall is another example of the e-book to print phenomenon: "multi-selling self-published e-book gets snapped up by print publisher". I will admit straight up that I am a book/publishing snob, I'm afraid, so I tend to be rather skeptical about this path through writer-dom and thus I was a little skeptical about reading Angelfall. But a good friend recommended it to me, and lent me her copy, so I decided to give it a try. Of course, I didn’t look back.

The lowdown: Six weeks ago the Angels appeared. They returned to Earth and then began systematically destroying it. Society has fallen apart, millions of people are dead, and those who aren’t are either forming deadly street gangs or trying to avoid them. Into this new world steps Penryn, her little sister Paige, and her not-entirely-there mother. But before they can get out of the city, they stumble onto an Angel battle and Paige is stolen away. Where have the Angels taken her? Why do they want her? What will they do to her? Nothing is more important to Penryn than to find the answers to these questions and to get her little sister back. And the best way of doing this is by befriending the enemy. After she saves the Angel Raffe’s life, she makes him promise to take her to the Angel stronghold so she can get Paige back. Assuming Paige is still alive, of course.

Essentially, Susan Ee has written the same story that most writers who enter this genre write. It is – mostly – predictable, following just the pathway you expect such a story to follow. Yet this is one reason why people read and love this genre; why we read it over and over again in a slightly altered format, and why writers write it over and over. There’s something wonderful and compelling involved in slipping into this other world, essentially a fantasy world, where our characters are surrounded by awful happenstance, yet are strong and fight on. It is pure escapism. It’s ironic because I don’t want to ever have to experience apocalypse like our characters inevitably do, have to fight for my life, scrounge for food, mourn the loss of family, friends, an extinguished life; but to live through those things with the characters, alongside the inevitable falling in love (usually with the one person they really shouldn’t be) is to experience a sort of rush that I, in some ways, dream or yearn for in my real life. I want it, but I wouldn’t really want if I had it. Hence the reading, and the re-reading in a slightly different format, and the re-reading again. It’s actually a little weird.

As to my feelings on self-publishing, I know it’s judgemental, but I just can’t seem to help feeling that self-publication is something people do when they can’t get published-published, and that this somehow reflects on the quality of that person’s writing or storytelling. In truth, I know it doesn't always reflect on a writer’s capability, but the fact is that the (admittedly very small) handful of books I’ve read which were initially self-published do not come up to scratch with traditionally published works. This is not necessarily related to the writer’s ability; essentially, it is because the writing lacks the gloss that a good editor can provide. Most people who self-publish have not had their work read through two dozen times, criticised, adjusted, edited, as it would be if it went to a print publisher. This does not mean the writing is not good; it means the writing is not given the opportunity to be as good as it possibly could be. Thus, when I begin reading, I begin unpicking the things that would have been fixed by an editor, becoming rather distracted from the story and ultimately rather irritated by the whole thing. Yes, judgemental; I’ll admit it.

The first fifteen to twenty pages of Angelfall lived up to my relatively limited expectations. It felt engineered (which of course it is), unreal, labored. I was particularly irritated by the way in which Penryn labeled the different angels she witnesses fighting early on: Snow, Night, Stripes. This is no slur on Susan Ee particularly; I just don’t like the habit of using a description of a person (in this case, the angels’ wing designs) to create a name. It really grates, and I nearly gave up on the book for that reason alone. But my friend lent it to me, so I pledged to myself that I would read at least the first fifty pages and if I still didn’t like it then I would at that point have at least given it a good go. Of course, by the time I got to about page 30, I was hooked. I may have found the beginning slow and labored, but nothing else was. And neither was it badly written nor particularly lacking due to the aforementioned self-publishing effect.

Once she found her feet, Susan Ee performed pretty well. Of course, it’s all a complete fantasy, and quite ridiculous in places, but very enjoyable nonetheless. Why exactly did the Angels attack Earth? Is it God’s plan, or are they acting of their own accord? Why are the Angels creating a Nephilim sub-species? And how, please how, are Raffe and Penryn going to figure things out?  It’s as gripping as it is ridiculous and, ridiculous as it may be on occasion, there are far, far more ridiculous stories out there in the book universe. Ultimately, Angelfall is interesting and intriguing enough for me to be considering book two, World After. After all, who doesn’t need a little fantasy in their life?

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Everyday Sexism, by Laura Bates

Everybody should read this book. It’s like Laura Bates has taken my muddled and raging thoughts, pieced the pieces together and, amazingly, created constructive sentences from them.

Everyday Sexism is shocking, yet unsurprising. There are things recounted in here that make me furious and are just so innately wrong on every level imaginable, but which I know exist and take place every day; things which by many people are considered to be both normal and acceptable. Before reading Everyday Sexism, I was under no illusions about the sexist world we live in, but by laying it out before us in all it’s terrible detail, Laura Bates succeeds in making what is often invisible, visible, and in making me question the world around me, my reactions to it, and my place within it even more greatly.

Men: this is not a book that rages against you; it is not about some existential feminist ideal, it is about the fact that everyone, male, female or trans, has the right to be treated with respect, care and equality.

Let me be straight: sexism is far from dead. Sexism is bad for men AND women. And sexism begins when we are tiny, tiny children. There are many different forms of sexism, from the seemingly innocent childhood stereotyping that teaches us that girls like pink and boys like blue, to the very serious, such as rape. All forms of sexism are abusive and demeaning, and can result in emotional and mental damage: the “innocent” forms forcing men and women into boxes that are not only completely absurd, but can be emotionally damaging; the serious ones, criminal.

If you don’t think sexism exists, read this book and hopefully you will understand why it does and what we are all fighting against.

Two years ago, Laura Bates reached breaking point. Sick of not being able to walk down the street without being whistled at – among other things – she started the ‘Everyday Sexism’ project, a simple website for people to tell their experiences of sexism, whether minor or more serious. She was shocked at the responses. Thousands upon thousands of them, from everyday derogatory comments to workplace discrimination, to rape victims being ignored. The sheer volume of response highlighted beyond doubt the endemic nature of the problem, in Britain and around the world.

Chapter by chapter, Bates brings to the fore the nature of the problem, from the way that girls are treated in primary school, secondary school and further education, the media abuse and media portrayal of women (or how women are "supposed" to be), assumptions made about women in the workplace, assumptions made about “woman’s natural/expected role” (i.e. motherhood), assumptions made about women as they walk down the street. It’s all pretty shocking, though the proliference of pornography and rape "jokes" in our children’s schools is, I think, particularly disturbing.

And the other biggest thing that Everyday Sexism shows? For me, the answer to this question is the hypocrisy of it all. Newspapers, T.V. and magazines all picture women baring skin and flaunting their femininity. But when we dress similarly in real life we are yelled at on the street, leered at, treated in a demeaning manner and then – if we complain about such behavior - we’re told we’re asking for it by dressing like that. But if we don’t dress like it we’re abused for not being feminine enough. When we are propositioned, whether we accept or not, we are branded a slag or a slut. If we have multiple partners, the same. But men? No. If men have multiple partners they are praised for it. This is not equality.

And it is high time we challenged the status quo. The little everyday things may seem small, but: (a) they create a level of acceptability of sexism that is not actually acceptable, and (b) they provide a basis for more extreme sexist behaviours to occur. We have to draw the line somewhere, right? No: there should be no line; the line should be at the bottom; none of it should be deemed acceptable. None of it. Not even the delivery driver calling me “love” – it’s demeaning and implies that I’m soft or worth less than a man. I am neither. As Bates points out, “Allowing those ‘minor’ transgressions gives licence to the more serious ones, and eventually all-out abuse.” He wouldn’t call a man “love” would he? Then don’t use the term for me, please. And there’s the key: if you’re not sure whether sexism is happening to you, ask yourself, “Would this be happening if I was a man?”

Does this make me a feminist? My dictionary says that feminism is:
“A belief or movement advocating the cause of women’s rights and opportunities, particularly equal rights with men, by challenging inequalities between the sexes in society.”

So, yes, I guess I would consider myself a feminist. But sexism is not just about feminism: I am for equality of all the sexes (and yes, there are more than two). Feminism for me means that girls are allowed to like pink – and that it should be acceptable for boys to like pink too. I am reminded of shopping with my cousin and her son, when he was about three years old, and we went into a toy shop that had some dressing up clothes. He, completely of his own volition, chose a pink “princess” hat. His mum said he could have a hat, but bought him the purple wizard hat because the one he had chosen was “for girls”. He was perfectly happy with the wizard hat, but I was appalled: he chose the “princess” hat. Why not buy him that one? It’s fine for boys to not like pink; it’s fine for boys to like pink. Whatever. The choice should be theirs and there shouldn’t be any greater meaning behind their choice. It’s just a colour, for goodness’ sake.

Which brings me to my favourite quote from Everyday Sexism:
“My gender is not an insult.”

Which, in turn, brings me to my one small quibble: on the back cover of Everyday Sexism, in capital letters, the publishers have printed this book’s categorization: “Feminist Theory”. This is kind of sexist in and of itself: sexism is not a ‘feminist’ issue, it’s an ‘everybody’ issue. So why not simply categorise it as sociology? Sexism is bad for men as well as women, boys as well as girls, and all women, not just feminists. You don’t have to be a feminist to be sexually harassed or sexually assaulted.

Please don’t ignore what Laura Bates has to say – and besides, Everyday Sexism is not filled just with what she has to say. Far from it: Bates’ writing is populated with facts, statistics and research carried about by a multitude of respectable organisations and agencies. It’s overflowing with testimony, too: from the Everyday Sexism project, from interviews, from the media. And it’s filled with evidence that cannot be ignored: the movies we watch, the music we listen to, the sayings we use – all of which attest to the endemic, everyday sexism in our world.

Men: sexism is not about women or feminists, it’s about everyone. Sexism puts you in a box too.

Women: read this book and know that you are not alone; know that it is not your fault when bad things happen to you – it is not your responsibility to dress a certain way or take a certain route to work to avoid being harassed; you shouldn’t have to change your ways: the other party/s needs to take responsibility for their own actions and not blame you.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Tail of Emily Windsnap, by Liz Kessler

Emily has always wanted swimming lessons, but her mother is terribly afraid of the water and has always been against it. Until now. Finally, Emily has worked her magic and persuaded her mum to let her go swimming with school. When she first slides into the water it’s a wonderful feeling - like she belongs – she glides through the pool as if she’d been swimming all her life. But then something terrible happens: her legs seize up, she can’t move, she can’t swim. What is happening?

At first Emily can barely believe it was real: her legs became a tail. Like a mermaid! When she sneaks out later that night to test her theory, she has to believe it. How can this be? And how can she stop people from finding out? Because surely they’d all think she was a freak and then take her away.

Drawn inexorably to the water, though, late at night when her mum’s asleep Emily begins to explore the underwater world and there she meets a new friend, Shona Silfkin, who takes her further into the ocean to the home of the mermaids, introducing Emily to mermaid histories and legends. As she becomes familiar with this new world, Emily and Shona uncover a hidden family secret, and the origins of Emily’s tail – her father, locked away in a mer prison, just because he fell in love with Emily’s mother. Can Emily find her father? Can she make her mother remember? Can she find a way to make her family whole again?

With The Tail of Emily Windsnap, Liz Kessler has written a magical adventure, twisting fairytale and siren myths into a new form that’s already enthralled plenty of readers and will inevitably enthrall many more in the years to come. The creepy Mr Beeston and the King of the Ocean, Neptune, stand in Emily’s way, but as with all well-written baddies, they’re a mix of good intentions gone wrong. The question is: how far are they willing to go to preserve the status quo?

Enjoyable, the perfect blend of magic and reality, and with a heroine it’s impossible not to believe in. Where will her adventures take her next?

Monday, 28 July 2014

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

The monster comes calling at Conor’s bedroom window at 12.07am. A giant, a yew tree that has taken on human form, a Green Man, he tells Conor, “I’ve come to get you.”

But Conor isn’t afraid – he knows there are worse things that could happen – and so, while the picture that Patrick Ness builds of this monster could - in virtually any other circumstances - be terrifying, we are not afraid either.

Over the next few nights – weeks, even – in between school and trips to the hospital, between dealing with his uptight grandmother and absentee father, the monster visits Conor and promises to tell him three tales, but in exchange, after the monster’s tales are done, Conor must tell his own tale, his truth.

It seems, at the beginning, as if this truth will be something about his mum’s illness or about Conor’s nightmare. In fact, the chances are high that these two things, and the fact that this new monster has appeared on Conor’s doorstep, are intricately linked. But the tales that the monster tells Conor are not fairytales, they do not seem designed to appease or support, and their endings are the reverse of normal expectations, the morals simultaneously twisted around and yet still true.

And so, after the second tale, I began to question: Why is the monster really here? What is its purpose with Conor? Although the revenge the Green Man wreaks in his tales is monstrous and demonstrative, we don’t feel afraid of him, for his behaviour feels justified. But perhaps we should be afraid, for Conor’s sake? What twist to Conor’s story is the monster going to reveal? What truth does Conor have locked away in his heart, and what will the monster’s response be?

A Monster Calls is a really, truly extraordinary book. It is dark yet cleansing; sad yet revealing; quiet yet full. Based on an idea conceived by Siobhan Dowd, but who died before she could complete it, the baton was passed to Patrick Ness who took Dowd’s idea and ran with it.

Part of me wants to say that the most astounding thing about this book are Jim Kay’s illustrations, which flow across the pages and intermingle with the text, but that wouldn't be accurate. The illustrations on their own are incredible, and the story on it’s own is too, but the pairing of the two together create a work that literally comes to life page by page, almost as if watching an animation rather than reading a book. It makes for a quite extraordinary piece of storytelling, and explains quite wordlessly why it has received the accolades it has, particularly the CILIP Carnegie Medal and the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal.

This feel of animation is particularly strong when it comes to the four tales: they flow within the text of the rest of the story and yet are somehow something ‘other’, standing outside the rest of the words. More often than not the monster uses his earth magic to place the scene of his tale before Conor’s (and the reader’s) eyes, in a manner that reminds me of the animation used in the penultimate Harry Potter film to tell the tale of the Deathly Hallows. This feeling is no doubt influenced by the full page spreads of black and white images, pictures that in their almost two-tone sketchiness could be dark and creepy – and indeed are, in some ways – yet whose detail and light touches make them endlessly fascinating. I heard David Almond comment that, “People say books without pictures are somehow more grown-up, and I think that’s just mad.” (Desert Island Discs, Radio 4, March 10, 2013) Mad indeed, as Ness and Kay demonstrate here.

Meanwhile, Conor’s mum is getting sicker and sicker and, while the people surrounding Conor flail and struggle, they keep Conor in the dark. It may be obvious to everyone what the likely outcome will be – Conor included – but given the adults’ refusal to say the words to him, the way they shut him out of the proceedings, it’s little wonder that Conor is unable to, or refuses to, acknowledge the direction in which things appear to be headed.

I felt relentlessly angry at how Conor was treated by the adults around him, and as Ness showed me flashes of Conor’s own anger through the story - destroying his grandmother’s sitting room, seeking out the bullies that torment him in the school playground - it tapped into my own childhood memories of that intense, boiling anger that resides deep within the heart and the belly, but is so difficult to explain or to overcome. Conor is angry and hurting, and it’s painful to watch.

The monster’s tales get progressively closer to home, and closer to Conor’s heart, and the ultimate reveal, the purpose to the monster’s call, is simultaneously cataclysmic and cleansing. The monster’s explanation for his tales and his deep understanding of Conor’s pain are incredibly revealing for any human being trying to understand their mixed emotions:

‘Humans are complicated beasts,’ the monster said. ‘How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch? How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour? How can an apothecary be evil-tempered but right-thinking? How can a person be wrong-thinking but good-hearted? How can invisible men make themselves more lonely by being seen?’

This is not a book to be rushed; it’s a reading experience not so much to savor, but that should appreciate the intricacies of the storytelling, of the animation and the illustration that goes along with the words. It’s a true piece of art. And as Patrick Ness says in his introduction, “Stories don’t end with the writers, however many started the race. Here’s what Siobhan and I came up with. So go. Run with it.”

Monday, 21 July 2014

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country [America],” we are told about two thirds of the way through Americanah. “If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious… So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race.”

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Americanah before I started reading. Having read one of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s earlier novels, Half of a Yellow Sun, and, more recently, Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, I had what I now realize was a rather abstract notion that I liked what, in my head I termed, “African fiction”. Reading Americanah, however, has shown me what a sweeping judgement this idea of African fiction is that I had. That, like the labels westerners paste on Ifemelu and Obinze (Adichie’s protagonists in Americanah), I was pasting a similarly pointless and potentially offensive label on her work.

If anything, in my judgmental state, I was expecting Americanah to be a book about Nigeria. However, if anything, it is a book about America. Which I probably should have figured out from the title. But it is also a book about judgments and race, and want and dreams, and love lost and found. If Adichie believed the statement that Ifemelu's acquaintance Shan makes, above, about writing racism in America, then she has defied this belief: Americanah is both honest and lyrical; no reading between the lines necessary.

Ifemelu and Obinze are high school sweethearts, together practically from the day they meet. But, growing up in Nigeria against a backdrop of military dictatorship and failing public services, the dream of all their contemporaries is America. And so Ifemelu and Obinze make a plan: when Ifemelu is accepted to an American university, they agree that she will go while Obinze finishes his studies in Nigeria and follow her later.

Things do not go to plan. When Ifemelu steps off the plane in America, she walks into a world entirely different from the one she imagined:

“I did not think of myself as black and only thought of myself as black when I came to America.”

I am white. I live in a white community. I notice if there is a black person walking down the street. I am not racist; I do not make (I hope) any judgment about a person by the colour of their skin; but I notice. And I never thought about this as meaning anything before I read Americanah, but Adichie shows that it is meaningful. Because for Ifemelu, she wasn’t noticed in this way before she went to America.

To begin with, America is like moving through thick columns of fog, only gradually figuring out the difficulties and differences of American culture and society through experience and the reading of American books to absorb the language, customs, mannerisms, sayings. But all around her are things that tell her she is different. Adichie shows us these things gradually and quietly as Ifemelu’s side of the story unfolds: her struggle to find even the most menial form of work, the way that everything around her is tailored for white people, the quickly masked reactions of waiters when she has dinner with a white man.

Adichie highlights throughout the book the way that white people have of piling black or African people into one single denomination, when in fact there is much, much greater variety within non-white than within white. Most often she uses hair to bring the realities across. In the opening pages we join Ifemelu as she journeys to a salon to get her hair braided and so I learnt here, and throughout the story, of the difference between white hair and non-white hair. I did not know that powerful chemicals called relaxers are frequently used to “tame” black hair, that to be considered a professional black woman in America you have to use these to get sleek straight hair like you see in white people magazines, that black people have to make themselves closer to white conformities to look “professional”. It’s surprising and shocking and eye-opening.

And so race and the concept of race flows strongly through Americanah, but alongside it runs the relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze. Events compound events and Ifemelu and Obinze lose touch. As they get older, they each feel a terrible shame for the things they’ve had to do to make it through the difficult periods, and this shame forms for many years an unbreakable barrier between the two of them. As Americanah unfolds, we jump from present to past, Ifemelu to Obinze and back again, as their stories track across the years. And so to the moment when they finally meet again. What new choices will they have to make? Can they pick up where they left off? Can they break down the barriers they’ve each erected?

Americanah, for me, was a surprising book. It has shown me new things, a different way of looking at the world. There is much that may have passed me by, though, because there is much about Nigeria and what it is to live there and come from that very different world that I do not know and am not likely ever to really know, not like Ifemelu does or Obinze does or, I presume, Adichie does. Sometimes, in reading, it was difficult to imagine Ifemelu, what she looked like, or to fully grasp the different descriptions of her hair, but I hope that ultimately that doesn’t matter because Adichie’s storytelling brings the reader inside Ifemelu; what is on the outside is, after all, irrelevant.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin

Golden Boy is, in every sense, a breath-taking book. Abigail Tarttelin’s mature and stunning storytelling is heart-rending and brilliant, and left me still thinking about the story, the characters and the subjects that she raises days after I had finished reading.

At its essence, Golden Boy is the coming-of-age tale of Max. When his supposed best friend betrays Max’s trust in the worst way imaginable, Max is forced to confront and rethink his identity. At sixteen years old, he’s mostly been okay with who he is, but suddenly all the things that were supposed to be worries for the future have arrived: will anybody ever be able to accept him? Will he ever be able to fall in love? How will the choices and decisions he makes today affect his future?

As the past is dug up and the future is pulled apart, Max has to fight for the right to choose who he wants to be, whilst simultaneously dealing with a traumatic event no one should ever have to go through, least of all on their own.

What labels and boxes do we put ourselves and others in? Male, female; sporty, nerdy; gay, straight; cool, uncool. What is my personal identity and what factors contribute to that? How do I choose to present myself to the world and what assumptions do others make about me? These are all questions that Tarttelin raises through Max’s story: gender, identity, sexuality, labeling. Every single one of this is bendable, there is rarely a clear-cut option of one or the other, yet we cannot help but set up neat little boxes for ourselves and try to force people to fit within them. As Tarttelin changes points of view from Max to his mum, his little brother, his doctor, these themes are reflected in each and every one of their parts of the story, the things they consider important, the way they react to events and people around them.

Max does not fit into western society’s average box. He is intersex. He presents himself to the world as a boy, but he has both male and female anatomy. How does he know which he supposed to be? His family doesn’t discuss his “condition”; he has memories of doctors and specialists, of being prodded and poked as a child, but nobody has ever really explained to him the details of his body. The terminology seems to change over the years, but rarely the understanding or the compassion.

“It doesn’t matter if I think like a boy or a girl. It doesn’t matter anymore if I’m either or both or neither. All that shit seems so petty and immaterial now. There’s so little difference between one human being and the next, it’s just hypotheses, human ideas about life and the world and words, that mean nothing; about definitions that mean nothing to the earth, to nature, to the universe.”

But now Hunter has not only committed the most heinous act, but is blackmailing Max, using Max’s identity against him to keep Max quiet. As Max tries, desperately, to seek help from his parents, a chain of events is set in motion that sends Max down a tumbling hill of fear and pain. His mum wants the best for him, but her version of the best is to find a way to squeeze him back into the box of perfect son, her progressively more desperate actions stripping Max of his choices and making him just as powerless as Hunter did. It is almost a form of torture to watch these events unfold and to not be able to help Max, or shake his mother back to reality.

Where will his inability to speak up take him as he looks for a way to regain control over his life? It seems like, gradually, everyone is betraying him, even himself, his own body. Sixteen years of being quiet and being good, of keeping off the radar, makes it practically impossible for Max to express or even fully determine what it is he really wants for himself; it is like he is drowning but no-one can see it. As he spirals, the tension of the story is palpable, electrically charged, and just so very emotionally powerful. Tarttelin is a masterful writer raising incredibly, incredibly important issues that are all too easily swept away beneath the stiff upper lip and ill-conceived pride of generations of society; and she does so with deft and balance and in a way that is hard to be ignored. This is a brilliant, must-read book.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Banished, by Liz de Jager

The Blackhart family are said to be the descendants of Hansel and Gretel, but Kit grew up with her grandmother, away from the rest of her family, knowing nothing of their secrets. Until last year. When her grandmother died, Uncle Jamie took her back to Blackhart Manor, and in the intervening months she’s gained knowledge of everything from the fae kingdoms to Latin to weaponry. She’s still getting used to her magic, though, a rare gift for humans and the only one in her family to possess it in centuries.

Liz de Jager introduces us to Kit and her world in the opening pages with a tense and enjoyable battle between Kit and a banshee who’s taken up residence in a local school. It sucks you straight in to Kit’s story, providing just the right levels of action and intrigue about this world to keep the pages turning. This, however, is only the beginning…

Two days later, left alone in the Manor house when her cousins are sent on a mission to Scotland, Kit awakes in the night to a sense of alarm. The buzz of the air leads her to the woods on the edge of the property and a young fae prince fighting for his life against a gathering of nasty little redcaps. Throwing herself into the fray, Kit is able to save the prince and return with him to the safety of the house. But now what is she supposed to do? The Manor is under attack, no-one in the family is answering their phones, and Prince Thorn brings news of his father’s Citadel being attacked, the King in hiding, the gates between the human and fae worlds slamming shut.

Who is behind the uprising? Is there a traitor in their midst – perhaps more than one? Where have Kit’s family disappeared to and, without them to turn to, what steps can she and Thorn take next?

Banished could be better written – some of de Jager’s sentences are terribly clunky (something I’m surprised wasn’t picked up on in editing) and there are little plot holes here and there - but I really loved the world-building, especially the mythology of the Otherwhere, the Elder Gods and all the supernatural aspects of the story. It has great pace, too; it’s great to have another kick-ass supernatural story set in the UK, and bears well to the comparisons that have been made between Banished and Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series – Clare’s world is different to de Jager’s (and a little slicker), but the feel is similar. Fr anyone who enjoys Banished I would also very strongly recommend they read the completely awesome and un-criticisable Half Bad by Sally Green.

While Kit and Thorn tried figure out what was going on, being pursued by a powerful magic wielder and a myriad of supernatural creatures bent on capturing the prince, I got completely wrapped up in the story and would have happily gone straight on to book two, except it has yet to be published. What, after all, is all this about Thorn being a guardian? They say the seventh son of a seventh son is blessed with impressive magical powers, but Thorn feels like he’s a long way from extraordinary. Is there more to Kit’s powers than meet the eye? And how much faith should you really put into a prophecy?

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Worst Witch and the Wishing Star, by Jill Murphy

You know how when you’re little, you assume authors are these really grown up people who are pretty old? And so when you become a grown up yourself it’s always quite a surprise that all these people who you figured were long since retired are still very much alive and kicking and still writing? Embarrassing. Very embarrassing.

I grew up reading The Worst Witch stories and when I first became a bookseller it was a wondrous discovery that Jill Murphy was not only still writing them, but that she actually lives in the same county as me. So: she was my first taste of magic as a child, and my first taste of magic as a bookseller too.

The Worst Witch is, well, the worst witch at her school, Miss Cackle’s Academy. To be fair, Mildred Hubble is really not that bad at being a witch, it’s just that she has a penchant for getting herself into messes, sticky places and tricky situations. Of course, this is the perfect kind of heroine for any small, adventurous child – especially as Mildred’s heart is always in the right place, her intentions always pure.

There are now seven books in the Worst Witch series, of which The Worst Witch and the Wishing Star is the latest installment. Now in Form Four, Mildred is no longer the most inexperienced in the school, and it’s time for her take on some responsibility, but when she makes a wish on a shooting star, what will happen when it comes true? Mildred has to hide her secret not only from her teachers, but her friends and enemies too – it’s surely only a matter of time until disaster ensues and everyone finds out. What sort of trouble will she be in then?

This is such a lovely series for younger readers, with a clear print and lovely illustrations by the author that help bring the text to life even more. Although the lessons are not quite the same as ours – the food and accommodation neither – at the end of the day this is a school like any other, with all the usual characters and the ups and downs of a hard term that we can all relate to. Mildred just wants to make friends and stay out of trouble; head teacher Miss Cackle is quite soft hearted, and though I was always rather afraid of the stern deputy head, Miss Hardbroom (the name says it all really!), she’s got a soft spot for the girls too, really.

Fun, funny, and with plenty of action to keep the pages turning, no matter how many wrong turns Mildred might take, readers can’t go wrong when they pick The Worst Witch.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Stay Where You Are and the Leave, by John Boyne

This is the third book of John Boyne’s that I’ve read (the first two being The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brockett), and the first thing that comes to mind is what a marvelously accomplished author he is because each of those three have been entirely different from one another.

Stay Where You Are and then Leave is the story of Alfie and his dad. Everything changes on Alfie’s fifth birthday: 28 July, 1914; the day that World War One began. Well, technically everything changes the day after Alfie’s fifth birthday – because that’s the day his dad, Georgie, comes home in a soldier’s uniform. Since then there have been no more birthday parties, no more playing in the street with his best friend Kalena. Now his mum works as a nurse and does laundry and mending for a posh woman over the way. And Alfie, nine years old now, shines shoes – secretly, mind (his mother doesn’t know) – at Kings Cross Station to help put pennies in his mum’s purse.

At first his dad wrote all the time, cheery letters about his training, but then they started talking about terrible things and Alfie’s mum, Margie, stopped reading them to Alfie. And now there aren’t any letters at all – Margie keeps telling Alfie it’s because his dad is on a secret mission and he can’t write. But then, when he’s cleaning shoes at the station one day, his client drops a sheaf of papers. Helping him pick them up Alfie, spots the magic name and number: Summerfield, George. Serial no.: 14278. At the top of the paper it reads: East Suffolk and Ipswich Hospital.

And so Alfie hatches a plan: first, to go to the hospital and find his dad. Second, to bring Georgie home. But while Georgie doesn’t look like he’s injured, he’s not dad as Alfie remembers him, and he keeps saying things that don’t make any sense, like “Stay where you are and then leave. Stay where you are and then leave”. Nonetheless, he’s sure that if he can just bring him home, Georgie will be the same again. But what happens if the plan goes wrong?

This is heartrending reminder of the tragedies and intricacies of the First World War, beautifully and deftly written. From the “conchie” who lives down the street, the disappearance of Alfie’s best friend and her Czech-born father, the struggles of the hospital staff to get shell shock recognized as a genuine illness rather than mere cowardice, the snippets of trench life in Georgie’s letters, Boyne quietly builds a picture of the upheavals, the rights and the wrongs and the greys of “the war to end all wars.” Alfie doesn’t always fully understand the conversations he hears – like what “conchie” or “shell shock” means – but Boyne explains them simply and carefully for readers, either directly or through the development of his story.

And then there’s the general state of the world at this time, regardless of the war itself: the food provided for Alfie’s party includes stewed tripe, cold tongue and jellied eels (luxuries for the Summerfield family); Alfie has to cut up newspaper squares for use in the lavatory at the bottom of the garden; milk is delivered by horse and cart, sweets sold from glass jars at the shop on the corner. It’s an entirely different world from today in a million and one ways. This was a world set in its ways, a world on the verge of massive an unimaginable upheaval. A world almost as innocent as Alfie.  As a 21st century girl, it’s sad and fascinating and intriguing to think of what it must have been like to live through this amazing yet utterly tragic period of time, of the consequences and the horror that everyone had to live with for all their days afterward.

Boyne encompasses all of this, somehow, in a simple story about a boy and his love for his father. For, although it’s a story about a war, a story about a white feather and about a train journey and about a secret, ultimately it is a story about love, and how it tears us apart and ties us together.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Winger, by Andrew Smith

Ryan Dean West doesn’t have the greatest self-confidence. But despite being a junior at just fourteen years old, on the scrawny side, and with, in his opinion, the highest degree of “loserosity” imaginable, he is determined that this year is going to be the year he gets his s**t together: mostly by surviving rooming with Pine Mountain Academy’s biggest bully, Chas Becker, and winning the girl of his dreams, best friend Annie Altman.

But Ryan Dean – or Winger, the nickname earned by his position on the school’s rugby team – has a talent for getting into trouble, even when he doesn’t mean to. As term progresses he is seduced by the smoking hot Megan Renshaw (girlfriend of, incidentally, the room-mate he’s quietly terrified of), becomes the multiple receiver of curse-spells from the distinctly un-hot Mrs. Singer, and is quickly hemorrhaging friends. Can he find a way to get out of this mess?

Winger is a small piece of genius. It is funny and heart-breaking and truthful.

Admittedly, Ryan Dean’s “year of change” doesn’t have the most auspicious start – upside down in toilet – but what, though, is the worst that he thinks can happen? Beaten to death by Chas for (a) making out with Megan and (b) being a general loser? Losing Annie? Suffering a catastrophic penis injury? Ryan Dean might think he’s a terrible loser, but I rather suspect that every teenage boy probably feels the way that he does about himself and about the world. If only I’d known when I was teenager what (I believe) I know now about the mind of a teenage boy…

Winger, though, starts off as one kind of story but gradually becomes something else altogether – like real life, there are twists and turns and corners you can’t see around; events lurking out of sight that no matter how good and brave and full of love Ryan Dean is, he will be powerless to change.

Earlier in the year, Andrew Smith wrote an article about our tendency to put people (and books) into boxes, to create labels about what a person should or shouldn’t be, or make assumptions about what a particular label means. Right from the beginning of Winger, it is clear that Ryan Dean understands the power of words and labels. Despite his rather unfortunate and hypocritical habit of putting girls into certain boxes, he’s none-the-less well aware that that one word can make you feel different, that one word can make people view you in a wholly different way. “Adorable” is the word that Ryan Dean has a complicated relationship with. For his friend Joey, it’s another word: gay. Before the end of his story, it will be brought home to Ryan Dean in the worst way imaginable how easily words can turn your life upside down.

This book is so slickly told, so tightly plotted, the scenarios so well laid out, you see things happening just that micro-second before they do – just enough of a head start to create that plunge of the stomach, flutter of the heart and a reverberating “oh, no…” to echo through your head. There are hints of the quirky style and sense of humour so evident in Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, but tamed down a little, and the text is interwoven with Venn diagrams, pie charts, block charts, cartoons, imaginary conversations and letters that add a certain je ne sais quoi to Ryan Dean’s thoughts and emotions. This is The Great American Novel, the YA generation. Looking for Alaska meets The Art of Fielding, with the Andrew Smith magic thrown in.

Can Ryan Dean tame his inner Wild Boy and, against all the odds, win the girl?

Friday, 20 June 2014

The Bees, by Laline Paull

The Bees is a most unusual book. Although billed primarily as an innovative and chilling dystopian thriller (which it is), what stood out for me most strongly were the rhythms of life and nature, the rhythms of the hive through the seasons.

This is the story of Flora 717. We meet her as she is born to consciousness and follow her through her life in the hive and her encounters with the world. As she goes about foraging for nectar, feeling the air on her wings and using the air currents to speed her along, Flora forms a symbiotic relationship with the flowers and plants: they yearn for her touch as much as she yearns for theirs.

The outside world is packed with enemies, though, enemies both natural and man-made: the Myriad - spiders and birds and wasps – as well as cars and pesticides and cell phone towers. Thus, as well as being a song to nature, The Bees stands as a warning too: an alarm call to the devastating effect human technology has on the natural world, how they unbalance the ecosystems and race through the food chain, how what might seem minor or unnoticable by you or me is devastating to wildlife.

But enemies reside not only in the outside world, they are in the hive too. For this is not some softly cushioned place but a dystopian horror. The society of the hive is divided rigidly into caste levels, each bee ‘kin’ kept in their place by the Melissae priestesses who use scent barriers and antennae controls to keep the bees in their places, and the Queen who extends her love through the hive like some sort of addictive drug. Information is limited, freedom is an essentially unknown concept, individuality is restricted and dissent or deviation is punishable by death.

What is different about this dystopia, though, is our protagonist: unlike the typical dystopian hero, Flora 717 does not actively seek out change, does not intend to question the laws of the hive; rather these things just seem to happen by some other force of nature. There are secrets hidden everywhere, but Flora doesn’t look for them because she wants to challenge the hive or the Queen or the Melissae, she looks for them only to answer her questions about the world or only when she needs the knowledge. Flora loves the Queen as much as every other bee; it is the Melissae who frighten her.

So when Flora commits the ultimate act of rebellion, the greatest sin of the hive, what will the consequences be? What exactly are the implications of the Melissae’s most closely guarded secret: that of feeding? The Melissae are undoubtedly in control, but what will happen if the icon of the Queen is lost? How tight will their grip on the hive be then?

This is a fairly ingenious idea by author Laline Paull; I would be interested to know what inspired her story and to learn how close the relationship is between the functioning of Flora’s hive and non-fictional hives. How is it, for instance, that Flora is able to commit this act of sin – and so unintentionally too? I wasn’t completely enraptured by The Bees, perhaps because it doesn’t hold the same level of pace as I’m used to from YA dystopias, but it is a wonderful and thoughtful song brought lovingly to life.

I especially loved the relationship Flora had with the outside world and the symbiotic relationship the bees have with the hive itself; I loved the rhythms of the hive, the dancing of foraging directions, the encoding of knowledge within the structure of the hive itself. This perhaps make it sound like a very airy and light book: it is not. The passages involving the spiders were especially creepy; there is terrifying visit to a greenhouse with carnivorous plants; and I’m sure I felt as sick as Flora did when she got trapped by the cell phone tower - though nothing is as shocking to all involved as the Obeisance to the Males. I did find it kind of fascinating that the males were given such an elevated place in the hive, despite it purportedly being a matriarchal society, though their greed and their demands were sickening enough for me to feel more than a little smug once it became clear what the Obeisance rite was really all about.

The final denouement is satisfyingly dramatic: will the Melissae lose their grip? And what fate awaits the hive? If you’re looking for something different to read this summer, The Bees is it.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Wall, by William Sutcliffe

Hands up if you like dystopia books. Hands up if you think dystopia books are important, fictional methods of pointing out inconsistencies in social order and social thinking. Or if you think they are a way of extrapolating a political idea into a worst-case scenario.

Hands up if you think dystopias don’t exist today. Right now, right here, in our modern world.

The Wall, in its basic form, is a literary dystopia. Joshua lives on one side of the Wall, relatively privileged, plenty of food on the table, nice clothes, a room full of books and games. Joshua’s world is under constant threat, though, from The Enemy. They want to bomb Joshua, his people, his town Amarias. They want to steal Amarias’s land. They want to shoot and kill. This is why the Wall is there: to protect Amarias, to keep the Enemy at bay, controlled.

To Joshua, the Enemy are a faceless people, a people to be kept at arm's length. But when he discovers a hidden tunnel that runs underneath the Wall and through to the other side, his inquisitiveness gets the better of him. And what happens when he emerges on the other side will not only re-align his world, but set into motion a series of terrible consequences.

After he goes through the tunnel and gets a glimpse of the other side – even though it’s a terrifying experience for him – his perfect, newly built town, with it’s identical houses and clean streets, seems unreal to him, like a dream, after the vibrancy and dirt and muddle and emotional tensions of the other side. He starts to wonder: why are they the enemy? Why do they hate his side of the wall? And he makes a friend, to whom he feels a debt of gratitude, though every attempt to repay it seems to make things progressively worse, both within his own life and within theirs. How can he fix it? How can he escape it?

The truth behind this dystopia is that it is not entirely fictional. William Sutcliffe has based his story – a fictional town, a fictional boy, a fictional series of events – on the real life, present day happenings in the West Bank. Although it is never explicitly written in The Wall, Joshua is Jewish, an Israeli, those on the other side of the Wall, Palestinian. Sutcliffe (who describes himself as a Jewish atheist)  has drawn on elements of various settlements on the West Bank to create this emotional and thought-provoking portrayal of the situation in Israel in which the Jewish settlers of the Occupied Zone are not-so-quietly condemned by his pen.

It’s an excellent book that, for someone who knows very little about the history and political situation of Israel, was extremely thought-provoking. It would have been useful if Sutcliffe had written a factual summary of the situation at the end of the book to give readers a little extra insight, though he does provide some suggested further reading.

Joshua is a well-rounded character who it’s impossible not to feel for. He makes mistakes – some of which have huge consequences – though the decisions he takes have only good intentions behind them, and it’s kind of excruciating and frustrating to watch events unfold yet be powerless to stop or change them. The willful ignorance of his mother as his stepfather Liev physically abuses Joshua is not unusual in young adult fiction yet is a poignant metaphor, perhaps, for the way in which the western world seems to stand idly by while a whole people is forced into a similar position and held there against their will.

The unerring belief of Liev (and, presumably, the majority of those living in Amarias) in their right to this piece of land reminded me strongly of the book I read just before this one: Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper, which covers the settling of America and practical genocide of the native people there. If I understand correctly, there is a historical precedent for Jewish people belonging to the land which is now called Israel? Which obviously isn’t the case for the whites going in and taking over America, yet surely today the Palestinians have as much connection to the land of the country Israel as perhaps the Israelis do, after farming it and living on it for generations.

Sutcliffe creates this feeling of history through Joshua’s own newly-discovered connection to the land after he begins caretaking an olive grove on the outskirts of Amarias:

“I sometimes think of all the people who might have drunk here. For the last few months it was perhaps only me and Leila’s father, but a hundred years, a thousand years, five thousand years, is the blink of an eye to a leaky rock. Drinking from this spring I feel myself joining a thread of people, linked together through unimaginable chasms of time, who have all knelt here, drunk here, tasted this taste, enjoyed it, been kept alive by it. If the bulldozers ever get here, that will be it. The rock will shift, the trickle will stop, the thread will snap.”

It is irrelevant to Joshua who those people were who have drunk from this spring, tended these olive trees, this soil – irrelevant whether they are Jewish or Christian or Muslim – the land connects us all together if we respect it and it will treat us well if we treat it well. The land doesn’t care who we are, and there is something beautiful in this idea. Why can’t we share it and live on it equally? Why do we have to own it and war over it and diminish others for it?

This is a very complicated history which engenders very complicated feelings. The Wall, though, takes one step towards making us think harder about what we do and how we behave. It’s a very clever idea, to create a dystopian story based on real happenings, though there is a precedent with books such as George Orwell's Animal Farm. Joshua’s actions will change him forever; what he learns, once he learns it, will be forevermore un-learnable:

“This place no longer seems how it was before we left for the Occupied Zone, because back then I barely even knew what The Zone was, and once you know something, you can never unknow it.  
“I have left Amarias, but now I realize Amarias will never leave me. I hated that place because it felt like a huge lie, but this place doesn’t feel so different.”

Poignant and sad and thought-provoking. Who is the real enemy? Liev? The world? Himself? And what sacrifices will he make to do the right thing, to help someone who needs help?

Monday, 2 June 2014

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf, by David Almond and Dave McKean

In Mouse Bird Snake Wolf David Almond and Dave McKean bring us a new creation fable told in a graphic novel form. It’s a story about the wonder of imagination, of innocence lost and human nature that is at once wonderful and ominous.

Once, in a world pretty similar to our own, there lived three children: Harry Sue and Ben. It was a pretty good place to live, except for one little problem: the spaces. Because the Gods, after they started making this world, got kind of lazy and tired, and stopped creating things before all the spaces were filled in. They’ve been napping ever since.

But one day, Ben, out walking with Harry and Sue, looks into one of these spaces and pictures within it a creature that could fill the gap. A mouse.

“A mouse?” said Harry. “What on earth is a mouse?”
“I don’t quite know,” said Ben. He wrinkled his nose and scratched his. “It’s kind of a mousy thing, I suppose.”

Thinking hard about what a mouse might be, Ben gathers together some of the natural things around him – wool and petals and nuts – and makes them into a mousy shape, then wills it into being. It’s sweet and mousy, and runs off to do mousy things.

Seeing Ben’s success, Sue and Harry each look into a space and see what they could fill it with, while the Gods stir restlessly above them. And then they imagine a wolf. Ben really isn’t too sure about the wolf, but the older children are wrapped up in their newfound power over the world and determine to continue with their creation… What will happen when the wolf is willed into being? How will it change the world? And how will it change Harry and Sue?

Each time I read Mouse Bird Snake Wolf, I seem to get a little extra something from it. It’s beautifully produced, colorful and edgy; it’s something more than a picture book, something more than a story book. The layout of each page is different, using panels or full colour images, or a mix of the two. ‘Stylised’ is the word that comes to mind to describe Dave McKean’s drawings, many of the images being quite angular and sharp. I like how the Gods are all in black and white, making them somehow ‘other’, and I like how we are shown the imagined images of the world and the new creatures running through the children’s minds, developing from a blur into something with form that they then express in the physical world with leaves and twigs, sticks and stones.

What starts off as a shining and innocent world – I think the image on the first double page is my favourite, showing Harry, Sue and Ben balancing on the world, the plants growing around them, their roots extending down beneath their feet – becomes a little darker, page by page, as the children tamper with it. This is shown not only in the types of creature they create – from the essentially harmless mouse, to a bird, to the cunning snake and then the wolf – but also in the tools they use to bring these creatures to life. To make his mouse, Ben gathers together wool, petals and nuts, and then whispers it to life. The bird involves sticks, leaves, grass and a little more coaxing; the snake needs clay and stones, and actions to bring it into being.

The wolf takes all of these things, and two people howling and drumming their feet. The very act of bringing the wolf into life requires Harry and Sue to change their behavior and once it is done, once the wolf has been imagined once, it will be there forever within them:

“Now their wolf was inside them, like a dream. They felt it, running through them. They heard it, howling and snarling deep inside them.” 

This is not a light and fluffy fairytale. In fact, the night after I read Mouse Bird Snake Wolf for the first time, I dreamt about being chased by wolves; I had to barricade myself indoors to try and escape them. The drawings of the wolf once he comes to life are really quite scary – and this is a thirty-plus-year-old talking. What starts off as a seemingly innocent creation tale soon becomes something darker: the wolf is waiting in the wings.

Masterful, thought provoking, a book that is a little bit special.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Ghost Hawk, by Susan Cooper

Ghost Hawk is a beautiful and heartbreaking story, powerful in it’s telling. I didn’t expect to be so swept up by Susan Cooper’s writing, so transported to this lost world, or to become so emotionally involved with the characters and the history. It is tragic and poignant; it made my eyes burn, anger seep to the surface of my skin, and my heart ache.

Little Hawk is nearly eleven when his father takes him deep into the forest and leaves him there with just the clothes on his back, a knife, bow and arrows, and a tomahawk. Hawk must survive, alone, through three hard months of winter, fending for himself against the wild and the weather. When he returns – if he returns - he will be a man.

We see through Little Hawk’s eyes as he looks for shelter, food and his Manitou – his spirit guide. He faces off with wolves and deer, freezes through storms, and nearly drowns in a lake. But this is only the beginning of his story: when he returns from his sojourn, Little Hawk must remain strong and brave in the face of terrible loss; a loss that only scratches the surface of what is to follow in the coming years.

This is an incredible book. Through Little Hawk’s way of life, Susan Cooper makes us feel a strong connection to the world, to the land and the animals, to Hawk’s people and to his past, the echoes of the generations that came before him and the echoes of the generations to come behind. But past and future echoes are quickly silenced by the arrival of the colonists: this is the 1600s, and the whites from across the oceans have arrived in force.

At first, colonists and natives help each other, and it seems as if they will be able to live alongside one another, but soon everything is cut short, the differences between the two populations as stark as the contrast between the beginning of Ghost Hawk and the chapters that follow in part two and beyond.

“In this world, one small thing leads to another small thing, and they twine within time to cause events, both good and terrible,” Hawk tells us.

Early on, Little Hawk is befriended by John Wakeley, a little boy a couple of years Hawk’s junior. John doesn’t think of Hawk as being any different to himself, but he’s surrounded by people who think otherwise: when he tries to challenge those around him, when he tries to highlight their hypocrisy, he’s shunned and shut down. But John is determined and brave and seeks to find a way to live on the terms that he believes are right, to hold to the truth of a memory that haunts him. What does the future hold? Can he make things right?

At times, the history tied up in Little Hawk’s story made me feel almost physically sick: the attitudes of many settlers towards Little Hawk’s people, their assumptions made about them because they don’t conform to the white interpretation of civilization, the uncaring dismissal of their rights and beliefs. It’s disgusting and, from what I can tell, things don’t seem to be much better even today. America is a country built on blood and murder, theft and lies, the native nation brought to its knees, destroyed and gutted by white arrogance. No matter how much trust Little Hawk’s people try to put in the settlers, it is mostly only repaid in distrust.

Wise Little Hawk watches it all as it passes before his eyes:

“This was how they thought of our mother the earth, these white men: as a place full of things, put here by their God for them to use.”

Ghost Hawk is a beautiful rendering of the tragic and heartbreaking effects of colonisation on Native American peoples. I am so happy that it has been shortlisted for the 2014 Carnegie Medal, because otherwise I probably would never have picked it up. It will make you cry and rage at the injustice, at the loss of all that history, of what our ancestors did these people. Susan Cooper’s storytelling is exquisite and powerful, evocative and emotional; I can’t recommend it enough, for teenagers and adults alike.