Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Examined Life, by Stephen Grosz

I’m not sure that I believe in psychoanalysis. Or rather, I’m not sure that I believe in what psychoanalysis proclaims it can do (or what I think it proclaims it can do). In The Examined Life, Stephen Grosz manages to both support and refute this prejudice of mine and thus after reading it I remain, inexorably, as much on the fence as I was when I began.

This is not to say that The Examined Life is not a fascinating book. It is. The compilation of twenty five years’ worth of work, patients and thoughts, within its pages are a series of stories about life and how we handle it – and the different ways that different people handle it. The different tales are interesting and the whole makes for quite compulsive reading, particularly as it is very simply written and quite easy to dip in and out of. I see reflections of myself in several of the people within, and take lessons from both them and others.

It is captivating to read these stories of other people, people with behaviours both similar and disparate to my own, but what stands out for me are, predominantly, two things. First, that people spend such an inordinate amount of time on psychoanalysis: four to five hours a week across years and years. Patients can stop attending sessions whenever they like, but if the analyst doesn’t feel they have reached the end of their “work”, the patient is encouraged to remain. The time and money that must be spent on this exercise just seems a little crazy. I fully agree that counseling/therapy is invaluable, and that – much as I might have secretly hoped when I picked up The Examined Life – inbuilt behaviours and thought patterns cannot by any stretch of the imagination be fixed either overnight, or in the reading of a book. Yet five hours a week over three plus years seems a little excessive.

Secondly, the inordinate amount of faith and trust that patients have to put into the person they are talking to. Psychoanalysts may be trained, well-read, intelligent people (or hopefully they are), but at the end of the day the suggestions they are making about the patient’s life are relatively subjective. Obviously they draw on their background knowledge, on case studies, on a general understanding of the human psyche (as far as that goes) to make these analyses, but at the end of the day it is purely their interpretation. Sometimes that is helpful, but how often is it wrong? And, if they are wrong, does this damage a patient’s internal view of themselves even further?

I am thinking in particular of a case Grosz cites in the chapter titled ‘On Bearing Death’, where his patient Lucy has a dream that stands out for her. When she first mentions this dream the session comes to an end and they don’t have time to discuss it, but Grosz tells us that he thought the dream “arose from her unconscious feeling that there was something deadly in her.” Several months later, Lucy reveals her interpretation of the dream. Not only is it the complete the opposite, but it was something she came to with hindsight in the months in between, and something that helped towards her personal healing. If Grosz had given her his initial interpretation immediately after she had the dream, would Lucy have reached this good place or gone in another direction altogether?

Perhaps it’s all irrelevant, I don’t know. The human psyche is a mystery, and everyone is different. I do respect Stephen Grosz though. Not only because he shows times when he has been wrong, when he has struggled, both with his patients and within his own life, but because he writes thoughtfully and respectfully and reveals little hidden secrets here and there about the world and how we humans behave - inbuilt responses that are both good and bad, and that we cannot hope to change until we can see them and acknowledge them, both on a personal and on a societal level. And we nearly always need someone else, someone ‘outside’ to show us such things.

While I got quite wrapped up in The Examined Life whilst I was reading it, always reading for longer than I intended, each time I put it down I felt a little drained; tired of these other people’s lives with their edges of depression. Overall, though, it’s a positive, thought-provoking book. Perhaps it’s better to read it in small pieces instead of large ones, but I am sure that everyone will find a kernel of truth about themselves in at least one of the tales that they then can take away and nurture. And if not, then blimey, you must be the most well-rounded person on the planet; what’s wrong with you?

Saturday, 22 February 2014

A Boy Called Hope, by Lara Williamson

A Boy Called Hope is a really lovely family story that is smart, funny, warm and, of course, full of hope. It is Dan Hope’s story, following his struggles to track down his absentee dad, but along the way there are misunderstandings galore, a word ninja, a dog that will eat literally anything, an eco fashion concert thingymajig, dreams forged and broken, family lost and family gained. Lara Williamson’s writing is witty and natural, and she seems to tune in beautifully to this eleven year old boy’s mind and heart, giving clarity to both his emotions and those of the family and friends around him. It’s impossible not to be drawn into the story and root for a happy ending.

Dan Hope’s dad left four years ago; he, his mum, and his big sister Ninja Grace haven’t seen hide nor hair of him since. Until he turns up on their T.V. one evening. Dan has a mental list of wishes, including not only to become the youngest person to land on the moon and for Grace to move to the North Pole, but also for his dad to love him.  So when Dan’s dad shows up on the TV, Dan launches Operation Baskerville (aka Operation Meeting Dad). From emailing him and tracking down his new house to posing as a work experience student at the T.V. company, Dan will try anything to talk to his dad. But what if his father doesn’t want to be found? What will Dan do then?

Fortunately, Dan has plenty of people on his side: his best friend Jo, new friend Christopher, mum’s boyfriend Big Dave. His sister is looking out for him too in her own unique, angry way – because, of course, she’s been hurt pretty bad by their dad too. And they’re both trying to look out for their mum. Dan is pretty adept at making ten out of two plus two, so jumps to all sorts of conclusions during the story – like why Big Dave has a tattoo saying “Caroline 1973” on his arm and why there’s a pregnancy test in the bathroom waste bin. He never gives up hope, though, never giving up, like when he and Christopher get into a fight, or when he hears nothing from his dad.

Both the story and Lara Williamson’s writing are very engaging, laugh out loud funny in places and heartbreaking in others. There’s a bit of a shock with one of the characters at the end, which really surprised me because I’m not sure it entirely fits with the direction of the story up until that point, but (a) that’s life isn’t it? And (b) I can see that it was a good way to enable Dan to sort things out and for Williamson to draw the book to a close in a way that allows Dan to reach an emotional equilibrium.

A Boy Called Hope was a really lovely read, and a great book for the 9-12 (“middle grade”) bracket. I will definitely be looking out for her next book in 2015, The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair, which sounds like it’ll hit all the same marks as her debut.

Monday, 17 February 2014

The Girl With All the Gifts, by M. R. Carey

Melanie: a young girl, smart, thirsty for knowledge, eager to understand the world, or the pieces of the world that her teachers let her see. A child who smiles and learns and yearns for love. Or an interloper? A ‘something else’ that controls this young girl’s body and just makes it seem like she is all those other things?

Melanie’s world is very small. She lives in a small, bare cell. Each day Sergeant and his people come and take her down the corridor, through the door at the end and into the classroom. There is a door at the other end of the corridor too, but she never gets to go through that one. She’d like to know what’s on the other side. Her life is controlled and regulated - Plato’s cave - and very little changes from week to week. But then two of the other children in her class are taken away and never come back. The questions start to pile in. What happened to them? Why does Sergeant get so very angry when the teacher touches Melanie’s hair? Why did Kenny snap and snarl at Sergeant like a dog when Sergeant showed Kenny his arm? And what is it inside Melanie that woke up when she smelt Sergeant’s skin?

It’s quite extraordinary that new things can still be done with what, in it’s most basic form, is a zombie apocalypse novel. As external events come into play, Melanie’s world comes crashing down and suddenly that small cell and clinical corridor are replaced with a lot of home truths. It is two decades since the Breakdown; anywhere outside of Beacon is unsafe, populated only by hungries and the survivalist Junkers. She is like people, but she’s not like people. The hungries don’t pay attention to her, but they’re a threat to everyone else. Why is she different?

Melanie and four others slog out into this open world: Dr Caldwell, the cold doctor who thinks only of science, of finding a cure, of solving the equation and receiving her due praise. What lengths will she go to to achieve her aims? Helen Justineau: damaged but caring teacher set on protecting her young charges. Private Gallagher, a young and green soldier stuck between a rock and a hard place, for whom moving forward to Beacon is equal to go backward. Sergeant Parks: the hardened leader who has survived by adhering to strict rules and behaviors as far as hungries are concerned, rules he’s now being forced to bend, but he’s determined to get the group back to Beacon. And Melanie: Caldwell is sure the secret locked inside Melanie’s head is the key to saving them all, if only she can get inside and figure it out.

But what if Melanie is something else entirely, something nobody even thought could exist? Something that turns all assumptions about the hungries upside down; that is at once extraordinary, but will also sound the death knell for them all?

The Girl With All the Gifts is a wonderful new take and new approach to a well-mined genre. It’s easy to figure out early what the deal is with Melanie’s world, yet M. R. Carey simultaneously keeps a lot hidden away from us. What exactly are the gifts that Melanie is holding? Will they make it back to Beacon? What will they encounter, discover, and have to endure along the way? Will Beacon even still be there? Carey’s writing is visually enticing – the world this eclectic group walk through played like a movie in my head – as well as creating that thrill and anticipation of a gripping novel; the questions and secrets perfectly balanced with adrenaline-inducing passages of action. It’s not an action heavy book, it’s not all run-run-run, hide-hide-hide: instead, a level tension runs through every page, every step, every decision these characters take. And it’s a level of tension that is satisfied by answers just as new questions arise, a really slick and effective piece of storytelling.

When I read Max Brooks’ World War Z, it gave me nightmares if I read before going to sleep, and at one point I was afraid The Girl With All the Gifts would have the same uncomfortable effect. Thankfully it didn’t, and I think this is because it’s such a character-driven story. Each of the five characters have their own secrets to protect; these secrets drive them forward, make them who they are, influence their reactions to the world and their reactions to each other. Can they let their secrets go? Can they change the others’ inbuilt responses?

As for the cause of the Breakdown - Dr Caldwell’s great project - I love the idea that something as seemingly small and innocuous as a fungus could bring about this level of devastation. In fact, I think it’s one of the best and most sensible explanations for a ‘hungry’ phenomenon postulated yet. Carey’s descriptions of these frozen creatures are enthralling: tendrils of grey sneaking through their bodies, the plants spore-ing and branching and growing and taking over while the hungries stand, waiting, for the next meal to walk by, the next trigger to wake them up and spur them onward. Add to this the abandoned land, buildings, villages, towns and cities left to rot for twenty years, while the fungus gradually, inexorably takes over. It's very cinematic.

Not all the questions are answered, not all the possible explanations given, but just enough is offered up to leave me satisfied. Ours and Melanie’s greatest fears are both realized and unrealized; the conclusion is a terrible work of art that is yet somehow right. The Girl With All the Gifts is being much lauded and rightly so: it is different and gripping and full of care in every respect.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Crocodile Who Didn't Like Water, by Gemma Merino

It’s true that our eponymous crocodile doesn’t like the water. He’s not afraid of it, really, he just. Does. Not. Like it. He wishes he did, because he’d really like to join his brothers and sisters in swim club, so he comes up with a plan to get himself in the water. It’s a good plan, but he’s still not terribly happy about being in the water, no matter how hard he tries to like it. But maybe there’s a reason why he doesn’t like the water… maybe he’s not a crocodile at all…

The Crocodile Who Didn't Like Water is a lovely story that says it’s good to try and overcome your fears, but ultimately it’s ok to be different. That it’s more than fine to say, ‘you know what, this thing and me just don’t mix’ - and this usually this means I can do different things instead. Which is exactly what the little crocodile in this story figures out.

Gemma Merino’s illustrations are very endearing – you just want to give the crocodile a hug and tell him everything will be ok – and the twist in the story is so wonderfully unexpected I laughed out loud the first time I read it. Of all the books on the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2014 shortlist, I think this is my favourite.

Penguin in Peril, by Helen Hancocks

Three hungry cats have hatched a cunning plan to make themselves a fishy feast. Step one: capture a penguin. Step two: recapture the penguin. But finding a runaway penguin on the city streets is easier said than done… Especially when he blends in so well with nuns and policeman and waiters.

To be honest, I am far from taken by Penguin in Peril. I’m not really sure what the author was trying to do (other than be clever) or what the point of the story was (other than the fact that the cats wind up in jail, so get a kind of comeuppance). It was all rather pointless; there's no real sense of characterisation, the drawings aren’t terribly interesting or appealing, and we're never actually let in on the cats’ cunning plan. What exactly were they going to do with the penguin once they caught him? Just get him to catch fish for them? It would have made a lot more sense for them to just spend their money on food in the first place.

Harold Finds A Voice, by Courtney Dicmas

Harold is an excellent imitator, copying and repeating all the sounds he hears in the apartment where he lives, from the bleep of the alarm clock to the whooshing of the washing machine. But there are only so many sounds to be heard in one small apartment, and he can’t help wondering what other beautiful and interesting noises exist out in the world. So when the window is left open one morning, he decides to find out…

Harold is not disappointed by all the wonderful sounds he finds, but it opens up a new question: does he have his own voice that’s his and his alone? How can he find it? What will it sound like?

Bright and colourful, Harold Finds A Voice is great fun to read – there are so many different noises to make and imitate – and even when his voice isn’t quite what he expected, finding it brings all sorts of lovely new things into his life: other parrots like him! Courtney Dicmas has taken a basic idea – the importance of being yourself – and put it across simply and beautifully.

Open Very Carefully, by Nick Bromley & Nicola O'Byrne

You should do as the title of this book suggests: open very carefully, because what you find inside might surprise you – a crocodile! What is he doing there?

Wait a minute… Oh, no! He’s eating the letters of the story! This is no good; we can’t be having this. It’s a book for goodness’ sake! What can we do to stop him? Rock the book to see if we can make him fall asleep… Shake the book to see if he’ll fall out… Oh, gosh, now he’s going to try and eat his way out. Yikes!

Open Very Carefully is certainly an original idea, with lovely, bold illustrations, but I’m a little worried about where the crocodile has gone to now he’s escaped the book – what if he’s hiding under my bed?

I hope small children won’t find this book scary. I particularly like the interactive nature of the story – with the shaking and rocking of the book to help the crocodile on it’s way – and it’s a fun, fresh idea. I just hope that something a little friendlier will be able to sneak in through the hole the crocodile’s made – a fluffy bunny perhaps?

Time for Bed, Fred, by Yasmeen Ismail

You know how difficult it can sometimes be to get young children to go to bed? Well, dogs too. On hearing those three innocent little words, “Time for bed!” Fred’s anti-bed instincts kick in. Where can he hide so that he won’t have to go to bed? Among the flowers? Up a tree? What about under the rug? With any luck all this crazy running about will tire young Fred out…

Fred seems like a really nice dog, with shaggy ears that are just asking to be tickled, and a playful, mischievous character that shines through Yasmeen Ismail's colourful illustrations. The pictures are full of movement and activity, and the story is so simple and fun it’s impossible not to enjoy it and appreciate the not-so-subtle metaphor. Time for Bed, Fred is sure to be one of those books you’ll get asked for again and again – especially, perhaps, at bedtime.

Weasels, by Elys Dolan

The weasels are planning to take over the world and today is the big day. But just as everything is ready to go, disaster strikes. “Machine status: It’s Broken”. What’s wrong with their world domination machine? Can they fix it? They’ve got a few ideas, like adding a clothes hanger, installing batteries, or buying a new machine. Perhaps the best solution is the simplest one?

Weasels is a lot of fun to read as an adult – Elys Dolan’s illustrations fill every page and are packed full of little details, quirky asides and tongue-in-cheek references – like the chief weasel villain overseeing his lab weasels with a pet white mouse curled up on his lap, the coffee debate going on in the background, and a quick pause to make sure everything is health and safety compliant. How much of this would small children appreciate, though? Perhaps little, perhaps more than I would give them credit for.

Either way, Weasels is an amusing tale with tonnes to look at and a nicely ambiguous ending – what will happen once the weasels manage to fix the problem? They’re not really likely to let a little technical difficulty get in their way. They are weasels, after all.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmar Jaaskelainen

Laura White’s “Creatureville” novels are bestsellers, but what if the mythological beings they feature are based on real beings living in Rabbit Back? Why is the Rabbit Back librarian burning books? And why only now, after so many years, has a new member been invited to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society?

After the end of a disappointing relationship, Ella Amanda Milana has returned to her home town of Rabbit Back and taken on a teaching position in the local school. Everything seems mundane and normal, except perhaps for the part where her father claims he can see gnomes in the garden (but he has Alzheimers, so he’s not an entirely reliable witness), the part where library books are rearranging their stories, and the part where her town is populated by the infamous Rabbit Back Literature Society, an exclusive and rather secretive group of nine acclaimed writers brought together and nurtured from a young age by bestselling children’s author Laura Winter.

And so The Rabbit Back Literature Society is at once a slightly strange and yet fairly regular story of a young woman finding her feet in life. It is peopled with eccentric characters and set in a town with a magical undertow, yet Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen makes this seems all perfectly normal. It does come as a surprise to everyone when Laura White, after reading a story Ella has published in the local paper, invites Ella to join the Literature Society, the first new member in something like twenty years. But when Ella is initiated into the group not only does Laura White mysteriously disappear, but Ella is introduced to The Game: a sacred spilling of internal truths. Is this her chance to uncover the Society’s mysteries? Her own mysteries? Can she, or will she, use them to form her own, new future? What will she have to give up in return, and how far will the society go to prevent her from spilling their secrets? Will she wish, afterwards, that she never knew them?

A lot goes on in this book, each new chapter, each new ‘spilling’ in The Game, revealing another level of mystery. There’s not only the mystery of Laura White herself, of the complicated relationships the society members have with each other, but also of the elusive first tenth member and his powerful notebook. Although they never talk about him, this young boy’s notebook has an intense hold over the society, particularly Martti Winter. But is it actually what they remember it to be?

This is a strangely magical book, but the magical aspect of it not only goes unresolved and unexplained, but also never directly mentioned. It simply exists, underlying the thoughts and words and deeds of this small Finnish town. This, of course, makes the whole thing even more magical and interesting. Perhaps I should read some Finnish mythology – perhaps then I would more clearly understand the significance of the Emperor Rat, be able to divine whether Laura White was actually Mother Snow. It’s a wonderful and unusual story, quite dark in places, ultimately both resolving things and leaving much unresolved. Quirky is perhaps one way of describing it, but it doesn’t really come anywhere near; it’s much more fluid than a single description or term can accomplish, much like Laura White, The Game, and the Society themselves.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Reality Boy, by A. S. King

Reality Boy is the story of Gerald. When Gerald was five, his mum wrote to a TV company inviting the Network Nanny to come and work her nanny magic on Gerald and his two sisters.  Five year old Gerald did not respond well to this home invasion. Five year old Gerald’s behaviour took a nose dive, creating a name for himself that would follow him around for at least the rest of his formative years. ‘Formative years’ being the important part of that sentence. It is a not a nickname that should follow any person, particularly not through their formative years.

Today, Gerald spends a lot of time feeling angry. Everyone says he’ll wind up in prison. Everyone expects the worst from him. Problem is, when everyone expects the worst of you, it’s very hard to not fulfill their expectations. And if they only ever see the bad in your actions, what’s the point in even trying to be good? Fortunately Gerald is intelligent enough – much more intelligent than most people he’s surrounded by give him credit for – to see that he is better than other people think he is. The struggle is in trying to get everyone else to acknowledge that. Which is nigh-on impossible when you have a family like Gerald has. His oldest sister Tasha is psychopathic, but everyone (except Gerald, who knows better) pretends that’s she perfectly normal. His other sister got out as soon as she could and hasn’t called since. His mum is in a particular sort of denial that is essentially child abuse, while his dad buries his head in the sand. Oh wait, that would be alcohol-infused sand.

Gerald needs to find a way out and a way out now if has any hope of becoming a normally functioning adult. Can he move out? Can he run away? Can he wait and apply for college? In the meantime, the only means of escape that Gerald has is into his head. When things get tricky he takes a quick vacation to Gersday. Here the roads are made of candy, he gets to go to Disney World, eat ice cream whenever he wants and – most importantly – not only is there no Tasha, but everyone respects him. But just as the Network Nanny show was not real, neither is Gersday. The Network Nanny show showed only the parts of Gerald’s household that could create a TV sensation, not what was really going on. Gerald wants everyone to realize that five-year-old Gerald, the Gerald that spawned that nickname, isn’t real, but as he spirals his way through the next few weeks, who is the real Gerald? And what, for Gerald, is the real world? Is his reality the one where his sister repeatedly tries to drown him while his mother laughs from the sidelines, the one where the roads are made of candy, the one where he can run away and join the circus?

A. S. King is an exemplary writer and has built in Gerald a painfully sad and frustrated character predominantly surrounded by people who are blinded to the realities of his world. But perhaps Gerald is so wrapped up in his anger and frustration that he’s unable to see the realities of other people’s worlds? King has taken one idea, one concept – the destructiveness and unreality of reality TV – and entwined them into a multi-stranded, multi-conceptual gift of a novel that had me screaming inside over the willful ignorance of Gerald’s family. She effortlessly slips between realities, from Gerald’s ‘now’, to the Network Nanny days, to Gersday, taking us with her and with Gerald one hundred percent of the time. Can he, will he, find a way out? What will the consequences be?

A. S. King is as good as John Green and David Levithan - two writers whose fame in the UK has grown exponentially in the last year - and I really hope her UK sales will grow as fast as theirs have. This will hopefully be helped by the excellent gender-neutral cover that her publishers (Little, Brown and Company) have designed for Reality Boy, a book that is so readable you may forget to eat or sleep. Set your alarm clock to remind you to surface for a taste of your own reality on the odd occasion. But only on the odd occasion.