Sunday, 30 March 2014

If You Find Me, by Emily Murdoch

What if the person you thought you were no longer exists? What if your history turned out to be a lie? What if the person you were supposed to trust brought terrible things into your world? What if the place you thought you were safe is the least safe of all?

When she was little, Carey’s mum saved her from her dad. They ran away to hide in the woods – the Hundred Acre Woods, as Carey dubs it – and there they’ve lived ever since. Her mum goes on trips to town, for supplies, to fuel her meth habit, and sometimes she’ll be gone for weeks. So Carey and her little sister Jenessa are used to fending for themselves, hunting and foraging, eating beans from tin cans, wearing second or third hand clothes, lighting fires for warmth. But their mum’s been gone even longer than usual this time, and now the two strangers have arrived: a social worker and Carey’s dad, and they’ve got a letter from Carey’s mum saying she can’t look after them anymore.

Carey cares for one person more than anything else in the world: Jenessa. So when her dad comes, she’s sure that going back with him is the best thing for Jenessa. He seems kind, but she can’t help being afraid, not after what her mum told her. Firstly, though, leaving the woods means a house, a bed, a step-sister and step-mother, school and a 21st century lifestyle that neither of them are used to. Jenessa has never seen television before, ever stood underneath a shower. Carey doesn’t know what a cell-phone is, an iPod, or what the word ‘gross’ means. She misses the woods terribly, but more than anything she’s haunted by the white-star night - the secret that presses down on her shoulders, that scared Jenessa so much she stopped talking, and that Carey knows she can’t hide from forever but will change everything – again – when it’s revealed.

As Carey is forced to question and confront her past, she has to find a way to reconcile the girl from the woods with the girl of today. It’s truly excellent, her voice leaping off the page right from the first paragraph, drawing you in and nudging you forward all the time. At first I assumed that Jenessa would be the one who would have the greatest difficulty adjusting to the new circumstances, but it soon becomes apparent that things will be harder for Carey in the long term, that the differences between her and her peers are more pronounced, that her old worldview and her new worldview will have greater clashes, that finding her new balance will more of a trick than second nature.

Utterly gripping and full of dark secrets, If You Find Me is sad and wonderful, terrible and uplifting, finished and unfinished, Emily Murdoch creating the exact emotional catharsis needed whilst leaving the story open-ended – leaving Carey space to find her way from old girl to new girl, but the readers wondering exactly how the events of the white-star night will be solved. Carey gives us hints – snippets here and there – of the horrible bits of her past, enough to guess as to what the white-star night might contain, but it’s not fully revealed until the end, when she finally finds a way to trust her father and her new life. There are some really difficult subjects in here, but Emily Murdoch tackles them and writes them with real sensitivity and care.

This is my favourite book in the teen category of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2014 shortlist – it does everything it needs to without even blinking and is really an excellent read; I’m looking forward to seeing what else Emily Murdoch has to offer.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Amy & Matthew, by Cammie McGovern

Amy & Matthew was a bit of a surprise. I hadn’t intended to read it when I did, but when it arrived (care of Macmillan books), I picked it up to just read the back and peek at the first page. Three hours later I was still reading.

This is a love story. In many ways it’s a conventional love story, but in many ways it’s very unconventional. And it’s not just a love story: this is a book about being different, about not letting others define who you are or who they think you should be; its about allowing yourself to be challenged in a positive way, and it’s about doing things your own way, even if that includes making mistakes.

Amy has cerebral palsy, which essentially means her body is not hers to do with as she will. She needs help with her fine motor skills, has difficulty walking and difficulty speaking. She’s always had adult aides to help her at school, but now, the year before she’s going to start college, she’s realized something crucial: she has no friends and limited social skills. If she wants to be able to go to college, to live an independent life, that needs to change, and so she persuades her (unwilling) mother to hire other students to help her out during her senior year.

When Matthew finds out he’s been accepted as one of Amy’s aides, he starts to balk. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. What will he say to her? What if he does something wrong? He’s supposed to introduce her to new people, but he doesn’t really know anyone either. But he sticks it out and finds that spending time with Amy is better and easier than anything he’d ever imagined. And as Amy gets to know Matthew, she discovers he has a different kind of disability - one that is (currently) as restrictive as her own – can she help him?

Amy and Matthew’s relationship is by nature a complicated one; as the months go by they bounce off one another as they challenge each other and are challenged by each other. Matthew is just about the only person who’ll tell it to Amy like it is, while Amy is always aiming for the stars, a distance too far for Matthew to comprehend. I really like that Cammie McGovern writes the story this way: she doesn’t force these characters together; doesn’t seem to write a situation for them that’ll create the perfect happily ever after scenario. Rather, they bounce away and come back, bounce away and come back in the most natural and realistic way possible.

This is a wonderful book. It’s a very engaging read as well as thought provoking. It is not about people with disabilities, it is about people who just happen to have disabilities. Those disabilities do, naturally, have an influence on some parts of the story, but it was mostly an important reminder for me that the mind and the body are separate entities and that we shouldn’t judge a person’s central being based on their physical abilities. Everyone has the same thoughts and fears and dreams and it’s not up to someone else to decide how far another person should be able to go in pursuing them, or in what direction. We can only decide for ourselves.

As far as Amy and Matthew are concerned, I just wanted them to work out how to be happy, whether that was together or apart. Which they did – but I’m not telling you how… Amy & Matthew has everything a good love story needs, but with a double plus because it doesn’t define how we should love, only that we should.

(NB. Amy & Matthew is published under the title Say What You Will in the US)

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Panic, by Lauren Oliver

What are your greatest fears? What makes your stomach drop, your legs turn to jelly, your brain shut down? What makes you panic?

For the teenagers of small, run-down Carp, Panic is a game. It’s a game of nerve, a game with a big payoff: $50,000. Only graduating seniors can enter, and you have to be made of steel to win. The players will be pushed to their limits, and forced to discover what will drive them to overcome their fears, to go that extra mile.

Panic, Lauren Oliver’s new book, is a departure from her Delirium series – more thriller, less love story – yet conforms to her signature style, touching on themes and ideas as equally relevant to teens as to adults. Despite being 400 pages long, it feels like I read it in a flash, the adrenaline from the characters seeping off the page, making my palms sweat and my heart race.

Contestants declare their intention to play by jumping off a twenty-foot high rock in the middle of lake at the start of summer, and then they’re gradually whittled down to two or three players over the following weeks through a series of challenges – often with deadly consequences. There’s walking across a plank suspended between two water towers, stealing from the most feared man in town, Russian Roulette, holding out in a burning building. The judges are anonymous, the game a challenge against the poor background of Carp’s inhabitants, a challenge against boredom.

Heather hadn’t been planning to play Panic, but changed her mind at the last minute after seeing her boyfriend making out with another girl. But will this be enough motivation to see her through the death-defying challenges ahead? Dodge, by contrast, has plenty to fuel him: revenge. And he’s willing to go to any length to get what he wants. This is a game with no rules, no holds barred, but plenty of consequences.

Oliver alternates between Dodge and Heather’s viewpoints as the summer ticks by and Panic takes hold of their lives. I related much more to Heather’s story than Dodge’s – as the game progresses, Heather’s life goes under several stages of turmoil, from her freezing lack of self-esteem, losing one job and starting another, dealing with her difficult mother, caretaking her little sister, and the ups and down in her friendships as the tremours from Panic ripple outwards. Dodge is a different cup of tea – an unreliable narrator, I was never entirely sure whose side he was on or which way he was going to turn. This was a brilliant choice of Oliver’s: instead of using Dodge as a love interest (my assumption before I opened the book), by making his loyalties so difficult to predict, Oliver brings an extra level of tension and fear to the story, and plenty of opportunities for betrayal.

In fact, everyone seems to betray everyone else at some point. How will any of them remain friends with each other by the end? It’s interesting how prevalent betrayal is in a story that started life as an exploration of fear – perhaps because, aside from any immediate threat to life and limb, being left alone or abandoned by one’s friends and family is the next biggest fear in most people’s lives. That, or having somebody discover you’re not who you want them to think you are: Heather’s greatest fear is not ever being loved. Dodge’s? Well, the same, essentially, I think – for his disabled sister to not need him anymore. Ironically, Heather, who initially joins Panic on a whim, knows her fear right from the beginning; it’s Dodge who only comes to terms with his fear during the game, despite having a stronger motivation to play to begin with. And as the tables turn, Heather’s motivation to win grows: to win means the chance to hold onto those she loves and those who love her – whilst Dodge’s motivation peters away down the drain as everything he thought he was playing for unravels in front of eyes.

Whist reading, I couldn’t help but wonder: would I play Panic? If it was me, how would I cope with each of the challenges of the game? And not just the game, but the other challenges our characters must face as well. Probably not very well! But then, with those dollar signs before your eyes, who wouldn’t be tempted to try? Panic is and edge-of-the-seat race for the end. And as only one person can win, who will you be putting your money on?

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Fire Storm, by Lauren St John

(Warning! Contains minor spoilers from The One Dollar Horse and Race the Wind)

Fire Storm is the much-awaited third and final installment in Lauren St John’s One Dollar Horse trilogy. After taking home the trophies from Badminton and Kentucky, can Casey achieve what only one other person ever has: the eventing Grand Slam?

The Burghley Horse Trials are on the horizon, but things at The White Horse Equestrian Centre - the home of Casey, her horse Storm and her coach Mrs. Smith – are not terribly sunny. Casey is talking back to Mrs. Smith like a spoiled teenager, Mrs. Smith’s determination to ignore her illness is getting harder and harder, handsome ‘coach-of-the-moment’ Kyle West is circling like a shark, and while Storm takes a well-deserved holiday, Casey’s loan horse is proving more than a challenge.

When Casey decides to take Kyle on as a coach, little does she know what rocky territory she’s setting sail on: how honourable are Kyle’s intentions? Who is the creepy Ray? And what exactly is going on under the slick and shiney surface of Kyle’s training centre, Rycliffe Manor? Added to this is the return of the abhorrent Anna Sparks – has she turned over a new leaf? Or, given half a chance, will she revert back to her former, snotty ways? The only thing missing – thankfully! (because my little heart really couldn’t have taken any more anguish) – was some sort of disaster involving Casey’s dad, but it seems that he’s now on safe and solid ground. Phew.

Lauren St John brings to Fire Storm all the slick writing, tension and edge-of-the-seat moments she showed us in The One Dollar Horse and Race the Wind. The plot gets thicker and thornier with practically every turn of the page, and it’s full of those ‘Nooo!’ moments where misunderstandings and miscommunications collide. It’s essence is closer to the Race the Wind experience than The One Dollar Horse experience. Given all the things Casey has experienced in the last six months, this is understandable – she is no longer living by quite the same fairytale rules as she was when she first rescued Storm, she’s had to grow up pretty fast, and the whirlwind of her recent victories have had quite an impact on her.

Will Casey remember what really matters in time to piece together all the knots that are coming untied in her life? Will she make it to the Burghley finish line and will it be enough to take her to Grand Slam victory? St John keeps us guessing right up until the last page, so make sure you’ve got plenty of snacks to hand because you won’t want to be going anywhere once you start reading.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Cinder, by Marissa Meyer

Cinder both is and isn’t what it appears to be: a clever retelling of the Cinderella fairytale. We all know the basics: orphaned girl in indentured servitude to wicked stepmother who, after a visit from her fairy godmother, sneaks out to the Royal Ball, at which the handsome prince falls in love with her. Cinder has all of these essential elements, but also has a lot more: bigger enemies than just the wicked stepmother, wolves in sheeps’ clothing, political upheaval, a deadly plague, and no guarantee of a happily ever after.

This is New Beijing and Cinder is not your average girl. Part human, part android, master mechanic. She doesn’t remember anything from before she was eleven years old, but has been told her parents died in the same crash that caused Cinder herself such extensive injuries that only with the installation of android parts was she able to survive. This makes her a second class citizen though, and at any moment she could be called upon to become a test subject for the doctors working to find a cure for the deadly plague that’s ravaging New Beijing. So she’s just trying to get through each day as easily as possible, running her mech shop, and staying out of her stepmother’s way.

Inevitably, though, it’s not long before events take over. First, the Prince strolls into her mech shop with a robot he needs fixing – a robot that could contain vital information for the survival of the kingdom – and then Cinder’s little sister contracts the plague and Cinder is shipped off to become what she fears most: a test subject. Yet this is just the beginning: Cinder’s body is hiding secret information too. Who is she really? And can she stop the evil Lunar queen from getting her claws into Prince Kai, New Beijing, and the rest of earth? Kai’s robot holds the key, but how will she get the information to him in time?

Immensely readable, in Cinder Marissa Meyer has created a dystopian fairytale that keeps the reader on their toes. The characters are a nice mix of moralistically black, white and everything in between, while the action, intrigue, and emotions are perfectly spread through the story, making it a remarkably hard book to put down even at those times when you can see what’s going to happen. Meyer did keep me guessing as to how it would all end though; how much information would be revealed both to the reader and to the characters? – which, as this is just the first book of four, is enough to keep me wanting more.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell

Shipwrecked in the English Channel when she was just one year old, Sophie has been looked after ever since by her kindly guardian Charles. She is sure her mother must still be alive somewhere, though, and she is adamant that she remembers her: a flash of red hair, a glimpse of worn, black trousers, cello music on the breeze. But how can she convince Charles that she’s right? Charles always tells Sophie, “Never ignore a possible”, so when she finally discovers a clue to who her mother is/was, he agrees to take her to Paris and investigate.

Rooftoppers is a timeless sort of a story, set before motorcars and mobile phones, but I’m not sure exactly when. And when Sophie and Charles reach Paris, they are stone-walled by the authorities, so it’s up to Sophie to follow the clues on her own – unless her new friend, homeless rooftopper Matteo, will help her. All she has to do is show him she can run across the roofs of the city as fast and far as he can. “It’s wilder than you think,” she says, as they run and jump, the city spread out below them, bejeweled in the twilight. As their friendship grows, they feed birds whilst standing on a homemade tightrope, and dive for coins in the river Seine, following the clues and the sound of cello music. Will they find Sophie’s mum, the mysterious Vivienne Vert?

Katherine Rundell has penned a lovely, gentle story that rolls with the undulation of the rooftops that her characters patter across. There are moments of calm and wonder, moments of terror and tension – just reading about Matteo and Sophie crossing a street between two rooftops by tightrope was enough to give me vertigo. And then there’s the moment when he dangles her from the roof of a the police headquarters so she can peer in the window of the records office, or when the cross into the territory of the gariers, who defend their part of the rooftop domain by tooth and nail. It’s equally exciting and nail-biting.

But will they have a happy ending? Will the possibility of Sophie’s mother become a reality? Plenty of people are going to stand in Sophie’s way, but she’s a determined little girl who does not take “no” for an answer. I enjoyed Rooftoppers, but have one single criticism: it ended so very abruptly! I would like to have know what happened next – what happened to Sophie’s new friends? To Charles? What did the authorities do next? Gah!

Overall, though, Rooftoppers is a charming story about never giving up no matter how hopeless a quest might seem – and about believing in yourself even when others are telling you it’s silly. It would fit particularly well, I think, for readers who enjoy Eva Ibbotson or Noel Streatfeild, or last years Waterstones Children’s Book Prize shortlisted novel, The Wolf Princess.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Why We Took the Car, by Wolfgang Herrndorf

“I was overcome with a strange feeling. It was a feeling of bliss, a feeling of invincibility. No accident, no authority, no law of nature could stop us. We were on the road and we would always be on the road.”

When Mike Klingenberg decides to abandon his boring, shy, embarrassed life and take to the open road in a stolen Lada with his new friend, Tschick, a slightly odd kid from the wrong side of the tracks, he embarks upon the best and weirdest two weeks of his fourteen long years of life.

“ ‘I have to tell you a secret.’ I said. ‘I’m the biggest coward in the world. The most boring person on the planet and the biggest coward.’
    ‘Why would you possibly say you were boring?’ asked Tschick.”

Why We Took the Car is a perfect road trip story that ticks all the boxes and has plenty of ‘Oh My God’ moments. Mike has no friends and his parents have basically abandoned him for the summer; he’s bored and lonely. So when Tschick waltzes into his life and starts challenging him, it’s hard – no, impossible -  for Mike to say no. From the moment Tschick first joins Mike’s school class – clearly drunk – to when he turns up on Mike’s doorstep driving a stolen Lada, their meandering, rambling drive across East Germany and the disastrous end to their fun, this is the story not only of their road trip, but also their friendship and of two young people’s awakening to the world around them.

It's easy to draw comparisons between Wolfgang Herrndorf and the masterful John Green: both writers achieve similar things with their stories, seeing life through the eyes of teenaged boys, weaving in all sorts of references to external things, adventure and intrigue. Referencing John Green may be what everybody seems to do these days, but I don't choose to make this comparison lightly, it's simply the clearest way to indicate the quality and substance of this book. Herrndorf is not “the next John Green”; rather, he’s Wolfgang Herrndorf, another great author doing a thing a bit like what John Green does and doing it equally well. So if you like John Green, you will like Why We Took the Car.

Perhaps the most interesting for me, as a British reader, is the fact that Why We Took the Car is set in Germany – winner of the German Teen Literature Prize, it’s been translated from the German by Tim Mohr. So many of the books I read today are set in America, so it’s not only refreshing to read about people in a different country, especially when they’re people living in a area of the world with a contrasting political historical background, but interesting and extremely thought provoking. I found myself googling maps of Germany’s post war separation and asking my mum for a history lesson.

Essentially Mike and Tschick are exactly the same kind of teenage boys as you’d find in an American young adult novel, but they’re living in a country with a huge immigrant population, studying texts at school that I’ve never heard of, and driving through a landscape which just twenty-five years ago was a communist regime. Thus it’s inevitable that they, on occasion, find the strangest things: a village with signposts in an unknown language, a moonscape, roads that peter out into cornfields, an abandoned village with a sole occupant that at first shoots at them, then invites them in for tea.

They get themselves in all kinds of situations, often with hilarious consequences. Although Tschick is sure no-one will miss the Lada he’s stolen, they both get a little on edge about whether the police are looking for them. They change the plates at one point, paint it black at another. One of the more bizarre events, though, is their attempt to refuel. Stopping at the petrol station they suddenly realize how odd it’ll look for two fourteen year old boys to try and buy fuel, which leads to some crazy strategizing on how to get the fuel they need, which leads to a five kilometre hike along the side of the autobahn (motorway) to reach a dump where they can look for a piece of hose which they can then use to siphon petrol out of another car and into theirs. For an adult, it’s all kinds of ridiculous, but the whole trek makes total sense for these two boys.

We know right from the beginning, though, that at some point their journey is going to come to a rather unceremonious end. The question is how, exactly? Why is Mike covered in blood at the beginning of the story? Are the police really after them? And what will the consequences be?

Why is Mike friendless? Because he’s self-absorbed? Or is he just shy? And who exactly is Tschick? Is he for real? There are probably a few German cultural references that went over my head, but I didn’t really notice them so as far as I’m concerned it certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story. Sadly, Wolfgang Herrndorf died last year, but he wrote two other novels which perhaps might make it into an English translation at some point – I hope.

While some might deem the road trip as a failure – they don’t, after all, make it to their intended destination of Wallachia – it’s nonetheless a transformative experience. Mike returns empowered, with some cards to play at school, more than one friend to call his own, and no longer lets his father’s bullying tactics control his actions. Because, like his says, driving down a country road at a hundred kilometres an hour gives you a certain feeling of invincibility. Like you can do anything.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Out of the Easy, by Ruta Sepetys

Out of the Easy was a real surprise of a book. A wonderful surprise.

This is 1950s New Orleans, the French Quarter. Jo’s life is a messy tangle she’s desperate to escape. She dreams of college, high society and of walking down the street unrecognized as the daughter of a local brothel, um, “servicer”. She’s separated herself from her mother as much as she can by living and working in a local second-hand bookshop, but when a visiting businessman is murdered Jo gets dragged deeper and deeper into the Quarter’s underworld, caught up in a web of secrets and lies and with the mob’s black hand on her door.

‘The Easy’ of the title refers to the Quarter and Ruta Sepetys conjures this world so effortlessly and evocatively that I could hear the music in the background, feel the history of the streets, and found myself reading in a southern accent. Then there’s the plethora of characters, all of whom are as gritty and vibrant and life-size as the city itself. There’re Patrick and Charlie who own the bookshop and who took Jo in when she needed to escape; Jo’s new friend Charlotte who takes Jo for who she is, no questions asked; the handsome Thierry boy; Cokie, Jo’s oldest and staunchest ally; Mother and the repulsive, scheming, untrustworthy Cincinatti; and, of course, Willie. It clearly pays to be on Willie’s good side and she seems to have Jo’s wellbeing at heart, but how trustworthy is she at the end of the day? If Jo has to cross her, what will happen then? What happens if Willie decides you owe her?

There is little that I can say without giving the storyline away, which weaves tighter and tighter, keeping readers right on the edge of their seats. Jo does her best to keep on the edge of things here in the Quarter – she maybe knows more than some people, but there’s plenty she’s managed to avoid over the years. But as the lies begin to pile up on her shoulders, she begins to wonder how on earth she’ll ever manage to crawl out from beneath them – in order to escape, will she have to sacrifice the one thing she swore she’d never do?

Out of the Easy was immensely enjoyable and so very different from much of what is on the shelves in the teenage section, focusing on Jo, the people and the city around her, her dreams and making it a book that is very much character driven but with a stonking great plot to boot. This does make it hard to categorise, though – I love that it doesn’t fall into ‘dystopia’ or ‘fantasy’ or ‘John Green’ or ‘issues’ or ‘love story’, that it is label-free, but that makes it hard to describe to potential readers! And I think perhaps the publishers stumbled on this problem too as neither the cover design nor the blurb on the back of the book come anywhere close to giving an accurate picture of the book’s fabulous content (in fact, it didn’t capture my interest at all – I only read it in the first place because it’s being shortlisted for the 2014 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize).

If anything, I’d have to say that Out of the Easy most closely reminded me of The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. This is a very odd comparison because they are two very different books – different countries, different time, totally different storylines (there is definitely no supernatural activity in Out of the Easy) – yet somehow they left me feeling in a similar way. Perhaps a similar style of writing? I honestly don’t know. But, either way, I fully recommend Out of the Easy – if ever there was a dark horse of a book, it’s this one.