Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Dark, by Lemony Snicket and John Klassen

The Dark is one of those books that is kind of reassuring yet still somehow kind of creepy. Even though the eponymous character, the dark, turns out to be quite helpful and kinda friendly it’s still a little nerve-wracking and I’m still a little worried about ‘him’. Which, when you think about it, is pretty true to life. I know that the dark itself cannot harm me, but despite supposedly being a gown-up, if I wake up in the middle of the night after a bad dream, the first thing I do is reach out for the light, flipping the switch to shatter the darkness from around me.

Much about The Dark is true to life. Dark hides in the corners of rooms, behind doors, in the basement; and Laszlo is afraid of it. Mostly Laszlo is afraid that the dark will visit him in his own room. And then it does. “I want to show you something,” the dark says, leading Laszlo around the house and down into the dark’s own room, the basement. “Come closer,” says the dark. What is it going to do? What does it want?

… But the dark only has the best of intentions for Laszlo, showing him not a big black hole or a scary monster, but where to find a new light bulb for the nightlight in his room. Phew.

Right from the beginning Lemony Snicket treats the dark as a character, describing how it lives in the same house as Laszlo, how it hides in cupboards and spreads itself out at night as if it is a decision-maker with a will of it’s own. This construct is taken the next level when the dark sneaks into Laszlo’s room and speaks to him. The thing about it is even though the dark is quite friendly – it never hurts Laszlo and is helpful more than anything else – I think just the idea that the dark is alive and breathing and waiting is in itself creepy. Thus the story is ultimately reassuring – the dark, although it’s always there, does not have ill intentions – but still makes the hairs on the back of your neck stick up.

Jon Klassen’s striking illustrations have earned him a place on the shortlist for the 2014 Kate Greenaway Medal. Simultaneously soft and sharp, they represent the same mix of reassuring versus slightly odd as Snicket’s story. At first glance the images appear quite plain and simple, with straight lines, a plain colour palate and muted tones, but on closer inspection you can see the detail that he has worked into them to create the atmosphere of things being ever so slightly off. Everything is very angular, the rooms often viewed from slightly unusual angles, light and shade travelling across the spaces he has drawn in not entirely predictable ways.

Klassen plays with the dark and the light in the same way that Snicket does with his words as well, the dark ever-present on the edges of the drawings. Laszlo’s torch-light cuts through the dark in clear lines; the dark speaks from boxes of black that fill doorways and stairwells. But Laszlo himself remains mostly expressionless throughout the story, staying on the sidelines of most of the illustrations, thus allowing the dark to be characterized much more strongly than the little boy, to dominate many of the pages.

The Dark is a great book to read as an adult, but it’s just that little bit too sinister for me and I don’t think I would personally but for it young children unless they were extremely hardy! It is remarkably clever: the dark doesn’t use any words that in any way could be construed as threatening or sinister, yet as the reader I cannot help but feel creeped out, that it is very sinister – but when I stop and think about, I realize that I only feel like that because I already believe that the dark is bad. If you came to this story not pre-conditioned to feel like this, would it still be scary?

Saturday, 26 April 2014

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family. A family of privilege and pride, of wealth and beauty. Cadence has grown up in a sort of idyll, a grand house in Vermont during the school year and then a summer of freedom on the family’s private island, running with her band of cousins, swimming and sunbathing and eating ice-cream. Pretty perfect. Pretty much the kind of lifestyle every girl dreams of.

But since two summers ago, Summer Fifteen, Cadence has suffered from crippling migraines, her family seems to have drawn away from her, and she has trouble concentrating. She remembers Summer Fifteen with the same idyll as all the rest, except perhaps even more so, because Summer Fifteen was the summer she fell in love with Gat, her cousin Johnny’s friend who’d been coming with them to the island since they were eight. It was a summer of stolen kisses and secrets.

The biggest secret of all, though, is the accident. Cadence doesn’t remember anything at all about the accident. She only knows what she’s been told by her mother. She only knows that something terrible must have been done to her, something terrible enough to leave her with these terrible headaches and stifling memory loss. Now, two years on, she’s desperate to return to the island for Summer Seventeen, to see her cousins and Gat, to reclaim the sunshine and hopefully reclaim her memory.

Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family. Privileged? Proud? Beautiful? Perhaps all is not as it seems. Perhaps this is a family of secrets and denial. Why has Granddad completely remodeled the family home, tossing out the years of memories? Why does Aunt Carrie wander the island at night and little Will have such nightmares that Cadence can hear him crying half way across the island? Why do her cousins lie about what they’ve been doing? And why won’t anyone tell her what happened that summer?

Gradually, piece by tiny piece, things start to come back to Cadence…

Read E. Lockhart's We Were Liars if you want to be shocked, if you want a story that’ll take your breath away, a story that will draw you in and reassure you then rip the carpet away from under your feet. It’s completely brilliant and wonderfully told, Cadence’s voice is truthful and intriguing, making you turn the page and then the next page, and then the next page. With rave reviews from the likes of John Green and Maureen Johnson, We Were Liars is surely going to be ‘the’ book of the summer. Read it! And then turn back to page one and read it again…

Monday, 21 April 2014

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

Genetics professor Don Tillman does not comprehend subtleties, cannot lie, does not respond naturally to social cues, plans his day down to the minute for optimal time usage, cooks the same meal every Tuesday night, and thinks purely on rational terms. Until Rosie arrives in his life, that is. Before long, Rosie has taken over.

Every thought and sentence that Don Tillman (aka author Graeme Simsion) emits during this book is perfection. The language, the structure - every part captures the character of this funny and frustrated man, a man who knows and wholeheartedly accepts that his mind is wired differently. What he wants, though, is to find a woman who will accept it as well. And so he initiates The Wife Project: a sixteen-page questionnaire designed to eliminate those who will not be able to accept his strictures from the outset, rather than causing him to waste time going on dates with people who will only eat one specific flavor of ice cream (ref. The Ice-Cream Incident).

Rosie is an accident. Following the hilarious and very satisfying Jacket Incident, he quickly ascertains that she is unsuitable as a partner for him and that she would likely fail the Wife Project questionnaire. Yet he allows her to come back and have a meal with him at his flat; allows her to move his furniture around; even allows her to change the time on his clock. And then – even though the chances of success and the world-wide importance of the project are minimal – he begins The Father Project, an attempt to identify Rosie’s biological father for her. Before he knows it, The Father Project takes over too. Even when it seems to pointless to continue, he cannot stop finding reasons to continue. Why?

“Humans often fail to see what is close to them and obvious to others,” he tells us. What is obvious to us is that Don Tillman is in love with Rosie, but he’s so unused to letting emotions in – he finds them so overwhelming – that he fails, for an awfully long time, to see it. But when finally puts two and two together, will it be too late?

The Rosie Project is brilliantly funny and one of the best feel-good books I’ve read in a long time. There are some awful, cringe-worthy yet hilarious moments in it – like when he climbs out the tiny bathroom window on the fourth floor of a building in New York rather than going back into a meeting that’s getting out of hand, or the night he turns himself into a cocktail-maker extraordinaire. A man for whom lying has always been a rather absurd concept soon finds himself concocting false research projects, undertaking regular subterfuge, even theft of a sort. Yet he’s so entirely innocent throughout, it is literally impossible not to root for him.

But is Don Tillman capable of love? Is it right to try and make yourself change so as to fit within another’s expectations of you? Can Don fix his best friend’s marriage as well solve all the kinks in his own life? Will Rosie be able to adapt her worldview as successfully as Don adapts his? And who, at the end of the day, is Rosie’s father?

Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant. And it would make a great movie too – especially, I think, if Benedict Cumberbatch took the lead role.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Mr Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown

“Now, children, please do not act like wild animals,” says the very upright horse to her small charges at the beginning of Mr Tiger Goes Wild.

Mr Tiger – even though he’s a grown up – is bored of being proper. Of wearing dull clothes, of his top hat, of being terribly terribly polite to everyone that he meets, of keeping to the societally accepted rules. “And then one day Mr Tiger had a very wild idea…”

Mr Tiger’s first step to becoming wild could in some ways be seen as quite a small thing. But thing with a first step is that it’s usually the hardest step to take – and it usually leads to more steps in the wrong – or right? – direction. Each day, Mr Tiger subverses the unwritten rules a little further, each day getting a little wilder. From walking on all fours, prancing across rooftops and roaring, soon his friends decide they’ve had enough, but Mr Tiger doesn’t mind: he’s having fun! He feels alive! He feels… normal. But is he cut out for the wilderness?

Quite how author and illustrator Peter Brown manages to covey such perfect expressions on Mr Tiger’s simple face, I don’t know. The pictures say so much you barely need the words and, in fact, the text itself is very simple yet the story is crystal clear. The pictures are so lovely, the colours getting brighter as Mr Tiger gets wilder and wilder. And I love that when Mr Tiger starts to miss his friends and returns to the city, he finds that his earlier actions haven’t been completely ignored.

I want to tell you that my favourite page is the one where “Mr Tiger went a little too far,” (it’s so funny), but my favourite page is also “Roar!” (it’s so freeing), and it’s the page where he is stalking through the tall grasses too (it’s so peaceful). Which could leave me in a bit of a conundrum – but who says I have to choose just one page as my favourite? It’s much more fun to live on the wild side.

Mi and Museum City, by Linda Sarah

I think that ‘whimsical’ is the best way to describe the drawings by Linda Sarah in Mi and Museum City. They are quite small and dainty and detailed, with touches of humour in places and weirdness in others, and because of this there is just so much to look at on every page that I’m pretty sure you’d have to read the book a hundred times before you saw everything.

Mi lives in a city of museums. I hope that sounds exciting. But the museums in Mi’s city are all rather boring – like the Museum of Shhh and the Museum of Upsidedown But Still Boring. So Mi is pretty lonely. But one day he hears something he’s never heard before, a happy sound that he follows though the streets and across the river until he finds Yu. And Yu changes everything.

The pictures get more and more ridiculous and more and more crazy as the story develops, with more and more little details to pick out. The only downside is that a lot of what makes these teeny details are the annotations that go with them – annotations that small children wouldn’t be able to read or whose subtlety would be lost in the interpretation. So really, while there is a lot to see and the basic story is quite sweet, the funniest parts make this a picture book more for the grown-ups than the littlies. But it’s fun and sweet and different and made me go ‘ooo’ when I unpacked it from its box.

Monday, 14 April 2014

My Brother's Shadow, by Tom Avery

When the wild boy shows up at the classroom window, Kaia is intrigued. He stares, but doesn’t speak. He sits in the seat next to Kaia, filling the empty space hovering beside her. She talks to him, but he doesn’t talk back; at break time they stare together at the trees and she writes in her notebook with the yellow cover and the grey pages. She tells him about her brother, about his shadow, about how since the day he died she’s been frozen in place.

My Brother’s Shadow is Kaia’s story about moving on, of finding a way to keep going after the death of her brother. For a long time she’s kept the world at bay, kept her friends at bay, but gradually the notebook and the boy give her the opportunity to process her pain and her hurt, to begin to share it with others and thus begin to let it go. Gradually, the boy’s continuous presence, his undemanding company, help her begin to thaw. It’s a story that will make you cry more than a tear or two, but ultimately has an upbeat, positive ending.

The book is reminiscent of Patrick Ness (and Siobhan Dowd's) wonderful, powerful story A Monster Calls, not only because of the emotional subject matter, but also because My Brother’s Shadow has received similar illustrative treatment: like Jim Kay’s incredible drawings that help tell the story in A Monster Calls, My Brother’s Shadow has been heavily illustrated in blacks and greys by Kate Grove. It is a lighter treatment than in A Monster Calls, thus perfectly attuned to the younger audience (My Brother’s Shadow is aimed at the 9–12 bracket) and to the fact that this is a story about moving on, rather than the heavier in-the-middle-of-it subject matter seen in A Monster Calls. The pages at the beginning are sprinkled with snowflakes and ice, but gradually change to petals, leaves, and then sunflowers.

Tom Avery has written a very emotional story and at first I wondered how much appeal it would have for it’s intended readers, but I soon realized what a silly idea that was. I’m fortunate to have never suffered a loss like Kaia, yet I appreciate and enjoy reading stories that cover such topics and there is no reason why much younger readers wouldn’t feel the same – because reading allows us insight into the full range of human emotion, the human condition, and the understanding of our world, something which is as equally valid for a ten year old reader as it is for a thirty, forty or fifty year old one. Both those who have and haven’t experienced loss have much to gain from reading such well-considered, well-written stories as this one.

Who is the boy and where does he come from? I have my theories, but I think it’s best to let you form your own. Avery’s storytelling is insightful and considered, and Grove’s drawings make it a beautiful book to look at too; just make sure you have a box of tissues to hand before you begin reading.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

Ok, so I’m a little late to the Rainbow Rowell love-a-thon. I’ve had an unread copy of Eleanor and Park sitting on my shelf for at least six months now, but I’ve decided this is a good thing because it’s meant that I get to read Fangirl first. For me, reading Fangirl was like diving head first into a particularly addictive coming-of-age TV show. Think Gilmore Girls. I could not get enough, and once I’d finished I couldn’t quite believe I had finished – “surely,” my brain said, “there must be another episode you can watch/read tonight?”

Cather and Wren are identical twins. They’re two very individual people: while Wren is wild and outgoing, Cath is shy, anxious and a homebody, yet they’ve pretty much always gone everywhere and done everything together. Until now. They’re starting university, and Wren has decided it’s her chance to be a person away from being a twin – much to Cath’s consternation Wren has deliberately chosen to live in a different dorm and with a roommate that isn’t Cath.

Left on her own, worrying about her father left at home on his own, and with a strange roommate who doesn’t really speak to her, Cath is too shy even to find out where the dining hall is. She goes to class, meets Wren occasionally for lunch, and then holes up in her room writing fanfiction. Yup, Cath is a Simon Snow fan. A Simon Snow obsessive. Simon Snow being the lead character in an eight-part series of books that at first glance bear a resemblance to Harry Potter, but where the equivalent Ron character is evil. Cath is not only a great fanfic writer, she’s got a fan-base of her own that numbers in the tens of thousands.

As someone whose anxiety levels often hit the roof, I related pretty strongly to Cather, her shyness, and her fear of doing new things. Rainbow Rowell plays this out to the nth degree, though, which at times felt a little too extreme, particularly as the love interest storyline developed with the delicious but incredibly patient Levi. Do boys like him really exist? If so, can one walk into my life please? It didn’t bother me too much though and it didn’t take anything away from the storyline; it may seem unrealistic to someone who doesn’t get bothered by situations like Cath does, but anyone who gets shy and hyper self-conscious around boys or new stuff will know exactly where Cath is coming from. And as the storylines gradually reveal themselves – why Cath is so worried about her dad all the time, and why Wren’s sudden distance cuts so deeply – we begin to understand why Cath is how she is, and the motivation for her Simon Snow obsession, even if inside we’re yelling at her to “just get on with it!”

I loved Cath’s roommate Reagan and I wanted to rage at Cath’s sort-of writing partner for his behavior toward her – especially after the fiction-writing professor gallingly calls Cath’s fanfiction plagiarism. I couldn’t understand how Wren could suddenly cut herself so far out of Cath’s life, and be so mean to her, but with hindsight I can see that perhaps it wasn’t as sudden as it might have felt, that she had to try her own path. Fortunately it’s a path that eventually leads her back to the people who care about her the most. Well, with a little help.

Rowell intersperses the chapters with scenes from Simon Snow books and from Cath’s Simon Snow fiction, and even uses Cath to read aloud one of her stories during the book. I wasn’t completely sure about this approach at first – I was more interested in Cath’s real relationships than the ones she was imagining in her fiction – but the end result is that I kind of feel like Simon Snow actually exists as well. Well, in the sense that Harry Potter actually exists, at least – as in, I’d quite like to go and read the Simon Snow books now please.

All in all, I loved Fangirl. Aside from the great characters and from being completely engaging, it has some brilliant one-liners; if it was a TV show, I’d want to go right back to the beginning and start watching it all over again; it even made me want to go to university again. If I’d known then what I know now, maybe I’d have had a much better experience instead of – ahem – holing myself away watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer re-runs. It’s a lesson for anyone just starting out at university – and it’s a lesson for me, now, too, to not be afraid of grabbing life by the horns. Because few people are really going to care how pink you go when they look at you, and you’re only doing yourself harm by shutting out opportunities. Cath is much happier once she opens herself and her life up to new experiences and new people. Of course, it’s much easier said than done. Step one, though: read Fangirl.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi

There’s a scene in Ghana Must Go where Olu Sai is asking his girlfriend’s father for her hand in marriage. Dr. Wei doesn’t say no exactly; rather, he begins a speech on what he views to be the downfall of the African male:

“The fathers don’t honor their children or wives,” he says. “I’m assuming – and it is just as an assumption, I acknowledge – that your father left your mother to raise you alone?” 

It’s an unfortunate truth that Dr. Wei is correct in his latter assumption, but Olu stands his ground wonderfully. He doesn’t defend his father or try to provide explanation, instead he turns the tables on Dr. Wei, pointing out that despite his insistence that children follow their father’s example, Dr. Wei’s children, in their very choice of mates, are not.

It’s a fabulous moment. For a second you’re thinking, what a horrible man… but wait, he’s hit the nail on the head there – and then: but that’s got nothing to do with Olu… and then Olu steps up to the plate and takes back the power. Ghana Must Go is full of moments like this, Taiye Selasi weaving in and out with her characters, twisting and turning, all in exceptional prose and – it may seem strange to say it – just brilliant, brilliant use of punctuation. I’m a bit of a stickler for punctuation, and there are lots of perfectly enjoyable writers who don’t really understand it. Not Taiye Selasi; it’s like she has some sort of symbiotic relationship with punctuation, breathing it into her writing to create wonderful, unusual, thoughtful sentences that were just a pleasure to read and pick apart and consider. Taiye Selasi is a writer’s writer.

Told in three parts – Gone, Going, and GoGhana Must Go is the fictional biography of the Sai family. Their father, Kweku Sai, is Ghanaian; their mother, Folasade, is Nigerian; the four children, Olu, twins Kehinde and Taiwo, and the late surprise Sadie, are American. As we enter the story, Kweku stands in the garden of his house, alone, dying, but remembering. Remembering the construction of this house, the construction of his family, and then the simple, single act that tore them apart.

As Selasi takes us into the minds, thoughts and memories of each of the family members, we see the ripple effect of this event, how the Sai family have spread apart from one another, physically, emotionally, just the most tentative of threads keeping them together over the distance: the bond of being a family. This thread is stronger between some of them than it is between others; an elastic thread, stretched to almost breaking point, yet primed to bounce back into it’s centre point if only it’s given a hint of slack. And as the news of Kweku’s death reverberates along it, it’s given a chance, a contraction, an opportunity, not for the past to be rewritten, but for a new future to be sketched out. Can these grown children, like Olu does in his confrontation with Dr. Wei, confront their personal terrors, grieve for their father, and then take back their power?

Chosen as a Waterstones Eleven title in 2013, and a Waterstones Book of the Month in 2014, Ghana Must Go is a story of love almost gone wrong, of people making choices in the belief that it’s the best thing for everyone involved. The trouble is that climbing out of this trap is a lot harder and slower than falling in, but it’s worth it in the end. “Ghana Must Go” is a phrase coined in Nigeria in the 1980s after millions of Ghanaian refugees flocked across their borders to escape from political unrest; I’m not sure why Selasi chose this for her title, but I think perhaps – other than the obvious Ghanaian/Nigerian connection - it’s because it’s sentiment represents how difficult it is to do undo a thing once done. What you won’t want to do undo is your reading of this story, though you might want to check your pocket for a packet of tissues as you near the final pages.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Bone Dragon, by Alexia Casale

It takes Evie four years to find a way to tell her adoptive parents about her ribs; the pain, the grating; another part of her that remains broken by her past. They’re not an easy fix, but at least it’s something that can be fixed. And when she returns home from the hospital with a piece of rib in a pot, maybe she can use it to find a way toward fixing the other broken parts. She carves the rib into a tiny, sinuous, winding dragon, a talisman of strength and fire to hold onto; a light at the end of the tunnel. But when the dragon comes alive at night, where will he lead her?

The Bone Dragon is simultaneously strange and beautiful, a winding story that leaves as many questions unanswered as answered. What exactly happened to Evie before she met her parents? Are the dragon dreams real, or just what Evie tells herself they are – dreams? Does Evie really believe they are only dreams, or is this simply another way of coming to terms with both her past and her current actions? Alexia Casale weaves together a series of perfectly everyday storylines into something surreal and with an ambiguous ending that left me feeling extremely uncomfortable, itchy in my own skin for what it might mean for Evie, who she is and who she might become as a result of it.

Aside from her dragon dreams, today Evie is leading a relatively normal life. She has good friends, a family who loves her deeply, an insightful teacher. But there are other threads here too: her adoptive family suffered terrible loss in the past, her friends don’t know the truth of her past, a bully at school takes up a large part of Evie’s thoughts. Sometimes the past comes rushing in, taking over the present and it’s hard to remember what is and isn’t real, what’s now and what was then – yet there are gaps, blank spaces, questions over how she got from A to B, what happened between A and C. These glimpses of what must surely be some form of PTSD are emotionally charged and heart-rending, and I fear for Evie and how much she is suppressing.

And then Evie starts to overhear hushed conversations between her father, Paul, and uncle, Ben. What are they up to? Is it what she hopes? She yearns for revenge for what was done to her, but does taking revenge change who you are and make you more like the person you hate? This is the last thing she wants for Paul and Ben, yet when the truth of their secretive activity is revealed the disappointment is instinctual. What if she was to take revenge herself? She’s already been changed, but is revenge the same as healing?

I never studied Hamlet in school, but Evie is and it’s a play that she reacts strongly to. Looking up the themes for Hamlet, revenge is foremost, much like it is in Evie’s mind, but there’s also “appearance and reality”, “deception”, “madness”, “family”, and “moral corruption”, all of which feel pertinent to Evie’s story. Casale’s blending of each The Bone Dragon demonstrates her exceptional writing ability and, as uncomfortable as I may have been left feeling by the end, it cannot be denied that I was firmly hooked into the story. The surreality and darkness of The Bone Dragon may be acutely uncomfortable, but it is extremely well done.

Other reviews I’ve read for The Bone Dragon are all massively praiseworthy, calling it wonderful, captivating, magical, hypnotic. And it is certainly all of these things, but also extremely unsettling – and this is the predominant feeling I’ve been left with. Darkness overlays everything else within, no matter how beautifully constructed it might be. Doubtless this is the author’s intention and perhaps this makes it the most real look at the mind of an abused person – the pain may be buried as deep as Evie can get it, yet it still resonates through every pore of her body and crevice of her mind, changed forever.

Tread lightly, readers.

(Linda Buckley-Archer gives much more precise input in The Guardian: