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.