Monday, 28 July 2014

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 21 July 2014

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 July 2014

Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Banished, by Liz de Jager

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Worst Witch and the Wishing Star, by Jill Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Stay Where You Are and the Leave, by John Boyne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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