Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The One and Only Ivan

Ivan is a Silverback Gorilla whose domain is a small glass, metal and cement cage in the Big Top Mall just off the I-95. He has been there for a long time.

Ivan is kept company in the Big Top Mall by an elephant named Stella, a handful of humans (some nice, some not so), Bob the stray dog, and some other animals he doesn’t talk to so much. The Silverback’s job in the wild is to protect his family, but Ivan hasn’t had a proper family to protect for a long time. Until Ruby arrives. And then he makes a promise, a promise that is going to prove very hard to keep: a promise to protect Ruby and to make sure she doesn’t spend her life where he has.

The One and Only Ivan is really wonderful. It’s fantastically written and has a really beautiful character at its heart who is at once strong, brave and caring. Ivan likes art, not that many of the humans can understand what he is drawing; he likes bananas and sleeping, and throwing me-balls; he has a quiet heart and uses his words carefully, but when he finds someone to protect, his natural instincts are called to the surface and he must find a way to get people’s attention.

Despite winning America's Newbery Medal in 2013, the only reason I came across this book was thanks to a passing comment by the author’s husband, and so it feels like a really special discovery, and a book that I’m really eager to share with everyone. I read it in 24 hours because I just did not want to put it down. The writing has an almost sparse, careful quality, and some of the turns of phrase are quite magical, like when Ruby hits out at the brutality of her keeper:

“It is the beautiful mad I have ever heard,” Ivan tells us. 

And when it comes to denouement, Ivan is pretty scared. Things are changing and they are changing fast, but if he wants to save Ruby, he has to show her the way. Is it the right choice? Can he take those important, final steps? Does he have the courage to follow her?

Katherine Applegate was inspired to write the story by a real gorilla, also named Ivan, who spent 27 years in solitary captivity before animal welfare groups secured his transfer to Zoo Atlanta, but as she began to think about Ivan, another story emerged – thus most of the other characters are fictional, but the story still feels impeccably true. A perfect book for anyone aged 9 to 90.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Has Anyone Seen Jessica Jenkins? by Liz Kessler

Jess doesn’t have the best attention span in the world, especially when it comes to geography class, but when she nods off in the middle of the lesson one afternoon, she never would have dreamt what happens next… According to her best friend Izzy, Jess’s arm starts to disappear. What? It can’t be true, can it?

Except it is. As Jess discovers her new secret power and figures out how to control it, she uncovers the sort of conspiracy you wouldn’t normally expect in a small town like hers. Like the fact that she’s not the only one who’s experiencing strange things, and her and her friends are not the only people who know about it either. What will happen if the wrong people get their hands on this secret? And on the special serum that’s made it all possible?

Liz Kessler has a particular talent for writing books not only with a vein of the supernatural running through them, but with veins of adventure, mystery, discovery, bravery and – arguably the most important thing of all – friendship. Easy going, friendly, fun and with a snarky touch of sarcasm to her sense of humour, Jess has always been a loyal friend, but she’s about to discover what true friendship really means, that the assumptions we make about people aren’t always true, and that when you get to know someone a bit better they can surprise you.

Has Anyone Seen Jessica Jenkins? Is fun, funny, and little bit different. With strong male and female characters, and a bunch of superpowers for the taking, don’t let boys be put off by the pink sneakers on the front cover. Plus it’s an adventure story that keeps you guessing, with something new around every corner. And I really like the quirky chapter headings – illustrated by Emily Twomey they bring together all the different things that will feature in each stage of the story and are just itching to be coloured in.

Jessica Jenkins might feel like the power of invisibility makes her ‘slightly superhero’, but maybe she’s always had what it takes to be a hero, superpower or no superpower…

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Angelfall, by Susan Ee

Angelfall is another example of the e-book to print phenomenon: "multi-selling self-published e-book gets snapped up by print publisher". I will admit straight up that I am a book/publishing snob, I'm afraid, so I tend to be rather skeptical about this path through writer-dom and thus I was a little skeptical about reading Angelfall. But a good friend recommended it to me, and lent me her copy, so I decided to give it a try. Of course, I didn’t look back.

The lowdown: Six weeks ago the Angels appeared. They returned to Earth and then began systematically destroying it. Society has fallen apart, millions of people are dead, and those who aren’t are either forming deadly street gangs or trying to avoid them. Into this new world steps Penryn, her little sister Paige, and her not-entirely-there mother. But before they can get out of the city, they stumble onto an Angel battle and Paige is stolen away. Where have the Angels taken her? Why do they want her? What will they do to her? Nothing is more important to Penryn than to find the answers to these questions and to get her little sister back. And the best way of doing this is by befriending the enemy. After she saves the Angel Raffe’s life, she makes him promise to take her to the Angel stronghold so she can get Paige back. Assuming Paige is still alive, of course.

Essentially, Susan Ee has written the same story that most writers who enter this genre write. It is – mostly – predictable, following just the pathway you expect such a story to follow. Yet this is one reason why people read and love this genre; why we read it over and over again in a slightly altered format, and why writers write it over and over. There’s something wonderful and compelling involved in slipping into this other world, essentially a fantasy world, where our characters are surrounded by awful happenstance, yet are strong and fight on. It is pure escapism. It’s ironic because I don’t want to ever have to experience apocalypse like our characters inevitably do, have to fight for my life, scrounge for food, mourn the loss of family, friends, an extinguished life; but to live through those things with the characters, alongside the inevitable falling in love (usually with the one person they really shouldn’t be) is to experience a sort of rush that I, in some ways, dream or yearn for in my real life. I want it, but I wouldn’t really want if I had it. Hence the reading, and the re-reading in a slightly different format, and the re-reading again. It’s actually a little weird.

As to my feelings on self-publishing, I know it’s judgemental, but I just can’t seem to help feeling that self-publication is something people do when they can’t get published-published, and that this somehow reflects on the quality of that person’s writing or storytelling. In truth, I know it doesn't always reflect on a writer’s capability, but the fact is that the (admittedly very small) handful of books I’ve read which were initially self-published do not come up to scratch with traditionally published works. This is not necessarily related to the writer’s ability; essentially, it is because the writing lacks the gloss that a good editor can provide. Most people who self-publish have not had their work read through two dozen times, criticised, adjusted, edited, as it would be if it went to a print publisher. This does not mean the writing is not good; it means the writing is not given the opportunity to be as good as it possibly could be. Thus, when I begin reading, I begin unpicking the things that would have been fixed by an editor, becoming rather distracted from the story and ultimately rather irritated by the whole thing. Yes, judgemental; I’ll admit it.

The first fifteen to twenty pages of Angelfall lived up to my relatively limited expectations. It felt engineered (which of course it is), unreal, labored. I was particularly irritated by the way in which Penryn labeled the different angels she witnesses fighting early on: Snow, Night, Stripes. This is no slur on Susan Ee particularly; I just don’t like the habit of using a description of a person (in this case, the angels’ wing designs) to create a name. It really grates, and I nearly gave up on the book for that reason alone. But my friend lent it to me, so I pledged to myself that I would read at least the first fifty pages and if I still didn’t like it then I would at that point have at least given it a good go. Of course, by the time I got to about page 30, I was hooked. I may have found the beginning slow and labored, but nothing else was. And neither was it badly written nor particularly lacking due to the aforementioned self-publishing effect.

Once she found her feet, Susan Ee performed pretty well. Of course, it’s all a complete fantasy, and quite ridiculous in places, but very enjoyable nonetheless. Why exactly did the Angels attack Earth? Is it God’s plan, or are they acting of their own accord? Why are the Angels creating a Nephilim sub-species? And how, please how, are Raffe and Penryn going to figure things out?  It’s as gripping as it is ridiculous and, ridiculous as it may be on occasion, there are far, far more ridiculous stories out there in the book universe. Ultimately, Angelfall is interesting and intriguing enough for me to be considering book two, World After. After all, who doesn’t need a little fantasy in their life?

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Everyday Sexism, by Laura Bates

Everybody should read this book. It’s like Laura Bates has taken my muddled and raging thoughts, pieced the pieces together and, amazingly, created constructive sentences from them.

Everyday Sexism is shocking, yet unsurprising. There are things recounted in here that make me furious and are just so innately wrong on every level imaginable, but which I know exist and take place every day; things which by many people are considered to be both normal and acceptable. Before reading Everyday Sexism, I was under no illusions about the sexist world we live in, but by laying it out before us in all it’s terrible detail, Laura Bates succeeds in making what is often invisible, visible, and in making me question the world around me, my reactions to it, and my place within it even more greatly.

Men: this is not a book that rages against you; it is not about some existential feminist ideal, it is about the fact that everyone, male, female or trans, has the right to be treated with respect, care and equality.

Let me be straight: sexism is far from dead. Sexism is bad for men AND women. And sexism begins when we are tiny, tiny children. There are many different forms of sexism, from the seemingly innocent childhood stereotyping that teaches us that girls like pink and boys like blue, to the very serious, such as rape. All forms of sexism are abusive and demeaning, and can result in emotional and mental damage: the “innocent” forms forcing men and women into boxes that are not only completely absurd, but can be emotionally damaging; the serious ones, criminal.

If you don’t think sexism exists, read this book and hopefully you will understand why it does and what we are all fighting against.

Two years ago, Laura Bates reached breaking point. Sick of not being able to walk down the street without being whistled at – among other things – she started the ‘Everyday Sexism’ project, a simple website for people to tell their experiences of sexism, whether minor or more serious. She was shocked at the responses. Thousands upon thousands of them, from everyday derogatory comments to workplace discrimination, to rape victims being ignored. The sheer volume of response highlighted beyond doubt the endemic nature of the problem, in Britain and around the world.

Chapter by chapter, Bates brings to the fore the nature of the problem, from the way that girls are treated in primary school, secondary school and further education, the media abuse and media portrayal of women (or how women are "supposed" to be), assumptions made about women in the workplace, assumptions made about “woman’s natural/expected role” (i.e. motherhood), assumptions made about women as they walk down the street. It’s all pretty shocking, though the proliference of pornography and rape "jokes" in our children’s schools is, I think, particularly disturbing.

And the other biggest thing that Everyday Sexism shows? For me, the answer to this question is the hypocrisy of it all. Newspapers, T.V. and magazines all picture women baring skin and flaunting their femininity. But when we dress similarly in real life we are yelled at on the street, leered at, treated in a demeaning manner and then – if we complain about such behavior - we’re told we’re asking for it by dressing like that. But if we don’t dress like it we’re abused for not being feminine enough. When we are propositioned, whether we accept or not, we are branded a slag or a slut. If we have multiple partners, the same. But men? No. If men have multiple partners they are praised for it. This is not equality.

And it is high time we challenged the status quo. The little everyday things may seem small, but: (a) they create a level of acceptability of sexism that is not actually acceptable, and (b) they provide a basis for more extreme sexist behaviours to occur. We have to draw the line somewhere, right? No: there should be no line; the line should be at the bottom; none of it should be deemed acceptable. None of it. Not even the delivery driver calling me “love” – it’s demeaning and implies that I’m soft or worth less than a man. I am neither. As Bates points out, “Allowing those ‘minor’ transgressions gives licence to the more serious ones, and eventually all-out abuse.” He wouldn’t call a man “love” would he? Then don’t use the term for me, please. And there’s the key: if you’re not sure whether sexism is happening to you, ask yourself, “Would this be happening if I was a man?”

Does this make me a feminist? My dictionary says that feminism is:
“A belief or movement advocating the cause of women’s rights and opportunities, particularly equal rights with men, by challenging inequalities between the sexes in society.”

So, yes, I guess I would consider myself a feminist. But sexism is not just about feminism: I am for equality of all the sexes (and yes, there are more than two). Feminism for me means that girls are allowed to like pink – and that it should be acceptable for boys to like pink too. I am reminded of shopping with my cousin and her son, when he was about three years old, and we went into a toy shop that had some dressing up clothes. He, completely of his own volition, chose a pink “princess” hat. His mum said he could have a hat, but bought him the purple wizard hat because the one he had chosen was “for girls”. He was perfectly happy with the wizard hat, but I was appalled: he chose the “princess” hat. Why not buy him that one? It’s fine for boys to not like pink; it’s fine for boys to like pink. Whatever. The choice should be theirs and there shouldn’t be any greater meaning behind their choice. It’s just a colour, for goodness’ sake.

Which brings me to my favourite quote from Everyday Sexism:
“My gender is not an insult.”

Which, in turn, brings me to my one small quibble: on the back cover of Everyday Sexism, in capital letters, the publishers have printed this book’s categorization: “Feminist Theory”. This is kind of sexist in and of itself: sexism is not a ‘feminist’ issue, it’s an ‘everybody’ issue. So why not simply categorise it as sociology? Sexism is bad for men as well as women, boys as well as girls, and all women, not just feminists. You don’t have to be a feminist to be sexually harassed or sexually assaulted.

Please don’t ignore what Laura Bates has to say – and besides, Everyday Sexism is not filled just with what she has to say. Far from it: Bates’ writing is populated with facts, statistics and research carried about by a multitude of respectable organisations and agencies. It’s overflowing with testimony, too: from the Everyday Sexism project, from interviews, from the media. And it’s filled with evidence that cannot be ignored: the movies we watch, the music we listen to, the sayings we use – all of which attest to the endemic, everyday sexism in our world.

Men: sexism is not about women or feminists, it’s about everyone. Sexism puts you in a box too.

Women: read this book and know that you are not alone; know that it is not your fault when bad things happen to you – it is not your responsibility to dress a certain way or take a certain route to work to avoid being harassed; you shouldn’t have to change your ways: the other party/s needs to take responsibility for their own actions and not blame you.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Tail of Emily Windsnap, by Liz Kessler

Emily has always wanted swimming lessons, but her mother is terribly afraid of the water and has always been against it. Until now. Finally, Emily has worked her magic and persuaded her mum to let her go swimming with school. When she first slides into the water it’s a wonderful feeling - like she belongs – she glides through the pool as if she’d been swimming all her life. But then something terrible happens: her legs seize up, she can’t move, she can’t swim. What is happening?

At first Emily can barely believe it was real: her legs became a tail. Like a mermaid! When she sneaks out later that night to test her theory, she has to believe it. How can this be? And how can she stop people from finding out? Because surely they’d all think she was a freak and then take her away.

Drawn inexorably to the water, though, late at night when her mum’s asleep Emily begins to explore the underwater world and there she meets a new friend, Shona Silfkin, who takes her further into the ocean to the home of the mermaids, introducing Emily to mermaid histories and legends. As she becomes familiar with this new world, Emily and Shona uncover a hidden family secret, and the origins of Emily’s tail – her father, locked away in a mer prison, just because he fell in love with Emily’s mother. Can Emily find her father? Can she make her mother remember? Can she find a way to make her family whole again?

With The Tail of Emily Windsnap, Liz Kessler has written a magical adventure, twisting fairytale and siren myths into a new form that’s already enthralled plenty of readers and will inevitably enthrall many more in the years to come. The creepy Mr Beeston and the King of the Ocean, Neptune, stand in Emily’s way, but as with all well-written baddies, they’re a mix of good intentions gone wrong. The question is: how far are they willing to go to preserve the status quo?

Enjoyable, the perfect blend of magic and reality, and with a heroine it’s impossible not to believe in. Where will her adventures take her next?