Monday, 2 November 2015

Seed by Lisa Heathfield

The Oxford English dictionary describes a cult as:
“A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object,” 
“A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.”
The second of these two definitions particularly brings to mind the idea that, most probably, those who are part of a cult aren’t likely to think of their group and/or beliefs as being a ‘cult’ because, today at least, the term ‘cult’ tends to have negative connotations – if you were accused of being in a cult, most people’s instinct would probably be to defend themselves against that concept. If Pearl was told she’d grown up as part of a cult, I’m sure she wouldn’t believe it (although someone might first have to explain to her what a cult is!).

I’ve always found the idea of cults kind of fascinating, so was very much drawn to Seed as a result of that. Why do people form cults, join them, and get pulled into their strange rules and belief systems? How can they believe the sometimes crazy things that some cults invoke, and what would possess them to carry out the acts that some cults require of their members?

Pearl has always lived at Seed. She was born there, grew up there; it is everything she has ever wanted and everything she has ever needed. Seed is her family, her home, her world. She is watched over by Papa S and the Kindreds, who have taught her everything she knows and believes, from harvesting honey and planting crops to the dirty, unhappy, state of the outside world – and, given the state of this outside world, it’s little wonder that there will soon be three new people joining them at Seed: teenaged Ellis, his mother, and his little sister Sophie.

Apart from the slightly strange ritual Pearl has to endure in the opening couple of chapters, at first it seems that to grow up at Seed must surely be a sort of idyll: Pearl and everyone there have to work hard to grow the things they need and to take care of each other, but it seems like a fairly free existence, with few concerns other than day to day life. Inevitably, though, as we are introduced to Pearl’s world, little things are revealed that make the reader question Pearl’s reality. At first these things are as simple and subtle in the story as a little comment or hinted-at off-page action, and it feels as if they are just small things, things that hardly happen and could even be neither here nor there. But then I wondered, what if they happen a lot but Pearl has simply glossed over them? What if, care of her indoctrination, she doesn’t understand how significant they are?

And then, of course, Ellis arrives. He says some strange things, things that only a crazy person could believe – like space travel and humans walking on the moon – and even questioning some of things about mother nature that she has always known to be true. But what if they aren’t? Gradually, Ellis’s presence begins to force Pearl to look at things differently, and the ‘little’ things that felt out of place start to escalate, quickly becoming more obvious, more numerous, and more ominous.

I really liked the nature worship aspect of Seed, but in this case the whole manifesto has clearly been dreamt up by some guy with not-so-pleasant intentions. The plotting is really well paced, gradually revealing things - slowly at first, and then with ever greater speed, all whilst carefully straddling the border between only implying certain aspects of the storyline and life at Seed versus shouting out the details from the rooftops. Pearl’s character development is very realistic too, following a similar pattern to the plot: slowly, slowly at first as it is so hard – almost impossible – to imagine that things could be different from what she has always believed, and then faster and faster as events and her gaining knowledge spirals.

There are a lot of different threads to follow too, which gives the story good substance: not everything hinges upon Ellis’s presence and Pearl’s coming-of-age story arc; there is also the mystery of Sylvia, Elizabeth’s illness, Kate’s erratic behavior. What I would have liked more of is the back story to Seed, and the role of Pearl’s little brother Bobby and his insights could have been developed more. And I didn’t think that Pearl’s voice was particularly distinctive – Lisa Heathfield’s style tends towards the ‘I go here’, ‘I have this feeling’, ‘so and so does this’ which is a little bland. The emotions are very guarded somehow, which makes the drama quite guarded too.

Nonetheless, Seed is a gripping first novel brimming with ideas on freedom and truth and lies, the cult setting allowing her to dabble in the dystopian form in a different way whilst simultaneously avoiding the typical dystopian categorization and idea rehashing. Everything seems innocent on the surface, but what are Pearl and those at Seed – her siblings especially – being told just to keep them in line? How far will Papa S go to keep control of his family and what consequences will this have on the person whom Pearl is to grow into?

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Railhead, by Philip Reeve

Anyone looking for an awesome new sci-fi novel to read, look no further. Railhead is the one. And even if you're not looking for sci-fi, you should still read Railhead...

Welcome to the future. A world brimming with technology, running on data networks, androids ('motoriks') and bioengineering; a galaxy of planets watched over by god-like A.I.s, tasked by Old Earth to look after humanity. A place where K-Gates and network rail speed you across the galaxy in a matter of minutes, on trains that sing and talk and think and feel.

Zen Starling is a railhead: he loves to ride the trains, station to station, planet to planet. He’s just a petty thief, a nobody really, so why is he suddenly being followed? Who's after him and what do they want? Taken onto a part of the network he never knew existed, Zen meets Raven, an enigmatic figure who gives Zen a job: steal a small box from the ruling family’s luxury, high security train.

But – of course – things don’t exactly go according to plan. From the preparations for the heist, entrance onto the train, and the explosive consequences – in more ways than one – Zen is about to uncover a lot more than he bargained for. What's in the box? Who is Raven? Who can be trusted?

This book is brilliant. I mean, sentient trains, anyone? What else do you need? Every train has its own character and its own foibles, and Philip Reeve’s world-building is exceptional – there is so much to discover, for us and for Zen, and it all fits together perfectly. I don’t want to say too much about the story – much better to discover it for yourself – suffice to say there are plenty of different elements to get your teeth into. The set-up reminded me a little bit of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a government spread across the planets, the different layers of citizen, but Railhead is much more sci-fi and much less Western than Firefly.

Once there was a boy, Raven tells us… We all like to know the truth, but what if, this time, the truth will destroy us?

I loved Railhead. In fact, I think I might go and read it again.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Fuzzy Mud, by Louis Sachar

Fuzzy Mud is the story of Marshall and Tamaya and one “little” science experiment gone just a little bit out of control…

Seventh grader Marshall and fifth grader Tamaya live on the same road and go to the same school and Marshall, as the older of the two, is responsible for walking Tamaya home. Tamaya is uncomfortable about not sticking to the rules and not telling the truth, so when Marshall suddenly decides to take a short cut home through the out-of-bounds woods that border the school property she’s not sure which is worse: entering the woods or walking home alone. But really, what’s the worst that can happen? It’s just a bunch of trees, after all…

And why does Marshall take this sudden deviation from the norm? To avoid Chad, of course. The biggest bully in the school and a kid intent on making Marshall’s life as difficult as possible. Unfortunately, Chad is not so easily deterred, and follows Marshall and Tamaya into the woods.

Fuzzy Mud is the result of a confluence of events: a bully, a trip into the woods, a victim (or two), and an escaped ergie. The ergie is a man-made, single-celled, high-energy, fast-multiplying microorganism. Aka: fuzzy mud. And when Tamaya defends herself from bullying Chad by scooping up a handful of fuzzy mud and flinging it into his face, well, that’s the beginning of everything…

What is the nasty rash Tamaya develops on her hand, and what has happened to Chad?

Fuzzy Mud is – as you’d expect no less from Louis Sachar – completely brilliant, and I loved it. It’s a little bit like Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, but for middle grade readers instead of teens – the style is kind of similar, and both books cover the subject of man’s hubris when playing with the natural order of things (in the case, the creation of the ergie). Fuzzy Mud is told using a mixture of techniques, combining reports and interviews with the interchanging stories from Tamaya and Marshall.

What happened at SunRay Farm and how is it linked to Marshall and Tamaya?

Sachar incorporates lots of different themes into this swiftly told tale, from bravery and bullying to what ‘doing the right thing’ means – plus the science, of course. The rime counter included at the start of the chapters adds an extra sense of urgency, as you see how fast things develop, and this feeling is increased by the physical count of the ever-multiplying ergies.

How can they stop the fuzzy mud from spreading? Is it the end of the world?

Marshall and Tamaya are two very different characters but they’re both really easy to like, and the events of the story really bring them both out of their respective shells – lots of lovely character development! This is an excellently written page-turner, and brilliant choice for any young (or older!) readers looking for something just a little bit different.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Big Lie, by Julie Mayhew

Jessika Keller is a good girl. She knows she is; it’s her duty, after all: to be faithful, to be pure, to be German. She is German and she is British, but it is really only the German part that matters. It is 2014 and she is the 16/17-year-old daughter of a high-ranking official of the Greater German Reich. She is going to be a champion ice skater and her best friend is Clementine Hart.

Correction. Her best friend was Clementine Hart.

The title of this book, The Big Lie, references an expression coined by Adolf Hitler in his book Mein Kampf: it is much easier to convince the masses of a big lie than of a small one. Julie Mayhew’s use of the term for the title of her novel seems to allude to the big lie that her fast-forwarded version of the Nazi regime has created: Jessika’s world is one where they are told that they are the best of the best and everyone else, everyone who isn’t pure or doesn’t conform to the ‘government framework’ is untermensch – inferior.

It’s a tough world for us to imagine: no individuality, no freedom of expression. But for Jessika it is everything she knows. That is, until she begins to have feelings that she has no compass for, and until Clementine begins to say things and do things that make no sense to Jessika. Gradually Jess is forced to consider that perhaps there are alternatives to what she knows. We know from the start of The Big Lie that something has changed for Jessika, and as she reveals her story in flashback we discover that there are all sorts of lies – big and small – that being good is not always straightforward, and perhaps the worst thing of all is the lie of omission.

Julie Mayhew has constructed her story really well, from the way she leads us to question why exactly Jess’s father ‘tipped Herr Hart off’ about the house next door being available, how Jessika believes she is helping her friend whilst actually informing on her, and how the Greater German Reich engineers a visit from a US pop star in a way that turns him from being exciting and forbidden to a disappointment. Jessika is an unreliable narrator – she tells us what she chooses to tell us, leading us in one direction, and then revealing that actually there was a whole other part that she left out. How much more has she omitted to tell us? There are all sorts of interesting parallels here between this technique of story telling and the way that the Greater German Reich has indoctrinated her and the rest of the German/British population.

Alternate History’ novels and the question of ‘what if the Nazis won the war?’ are certainly not new, but one of the really interesting things about them is that there are so many directions to take – there are basically endless possibilities and endless stories that could be told using this technique. The Big Lie takes a fairly straightforward approach to its tale, but this is nonetheless very effective. I did feel there were maybe one or two questionable plot turns – how does Frau Keller find out about Jess’s dalliance with GG and, after the explosive events of the concert (which bring everything to a head for Jessika), why do they choose to act against Jessika at the strange point in time that they ultimately choose? But these are little things, and perhaps feed into both the bigger atmosphere of ‘big brother is watching you’ and Jess’s semi-unreliable narrative.

There is another really excellent new YA Nazi alternate history book out this autumn, Wolf By Wolf by Ryan Graudin, but it could not be more different to The Big Lie. What I think Julie Mayhew’s novel made me think more of is another novel altogether: Seed by Lisa Heathfield. Seed is the story of Pearl, who grows up in a small community/cult, and I can see a lot of similarities between Pearl’s indoctrination in her community’s rituals and beliefs and Jessika’s – they are simply performed on a different scale.

How many lies has Jessika been told? Perhaps we’ll never know, but as she becomes an expert on zwischenraum – the space in between, like twilight – it certainly gets the reader thinking. She is stuck in this space in between: neither good nor bad, neither liar nor truth teller, neither child nor adult; never quite free. Thank goodness the Nazis did not win the war – but, nevertheless, there are still plenty of places around the world, big and small, where children and adults are conditioned. It is probably even happening on your own doorstep, albeit hopefully to a lesser extreme: what do you believe in that isn’t true? As Mayhew said in an online interview about the book, “We all get subtle messages about race, class and gender as we grow up - messages that often need to be challenged.”

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Running Girl, by Simon Mason

Generally speaking, I don’t normally pick up crime/detective books, but right from the get-go Running Girl seemed like it would be something a little different: its unusual puzzle of a cover, its unusual main character, and its shortlisting for the Costa Children’s Book Award were all big ticks, in addition to which, everything I’ve read from David Fickling Books recently has been really excellent. So I thought, why not?

The ‘running girl’ of the title is Chloe Dow, athletic and beautiful, the girl everyone at school watches. And now: dead. Who killed her, and why? What exactly was she involved in, and what was she doing in the hours that led up to her death?

Garvie Smith, one of Chloe’s ex-boyfriends, doesn’t exactly want to get involved, but he can’t help but try and make sense of things, to add the pieces of the puzzle together, and when he can’t make them fit, he can’t help but try and figure out why. He’s smart but lazy, failing school despite having the highest IQ of anyone there, consistently unmotivated and seemingly unmotivatable, except when it comes to this case, and even as he gets pulled further and further into a world he doesn’t really want to be a part of, and even as both his mother and DI Singh, the inspector in charge of Chloe’s case, get increasingly frustrated with him, he’s unable to leave it alone.

Several reviews of Running Girl that I’ve read have said how unlikeable they found Garvie, but I didn’t have that experience. Frustrating at times, yes; a very different sort of person to me, yes; but at heart he’s a good kid, just bored by pretty much everything except this case. The story is told partly from a mix of Garvie’s perspective, police interviews, and DI Singh’s perspective, which I think gives the book more layers and depth than you’d perhaps get if it was all Garvie’s story (although I will say I think it went on just a little too long for me, Simon Mason adding in an extra level of plot twist that I’m not sure was really needed).

Running Girl also feels very different to a lot of YA that’s currently being produced and definitely stands out from the crowd, not only thanks to the excellent cover, intriguing premise, and characterful protagonist, but because it has a very grown up feel and could sit on an adult fiction shelf just as comfortably as on a YA one. Plus it’s refreshing to have both a lead and a supporting character who don’t fall into the stereotypical white, Christian, middle class (Garvie is black; DI Singh is Sikh) – and, perhaps even more importantly, without the story being anything at all to do with these parts of the characters, these aspects being just one part of who they are, but not determining the plotline nor their personal fates.

Are Garvie and Singh destined to clash or will they find an uneasy compromise? Can Garvie persuade Singh to listen to him, and can Singh find a way to bring his team – and his boss – onto his side? And of all the different things that Chloe was dealing with, which one was responsible for her death?

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Demon Road, by Derek Landy

Derek Landy is the ENORMOUSLY popular author of the ENORMOUSLY successful Skulduggery Pleasant series. Demon Road is his first outing into a new fictional world, and it's pretty much guaranteed to be a big hit.

Amber’s life has always been fairly normal. Sure, her parents are pretty odd and wield a surprising amount of power in the community, and sure, they might not show her much love, but she’s always had everything she else she’s ever needed. So it comes as a bit of a shock when she discovers that they’re murderous demons and that – bigger shock – she too has a demon self. But – even bigger shock! – there’s also the part where they want to eat her as part of some power-absorbing ritual. Needless to say, she goes on the run. And boy is it going to be “one hell of a road trip”...

Reviewer describes Demon Road’s layout/plotting as being episodic in nature – like a T.V. programme – which is so true. It works nicely, adding to the road trip aspect of the book and makes it feel a little like a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, albeit with more horns. I loved the Charger (a car with a difference) and Milo (Amber’s protector on the Demon Road) and Milo’s development through the story. And hitchhiker Glen was pretty awesome too. I’m usually pretty rubbish at imagining the accents of characters in books and just give them straightforward English voices when I’m reading, but with Glen his Irish accent really jumped off the page and into my head.

Demon Road absolutely does what it says on the tin and I’m certain that Derek Landy’s die-hard fans will be very happy with the new story and the new story world. There’s a lot going on: Will Amber manage to evade her parents AND the Shining Demon, with whom they made a deal so many years ago? How will she adapt to her demon side? Can we figure out Milo’s big secret? And what about Glen and his own mortal countdown?

Overall, I enjoyed Demon Road and I certainly wanted to find out how things were going to work out, but I think I expected there to be more to it somehow. It doesn’t really do anything more than what it says on the tin and I didn’t find much much subtlety in the writing or the storyline, particularly the language, which in some places – to be brutal – didn’t so much border on the cliché as step right into it, making it a bit hammy horror. I have two thoughts about this, though: (1) Does it really matter? (for most people: no); and (2) Is this the point? Is it deliberate, to make sure the book falls solidly within the conventions of the genre, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way? (maybe, maybe not)

A couple of the ‘episodes’ dragged for me, and I’m not entirely sure what their purpose was within the greater story other than to add a bit more supernatural stuff. There are parts to them which are relevant to the main storyline, but these particular parts of the story felt slightly unwieldy, or over-egged. I’m sure Landy is more than capable of having done better with this part of the story; instead it feels like he got a bit lazy with it, which I found disappointing – I felt that the ‘furthering’ that was done in here could have been done better and more in line with Amber and Milo’s main mission.

Lastly, there is Amber. For much of the story she felt very two-dimensional to me. Her character does develop some – e.g. from someone whose instinct is to run and hide to someone willing to stand up for a stranger on the street – but I didn’t feel like her development was completely rounded. I spent some time trying to understand what it is about her that quite didn’t hit home for me and I think it’s because we aren’t really introduced to who she is before everything changes for her. We know she was in trouble with her headmistress, we know she had a job in a diner, and we know she had a few online friends, but that’s about it and it’s never fleshed out at all – for me, all of this made her difficult to understand exactly what changes for her as she experiences her new reality.

Secondly, much is made of the fact that Amber’s demon form is considerably more beautiful than her human one. I have mixed thoughts about this. It’s really, really good that Landy has chosen to make our heroine not the standard blonde bombshell but dark haired and a bit on the pudgy side. But why would this aspect of her change when she becomes a demon? The demon part is the stronger, more confident part of her personality and I’m not sure if it’s Landy falling back on some sort of stereotype – that heroines are always beautiful to behold – or if its all a metaphor for the beauty under the skin. I’m just not sure on what his line of thought here is which, in a book of this ilk, suggests that some little thing is missing. In many aspects he makes Amber a brilliant feminist, the sort of person who will stand up for a girl being hassled by a jerk on the street, but it doesn’t always follow through in every part of the story.

All of this said, plaudits must go to Landy for the things he has achieved in the story: It’s fun, has a good bit of gore, plenty of supernatural shenanigans and nicely avoids the YA romance cliché whilst twisting the traditions of both the coming-of-age and road-trip stories. Demon Road is ultimately a cool new YA title that I’ve no doubt will have mass appeal. I’ve also no doubt that a lot of people will disagree with my thoughts here and simply read the book for what it is, without needing anything more. And that’s great. My little quibbles are simply because I think that Landy is capable of more. But: go read it yourself and make your own mind up!

Thursday, 3 September 2015

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

This is a book that gets under your skin in a million little ways; a book that demands to be read; a book which you simply have to keep reading, and even when you stop to do something else, is there in your mind, the story and characters ticking away, urging you to go back to them.

A Little Life is, at the beginning, about four college friends, but really it is all about just one of them: Jude. Once I reached the end of this immense, heart-wrenching story, though, I began to reassess: rather than being about Jude, it’s ultimately, perhaps, about the relationship between Jude and Willem. Because, if anything endures from our lives, if anything lives on beyond us, then surely it is the relationships we form around us, and the impact we have upon other people’s lives.

I’d heard that this book was breathtaking and should be read, but that it was depressing. It is breathtaking and it should be read, but it’s not depressing: if anything, it is incredibly sad, but even this is certainly not all that it is. It is everything; it is life encompassed. Hanya Yanagihara has an amazing power of observation, especially of people, and the book is full of little things that strike home and made me think, yes, that is so right; and it has made me re-evaluate how I think about my own friends and the relationships we share, how not everyone thinks or is able to respond to things the same way that I do.

In the first section of the book we hear only from Malcolm and Willem and JB: what we know about Jude, we only know from them, and I was expecting this style of storytelling to continue, so was pleasantly surprised when Jude’s voice is introduced in part two, followed swiftly by another change to a mix of first and second perspective storytelling, care of a fifth key character. It was interesting to me that as Jude’s ‘little life’ progresses, Malcolm and JB begin to take a back seat, and we only rarely hear from them again other than through Willem and Jude.

Jude is a conundrum: on the surface, in his professional life, he is so assured and confident and capable, but underneath he suffers such turmoil. He is impossibly, unimaginably damaged, and as his secrets are gradually, devastatingly revealed, Yanagihara paints what feels to be an unutterably true portrait of how it must be to be stuck inside the head of a person who feels about himself and believes about himself the things that Jude believes, in spite of all that the people who love him try to tell him otherwise. He is not haunted by ghosts so much as by hyenas. When he is young he seems mostly to be able to lock them away, but as he gets older they begin to truly start clattering about, demanding to be felt, and only one person has the power to help him tame them – or partially tame them, at any rate. I found myself thinking, if only he would speak about it, but the worse it gets, the harder it seems to become for him to articulate the things that haunt him.

The lives of Jude and Willem and Malcolm and JB are strangely, seemingly timeless. As I began reading, the story felt contemporary, that it begins perhaps now, or perhaps, at a stretch, in the nineties, but surely no further ago than that (though maybe it is simply my own vantage point that controls this; someone else might imagine a different decade). Yet, as I read, and the characters grew older and I knew that time was passing, it stills feels like it is the same; no future world is imagined here, it is all the present. And even the characters – even though I knew they were now forty, forty-five, fifty – seemed in my mind to be the same in age and looks and appearance as when they were twenty. Perhaps this is the conundrum of being an adult, though, for even as I know I am getting older, that my appearance must surely be changing, I find it hard to believe. I still feel the same; I still feel like me, not some older version of me.

As well as the concept of experience and how this shapes our lives, I also found interesting the question of healing and the human fixation on fixing things, whether physical things or mind things. That, after all, is why we have shrinks: to fix ourselves, to fix others; the idea that we all need to be perfect and whole. But what if something cannot be fixed, what if it is so deeply imbedded within the soul that it simply is; perhaps then the only way to fix it is to acknowledge and accept it and find a way to live with it, to work with it, to reduce it’s ripple effect rather than fruitlessly attempting to eradicate it. Acceptance, sometimes, is everything. This is an idea that has been touched upon in several books I’ve come across recently in terms of physical health, and it’s an idea that I try and try again to apply to myself. And so to see it here, so beautifully considered, is wonderful too.

As Jude ages, the things that matter changes: from being safe, to being loved, to the question of legacy. This is what A Little Life does: it incorporates a lifetime; even as things stay still, so do they change; the progression of thought and understanding and also, not-understanding. Our lives may be little, but they are also big.

This book absolutely deserves all the praise it is receiving. The words will become blurry with tears as you read and yet it is somehow wonderful, full of real things and real feelings that burst upon you with every page and every turn of events. It is beautiful and sad and truly extraordinary.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Fire Colour One, by Jenny Valentine

Sometimes you pick up a book and, within the first few pages, find yourself asking, why have I never read this author before? For me, Fire Colour One was one of those books.

This is Iris’s story. Bright as flame but troubled, thanks to her turbulent childhood with her horrible, blinkered mother Hannah, and self-absorbed stepfather Lowell. It is also Ernest’s story – Iris’s real father – and Iris’s uncovering of it. While Hannah snoops and fishes for a hefty inheritance, Iris sits at Ernest’s bedside during the last days of his life and learns a million things. Things like how her parents met, and how everything really ended. Things like the truth.

My copy of the book describes it as ‘A bold and brilliant novel about deception, love and redemption,’ and that’s exactly what it is. It’s hard to put my finger on what makes it so good, it’s just got that je ne sais quoi that books like The Fault in Our Stars have. Iris is so vivid, and I felt so much for her – so much pain and so much love. She misses her lost friend Thurston so much, but doesn’t know how to find him; and she needs something more, something indefinable, but she doesn’t know how to find that either. So she builds fires. She doesn’t really build them to cause trouble or to cause damage; she builds them because she has to, because she loves the flames so much, because fire makes her feel better, because it encompasses her. Fire is magic and alive – it even needs air to be able to breathe, while Iris practically needs fire to be able to breathe.

“We see what we want to see, regardless of what we are actually looking at, nothing at all to do with the truth,” (pg.113) Iris tells us, and this is so true - of everyone, I think - but especially of her mother. Themes of lies and truth run through this novel like smoke – ever present, but impossible to catch hold of – along with themes of art and fire. It’s irresistible and unputdownable and truly excellent.

And the title? Fire Colour One is also the name of a painting by Yves Klein – a real painting, not a fictional one, and rather an important one too. But you’ll have to read the book to learn of its significance to this particular story…

I’d heard good things about author Jenny Valentine and knew that Broken Soup, her second book, had been shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize when it came out. But, for whatever reason, I didn’t expect the exceptional story and writing and characters that I found inside the pages of Fire Colour One. John Green, eat your heart out. I definitely need to go back and read her other books now.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Asking For It, by Louise O'Neill

It’s not every day you receive a copy of a YA book with a letter in it that explicitly says, don’t recommend this book to younger readers because of its content. In fact, it’s the first time this has ever happened. Asking For It is surely one of the bravest, most confrontational books to be written for teenagers in, well, ever. The title alone raises a multitude of important questions and issues, and it is so important to keep saying them, and saying them louder.

Emma is the epitome of the popular girl. She is thin and perfect and beautiful, and everyone wants to be her. She has a solid group of friends, she knows how to socialize, and she likes getting a response from boys; in fact, she will behave in certain ways just to get those responses. At the latest party, she has set her sights on Jack Dineen, local football star, but when he picks someone else, she figures Paul O’Brien, football captain, might make him jealous. But then it all goes wrong: she is raped; she is filmed; the film is posted online.

‘How could you behave like that?’ people ask her in the following days, ‘Why would you do that?’ And, ‘You’re disgusting,’ they say. It never occurs to anybody that she didn’t allow it to happen. She doesn’t want to admit she doesn’t really remember any of it at all; she doesn’t want to call it that word. And when it finally is called ‘that word’ it definitely doesn’t make anything better. Days and weeks and months of turmoil and trouble and arguments and hate and questioning follow. Will there ever be an end? Will her friends ever talk to her again? Will anyone ever really believe her?

This is a very difficult book to write about, not just because of the content, but I think because of what the content means. Emma herself is actually quite hard to like, she’s so focused on everyone else’s perceptions of her. And she’s difficult to understand sometimes too, but I think this is because she’s real. She’s not two-dimensional, and this allows her to have ideals and wants that conflict with one another, something that I think is perhaps not what I’m used to seeing in fictional characters, and that, ironically, makes her harder to understand or relate to directly. She doesn’t want to rock the boat but she wants to stand out – but for being pretty, not for making a fuss, whilst she hates her mother’s constant commenting on what she needs to do to be pretty and popular. Her parents, too, are contradictory, and impossible to like. They support her; they don’t support her; they refuse to understand her and only see what they choose to see.

Louise O’Neill touches upon all of the many, varied aspects of sexual culture, rape, feminism, consent in this book, bringing it to the foreground and shoving it in our faces. And when I say ‘shoving’ it, I mean it in a ‘waving the obvious, the facts’ at the world way, a ‘how can people ignore this’ way. There is the language used to describe girls who have sex (or, equally, if they refuse sex); the ‘banter’ that invades everyday conversation that’s anywhere from mildly to majorly derogative, offensive or invasive; the manner in which social media escalates things; and, of course, the concept that when someone is raped it is somehow their fault, that they brought it on, and has nothing to do with the rapist committing a criminal act, their ability to decide what is right and wrong, what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t.

I like O’Neill’s style of adding Emma’s sideways thoughts into the text, using brackets that give the impression of the thoughts being extra-curricular, barging in unwanted, the things you don’t want to think about but can’t help doing so. It’s very effective and makes Emma even more real, even more conflicted. And boy is O’Neill is an excellent writer. Here she touches on some of the themes from her debut, Only Ever Yours, but it’s a disturbing book in a different way to Only Ever Yours, which picks up the concept of perfection and the woman’s “place” and takes it to an extreme level to demonstrate how disturbing it is; Asking For It is disturbing because it doesn’t need to create a dystopian world to make its point – what happens today is horrid enough in its own right.

This is probably not a book to read if you are a person who has been raped; it doesn’t strike me as one of those stories that, if you see yourself in the characters, you will find solidarity and peace from a relatable experience. This is because it’s a book based on real life, a book based on what happens to the majority of people who are raped and abused – in other words, this is probably not a book that will give you the courage to stand up and say, I was raped, these people attacked me, I didn’t ask for it. What Asking For It does do is highlight the perverse and frankly disgusting attitude much of our society has to cases of rape, that the victim must essentially prove their innocence rather than prove their attacker’s guilt. That the process essentially forces this person to be raped all over again.

Needless to say, Asking For It is not really a book to be 'enjoyed', but it is absolutely a book to be appreciated, and it’s a book that I hope will be read widely by boys and girls, men and women, and everyone in between. While it might not be a book to help those who’ve suffered through similar, I hope it will make people stop and think about what consent is and what consent means and how they might be behaving, and if it makes even one person stop and think about their actions, about the things they say, about whether its nice to ‘rate’ a photo of someone, then good.

I could talk a LOT about the things that take place in this novel, and how they’re represented in the media and the world, and what it’s doing and I am certainly tempted to do so – consent, rape culture, the whole idea behind those three little words, ‘asking for it’ – but I think the better thing to do is for you to read the book yourself, because it lays things out pretty well on its own. So go do that – and then find lots of other people and start a discussion with them about it.

P.S. You should also go read this excellent article from Louise, My Journey to Feminism.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Lights! Camera! Action! by Alex T. Smith

For those who have never met Claude before, he is – as his biographer Alex T. Smith tells us – “A small, plump dog, who wears the snazziest of sweaters and a jaunty red beret.”

Claude is also a small, plump dog who gets up to all sorts of adventurous mischief when the people he lives with (Mr. and Mrs. Shineyshoes) go out for the day. He and his best friend, Sir Bobblysock, that is. Sir Bobblysock is, well, a bobbly sock – Alex T. Smith does like to keep things literal. In this latest story (it doesn’t matter which of the series you start with because each is its own, self-contained tail tale), Claude discovers that a film is being made on his street and ‘accidentally’ gets swept up in the action, from helping out with the make-up to – well, no, I don’t want to give the whole story away...

There is a lot that makes the Claude books special. Among the first to bridge the gap between picture books and chapter books in a whole new way, they are small in size (giving them a grown-up storybook feel) but use pictures on every page just like a picture book does. There’s more text than a picture book, though, giving young readers more of a challenge and more of a story to get their teeth into: the perfect combination for anyone wanting to take the next bookish step, whether it’s for free reading or to be read aloud.

And then there is Smith’s characteristic drawing and unique sense of humour: Claude’s stories are jam packed with little touches that adults can have a good snicker at (such as the local fruit and veg emporium, Miss Melons’ Lovely Pear) as well as the hilarious and slightly ridiculous exploits of Claude and Sir Bobblysock themselves, which children are basically guaranteed to get wrapped up in.

Lights! Camera! Action! is no exception. There is Gorilla who’s scared of heights, a pair of glam movie stars, extraordinary wigs, a jaunty red beret that bears a certain resemblance to Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, and an accident just waiting to happen… Crazy capers all round; read it and weep – with laughter.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Some thoughts on YA...

An article was recently published in The Guardian written by a young reader, Hawwa, titled Falling Out of Love with YA, in which Hawwa talks about how she feels that new YA being published is failing where it should excel: in challenging its readers. Is this true? Here are some of my thoughts…

It is terrible that Hawwa is feeling disappointed in YA fiction today, that she is being let down. As a children’s and YA bookseller, reading her article really made me sit up and think – and, mostly, disagree. She raises a number of relevant points about the hype surrounding some YA novels, and the fact that there are a good number of fantasy/dystopian books being written and published that jump off the back of this hype. BUT. But, but, but: if this is all that teenage readers can see on the YA shelves then I honestly believe they are only skimming the surface of a hugely rich and varied selection of books that are available and just begging to be read. Perhaps the question is: why and how are these books being missed?

It’s true that there are YA books that are driven purely by a romance plot. It’s true that there are dystopian genres conforming to popular film ideals (though many of these ideals, I think, have themselves been driven by the books that the first films of this genre were inspired by). It’s true that there are books that skimp on their language. And it’s true that there are books being driven by hype.

Sometimes it’s nice to have a book that is just pure romance – fortunately, there are plenty that aren’t just this, for those times when that’s not what you want. Sometimes it’s nice to have a book that emulates a bestselling novel you’ve enjoyed – fortunately, again, there are plenty that aren’t just this, especially as they’re not always as good as the original. And some of the books that skimp on their language tend to be written for younger teens or ‘tweens’, those eleven and twelve year olds who want to upgrade to the YA section – the teen section, after all, by definition should cater for those aged 13 to 19, and all the different levels of interest and capabilities that a gap this large entails.

As for the books whose sales are driven by hype: in my ten years’ experience as a bookseller, where YA is concerned, this hype is generated by the readers themselves, and by the movies that the popularity of the book subsequently generates – it’s a word of mouth thing, not a publisher pushing the book thing. The flip side of this is, of course, that not everyone likes the same things (thank goodness – wouldn’t it be boring if we did?), so on occasion, just because five million other people have loved the book isn’t a guarantee that you or I will do too – I really didn’t get on with Michael Grant’s Gone series, for instance, but most readers absolutely rave about it.

Perhaps Hawwa’s argument is that those books that are just jumping on the bandwagon shouldn’t be getting published. And in many ways I’d be inclined to agree with her: books should push boundaries, especially those that are specifically aimed at the new and upcoming generation. They should push all sorts of boundaries: language, plotting, content, characters, diversity, style, approach, the whole shebang. Fortunately, there are plenty of authors writing YA that do just this – and there are plenty of YA books that have been around for a few years that are still doing this. The other side of the coin, though, is that there are readers who want nice, safe, and secure books where they know what to expect – i.e. the bandwagon books. The key to getting it right in any bookshop or library is to have a healthy balance of the two options.

Perhaps where the real problem lies is that some bookshops and/or libraries aren’t making it easy for readers to find those interesting, boundary-pushing books. Perhaps the bookshop where Hawwa likes to browse has only the latest Hunger Games derivative stacked up on their tables. This is where booksellers and librarians need to step in, where they need to create interesting and varied displays, be open and approachable to the teens (and adults) who are visiting their house of words, and recommend, recommend, recommend.

Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk, Julie Berry’s All the Truth That’s in Me, anything by David Levithan, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, Ryan Graudin’s The Walled City, Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, anything by Patrick Ness, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Alice Oseman’s Solitaire, Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth, Marcus Sedgewick’s She Is Not Invisible, Ruta Sepetys’s Out of the Easy, Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone, Louis Sachar’s Holes, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, Garth Nix’s SabrielLaura Dockrill's Lorali. Look at any Carnegie Medal shortlist and you will find something that challenges and surprises you.

And one final thought: teens absolutely should peruse the adult section. ‘YA’ is simply a label, a categorisation. What goes in it and what doesn’t is largely determined by publishers – talk to any ‘YA’ author and eighty per cent of them will tell you they write the book they want to write, the story they want to tell; that they don’t set out to write YA or adult, sci-fi or romance, that those categorisations are applied afterwards – the publisher reads the book and says, yes, I reckon I can best sell this to such-and-such a group of people.

If The Catcher in the Rye was published for the first time today it would probably be called YA, and there are plenty of books in the adult sections that could easily be displayed in YA and not feel out of place: The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps this comes back to booksellers and librarians: that is up to them to make sure these books also make it into YA sections. Or perhaps I am making your point for you: that publishers chose to call books with more sophisticated language adult and less sophisticated ones YA – but while that might be true in some cases, I really don’t believe it is a hard and fast rule and it certainly isn’t true in the majority of cases – there is more to determining what is and isn’t YA than just the language, after all. Otherwise how would a book like I’ll Give You the Sun have made it into the YA section?

To any reader who feels they’re not being represented in the books they’re reading, speak up, like Hawwa has done. Only this way will we – authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians – know what is missing, what you want and what you need. But don’t forget to look a little deeper on the shelves as well, to ask the bookseller, to ask family and friends – or even the internet – because there are all sorts of gems hiding behind the hype.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea has one of the best subtitles I think I’ve ever come across: ‘A novel without letters’. It’s ironic, clever, amusing, the truth and a lie all in one go. This is a book in which certain letters from the alphabet gradually become outlawed – ultimately leaving just five (four consonants and a single vowel) for the author and characters to work with – yet is a story told purely though the medium of letters and notes, making it simultaneously a novel without letters and a novel full of them!

Ella Minnow Pea is a teenaged girl who lives with her parents on a small, independently governed island just off the coast of the United States. The island – Nollop – takes it’s name from a now deceased citizen of its nation, Nevin Nollop, who famously (or perhaps not so famously) created the sentence, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” This pangram, a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet, is held by the islanders in highest elevation, representative, they believe, of a greatness of language to which all of its citizens should aspire.

Eschewing modern technology as far as possible, letter writing appears to be the dominant form of communication on Nollop, and so the story begins with Ella writing to her cousin Tassie, who lives in a village in a far corner of the island. There is a great deal of hubbub in the capital of Nollopton, we learn, where an alphabetical tile has fallen from the classic sentence that adorns Nevin Nollop’s statue in the town centre: the letter Z, to be exact. While most people begin by assuming it is simply an act of nature precipitated by weakened glue on said tile, the High Council soon pronounces that there is a much higher purpose to be gleaned from the event: namely, that the tumbling of the letter Z is “a terrestrial manifestation of Mr. Nollop’s wishes.” And Mr. Nollop’s wishes are? That ‘Z’ be expunged from the alphabet forever more.

As of midnight on August 7th, no citizen is allowed to speak, write, or be in possession of the letter Z. At the outset, Ella isn’t terribly concerned by the pronouncement: Z, after all, is a fairly little-used letter. The outlaw of its use shouldn’t provide too great a challenge, and the challenge that it does represent is one that she is happy and eager to embrace. But Tassie sees things differently… And when August 8th comes around and Z is no more, it becomes startlingly clear how widespread an effect the removal of even this small alphabetical letter can have.

Mark Dunn is a supreme master of the English language, and as Ella Minnow Pea (or L-M-N-O-P) unfolds it soon becomes clear what a fascinating construct it is. As missives go back and forth, between Ella and Tassie initially, and then between other characters as they are gradually brought in to the story, adding new shades of light and dark, we are quietly led to realize that, despite it’s hearty subtitle, there is much more to this tale that just letters. First, a rather strict series of punishments is put into place by the High Council for any alphabetical transgressors and then, as more letters begin to fall, utopia rapidly descends into classic dystopian territory, all notion of human rights and morality deserting the island leaders as their obsession with Nollop takes over.

Can Ella and her fellows find a way to stop the madness before it is too late?

The characters, the politics and their relationships are all wonderfully and intriguingly developed, but it is the structure of this novel that’s left the greatest mark on my thoughts. What result does losing just one or two letters have? Books, names, and foods are all lost, while neighbor turns upon neighbor, the close-knit community quickly imploding. The Nollopian desire to elevate language is met, though, in a sense, as the characters strive to talk around the words they would otherwise say or bring into employ less common usage words for the same meaning.

As letters fall in ever greater numbers, though, language starts to falter. First things are renamed (with the loss of D, for instance, days of the week become Sunshine, Monty, Toes, Wetty, Thurby, Fribs, and Satto-gatto). Then, instead of the flowery and well-considered manner of speaking and writing from before, sentences become stark and grammarless. Spellings are changed to make words that sound the same but which avoid the illegal lettering and ultimately, language loses all essential meaning, becoming a base form, impossible to write or speak, while most of the community is torn asunder and spread to the four winds.

The only way out is if they can find a new sentence that supersedes Nollop’s 35 piece sentence: a pangram of 32 letters or less. Then, the Council, promises, they will accept that Nollop is not, perhaps, the be-all and end-all of language that they currently believe. But is it possible? Can Ella find the magic sentence before the deadline the Council has set? Is there even a sentence to find?

By turns funny and disturbing, tender and thought-provoking, Ella Minnow Pea is wonderful and brilliant, letter-less and letter-full and which takes language to a whole new level.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, by Catherine Storr

Book Recipe:
Take one wolf, determined but dim,
And one girl, clever and brave.
Add a sprinkling of fairytales and mix well,
Then bake as needed each evening at bedtime for a week.

Result: a deliciously funny collection of stories
That will leave young readers begging more…

Need to know more? Well, the title of the book - Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf - sums it up fairly well, actually: this is a highly edible collection of bite-size stories about young Polly (who is clever) and the Wolf (who is quite stupid).

Wolf really, really wants to eat Polly. He has a plan. Well, thirteen plans to be accurate, one for each chapter. Some of them seem like they might even work, though perhaps not the one where he thinks he’s turned himself invisible (during which he takes a break from Polly-hunting to play, of all things, at being a train). From trying to copy some classic fairytales (and not just the obvious ones either) to disguising himself as the postman, I couldn’t help but be endeared to this quirky, funny Wolf despite his dark intentions. And of course Polly outwits him at every turn in various different ways. Respect.

Even though this a book clearly aimed at much younger readers than myself, I really enjoyed it! It was witty and funny and lovely. I can picture my friend’s five-year-old soaking it up as a bedtime story just as much as I can picture a seven or eight-year-old reading it to themselves. The stories don’t always go the way you might expect them to, but rest assured that Wolf doesn’t ever get his way (much to his great disappointment), while the conversations between the two characters are absolutely classic. I would totally read the follow-on book, Polly and the Wolf Again, just for my own amusement.

It’s delectable!

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

I’ve gotten into the habit of penciling notes in the margins or on the blank pages at the back of the books I'm reading. They could be about anything: an idea or a theme that speaks to me from the story, a particular line that I find meaningful or especially beautiful, a précis of the story to use when I review the book later on. The length and variety of these notes changes book by book, mood by mood. But today, opening my copy of The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, thinking I’d revisit my reading thoughts before writing a review, I discover the book is untouched, note free. Tabula rasa.

Generally speaking, the more annotated a book is, the more it’s made me think and the more I think of it, but I can only surmise that in the case of The Wolf Wilder I was so busy soaking up the wild atmosphere and the untamed characters and their adventures that all thought of making notes on such things completely fell by the wayside, utterly forgotten in the pure and simple pleasure of reading. Rundell walks a perfectly balanced tightrope with her writing, creating an utterly magical story that simultaneously contains no magic in the fantastical sense – fairies and wands aren’t the magic here, but the wild dreams and actions of a small group of children racing across the winter tundra, led by Feo, her wolves, and her determination.

In a land where wolves are captured from the wild and brought into aristocratic homes to be dressed up and paraded around as pets, Feo and her mother are not wolf tamers, but wolf wilders. Taking in the pampered creatures when the rich houses ultimately reject them – for a snarl or a bite – they help the wolves figure out how to be free again. The woods and the wolves are Feo’s entire life, but when General Rakov and the local army regiment begin to exert corruptive control over the region, and comes after Feo and her mother, everything inevitably changes.

On the run from General Rakov, Feo enters the world outside the all-encompassing forest of her childhood: Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, where people either have everything or nothing, and something more than just fear is brewing beneath the surface. Glimpses of this are shown right from the start of the story through Feo’s friendship with Ilya, a child soldier she encounters in the woods one day, but when they leave the trees, the more they travel, the more apparent it becomes that things are not right. Feo is like a wolf embodied in human form: naturally feisty, she never backs down from a fight, defending her family at all cost, standing up for right and against wrong, so it’s little wonder that her plight to rescue her mother from Rakov’s St. Petersburg prison soon becomes so much more, nor that she unwittingly inspires others to follow her. She doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything, though I think, inside, she’s secretly very afraid, which is impossible not to identify with.

But it’s not just the characters and their actions that make this book. The settings that Rundell conjures are as much a part of the character of the story as the people and the wolves are. From the deep forest of Feo’s home, where everything feels safe and secure until Rakov comes, to the blank snow-covered wildness away from the trees where Feo is running for her life. Then there is the ruined, burnt-out hamlet where a young brother and sister take Feo and Ilya in for the night despite their own practical homelessness. And, towards the denouement of the story, Feo and her band of friends take refuge in a disintegrating castle a little way outside St Petersburg to formulate a plan for entry to the city and then the prison where her mother is being held. The castle is holding together, a surreal opulence interspersed with blackened, burnt-out patches and cracks at the seams that I can’t help but find reflective of the state of the world and city that Feo is venturing into.

It’s hard to avoid comparing Katherine Rundell (who, don’t forget, won the 2014 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Rooftoppers) with the master of children’s storytelling, Eva Ibbotson – their writing shares a similar appeal and timelessness and magic, and with heroines and heroes who are good and brave and true. But, to quote Phil Earle recently (on Twitter), her “voice is truly original. And special.” There are moments of fear and darkness in Feo’s story, but equally there are moments of wonder and joy. The Wolf Wilder is a snowy adventure, packed with all sorts of different kinds of bravery and, of course, Rundell’s unspoken magic, and is sure to capture any young reader’s imagination.

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness

Have you ever wondered how or why it is that the crazy stuff in books and films always happens to the main character? How “coincidental” it is that the person who’s telling the story is the one person in all the world that has the special ability to overthrow the evil despot, or is the mythical hero prophesied about in the ancient texts? I guess it’s because that is the story – but does it have to be? What if the story isn’t the “hero” but someone normal who’s just trying to figure out their own life while all the world-ending stuff is going on in the background?

Because let’s face it, not everyone can be the chosen one. In fact, most of us probably wouldn’t even want to be the chosen one. Even if you’ve got super healing powers, there’s usually quite a lot of blood involved, and that’s before you factor in the weirdness and the monsters. Mikey, for one, is perfectly content not being one of the indie kids. The end of senior year is in sight and his focus is basically on getting there without the school blowing up (again) and whether or not he has the courage to tell Henna he loves her. But: there are many ways in which a world can implode. The question is, can he and his friends avoid the blast radius?

Although it’s really nothing like it, The Rest of Just Live Here strangely reminded me of nineties TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There’s an episode in which Buffy is busy saving the world as usual, but where the story follows Xander, who has been temporarily ousted from proceedings because he keeps getting in the way. Ironically enough he winds up running around town to stop a formerly dead kid from blowing the place up, while in the background Buffy and the rest of the Scooby gang fend of giant hell monsters.

Likewise, there is some fairly odd stuff going down where Mikey lives – strange lights, creepy cops, stampeding deer, the indie kids dying left, right, and centre whilst also encountering the most absolutely true and earth-shattering love of their lives – but this is all background. We get tongue-in-cheek snippets of it at the opening of each chapter, but otherwise only see events as they interfere with Mikey’s entirely normal, everyday existence. Except Mikey is fighting in his own way: an anxiety problem that exhibits in a form of OCD and self-doubt that as graduation rapidly approaches – and all the potential changes that that hails – begins to spiral.

If I was forced to compile a list of my top five authors, Patrick Ness would undoubtedly be in there. The whole premise of this book is fairly brilliant and he absolutely, one hundred and ten percent pulls it off. The world-catastrophe aspect is witty and full of humour – he clearly takes the piss out of several bestselling YA books, but never in a mean way; it’s like an insider joke, a clever ‘wink wink’ to the reader that makes you think, yes, this author gets me.

What he does really, really well, though, is understand Mikey’s anxiety. The way this is presented – especially during a particularly candid discussion Mikey has in the last quarter of the book – makes me feel like Patrick Ness really knows the incipient, needling ways that anxiety works on the mind: that you fear you’re making a fuss over nothing, and how fear of the fear takes over, to the point where the thing you were afraid of in the first place is almost lost amidst the bigger fear of yourself and your perceived failure. This is massive, and massively important. I’ve read plenty of books that talk about anxiety, but none that really get it like Patrick Ness has got it here.

What this all means is that while Mikey might not be fighting to save the world in the same context as the indie kids are, he is trying to save his own particular world. As fissures open around the town, letting the all-powerful Immortals slip through, so the fissures begin to appear in Mikey’s friendships. New guy Nathan is getting in the way – and what is his deal anyway? – Mikey’s feelings for Henna are getting ever more confusing, and his fear that he is the least wanted and least needed of the group looks like it’s about to be proven. How much control does anyone ever have over their own stories? Can Mikey claim – or reclaim – his destiny?

Some authors are very good at writing particular kinds of story; Patrick Ness is very good at writing all sorts of stories: The Rest of Us Just Live Here is as different to More Than This as A Monster Calls was to The Knife of Never Letting Go. It is equal parts insightful and fun. Exactly how he came up with the brilliantly ridiculous names for the various indie kids is anyone’s guess (um, ‘Satchel’?). And did I mention how Mikey’s best friend Jared also happens to be the god of cats? There is plenty of opportunity for metaphor, but as Jared says, “Why does everything have to mean something, though?” Not everyone can be the chosen one and not every book has to say something amazing – although, ironically, by the very act of Patrick Ness saying this, he makes it mean something.

Friday, 1 May 2015

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

‘Sinclair’s’ is a stunning new department store about to open its doors in London’s Piccadilly. It’s going to be the place to go for the finest clothes, chicest hats, and sweetest bonbons. Sophie is one of the new shop girls and she desperately wants to fit in and make a go of things. But on the eve of the opening, a terrible theft takes place: the exquisite, jewel-encrusted clockwork sparrow is stolen from the grand exhibition installed by Mr. Sinclair as part of the opening fanfare. And Sophie was the last one seen in the exhibition hall…

We know Sophie is innocent, but can she prove it? Especially when the police and Sinclair’s management seem to determined to make her the scapegoat.

Of course, there is far more to The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow than a simple theft. Here you will find everything you need in a good mystery: code cracking, secret passageways, gangs, double crosses and dirty dealings – even a kidnap, the threat of an ‘infernal device’ and a desperate bid to reveal the truth and save the day. Katherine Woodfine completely confounded me with the intricacies of her plotline, which dug deeper and deeper as the tale progressed; the twists and turns and connections are all kept well hidden until they are needed.

Sophie is a lovely heroine trying to be the best sort of person she can in a time when being a young independent woman was far from easy. Befriended by Billy, a young porter at the store (who’s more interested in catching up with the latest Boys of Empire comic than doing any actual ‘portering’), and Lil, a store model with theatre aspirations and more self confidence than the starriest starlet, they team up to decode the clues of the case and help out Joe, a homeless boy on the run from a notorious east end gang.

What is the importance of the clockwork sparrow? Could the theft be an inside job? But how? Can Sophie get her job back and can they keep Joe safe from the people who are after him? And who is the mysterious Baron? - Just mentioning his name is enough to send a shiver down your back.

There has been quite a revival recently of detective fiction for children and The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow is another great addition. In the pre-war setting of 1909 (think Selfridges or Fortnum & Mason), Katherine Woodfine has created all sorts of fun and hi-jinx scenarios for Sophie and her eclectic band of friends. You get a real sense of the time and place from her writing but – like Robin Stevens and her Wells & Wong Mysteries – the plot and the pace and the characters are far from constrained by their world, and are as easy to engage with and as enjoyable to read as any contemporary characters. I'm looking forward to finding out what else is in store for Sophie, Billy, Lil and Joe!

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Read Me Like A Book by Liz Kessler

There’s a lot going on in Ash’s life. College, boys, friends. Plus there’s her parents, whose constant arguing and complete inability to have a normal conversation without it turning into a bickering match is pretty much at the forefront of her mind. She’s not much of a ‘study’ girl, more of a mess-around-at-the-back-of-the-classroom girl, and her grades know it. But surely her parents will figure things out, and there’s only a year left of college and if she can just get through it then she can move on to whatever comes next. Except there’s one thing different this year: the new English teacher, Miss Murray, who pulls Ash in and makes her want to do better and makes her think maybe she is worth something after all.

I’ve been looking forward to reading Read Me Like a Book for some time, ever since author Liz Kessler first started to talk about it, over a year ago now. It’s the ultimate coming-of-age story, a book about growing up and figuring out who you are and what your strengths are, and what love is really all about. I’m not sure what I expected, but I knew from its history that it would be interesting. All of Liz Kessler’s previous books are aimed at younger readers, but Read Me Like a Book is a step in a new direction in more than just readership age. She first wrote it over ten years ago, but it was put aside because it was felt that it would be too controversial to publish at the time. Which seems pretty crazy now.

A lot of things start to go wrong for Ash at the start of the story – not only her parents’ relationship, but her relationship with her best friend starts going haywire pretty quickly, and she’s got this new boyfriend, Dylan, who should be perfect in every way, but somehow Ash doesn’t feel right about him. The only person she feels able to connect to is Miss Murray, and as the weeks slip by and she’s struggling to hold all the strands together, the idea of Miss Murray takes greater and greater hold. Ash realises she is in love, and not with Dylan.

I think what stands out for me in this story is the naturalness of it. Being 16, 17, 18, its like boiling point. There are lots of different things going on in Ash’s life and figuring out her sexuality is a major part of that, but everything else is just as real and just as major as well. Who she is in love with is the steering factor in the story, but there are other things too, and this makes the book feel all the more real. It’s not a big showpiece with a dramatic ka-boom moment or a massive reveal; it’s a progression, and that’s what life is really like and I really applaud Liz for writing her story in this way because it works in a way that is different to many other novels that fall within LGBT publishing today.

Ash is a strong young woman who, once she figures out how she feels about things, is able to voice them, with the help of her friends Cat and Robyn. Although she’s understandably nervous and a little anxious about doing so, she isn’t afraid because the environment and the world that she’s coming out to is a more open one than it was twenty years ago, and she knows it’s the right thing for her. What better role model could a young person ask for? The story is full of drama and tension, and this builds over the course of the year in which it takes place, with natural ups and downs along the way, and Ash’s character really grows too. It’s not all roses at the end, but the thing is, it doesn’t feel like an end – it feels like the beginning of a new chapter, in which things can only continue to get better.

If Liz was scared about releasing Read Me Like A Book into the wild, she needn’t be; it’s wonderful. It’s a love story, a growing-up story, a label-free story that should speak to all readers and which says good things about the world and where we are headed. Kudos.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

This is the kind of book that brings all the walls down. From the way thirteen year old Noah sees the world, uncontained, art literally spilling out of him, to the way Jude breaks down the barriers she and her family have put up to try and protect themselves, not to mention the magical writing, the way that it is about everything, not just one thing, and the way that Jandy Nelson and her characters bring you in, tip you upside down, and turn you around, remade, at the end.

Twins Noah and Jude have been dividing up the world since they were little: one of them would take the sun and the flowers, the other the moon and the stars. But it’s not so easy to divide their parents – Noah’s relatively okay for Jude to have their dad, but Jude’s not so happy for Noah to have their mum. And that’s probably where it all starts to go wrong: when they decide to apply for exclusive high school, California School of Arts (CSA), Noah’s work pours off the page, creating an extra bond between him and their mom, while Jude keeps her art close to her chest. And it’s when Noah and new neighbor Brian become inseparable friends and Jude starts to hang out with the surf dudes; when their mother starts to step outside of herself; when love and possession make it impossible to share anything anymore.

Cut to three years ahead and everything is different. But not only different: reversed. Noah seems to have taken on Jude’s former role in the world, and Jude Noah’s. Things are breaking left, right and centre. But what happened? How did things get to be like this? In a last ditch attempt to keep her place at CSA and try to rid herself of her ghosts (yes, literal ghosts, not metaphorical ones) Jude sets out to convince the renowned but reclusive sculptor, Guillermo Garcia, to mentor her and teach her to carve stone. Her mother interviewed him once: “He was the kind of man who walks into a room and all the walls fall down,” she said – and Jude’s about to find out how true this sentiment is.

But the thing about what happens after the walls fall down? You get a chance to remake the world.

This is one of those books where I just know I’m going to feel the urge to collect as many different editions of it as possible – the proof copy Walker kindly sent me, the hardback, the paperback. Some books just demand to be read and treasured and this is one of them. All the things I want to say about it are spinning around in my mind all at once and defy being turned into words. I love the way Noah looks at and sees the world, the way he and Jude think magically, the way he is – mostly – not afraid to love, how he wears his emotions on his sleeve and, conversely, how afraid Jude is to let one drop of hers out into the world. It makes me want to go out and see the world the way Noah sees it.

I also really like that, although I’ll Give You the Sun is told in alternating parts by Noah and Jude, unlike a lot of novels that take this approach, the two viewpoints jump across time. Noah’s words come from his thirteen/fourteen year old self – where things are coming apart – while Jude’s words come from her sixteen year old self – looking at what’s fallen apart and how it can be fixed. I thought this was quite an unusual approach and it works really well. The effect is to highlight the differences between the old Jude and the new Jude, the old Noah and the new Noah – or, at least, that’s how I interpreted it as a reader. But the trick is that when they’re thirteen you pretty much only see Jude through Noah’s eyes, and when they’re sixteen you only see Noah through Jude’s eyes. So who’s to say they really are that different from when they were both thirteen? Because, even though they’re twins, perhaps they don’t show each other everything about themselves, no matter how much they might like to believe that they do. Perhaps the young Noah is still hiding inside older Noah? And perhaps the young Jude that Noah sees isn’t really who she is either. We’re all good at putting up shells for people to see, after all.

This is a book about secrets, the things we say and do to try and protect both ourselves and those around us from getting hurt – except this act usually winds up doing the hurting, constraining our lives and our hearts. This is a book about how love takes many forms and how art takes many forms, and how souls can touch one another but still need to have their own space to grow. Noah and Jude and the other characters that take our hearts in this story – Guillermo, Dianna, Ben, Oscar, Brian – are all living in a form of suspended animation, and each of their intertwining relationships plays a crucial role in the story and the stories they have told one another: Noah and Jude, Noah and Brian, Jude and Brian, Noah and Dianna, Noah and Ben, Jude and Dianna, Dianna and Guillermo, Noah and Guillermo, Jude and Guillermo, Jude and Oscar, Oscar and Guillermo. Which gives just a taster of how many different things are going on in the story.


Monday, 16 March 2015

The Sea Tiger by Victoria Turnbull

The sea tiger is, well, a sea tiger. His best friend is a young mer-child, Oscar, and the ocean-world is their playground. They explore and play and always do everything together. Really, though, the sea tiger is as much a parent to Oscar as he is friend, looking after him on their adventures, and taking it upon himself to make sure Oscar makes new friends too.

I really wanted to like this book because the illustration on the front cover is lovely and because it’s called, you know, The Sea Tiger. It just sounds really interesting and appealing. The first time I read it, though, I really wasn’t sure. But the second time I read it, I formed a whole new opinion: that it is as nice as I wanted it to be.

The story doesn’t do very much in itself, but the intention behind the story is quite beautiful, and it’s somehow sad and happy all at the same time. Oscar and the sea tiger do lots of wonderful things together, exploring their ocean world, the sea tiger taking care of and looking out for Oscar at every turn. But it feels sad too because why doesn’t Oscar have any other friends? Is he just shy? And where are his parents? I think the first time I read The Sea Tiger, I overthought it, where as the best way to read it is to take each page at a time and think about what is happening there, rather than what the big, grand picture might be or a plotline to come.

The images are really quite beautiful, with a lot to look at and think about, and Victoria Turnbull has created in them a real underwater feel. The pictures are certainly unusual and distinctive, simultaneously magical and surreal. I especially liked the singing turtles, represented by musical notes flowing across the page; the page with all the floaty jellyfish; and the squid-and-seashell hot air balloons at the end. The only thing that grates a bit is the fact that Oscar does whatever the sea tiger does - he doesn’t seem to have a mind of his own and I’m not sure what this says. Obviously kids learn by example and need to have someone to care for them and guide them, but developing your own mind is also important!

But maybe I’m analyzing it too deeply. I’ve read other reviewers comment on this being book about a beautiful friendship, which it certainly could be interpreted as such, but for me it’s such a nice, quiet sort of a book, that it actually doesn’t really need to be ‘about’ anything except the joy and beauty of being alive.