Sunday, 22 February 2015

There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake

“There will be two lies,” the coyote tells Shelby. “Then there will be the truth. And that will be hardest of all.”

Shelby lives a very sheltered life. Home schooled, the only friends she has are on the internet, and the only place her mother ever allows her to go alone is the library. She lives too much in her own world for her to be safe in the outside one, she is told, and pretty much everything she know about the world, she knows from books and her mom.

The coyote comes to her just after the accident. She is waiting on the curb outside the library for her mom to pick her up when the car hits her, and now everything is different. Now they are on the run – her dad is alive after all, her mom tells her; they’ve been hiding from him all these years and now she’s afraid that he’ll find them from the hospital records after Shelby’s accident.

But the coyote said there would be two lies, so what if this is one of them? And if this is a lie, then what is the truth?

They are running, and her mom is contradicting herself left, right and centre, and Shelby doesn’t know who her mom is anymore, or who she is, either. And when she sleeps, she slips into the Dreaming. But is this real too? The coyote is there in the Dreaming, a shape-shifter who tells her the world is going to end in eight days and the only way to stop it is if she can rescue the child who has been kidnapped by the crone. And so Shelby must navigate these two parallel worlds, figure out how she fits in to both of them and deal with the loss of both everything she knew before and the things she knows now.

There Will Be Lies is a very powerful and intriguing story. I figured out the truth pretty early on, though Nick Lake’s storytelling did make me question my theory through the twists and turns and lies that he threw out. The two worlds is an unusual – though far from unheard of – construct which brought an extra level of surreality and questioning to the book – is it called the Dreaming for a reason, or is it as real as the world we know? Or – what defines whether something is real? Because if something is happening in our heads, surely that still makes it a real experience for us, even if others don’t perceive it to be so?

It also makes me think about the nature of lies – how do we know our own truths? Those things that may take place in our heads may be considered to be real, but by that extension, can they also be considered to be true? We are all capable of lying to ourselves as well – I recently read Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer, which plays on this very same idea; the character in Belzhar has told herself something which feels true and real to her but which turns out to not be true and real in the context of the wider world.

So is the Dreaming real, or is it a metaphor for what’s happening to Shelby in the real world? Perhaps it can be both. Will the world really end if Shelby can’t rescue the child in time? How do we define ‘end’? The Dreaming also pulls on the mythology of the Child, the Maiden and the Crone: the triple goddess of wiccan and pagan beliefs, though I suspect from Lake’s story – with the inclusion of the coyote – that perhaps there is similar mythology in the Native American belief system as well. In There Will Be Lies, Shelby takes on the role of the Maiden in this myth, though my understanding of the original is that the three roles are interlinked and are, essentially one and the same simply at different stages. This makes Shelby as much the Child as the Maiden which, when you read the book, gives away a pretty big clue as to the truth Shelby is searching for. Though the coyote tells her she must kill the crone to rescue the child, here the crone is a metaphor for her mother, I think, rather than the third aspect of herself.

To save herself, Shelby needs to extinguish what she thinks she understands about her mother – or come to terms with the part of her mother that resides in her. If she doesn’t save the child, then she will not be able to accept the new terms of her life – and by accepting the new terms of her life, she is able to save the child. Sometimes, in order to make something new, you have to break apart what came before. So what goes around, comes around, and everything is interlinked.

But, though the metaphor and mythology of the story comes predominantly from the parallel world of the Dreaming, I did find that the compulsion to keep reading was generated by what is taking place in the solid world. There are obstacles and adrenaline and danger in the Dreaming, but all the metaphor weighs quite heavily and reading those parts of the story was more like walking through sand while the ‘solid world’ happenings were easier to engage with, like rushing down a fast river. Nevertheless, they all come together to form an intense, thoughtful and excellently written and excellently constructed book that certainly stands out from the crowd. Nick Lake’s writing swells with intelligence and diversity of characters.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Dawn Chorus by Suzanne Barton

Peep loves music and singing, and so when he wakes up early one morning and hears beautiful music swaying through the trees he just knows he has to find out where it’s coming from. And when he tracks the singers down - the Dawn Chorus - their conductor agrees to let Peep audition – yay! He has to be there bright and early the next morning, but after practicing late into the night he oversleeps and misses the audition. Will the Dawn Chorus give Peep another chance?

The Dawn Chorus is a very simple story with beautiful illustrations that feature lots of different coloured birds, leafy trees and starry nights. They’re bold and clear whilst being endearing and sweet.  I also like that whilst this is a story about animals, the images of them aren’t personified, fitting perfectly with the story that’s being told, which has its basis in nature.

Peep tries really hard to get to his audition and do his best, but he just doesn’t seem to be able pull it off, despite all the practice he puts in. But we soon discover a very good reason for this: he’s a nightingale! So he’s a beautiful singer, but its just not in his nature to sing at dawn. This idea really reminds me of something I heard recently in regards to children who have learning challenges: it’s easy for others to think that because a child isn’t performing well in something that we think they should be to do, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t trying – there might, after all, be another explanation. And: they might not be great at what we think they should be great at, but they will in all likelihood be great at something else. Just like Peep.

My only criticism is that I wasn’t blown away by the text/voice in the book (reading it to myself, I found it a tad stilted somehow – perhaps just a little too careful), but what The Dawn Chorus does do is tell a straight forward story without going around the houses (like a lot of picture books are apt to do today). Suzanne Barton knew what she wanted to say, and she does so with aplomb. A beautifully put together little book that I think will be more fun to read out loud with young children than quietly to one’s adult self.

[This book has been shortlisted for the 2015 Waterstones Children's Book Prize!]

Saturday, 14 February 2015

We Are All Made of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen

We Are All Made of Molecules is an excellent feel-good book. I read it very quickly because the story was so compelling and the characters so full of life.

Stewart and Ashley are not related, but they’re about to become brother and sister: Stewart’s dad is moving in with Ashley’s mum. Stewart’s always wanted a sister; Ashley has most definitely never wanted a brother. Stewart is extremely smart but not great at making friends; Ashley is more interested in maintaining her position at the top of the social ladder than schoolwork. Stewart’s mum died a while back and he misses her like crazy; Ashley’s father moved out after announcing he is gay and she can’t believe he spent all her life lying to her. This new family that’s being created is going to be interesting. Very interesting.

We Are All Made of Molecules reminded me at times of both Lara Williamson’s wonderful A Boy Called Hope and Holly Goldberg Sloan’s insightful Counting by 7s – but with it’s own special je ne se quoi of course. The characters are lovely, and grow brilliantly through the story – Stewart has so much to offer with his intelligence and his little insights into the world, while the changes Ashley goes through are equally as affirming.

Each chapter alternates between Stewart’s and Ashley’s viewpoints and Susin Nielsen has created two very distinct voices for each of them. Stewart is sweet and innocent, and so good-hearted. He’s decided to leave his old, exclusive school ‘Little Genius Academy’ and join Ashley’s high school. He’s not exactly clueless about the social mores, and it’s not that he doesn’t care what other people think of him – he does – it’s more that his idea of what makes him appear cool is skewed compared to Ashley’s. Can he find a way to fit in and make friends?

Ashley is hilarious – she doesn’t mean to be, but when she gets her words mixed up it’s hard for everyone not to laugh: she can’t wait, for instance, to be 16 so she can get ‘unconstipated’ (emancipated). At the start of the story she comes across as brattish and spoilt, but she knows what’s what, really, I think; it’s just that she’s so entirely focused on maintaining her social standing that her morals and empathic ability have been cast by the wayside. The question is, if she lets go of her anger and her fears, can she find what she’s lost?

And what happens when gorgeous Jared, the new boy at school, is added to the mix? Is he sent from heaven or is he just a school bully? He’s going to tangle things up even more, that’s for sure, and adds that extra, explosive quality to the story…

This is a tricky book to classify though: it’s sort of grown-up middle grade / young teen – very approachable for older middle grade readers, but some of the things that take place are more teen orientated. Jared, for instance, exerts a certain level of sexual pressure on Ashley that some parents might feel inappropriate for younger readers. Kim Slater’s Smart straddles a similar sort of boundary, and I think there’s an argument that we need more of them – readers, after all, can’t really be classified either. Personally, I would highly recommend We Are Made of Molecules to everyone and anyone aged maybe 11 to 100! It really hit the mark - or, as Stewart would say: it's quality.

Now I need to go and get two t-shirts made: one with the book's title and one that says,
"Always be yourself. Unless you can be a unicorn. Then always be a unicorn."
Think I'm a little odd? Well, you'll just have to read the book then…

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

Nobody knows what to do with Jam, and she doesn’t really know what to do with herself, either, except to live in the little world of memories of her and her time with Reeve. Reeve: this beautiful boy who lived and loved and died and left Jam alone. But now her parents have decided to send her to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers, and she’s got to get up and go to her first class, “Special Topics in English”.

It’s a legendary class, apparently, “Special Topics in English”. Jam’s roommate, DJ, is desperate know what goes on in the class, and desperately disappointed not to have been selected for it. Jam couldn’t really care less, though; she just wants to get through the day and go back to her own, private world. And at first at least, it seems like a pretty regular class to her, except there’re only four other students and the homework includes writing in a stupid diary.

Gradually Jam begins to assimilate to her new surroundings, though the grief of Reeve’s loss follows her everywhere just the same. But then, when she finally opens the journal and begins to write, suddenly she can feel Reeve’s arms around her again, she can smell him and touch him and talk to him. It’s like she’s being given another chance to be with him. Is she the only one this happens to? As the experiences of the diaries begin to create a bond between the Special Topics students, they each tell their stories and form a tight-knit group that no-one else can penetrate. But what will happen when the diaries run out of pages? Can they find a way to hold onto the places the diaries take them to? To the people and things they’ve lost? And should they?

Belzhar is a book that is very hard to put down – first you have to keep reading to find out about Reeve and who he was and what happened, and then you have to keep reading to find out what the other Special Topics students are going to reveal. And then you have to keep reading – because, well, you have to keep reading. And then you begin to wonder: is everything really quite how it appears to be? Because when one person is telling the story, when it’s first person perspective, you only have what that person is telling you to go on. And what if what they’ve told themselves happened isn’t the whole truth?

Meg Wolitzer has created a really interesting ‘unreliable narrator’ in Jam, and an emotionally heart-pounding story – not just Jam’s story, but the other kids too. Can they each find a way to do the right thing in the end? And what if they don’t? Make sure you’ve run all your errands and done all your homework before you pick this book up – because once you do, that’ll be it for the day.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Arsenic for Tea, by Robin Stevens

Welcome to the Wells & Wong Detective Society. If you haven’t met them before, don’t worry, we can introduce you. Miss Daisy Wells, aged thirteen (very nearly fourteen), daughter of Lord and Lady Hastings of Fallingford House, and Miss Hazel Wong, also aged thirteen, daughter of rich Hong Kong businessman (but with a thing for all things English). Daisy is a very determined young lady who is used to things going her way, but who recently learnt it isn’t always a bad thing to listen to the advice of a friend like Hazel.

The Detective Society was born in Murder Most Unladylike after one of their mistresses at Deepdean School went missing – well, ok, after one of their mistresses was murdered. Daisy is President and Hazel is Vice President and Secretary. This basically means Hazel has to write down everything that happens, which, if I do say so myself, she does extremely well. So far they have a 100% success rate, but things have been quiet as far as cases are concerned recently. Until now, that is.

Now is 1935, the Easter holidays, and Daisy and Hazel have decamped from school to Daisy’s home – a traditional English mansion that is getting a little rough around the edges – for the holiday break and to celebrate Daisy’s birthday. There are lots of other members of Daisy’s family there along some other friends from school, Kitty and Beanie, their holiday governess, and a friend of Daisy’s mother, one Mr. Curtis. Except that now Mr. Curtis appears to have been poisoned. It wouldn’t have been a terribly bad thing – he really wasn’t very nice – except that now the village is flooded out so no-one can leave, and someone in the house is Responsible. Yes, with a capital R. Someone in the house is a murderer and Daisy has decided this is a perfect new case for the Detective Society. Can they solve it before the police arrive?

Robins Stevens tells a rip-roaring story. Arsenic for Tea is an adventure and a mystery, but is also about friendship and family, trust and betrayal. The world she has created is very jolly hockey sticks and terribly spiffing, yet she draws the balance between this and contemporary story-telling absolutely perfectly - it never becomes too stuffy or OTT, yet always maintains it thirties overtone. In addition to which there is an awful lot of very neat plotting – to start with, it seems as if almost every member of the household could be the culprit, but the girls gradually rule out suspects as they eavesdrop behind cabinets, go hunting for evidence, and gradually pull together all the little pieces of the puzzle.

Hazel’s voice is wonderful as she recounts everybody’s actions blow by blow, all interspersed with her own thoughts and feelings. It’s a particularly tricky case for Daisy because it seems inevitable that the murderer must be one of Daisy’s family. She really doesn’t want to have to suspect any of them, and who can blame her, but if she’s to be a proper detective she simply has to, while Hazel is reminded of the fear she felt from their previous murder case and the worries around what might become of them should the culprit discover their investigation.

All in all, Arsenic for Tea is an absolute joy. Not only such fun to read, but Stevens keeps us guessing all the way through – I only put two and two together two paragraphs before Hazel does in a classic ‘oh my god!’ moment. Amidst red herrings, multiple motives, a sagging family legacy and – fortunately – plenty of cake, there is one thing of which I can be sure: Wells & Wong are here to stay. Brilliant.