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.

William and the Missing Masterpiece by Helen Hancocks

William – international cat of mystery (whatever, exactly, that means) – has been called to Paris to solve an art theft: the Mona Cheesa. Can he succeed where the local authorities have failed, and find the culprit? Quick enough he finds some clues the police seem to have missed – or dismissed, perhaps – but what do they mean? While he mulls it over, he’s distracted by a strange, heavily cloaked individual walking down the street (minding their own business, to be honest) and decides to stake them out. What are they up to, going in and out of the shops on the high street so brazenly? (er, yes, that is my sarcastic voice).

The most interesting thing about William and the Missing Masterpiece for me are the illustrations. They are not, perhaps, the sort of illustrations that you might normally see in a children’s picture book – which tend more towards the cutesy cutesy variety – but are slightly more reminiscent of the sort of artwork that might adorn the walls of the museum from which the Mona Cheesa has been stolen.

There is a lot of storytelling in this book, too, and again it doesn’t follow the more normal picture book storytelling tropes. I mean this in a positive way, but what holds it back is the fact that the illustrations are mostly background adornment to the story, rather than working in complete tandem with the pictures (like they do in, say, the ingenious This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen). And in addition to this, this book is all plot, and all cleverness, the author seemingly trying to fit in as many ‘cheesy’ puns as she can (and yes, they are extremely, ahem, cheesy). What suffers as a result is character. As in, William has none. He’s a cat. He’s some sort of renowned detective. He gets a bit suspicious about things. And that’s about all I got from him.

For a book that is billed as being hilarious I honestly found it rather confusing. The plot works itself out – albeit perhaps a little too fast and a little too easily? – and the drawings are interesting, but I mostly felt like the author is expecting – or giving herself – a big pat on the back for being oh so terribly clever and funny, which ultimately left me feeling rather indifferent. But: if you like cheese and cheesy humour, perhaps this is one for you.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty

Darkmouth is the start of a really fantastic new series. It has cool tech, portals to another world, a house with secret passageways and hidden doorways, monsters with a serious plan (not to mention the humans), and secrets upon secrets. Oh, and a hero who’s, well, a bit accident prone…

Finn is the last in a long line of Legend Hunters. Before him came Sean the Brave, Aisling the Powerful, Conor Red Skull, to name but a few. His father Hugo was battling Legends when he was twelve years old, and now it’s Finn’s turn. This is Darkmouth, a tucked away little Irish town, the last of the Blighted Villages. The last place where the divide between our world and the world of the Legends – myths, fables – is breached.

Encountering a Minotaur on your way to the corner shop is a fairly normal sort of day in Darkmouth, though that doesn’t mean anyone likes it and the locals are getting edgy – why, after all, have all the gateways to the Infected side closed except in Darkmouth? Hugo isn’t revered so much anymore as blamed for the Legends and the trouble they cause. And soon it’s going to be up to Finn to keep these creatures – and villagers – at bay. There are lots of problems with this, as far as he’s concerned, one of which is probably the part where he’s really not very good at it.

Trying to balance his training with his schoolwork isn’t an easy task for Finn, especially when his dad can’t seem to understand that Finn really is trying to master the skills, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. And then the Hogboon arrives. He has a message for Finn, but what does it mean? Perhaps there is trouble brewing and perhaps, no matter how much he might wish, there is no escaping destiny for Finn.

Plus Emmie, the new girl at school, seems to have a particularly keen interest in the Legends and Finn’s family. Is she as innocent as she seems? What are the Legends on the Infected side planning? What is the purpose of the diamonds the Legends are sending through the gateways? Is there a traitor in their midst? Does Finn have it in him to be a Legend Hunter and can he get his dad to listen to him?

Shane Hegarty has created a fun and witty adventure with plenty to get your teeth into – or will it be getting its teeth into you? Tightly plotted, there’s lots of action, amusing repartee, and great characterization – of both the Legends and the humans! The Legend Hunter’s Council of Twelve reminded me of The Watcher’s Council from Buffy the Vampire Slayer – in other words, utterly useless, and with a pointless political agenda – while the characters twist and turn almost as much as the page-turning story does. Oh, and there are some really great illustrations too, with loads of detail and that bring the story even more fully to life. Ideal for readers of Skulduggery Pleasant or Percy Jackson, and I’m definitely looking forward to book two.

Monday, 2 March 2015

The Glory by Lauren St John

I may be well past the age for which horse stories are aimed, but that hasn’t stopped me from them loving them, and when it comes to contemporary horse stories, Lauren St John is the best. This was demonstrated in her wonderful One Dollar Horse trilogy and now cemented with her new book, The Glory.

‘The Glory’ is an invented race (unlike the Event trials our One Dollar Horse hero Casey Blue competes in) - a mammoth, long distance race across America, the like of which no longer exists today. The Glory is endurance riding taken to the edge, a ‘do or die’ experience not to be undertaken lightly, whatever temptation the $250,000 prize might ignite.

Will has to win – his father needs life-saving surgery and without the money there’s no way they’ll be able to pay for it. He’s spent the last of his savings to get here and told his father he’s gotten a job on a ranch. Alex has been sent to the states by her mother and step-father to a boarding school/prison camp for troubled teens, 'Camp Renew', following a series of mistakes and her parents' blinkered inability to try and understand their daughter properly. The school is just a few miles from the The Glory's start point, and after running away at the earliest possible chance, stealing/rescuing a horse in the process, Alex, moneyless and otherwise directionless, talks the organizers into giving her a wild card entrance.

Can these two teenagers beat the odds, survive everything the wilderness has to throw at them, and achieve their dreams? Several dastardly villains are on their tail – cheating competitors, horse thieves, and Camp Renew’s warden/headmaster Strike Cartwright among them. I hope it’s not giving too much away to tell you that they each get their comeuppance in the end – some in quite the comedy of errors – but the real worry is, how much damage will they cause along the way?

Alternating between the two protagonists, The Glory comes together with Lauren St John’s usual wit, panache and clever storytelling. The quiet relationship that gradually develops between the two characters has just a touch of engineering – as does the fairytale ending of the story – yet also feels entirely right and true and exactly the way the world should be. There is danger a-plenty, but a good number of laughs too, and St John deftly interweaves little snippets of American history into the narrative that give the story a lovely extra little touch.

The Glory is pure escapism, but its escapism at it's absolute best. I loved it.