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.