Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Stories of World War II: Kindertransport, by A.J. Stones

2014 has been all about World War I, as the year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict. However, 2014 has also seen the publication of some brilliant WWII titles, of which this is most definately one.

I recently ordered Stories of World War II: Kindertransport- a collaboration between kids' publishers Wayland and the National archives, having been informed that it told the German side of the story as regards evacuation. Having read it, I realise now that that's only partially true.

I can't speak for everyone educated in 1990s Britain, but my knowledge of WWII is patchy at best. We did medicine in WWII extensively, the Holocaust obviously, and D-Day. Bits and bobs you pick up along the way from films, novels, TV, museums- the Home Front, the Blitz, the plight of the Evacuees, Digging for Victory and so on. But I personally was quite surprised to find a totally new, unheard of topic that sat squarely in the history of WWII and that is the story of the Kindertransport.

I simply had no idea that thousands and thousands of Jewish German children were rounded up by Christians, Quakers and Jews and shipped to the safety of Britain after the ascent of the Nazi party but before the outbreak of the war. Then from Belgium, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland for as long as it was possible before the Nazis closed Germany's borders.

This title is a truly brilliant introduction and source book for anybody learning about or interested in the Second World War. The layout is brilliant- it's engaging and invites the eye easily. Text is broken up into easily digestible paragraphs that are concise but really informative, there are loads of contemporary and recent photographs,illustrations and images that accompany the information, as well as captions and annotations. The pages are always interesting, but never overwhelming.

The book's pages have a beautiful sepia scrapbook quality, so it really does feel like you're examining someone real's personal history- a photo album or a diary. The snapshots and portraits and little personal touches really bring home what a traumatic, life changing experience this was for the young Germans and what a remarkable achievement it was to be able to not just evacuate such large numbers to safer locations, but welcome and nurture them to that extent.

It really is a fascinating insight into what I can only assume is quite a forgotten event of World War II. I very much recommend it to all libraries, historians and students. If only Britain were still as welcoming and hospitable to newcomers.

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

I have finally finished this book! No kidding, it took the best part of a month to read, such was my disengagement with it.

The story starts with the narrator's childhood self being star-struck at the imposingly grand home of the local landed gentry. The impressive Captain Ayres and his handsome wife are handing out medals to the local rustic children on the sweeping lawn of their red-brick estate. The narrator mentions a subsequent tragedy that befalls the Eyres; the loss of their young daughter to illness which causes them afterwards to retire from public life.

Fast forward a decade or three, and the young narrator of humble origin is now the strapping Dr. Faraday, local boy done well and now the area's favourite medical practitioner slash bachelor. A chance call out to Hundreds, the house that so impressed him during his youth, makes him both nostalgic and curious. On his call out to treat a young housemaid, he finds the frail Mrs Ayres is still living there, still handsome despite her age, with her two grown children, born after the death of the first. Caroline is masculine and practical; she wears unbecoming clothes, is no stranger to household chores and spends much of her time trudging around the crumbling estate with her beloved but elderly dog Gyp. We get it; a character in a novel that has dared to be ugly. No need to keep going on about it, narrator. Roderick, the brother, is a disfigured but celebrated ex-serviceman with lingering war wounds and is left the unhappy task of managing the family's increasingly desperate affairs. Dr. Faraday becomes something of a family friend and is frequently up at Hundreds on social visits, taking tea, dispensing advice, wielding his stethoscope.

During one such visit, a party of sorts to cheer up the Ayres' and to throw spinsterish Caroline into the path of the County's eligible males (just like old times), a freak accident occurs that foreshadows the many tragedies that lie in the future of the Ayres and Hundreds. Overnight Hundreds goes from being a somewhat dilapidated relic to a dangerous and malevolent threat to its inhabitants. It's up to Doctor Faraday to keep the Ayres' safe and rational at a time when they think their house wants to drive them away.

I love a good ghost story. I love a good mystery. But the Little Stranger really can't make up its mind what it is, so it kind of dabbles a bit with both, therefore not really pulling either off to anyone's satisfaction. If the supernatural burns, noises, arson attacks, physical assaults and taunts were truly ghostly, the author really failed (for me) to build up any sense of dread, or fear or anything remotely chilling. I found myself simply shrugging off many of what I think were supposed to be key plot points. They just lacked the suspense and the drama of what could have been a terrifyingly tense haunting. The other explanation however; that the slow, persistent torture of the Ayres' by sounds and spooks is perpetrated by a much more corporeal individual is somewhat half arsed, and is kind of thrown in at the end...a sort of "It's a ghost...OR IS IT?!" not-quite-twist. What the author is suggesting makes no sense and doesn't fit in with the events of the plot...It could be a ghost, it could be a person- neither case really makes a particularly persuasive argument.

For a novel of 500 pages, it isn't half a slow burner. We see Dr. Faraday doggedly pursuing Caroline and they spend the novel in a mixture of awkward friendship and a confused, plutonic courtship. Faraday doesn't make a very gentlemanly suitor and seems much more enamoured of the house than his intended. As the house picks off its owners one by one, he stubbornly rationalises the incidents, explaining them away again and again despite the mounting evidence placed in front of him...

Personally, I found the novel to be lacking in plot, short on the chills that it promised and with a dully small cast of uninteresting characters. I can't say I warmed to any of them at all really, and never felt anything for them when they met their various fates. I couldn't muster anything for any of them besides a mild indifference. It's a shame really, as I do really like Waters' style of prose. I love her attention to detail and her ability to find the magic in the mundane. I was just disappointed to find that none of it really mattered in this particular book as the plot and the characters were so weak.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Bubble Wrap Boy, by Phil Earle

The Bubble Wrap Boy is the story of vertically challenged Charlie Han, painfully uncool, thoroughly clumsy and resigned to the fact that he has close to a Full House on the “Racial Stereotypes” Bingo sheet. Living with a desperately overprotective mum and a silent chef father, Charlie struggles with gangs, bullies, ritual humiliation, constant disappointment and scorn on a daily basis and has nobody to talk to about it. Apart from his companion in lonely weirdness Linus, AKA Sinus due to his immense nose. Thrown together by their mutual friendlessness, Charlie is unfortunately quite dismissive of Linus, believing he deserves a higher calibre of friend. When Charlie discovers his passion, his one talent in life is Skateboarding, he neglects Linus in favour of his new hobby. His new hobby that would send his mother through the roof if she ever found out about it.

Charlie is just such a brilliant character; hopelessly uncool, unduly optimistic about suddenly becoming cool, resolute, caring and hugely stubborn. I really felt like I understood Charlie- his mixture of anger and guilt and love is on the one hand quite typical of teens, but it also singles Charlie out as being quite unique in the way that he deals with these emotions. He has been lied to by people that he trusts, he’s angry, but he has his own secrets too so it’s not as if he can legitimately claim the moral high ground. He has the ammunition to cause his mother a world of emotional pain and chooses not to. He keeps both of their secrets to save his family from getting hurt.

I really liked too how Charlie begrudgingly learned his lessons as he went along, even though they were painful or inconvenient. He learns when to get mad and when to stay quiet. The value of true friendship versus the fickle promise of popularity. The fact that you have to work hard to reap the rewards of anything. That sometimes you don’t have to be the best. That it’s not until you’ve won approval that you realise it’s of very little value. That adults do strange and inexplicable things for reasons only understood by themselves.

This book does a brilliant job of rationalising adult behaviour that seems to baffle teens. It gives reasons, however unsatisfying or misguided, for the things that grownups do. Sometimes it’s the wrong thing done for the right reasons but it shows too that adults might not always be able to explain their behaviour. It shows that these mysterious creatures are people too.

It’s emotional and heart wrenching at the same time as being hilariously funny. Charlie’s brush with death during his brief foray into amateur dramatics had me in stitches, and his brilliant internal monologue is so full of personality. Sometimes he’s seething, sometimes he’s
overflowing with empathy. It’s a joy to read because in many ways it is such an ordinary story- families, secrets and unfulfilment and guilt are all very ordinary themes. It’s just told in such a way that the reader can’t help but become caught up in Charlie’s complicated family and his clashing emotions.

My only gripe with the book is the Penguin cover. It’s ok for the cover to show Charlie as being Oriental in appearance! I can’t remember the last time I read any book where the protagonist was British Chinese. In fact I don’t think I have read another one at all. That should be celebrated and evident, rather than limited to the text. Charlie just happens to be born to Chinese parents. It’s not particularly integral to the plot, it’s just who he is! This is exactly kind of circumstantial diversity that needs to become the norm. Even if one day there are fictional armies of diverse and representative characters, what's the point if we’re just going to illustrate them as all looking the same?

Friday, 14 November 2014

Dead Time, by Anne Cassidy

Dead Time
I’m not a reader of crime fiction, really. Mysteries or detective stories, occasionally, but rarely crime. I have no idea what made me pick this book up (though several students have recommended it to me) but I’m glad that I did, because it was truly gripping!

The first book in the Murder Notebooks series, Dead Time follows 17 year old Rose Smith and her common-law step brother Joshua Johnson. For three years they lived together as a family with Rose’s mother and Joshua’s father, both police officers. One night five years ago their parents went out for a meal and never returned. Rose was sent to live with her uptight and snobbish grandmother in a wealthy area of London and Joshua was sent to Newcastle to live with his uncle.

Now they’re meeting again for the first time in years, despite the fact that Rose’s grandmother has forbidden it. Excited to see Josh again, Rose is waiting to catch her train to meet him when she witnesses the murder of one of her college classmates. A bully and a thug right up until his final moments, Rose can’t honestly say that she’s sad about his death, but it does connect her to a series of mysterious events, other murders and deadly secrets. Rose finds herself under suspicion when she is found at the scene of a second tragic and violent murder.

In between snooping on certain shady characters from college and attempting to solve the two murders, Rose is working hard on re-establishing her relationship with Josh. Sometimes it’s natural and easy; sometimes it’s awkward and stilted. Both characters are flawed and complex and prone to moods and stroppy episodes. Their main conflict is that Josh is obsessed with searching for their missing parents. Rose just wants to put it behind her and move on, but Josh thinks he has found a clue and is determined to follow his lead to see if he can learn anything about his dad’s last movements. Together with Josh’s computer genius roommate Skeggsie they might just have the resources to find the answers to two murders and two disappearances.

I liked the tension that Cassidy builds up throughout the novel- each unearthed piece of evidence raises more questions, every discovery muddies the water. I loved how every character seemed suspicious, each motive seems as valid as the next one. I thought the way that two separate investigations (Rose’s murder quest and Josh’s Missing Persons one) accidentally converge.
I became quite invested in the characters, though I doubt that they are actually completely likable people. Rose is withdrawn and miserable, suffering from some severe ennui, but she’s lonely and displaced, so her enforced isolation is quite understandable. Josh comes across as a little obsessive and selfish, but he’s traumatised and single-minded so again his behaviour is hardly a mystery. I found their anxiety and their bickering to be quite natural and convincing, though I can’t say that Rose’s confusing romantic feelings for her not-quite-stepbrother added much tension to the story. My one problem with the characters was the naive way they went about their investigation- ruining evidence, lying to the police and their half-baked attempts at surveillance. I know they’re teen amateurs, hence the reason we root for them, but any British teen has seen enough cop shows to know that you don’t start making calls off a phone that belonged to a murder victim and was found concealed at the crime scene. You just wouldn’t.

Dead Time is an engaging, well-paced detective crime story with realistically flawed protagonists. I think teen readers would relate to Rose’s isolation and her hidden feelings for somebody that is off limits. The investigation unfolds in a way that is both mysteriously compelling and incredibly satisfying, as pieces are added to the puzzle. All in all it’s a really balanced, well crafted story.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

The Lost Thing, by Shaun Tan

The Book of Lost Things
I’ve read this picture book a number of times and each time I’ve decided that it’s about something different. I’m amazed at the depth of meaning that something so short, so deceptively simple can have. I can’t decide if it’s about depression, or passivity, or bureaucracy or information overload. Or just about daring to be different. It is wishing that we worried less, or cared more? It’s so rich with signs and symbols and meaning you can pretty much make it about whatever you want. The sign of an excellent and  more importanly, versatile picture book.

Shaun is wandering past the beach one day, working as ever on his bottle top collection (classification seems to be something of a national pastime) when he spots something out of the ordinary. A big, red machine type thing with tentacles is sitting on the beach looking forlorn. Nobody else seems to have noticed it. Too busy.

After playing with it for a while, Shaun realises that it is in fact lost, and attempts to find a place for it. Having found his parents’ house and their shed unsuitable (when they eventually noticed the Thing), he decides to hand it over to the authorities, the proper department of Odds & Ends. Shaun experiences a bit of a moral dilemma and embarks on a symbol-laden journey of discovery with his Lost Thing.

The artwork in this book is simply brilliant. There’s a washed out, sepia steampunk feel, the bizarreness of Dali sketched with the muted colours of Lowry, with some wacky Wallace and Gromit inventions thrown in. It’s a sterile and bureaucratic, Orwellian dreamscape, filled with signs and information and rules. The browns and beiges and reds of the world show its grimness, its lack of imagination. Shaun seems to be the only person that ever stops to wonder. He’s the only one with time.

I love the message that I think this book has. That it’s okay to see things or do things that nobody else seems so be seeing or doing. That making the right decision is important if you’re going to have to live with yourself. Though the Thing doesn’t speak or have any particularly animal or human qualities, Shaun has an obvious connection to it- a responsibility. It seems to all end well for the Thing, even if Shaun’s wonder might be slipping away from him.

It's simpy a wonderful book. The brilliantly accessible speech, the gorgeous, slightly dreamy illustrations, the symbols. It can mean anything you want it to mean, but the message is always encouraging the reader to be a better person. To engage and respond and make connections with things. Shaun Tan is simply brilliant- buy all his books right now.

See look; Dali and Lowry swirled together. It's grim, it's strange, it's busy.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Books Read in October

I can't recommend The Enemy series enough. Do you love gore? Zombies? Dystopia? End of the World Books? London? Anything where kids get the rule of the roost? Science generally? Ohmygod so good. I didn't even realise I read it on a giant bing-lead-up-to-Halloween, but eh. Happy accident.

Some brilliant YA/Younger readers Graphic Novels and the excellent Fangirl too. I'm still digesting This Book is Gay. I need to arrange my thoughts for a book that I can't believe it's taken so long fopr somebody to write...

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Azzi In Between, by Sarah Garland

Azzi In Between
If you're under 10 it's a picture book. If you're over 10 it's a graphic novel. Either way, however old you are or whatever you want to call it, this is a remarkable book.

The story starts in Azzi's small but comfortable whitewashed home in an unnamed, war-torn county. Azzi jumps over the rubble to get to school and helicopters and gunfire fill the air, though for a while the war seems to have no real impact on Azzi's life. Until the day her family is forced to flee at a moment's notice and fight to board a tiny boat that they desperately hope will sail them to safety.

Disembarking in an unfamiliar Britain and living in a single room, Azzi's family struggle to adapt to their new life. They miss the Grandmother they left behind, their familiar home. The food and the language are unfamiliar- Azzi's father becomes depressed because he cannot find work. The family's immigration status is unsettled. Azzi goes to a local primary school and has a helper that teaches her English. She too has fled her home country. It's a story essentially about the ability of the human race to pick themselves up and carry on, and is a testament to the determination and bravery of immigrant and refugee families.

The author and illustrator of this book has created a beautiful story about family, hope and resilience which is a wonderful story in its own right. But what she has also done is create a story that can teach thousands of children and adults about the plight of the refugee. The displacement, the fear and struggle that would seem so impossibly alien to people in Britain. It's a story that could be given or read to real-life refugees to ease them into their new lives and to provide familiar, relatable stories.

I love how much of the story comes out through the images. We see Azzi's family hurriedly packing up their belongings in their colourful, attractive house painted in vibrant colours and detail- then we see them living in a drab single room, coloured in greys and beige. So much of the narrative can be inferred by the pictures alone- the colours, the composition, the expressions and body language of the characters. The art is so expressive. A non-English speaker would not struggle at all. A brilliantly told, beautifully executed story about lives that seem so unfamiliar and so distant. Sarah Garland never patronises or preaches, she handles the subject with compassion and understanding.

This book made me feel lucky that I have never had to experience anything like what the main character and her family endured. It made me want to find out more about normal, everyday life in war-torn locations and how families and individuals cope with living in conflict zones. It made me understand why people go to impossible lengths to make dangerous journeys accross the English Channel and other sea-borders.

Monday, 3 November 2014

The Hunted, by Charlie Higson

The Hunted, Charlie Higson, The Enemy
The sixth and penultimate book of gore-laden, all bets are off; we'll kill anyone, insanely good The Enemy series. The Hunted places the extensively sought Ella at the centre of the story for the first time and documents her post-London adventures/traumas in the countryside. I like Ella as a character. She's spent so long beeing looked for, and she's so brave and headstrong that it's about time she got some action and some limelight herself, whether she wants it or not.

After leaving the relative safety of the Natural History Museum with Robbie, Monkey Boy and Maeve for a better life in the countryside, Ella now finds herself stranded in a tumbledown barn with a mysterious protector. Nicknaming her rescuer "Scarface", because of his grossly misshapen features, Ella is forced to conclude that the silent but apparently intelligent Scarface is some kind of new grown up that is decayed in body but not in mind. He is a ruthless and skilled killer of grown-ups and keeps Ella safe, fed and warm despite his less than brilliant communication skills.

Arriving at the Museum with Small Sam, The Kid and a band of his most loyal fighters, Ed is devastated to discover that Ella, the sister that Small Sam has spent the last five books searching for has left the night before. Gutted at missing her by less than 24 hours, he assembles a fresh motley crew made up of Tower Kids, Museum kids and Twisted kids and sets off in a hotwired van towards the M25 in the Slough direction, where Ella and her friends are rumoured to have headed. 

In this book we begin to see what life is like in the rest of the country outside of what has been an intensely London based world so far. The brutal, scrappy settlements of kids in Winsor, Maidenhead, Slough and Ascot have got a Arthurian-ish pageant slash Gladiatorial arena set up, designed to entertain and to settle differences, as well as demonstrate their skills and abilities in the arena. A large part of the book covers the The Races, the various competitions and events that are exhibited for the pleasure of the 'King' (a different King this time) and his esteemed guests.

The Hunted uses a slightly different structure to the preceding books. Rather than switching between several simultaneous strands of the narrative and overlapping the events of other books, we follow a purely chronological series of events for the first time. The sixth book is definitely the most linear so far and certainly the most straightforward to read. It follows Ella's life in the countryside with Scarface, their defence of the barn from other kids and from the Army of The Fallen, the progress of Ed and his band and the races once they arrive where they are headed. There's a definite sense that things are starting to move more quickly, proper inroads are being made in the understanding and (presumably) defeat of the disease and that familiar tension that has been skilfully built up throughout the series has been ramped up once more. There's a plot twist that genuinely floored me- I love it when insignificant, forgotten events from ages ago turn out to be hugely important later on. It just makes sure the reader is paying attention. We also learn more about the disease and its origins and meet the first uninfected adults in about a year...

I can't wait for the last instalment. I know that Shadowman, King David, Mad Matt and his Cult, Wormwood and the Twisted Kids, Saint George and their various groups are all out there somewhere, despite not featuring greatly or not featuring at all in this book. We know that their stories are continuing somewhere off the page, left to their own devices and I'm anxiously waiting to see how all of their storylines converge for what promises to be an absolute showstopper of a book. Charlie Higson has stunned me with his storytelling knack, his ability to tightly weave seemingly unconnected stories together over time and his merciless imagination. He will kill off the nice kids, the mean kids, the annoying kids...whoever you most and least expect. My expectations are huge and I just so desperately want Ed to lead the kids of London to victory in what will be one of the goriest, most casualty ridden and most spectacular YA standoffs ever. I just can't wait for Sam and Ella to be reunited either. They will be reunited, right? You can't kill one of them off at the last hurdle!

I don't think I've anticipated a book so intensely since the last Harry Potter, and that is saying something. I've ordered the first two Young Bonds to tide me over while I wait...

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Fallen, by Charlie Higson

I'm running out of ways to get across just how good this series is. I'm just blown away by the skill with which the simultaneous stories have been kept alive, even when two entire books can pass before the reader is reunited with a particular character. I love the way the chronology jumps around, posing questions then answering them, slowly revealing more pieces of the puzzle.

The Fallen, the fifth book in a series that will eventually have seven, sees the kids of the Natural History Museum teaming up with some new arrivals from the Holloway supermarket crews on a new and dangerous mission in the name of science. Maxie, Blue and their fighting crew arrive, fresh from their Palace escape just in time to rescue the inhabitants from an onslaught of grown ups. Suspicious of their impeccable timing and convenience, Justin, the leader of the museum asks them to earn his trust and prove their intentions by leading an expedition to find drugs over near the M4.
Together. they set off on an expedition to Heathrow to a business park that used to house a pharmaceutical company on a search for drugs, medicines and scientific equipment to aid their quest for a cure.

This book carries on the themes of scientific advancement and evolution from the last book as the remaining kids continue to learn more about the disease and start to recognise the evolving characteristics and behaviours of the adults. St. George and Shadowman are almost conspicuous by their absence, though we know they're out there somewhere, rampaging and observing respectively.

The narrative is kept to a pretty straightforward two in this book. We follow life in the Museum in the absence of the foraging party and the foragers on their ill-fated journey. Maxie stays behind with her friend Maeve and helps to re secure the museum and look after the younger kids. She becomes good friends with Brooke and demonstrates her skills as a fearless leader, little suspecting that there is a dangerously damaged (not to mention murderous) saboteur lurking on the rooftops of the Museum.  Meanwhile, Akkie, Blue, Mick and Ollie from the first book are leading the expedition party along with Einstein the chief scientist, his assistant and Lettis, a small girl dedicated to the recording of events. They're accompanied by an assortment of younger kids along for the ride and the glory, softened though they are by a year off the streets in the safety of the museum's galleries. Meanwhile Ed is out there in London, now with The Kid and Small Sam and a green fuzzed Grown Up in tow, attempting to come good on his promise to find Sam's sister Ella. A girl he has never even laid eyes on. He has to use the burgeoning information network that is beginning to become established across London to find his way. Maybe he'll even find out what happened to DogNut.

This is the first book that really starts to scrutinise the disease itself. If it really even is a disease. There's a whole host of revelations about its source and its effects, its escape from controlled environments so many years ago. Much of what's revealed in this book tallies up with Wormwood's ramblings from previous instalments-It's where Einstein and his scientists really start to learn what it is they're up against. There was a few chapters towards the middle of this book, specifically during the expedition to the Heathrow labs (where the adventurers see some of the disease's first hand effects) where I thought that this series had gotten away from Higson a little bit. It seems for a moment that it has escaped from gripping Survival Horror to full blown science fiction and for a while it seems it's just got too weird. But it quickly gets back on track. There's a time and place for normal and the apocalypse isn't it.

The Fallen starts to fill in some of the gaps that we were left with at the end of The Sacrifice. It starts to demystify much of the apparently delirious babble spouted by the mysteriously powerful Wormwood, the furry green adult that appears to have been domesticated by The Kid. His talk of parasites, jungles and The Green are clarified in a very Tod Browning-esque pop-up-theatre performance of the bizarrest kind. When two anomalies are telling the same story it sounds a lot more convincing- an adult that can speak and think and a bunch of mutant children that seem simply impossible can't both be lying about the same thing. As ever, the prose is pacey and electric- Higson strikes the perfect balance between getting across the bits you need to know without festooning it with unnecessary details. His decision to base the origins of the disease in science rather than the supernatural also wins him points from me. The Fallen raises the game really. The main groups of kids have been established (with a few odd-shaped additions in this case) and now all that's left is to bring their separate narratives together. The reader really gets the sense that things are heating up now. Some of the kids are starting to crack; they're turning on each other, losing their grip. The gaps between reality and the imaginary, between adult and child and human and inhuman are starting to disintegrate. As the kids start to gather information, to gain knowledge, there are more and more things that need explanations.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Sacrifice, by Charlie Higson

The Sacrifice, Charlie Higson, The EnemyThe Sacrifice is the fourth book in The Enemy series and we have a pretty established cast of characters by now. This breaks the pattern of the preceding books in the series in that it doesn’t introduce a new cast, instead the book begins to further develop those we have already met. This is where Higson has woven his web, now he’s beginning to pull the strands together. London, the World for what matters, is becoming smaller as contact is established between the groups. Community is reborn in a fashion. This book sees a watershed in the narrative where the focal point of the series ceases to be coming to terms and coping with the new world, instead shifting to making sense of it and the pursuit of answers.

This book focuses primarily on two related stories and on one apparently separate one. The Sacrifice continues the chronology, following immediately after the events of The Fear. It begins to look at the development and evolution of the adults and the disease that has changed them beyond recognition and turned the world upside down.

After being taken in at the Tower of London, the Kid and Small Sam are keen to get back on the road to the Natural History Museum in search of Ella, Sam’s sister from whom he has become separated. Nice guy Ed, star of the second book isn't keen to let them go as it would mean going through the No Go Zone and that’s just suicide. However, they slip away after encouragement and persuasion from Tish, a green-clad girl that Ed rescued from grownups. The three of them head off towards Kensington. Their journey and their eventual (unexpected) destination is one half of the main story, and we find out what some divergent characters from The Dead  have been getting up to for the last year.

Realising that they have put themselves in danger by leaving the tower and reluctant to lose any more kids after the disappearance of DogNut, Ed sets off with a small rescue party of loyal fighters to find Small Sam and The Kid. Stopping off at the Houses of Parliament, he discovers the existence of a sort of information exchange between settlements of kids and the hunters that destroy adults on a mercenary basis. It’s here he meets Nicola at Westminster and learns not only that DogNut passed through recently, but that Small Sam and his friend are not on their way to the museum at all, but have seen sighted near St. Paul’s Cathedral. He also learns of David’s settlement at the Palace and the expatriates that have fled his regime. Ed’s group’s pursuit of Sam and The Kid and their dramatic rescue make up the other side of the group-based story.

Separately, Shadowman has continued to track The Fear singlehandedly through London, observing them, learning their behaviour and gathering intelligence on them. The adults are beginning to display some signs of organisation- setting traps, using weapons, displaying a herd mentality- survival of the fittest. Naturally this disturbs Shadowman greatly. I really liked the accidental lapses in Shadowman, when he catches himself off guard almost feeling proud of The Fear, impressed by their strength and organisation. I'm increasingly intrigued about Shadowman’s character in general. Inherently mysterious, he’s obviously an incredible survivor, intelligent and resourceful and he’s demonstrated both a detached and hardened exterior and a surprisingly heroic side. He's a contradiction and an enigma. What intrigues me most is his peripheral nature. The main story wouldn't be hugely different without him, but the amount of time invested in his narrative makes him seem incredibly important. I look forward to seeing where Shadowman is going.

Another aspect of this book that really caught my imagination was the religious themes. Being a huge extremist, Mad Matt, Pope of the religion of The Lamb really has change to flex his crazy muscles in this book. His pomposity, his arrogance and his fundamentalism lead him to make some really dodgy decisions- decisions that are not seen only in Theocracy but in Military rule too. But I liked that the scared 14 year old showed through sometimes. It’s something not communicated very often- that religious extremists might have a scared and confused person inside that just wants someone to tell them to stop. Is it important that the two primary themes are evolution and religion in this book? Is that intentionally polarised? Is Wormwood, the monster living underneath St. Paul’s some kind of bridge between the two? I honestly can't wait to find out.

Not as character driven as the previous instalments of the series, The Sacrifice definitely gives the reader the sense that things are heating up. The adults are evolving, the settlements are all up to their necks in their own problems and conflicts. David is trying to take over the physical World, Matt the Spiritual one. The politics of power have remained dangerous and contaminating throughout. The kids are starting to ask questions about the disease, they’re starting to get a grip on the new world, establish an order, get things organised. But unfortunately so are their advisories. The adults in this fourth book are truly terrifying. They've stopped simply being gross and dangerous and have become eerie and uncanny, automatons in some cases. It’s just getting weirder. I'm continually baffled by the breadth of the narrative in this story and the skill with which the separate strands are all developed, reigned in then combined. To have so many plates spinning and to still leave the reader gagging for more is a pretty incredible feat. I'm sad already to have passed into the concluding half of the series. Two more books to go!

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell, Fanfiction
18 year old Cath is one half of twins. Stuck together for their whole lives, her sister Wren is her best friend- though she is more outgoing than Cath, more confident, flirtier, more popular and prettier (if that can be said of identical twins) they have always come as a package. When Cath and Wren start college, Cath assumes they will be living together, sharing a room as they always have. Wren drops a bombshell on her sister- they won't be rooming together. Wren wants to meet new people, go out, and have the "Real College Experience". Cath just wants to keep out of the way, get through her classes and write her wildly popular Simon Snow fanfiction from the comfort of her room.

The novel is told from Cath's perspective as she struggles to meet people, struggles to want to meet people really, and struggles to cope with her classes and her confusing, unmanageable skills as an author. She's a brilliant, lovely introvert that any "keeps themselves to themselves" person will not fail to relate to. She's not a random, quirky dream girl, nor a secret, untapped beauty. She's just a normal 18 year old that prefers her own company, worries about her mentally ill dad and experiences quite intense anxiety in social situations. Or changing circumstances. Or anything unfamiliar. Cath knows her anxiety is out of control- she won't even go to the dining hall- won't even look for it, for fear of being in the way, not knowing where to stand, doing it wrong. Her fear of appearing ridiculous dominates her behaviour and she escapes into her online persona, her elaborate and insanely popular stories about Simon Snow, a fictional boy wizard.

Cath is finally forced out of her Wren hangover by her fierce older roommate Raegan and her boyfriend/ex-boyfriend Levi, who become a constant presence in Cath's room and life. Raegan forces her to stop living on peanut butter and cereal bars and makes her go eat in the dining hall. She takes her to parties. Levi walks her home from the library, studies with her and gives her emergency rides into town. Gradually they start to chip away at Cath's loneliness and a real affection develops between the three of them.

I felt like I really understood Cath. Her awkwardness around boys (or humans generally), her assumption that everybody thinks she's weird. Her desire to be on her own with a book or her computer somewhere that she feels accepted. There are so many novels written about beautiful, outgoing hero types- it's about time we had some regular, introvert heroes that prove that it's your qualities as a person- kindness, understanding, patience, that make you important, not your bravery or your glamourous-ness. She represents every person that has ever felt abnormal for shunning company, or having a crap time at university. For every person that worried and fretted through "the best days of their life". Anybody that struggles to do the things that their peers find so easy, like socialising. Everybody that's ever had a passion that others don't understand.

The empathy and the emotion just ooze from the pages. It would be so easy for this book to veer into sickly, twee, fairy-tale romance, geeky-girl-bags-the-guy territory, but the sheer understanding in the author's voice stops that from happening. It's a story told with such fondness and wry humour that the reader can't help but root for Cath (and Levi) all the way. The book covers the awkwardness and the sheer exhilaration of early stage romances- I loved all the little details that Cath observes, her reactions to the minute and the overpowering. The book spends a lot of time thinking about the power of reading and the compulsion of some to write. It's a cathartic, liberating process for Cath, and reading is a shared, revealing experience. My absolute favourite scene was where Cath reads The Outsiders aloud to Levi- it's a book that means a lot to me. I even got goosebumps reading it second-hand through Cath. The idea that the shared experience of reading a powerful book together is the catalyst, the exact moment when two characters begin to fall in love is amazing.

Fangirl deals with so that is relevant to the lives of Young Adults- accepting that relationships change as you get older, the power of forgiveness, the fear of the unknown and the pressure to make new friends. Importantly, it also shows that growing up doesn’t have to mean growing out of the things you love, but it's learning how to develop a sense of balance for the future; that is the true life skill. I absolutely adored this book. Absolutely brilliant and would recommend it to anybody as a warm, funny and emotional coming-of-age story.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Fear, by Charlie Higson

The Fear, the Enemy, Charlie HigsonThe third part of Charlie Higson's The Enemy series sees the small, isolated pockets of survival beginning to forge links and communicate with one another, making allegiances and deals. The Fear marks the beginning of the rebuilding of something like a working society. Building a society doesn't happen overnight though, even when the social architects aren't being pursued and murdered by cannibalistic, disease rotten adults...

Ed and Dognut, a main and a peripheral character from the last book have created a safe haven at the Tower of London under the military guidance of Jordan Hordern, the War Game obsessive from the IW museum. Separated from the other half of the Bus/Imperial War groups in the Fire and the battle of Vauxhall Bridge, The Dead ended with them fleeing a group of Sickos by floating an abandoned pleasure cruiser across the Thames. Ed, who it turns out is something of a natural leader has looked after the group with Dognut as his friend and second in command.  A year after the blaze and the battle, Dognut is getting restless and beginning to wonder what happened to Brooke, Wiki, Justin and the rest of the group that managed to navigate the chaotic and panic stricken crush across Vauxhall Bridge.

Deciding that he wants to be some kind of hero and knowing that it will never happen as second in command at the Tower, Dognut launches an expedition to explore what remains of London and look for his friends. He takes along some of the other Tower kids that have become separated from friends or family. He also takes Courtney, whose real reason for setting out on this mission is her feelings for Dognut. Their journey takes them to various London landmarks turned settlements and their progress is watched closely by several often unobserved groups, some friendlier than others. It's clear though that there is some kind of news grapevine in the world- a way to exchange information.

Meanwhile, King David the dictator at the Palace has decided that in order to take over the whole of London, he needs allies and he needs fighters. David sends out the Jester, a couple of younger kids and Shadowman, a mysterious drifter to go and bring some new recruits back to the palace. A large chunk of the novel is dedicated to the wanderings of Shawdowman- his observations and discoveries about the Sickos that still roam the streets are neither heartening nor pleasant. David sets about getting his allies in his own way- mostly by making promises he has no intention of keeping.

This book really demonstrates the differences in the lifestyles chosen and maintained by various groups. There's the Houses of Parliament that elect a leader and vote on everything, the Natural History Museum that dedicate themselves to research and understanding, the Military set up at the Tower, Buckingham Palace that's run as a dictatorship and various renegade bands of savages and/or mercenary hunters. It's almost like London has become a tiny planet, a whole entity made up of small, independently ruled countries that need to cooperate that are subject to various differences in culture and management.

Taking place roughly at the same time as The Enemy the chronologies of both books collide so many of the events depicted in The Fear are quite familiar, we might just see it from a different angle or from the perspective of a different character. We find out more about the mysterious Jester, the patchwork coat kid that enticed the Waitrose group to Buckingham Palace. We find out who the silent girl in the infirmary at the Palace is and what she's been through. We find out more about the remaining adults and what they are evolving into inside and outside of the No Go Zone.

This third book continues to expand on the themes that have ran through the series; the corrupting influence of power, the disease of unchecked tyranny and gang mentality, the 'art' of politics and negotiation, the desire for power, dealing with loss, fear, guilt, responsibility. It truly is a brilliant story that provides loads to think about. There are definitely parallels with the real world, particularly the behaviour of previously ordinary people when they realise that nobody is watching, nobody is threatening to hold them to account. There are more brilliant characters, breath-taking prose and loads of suspense and as ever. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Dead, by Charlie Higson

The Dead, the Enemy, Charlie Higson
The second book in Higson's The Enemy series, The Dead takes place about a year prior to the first book, and focuses on the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the horrific illness that turns previously normal adults into snarling, pus filled, cannibal zombies.

It starts with main characters and best friends Jack and Ed fighting off hoards of their former teachers at their secluded and exclusive boys' school. They're part of a group of surviving students holed up in one of the dormitories- after convincing their remaining group that it's not safe at school anymore, Ed and their friends set off for the countryside but Jack is determined to see his home again. On their not-as-straight-forward-as-they-would-like way out they rescue a second group of boys from the school chapel and gain a solitary girl, the French master's daughter Frederique. When the group are ambushed on the edge of town by a group of young, not-too-diseased adults, they sustain some pretty heavy losses and it all looks set to end for the boys. Even when it's life or death, Ed struggles with the idea of killing. He just can't seem to make himself do it. Fortunately for him, at the last second they're rescued by a coach driven by what seems like a healthy adult. Seeing strength in numbers, the group team up with the coach's inhabitants; a couple of primary aged kids, three attitude-heavy rude-girls and a couple of older kids. The stay for the safety and for the ride but it all goes quite spectacularly wrong for their driver.

The Dead populates the familiar tourist attractions of London with more settlements of kids- mostly in this instalment the Imperial War Museum. Where better to hole up during a Zombie apocalypse than in a building dedicated to warfare and weaponry? I loved how meticulously researched the museum sections are the references to the particular exhibits and galleries added more than the necessary detail and authenticity to the book and it really ensured that London played its part properly. The Oval and the Arsenal stadium also feature a little. This second part of the series also introduced environmental dangers- it's been a long time since fire was able to rage completely out of control but that's the reality now for these kids, and being burnt to death is no more pleasant than being eaten alive.

For the first half of the novel I still considered the cast of The Enemy to be the main characters and was waiting for this bunch to meet up with them. However, as the story progresses Ed, Jack, Frederique and the rest developed brilliantly and hacked out their own corner of the story, their own roles and their own share of the reader's concern. I liked how different best mates Ed and Jack were; one insecure about his appearance (due to his birthmark) but brave; a natural leader. Ed is good looking but struggles with the idea that he might be a coward and afraid he's not a survivor. Their difference, opposing reactions, opinions and coping strategies create loads of friction that kept them unpredictable and dangerous. I really liked the character of Chris Marker in this book. One of the original dormitory boys, he's always reading, even during an attack. He takes charge of the museum's library and starts thinking about what is surely one of the most important (if not entirely practical) questions; if the World is crashing down and society has collapsed, who is preserving and protecting the accumulated sum of human knowledge? Surely without this knowledge any future civilisation starts at year nought. That's a loooong walk down the road of progress before you get Internet again.

This book does a brilliant job of filling in the gaps left in the story of The Enemy and creating a richer, more complex and infinitely more dangerous world. Though for the most part the narrative follows a completely different cast of characters in similar but definitely different scenarios, there are a few individuals that cross over from the pages of the first book. I love the feeling of that sudden burst of understanding when you as a reader put two and two together and join up the dots. We learn more about David King, knowing that he will eventually become the little dictator in charge of Buckingham Palace. We learn the origin of St. George, the dangerously intelligent grown up that led the siege on the Waitrose supermarket in the first book. We can see Higson expertly pulling the strings of his world, revealing links and connections between the scattered bands of kids and their increasingly decayed assailants.

In all honesty, I can't praise these books enough. So far this series is genuinely tense, it's properly chilling and there's no heroic immunity. Higson will and does kill off a main character every now and again. Being central does not make you safe. The quality of the prose is brilliant. Unnecessarily brilliant. It's already full of bum-clenching tension, gore, anarchy, tyranny and brutality; there is absolutely no need for it to be skilfully and intricately written. But it is. The imagery is second to none and the keenness and accuracy with which the streets of London are rendered is pretty amazing. Higson seems to have a really good understanding of how people (kids especially) tick. He knows what scares them, what motivates them, how far people will go to get what they want. He sort of sneakily raises questions about power and government, about how those that seek power almost always turn out to be inherently evil and that those who have responsibility thrust upon them against their will are always better, fairer, more beloved leaders. The idea of religion and its value/lack of value in real everyday survival is raised in this book too. It's possible that Small Sam, snatched by the grown ups in the first book is about to become a God...

Brilliant. I've bought the rest of the series- I need to see how the big arcs pan out.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Gone, by Michael Grant

Gone, Michael Grant
On an ordinary day in November, every resident of Perdito Beach over the age of 15 vanishes. Poof- into thin air. The students at Perdito Beach middle school don't know what to make of it initially. One minute their teacher is talking about the Civil War, the next the chalk is falling through the empty air and he's gone without a trace.

It's the different reactions to this brave new world that drive the story. How do 14 year olds cope when they're given the reins? To some the reality of a world without adults means unrestricted fun, every kid for themselves and no responsibility. To some it's a death knell; with no police, teachers or grown-ups the tyranny of 14 year olds is unstoppable. To protagonist Sam Temple it means that everybody is looking to him to sort it out, to lead, to make decisions and tell everyone it's going to be okay. Just because of the one heroic thing he did once, the rest of the town looks to him for answers.

When Perdito Beach is suddenly taken over by the charismatic and smooth talking Coates Academy student Caine Soren, social order quickly starts to disintegrate. To begin with he assigns jobs, looks like he's the guy to keep Perdito Beach ticking over until the grown ups return. But as the hours tick by, Caine reveals his paranoid, power hungry self, and it becomes clear that the supernatural powers that some of the teens are starting to develop are going to land them in grave danger. Caine cannot have challenges to his authority and the Perdito Beach kids (even the Coates kids) are either with him or against him.

When Sam discovers that the town is encased in an impenetrable electrified barrier, he has to ignore his impulse to run and take his rightful place as the leader of the resistance. With his group of friends turned fugitives, Sam, Quinn, Eldilio and Astrid the Genius (along with her severely autistic younger brother, Little Pete) have got to find the cause of the FAYZ, the origin of the strange mutations that seem to be giving them mysterious and dangerous powers and stop Caine's reign of cruelty and terror.

What I liked most about this book was its sheer accessibility. There are no long sections of description, no philosophising and no extra baggage weighing down the plot. It's fast paced, relatable and full of realistic, funny characters that act in ways that are both believable and understandable. It's proof that you don't need to make things complicated to produce a breathless, exciting story. Each chapter begins with a countdown until Sam turns 15 and "poofs". Throughout the whole book, there's a frantic, desperate feel that genuinely prevents the reader from putting the book down. Its pace is kind of phenomenal.

I loved how relatable the kids in the book were. The panic, the fooling around, the sarcasm all felt completely genuine. The 'bro' relationships and the sometimes tense, sometimes inseparable links that that sort of friendship means. The potential for good and evil that exists in everybody was really well realised and the author did an excellent job of showing how the characters found out what type of person they were in the heat of the moment; hero or coward, leader or follower, traitor or ally. I loved how the characters struggled with themselves when their true self was revealed trough their extreme circumstances. It's not until your mettle is tested that you really know who you are.

In summary then Gone is an exciting and frantic action story that looks at how people cope with extreme situations, how they manage to rise to the challenge or disappear under the pressure. The book looks at the behaviour of bullies and of heroes and how gang mentality works in the face of a situation that seems to have very few real consequences. It looks at how far some people will go to get what they want and how far some people will go to do what is right. There are some giggles, some really good characters and lots of really authentic 'best mate in crisis' dialogue. Fans of Alex Rider and The Enemy would love it. It's basically Under the Dome meets Lord of the Flies. But with X-Men style mutations...

Friday, 3 October 2014

Sisters, by Raina Telgemeier

Sisters, Graphic Novels, Raina Telgemeier
It’s the summer before high school and illustrator slash protagonist Raina is stuck between a fidgety little brother and a moody younger sister in a rundown old van with no air conditioning. Raina and her family, minus dad, are on a weeklong road trip from their home in San Francisco to a family reunion in Colorado. Dad is flying to meet them later in the week. As with all hot, small spaced based scenarios, tempers rise with the temperature. Though they have their artistic talent in common, Raina and her little sister, Amara, argue over everything. Living in a cramped apartment doesn't make their differences any easier and there is almost always some huge drama in the home- pet based, space based, art based...

The book jumps backwards and forwards, showing the road trip and the reunion in the present and some of Raina’s past memories, mostly revealing in greater detail her love/hate relationship with her sister. She shows how desperately she wished for a sister when she was little and then what a disappointment (to her) it turned out to be when she got what she wished for. Their differences are made evident- Amara is a stubborn and fiercely individual nature lover, whilst Raina is a confused outcast that loves art and music.

The illustrator book's artwork is expressive, endearing and constructed almost entirely of images and dialogue. It’s effortlessly funny and endlessly relatable. Anybody that has (or is) a sister is going to find themselves nodding along in sooo many places. It shows the particularly contradictory nature of sistership: You can scream and yell at each other, demand punishments and seek revenge, but at the end of the day, differences notwithstanding you’ve always got each other’s backs.

Throughout the book, Raina spends a lot of time tuning out the noise of her everyday life. It is the 1990s after all and the Walkman is king. Music for Raina offers an escape from the chaos of her family and a break from the incessant chatter of her sister. But as the road trip turns homeward, it becomes clear that Amara, though younger, has got a better idea about what’s going on between their parents than Raina has, and Raina starts to pay more attention to what's going on around her.

Sisters is an absolutely mirror-perfect representation of family. It takes a closer look at difficult (and evolving) sibling relationships, the difficulty of facing challenges at home and what it means to be a family. I loved how the author brought reality into focus. In itself, the story is quite mundane. It's an ordinary picture of ordinary life, but the narrative is crafted with such love and skill that it becomes pretty extraordinary. There are themes of belonging and of being true to yourself, of love and forgiveness and patience, but it never really tries to hammer home a message in any way. It doesn't need to because I think any reader would 'get' this book.

I love that Sisters can be read by today's kids and they will relate to it. But it can also be read by people my age (mid/late 20s) and can be an absolute nostalgia fix. The battery Walkmans and trashy "girl's mags" are hilariously familiar and mobile phones and 3G are conspicuous by their absence. But it's not a story that's tied to the idea of being in a certain time; it's a story about being a family. Loved it- it's smart, funny and really endearing as well as being brilliantly structured and completely relatable. I love Graphic Novel autobiography.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Books Read in September

Things We Didn't See Coming, How To Be Both, The Son, Waiting for Doggo, Wide Sargasso Sea, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Things We Didn't See Coming, How To Be Both, The Son,
Waiting for Doggo, Wide Sargasso Sea, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Monday, 29 September 2014

How To Be Both, by Ali Smith

How To Be Both
A brilliantly structured dual narrative that disregards how books are supposed to to work and does its own thing. How To Be Both is two distinct but connected stories, one wound around the other and spanning hundreds of years. Which comes first depends on the copy that a reader picks up at random. There are two part ones and a bit of free verse thrown in, which gives it a strange, dreamy quality, a poetic transformation that blends one story's end into the other's beginning.

My copy started with troubled, teenaged George and her struggle to cope with the recent death of her mother. There's a grief stricken chaos to the beginning of George's narrative as she recounts her recent experiences in Italy with her mother. She describes a spur of the moment trip to look at some frescoes, forgetting at times to speak of her mother in the past tense and berating herself for it. She recalls their conversations faithfully, but in patches and with lots of revisions and transgressions. George comes across as fiercely intelligent, argumentative and pedantic and hopelessly lost. Left with her younger brother and emotionally absent father, she struggles to make sense of the world that doesn't have her mum in it, unsure how somebody so loved and so real can simply cease to exist. Her narrative follows her counselling with the gently comedic Mrs Rock, her relationship with her friend H, who moves to Holland and her brief foray into stalking.

Next comes the story of Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa. Master artist and woefully underpaid contributor to the 'Room of the Months' in the Ferrara Palazzo in Italy. Franceso has a completely different voice, strangely chipper for someone dead over 400 years, and spends his narrative switching between his life in Renaissance Italy and being confused about the situation he finds himself in now. Namely being roused for no apparent reason into the modern day, apparently bound to a stranger in a room exhibiting one of his paintings and a whole host by one of  his contemporaries. I loved how annoyed Francesco was by the fact that Cosmo had weathered history better than himself, more of Cosmo's work remains. I also liked the little anachronistic verbal tics that Francesco had- "just saying" repeats frequently. I liked the mischief of it and the suggestion that art, lifestyles and habits might change, but people are all the same underneath.

Smith asks but never really answers a lot of questions about art and its importance. How art affects people differently, the strength of connection that can (rarely, but still) occur between a person and an image from centuries ago and how alien this connection can seem to others. It makes the reader think of the legacy of the creative, the duty of some to tell stories to pass on, and the duty of others to understand them later. The idea of the 'captured image' recurs regularly. Does capturing a moment in time mean that the moment lives forever? Does the artist? Franceso certainly seems to some extent to live through his art, and does reliving through memory keep something alive? In this book art is all mixed up with memory, representation and recollection- it's difficult to keep them separate really. I think this mutability is a bit of a recurring theme...

As is duality, the 'Both' of the title, which is as close to a key to the narrative as it's possible to get. The dead co-exist with the living, gender and sexuality are fairly flexible and the two halves of the story overlap, collide and entwine in ways that sometimes reveal, sometimes confuse, but it's always done in a style that is both poetic and mysterious.

I liked how fluid the novel made things seem. Things that we think of as being definitive. I liked how by binding her chest and living as a man, Francesco made any notion of gender quite irrelevant. I've been inconsistent with personal pronouns myself...George and her mother, when studying the Frescos in the Ferrara Plazzo struggle to tell the genders of most of the figures. They decide in the end that it probably doesn’t even matter. Francesco mistakes George for a boy at first sight, unaware that despite using a boy's name she is in fact female.  Death too seems a lot more flexible in this novel. We know Francesco del Cossa is dead- he knows it too- but he struggles to gain any certainty about it, as he never remembers a death. But here he is, for unknown reasons, attached to the boy in the art gallery, the Palace of Pictures as Franceso calls it.

It's like its two novels individually, but reading them together creates a third. It is genuinely unlike anything else I have ever read. I loved the complexity of it, the twinned stories, and I wonder if reading it the other way around would have changed how I lived the narrative. People and places are kept alive through stories, words or pictures, and I wonder how a different setting and a different narrator at the start might have changed my perspective. Thoroughly recommend to readers wanting a change or a challenge.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
My fist read from the Booker Prize Shortlist 2014 and it's off to a brilliant start. Firstly, it's really difficult to talk about this book without giving away the reveal. Though it's a relatively early one (page 70 odd) the narrator is depending on her reader "going in blind" so to speak. She comes from a research family; call it measuring a reaction to an unseen circumstance. I'd hate to spoil her data collection...

The book is narrated by Rosemary who states early on that starting in the middle of the story is as good a place as any; something that people used to tell her as an incessantly talkative child. She starts with college, switches to childhood and works back to the middle in the end. It's all about her family, or at least what's left of it. She's barely on speaking terms with her parents (Alcoholic psychologist father, depressive post-breakdown mother). Her revered brother simply walked out 10 years ago and never returned and her sister Fern, about whom nobody will speak, was whisked off never to be seen again one night when Rosie was 5 and was bundled off to her Grandparents' for a few weeks.

Rosie's story comes in chunks with little chronology, but much of the middle takes place in 1996 during her unusually long undergraduate education at a California college. The solitary student, so different from her talkative early years, is arrested in an uncharacteristic blip when a police officer mistakes her for a hysterical student. The hysterical student in question is Harlow, also arrested, who becomes one of the first long term friends of Rosemary's life- a whirlwind of bad decisions, impulses and petty crime, Harlow introduces her new friend to narcotics and they get to be on first name terms with the campus police. Add to that a paranoid apartment block manager, a purloined antique marionette and a 'nice but puts up with a lot' flatmate, and that's about all the people in Rosemary's life.

Though time is fragmented and split into chunks, the narrative heaves throughout with Rosemary's grief for her absent sister, and for the much loved Lowell who is involved with domestic terrorist activities with the Animal Liberation Front. He communicates with the family rarely and only by anonymous, cryptic postcards. Rosemary struggles her whole life to fit in, because her whole character has been shaped and reflected in her lost sister. She has literally lost a half of herself.

There's really complex, overlapping themes of identity and grief in this book, and arguments about nature versus nurture and learned behaviour that are explored in ways that are alternately really funny, and incredibly touching. She also speaks at length about the slippery nature of memory and how easy it is to misremember, to replace recollections with photos or stories and how easy it is to just forget or block things out. I think the uncertainty of some of Rosemary's recollections was really well crafted and played on some of the thoughts and wonderings that many readers must have- everybody has memories that they think they remember that could realistically be inventions, scenes from forgotten films or a preferred version of events that have just sort of taped over the real events. I loved Rosemary as a character; I thought her anger and confusion at the state of her family was so believable, she was intelligent, sarcastic and resigned to her "uncanny valley" weirdness.

In less skilful hands, this novel could get a bit daft and seem unlikely, impossible even. The contrast between the comedy capers and the themes explored could have become an obstacle to a lesser writer. As it is, Fowler manages to tackle the absurd and the profound with grace and with emotion. The book raises questions about familial loyalty, animal rights, parental deceit, guilt, self-delusion and self-doubt and even the theme of ownership all trussed up in the more universally relatable dysfunctional family package. A really engrossing, thought provoking book that is an absolute masterpiece in misdirection and playing with the readers' perceptions. Brilliant storytelling, an unforgettable narrator an unforgettable family.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Waiting For Doggo, by Mark B. Mills

The best way of describing this book, I think, is as a romantic comedy but with a male protagonist. Is that a thing? I can't remember ever reading or watching one...It's quite funny, life affirming and pleasantly predicable.

Dan is a middle of the road sort of guy. He's not going to win any awards for being interesting, but he has won some awards for coming up with good advertising slogans. His new age hippy girlfriend (along with her guardian angel- no really) has taken off to an undisclosed exotic location and left him, and his working partner Fat Trev, the design side of things has left him too. What Dan is left with, beside his "I'm leaving you, Dan" letter, is Doggo, an impulse acquisition of his former girlfriend. Possibly the world's cleverest but most aesthetically lacking dog alive.

After a sudden surge of responsibility makes Dan reconsider returning him to Battersea Dog's Home, Dan and Doggo slowly build up their trust in each other and become embedded in each other's lives. Starting their new job at a trendy new advertising company, Dan and Doggo become office favourites (for the most part) and they suddenly find unexpected opportunities (and rivalries) fall into their paths. It makes Dan question for the first time what he really wants to do with his career and with his personal life.

I did really enjoy this book-  it was a funny, gently inspirational story that was really easy to read and had a lot of brilliant messages about responsibility, loyalty and not taking things at their face value. Marley & Me fans are going to go mad for it...I liked how Dan only really got to sort his life out when his girlfriend walked out on him. He learned to turn loss into improvement, and did it in a way that was really positive and beneficial. He gets a new job, several promising romantic prospects and starts to realise what he wants from life. It uses the shallowness of the advertising industry to prove that there's more to something (people, dogs, lifestyles) than meets the eye.

Waiting for Doggo shows how unconditional the love of a good dog is. It shows that dogs will risk life and limb for their owners, and that sort of devotion is rare. I loved that Doggo taught his new owner how to be a better person, even if he did it in a roundabout way.

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

The unofficial prequel to Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre (incidentally one of my all time favourites). Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress brought up in an initially wealthy though quite volatile family. The story covers her far from idealistic youth in the Caribbean to her unhappy marriage to a certain English gentleman whose identity is never confirmed by the author. In a nutshell, initially Rochester is besotted with her, then things cool off. He renames her Bertha, declares her insane and then relocates her to England. The novel tells the madwoman in the attic story from inside Thornfield from the perspectives of Rochester, Antoinette and Grace Poole.

The novel's narration switches regularly and without warning in some cases, initially between Antoinette and her husband. Rochester pretty much spends the entire novel being surly and unpleasant. He feels like he's been sold to the highest bidder to protect his family's fortune (which he has) as being a second son he stands to inherit nothing. Pretty unpleasant, but nothing out of the ordinary for any marriageable high society woman of the era. Political or financial security marriages were literally women's only career choices. I think the fact that it has happened to a man is what bothers him the most. Obsessed with racial purity and "Englishness", Rochester comes off as thoroughly objectionable throughout.

I can't say I really followed the beginning of the novel too successfully. I gather there are themes of Empire and colonialism, civil rights and prejudice, bad blood on all sides, lots of anger and hostility, but I struggled to make much sense of the actual events. A house burned down and a parrot died...maybe it was supposed to be disorientating and opaque. Antoinette seems to have made little sense of it too, and perhaps we are supposed to feel as detached from the plot as she is from any real identity. She essentially has no identity. She is displaced financially, when all her property transfers to her husband, and displaced racially, as she belongs neither to the white Europeans nor the black Jamaicans. Her husband changed her identity in the most literal sense too by renaming her. Her whole existence is pretty grim.

Honestly, the only parts of the narrative I actually enjoyed were the events that directly overlapped the events of Jane Eyre- the confinement in the attic, the biting of the brother and the inferno. The rest just failed to spark my imagination at all. I found neither of the characters particularly sympathetic, there was no identifying with either of them and their thoughts and actions simply didn't hold my interest. It's obviously the glaze of secrecy and deceit that gives Rochester his moody and mysterious appeal. Without it he's simply moody.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Things We Didn't See Coming, by Steven Amsterdam

Things We Didn't See Coming starts with the 9 year old narrator being hastily packed into his parents' car on New Year Eve 1999, fleeing the disaster that his father is sure will come. Everybody else seems to be overlooking impending doom and celebrating as usual. They alight at his Grandparents' house and he sneaks off at midnight to be with his evidently quite paranoid father in the woods.

The story skips forward some years into a changed landscape. The urban and rural communities are segregated, each with their own problems and struggles. When the narrator's mentally ill, bedridden Grandma suddenly comes to her senses one day, he takes her and Grandpa on a Sunday drive, talking their way into the countryside. He teaches them to steal, they live a lifetime in a day and he leaves alone...

The narrative continues in this fashion, breaking off for years at a time and rejoining the narrator at some undisclosed year, in some undisclosed area of what was once probably England. He utilises the skills gained through his modest criminal record; thievery, deceit, selfishness, to survive a varying wasteland of perils. Flooding, drought, some sort of corrosive rain, pollutants and bad air, plagues, disease and hunger. Each time he seems to have a different companion, a different job and a different danger to face. He lives (at different times) a nomadic life of scavenging, a criminal life of opportunistic theft and a semi-settled one in sort of new-age hippie alternative medicines community that believes in the power of nature to heal.

The last section that sees the narrator guiding terminally ill and cancer riddled patients on around the world experience tours particularly stood out to me. The author (as palliative care nurse) has done an incredible job of detailing the care of end of life patients. I think these fleeting characters were in a way much more real than the narrator. They came across simply as a mess of contradictions- they're happy to be spending their final days entertained, but they complain about the activities. They grumble about little things and ignore what's killing them. They're full of camaraderie and sadness and exhilaration living against the clock. The first and the last chapters definitely represented the best of the author's prose and depth.

Whilst I liked this novel, I never really felt like I got to know the narrator or understood what the book was trying to do or say. The fragmented, jumpy timeline is easy enough to follow, but it's the absolute lack of any geographical consistency that's a little disorientating. Every five years the world seems to change completely. New governments, new improvement schemes, new landscape, new agendas and new expectations. The world doesn't seem to gradually improve, nor decline...Each chapter opens on a completely different scene. Maybe that's the point, I don't know. Maybe the world can change as much as it cares to- people will always be the same. Maybe we a the reader are supposed to feel as adrift and as unattached as the narrator.

I felt it was quite unusual as far as Apocalypse scenario novels go. We never find out the nature of the disaster. We never experience the panic and the social collapse that follows. There's no group of survivors fighting the elements and the odds to rebuild a safe haven. There's none of that. It's just one guy, turning up all over the place and getting by.

It's an odd one, with an unusual structure and a dreamy style. It reminded me of what an entire person worth of memory must look like, written down. Bits that you remember vividly, wooly bits- whole years where you can't remember anything of note. Bits you'd rather not remember. Worth a read simply for its uniqueness.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Son, by Philipp Meyer

The Son is an epic, sprawling tale of violence, loss and survival across five generations of the McCullough family- Texas' oldest and richest household. Over the generations they tame the Western frontier, fight the Civil War, make their fortune in cattle then oilfields and fight it out against the Mexicans and the Native Americans. Thrown in for good measure are themes of revenge, loyalty, the idea of the family versus the wilderness and a whole bunch of easy money.

Jumping backwards and forwards through time and switching between the accounts of three generations of narrators, the family history of the McCulloughs emerges from the sand, oil and blood of the Texan frontier in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The stories are told by Eli McCullough, prophetically the first male child born in the Republic of Texas, aka the Colonel aka Tiehteti-tihabo, his son Peter and his great-grand-daughter Jeannie McCullough. Each has something to prove, their own empire to hold onto and their own reputation to build or maintain, and each has struggled with immense losses and sacrifice through the years.

We start off with the Colonel, the lived-to-be-90-odd patriarch of the family preserving his memoirs into a recording device. He talks of his youth on the frontier with his family and then the Indian raid that left him a white captive and the rest of his family butchered. In spite of the surly, stubborn and prejudiced old man he becomes, I really liked the character of Eli. Adapting quickly to life as Comanche captive and then earning his status as tribesman, he's resourceful and independent and I enjoyed the combination of his nihilistic bravery and his sensitive sustainable living ideas. He goes through such changes too as he grows up and re-enters society, but no institution really ever has his loyalty like the Comanches did. Not even his blood family.

His son, Peter tells his story through diaries. Cultured and filled with lingering melancholy, he writes of his feelings of displacement in the vastness of Texas, the doubts that he could ever continue his father's empire, his unacceptable romantic life. He lacks the bloodthirsty ruthlessness of his father and brothers and is haunted by the 1917 massacre of their next door neighbours the Garcias, butchered by his family and a band of vengeance bent vigilantes. Though I found Peter pathetically endearing, he was obviously well due a slap and a bit of good luck.

Jeannie provides the lone female voice in the narrative, frail and elderly as she narrates, she remembers her youth spent branding and roping cattle at the age of 10 with her revered, old-school great grandfather. She's been running the family's business and protecting its interests for decades, struggling for acceptance as the solo female player in man's game. Jeannie's probably lived through the biggest changes in her lifetime, bringing us up to the struggles of being a rich oil baron and widow in the modern age. All the sacrifice and sweat amounting to nothing at the end.

Meyer is obviously a masterful storyteller- he crates entire panoramas of desert, forest and brush, populating them with innumerable characters that live and breathe. There's a transient feel to the narrative as it evolves over five generations, but it makes no decisions about whether things are changing for the better or worse. One of the things that impressed me so much about this book was how unglamourous it seemed to be a billionaire- the loneliness, the responsibility, the longing for the simplicity of the wilderness. Throughout the whole book, the narrative is captivating in its brutality, not just in its violence (which is ample) but it its grim message of survival- nobody ever really wins. They simply live to fight another day.

I suppose really the book is also really about the end of things. The end of the Plains Indians' way of life. The end of the frontier. The end of American oil. The end of old money. The end of marriages and lives. It's about adapting to survive and the culling of the weak, and who count as weak change as the generations roll on. Read it if you like Cormac McCarthy, particularly Blood Meridian or if you got a bit obsessed with Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption, like I did, which is also an amazing story of the decline of the 'old ways' and the death throes of the American West.