Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The BookBuzz 2014 Selection Panel and the BookBuzz Experience

BookBuzz 2014, Book Buzz 2014 #BookBuzz2014, Panel, Leanne Wain
Photo stolen from
After almost 5 months of reading, discussing and choosing, today the books were announced for the 2014 BookBuzz programme. Through floods and wind and tube strikes, myselfKatherine, Rosemary, Darren and Jake met in London, along with some lovely staff from the Book Trust to decide from the list of 75 shortlisted titles which would be the 12 books that would be featured as part of the BookBuzz programme for 2014. We read furiously for weeks and months and it was brilliant...

The aim of BookBuzz is to encourage reading for pleasure amongst year 7 pupils by giving them the opportunity to choose a book to keep from a selection of 12. Now which 12 
should they have the chance to choose from? During the selection process, one of our main priorities was to provide choice. The 12 books had to represent the amazing diversity and sheer variety that is currently written and published for the Middle Grade reader, and each decision came down to the breadth of appeal for each book. We wanted to include a good mixture of genres, a mixture of fiction, poetry and non fiction and include titles of varying lengths and difficulty.

I really believe that each of the 12 titles has a huge appeal to a variety of readers, and I would have absolutely no reservations about placing each and every one of them into the hands of any pupil. Completely unintentionally, we seem to have chosen a lot of first time writers in this list, so it's nice to be spreading the word about exciting new authors! The full list of titles for 2014 are:
BookBuzz, #BookBuzz2014, A Boy Called Hope, Geek Girl, Book Buzz, Extra TIme, Ruby Redfort
The Books in all their collective glory!

Tiger Wars by Steve Backshall (Orion Children's Books)

Stories of WW1 edited by Tony Bradman (Orchard Books)

The Great Ice-Cream Heist by Elen Caldecott (Bloomsbury)

Ruby Redfort: Look Into My Eyes by Lauren Child (HarperCollins Children's Books)

Whale Boy by Nicola Davies (Random House Children's Publishing)

A Laureate's Choice: 101 Poems for Children chosen by Carol Ann Duffy (Macmillan Children's Books)

Extra Time by Morris Gleitzman (Penguin Children's)

Wild Boy by Rob Lloyd-Jones (Walker Books)

Ghost Stadium by Tom Palmer (Barrington Stoke)

Geek Girl by Holly Smale (HarperCollins Children's Books)

Operation Ouch! My Brilliant Body by Dr Chris and Dr Xand van Tulleken (Little, Brown)

A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson (Usborne Publishing)

...and the accessible titles are :
Boffin Boy Goes to Hollywood by David Orme and Peter Richardson (Ransom Publishing)

Super Animals by Anne Rooney (Franklin Watts)

Winnie's Dinosaur Day by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul (Oxford University Press)

Croc and Bird by Alexis Deacon (Random House Children's Publishing)

Off to the Park! illustrated by Stephen Cheetham (Child's Play)

The BookBuzz selection process was an absolute joy to be part of. It was a pleasure to meet with such nice, enthusiastic professionals and discuss some brilliant books. Also, to be given a chance to share the joy and benefit of reading with thousands of 11-12 year olds all over the country is a real privilege. I can't wait to meet September's new starters and see what they think to these incredible books.

Schools wishing to register for the BookBuzz scheme (and I do very much recommend it) have until July 28th to register. Registration information can be found here on the BookBuzz website. It's such a worthwhile programme and the pupils really do enjoy it and benefit hugely- plus it's fun to run and it helps settle year 7s in to their new school and break the ice.

The books that I reviewed as part of the process can be found here- The BookBuzz Longlist

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride

A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing, Baileys Prize, Women's Fiction, Eimear McBride
I can't make my mind up about this book. I think it's going to take some time for the dust to settle.

It might well be a truly great novel, but it is an incredibly difficult read not only because of the content but because of the style too. The plot follows an unnamed narrator's adolescence in (presumably) 1990s Ireland and focuses on the her relationships with her ranting, impossible mother and her older brother who has been left with cognitive damage after suffering a brain tumour in infancy. The narrator's bond with her brother is complex; she is both deeply embarrassed by him but loves him fiercely- his presence and his dependence are one of the only constants in her life. Her mother is infuriating, repeatedly demanding specific behaviors and actions, then indignantly reprimanding and lecturing when they are delivered. The guilt and shame that she attempts to pile onto the narrator in an effort to control her do nothing but drive her further and further away. Guilt, anger and shame are probably the most prominent themes throughout.

The narrator is a tragic and honest, if slightly mysterious character. She never really gives much information about herself, never really talks about what she wants or hopes for. After a sexual encounter with an uncle at the age of 13, various lectures about godliness and obedience from her mother and after enduring constant shame for having to live with her socially withdrawn brother, the narrator becomes a sexual loose cannon first at school, then college. Rumours quickly circulate about her lifting her skirt behind the bike shed, in the school's toilets, in the bushes at the park. Stumbling from one meaningless encounter to another, she becomes increasingly masochistic, only responding to pain and shame. The unnamed protagonist is such a tragic character, though she never seems to be seeking pity. All she ever really feels is anger and loss.

McBride's prose is poetic, but hardly lyrical- I don't ever recall encountering enjambment in any other prose, and that's the only thing it can be called really, however pretentious it sounds to say so. The fragmented style is jerky, often difficult and sometimes quite obstructive- long paragraphs are constructed out of sentences that are one or two lines long. Syntax, tenses and verb endings go right out of the window from the first line, creating an almost flick-book effect with words. Thoughts and speech become indistinguishable and monologue and dialogue look identical. Sometimes it's hard to tell if what is happening is real or imagined. It's like a novel got cut up into shreds and only partially pieced back together and the effect of this is pretty incredible.

Difficult as it might be to understand, it cannot be denied that McBride's technique is incredibly effective. There's a first-hand quality to the plot's events that is remarkable- it does not evoke it delivers. The narrator does not describe her life, but displays it before the eyes of the readers- almost in flashcard-like images. The violence, the breathlessness of the plot's events are embedded into the writing in a way that description could never manage. It's incredibly immediate, though it is hard to take it in at the time. It's a reading experience that's very, very hard to forget. I think it is in with a very decent shot at the Bailey's Prize for 2014, for the uniqueness of the read at the very least.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Collector of Lost Things, by Jeremy Page

It is 1850; egg expert and nature fan Mr. Eliot Saxby has been hired by some important acquaintances with more money than sense to journey out on a merchant ship to the Arctic. The vessel and its crew make regular trips to the Arctic Circle to hunt and trade with Esquimaux populations, but the purpose of Mr. Saxby's passage is to collect eggs, evidence and natural artefacts (if possible) from a possibly rare, possibly extinct bird; the Great Auk. Mr Saxby considers himself the lone voice of morality and reason on the boat, populated with mercenary men driven by profit only and with little regard for animal welfare or ecology. The journey soon becomes a horrific slaughter fest, as the crew begin their harvest, violently slaughtering seals, walruses, and whales for their valuable parts.

The only other passengers are a mysterious woman named Clara that Eliot finds arrestingly familiar, and her possessive, hunter cousin who wants to bag himself some Arctic game. Cooped up in the ship for weeks with no escape, and with such conflicting interests, it is not long before tensions begin to emerge between Eliot, his fellow passengers and the ship's crew, with potentially deadly consequences.

I bought this book on a whim, drawn to the museumish ephemera cover. The narrative began promisingly enough- being a bit of a twitcher myself, I was immediately interested in the ornithology themes of the book and a bird based Arctic thriller seemed like something not done before. I love Norfolk too, so bonus points for all the marshy broadland descriptions. I was expecting a gothic(ish), atmospheric thriller, kind of like the end of Frankenstein- icy claustrophobia, tension and ravaged consciences. I agree entirely with Eliot's rage at the careless, entitled way that mankind stomps around the Earth, randomly grabbing and what will make them money and smashing what won't- and the story of the Great Auk is a sad and regrettable one that would make brilliant fiction...but this book was a bit of a frosty let down.
I don't mind the violence described as the hunts get underway. Some of the descriptions are very grim and full of gore, but then so is hunting, so par for the course really. The desolate icescapes of the Arctic region were also competently written, though I didn't find them particularly evocative or arresting. It set the scene well enough, but I never felt like the Arctic inspired any sense of awe, which is usually the case with such dramatic landscapes. I kept waiting for the tragedy or for the drama of the ice to unfold, but none came.
I feel this book perhaps focused on the wrong thing. The mysterious identity of Clara, evidently supposed to be so much of a mystery, was easy to guess at and it felt like this was intended to be some shocking reveal or twist, throwing Eliot's entire character into question. The painful flashbacks that he suffers, transporting him back to the stately home in Suffolk get a little dull when the reader has already guessed the connection. I didn't feel like Clara added much to the story at all, she didn't really manage to pull of the mysterious haunted heroine role, and I found myself bored and exasperated by her much of the time. The same can be said for Eliot really. I understand that he was supposed to be a sensitive, tortured soul, crippled by guilt and on a mission to right his wrongs, but he ended up coming across as simpering and dull, a case of mistaken identity eked out into something interesting.
In all, a promising set of ideas in a unique and appealing location, but lacking any really interesting characters and with a tacked on twist that isn't sufficiently twisty, nor particularly shocking. I would have liked Eliot's moral code to have been the thing to have driven him out of his mind and into a more advanced state of psychological decline, rather than an almost familiar girl driving him just mad enough to have strange dreams and get a bit shouty, which is what happens. It has made me want to read Frankenstein again though.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

My Graphic Novel education continues with Watchmen. I'm not a massive superheroes fan, and haven't seen most of the DC/Marvel films, so wasn't really sure what to expect from this. As it happens I enjoyed it immensely and it leaves the reader with a hell of a lot to think about.

Watchmen is set in a sort of alternate future (possibly 1980s?) New York. From the drab, graffiti filled streets and the uneasy aura of depression and fear that infects the location and its inhabitants, it's not hard to surmise that it's not a happy place. In this reality, superheroes emerged in the 1940s and 1960s to national fame and adulation, helpfully assisting the United States in its Vietnam victory. Nowadays tensions are rising once more and the USA are on the verge of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Hence the unease. Freelance, costumed vigilantes have been discredited and outlawed and many of the former superheroes so decorated and applauded in the past are either in hiding, retirement or working for the Government. Think the concept of Pixar's The Incredibles, but set in the oppressive world of Batman's Gotham City.

The plot starts with the murder of a government-employed superhero. His death pulls the remaining superheroes out of retirement in order to investigate and to prevent themselves or their colleagues from being the next victim. Each of the former heroes has to come to terms with their altered place in the world and many of them struggle with their responsibilities to themselves, each other and to the public. Some hanker for the thrill of the chase, some believe they were never truly themselves out of costume. The novel spends a great deal of time developing the unique traits of the characters, giving them motivations, heroes, backstories and inner conflicts. This is done in a variety of ways; through interactions with each other, flashbacks and most effectively through miscellaneous documents that are injected into the narrative. These include ephemera (favourite word alert) such as extracts from characters' autobiographies, newspaper articles, interview transcripts and so on. Watchmen definitely suggests that the life of a superhero is more guilt driven duty than heroism. Personally I found the fictional documents structure really added a great deal to the plot- it gave it more depth and really allowed the reader to understand the complexity of the characters and their seemingly impossible daily conflicts.

The way that the book mirrored real life, but took a few well selected alternate paths was excellent. I've no doubt that's why the tension and the unease was so strong and the fear so prevalent. Most noticably, rather than developing nuclear weapons during WW2, in this reality the US accidentally created Dr. Manhatten, a radioactive superhuman that can pare the world back to its elements and sees all of time at once. He's the main cause of the US/Soviet tension and the only true suerhero in the novel. It was genuinely interesting to see a character with all the Universe's secrets be so disillusioned and sulky.

I loved the structure of this book, its murky purple/brown/red palate and how clever and thought provoking its messages were. The recurring images (the blood soaked smiley face, the five-to-midnight clock, the intertwining of the narrative with the horrific fictional comic Tales of the Black Freighter) really effectively contributed to the sense of time ticking down. It always felt like there was some huge, disastrous even that everything was building up to, a nihilistic speeding towards the inevitable from the very beginning. It's rarely as simple as good versus evil, and I think that that awareness is perhaps what elevates Watchmen over much of its comic series contemporaries. It's having a bit of a dig at the superhero concept, as well as commenting on the ethics of scientific progression, weapons development and the cost and effect of fame. Questions are asked about the validity of war, and the price of peace and for that conflict alone it's worth investigating. Brilliant stuff.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

It's too hard to even talk about this book. It's beyond description, really. But I shall try.

The novel starts with a feverish young man shivering alone in an Amsterdam hotel room. Afraid to go out, he scans indecipherable Dutch newspaper articles for his name amongst pictures of police cars, incident tape and dead bodies. We go back 14 years to the beginning.

12 year old scholarship student Theodore Decker is in trouble at school for silly, petty reasons. On the morning he is due to attend a meeting with his headmaster, Theodore and his mother Audrey take shelter from the rain in one of New York's lesser known museums, but one that Audrey visits regularly. Theo isn’t much of an art lover, sulking about his impending meeting and squinting at dreary Dutch paintings of autopsies and dissections. He feels a strange, inexplicable connection to a red headed girl, attending the exhibition with her elderly grandfather- they remind him of his mother; gentle, absorbed in the art.

Doubling back for one last look at the mystery girl when the explosion occurs, Theo becomes an unlikely survivor of a huge terrorist attack. Comforting the girl's dying grandfather in his last moments of life, the man gives the dazed and shock ravaged Theo a family heirloom and an address in the West Village. Theo, operating purely on adrenaline and instinct staggers out of the museum with a tiny painting of a Goldfinch and the dead man's ring. And without his mother.

Displaced and homeless with no family in New York and a herd of councillors, therapists and social workers on his case, Theo desperately tries to avoid falling into 'the system'. When his alcoholic, gambling-addict father turns up to whisk Theo to a fresh start in Las Vegas, his life becomes a cloud of disillusion, drugs, booze and underachievement with fellow waster Boris, the alcoholic schoolboy on a self-destructive path to crime. The bulk of the middle section of the story follows Theo's emotional ups and downs of living in Vegas, the lack of company, the endless hours of TV and dog walking in the desert, and the effects of gambling in a town of addicts. He sees how similar he is to the father he despises and he's afraid for his future. He never really stood a chance. Over the years, Theo's lies, omissions and bad decisions draw him deeper and deeper into the shady underworld of Art criminals, traffickers and drug gangs as he leads a double life of antiquarian respectability and narcotic-deadened depression and fraud.

The cast of characters in this book is immense. Each is beautifully realised, full of their own little nuances, motivations and flaws as they weave in and out of Theo's life, colliding and clashing and building a complicated web of accomplices, allies and antagonists. Hobie, the antique dealer is easily the most stable aspect of Theo's post-explosion life, constant and dependable and the origin of most of Theo's happiness. He repairs the old and the damaged and feels fresh out of a Dickens novel. Poppy, the granddaughter of Hobie's late business partner is the unobtainable dream girl from the museum- the girl that constantly reminds Theo what he could have had if he'd had a normal life and hadn't been so hopelessly ravelled up in theft and fraud and drugs.

The Goldfinch is essentially a complicated coming of age story about dealing with loss, betrayal and about the weird adventure that friendship can be. Central also is the importance of cultural history and the preservation of beautiful, important things, and the concepts of home and belonging. It's about life's often sickening pace, but also about its excruciating stagnation. The book is a sequence of causes and their effects as Theo lurches from one disaster to another, uprooted at such an early age and drifting ever since. I loved the character of Theo, apathy, passion and all the rest of his bipolar baggage and desperately wanted him to be ok. I loved how much he cared about the painting that he unintentionally stole, the effect that it has on him and the secret sense of self-worth that he believes it gives him. There's something vulnerable about him, even as an adult, and his seld destructive personality makes him pretty funny at times, and thoroughly tragic in others.

Tartt's prose is amazing, she draws the reader into a world that's real and tragic, populated with characters that are self-destructive and nihilistic and others that are almost angelic in their innocence, all drawn together by chance and circumstances. The acrid dry heat and huge dark skies of Las Vegas and the cramped and impersonal chaos of garbage strewn New York. It's a book of opposites and contradictions. For everything beautiful, there's something destructive and ugly. There are huge sections of prose that seem so meaningful and applicable to all of life. The language in this book, especially sections that relate to the art, the effect of art on the heart and the importance of preservation are incredible.

I hope this waffly adoration makes sense. It's simply an incredible, intricate, important piece of writing It's beautiful and horrific and heart-breaking. Fast paced but measured and delicate, and full of brilliant characters and ideas and important little moments. An instant modern classic. I loved it so much I was procrastinating towards the final section, so it didn't have to end. The Goldfinch makes me want to go out into the world and scrutinise some art and see which picture it is that speaks to me personally, like the Goldfinch does to Theo.

The Lowland, by Jumpa Lahiri

Though Subhash is technically the older of the two brothers, he can barely remember his younger brother Udayan not being at his side. Growing up together in the outskirts of Calcutta, Udayan has always been the adventurous, brave and fun loving type, whilst Subhash has always been thoughtful, quiet and studious. Exceptionally close despite their differences, they take divergent paths in life. Subhash chooses a career in academia (out of a sense of family duty) and Udayan drifts into the new and dangerous Naxalite movement and political activism. The Lowland centres on the lives of different family members as they struggle with themes of identity, duty and unfulfilled expectations.

This book was very evocative and made me feel quite reflective. I read it in one day, such was the appeal of the sweeping, melancholy family saga. I just wanted everybody to be happy and for their conflicts to be resolved. Many characters try so hard to do the right thing, and though they have the best intentions in the world, it just doesn't always work that way. I'm sure most people can relate to that.

The language in the novel was quite unusual, but for reasons that I've struggled to identify. It's quite sparse, but it really reflects the tension and the delicacy that emerges in the story. There aren't really huge, lengthy paragraphs full of emotion or description, but these elements are not non-existent. I can see why some readers might be disappointed by this lack of poetic-ness, but I found that the prose had a sort of mysterious voiceover feel to it that was unique. It felt quite deliberate and helped greatly in creating the almost confessional style that the story adopts later on as the lives of the characters become more complex and their decisions become more difficult.

Though it is a bit of a slow starter it does not take long before the reader is absorbed in the intense relationship between two very different brothers. The story certainly gathers pace once the young brothers decide upon their separate futures- the narrative switches back and forth between India and the US so the reader can keep tabs on each sibling. Whilst Subhash tries to stay as close as possible to traditional values, what he thinks will make his parents proud, he ends up alienating them much more than his charismatic, rebellious brother by moving to America to pursue a PhD. Udayan feels less obliged to follow the path wished for by his parents, falling in with a dangerous revolutionary faction. Though his parents are blind to his rash behaviour, refusing to believe that he is treading a destructive path- they still appear to prefer him over his dutiful brother.

Lahiri’s characters are so expertly crafted, and full of shifting thoughts and complexity. They really did feel real- flawed and desperate in some cases, and full of love and good intentions in others. Always conflicted. Thought the plot spans three generations The Lowlands has a relatively small circle of characters. The novel is full of sadness and disappointment and is really quite haunting. Misguided but well-meaning decisions, selfish decisions and genuine mistakes lose their distinctions as the effects are the same. Choices made a long time ago can have huge, unknowable effects on the lives of others, even years later and the ways in which family members can still pull and break one another from continents away is very clear throughout.

Overall, an evocative, sombre novel about the various ways that families can pull themselves apart. Beautifully written (though sparse in choice of language) with excellent, tragic characters with a great deal of strength and resolve.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Black Lake, by Johanna Lane

Dulough (Black Lake, in English), a rundown estate on the exposed and craggy northwest coast of Ireland has been owned by the Campbell family for over 150 years. Built to be intimidating and spectacular but in keeping with Presbyterian ideals by the tyrannical Philip the First, it has divided opinion throughout the family's history. Some would be heirs have despised the property, so it has found its way to more loving hands through the generations, to owners that could never imagine living anywhere else. Current owner John Campbell is of the latter category, his brother Philip is of the former.

John lives at Dunogugh with his Dublin-born wife Marianne and their two children, Kate and Philip. Their lifestyle is isolated, somewhat shabby, but husband and wife are utterly devoted to the estate. With the estate in financial trouble and the maintenance cost of the house and grounds soaring, John has decided to enter into agreement with the Irish government, opening the house to the public. He and his family move to a damp and unappealing cottage on the estate and are as good as barred from the 'big house' during tourist season. They still own it though. Just.

The virtual loss of the house affects the family deeply- particularly Marianne and Philip. John retains his study at the big house, but Marianne is at a loss to explain what he does all day, shut away by himself. Struggling to cope with their change of lifestyle and preoccupied with the crowds and obligations of opening day, a tragic accident occurs fueled by change and confusion. Already paper thin relationships are pushed to the absolute limit.

Philip, absent at the story's start is perhaps the novel's most interesting character. Dragged from his bed by the removal men, he struggles to make the transition from the big house to the cottage, escaping every day to build his own space- an isolated den on an outlying island, among the graves of his ancestors. He's cheeky and independent, and the chapters that he narrates have a brilliant insight into childhood and the triumphs and tragedies that make up the life of the under 10s. He demonstrates how important personal space, solitude and legacy are, even to children. 

Black Lake begins slowly, starting at the end and tracking back to the key events that led up to those opening scenes. The story unfolds through the alternating  voices of John, Marianne and Philip, and the reader is increasingly drawn into the lives of the family, learning of the emotions and pain that they keep hidden. Marianne talks of hers and John's courtship and marriage, their ever more distant friends and her concern for her boarding school educated daughter, who does not get a chance to narrate her own piece. 

It's a moving story, well told in delicate and intricately constructed layers and in a very elegant style. The sense of foreboding is strong, leading up to the accident and the repercussions wrought on the family. Lane brings the damp and rugged majesty of Dulogugh to life and evokes the connection between person and place very successfully.

Black Lake by Johanna Lane is published by Tinder Press, and is out in May 2014. Thanks to @FrancesGough at Headline for the review copy.

Butcher's Crossing, by John Williams

Butcher's Crossing takes its title from the town in which the book starts. A town in only the most rudimentary sense- barber's, tavern, dry goods, stables...It's pretty basic, but it's hoped that when the rail road passes through, it will become a large and flourishing town. 

Harvard Graduate Will Andrews arrives in Butcher's Crossing, aiming to find his"Unalterable Self". After making his enquiries about how a young man tired of the city might find adventure in the West, he falls in with a  man named Miller, an experienced hunter that has been looking for a financial backer for an epic enterprise. A hidden valley in the Colorado mountains, teeming with Buffalo- herds of a size that haven't been seen for decades. At $3 or $4 a hide, these skins would fetch a pretty decent fortune for the men mad enough to attempt to collect them.

Recruiting an experienced but cagey skinner and an alcoholic one-handed cart driver (lost to frostbite on a previous Colorado jaunt), Andrews and Miller set off into the wilderness with nothing but Miller's decades old memories for guidance. It becomes a fish out of water narrative- a city dweller unfamiliar with the moods of nature, with horses and with slaughter.

I like the idea of Butcher's Crossing- the Holy Grail of expeditions. It's tense in parts, a bit disgusting in others. The scale and the majesty of the Middle Western landscape is simply but effectively written- the mountains feel fresh but deadly and the plains feel never-ending. I like the idea that best laid plans can go wrong, and when they do, men are being pared back to the bare essentials of survival and experience; the cold, the heat, the thirst. The months of isolation and the squabbling and resentment that four people cooped up together against their will are bound to eventually descend into. It's a harsh story of survival against the odds in appalling and treacherous conditions. It's about obsession and loneliness and chance. I also liked the idea that fortunes can be made and lost in a day, that it's all down to luck rather than enterprise or skill, and that it just depends what hand you're dealt on the day.

I do like Westerns. Cormac McCarthy gets two thumbs up. I like survival narratives and I don't mind books where nothing mush happens. I really should have liked this. But unfortunately this novel just failed to strike a chord with me. It's not a bad book, by any stretch. It's atmospheric and stylish. I feel like I could pretty much skin a buffalo and that I'd know what to do if I got caught in a blizzard or had to cross a bridge-less river, but I don't feel satisfied with what I got from this novel. I skipped bits, which is unheard of. I don't know what it was. Maybe the characters just failed to ender themselves. Maybe they weren't supposed to. Maybe the characters were supposed to be as transient as the fortunes they were seeking and as forgettable as the frontiersman's way of life.

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

The first step on my Spring mission to read the Bailey's Prize short list and I can't think of a better way to start.

Set in the desolate yet magical landscape of Northern Iceland in 1829, Burial Rites tells the story of the last year in the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, murderess, as she awaits her execution by beheading. Convicted of a bloody dual murder at an isolated farm by the sea, Agnes is incarcerated at the homestead of a local farmer and low-ranking public officer, as there are no prisons on Iceland in which she can be held.

Begrudging her presence and afraid of her past, the farmer, his wife and daughters attempt to ingore Agnes, setting her to work in the fields, the croft and the dairy. She's a hard worker, used to service and settles in as well as can be expected. With one so notorious and ruined under their (turf) roof, it is not long before the family are the subject of gossip within the sparse but tight knit valley community.

As the year rolls on, the seasons change from one to another and the annual cycle of lambing, shearing and slaughtering comes full circle, Agnes gradually imparts her life's story to the assistant reverend Tóti. Requested specifically by his charge, Tóti has been assigned the task of reconciling the condemned woman to her fate and bringing her back to the arms of God. The rest of the family, whatever their opinions of her (and it does vary greatly), are drawn into Agnes' history, as there is no privacy in a farm croft that only has one room.

Whether the reader believes Agnes' version of events or not (a decision that is left up to the reader) it's sobering to think of the countless times that the fate of an individual has depended on the stories, opinions and judgements of others. In this novel, the only person alive with a comprehensive viewpoint of events is Agnes, yet she is the last one to speak. She is an example to be made and there is little thought given to proving her guilt conclusively. Personally, I really liked Agnes- she is intelligent, resilient and the sections of the novel in which she speaks directly to the reader are the most arresting. Her voice and her words are lyrical and measured, and though she considers it an injustice, she is simply too tired and too powerless to do anything but accept her fate. She is not a victim and she never allows herself to be treated as such, she is just an innately tragic character- like Tess Durbeyfield or Lennie Small. Wrong place, wrong time.

Based on a true story, the book is incredibly well researched, and the lives of the characters and the world that they inhabit feels authentic and alive. It's a haunting, beautifully told story, and it is hard to imagine that such an accomplished work is the work of a début author. Kent's prose is impressive and quite unique in style, full of unexpected thoughts and sudden, striking images. Her descriptions of the impossible Icelandic winters and the frostbitten, rock strewn landscape are very evocative and some of the blizzards and frosts trigger a few involuntary shivers (and this even from a definite cold-weather dweller like myself). Though Iceland is a country that is infrequently featured in fiction, Burial Rites carefully and confidently brings to life the communities, customs and landscapes of such a unique country. Hannah Kent has done an incredibly good job of evoking the isolation, the grimness and the beauty of life on the edges of the world, and the character of Agnes Magnúsdóttir is going to haunt a lot of imaginations for a long time.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers

Prolific colourer-inner Duncan finds a pile of mysterious letters addressed to him, all written in different colours. They are letters from his worn out crayons and inside the envelopes they all say the same thing: they quit!

Red never gets a break, blue is overused (too much sea & sky), Pink feels left out, and White just can't see the point in himself. Beige understands that he's boring. Green has no complaints, but wishes that Yellow and Orange would just sort out their differences. And peach...well, Peach has entirely separate problems all of his own.

Firstly, congratulations Oliver Jeffers on another incredible project. Honestly the most distinctive, most consistently flawless illustrator since Quentin Blake. He has managed to make something as inanimate as coloured lumps of wax come alive with character and personality. I'm constantly baffled by the extent of his creativity and imagination, and I hope I continue to be so for a long time.

Despite being about 5 times the intended audience for this book, it actually produced an out-loud laugh from me, sat alone in an empty library. The amount of character in this story is incredible- each page is the letter from the crayon in question, angrily scrawled in its own wax (so the text is embedded in the illustration). Each is accompanied by some coloured drawings- evidence, if you like. The entire story is told through images, and each image adds more to the picture of the unhappy crayon box. Though we never see much of Duncan, we know all about him through the drawings that's he's made.

I can't see why any kid would ever not love this book. Everybody loves colouring, right? And every child imagines their possessions being alive at some point or another. I think they're going to love this. It's funny, relatable, and the drawings (dinosaurs, whales, pirates) are going to be very familiar to the aspiring illustrators that are going to be reading this.

A potential winner, without a doubt.

I love Green's conspiracy face...

Oliver, by Brigitta Sif

I can see why people have kids now. It's so they can buy them incredible picture books of joy like this. Oliver is simply a beautiful story about growing up different and the wonder of eventual connection.

Oliver doesn't like to spend time with other children, preferring to play with his puppets and stuffed animals that he carts around in a little red waggon. Nobody really bothers him about it. He is the subject of many curious glances from family, friends and other children, but lost in his fantasy world of adventure and imagination, Oliver doesn't really notice. He doesn't speak throughout the book, but neither does anybody else. Oliver is truly in another place entirely.

Beautifully illustrated in rich Earthy browns, purples and greens, the world that Oliver occupies physically is tonally very intricate and beautifully realised, but it lacks colour and wonder. It is creative in its execution, in that it deliberately points out the drudgery or real life. The reader can only imagine, from the outside looking in, what Oliver sees through his own eyes. Obviously this is not a criticism of the artwork- the illustration is stunning, I think it's a really clever way of demonstrating how detached Oliver is.

I was so happy for him by the end. There is nothing more amazing than discovering you are not the only odd person around.

Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart

Earth Abides is the story of the almost extinction of the human race due to a deadly contagion, and the eventual rebirth on human civilisation. Said to be at the head of the Post-Apocalypse novel family tree, the book follows the path of a Californian man and his attempts to continue civilisation in any way that he can.

When Isherwood Williams emerges from his geographical studies in the Californian mountains and he returns to find the town deserted, dogs roam the streets, cars line the sides of the roads and all the newspapers re dates two weeks ago. Foraging for his food and making use of the city's stores of electricity and water, Ish considers himself fairly well suited to isolation. Socially awkward, a bit introverted, prone to spending weeks alone in the mountains and even minus appendix; he seems the ideal candidate for "last man alive". Seeing as there is nobody to prevent him from doing so, Isherwood decides to take a road trip across America, heading for New York, Chicago and other big cities to see how many stragglers make up the remainder of the human race and to decide what to do with the rest of his life...

Upon his return (plus canine friend), Isherwood establishes "the tribe"- an assortment of friendly local people, strangers initially, that establish a comfortable but simple way of life amongst the empty streets of the town. Living communally and making decisions together, the old world adults build a stable but isolated community. As their community is swelled by children and grandchildren, Isherwood tries his hardest to keep 'civilisation' alive, trying to promote reading, democracy and practical skills.

The novel raises some interesting questions about religion and the skillset and legacy of mankind. Isherwood, one of the last remaining Americans, is a professor and so values learning, books and academic pursuits. His children and grandchildren don't- they fidget through school and want to run wild outside. It makes the reader wonder 0from which stage in human history the second era of humanity might have resumed if the group had had different skills, or if it was composed of other randomly spared individuals. A farmer, for example might have continued from the stage of the agricultural revolution, advancing the community by several thousand years. As it is, humanity returned in San Francisco to a hunter gatherer lifestyle- scavenging for tins and dry goods and relying upon what was left behind from the 1940s and resorting later to hunting for cattle and mountain lions.

Isherwood actively scorns religion throughout, scoffing at the children's primitive superstitions and their half made, improvised belief systems- he believes new humanity will be better off without religion. The construction of new systems of belief is something that the book observes and wonders at frequently. Isherwood is stunned and intrigued by what appears to be an entire religious system, complete with gods and holy symbols germinating in the consciousness of those born after the disaster. Its culmination at the end of the book is almost tragic- Isherwood has truly become the last American and now he has no control over what comes afterwards, or how others will remember him in the future...

There are some really beautiful descriptions throughout this book- simple but evocative. The empty glass and concrete of New York's deserted skyscrapers, the musky silence of the University library and the precious knowledge and human history that it preserves, the gradual decay of the human world as nature reclaims the country. The shepherd free sheep roaming the fields and the re-establishment of a natural food chain. The Golden Gate Bridge looms over the tribe's settlement, reminding all who remember of the once great capabilities of the human race. It's quite a powerful thought- the hard work and progression of almost two million years lost in two generations.

Though it is not a pacey book by any means, I really enjoyed this novel. Isherwood is an interesting protagonist, and the reader really gets to understand him and the motivation behind his behaviour. His frustration at his inability to steer his tribe in the direction that he thinks best is understandable, and his persistence is impressive, his decisions often difficult. It's easy to become invested in his survival and the survival of the tribe, though none of its members are characterised enormously. There's something about the isolated community living off the land that really appeals to me. Bring on the demise of the human race.