Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Bunker Diary, by Kevin Brooks

The Bunker Diary, Carnegie, 2014, CILIP Carnegie, WinnerThe day that begins with Linus Weems assisting a blind man with a suitcase ends with him captive in a deserted, underground bunker. Completely sealed and empty of any other inhabitants but equipped for six, Linus knows he won't be alone for long. He searches the bunker for clues, escape routes and sharp objects and finds only surveillance cameras and microphones. He waits. Sure enough, the buttonless lift (the only way in or out) eventually delivers another victim the following day, a 9 year old girl called Jenny. The new arrivals roll in, each with a different story about how the unknown man overcame them; a muscly casual labourer, a sleek property saleswoman, a fat commuter and an ageing physicist. No connection, no pattern. The pieces are now all in play and the captor's games begin.

The captor, Him, as he is referred to in the novel, subjects his collection of prisoners to slow, deliberate torture and torment- remotely controlling the temperature, the lighting, the supply of food and even the pace of time. Like the Sims, but with real people. Linus writes a diary of his existence in the bunker, the routines, the boredom, the failed escape attempts and the cruel punishments for their attempts. He talks about the friction of six strangers living in captivity together, the nature of time and identity, the motivations and psychology of their captor and tormentor. Is he holding them for entertainment? Is it a game? A project? A power thing? The author has risked alienating their readers (and it's paid off) to demonstrate how isolated the characters are, and how frustrating it is to know so little.

The diary provides an intimate insight into the thoughts and feelings of Linus the narrator, his protective love for Jenny obvious throughout. He's incredibly real, and is so engaging as a character. He's a bit messed up, confused and angry, but all in all he's not too different from the average teen. The idea that he could quite easily have been any other given individual is unsettling and all things considered, he comes off incredibly well in the circumstances. I can't see how any reader would not be rooting for Linus- he's proven himself in the bunker which makes him a brilliant protagonist.

This book was remarkable in its ability to create unendurable tension and suspense. The reader sees only the bunker's side of events, the movements, motivations and environment of Him, the captor, remain unknown. Our guess is as good as anyone else's and it's incredibly frustrating to be denied access to such a crucial character. The way some of the prisoners cope with impossible circumstances and under such strain is admirable- The Bunker Diary shows that good people come in all guises and from all backgrounds, as do bad, weak or greedy people. It shows too that the human race is capable of great and horrific things. Torture, cruelty and abuse, yes. But also love and hope and comfort, even when it seems pretty desperate. It shows that in difficult circumstances and in impossible predicaments a person's true nature shows through. Being captive in the bunker forced Linus to become the person he'd always avoided and forced him to come to terms with his broken home life.

I was absolutely enthralled by this book. The prose is masterful and the plot impossible to even guess at- it would make an incredible film. It's fraught and harrowing, but there's a sense of camaraderie and community about it. There's defiance and solidarity and a resilience that's incredibly uplifting, despite the relentlessly grim plot and the unhappy ending. Linus never allows himself to be demeaned. He endures and he resists, the only actions that keep him going. The ending too is uniquely grim, but any other outcome would have felt like cheating. A worthy winner, congratulations Kevin Brooks.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell

Rooftoppers begins with a one year old baby floating in the sea in an cello case as a ship submerges in the distance. Scooped out of the water by the eccentric, bookish oddball Charles Maxim, he vows to be her guardian, unaccustomed though he is to babies (and people in general). He names her Sophie, an ordinary name to counterbalance an extraordinary start in life. She grows up to be an oddball free spirit herself, fond of Shakespeare and books, understanding dreams and nature and learning never to ignore a possibility. However, the Government authorities start to question how appropriate it is for Sophie to remain Charles' ward, considering her unacceptable lack of femininity and social education.

They run away to together France to avoid separation and to seek Sophie's mother, who Sophie believes to be alive despite the slim odds. Charles is less convinced, but he succumbs to Sophie's wishes because he is a nice man who does not believe in writing off the merely improbable. Shut up in her attic hotel bedroom for safety, Sophie begins to explore the rooftops of Paris- to find space to breathe and think freely. Here she meets the remarkable Matteo, a boy who calls the rooftops home and possesses the climbing skills, balance and grace of a cat. Together they scour the rooftops of Paris, looking for the musician mother that Sophie believes is out there somewhere.

I really liked the character of Charles, because he is odd and inexhaustibly kind and patient- but he kind of disappears for the entire middle section of the book. I wonder why such a pleasant character is largely forgotten-the portion that Sophie spends on the roofs of Paris, nocturnal and eating rats, Charles never has so much as a mention. I think he is off trying to obtain a lawyer, I forget. I also liked the idea of rooftop communities, living under the stars and fending for themselves, but I did not find the lengthy descriptions of the acts of climbing and jumping particularly interesting. Nor the rest of the characters I'm afraid. It's not that Sophia and Matteo were bad characters, I just found their artistic musings a little tiresome, and I really didn't understand why Sofia wouldn't take the safest (and less fight-inducing) route to her destinations, namely the pavement.

As the book went on the spacey, synaesthesia inspired 'I'm so random and eclectic' metaphors started to get on my nerves considerably. "It sounds like the music a rainstrom would play", "She is cut from the stuff of the moon", "If love had a smell it would be of hot bread" or two would sound charmingly insightful, but they're thick and fast and I just found the style of prose almost unbearably twee. No doubt others would find it charming or comforting, but I'm afraid this book just isn't for me.

I know this book has been incredibly well received and has gathered many fans and awards, but I'm afraid I am entirely missing the attraction. I was disappointed by the plot, with most of the characters and found the style of prose incredibly off-putting. I'd be immensely surprised to see this win the Carnegie- it feels like it's pitched at a much younger audience and it just doesn't have the grit and the impact of previous winners and the rest of this year's shortlist.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Blood Family, by Anne Fine

The book starts with the Police and Social Services breaking down the door and forcing entry into a dark, squalid flat. Seven year old Eddie has not been outside for years. He's shared a filthy blanket with the dog in the corner of the room, lived on cheap bread and cheese and is bruised and silent, shrinking into the wall in terror at every sound or sudden movement. His mother has been beaten into a state of vacant dependence by her abusive partner. She is frozen in armchair, keening and unable to move or speak.

To start with, Eddie seems like he has escaped his traumatic upbringing unscathed- as a seven year old he's bright, responsive and eager to please. He responds well to the care and attention of his foster family, then his adopted family. He seems remarkably normal, considering regular things like swimming or going to the supermarket are totally new experiences to him. The problems really start in his early teens when Eddie makes a horrible discovery about his biological father that sets him on a destructive path to drugs and alcoholism.

Blood Family is beautifully written, it's a tragic and thought provoking story about the struggles of living with the after effects of violence, emotional trauma and neglect. Eddie struggles through adolescence battling feelings of worthlessness and fear and slides into destructive, damaging behaviour, despite the efforts of everyone around him that cares for him. I think many readers will be able to relate to Eddie's self sabotaging behaviour, even if their personal circumstances are difficult. His struggle with self esteem and confidence, and his fear for his future feel universally understandable, as is his desire to escape.

I thought the structure of this book worked brilliantly. The various narrators from different agencies voice their experiences and opinions in a way that builds up a complete picture of the pitfalls and practices of the adoption system, the thoughts that haunt those from troubled backgrounds and the tireless efforts of individuals in the care system to patch up the damage they can manage with the children they care for. They're honest, conversational accounts from different perspectives and even the most fleeting accounts seem important, adding their voice to the choir. Each of the characters has their own flaws and issues, seem full and unique and each contributes to the story brilliantly. Many of the characters' recollections of Eddie were incredibly touching and written with an understandable mixture of anger and tenderness.

Blood Family raises questions about the bond of blood and its importance; is your future determined by your genes? Is a person doomed to follow the same path as those blood relatives that have gone before them? Is background important in the making of a person? The novel handles numerous complex and difficult subjects tactfully and with care- the nature of addiction, adoption, the aftermath of abuse. Eddie blames his mother for allowing Bryce to destroy her, for having no backbone and for retreating mentally, but the book does not blame her and neither do many of the novel's other narrators. It highlights the ways that domestic violence can be committed methodically, psychologically and consistently under the noses of family and friends and has the capacity to change the victim beyond recognition.

It can't be described as an enjoyable book, but it's brilliantly crafted, engaging and incredibly emotional. I can't even imagine what surviving neglect, violence and abuse must be like, and Eddie and his mother are both very inspirational characters just for managing to survive. It made me realise too that whilst the care and justice systems might not be perfect, there are so many good people within them that just want to help to rebuild people's lives. Fictional though their account might have been, it was quite humbling to know that people like the characters in this book exist in the real world, and horrific to realise that there are Eddies and Lucys out there too. A brave, inspirational book about living with impossible fear and excessive emotional damage.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Survive, by Alex Morel

After almost a year in a mental institution, Jane has saved up enough good will points from the doctors and nurses for a trip home. She's planned her trip down to the finest detail- she'll catch the supervised shuttle, board the plane, sit quietly for takeoff, then slip to the bathroom and take a fatal dose of pills. "Flicking her own switch" she calls it, killing herself like her father and her grandmother before her...

But Jane's flight does not go her way, despite all her careful planning. During her scheduled trip to the bathroom, the plane encounters turbulence and everything goes black. Waking up wedged inside a plane toilet cubicle, surrounded by charred bodies and smoking wreckage on top of a snowy mountain changes Jane's plans dramatically. Together with the only other survivor Paul, a boy whom Jane had found incredibly annoying during their short pre-flight interaction and later discovers dangling over a cliff anchored to the Earth only by his jammed seat belt, Jane learns that she doesn't want to die, actually.

I thought this book was absolutely gripping- not just the survival element, which was tense and brutal in its own right, but also the emotional transformations that both characters undergo. The loss that the characters have sustained, the pent up grief and anger that has festered inside them for so long is brilliantly captured and it's right that this common experience is what brings them together. The reader can really sense the weight that lifts from the shoulders of both Jane and Paul as they abandon comfortable lies and defences and begin a truly honest relationship- each depending on the other for survival. The book deals sensitively with loss, suicide, depression and the tangled mess of human psychology. Jane's battle with survivor's guilt, feelings of abandonment and resentment are really illuminating and the complexity makes her a very appealing character- she shows the strength and bravery that's required in the struggle with mental illness, and proves how extraordinary and resilient people can be when it comes to weathering adversity and experiencing trauma. She's also sulky in places, and occasionally frustrating and grumpy, which makes her seem all the more real.

Jane narrates in the first person, and I think the author does an excellent job of recreating a teen voice that's both sympathetic and realistic. Jane's crippling self doubt, her anger and her insecurity are evident in her style of speech- she's a good narrator, swearing in appropriate places, experiencing credible doubts and displaying justified fear in places without lengthy chunks of exposition.

A very strong debut with broad appeal- really tense and thought provoking and handles a whole host of difficult subjects in a way that shows the sufferers of mental health issues to be fighters, not victims. I'll be keeping an eye out for future novels from Alex Morel.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The 2014 Re-read of Harry Potter

A few pictures of Myself (brown) and my lil Sister (blonde) at Harry
Potter Studios. Excuse my deathly pallour- worst cold ever...
Following a visit to Harry Potter Studio Tours over May half term, I decided that it was time to re-read the Harry Potter series. This is kind of a big deal for me. I've gone about 8 years without a whiff of Potter. I've thought about picking them up again, but was always scared that it wouldn't be as good. I didn't want to break the spell that Hogwarts has had over me for the majority of my life. I can't live in a world where Harry Potter was disappointing.

From the age of about 12 to about 18, I read nothing else. Apart from stuff they made you read at school Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Abomination and Of Mice and Men, for the record). I remember Prisoner of Azkaban coming out, thinking "GOD another of those stupid Harry Potter books?? What is it, the millionth one?" Yes I was that cool, way too cool for Wizard books. But then I read Philospher's Stone in an afternoon and never looked back.

I read them over and over. I remember my English teacher pleading with me at parents' evening to read something else. Not having any of it. Then  Goblet of Fire came out (after an agonizing wait and many rotations of books 1-3) and that got added to the cycle, then  Order of the Phoenix and so on, round and round until Deathly Hallows in 2007. And then it stopped. It was done. After waiting years for the circle to be complete, it was. I read other things.

Until three weeks ago when I burst the cellophane on my new hardback boxed set and read them again. The only way I can describe it is coming home after a really long holiday. As daft as it sounds, Harry Ron and Hermione are my friends too, even though it's been a while. I earned them with the hours and hours I spent with the books, the held breaths and the tears and the out-loud laughs. The end of Order of the Phoenix still chokes me up and I dawdle towards the end of Half Blood Prince try and delay the inevitable...You feel the rage, grief, pride and struggle as much as anybody in the book, and I'd forgotten how brave and brilliant Neville and Luna are- they're unsung heroes that will die for their friends and their cause. It might not be the most sophisticated prose in the world, but it's so ridiculously powerful and it's storytelling at its finest. It is simply the perfect series.

My sister is currently re-reading now too, as is my Aunty. It's catching #PotterForLife

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

When Mae Holland lands a dream job at the Circle's Californian campus, she is overjoyed. The envy of every other business in the world, the Circle pride themselves on their transparency, their humanity and their sharing. Always sharing. Combining social media, targeted advertising, payment information, email, personal details and everything in between, the Circle is the Internet and boasts billions of daily users and innumerable pieces of content in every form. Ran by the "Three Wise Men", it is information and it is communication. Among their numerous life-enhancing innovations is "TruYou", a single integrated user interface that streamlines and records every internet interaction and purchase- essentially a digital record of you.

Mae tries hard to fit in to this Utopian community that she finds herself a part of. She excels at her work in Customer Experience where each transaction is scored and rated by the customer, she averages over 95% in her first day which is something of a record. She goes to social events and updates her news feeds, meets wave after wave of cheerful, smiling people who say "awesome" a lot and wear overly casual dress. As Mae begins to gather additional responsibilities in advertising, product development, training new recruits, opinion polls, she has another screen added to her desk. Another information feed to keep an eye on, another company-wide score to keep in the top percentile. She feverishly posts smiles, zings, comments and photos, video, opinions about everything that she sees and does in her inner circles and outer circles...She absorbs herself in her online self, transmitting every aspect of her life online and backing up every experience, thought and movement in 'the cloud'. It's not long before her digital life starts to take over, before she cannot eat, sleep or pee without broadcasting her activities and whereabouts to millions of around the clock viewers. It's if Orwell had Twitter and could see where the digital world of over-sharing is going long-term.

I really enjoyed this- certainly a very relevant, believable addition to the corporations-as-government strand of dystopia (the one so often disguised as Utopia). Yes there were some fairly clunky metaphors (the big shark consuming the rest of the trench ecosystem) and in places the prose didn't really flow brilliantly, but the concept, the satire that might be tongue-in-cheek, might be a scathing critique of modern humans and the sheer menace of the Circle were all excellently done. The pace was ramped right up towards the end as the Circle nears completion- 100% surveillance of 100% of the population 100% of the time, through manipulation, scaremongering and brainwashing. I found the idea of the horror of life not just without privacy, but where privacy is almost criminalised and introverts seen as being socially damaged was genuinely chilling. I just wanted to throttle Mae though- alienating her family, her friends, competing with her colleagues and desperately craving the attention and approval of hoards of strangers.