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...