Thursday, 17 December 2015

Remix, by Non Pratt

Remix is a whirlwind weekend for school leavers Ruby and Kaz who are looking for an opportunity to blow of some post GCSE steam and to get over some ex boyfriends. Ruby is looking to forget all about her tattooed, pierced and be-biceped bad boy Stu, who is generally acknowledged at this stage to be a bit of a scumbag. Kaz is hoping to bump into rugby playing, short-trouser wearing Tom, who has inexplicably dumped her after years of being one half of love's young dream. The pair's favourite band Gold'ntone are playing, there will be bands, there will be boys, there will be booze. Obviously things don't go entirely to plan. Kaz and Ruby have their friendship tested over the course of the weekend by intruders (in the shape of hanger-on Lauren, Tom's secret new girlfriend hell bent on befriending Kaz) Rockstars that aren't all they've cracked up to be, exes showing up where they're not planned, brothers having strops, secrets, lies and gossip.

I've been to 5 festivals in my life, so I'm not exactly Kate Moss in Hunter Wellies, fringe and artfully dishevelled "Festival hair"/flower crown, but I've been to enough to totally identify with Ruby's initial experience. Well, some of them at least. The whole 'I get these people, these are my people' thoughts. Like normal life isn't quite real, and all the people at this festival are somehow part of your tribe and now the mother ship has called you home and you're all going to live forever more in this mud and bunting Utopia. I really liked how authentic that felt and it kind of made me yearn for all the gross fun of festivals.

There were loooooads of things I loved about this book. I loved that it was mostly about friendship and the ups and downs that come with intense relationships. Yes there is romance involved, but the plot focuses more on how romance affects friendship, how mates react to their friends dealing with mistakes and heartbreak, and how messed up everything can get when things aren't talked about. Ruby and Kaz were brilliant characters and I totally loved them both. Shout out also to the brilliant supporting cast, especially Ruby's bro Lee and his boyfriend Owen, who brought so much more to the story. They made it also about brother/sister relationships, and sister/brother's BF relationships and the whole massive web of connections and links that ripple out and out across everybody in a person's life. Not just about teen romance and love triangles but the whole domino effect.

Although I loved the story and all its drama, I found to my surprise that I found it quite difficult to keep the characters of Kaz and Ruby separate in my head...Though the girls themselves are very different (Ruby is obviously much more boisterous and outspoken, wheras Kaz is measured and day-dreamy) their style of speech was quite similar. And both characters still had dialogue in the other one's sections, so I found myself constantly thinking- whose bit is this? Whose thoughts are these? Though it was the same technique employed in Non's earlier book Trouble, I felt that I slipped into the minds of Hannah and Aaron much easier, and could keep their unique voices completely organised in my head. Though Ruby and Kaz are chalk and cheese, I think the voice is similar...and that made me struggle with this book more than I had expected.

I really liked this book, and would definitely recommend it to older teens- I just think they'd get the most out of it. Though other girls nicking your bestie is a popular theme in Middle Grade fiction, I feel it's seen less often in YA, which often has more of a romance-related-peril tone. I think Non has really channelled 16 year old brains here- she's really captured how important and identity-defining music is at 16, how desperately we cling to friends at that age, how much we dread them finding someone better. It is after all much easier to share a BFF with a boyfriend than it is to share them with another friend, again something that is explored beautifully in this story.

So maybe it doesn't have an overtly happy ending, but it's a positive ending. The book shows that people can make stupid mistakes and not be awful, terrible people. It shows that sometimes you can be wrong about people. Sometimes you can come back from mistakes and sometimes it's best to just write it off and move on. Families are complicated, friendships are complicated and being a teenager is impossible because you're never really entirely sure what you want, what to do when you've got it, or if it's worth what it cost to get it. A really, really enjoyable read that I hope will start a trend for more brilliant books about female friendships and the things that test them.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot, the internationally famous detective and esteemed moustache-sporter, is recalled to London unexpectedly and so boards the Orient Express in Istanbul, the location of his most recent (successful, ovbs) case. The train is unusually crowded for the off season, but he manages to secure a berth with the assistance of his friend Monsieur Bouc, a director of the train company.

Poirot observes (and silently judges) his fellow passengers over dinner on the first night, habitually noting their arrangement, demeanour and behaviour. An impressively ugly but intimidating older lady; an upright British Colonel type; a prim and pretty young governess; an unpleasant American and his younger travelling companion and valet; a meek Swedish missionary; a handsome young couple that look quite wealthy; a large Italian man; a dowdy German woman; a fussy middle aged American woman and a suspiciously nondescript Brit. During the journey, Poirot is approached by an unpleasant passenger whom he has observed being generally disagreeable, a brash and ruddy faced American called Mr. Ratchett. The businessman claims his life is in danger and requesting the services of Poirot to protect him from harm. Poirot, who does not like Mr. Ratchett's face declines the job, informing him honestly of his reasons.

During the night Poirot is disturbed by a scream and a stationary train. He emerges from his carriage and peers into the corridor and observes the conductor in conversation with a succession of other passengers and sees a woman retreating in a scarlet Kimono. The next day, he awakens to find that Ratchett is dead; stabbed 12 times in his sleep. Bouc suggests that Poirot solves the mystery and deduces who the murderer is, convinced he or she must still be on the snowed-in train. Poirot goes about interviewing the passengers and collecting evidence in order to mull it over in his "little grey cells".

This was a re-read for me, so the big reveal was already known- however I had forgotten the details, so it was still an immensely enjoyable read. I love Agatha Christie's sparseness, how composed her prose is and how rigidly plotted. There is not an ounce of fat to be trimmed from her narratives; everything is so tight and precise, nothing superfluous or overladen. 95% of the book is Poirot collecting evidence and thinking aloud, then he wraps up the solution in the dying pages, much to the characters' and readers' surprise. It is a meticulous process, as one shifty individual after another is brought before the detective to have their evidence picked apart with tweezers. Christie has a knack for making such far fetched motives and crimes seem totally reasonable, and it's a genuine pleasure to try and attempt to unravel the web of lies and all-too-convenient alibis.

Modern readers are sometimes uncomfortable with Christie's perceived xenophobia, occasional sexism and racism, which is evident in some of her characters (for example Bouc is convinced only an Itialian could stab with such fury and passion, which Poirot agrees with as a sentiment, if not as a solution, and that a woman would never be capable of such strength). You can't get away from the fact that this book was written in 1934, so there will be some sentiments expressed that would not be acceptable today...books are products of their time after all...but it's worth a read in spite of its flaws. Can you call it flaws if a book merely reflects contemporary attitudes? Either way, AC truly is the undisputed queen of the detective procedural, and it's a truly iconic story of things not being what they seem and the nature of injustice. The conclusion raises interesting questions about justice and revenge, and whether or not vengeance can sometimes be justified...

Friday, 27 November 2015

All of the Above, by James Dawson

New girl Toria Grand has been dragged away from her home and her friends to a festering seaside dump thanks to her dad's new job. Starting a new school on the first day of sixth form, she just want to get in, get on and get out, preferably to uni and away from Brompton on Sea. Resigned to stares and whispers, attempting to be innocuous, not saying anything weird and not coming across as Needy McDesperate, Toria soon finds herself adopted into a misfit bunch of the strange and the odd- Brompton's most colourful characters that dare to have some personality.

The narrative follows Toria through an incredibly eventful year of her life; through her first real boyfriend, her first sexual experiences, some really intense, unbreakable friendships, a tragedy that will full blown slay the reader and some impossibly tough decisions, much soul searching and a total identity meltdown. Some reviews have criticized this book for dealing with so many issues (anorexia, self harm, homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, it flirts briefly with racism and alcoholism) in a way that seems unrealistic. I disagree completely. Some people's lives are straightforward, some people's more riddled with issues and hiccups and questions that aren't easily answered. I don't believe for a moment that James Dawson set out to write this book with a tick-list of issues to get through.

I really identified with Toria, even though I am supposed to be a proper grown up now. Everything from wondering why an established group of friends are hanging around with you...and are you actually friends or do they just tolerate you and are you actually accepted as part of the group obsessing and second guessing. Everything from being murdered from the feet up by a new pair of Docs to an annual re-read of Harry Potter- I get this girl. This is 17 year old me. Only without the green hair and weird pink pompom jacket. Actually scrap that, it's 27 year old me.

All of the Above is funny (so SO funny) relatable and incredibly endearing. I haven't encountered such a lovable and eclectic cast of characters for years. I loved them all; The Luna Lovegood-esque Daisy with her bushbaby eyes and funny cartoons; the fib-filled Beasley who will one day be handsome but right now has to deal with liking boys; pretentious his-and-hers hipsters Alice and Alex (admittedly the thinnest on the ground character wise); filthy mouthed fuscia haired Polly and her magnetic personality and beautiful boy-band dream boat Nico. Almost every single character felt real enough to have been part of my own school-days weirdo crew. AOTA reminded me of that moment when, as a teen you realise that all the grief you get from the popular kids and the hard gobby kids isn't because you're inherently weird, it's because you don't conform to their standards of ordinary and that's threatening to people that want to blend in and move with the herd. It's a while before you realise that you wouldn't have it any other way. It's so liberating and this book captures that so, so perfectly.

I absolutely loved this book. It will ruin you emotionally in all the best and worst ways and the whole entire spectrum of feels are in there. I loved how Toria's story is full of conflict and confusion but so fluid and natural at the same time. I love the idea that anybody, anywhere can fall in love with somebody of the same gender, much to their own surprise, as easily as the opposite that they've always gone for. It's very Willow Rosenberg (she says something about not liking women, just a woman in particular") I love that one of the characters points out that it's not about boys or girls or biology or who's got what, it's just hot people that are hot for different reasons. It's much better than the social norm, in many ways.

I have no doubt at all that the voice in JD's head is and has always been a teenage girl, because there is literally no other explanation for his uncanny ability to get inside the heads of teenage girls. I love the dialogue in his books- for one it's hilarious, but it's so incredibly authentic and natural, which is next to impossible to pull off. See also: Non Pratt for exceptional teen dialogue. He writes the conflict and the angst, and the being annoyed at yourself for being such a conflicted angsty cliché . The feeling of knowing that 6th form is coming to an end and you're staring over the edge of the unknown precipice into adulthood and it's probably the scariest, most unknowable mystery what's down there.

I like that it's so much more than a girl meets boy story. It's more than a new girl in school story. It's more than a coming of age story, or a "my friend died young" story or a story about finding out who you really are. I love that there's no ending, because when is there? Things change, they don't necessarily end. Most of all I loved Toria and how well she handled everything that adolescence threw at her. She followed her heart (how naff does that sound) and ended up happier and a better, more secure person for it. She was willing to shut her eyes and go for it and I admire that in a person.

TL:DR it's an amazing, funny, tragic story about teens and the things they have to deal with and my love and admiration for James Dawson knows no bounds.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett

This is the first Terry Pratchett I have read- following his death earlier this year and due to the fact that I've had and meant to read a copy of this for ages, I suggested it as a book club read for November. Sorry guys.

Not only is it my first Pratchett, it is most certainly my last. I DNFd it folks. I very rarely DNF. I forced my poor, loyal eyes through about 220 pages, but I just could no go on. I got to the Dragon Wyrmberg bit but, after what I considered to be a valiant effort, it had to stop because it was making me hate books and hate reading and wanted to do literally anything else.

The Colour of Magic then. From what I could gather, it's about a magical world on the move, a disc held up by four elephants on a turtle swimming through space. Whatever floats your turtle. On this world is an undereducated wizard called Rincewind who finds himself, for reasons lengthy and dull, the guardian and custodian of an inept tourist from some wealthy mythical part of the Disc, called Twoflower. Twoflower and Rincewind tour what is for one a rugged and exciting once in a lifetime holiday destination, and for the other a mundane but deadly landscape. Along the way they get into a series of tousles and scrapes with trolls, dragons, tree elves and other assorted magical creatures. There's a part where all events that transpire might be decided by The Gods playing a tabletop board game. I think that's what was happening. The plot is incredibly episodic- our characters are captured/held up/threatened by a troll/dragon rider/barbarian/cranky God and they flee/escape/fight them accordingly and on to the next scuffle. Rinse and repeat.

It goes without saying that I did not like this book. At all. I'm not a *prolific* reader of the fantasy genre, but what I have read I've really enjoyed. From what I understand, The Colour of Magic is billed as a humorous parody of the Fantasy genre that pokes fun at its conventions and tropes. However, I found this book to be everything that I was pleasantly surprised to find that fantasy wasn't. Does that make sense? It was full of nonsense terms and ridiculous, underdeveloped characters, dithering trolls and brainless brawny heroes, bumbling wizards and diva dragon queens in skimpy loincloths...none of the fantasy novels I've ever read have been like that. I gather it's supposed to be a parody of fantasy writers such as Tolkein and Le Guin, but it came across as distinctly mean spirited and bitter. Tolkien's Middle Earth is a limitless expanse of wonder and imagination, his characters awe-inspiring and memorable. Yes there are a lot of them, but they all have functions and personalities and an essential group dynamic...I felt really defensive of Tolkien reading this and got kind of angry at how TP was mocking a genre that offers so many books that are so much better than his. Not just better stories, but better writing, better pace, better craft generally. I will say one thing though- I did like Death and hoped he would pop up more often, as his bemusement and stoic perseverance was one of the oly element of the book that I enjoyed.

Good parody is a loving homage, an acknowledgement of the traditions and conventions of a genre. It's funny. It works as a text in its own right. Hot Fuzz and Shawn of the Dead are brilliant homages to their genres. Scream. The Cabin in the Woods. They all show understanding and love of the genres they're sending up, an inside out knowledge and expert examination of convention and the audience's expectations. The Colour of Magic is to Fantasy what Scary Movie is to horror films. It becomes the very thing it thinks it's lampooning- in this case bad, generic fantasy.

I won't be returning to the Discworld. I had looked forward to reading this and had taken it for granted that I'd love it, so it was quite a weird feeling to have managed my expectations so badly. The Discword novels have such a fun fanbase that are both vocal and incredibly loyal and I'm sad that I have to hold my hands up to them and shrug. Not only do I not get it, I actively dislike the object of their fandom.

Monday, 16 November 2015

The Mist, by Stephen King

Following a particularly violent summer storm the small lakeside community of Bridgton, Maine is bracing itself for more unusual weather. Commercial artist David Drayton, one of the town's longest standing residents decides to head into town to stock up on emergency supplies for what he assumes is an approaching weather front. He can see the mist rolling in from the other side of the lake and wants to be prepared. He leaves his wife at home picking her way through the wrecked plot and the damaged house, taking his son Billy and his cantankerous neighbour Brent Norton with him as a gesture of neighbourliness after a previous property dispute.

To begin with it's emergency protocol as usual. Canned goods and orderly queues, bottled water and patience. While David and Billy are in the supermarket queue the mist rolls in, but it seems unnaturally thick, otherworldly in its slow pace, its swallowing up of sounds and straight lines, and it reduces visibility to 0%. When a town resident comes bursting into the market, bleeding and screaming about monsters in the mist it doesn't take long for order to descend into chaos. David, stranded with a few tourists and out-of-towners and a handful of familiar faces, one or two army personnel and the supermarket staff suddenly has a situation on his hands and a supermarket full of scared and desperate people.

While the idea of gigantic, flesh eating colossuses from other dimensions seems far-fetched, it’s really not the point of the story, just a scenario that lets the story unfold. The characters themselves struggle to believe what’s happening to them, finding it ridiculous, impossible, even insulting that anybody could possibly suggest that this is anything other than bad weather. The main theme of the story is human behaviour, how fear, desperation and isolation can bring out unexpected character traits and turn previously rational, ordinary people into bloodthirsty monsters. Narrator David is astonished to see Ollie Weeks, the unassuming and thoroughly ordinary market assistant-manager revel himself to have a level head, a good aim and a hidden heroic streak. Mrs Carmody on the other hand, the town kook becomes a hell-fire and brimstone preacher, predicting death and carnage and the end of days. Although that's a less surprising transformation. What’s really interesting is how people change in a pressurised, enclosed environment, faced with certain death or each other. It's fascinating how quickly the pack mentality emerges and how easily people slip into us Vs them discourse.

I really enjoyed The Mist and am definitely going to read some of the other stories in Skeleton Key, though this is by far the longest in the collection. I’m always amazed at how well Stephen King can craft his narrators. They’re textbook every-men, but we get into their heads immediately with only the sparsest but most specific details. David Drayton reminded me a bit of Clayton Riddel from Cell; father and husband (arguably not a perfect example of either but doing his best) thrust into a position of leadership by supernatural forces beyond his control. He’s a very ordinary man trying to survive even though he has no idea what’s going on and people seem to want answers from him of all people.

It’s hard to talk about the book without at least briefly mentioning the film. Unusually, I saw the film first which I really enjoyed, and was retrospectively impressed all over again by how closely it follows the book. Aside from a few small details it’s pretty much page for page, scene for scene right up until the end, which famously differs greatly. With the film the viewer gets two sadists for the price of one with Frank Darabont crushing your tiny ray of hope and then kicking you in the teeth for good measure. Both endings work really well, it's hard to choose one over the other. What are identical stories branch off into two totally different endings that induce completely different feelings in the audience.

I can't stop being impressed by Stephen King and beat myself up every time for avoiding him for so long. The Mist, for such a short book, is really atmospheric, incredibly tense and filled with memorable characters. It’s a survival story, and just like any other flavour of apocalypse, it’s about the human instinct for self-preservation and the unfortunate mental competition between survival and insanity that seems to determine whether or not a person can survive the end of the world. I would very much recommend this as an excellent way in for new SK readers- though brief it has all of his classic elements.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Shirley Jackson’s last novel before her death in 1965 and is primarily concerned with the themes of ‘otherness’, mental deterioration and isolation, both geographically and socially. In common with The Haunting of Hill House, a stately but decrepit and far-too-big house plays a major part in the story, in this case the Blackwood manor house, a lonely and isolated pile in acres of woodland, far away from the snooping eyes of the hateful villagers. Like its inhabitants the house deteriorates and suffers greatly, but it’s still standing at the end.

The story is told from the perspective of 18 year old Mary-Katherine Blackwood, Merricat for short, who lives with her older sister Constance and her disabled uncle Julian who has no recollection of the poisoning that incapacitated and nearly killed him. Twice a week Merricat braves the stares and the whispers of the local village, venturing out just long enough to buy groceries, swap library books and drink a cup of coffee, just to show the villagers that she is not afraid of them. She has a very blunt, unusually candid manner of speaking, but it’s clear from the beginning that she harbours secrets. She’s incredibly paranoid and full of fear and a specifically spiteful form of hatred for everybody but her sister Constance and her cat Jonas.

I don't normally quote from books, but look at this for an opening line;
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.
― Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Jackson does a pitch perfect job of adding paper thin layer upon layer of unease, steadily building tension and a slowly prickling sense of agitation. It’s very hard to pin down what it is that creates such unease (apart from masterful writing, obviously) but the reader understands from page one that the narrator is a very unusual and very psychologically damaged woman. There are no ghosts or monsters, no haunted house and no phantoms; all the fear in this book comes from the unknowable shady corners of the human mind.

Soon enough we learn that six years prior to the events of the novel a collection of murders occurred in Blackwood House. All other members of the family, immediate and extended, were fatally poisoned at the dining table. Investigators found the source of the poison in the sugar sprinkled on blackberries served at dinner. Merricat survived, being sent to bed with no supper as punishment. Constance, the chef on this occasion and the only one who took no sugar on her berries was the obvious suspect, but a lack of evidence sees her acquitted. The murders become notorious, and the three surviving Blackwoods become village curiosities; reclusive, inescapably odd and invisible.
The sisters’ (and Uncle’s) quiet, and ultimately quite happy life is disturbed when a cousin appears at the house, ostensibly there to reconnect with his family after the  disowning of the surviving Blackwood sisters, his intent and motivation is fairly obvious very quickly. His appearance disturbs the tranquil and established routines, routine so scared it’s almost ritual and sets in motion a deadly chain of events that will change life forever at Blackwood house.

This is such a skinny book it can be read in an evening- it’s gripping and absorbing, and it’s really hard to say what element makes it so unnerving. The sense otherliness is all I can attribute it to. Merricat and Constance are not like normal  people and when they keep to themselves they are happy. I loved the psychological element of this novel, the way that small town gang mentality and persecution is explored and the pains that Constance goes to to keep her evidently mentally ill sister comfortable, safe and content. The sisters (and the cat) want for nobody else, they seek out nobody else, and as long as it stays just the three of them, they will be fine.

As far as the plot goes, it’s a very simple plot. But it’s not the plot that makes it. It’s the writing style that is so arresting. When the ‘twist’ (if it can be called that) is revealed, the reader has suspected it for some time. It’s the casual way that it’s presented that makes it notable, not the revelation itself.

Very much recommend. I read it on Halloween thinking incorrectly that it was a ghost story. While there’s nothing supernatural about it, the moody isolation is certainly atmospheric and it’s definite worth a read for its interesting characters and its creepy sensations.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Stonebird, by Mike Revell

A powerful and uplifting début from Mike Revell, Stonebird is a somewhat magical but mostly real-life story narrated by 11 year old Liam. Uprooted from his home and dragged across the country to be near to his ill and fading grandmother, Liam's mum is not coping well with her mother's dementia and the strain drives her to alcohol. Liam finds dealing with his drunk mum tough to handle, and his older sister is of little help. Suddenly rebellious, she's out at all hours with a new boyfriend, breaking rules and ignoring instructions from their mum and seems pretty indifferent to anything going on around her. When Liam starts his new school, he is immediately targeted by bullies. Things aren't going well for him.

Walking his dog one afternoon, Liam comes across an eerie stone gargoyle in an abandoned church. Awed by its size and its ugly but impressive bulk, it reminds him of a gargoyle he read about in his gran's old diary from when she lived in Pre-War Paris- originally adorning Norte Dame cathedral, she christened him Stonebird and believed he offered her protection. Inspired by the connection, he uses this gargoyle as the basis for some stories in class, prompted by his new and lovely teacher. Continuing to find out more about his grandma's younger years, back before she was ill, back before she's even had children, Liam learns about the person stolen from him by dementia, convinced that a devil is inside his gran eating away at everything that ever made her the person she once was.

When Liam starts to see some connection between the Stonebid stories he tells in class and subsequent events, he begins to think that Stonebird might be the answer to all his prayers- getting rid of his tormentors, making his gran better and healing his mum. Liam is about to learn the age old lesson of being careful what he wishes for, and he is going to experience first hand what powerful magic stories can hold.

I liked Liam as a character- he was brave and determined, even if he was a bit naïve (and very understanding of Mark, his main bully). He's an incredibly thoughtful boy who tries so hard to make his mum happy, and he worries so much about her depression and her sad eyes. He accepts quite maturely that not all stories can have a happy ending, but that happiness is always out there somewhere- and that a person can always help to bring other people happiness even when they can't find it for themselves. While the book itself has some quite dark themes, ultimately it's uplifting and is more about the strength of family and positivity. There is no one way of dealing with grief or depression, no magic cure to make everything better, but Stonebird shows that even then, even when things are absolutely awful, people manage and they are stronger than they think.

I had expected more of a magical tale of a boy and his friendship with a sentient, mobile statue, but the narrative is much more real life than that. Liam struggles with seeing his family fall apart, the various mental illnesses and coping strategies, and he sees the devastation and hurt that dementia brings, something that all too many readers will be able to relate to. It's a much darker book than I had anticipated. Liam learns that while the world is very black and white to a child, when he is forced to grow up and mature very quickly, as he is, the line between good and evil and right and wrong is not so clear, and wishes and decisions can have unexpected, sometimes deadly consequences.

Stonebird would be a brilliant and absorbing read for any 10+ child, but it would be especially pertinent to anyone who is experiencing similar issues at home- dementia, as we are forever being told, is becoming more and more common. It would make a great year 7 class reader, enabling dialogue and discussion about dementia, bereavement, and depression. And depression' unfortunate connection with alcohol dependency. An excellent book, a gripping story and much more real life than its magical fantasy elements might originally suggest.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, by Katherine Woodfine

To say something is textbook could come across as a bit of a dig- like it's an obvious choice or a by-the-numbers churned out formula. But that's not what I mean. This is a textbook Middle Grade adventure slice of historical fiction loveliness, something that future MG writers will read in Creative Writing modules entitled "How to Write the Perfect Middle Grade Book". It's got brilliant characters, plenty of shady goings on to secretly investigate, moustache-twirling villainy and a lively and characterful setting.

The book stars 14 year old Sophie, a kind, noble and hard working orphan that's taken a skydive down the social ladder but isn't going to let it defeat her. We also have the beautiful Lillian Rose, a boisterous and daring part time showgirl, part time model and sidekick/BFF of Sophie and lastly Billy, an absent minded but well meaning porter, secretly besotted with Sophie. They work in the soon-to-be-grandly-opened Sinclair's, a sumptuous Edwardian department store, a paradise on Earth that will revolutionise the very idea of shopping, transforming a drab chore into luxurious leisure. Think Mr Selfridge meets Ruby Redfort.

On the eve of the grand opening (no expense spared), a collection of priceless artefacts and trinkets meant for exhibition goes missing. Unjustly, suspicion falls on Sophie as she was one of the last people to see the incredibly valuable one-of-a-kind clockwork sparrow. When she is conveniently dismissed for her position in the millinery department, Sophie must join forces with her new friends and Joe, a street urchin with insider knowledge, to prove her innocence, find the sparrow, get her job back and beat the dastardly (but very discreet) crime-lord The Baron.

Despite its historical setting, there are lots of little inclusions that modern readers can relate to; the schoolyard bullying that Sophie endures from the other shopgirls, the jealousy and reverse snobbishness, the themes of friendship and teamwork, the injustice of being accused of something of which you are innocent. It's not hard to warm to the kind-hearted Sophie, who is a sort of MG Esther Greenwood- neat but impoverished, hard-working and never once bemoaning her reduced situation.

The author has got the balance of regular and archaic language just right, and the tone is just perfect. This might not bother most people, but I personally am irrationally furious when authors are inconsistent with their decision to use period language or archaic terms (the worst is when they just pepper a novel with multiple uses of some random VICTORIAN WORD, like 'tendrils' or 'complexion', and it is evidently a very difficult thing to do, but Woodfine pulls it off impeccably. The book's tone is quaint without ever being sickly, it's consistently in-keeping with the Edwardian setting but also entirely readable and absorbing. It creates a mood and evokes a time so thoroughly and so undetectably that the reader doesn't stop to think about it. It's simply perfect.

The pacing is spot on, the plot just complex enough to support the mystery and allows the reader to experience the thrill of successfully matching up clue after clue, but it's straightforward enough to not become lost or bogged down. The narrative unfolds beautifully into a happy and very satisfying ending. I think fans of Opal Plumstead and Hetty Feather will love this. There are so many awesome girls in fiction right now detecting up a storm see also: Wells & Wong, Lucy Carlyle and Poppy Pym.

I enjoyed this book immensely and really loved getting to know the characters. I'm definitely looking forward to Sophie and Lil's next caper, and I hope we get to find out more about the shop's dapper and mysterious proprietor, the mostly absent so far Mr Sinclair.

Broadway Book Club Discussion of The Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

About half of us in attendance managed to finish the book, some citing a grating style of prose as the reason for abandoning, some were unmotivated to continue by the lacklustre plot and characters. Those that did finish found it a bit of a chore, and hadn't enjoyed it hugely.

We thought that the setting was fascinating and loved the idea of getting a glimpse into the lives of black and mixed race Germans/Americans living in soon-to-be-Nazi Germany and how difficult life must have been, but we felt that the story itself wasn't really worth telling and we felt that it wasn't executed particularly well. Jazz is often presented as a sort of magnet for social oddballs, drawing people in from society's fringes, so thematically it married really well with between-the-Wars Berlin, which apparently attracted lots of renegade fringe artists and musicians at that time. It was commented that the writing style was quite unconvincing and Sid’s vernacular was a little slapdash- one member remarked that the prose was an odd and inconsistent mixture of literary and patois which was off-putting. We thought the author was probably an excellent historian, who painstakingly researched the era and crafted the architecture of Berlin and Paris very well, but forgot to add enough foreground. Being a good historian doesn't necessarily make a good storyteller.

As far as the characters go, I think confusion and dislike were most prevalent. Sid in particular won no fans- while I myself mostly felt sorry for him, many others found him thoroughly dislikeable, bitter and jealous. Overall we found Sid to be a generally terrible person, Chip to be a huge liar and Heiro to be a massive contradiction. The Heiro of the novel's beginning (chronologically the end) seemed to be a totally different person to the Heiro that was in the rest of the novel. In the beginning, he seems like a reckless and headstrong young kid whose stubborn desire for milk leads to him being seized by the Nazis. The Heiro in the rest of the novel is a shy, naive protégée who barely speaks two words together. It just didn’t add up. In a similar sense, many of us struggled to get the timeline in order- the jumping around from the 1930s to the 1990s was easy enough, but the order of events in the 1930s became a bit muddled and we were never sure how long certain scenes went on for (were they hiding out at the club for days? Weeks? It was hard to tell)

One member (who it has to be said, was the only person present that knew anything about Jazz) found the Jazz of the story unconvincing, particularly the way the characters cut the record, and the way the characters appeared to have no training or context, they just popped up out of nowhere. We also agreed that the presentation of the Jazz musician’s lifestyle seemed a bit stereotypical, which disconnected us further from the characters.

We discussed the appearance 2/3 of the way through of Louis Armstrong and how disjointed this felt within the narrative. We agreed it was unconvincing and incongruous for a real-life figure to pop up amongst fictional creations. We felt this might have worked better if this character was a new creation inspired by the real life Louis, rather than randomly inserting him into the narrative. In an already hazy book, this attempt at blurring the line between fiction and reality just didn't pay off.

We discussed the ending, (for those of us that got to it!) and concluded that it felt rushed, too keen to tie up the loose ends. Apart from being slightly unbelievable, it felt odd. We just couldn't believe that Chip, a generally unpleasant character didn't have an agenda for seeking out his long-thought-dead friend. We also though Hiro would have been considerably more angry at Sid’s revelation.

In conclusion. we felt that it focused too much on the love triangle and jealousy element, and kind of forgot about the musical and social elements of the story. One member described it as Hollyoaks meets Fear & Loathing in Nazi Germany, which just about sums it up! Though there were some compelling scenes (mostly fleeing Berlin and Paris) and some characters that we really liked that died or disappeared early (Paul, mostly) I think it was a resounding ‘Meh’ from most of us.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Joe All Alone, by Joanna Nadin

When his mistreated Mum and her bullying, layabout boyfriend Dean go to Spain for the week, 13 year old Joe Holt is left home alone in their dilapidated old flat in Peckham. With £10 for the electric meter and plenty of pasta and beans in the cupboard, Joe has big plans for his week- chocolate for breakfast, as much telly as he wants and unlimited XBox. The anxiety in his stomach, the treading on eggshells tension, the waiting to do something wrong and waiting for the shouting and smashing vanishes, and for the first time in months Joe starts to relax.

Don't answer the phone or speak to anyone. Don't go out or people will report you. These are the only rules he's been left. But on day 2 he accidentally befriends a girl on the landing- the runaway sort-of granddaughter of the Jamaican bus driver across the hall, Otis. So that's one rule broken- but who's going to know? Joe waits for his mum to return, enjoying his freedom and his new friendship with the feisty, celebrity-gossip reading cat-eyed Asha. Asha makes Joe feel good- like she knows him properly and can see past the scruffy flat and his counting tics, and the fact that he loves buses. Their unlikely friendship grows, as the two spend the school holiday on the buses, in the parks and looking at the parakeets- two top-floor fugitives in a dodgy block of flats

Until the day of his mum's return comes. And then goes. With no sign of her or of Dean.

With the money running out, electricity off, cupboards empty, bullies pummelling his face in and some serious-looking gangsters hammering at the door until 2 in the morning, Joe knows his luck in running out. He's going to have to find a more long-term solution for his problem. With his stained and stinking uniform, his greasy hair and unwashed face, it's not going to be long before one of the teachers gets involved- Joe's been told about the ones that pretend to be on your side and then get you landed in care.

There are some excellent characters in this book; kind-hearted Otis, a real gentleman and good Samaritan who was unceasingly lovely, despite Dean's low (and totally unreasonable) opinion of him, the rebellious and fast-talking Asha, and Joe, who I was really rooting for. I hated how grim his life was- the name calling at home and school, the teasing for this anxiety counting and specific interests. I hated that he believed people when they told him he was good for nothing.

The book manages to combine realism and hope really effectively. It feels gritty enough for a MG book, Joe describes his life, Dean's family, his depressing flat with the no pictures on the walls and the stained, dirty furniture. There's the suggestion of domestic abuse, drugs and alcoholism, but it's not over-worked. Joe knows it happens, but he's pretty vague about the details. Same with his Mother's obvious psychological abuse at he hands of Dean- Joe just tries to stay out of it- resigned to the idea that his mum has chosen Dean and this is just how his life is now...the same can be said for Joe's OCD and obsessive traits. They rear their head from time to time, but it doesn't become 'his thing'. Generally, it's pretty clear that Joe is an ordinary kid that comes from a very impoverished, unstable background and has no real outlet for his fears or feelings. I'm glad he found Asha.

Joe All Alone is a really quick, uplifting read that deals with neglect and poverty in a gritty but realistic way. The ending is far from fairytale, and much more mundane real-life than the adventure that it starts off as. It's filled with some memorable and relatable characters, and no magic solutions for all of life's problems. It reminds us that families are complicated, people do stupid things, that thuggish, small time crooks will always take advantage of the weak and that it's important to forgive, but sometimes the thing that you want isn't necessarily the best solution. 
Very much recommended.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

One, by Sarah Crossan

One is the story of 6 months in the lives of Tippi and Grace, 16 year old conjoined twins living in New Jersey. Two heads, four arms, two hearts, two legs; they are joined at the hip. Though they share a body, Tippi and Grace have vastly different personalities, though luckily they get on most of the time. The book is narrated by Grace; quieter, more thoughtful and less antagonistic than her twin, she sometimes struggles to assert herself against her sister, often leaving the talking to Tippi. Personally I think telling the story from the perspective of the quieter twin was inspired, as the reader gets to see the strongest character, the brash, opinionated, sassy Tippi through the eyes of the one person in the world who truly knows her the most. A person that has literally never left her side for a second.

The twins fight everyday to be accepted as individuals, while at the same time living with the difficulties and the logistical impossibilities of inhabiting the same body. What if one chooses to smoke and the other doesn't? What if one gets ill and is bedridden? Though each has their own hobbies, opinions and personality, they come as a package and their bond is more than just skin and bone. Theirs is a literal, unbreakable bond that runs even deeper than sisterhood or love; it’s at the core of who they are. It's interesting to see them as individuals but also as two members of a team that need to work and live together. I loved Grace's musings on all the potential crimes she could hypothetically commit, knowing she could never be imprisoned as Tippi would have to go to prison too, making any conviction illegal. I was charmed Grace's romanticism, her loyalty and her dry sense of humour.

Having previously always been homeschooled, Grace and Tippi are enrolled in High School for the first time when their mother loses her job and their already unemployed father falls further and further into alcohol dependence. Though they make friends (brilliant, wonderful friends in Jon and Yasmin, by the way, glorious, foul-mouthed weirdo outcasts) being out in public is a harrowing experience; as well as the stares and the comments, there are the blatant photos and covert recordings wherever they go. As if being a new kid in school isn't horrible and difficult enough. When the family's financial situation gets desperate, Tippi and Grace decide to do what they'd always sworn not to; sell their story, their lives, their privacy to a documentary film-maker, who records around the clock.

I really liked that the rest of the family is unfolded through this documentary too- we get to see the effects of having conjoined twins in the family through grandma, mum, dad and younger sister Dragon. Dragon especially must have it tough- the third wheel, the one that has to make the sacrifices for both sisters, and does so without resentment. We might witness Tippi's therapy sessions (though not hear them- headphones) and we have a front row seat for Grace's sessions, but there seems to be very little outlet for the rest of the family. Where do they go to talk through the strain? The cost of the medical bills, the weight of the worry? We see what a responsibility Tippi and Grace inadvertently, but inescapably are on the family, how they try to keep everything together for the sake of their version of normal. It made me furious to see how Grace's family struggled financially, like being a conjoined twin was an extravagant lifestyle choice.

A few months into the semester Tippi and Grace are faced with a life altering decision. Following a bout of Flu and a couple of blackouts, Grace contracts an infection that means her heart has stopped functioning properly. The twins need to decide- do they attempt a surgical separation, and risk dying? Or do they stay as they are, together until the end- an end that is a certainty and not very far away at all. Watching them have to make such a decision is heartbreaking, and really makes the reader think about the random, mysterious pot-luck that is life, and all of the unfair, unlikely and unknowable things that happen along the way to people that just don't deserve it.

The end section is so unbelievably sad- the verse just makes it even more so. With verse, there's no need to conform to normal storytelling, no need to be tied to the narrative or the restraints of what makes sense and what doesn't. What the verse allows, at the end, is just pure, overflowing raw emotion, and it's perfect. It really is a beautiful, extraordinary book. To be able to tell such an affecting, emotional and complete story with so few words is an incredible achievement. Every word, every line is essential and the whole narrative is alive with this delicate, lyrical poetry that makes reading this novel a truly illuminating experience. We understand what it might be like to live a life without ever having experienced a moment of privacy or isolation, even if we have never been there ourselves.

I really loved The Weight of Water, and while Apple and Rain was good, I felt it lacked the emotional punch of the former. One packs that same punch. Probably a slightly weightier one. I'm getting ahead of the game and putting this down as a certainty for next year's Carnegie. After two shortlistings in the last 3 years, I think 2016 is Crossan's year.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

The Fishermen is a biblical Cain and Abel type story of prophecy, fate, grief and brotherhood, set in 1993 Nigeria against a backdrop of political upheaval and disappointment, broken promises and extinguished hope. The plot follows Ben and his brothers, 4 promising young men from a middle class background, as their aspirations, hopes and entire lives start to crumble. It's the first title from 2015's Booker Shortlist that I've tackled so far, and I quite fancy its chances.

The story is narrated retrospectively by an adult Benjamin, the fourth brother of 6 siblings, as he recounts a chain of events that began when he was 9. The family's eventual collapse is set in motion when the father, an intimidating and ambitious man with high hopes for his sons is transferred to a different branch of the Central Nigerian Bank, 'camel distance' away. As a result he is forced to leave the family home. He leaves his wife to look after the four older sons and 2 toddlers. Without the long arm of the law wielded by their father, Ben and his brothers Ikenna, Boja and Obembe take advantage of this disciplinary lapse to take up fishing in a forbidden and possibly cursed river. Over the course of six glorious weeks, the four brothers get much joy from fishing and delight in their catches; singing songs, dancing dances, bonding. Though they know they will be severely punished if caught, fishing becomes an addiction to them and the danger seems almost abstract. Ben, the youngest of the four is in awe of his stronger, bigger brothers, and his love for them is obvious. On the afternoon that changes their lives, they meet the village madman Abulu, sprawled naked under a mango tree near the river. Feared by the superstitious residents of the town due to the accuracy of his predictions, Abulu's prophecy foretells that Ikenna, the eldest, will be killed by one of his brothers; will be killed by a fisherman.

It's this prophecy that begins to erode the bonds of brotherhood between the four. Ben talks with fear and sadness about the 'metamorphosis' of his brother- the prophecy, combined with a vigorous beating from his retuned father (with extra lashes for being the eldest ad therefore most responsible) Ikenna's whole personality begins to change. He becomes surly and argumentative, fights with Boja constantly; he becomes disrespectful to his mother and spends all his time holed up in his room- not eating, not washing. Scared of his increasingly erratic behaviour, Boja moves in to the room shared by his younger siblings, away from Ikenna. Their struggling mother despairs at her eldest son, convinced he has been possessed or affected in some way by evil spirits. As Ikenna continues to assert his dominance, the three brothers are pushed to the limit of their nerves, and it ends, predictably and inevitably in tragedy.It's quite Macbeth-esque, the dwelling over the prophecy, the fear and paranoia it creates. It escalates and escalates, until death and revenge and grief is all that's left. It makes the reader wonder about the nature of free will, and our ability to make decisions, about whether or not we are actually the authors of our own misadventures or whether they were in store all along.

There's the contrast between tradition and the modern that seems to be at the core of so many African narratives present in The Fishermen too; the Christian faith upheld by many of the characters is forgotten at times, replaced with superstition and folk-stories; the switching between English, Igbo and Yoruba languages, depending on the topic at hand. Then there was MKO, a symbol of the hopeful future, compared with the dictator of the present. The contrast between the real, logical world of science and the folkish world of curses, demons and spirits. The characters, like Nigeria itself are trying to forge their own identities- it's a coming of age story for the brothers and for their homeland.

I thought this was an evocative narrative that was skilfully spun; the dust of the roads and the acrid heat of the Nigerian summer were incredibly real, and the tension was very skilfully maintained throughout. Even from early on the book has a foreboding inevitability to it. It was hard to read about a family being so thoroughly destroyed, even if it seemed like the only way that events could play out. I loved too how the political situation that forms the backdrop of the novel reflects the fates and fortunes of the Agwu family; promising, hopeful, then ruined.

All in all it was an engaging and tense read that really transported me to its time and place. I became really invested in these characters, particularly Obembe, who seemed so full of rage and sadness. The transformation of the family towards the end of the book is pretty heartbreaking, and it's easy to see what effect shattered dreams have on the mental and physical well-being of a family. A really accomplished debut.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Katy, by Jacqueline Wilson

I've not read a JW book since the age of about 10, but I've heard a lot about her 2015 re-telling of the 1872 'classic' and wanted to give it a try. Firstly I've got to kind of mention the established problem with the original- Katy Carr, of What Katy Did is a 12 year old American tomboy that's always in trouble and getting into scrapes. Long story short, original Katy has an accident that damages her spine and she's confined to her bed for four years. Bitter and angry at first, her period of invalidity causes her to learn patience, kindness and goodness, virtues that had always escaped her and becomes a saintly, shining example to her younger siblings. A terrible misfortune teaches her the error of her unladylike ways and her piousness is rewarded with recovery.

You can see why JW wanted to retell the story.

So. Katy. I LOVED Katy. I loved her energy and wildness, and her imagination. Having lived an adolescence head and shoulders taller than everybody else, I can also identify with her awkward, elbows and knees gawkiness. Sharp tongued and accident prone, she is often thoughtless and even her best intentions lead to disaster. Her family is huge and complicated- a dad, a full sister, a step-mum, a step-sister, two half brothers and a half sister, an ancient cat and an insane dog. Katy finds herself being unintentionally but satisfyingly mean to the simpering and attention-hungry Elsie, her step sister. Though she always resolves to be nicer, it never really works out and any good feeling is normally erased by mishaps and the inevitable tale-telling. Katy's relationship with Izzie, her stepmother is complicated too- as the only one who really remembers her mum, Katy never stops missing her and resents Izzie, she sees her as a betrayal of her late mum's memory and in intruder on her family. Katy's an immensely complicated character, written in a way that makes her instantly understandable and relatable. You just get her straight away. She tries hard to make people happy, but whatever she does to seem responsible or thoughtful or useful ends up backfiring and getting her into trouble.

The first half of the book is warm and funny and flies by- we see Katy entertaining her hoards of siblings with imaginative games and stories, they compete for the attention of their busy Doctor father and we see their slightly haphazard, rough and tumble existence- it's a happy household, but there's a lot of friction and unspoken feelings. Phil, Dorrie, Jonnie, Clover and Elsie are all so full of character and laughs and you can't help but admire Katy's resourcefulness and knack with younger kids. Katy loves to climb trees and skateboard, to plot against Elsie and Izzie and lead the 'littlies' off on wild adventures. Reading as an adult, it's kind of heartbreaking to see how torn Katy is between immersing herself in childhood games and fantasy and her awareness of her impending adolescence, and all the self-consciousness and fear that comes with it- it's nostalgic but at the same time I'm glad my teen years are way behind me.

But when Katy has a horrible, unlucky, life altering accident, she must learn to adapt to her new challenges and new body and still try to stay Katy Carr.Being able-bodied I've no authority on the subject at all, but I think JW did an excellent job of showing the life of a recently disabled person. The anger, the bitterness, the wallowing, the feeling sorry for yourself but furious at the idea of the pity of others. The dwelling on all the things that you'll never get to do and the downright unfairness of it all. It all seemed incredibly real and affecting and really emotional. But Katy has in buckets the quality that I think I find the most impressive in people, and that's resilience. Though it costs her all her strength, she is determined to face school, stand up to the girls that have taunted her all through school, determined to have fun and bang heads together and wreak havoc.

I loved the characters in this book- doodly angsty Dexter, angry at the world but he understands Katy and her pain in a way that nobody else can. Helen, the wheelchair bound academic that is loved universally and encourages Katy not to give up on life just because she's in a wheelchair. Ryan, Katy's friend that she's always avoided getting too involved with because she's so tall, him so short they'd look weird together (because everybody discriminates) Cecey, the best friend who has her wobbles but comes through, and Janine, the paediatric nurse that lets Katy earn her independence. The cast of characters in this book is incredible, they make you care so much and that's why it's such an affecting read.

I love that Katy isn't redeemed because she doesn't need it- her accident changes her life and her world, but she refuses to change her personality. Yes she becomes more mature and courteous, tactful, but that comes with age, not with disability. I love that she still causes chaos and ruffles feathers and gets into fights and makes loads of friends, even in spite of the douchebag bus drivers and eye rolling tutters at the shopping centre. Her disability is unavoidable, she can't pretend it hasn't derailed her life, but she carries on. Not because she's a martyr or a hero, or because disabled people are *automatically* courageous or inspirational just for leading lives, she carries on because what else can you do? She's a brilliant, brilliant creation and she proves that the only person you can ever be expected to be, the only thing that will make you happy is being yourself. That's my favourite book-message,

Also- JW you are amazing for the amount of sneak book recommendations you have covertly dropped in this book (Rooftoppers, The Chaos Walking Trilogy, Hunger Games to name a few). Also THANKYOUSOMUCH for having the school librarian be so amazing and offering refuge and support and strength through books. We're not all chignons and twinsets and a young, dynamic librarian that has *actual ideas about books* and not just a militant love of silence and order is a breath of fresh air.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Cat's Eye, by Margaret Atwood

Cat's Eye is the life's story of Eileen Risley, a reasonably successful feminist-post-something-or-other painter who is returning to her home-town of Toronto for a retrospective of her work. Alone in the city she once called home, Elaine reminisces vividly about her childhood. Set between the Second World War and the late 1980s, young Eileen spends most of her younger years trawling the Canadian woods, camping out and cooking over open fires with her etymologist father, outdoorsy and independent mother and war-game enthusiast turned physicist brother. Eileen has never considered her upbringing to be anything other than normal, never even thought about it.

When she is 8, her father gets a job in the local University and Eileen and her family move into a long term house for the first time. She goes to school on a permanent basis and meets a friend called Carol, who finds Eileen fascinating, marvelling at all of the things that she has never seen or experienced before..exotic items like Twin Sets and dining room tables. Then along comes pious but beautiful Grace. Then Cordelia, mature and mean. Eileen's unconventional background kind of singles her out- compared against her 3 friends she seems unfeminine, uncouth, heathen almost. Having spent so little time in the company of girls Eileen worries about how to behave, about not having a hat or a little purse. Sensing something 'other' and honing in on an exposed weakness, Cordilia, Grace and Carol mercilessly bully Elaine, who's just desperate to be accepted, to fit in and act a part that the others play so easily. After a relentlessly heartless campaign of emotional torture and following a cruel prank that veers close to tragedy, Eileen realises that she has been almost a complicit victim, hungry for their approval and so lacking in courage. She makes a decision to stand up to them for the first time.

After Eileen's resolution to detach from her poisonous friends, the narrative jumps from her childhood to High School, where she re-establishes her relationship with an altered Cordelia. The balance of power has shifted and Elaine finds that she is the one who does most of the taunting these days, becoming notorious for her cruel mouth. We also see her early adulthood, her years as an art student struggling to forge her own identity, as a burgeoning feminist made to feel guilty for her stable, hetero relationship, her affairs with other artists- she claims to find brotherhood easy, but sisterhood a mystery. We see her career take shape, her marriage, her children. She always struggles to form stable relationships with women, right through adulthood and up to her return to Toronto. She is haunted by the spectre of Cordelia, last seen in a mental institution following a failed suicide attempt. She looks for her wherever she goes.

The theme of memory and forgetting runs through the book- Eileen seems to forget, in later life, things that she imparts to the reader with such precision. She forgets her childhood misery, forgets the beloved photo album in her cedar trunk. She forgets about the time her friends nearly killed her and about the beautiful Cat's Eye marble stashed away in her church purse. Cordelia forgets too- she's engineered a whole new childhood for herself were she and Eileen were best friends and Grace was the odd kid, with her piousness and her boring furnishings. Totronto itself forgets- it forgets that nothing is supposed to happen there, that it's supposed to be boring and old fashioned.

Atwood writes women beautifully. Obviously. But her best female characters are the ones that stand at the feet of thresholds. Here we have Elaine on the brink of adolescence- unsure, self-conscious and living in mortal fear of slipping up, of doing the wrong thing. We also have late middle age Elaine, two marriages and two grown up kids under her belt returning to Toronto for a retrospective of her art. She is at the tail end of her career, on the threshold of age and irrelevance. I love Atwood's bitter, older women- the finest of them all being The Blind Assassin's Iris . They way that she describes their feelings of detached displacement; the world has moved on without them, things that were once so solid and dependable are gone, replaced by odd trends and new, patronising young people that wear weird clothes. Notions like making do, or persevering are alien, scorned by the younger generation. Eileen wanders through a strange city, failing to find anything familiar in the gentrified, trendy downtown areas.

I absolutely loved this book. I thought Eileen was a fascinating narrator, and the reader squirms with shame and embarrassment for her, unable to confront her torturers and be herself. I love how Atwood's women are all pioneers; all hacking a path through oppression and patriarchy, fighting to build their own characters. I love how she shows their workings, the rough drafts of 'self' that each character goes through, For Eileen it's the acquisition of a Sunday School outfit, preppy skirts in High School, the turtle necks, Marijuana and severe centre partings in art school. She takes some time to work out who she is and it's fascinating to watch. I think every reader knows what it's like to feel unaccepted, to try so hard to fit in or have imposter syndrome- but it takes half a lifetime to realise that it was all so pointless, that everybody is pretending and that the popular kids are all imposters too. It takes maturity and age to realise that you should have been better than that.

Margaret Atwood is a hero. I could read her books forever, and nothing captures my attention quite like her prose does. If you loved Cat's Eye, which, let's be honest is kind of a given, I'd definitely recommend the Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood, for more childhood to old age narratives of misery, identity confusion and bitterness, The Ecliptic, by Benjamin Wood for another spellbinding story of  a life of art and memory and The Summer of Secrets, by Sarah Jasmon which looks at idealised childhood, memory and being haunted by past friendships.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Chimes, by Anna Smaill

Easily the strangest and most unique dystopia story I've read in a seriously long time, The Chimes takes place in a universe where making memories is impossible and the written word simply no longer exists. Nothing remains of the chaos and 'dischord' before Chimes, it's lost to memory and to history, referred to only as 'blasphony'. Citizens of this amnesiac World carry with them objectmemory, items of significance onto which they have projected an important memory, though most people cannot recall in later weeks or months what the memory is. People's lives are dictated by The Chimes, a sort of musical collective worship ritual that is sounded from The Citadel several times a day...from Onestory in the morning to the final evening Chimes, Matins, which wipes all of that day's memories and they start afresh each morning. But outside of the Citadel in the countryside and cities constant exposure to these sounds are having other side-effects than simply forgetfulness...

The musical theme is one that runs deep in the novel- music is the language by which the characters communicate, issue directions, create maps, send messages and recognise each other. Characters do not run quickly but presto, silence becomes tacet and softness piano. I must admit to utter tonedeafness, so I did have to look most of these up. Being adverbs, it's not always clear from the context what a term means...but I am partial to an invented language, and I think it does an excellent job of illuminating the 'other-ness' of the World, and emphasizing the essential nature of music.

The story follows Simon, a farm-child from Essex who travels to London following the death of his parents from chime sickness. Armed only with his bag of objectmemories and a snippet of song to lead him to a woman called Nettie, he begins his journey. Arriving in a strangely out-of-time London he joins a Pact, a group of other teen outlaws that forage in London's underground tunnels for Pale, a silence-producing substance desired by the Citadel for the maintenance of The Lady. I think. It's here he meets Lucien, an almost blind musical protégé that sees in Simon a rare gift for memory that could be the key to bringing down the Citadel, destroying the Carillion (the instrument of the Chimes) and releasing the truth, the memory and the stories that it steals from the people.

The Chimes took me 2 weeks to read, and I never felt like I was fully submerged in the story; it didn't cast any kind of spell on me and I found it quite easy to put down or become distracted from. However, when I had finished this book, I was ultimately very impressed with it, which I realise sounds contradictory. I was pleased I'd made it to the end, and for once, was thankful for my stubborn reluctance to give up on a book. I really admire the world of The Chimes, a place that is so wonderfully sensory and so full of beauty but rotten with corruption, lies and tyranny at the same time. I find the concept so utterly unique and so unusual that it's worth reading for the set up alone.

I loved the relationship between Simon and Lucien- forging relationships in the World of Chimes seems difficult, and I loved seeing the two of them grow together and their relationship become more than just a quest pairing. The tenderness is palpable, and each of them is in awe of the other; Simon is stuck genuinely speechless by Lucien's musical gift, and Lucien is awestruck by Simon's ability to hold and examine memories in his mind and piece them together in a line- something incredibly rare in the World of Chimes.

Though I struggled with this novel, it is undeniably a literary triumph. The prose is beautiful- full of a strange synaesthesia; light and sound and emotions all mixed together but understood as one. I can only imagine how rewarding an experience it must be for musical readers (which I most certainly am not). The characters are mysterious and compelling, and at its heart its a story of love and goodness and truth overcoming tyranny, however comforting and beautiful the sound of that tyranny. The novel is an odd combination of Christopher Nolan's Memento, Philip Pullman's Northern Lights (in the sense that this world is but a few shades different to ours, but these shades of difference make it seem like another planet, and the altered language) and a sort of Musical Theatre vibe, where singing or composing is a perfectly normal the expected method of expression. Remarkable, but requiring concentration and commitment.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Dandelion Clocks, by Rebecca Westcott

Throughout Dandelion Clocks Liv narrates us through her life from "Thirteen Weeks Before" to "Six Months After". The book begins with a scene that many 11 year olds can relate to; after sneaking out to get her ears pierced, Liv is discovered. then yelled at by her super embarrassing mum in the accessory shop, in front of all the cool girls from school who are going to assume she's a loser. Correctly, because she's nearly 12 and has never had a boyfriend.

When we first meet Liv, she is quite selfish and immature. But she is only 11, so we can forgive her. She spends most of her time avoiding Moronic Louise at school, daydreaming about Ben, taking photographs and keeping her older brother Isaac out of trouble, who has Asperger's Syndrome and gets very agitated if his carefully planned routine is disturbed. Liv doesn't see why she can't have her ears pierced and why she, the younger sibling, has to be the responsible one. Her parents are so uncool and strict and unreasonable.

However, Liv has to grow up fast, and all of her little problems and petty complaints suddenly seem unimportant. It starts with her mum out of the blue showing her how to cook a bolognaise and how to put on make-up, she takes her to buy her first bra (unnecessary as of yet), and loads of new clothes. She takes her to get her ears pierced. Something is wrong- though they're having fun, Liv keeps catching her mum looking sad and she keeps crying all the time- not proper crying, but Liv notices the silent, single tears slide down her cheeks.  We learn, along with Liv, that her mum is really, really ill and is unlikely to get better.

It's through this tragedy and upheaval that Liv's character really starts to develop. We see how much she loves her mum and dad, what good care she takes of her big brother and the talent and passion that she has for photography. It seems contradictory, but it their family seems to grow closer and more united in the face of Rachel's death, and in a way it forces them to really make the most of their strong bonds. Obviously, it also makes everything seem all the more tragic and unfair. Liv is gifted her mum's diaries from when she was 12, in the hope that there might be answers in there when her mum isn't around to ask...These diaries give us (and Liv) insight into the life of a pre-teen Circe 1989 and it shows us that being 11 is stressful and excruciating and full of the same embarrassments and anxieties, whether its in the 50s, the 90s or the 00s.

I love how relatable this book was and how ordinary all its characters seem. The sudden loss of a family member is something that can and does happen to anyone, and the ordinariness of Liv's home life just reinforces that, Losing somebody so important at such a young age must be impossible to deal with, but I think that she handles it well- hitting rock bottom where even getting out of bed seems impossible and working up from there. I like that it shows that you don't have to have led an extraordinary life to have an impact on the lives of the people around you.

All in all, it's an emotional but heart-warming story about grief, bereavement and friendship that would appeal to fans of Jacqueline Wilson  and Annabel Pitcher and readers of A Monster Calls. It is sad, there's no getting away from it, but it's also a touching story of picking up the pieces and resolving to carry on with life. There are lots of themes of memory, loss and family and in places it's genuinely funny. Liv's friendship with BFF Alice is well portrayed (Alice is incredibly supportive and gives Liv space when she needs it, but she's there waiting when Liv is able to continue with her life) and I liked that while the book does give Liv a love interest (she is 12 after all, it would be weird if she didn't have some sort of crush) .

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Flirty Dancing, by Jenny McLachlan

I loved this book! Despite being at least two times the intended reading age (and the rest), having no interest in dancing at all, not to mention an intense hatred for all TV based search-for-a-star type programming, I still really enjoyed this book.

Bea is little, shy and the wrong shape and she has a curly mass of cloud hair that will not be tamed. Her tight-knit bunch of pre-school friends has fractured somewhere along the road to year 9, and it leaves her and Kat the last two of their gang of four. Pearl is now a Regina George-style queen bee/uber-cow and Betty is one of the kooky art kids that handles school with a large helping of sarcasm and irony.

When the school announces that it will be entering dance groups for a national TV talent show, Bea imagines her and Kat could enter one of their made up routines- but Kat skulks off, guiltily, but undeniably, to form a dance troupe with the popular girls. That leaves Bea with nobody but her three year old sister and her Nan to vent to. When Nan hooks her up with a professional dance tutor and a mystery partner, Bea initially doesn't want to compete- she's too awkward, too shy, it will never work, But the dance partner turns out to be Ollie 'McFittie' Matthews, and the temptation to spend some time with him is just too strong, even if he is Pearl's boyfriend. And after all, Nan has worked so hard to arrange everything...

I loved the evolution of Bea throughout the book, how finding a talent and a passion changed her from a retiring, slump-shouldered shadow into a confident and composed person who was able to stand up for herself and confront the people that had tormented and harassed her. Not only that, but defend others from them too. Her mantra: "Though she is but little, she is fierce" was so spot on. I thought the way she kept reminding herself to be brave was very accurate. McLachlan really did a good job of getting into the head of an insecure school girl; the second guessing why people are being nice to you, the fear of humiliation and praying that nobody notices you. The constant internal monologue was very effective, telling you that that thing you just said was stupid, and your coat is weird and everybody is looking at your spot.

So often it is a cute boy that brings out the best in YA and MG characters, somebody with sultry eyes and tousled hair that can see the beauty in the dork...but Bea found her confidence through dancing, and through being good at something. I liked that she never had to compromise to become the more-confident Bea. I guess Ollie helped, but he was certainly not the main catalyst. I guess I liked that Bea was the author of her own change, and she got to choose who she became, rather than being shaped and moulded by a boy.

A brilliant, funny and heart-warming book about being loyal to your friends, about finding the confidence to be the person that you suspect you really are, and about navigating the tricky territory of secondary school, with its hormones and frenemies and undetected girl gang warfare. It's a brilliant mix of Geek Girl, Angus, Thongs etc and Mean Girls. I'm assuming this year's year 7 haven't seen Mean Girls- because it's as old as them *feels ancient*. It's easy to dismiss books like this as cutesy fluff, but I think that does a disservice to the quality of the characters and the warmth of the story, and the importance of saying YOU ARE NOT ALONE!! SCHOOL IS CRAP FOR LOTS OF PEOPLE!! BEING 13 IS HORRIBLE!!. I especially liked the renegade nudist that was 3 year old Emma, who made me laugh out loud with some of the loopy toddler stuff she said, and the quilting, Topshop-jumpsuit wearing Nan, who always believed in Bea.

Pale, by Chris Wooding

In a slightly future world, the Lazarus Serum can bring you back from the dead. As long as you've not been dead for more than a couple of hours and as long as your body itself isn't too messed up. And as long as you are of a particular blood type. However, when you come back, you've changed - you're a Pale, an outcast. You may feel the same, speak in the same voice, even look like s paler version of the old you, but you are a second class citizen. Jed and his mates hate Pales. They'd rather stay dead than come back as one of those- school is no place for dead kids and they make sure that the Pales know they're not welcome. When Jed has a fairly fatal accident, he is Returned as the thing he once hated, and he has to learn what it's like to live as an outcast, rejected by his family and his friends. Can he survive as a Pale?

Coming in at around 70 pages, Pale is definitely not a long book, but it does manage to confront themes of prejudice, violence and discrimination well despite its short length. It does a good job of forcing Jed to reassess his prejudices, and shows the reader quite plainly the pointlessness of such mindless prejudice.

It's short, easily readable and engaging, and I think it achieves its objective of enticing non-readers to pick up a skinny book. It holds the reader's attention well, and I think the idea of an intentionally unlikeable narrator, coupled with the very discussion-friendly themes will make this an eye-opening experience for its target audience.

I don't know if I'm thinking too hard about what is supposed to be quite a speedy, simple plot...but why would you bring your loved ones back from the dead, knowing that they would live a (perhaps endless) life of misery and persecution? Especially if you're going to abandon them straight after they regain consciousness. And especially if you've made a career out of dehumanising and displacing them. Also- what is the social benefit of the Lazuras Serum? I felt that the concept of the novel definitely had huge potential, and the accessible format of the book didn't give the story chance to develop these ideas. Is the Government breeding a slave-class? Then there's a rebellion of some kind, where the Pales start snatching the living and turning them into the thing that they have been taught to fear. Like the 3rd X-Men film...then a resolution where Pales are integrated back into society? There was too much possibility to cram into 70 pages.

All in all, I really liked the concept of this little novella, but I thought the story had a lot more scope that the little glimpse of the world we got here. I think struggling and non-readers are going to love it though, because it does bring up ideas of discrimination and the way we treat people that, in reality, are no different.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Land, by Alex Campbell

In 2014 the oceans rose and consumed most of the Earth's land. Cons, just a little girl then, set sail with her family with the hope of survival. She, her mother and her uncle were the only ones to make it to Land, after three months afloat and after many burials at sea. Here, along with a handful of other survivors, they built the beginnings of their new world. Deciding that what they needed most was Order, the survivors elected a leader who gave them what they wanted- order. He made the hard decisions that furthered the success of Land, that made their small society more likely to survive and eventually, to thrive.

Two generations later, Land still has Order. Populations, occupations and mobility are strictly monitored, for the greater good. A rigid class system keeps everybody in check- everybody knows their place, and knows that their loyalty lies with Land, their home and their saviour. Christy, though the great-niece of Land's founder, lives an impoverished life with her grandmother Cons. Cons is a Grey, a midwife of the Semi Skilled Worker class. The Browns are manual labourers, Greens students, Whites are slaves and the Blues are elite- thinkers, scientists and Government. Christy makes it clear that her and Cons' life is a struggle; cold tenement blocks, curfews, brutal punishments for non-conformity, ill-made clothing and little food to go around. But they are the rules, and rules are what keep you safe and secure in Land. The rules decide how you will live, how you will serve the state and when you will die.

With rebel activity on the rise and more and more dissent amongst Browns and Greens, civil unrest is bubbling beneath the benevolent smiles of the Land lower classes. The government's retaliations are harsh and fatal. When Christy discovers the reason behind her upbringing, the path that was chosen for her by her Rebel father, she must make hard decisions and make sacrifices. Starting with being unexpectedly Paired to a male citizen, forever. She must choose between the safety of a life of conforming to Land's rules and expectations, or she must choose danger, death and destruction and attempt to bring Land and its dictators down. A naturally sensitive and loving person, Christy needs to learn to close off her heart and follow her head as all around her, a war erupts between the citizens of Land and its elite.

What attracted me to this book initially was its unique set up- I loved the idea of the risen seas and the last ark of humanity attempting to survive on a tiny piece of ground; no animals, no minerals to make building materials, no way of recreating lost technology...It reminded me a bit of The Book of Dave. So I was a little bit disappointed that apart from creating an isolated community held to ransom by its leaders, the sea level idea was just an establishing thing. I was hoping that the unique premise might have had more of a part to play in creating the landscape of Land, like their society might have been shaped more by their circumstances and past and seem strange to readers; perhaps evolving a slightly different dialect, or having bizarre rituals that make Land seem inescapably alien. But anyway, that's my fault for guessing instead of reading. It was still an excellent story, even if it wasn't what I'd been expecting from the premise.

What I liked most about this book was its main character. I thought Christy was a brilliant protagonist, and had all the attributes that a good revolutionary needs; she's brave, stubborn, capable and determined to succeed. She grapples with her conscience, which makes her human (if a slightly bad assassin) and she is conflicted between her hatred for the regime and her love of the people close to her; it starts off as just Cons and Kara, but she eventually comes to care for One, her mentor, Salinger, his assistant and Tobin, her state selected Pair and approved breeding partner. I really liked Kara too, and would have liked to have seen more of her. Also Ellie was a little micro butt-kicker and I want to know what happened to her after the war.

The book sort of put me in mind of quite a few other books that deal with similar themes. After all, girl becomes reluctant symbol of impending revolution is a fairly familiar narrative, particularly in the Post-Hunger-Games dystopia landscape of Young Adult fiction. The physical city itself, with its concentric circles of colour-based class reminded me of the Wind Singer series, which I read years ago and had forgotten about. The sense of surveillance, the culture of informing and the 'agree with our brainwashing or we'll kill you' was a bit 1984, a bit The Handmaid's Tale- I liked how effectively the author generates tension and paranoia. Some parts are genuinely nerve-racking. Land makes the ideology of dictatorship more accessible and understandable, the fear is palpable, and this culture of 'Damn or Be Damned' does feel particularly pertinent when you think of how being accused of 'Quietly Condoning' something looks like it might become akin to terrorist activity soon. I liked too how rebellion against tyranny is seen as the only logical thing to do- I always like messages that suggest action even if it results in failure is better than no action at all. The idea that the oppressed will eventually fight back is always a welcome one and I thought that Land showed the chaos of rebellion well.

Land is a solid, engaging stand-alone novel with a lot of emotional depth. It takes an important and relevant combination of political rebellion flavoured YA themes, makes them understandable and ties them up with a unique initial concept and a brave and complex protagonist. It makes the reader think hard about their own society and how social mobility, wealth and opportunities are distributed amongst the population. There are obvious nods to the Holocaust, the Government echoing the Nazis' methods of identifying, controlling and execution of 'undesirables' but the book doesn't refer to it directly. I think teen readers are going to love it and I'm definitely getting a couple of copies for the library.

If you read Land and liked it, can I also suggest The Wind Singer, by William Nicholson for another colour-based dystopian society (and awesome protagonist in Kestrel Hath), and also Seed, by Lisa Heathfield which has similar ingredients (Nature, small isolated society, overthrowing of dominant ideology, forbidden romance) but puts the elements together in a totally different way.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Finding Home; Real Stories of Migrant Britain, by Emily Dugan

This morning (28/08/2015) the first two stories in the news were the following:
1) That a refrigerated lorry found abandoned in a layby on the Austria/Hungary border contained the partially decomposed bodies of at least 70 'migrants'.
2) That two boats have sunk off the coast of Libya, which combined, are thought to have been carrying up to 500 people escaping Bangladesh, Libya and various sub-Saharan African countries.

What's even worse is that barely a week goes by without several headlines like this. Migration, immigration, illegal immigration, asylum seeking, whatever you want to call it, whatever terms news outlets are using the dehumanise and scaremonger, this book is a welcome, truthful and unflinching look at the lives of the people that are trying desperately to find a safe and secure place to live their lives.

Finding Home looks at the unique stories of 10 individuals- something which in itself is unusual. Every day we're presented with images and footage of teeming masses of people, crowds scrambling over razor wire, desolate canvas ghettoes full of women and kids, masses of heads and shoulders poking out of the top of a boat that looks like its most buoyant days are behind it- we rarely look at the individuals. We never really get to find out what's brought these people to this point? What are they escaping and what do they hope to find? Has anybody asked? We're told benefits and an easy life, but that's really, really not the case with most. It's not always war, it's not always work, it's not always a choice. What I love about this book is that it makes individuals out of that teeming mass, the 'Plague of migrants' that our media condemns as work-shy scroungers and criminals, it presents them as humans. It's unflinching in its honesty and it really makes the reader think about what they'd do in these people's shoes.

Journalist Emily Dugan features stories from the following people, creating portraits of individual people who are all struggling against different obstacles to call Britain their home.

  • Ummad, a student at Sunderland Uni from a wealthy business family in Pakistan. The branch of Islam followed be he and his family is considered heretical in Pakistan, and his family are in constant danger because of this.
  • Harley, an Australian children's psychologist and NHS expert with 10+ years of service, facing deportation after the breakdown of her marriage to a European.
  • Clive, a homeless Zimbabwean that entered the UK illegally and has spent the last 6 years trying to go home. His lack of passport makes this impossible. He can neither work, nor recieve citizenship either. He is stateless.
  • Physiotherapist Hristina, leaving behind her baby in her beloved home country of Bulgaria, came to the UK with her husband in order to be able to provide a better life for her family, as low wages and high living costs make this impossible in Bulgaria. She misses home and her family every day.
  • Syrian refugee Emad is a political exile due to his setting up the Free Syrian League. Though now having refugee status, he previously worked illegally to fund his mother's visa-less passage out of Turkey into the EU. She was also in danger due to her son's infamy but getting into Britain is just the beginning of the battle.
  • Sai is a Thai woman married to an older Glaswegian man. Even Harry, her Scottish husband thinks he would fail the UK citizenship test.
  • Hassiba came from Algeria to be with her Husband who had settled in the UK. A promising geneticist, the only work she can find in the UK is mopping the floor of a kebab shop. She is unenamoured with Britain, struggling to cope with the racism, grim weather, lack of opportunities and the drug culture of her estate.
  • Aderonke, a prominent LGBT campaigner from Manchester who would've been murdered for her sexuality in her home country of Nigeria. The Home Office did not believe she was A) gay, or B) in any danger if deported.
There are also two more general case studies, one looking at the town of boson in Lincolnshire, an example of thoroughly mismanaged immigration, resentment by locals of the town's Eastern European reinvention and botched integration, and a trip on a coach from Romania to London on the day the Romania/Bulgaria workers' restrictions were lifted. 

It's hard to summarise these stories, but I just wanted to give an idea of the range of reasons that people leave their homes, families and lives, and the range of reasons that take them where they end up. Ummad and Emad in particular have harrowing histories- both just want an education and to be able to live by their own conscience and moral compasses, but dominant ideologies in their home countries make refugees of them, and make tragic messes of their families.

This book is honest and so eye-opening. I don't know whether it made me feel grateful for living in a (comparatively) liberal and secure society, or enraged at the way our government treats anybody who didn't have the foresight to be born within the UK's borders. I couldn't decide if Britain was a safe haven, and pleased that it was such, or a nightmare of bureaucracy, arbitrary rules, underfunded departments struggling to process paperwork, judgement and persecution. Each of the stories was so different, experiences so varied that it was impossible to decide. The Home Office are sometimes the saviours, sometimes the villains. That idea of duality cropped up a lot- the idea of being a bit of both. Two nationalities blended together, or both, or neither. Polish dad Karol watched an England vs Poland football match wearing a Poland shirt and an England scarf. It must be a huge blow to the identity to find yourself living overseas.

I liked the book's thoroughly level headed approach to its subject. It doesn't make all 'migrants' out to be glorious saints, toiling hard at the jobs that the British turn their noses up at- it does not omit any jail time its subjects might have served, addictions, any debt that they are in, any mistakes or bad decisions they have made are presented as honestly as any triumphs they have achieved. It does, however, show the resilience and determination of people that are often persecuted or judged for simply living somewhere else. Despite the isolation, depression, separation, trauma and everything else that many of these individuals had escaped, I had to admire their attempts to start again.

This book couldn't be more important. Or more topical, or more timely. Every person that has ever rolled their eyes at a Polski Sklep on the empty end of their high street needs to read this. Every person who has ever uttered the phrase 'Go Back to Your Own Country' needs to read this. Everybody that has ever complained about delays on the Eurotunnel needs to read this. If you're a person with an ounce of empathy, you need to read this. I will be recommending this book whenever I get UKIPped, whenever the topic of immigration comes up and whenever anybody asks me for a good non fiction.

Thankyou to Stevie Finegan (@SableCaught) for bringing this book to my attention, and for sending me a copy.