Friday, 27 March 2015

H is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Part memoir, part self help book, part literary criticism and part nature book, H is for Hawk is a beautifully written story of grief and dedication, of obsession and nature. When lecturer Helen's beloved father dies unexpectedly, she does not know how to react. There is no right way to react, no best way to cope. How Helen copes is by deciding, suddenly and irrefutably that what she needs is a Goshawk, a fearsome killing machine and notoriously strong willed and difficult breed of hawk. She drives all day to meet a guy by a Scottish dock with £800 in an envelope and leaves with a box full of feathers, sharp points, muscle and fear.

What follows is her story of struggle and hope, of dedication and discipline. It looks like it's going to be a battle of wills, a war between woman and nature. But it doesn't feel like it. Yes there's an element of battle- but it's more of a teaching process than a conquest, the hawk learns to hunt, to return when called. She learns how to be around strangers and dogs and not to be terrified of everything. It feels like a series of lessons that teach a lost and hurting person how to be a human again. But first she needs to learn how to be a hawk.

Mable, as the hawk becomes, is one of my favourite animal characters of all time. I loved how Helen's falconry attitude allowed her to have a character. She's never a pet, never a true companion, but there's a wild, mutual respect and dependency that develops that I've never really read about before. There's a lovely bit where Helen plays catch with Mabel and is astounded that Goshawks play. The book is definitely full of surprises.

Helen becomes a recluse, weeks, months go by that see her purposely avoiding people. She draws the curtains, fills her freezer with dead chicks and shuts the world out. It's hard to tell if this is a part of the falconry process or the grieving process. Perhaps there's no need to separate them. Mabel is the solution to her isolation as much as the cause of it.

I loved the style of Macdonald's prose- she writes about nature beautifully and with such attention. This book made me want to go for a long walk in a forest and deep-breathe some good nature air. She punctuates her own story with parts of the life of TH White, author of The Goshawk and Sword in the Stone. His inexperienced and disastrous attempt at raising and flying his own Goshawk, Gos, contrast with Helen's researched and practiced methods, but he never seems evil, just misguided and a bit useless. But she makes mistakes too- overthinking things, getting neurotic, getting desperate when things don't work. It's a narrative about perseverance and hope as much as anything else. I admired her strength enormously. I think this context grounded the memoir, it made us understand more about Helen and her drive, as well as more about the ancient art of falconry.

I could go on...but I don't want to spoil it too much. H is For Hawk is, in short, a beautiful, complicated and in parts baffling story about coming to terms with loss and refusing to be defeated, and loyalty and nature. It's about so many things, and it's an absolute joy to read. Lyrical and mystical and honest- there's no wonder people keep throwing prizes at it.

Broadway Book Club Discussion of H is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Though there were only four of us for this discussion, it was a pretty lengthy one and there was a lot to talk about! We loved the style of Helen Macdonald's writing- she had such an acute eye for detail and description and the feel of the environment.

Comments about this book were overwhelmingly positive- we thought it was an accurate and very personal story of grief and depression. One member pointed out how surprised she was at how little Helen's father featured in the book, how little she talked about her memories of him, like the author wasn't permitting herself to think about him. We talked for a while about the surprises that loss brings and the things that bereaved people still find themselves doing- like making cups of tea for people that aren't there anymore, or reaching for the phone to call a person before realising that they won't answer. The book was a mixture of things that made it really unique- part nature writing, part literary criticism, part self help book and part memoir. We acknowledged that grief affects everybody differently and that some people might be more unaware of when things have crossed that invisible threshold into 'out of control'. We understood the need of Helen to invest so much of herself into her hawk- the need for distraction and discipline. It must have been hard for her friends to watch.

We all loved Mabel and how Helen's handling of her allowed her to have her own personality- playing catch with a hawk. Madness. We were collectively enraged when Helen's talent and compassion was belittled by the husband of a friend as being because the hawk and the handler were both female so 'of course they get along'. Helen offered a lot of insight into the patriarchy of her hobby- how most falconers' aim is to conquer their 'hormonal, irrational' birds, Helen was able to keep that balance between freedom and captivity well and she showed how important patience, hope and resilience are.

We had mixed feelings about TH White sections- some people felt that these parts were less enjoyable and disrupted the flow of Helen's story, but we were thought too that it was also kind of essential to understanding Helen's story. He wasn't an evil man, just inexperienced and misguided- we all felt really bad for Gos and all the misery and confusion she was put through before she escaped.

It was mentioned how surprisingly little this book gave away about Helen's life outside of falconry. We wondered if this was intentional, a result of her focus and obsession. We definitely felt like we got to know Mabel and Gos better than any of their humans!

The next book on our reading list is A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews. The next meeting will be at 7pm on April 30th at Broadway Cinema Nottingham. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Shackleton's Journey, by William Grill

I'm going to start this off by demanding more non fiction narratives. Non fiction narratives that are beautifully and whimsically illustrated. Why is this not a thing? I was so pleased to see a non fiction book with such style and character, and I can only hope it's the start of a new trend in children's publishing. (See also My Uncle's Dunkirk and Charlie's War for excellent NF with lovely illustrations)

Firstly, the book itself is a beautiful thing. A sizeable hardback with a lovely cloth spine, illustrated with cracked ice. Everything is white and blue and immediately it's conjuring dramatic seascapes encrusted with ice and frost. That cover too- is it a compass? Is it a circle-of-life type thing? Is it a game? A roulette wheel of chance? It doesn't really matter of course, but look at it! It's pure joy.

The book tells the real-life story of Ernest Shackleton and his brigade of badasses and their successful failure to cross the Antarctic Continent for the first time. Successful because nobody died. A failure because they never actually completed the mission. But mission accomplished or not, the expedition's men carved themselves out a place in history for managing to survive for 8 months on nothing but salvaged rations and their own wits, out in the frozen wasteland of Antarctica 500 miles from civilisation in steadily worsening conditions and with rapidly deteriorating odds. It's a massive testament to the strength of the human spirit, the bonds of friendship and the fraternity of scientific and geographic discovery.

It lists the crew, the cargo, the supplies, the dogs they took, the anatomy of the ship, the skills and experience of everyone on board. The book goes into minute detail about the preparation and financing of the trip, its scientific and exploration objectives and its schedule. It reads like a story, with action and suspense and the overcoming of difficulties and obstacles, solutions and triumphs, but the truth of it is never lessened. The story takes on this extra gravitas because of this.

I absolutely loved the style of Grill's illustration- informal little doodles that convey as much character and individuality to each man and dog as it's possible to get. Just a additional few scribbles and it's easy to tell the cook from the photographer and the carpenters from the navigators. It's brilliant that the other men on the expedition get to have their own moments of recognition and their own characters and unique little props. The dogs too are individually named and depicted. There's a real sense of thoroughness to this book that is just wonderful.

Grill, W. (2014) Shackleton's Journey. London, Flying Eye Books

Just look at the intensity of that weather. It's incredible what can be done with just blue, white and black. The illustrations do such a brilliant, brilliant job of depicting the isolation of the crew during this expedition. The vastness of Antarctica seems so abstract, but the neverending ice floes, the sky and the sea and ice that go on and on forever really help the reader to understand the situation and the location that Shackleton and his crew survived.

Grill, W. (2014) Shackleton's Journey. London, Flying Eye Book
I genuinely feel like I learned something from this book- I definitely have a better understanding of why Shackleton is like the patron saint of triple-hard adventure sorts. His determination and his belief in what he was doing was very inspiring and motivating. The illustrations are just joyous. It makes me happy just looking at them and I've been flicking through the book since I received it, just to revisit some of the best bits. An absolute gem. Loved it.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Rules of Summer, by Shaun Tan

I think I've made it pretty clear that I'm a massive fan of The Tan. A Tan Fan, if you will. His newest publication is, as one would expect, brilliant. It's thought provoking and nostalgic for the adults, fun and joyous and full of colour and adventure for the young readers. It's about family and imagination the wonder of childhood.

Each double spread has only one line of text- a thing learned over the summer, a little piece of wisdom from child to reader. Never do this. Never do that, says the voice of childish experience. It's accompanied by a fantastic, sometimes terrifying and sometimes wondrous illustration as evidence of why you should act on this advice.

I love everything that goes into these images and how much there is to be understood and deciphered in them. The whole world of a child can be seen in these drawings if you look hard enough. There's the fearful thrill of the unfathomable adult world, the endlessness of summer days, the promise of adventure and creation, the boundless imagination of childhood and the longing for acceptance and understanding. Illustrations that seem confusing and fantastical, surreal even in places begin to sort themselves out into sense and understanding. The reader has to work it out for themselves and once they begin to unravel they are incredible.

I loved the style of the artwork in Rules of Summer, and each page is a little, weird work of art. The thick, expressionist brushstrokes where the paint has been slathered on look real enough to touch. Every page is a mystery until it's studied. The palette of the pages varies, changing the mood of the book frequently. There's a few pages of desolate black, white and grey when are heroes look doomed, bursts of colour when the imaginary reaches its peak. I loved the contrast too- the gloom and boredom of the everyday, the understood, compared with paradise, the spectrum of the mysterious unknown. The fear of being on the outside looking in must be familiar to every person, ever, at some point in a person's life. This is such an accurate depiction of that feeling. I don't even have words for it. You don't need words when you have pictures.

The best rendering of "Being on the outside looking in" that I have ever known.
Tan, S. (2013) Rules of Summer Sydney: Hachette 
At the heart of the story, because there is most definitely a story even if there aren't many words, is about two brothers and their summer of imagination. Just a glance at the art shows how much the younger brother looks up to and reveres his older, wiser brother. The older boy shows his little brother how to do things, he makes up unreasonable rules for him (because he can), he looks after him and keeps him safe. They learn things together, things they have worked out by themselves.

Never eat the last olive at a party
Tan, S. (2013) Rules of Summer Sydney: Hachette  
It's a book thats scope and depth and meaning is as limitless as the reader's imagination and experience. I loved it. As far as I'm concerned, this wins. This wins all day long. Shaun Tan wins everything ever.

The Fastest Boy in the World, by Elizabeth Laird

Eleven-year-old Solomon loves to run and dreams one day of being an olympic medal winner, a celebrated national hero like the world class athletes he and the rest of Ethiopia looks up to. Even though he lives in a remote area and is ragged and barefoot, he knows he is born to run.

Solomon lives in a hut with his family and their livestock- it's not bleak exactly, but it's hardly luxurious. Warm and safe. When his grandfather announces, to everyone's surprise, that he's going to take Solomon to Addis Ababa, Solomon can't wait to see the big city. Having lived in a small village all his life, the biggest town Solomon has ever seen is 5 miles away where he goes to school. The glass, pollution and people of a city seems to overwhelm him before he even gets there. As luck would have it, the Ethiopian national running team will be doing a victory parade through the city that day, so Solomon is overjoyed at the thought of a glimpse of his heroes. They set off on the 23 mile walk together.

The trip is a revelation to Solomon. Not only does he see his heroes, make a friend for life and discover the crowds and bustle of the capital, he learns too something that he cannot believe. Something about his stoic, wise and revered grandfather. When this new, heroic grandfather collapses, just as Solomon begins to see him with new, awe-struck eyes, the boy knows that getting help from his village is now his responsibility. It's a twenty-odd-mile run from the city to home, now the bus has broken down and his grandfather's life could be at stake. Solomon must prove his ability as a runner, barefoot or not.

This is a swift, tightly plotted story that is enjoyable and revealing. The author does a good job of sculpting and comparing the locations in this novel- the dusty plains of farmland Ethiopia are contrasted with the bustling anonymity of the capital city with great effect. It's easy to warm to Solomon, a little boy with a big dream embarking on a confusing new phase of his life. As a character, he's very likable, with rural good manners and a healthy respect for his elders.

The Fastest Boy in the World is a solid, family-centred Middle Grade fiction that sees a character beginning to understand and define his own relationship to the world. The prose is competently and fluidly written, with a very accessible vocabulary and gives a believable insight into a world and a way of life that might be very new and unfamiliar to younger readers, so that's definitely a good thing.

Whilst it is an enjoyable story with an appealing message about pursuing one's dreams, working hard to achieve and the importance of family and responsibility, I can't help but feel that it just doesn't pack the same punch of previous Carnegie winners, or some other titles on the shortlist. That's not to say it's an inferior book, I'm convinced many younger readers will love it-it would make a really good class read for year 7s or 8s, as it encourages the reader to think about how life is lived in other cultures and in other countries. I just can't see it winning this particular award, though I can see it being enjoyed by many.

Tinder, by Sally Gardner, Illustrated by David Roberts

One of only a handful of titles to be shortlisted for both the Carnegie and the Kate Greenaway medals in the award's history, Tinder is an illustrated retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairytale The Tinderbox. I'm not massively familiar with the original, but this has all the elements of an old-school spine tingler- blood and gore, evil queens, a mysterious trickster, enchanted objects, a dastardly prince and a beautiful maiden.

In a nutshell, an injured and deserting soldier named Otto stumbles across a werewolf deep in a forest and escapes whilst the wolf devours some cutthroats. Shortly after, he is nursed back to health by a mysterious trickster and given some enchanted dice that will direct him on his path. This path leads him to a beautiful girl destined to marry a loathsome prince, with whom he falls instantly in love, a wicked Lady of the Nail and her magical Tinderbox, complete with three guardian werewolves and eventually to a village ravaged by sudden werewolf attacks after being immune for so long. Otto, recklessly in love and in possession of more wealth and power than he has ever dreamed of vows to rescue Saffire, his flame haired love from the prince. Who is apparently sleeping with Saffire's step-mother, the sister of the wicked Wolf-Lady.

The illustrations that accompany, anchor and contain the story are absolutely central to this book. They become crucial to the format of the story, separating dreams and reality throughout the story. Beautiful landscapes and portraits, in dusky charcoals and inks- sometimes they look hurried and frantic, sometimes painstakingly detailed and precise. My favourite was definitely the fruit and bread feast that's laid out for Otto in the castle of the Lady of the Nail. The drawings lead the narrative really, the simple black, white and red is more than just an accompanying image, the plot depends on them.

I had a really hard time working out who the target audience was for this book. Incredible though the illustrations are, I can imagine older readers mistakenly dismissing this as a children's book. To all intents and purposes it looks like one. I'm not saying that books for adults can't be illustrated (as a regular graphic novel reader objections to such ideas seem absurd). However, certain elements of the story (an incitement to rape, some sleazy innuendo, a bit of a May-December royal romp...) makes me think that this book isn't aimed at the audience that it would probably appeal the most to visually. That's before we even take into account the complexity of the story and the M. Night Shyamalan EVERYTHING YOU'VE KNOWN IS A LIE! twist at the end. Or at least I think it was.
I love how Guernica this double page spread is
I think I enjoyed the book, though I struggled to tap into the magic reserves that have so impressed other readers. It didn't captivate me and it took me quite a while to read because I didn't find it difficult to put down. The prose held its tone admirably, I really believed that this could have been a tale from olden times- it never broke that thread and never gives the reader a cheeky wink of modern day acknowledgement. I suppose it became laborious and a little ploddy in parts and were it not for the illustrations being as arresting as they are, I think I might have given up on this one. I wouldn't be outraged if it won the Kate Greenaway as the artwork in Tinder is truly marvellous, but I would feel cheated if it won the Carnegie.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Picture Me Gone, by Meg Rosoff

Picture Me Gone tells the story of super-attentive spy enthusiast Mila (named after a dog) and her father Gil. They are about to visit Gil's old friend Matthew in New York when they hear via his wife that he has disappeared- leaving her, their new baby and his beloved dog behind. He took no luggage, left no note- simply left one day for work and never made it. Deciding to go anyway with the new objective of finding him, Gil and Mila embark on a road trip across New York State, Mila piecing together the scraps of information she has about her dad's friend she barely remembers, trying to build a picture of his life.

Mila believes that she is more attuned to details than a regular person and has a sixth-sense insight into other people's emotions. She can tell if they're having an affair, if they're pregnant or hiding something, if they're lonely or depressed and covering it up. Kind of like Sherlock, but more emotionally pliable. She's smart and perceptive, and the line between her speech and thoughts and the speech of others is kind of blurred because there are no speech marks. She's very tied up in language and nuance, as is her father, as he is a translator of Portuguese.

As their investigation leads them further and further into Matthew's life, Mila begins to see how complicated the adult world can be and how well her father's friend has kept his turmoil hidden from the eyes of everyone he knows. There are lies, secrets, regrets and deep, deep grief- the narrative begins to offer up three possible scenarios, drawing Mila and her mild mind reading ability closer and closer to the tragic truth. It's a bumpy induction to the messy, destructive world of adults for Mila- though she's incredibly mature, it must still be an eye opener for her to see that her family's haphazard, artistic happiness might be something relatively rare.

It's a story really about friendship and the various ripples across time that can break them apart. Mila herself is experiencing this for the first time- she considers the painful growing apart of herself and her best friend whose unhappiness has led her into a new group of smoking, troublesome and boy-obsessed friends. She also finds that she unexpectedly makes new friends, more promising friends that just click- just as Gil discovers some old ones by happy accident. The book really demonstrated the fragility of friendship and the invisible connective web that spans a person's life and actions- the repercussions and effects that one decision or secret can have on a whole network of people. Picture Me Gone really shows that connections between people can be both fragile and strong at the same time and that the foundations of trust, support and history can be shattered in an instant.

It's worth mentioning too that at its heart it's a really lovely story about a strong bond between an unconventional father and his equally unconventional daughter. I really liked that. Most children's books kind of tidy the parents away early on so they don't interfere with the adventure- it's nice here to see a dual-generation adventure. Yes you could argue it's much less of an adventure, much less of a mystery than it appears initially, but it's an important journey for Gil and Mila nonetheless.

As with Rosoff's other books, Picture Me Gone is an insightful and emotional story that closely examines personal relationships and the connections between people. It's sparse in its action, but filled with beautiful prose and important discoveries and realisations that litter the path between childhood and adulthood. A really enjoyable read that keeps the reader guessing and marvelling at Mila's abilities.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith

Set in the small, crumbling town of Ealing, Iowa, Grasshopper Jungle tells the story of Robby Brees and narrator Austin Szerba as they entertain the possibility of the end of the world. Austin is confused- he confesses himself to be in love with his girlfriend Shann Collins, but also in love with his handsome and charismatic best friend Robby. Naturally he is riddled with confusion, an almost preternatural 'horniness' and has no idea how to deal with his contradictory desires. He records his own personal history in a series of journals, complete with doodles and mantras.

The novel starts with Robby and Austin skating and smoking on an abandoned strip of tarmac behind the dilapidated mall. Beaten up by a gang of bullies from the other school for being "queer", they find themselves bleeding, shoeless and trouserless as their belongings are tossed up onto the roof of the second hand shop. Returning that night to retrieve them, Robby and Austin take the opportunity to explore the store and discover a whole host of weird stuff hidden away by Johnny McKeon, heir to his dead brother's odds and ends. There's a tube of 6ft giant cockroaches, a severed head floating in fluid, a two-headed boy in a jar and a tank of a weirdly gelatinous, glowing mold labelled Contained MI Plague Strain 412E. The now defunct McKeon industries obviously made some pretty dodgy stuff before the eldest McKeon brother died in a plane crash.

During Robby and Austin's exploration, their assailants break in looking for booze and steal the contained plague strain- scrambling back onto the roof and away into the night, they watch it break on the pavement outside. It mixes with the blood spilled by Robby earlier in the day. Austin doesn't recognise this event for what it is- the beginning of the end of the world and the birth of a new dominant species on Earth. The rest of the book sees the two protagonists trying to make sense of what they've seen, including a 6ft cockroach burst out of the body of a local vagrant. More confused than ever, they do some digging on McKeon industries and dig in for the end.

I absolutely loved this book- it's tense and shocking and even though the Giant Insect premise seems far fetched, it becomes believable quickly. The genetic experimentation of the 1970s seems plausible enough when the pieces start to come together and the characters start to realise what they're up against. As we learn more about the plague and the increasingly mad scientist, we learn more about Austin's Polish background. From the beginning he slips in pieces of his family history, his great-grandfather and grandfather's traumatic passage to America...but as he and Robby learn more about the history of the town and of the scientific research that went on there, Austin sees more and more connections to his family that confirm what he's always thought. The whole of history is converging on him.

Austin is an engaging narrator- his confusion, anger and desperation come across easily, but so does his undeniable and intense love for his two best friends. He might not always think things through, but he's kind of a prisoner of his own inner conflict. I loved his musings about the nature of history, how historians have the ability to shape and alter it and how the human race seems doomed to repeat the same dumb mistakes forever. There's an appealing nihilistic streak to him, like he'll try his best to save the world, but if it doesn't work he can cope with it. I loved the bond between the two main characters too- Austen loves Robby, Robby is thoroughly in love with was really tender and surprisingly un-awkward, considering how conflicted Austen is. I got the impression that whatever he would have decided sexuality wise (had he had enough of a world left in which to decide) Robby would've been happy for him. 

This book had me actually snorting with laughter in several places- it's gross and bizarre but also ridiculously gripping. It's not really suitable for younger readers so I'd be surprised to see it make the Shortlist, but it was thoroughly enjoyable and definitely memorable. I would love to see a sequel where we get to see what life is like for the survivors living underground in the bunkers...

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Apple and Rain, by Sarah Crossan

A lovely, heartwarming story about family, the shouldering of responsibility and coping with disappointment with an incredibly likable and genuine narrator. Sarah Crossan has a bit of a gift when it comes to zoning in on what makes teen girls tick and what aspects of their lives will resound with readers. Here we see how an ordinary teen deals with being ditched by her friend, navigating the teen-romance minefield and how she copes with major changes to her life and the discovery and nurturing of a beautiful talent.

Apple Apostolopoulou has been raised by her overprotective and worrisome Nan since she was small. Her mother walked out on Christmas Eve to pursue her dream of being an actor and a decade later she still hasn't come back. No matter how much Apple longs for her idealised vision of her mum, years go by with not so much as a phone call. Apple's father has remarried and has a new baby on the way, so she feels cast out of his new family. Apple blames her Nan for the loss of her best friend- she's not allowed out on her own, or even to walk home alone, so Pilar has found a new BFF in the class viper Donna- at least Donna isn't smothered and imprisoned by her unreasonable Nan.

Out of the blue, Apple's mother shows up in a flash car and trendy clothes, buying her the makeup and high heels that her Nan's always denied her. She's everything Apple imagined- young, attractive, understanding, cool and she's back in her life. When she offers Apple the home she's dreamed of since childhood, she snaps up the chance to live with her mum, though her Nan is sceptical about her ability to look after children. Mistaking her Nan's concern for jealousy and unreasonable stubbornness, Apple can't see what her Grandma's problem is- she just wants to keep her locked up forever. However, once Apple gets to her new home she discovers a surprise- a secret half-sister, 5 year old Rain, that she had no idea about. It's just the first of many bombshells and cock-ups that Apple is going to have to deal with in her new, chaotic life.

It's a charming and heartfelt story, sometimes funny and sometimes quite tragic, about being let down by the people that you are supposed to be able to depend on. Blinded by her idealistic image of her mother for so long, Apple has to come to terms with the fact that her mum is flaky and irresponsible and incredibly selfish, and she has to not only deal with the disappointment of that, but also with her unfair rejection of her Nan. She rises to her new, albeit unfair challenges admirably- probably due to a very productive brand of stubbornness. Apple matures so much throughout the novel that she's a totally different person by the end- prouder, more resourceful, confident. She begins to realise her place in the world and her relationship to others. Apple realises slowly that her actions have consequences, that people make mistakes and that some people simply don't change. Her confidence grows through her shouldering of responsibility, of nurturing from a new teacher and through her experimentation with poetry and from a new and developing friendship with the new boy in school, the wordy odd-ball Del. Apple ends up happier than she started, though it takes a thoroughly miserable journey to make her realise that. It's who's causing that happiness and misery that comes as a surprise.

There's something of a "careful what you wish for" message about Apple and Rain, mixed in with the inherent complexity of family and stretched relationships. The idea that families love each other even if they don't like each other very much comes through clearly, but Apple learns to accept the differences her mum and grandma have. We never find out what happens ultimately, but as a reader, I hoped they could come to some compromise that meant that Apple and Rain were happy and secure together.  It's an incredibly well written coming of age novel about figuring out your role in life and where you belong, as well as discovering what sort of a person you are when you stop trying to be what you imagine people expect. A really involving and emotional read.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Drama, by Raina Telgemeier

Drama tells the story of aspiring set designer Callie and her middle school's theatre production of Moon over Mississippi. Determined to pull out all the stops and  create Broadway spectacle on a local authority budget, Callie's lack of carpentry or pyrotechnic skills are no obstacle for her ambition. She and her other stage crew best friends Liz (costumes) and Matt (lights) are glad to be away from the drama and tantrums of the performers until Callie meets two talented twins as she's pinning up posters for the auditions- Justin and Jesse. Then suddenly there's as much drama backstage as on it. The twins have an encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway musicals, and both know *all* the songs. Justin is a natural performer, eager to lap up the limelight, whereas the equally talented Jesse shies away from the attention. I loved watching the friendship develop between them- they really seemed to understand each other.

There's a slight love triangle that develops and falls spectacularly to pieces between Callie, Jesse and older, cooler boy Greg, the elder brother of one of her friends. The way this is handled and the outcome of it is so sensitive and natural and the artist really does an excellent job too of showing what a time of personal discovery one's teen years are. The book does a great job of depicting normal school life- the boy quandaries (does he like me/does he not like me/why is he avoiding me/how do I make him like me?) and the cliques, the squabbles and the irrational falling out, the late night phone calls and internet chats, despite having spent all day together.

I loved the character of Callie- an artistic oddball that never allows other people's opinions or judgement come between her and her passion for theatre. I loved the scene where she auditions for the lead, proves herself utterly tone deaf and takes a huge, extravagant bow, just to show new friend Jesse that's it's supposed to be fun and not to care what people say. She uses her strength of character to make someone else feel better about their lack of confidence. I thought she was so expressive and her enthusiasm, anger and determination really showed in the way she was drawn, not just in this scene but everywhere.

Drama is a really sweet coming of age story about navigating the hormonal battlefield, the playground politics and rigid social order of school and also trying to work out who you are at the same time. I absolutely love the art style it's so vivid and bold and characterful, and it's so instantly recognisable too. It's got brilliant, memorable characters that are all just genuinely nice people. Confused and obsessive, sometimes, but always thoughtful and supportive. As the book goes on it's great to see them blossom and decide to take risks and do what makes them happy, whether that's deciding to perform after all, going after the boy that seems right, or making life-altering decisions and revelations.

I just need to track down a copy of Smile now, I've become quite the RT fan.