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.