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.