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...