Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Mystery in White, by J. Jefferson Farjeon,

Continuing my festive cosy-crime-a-thon, I went next for Mystery in White, the surprise sleeper hit of last year which was recently reissued for the first time since the 1930s.

It's a bit of a time capsule really, set between the wars and probably already a bit nostalgic when it was originally published .

On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings the 11.37 from St Pancras to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. It's the olden days where trains actually left and ran to a schedule, so modern readers will have to suspend their disbelief somewhat. A mixed assortment of passengers of the type that would never normally associate (Jessie, a chorus girl, an 'old bore' that keeps talking about India and snakes named Mr Hopkins, a trendy brother and sister; David and Lydia, a physic Derek Acorah type that goes by the name of Mr Maltby and a dull, fantasist clerk called Mr Thomson) sit around in the stationary carriage and discuss their options. The brother and sister, the clerk and the chorus girl decide to try their luck walking to the next station but become lost and disoriented in the snow.

Stumbling across a deserted country house, they decide to take shelter within; the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but it seems that no one is at home. They decide to create an itemised list of everything the eat, drink and use, with the intention of reimbursing the rightful but absent owners. After a short look around, the chorus girl is confined to bed with a twisted ankle, and the clerk with a fever. The old bore and the psychic arrive shortly, with a common, rough and inherently suspicious type named Smith who a few of the group recognise from the train, but who denies being anywhere near it. 

Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers seek to unravel the empty house's mysteries, overseen by a creepy, too-lifelike portrait of the probable owner. There are bodies discovered in the snow, lots of traipsing back and forth in the unforgiving weather, there are locked doors that are suddenly unlocked, hidden letters, incriminating axes and disturbances to the psychic atmosphere of the house, channeled through the chorus girl and the psychic. The plot thickens with the rescue of two stranded motorists crashed into a ditch in a country lane; a young woman and an old man- they bring with them knowledge of of an old family rivalry and answers about the identity of the man in the portrait.

There's an interesting crop of characters, with laughably contemporary (to the 30s) attitudes to women and beta males. The man with too much imagination and the flighty woman are cloistered away upstairs pretty quickly; the alpha males downstairs to their civic duty by trying to shield the lesser minds from the unpleasantness, potentially the evil, of the house. Lydia, the trendy sister is by far the most appealing character- tasked with nursing the invalids, bringing trays of pineapple upstairs (??) she's determined to contribute her opinions to the dude-fest-decision making table and holds her own throughout.

Mystery in White is an enjoyable, melodramatic romp from the golden age of crime. It begins in a so far so Murder on the Orient Express kind of way, but deviates from that track as soon as the characters exit the train. I loved the gradual build up of dread that was thinly, patiently and expertly layered- it's a pace so slow that it would seem unacceptable to the modern thriller reader. The tension almost sneaks up on you.

Usually, with any crime that isn't Raymond Chandler, it's kind of obvious long before the conclusion which way the mystery is unraveling and the dexterous reader can often see it coming. Most mystery stories twist and twist, lob a red herring, twist a bit more, then either finish with your suspicions confirmed, or a end with a twist finish that looking back doesn't really fit with the previous twists. Not so much with this. The addition of wildcard characters towards the end is unexpected and throws any arising suspicions out pretty instantly. It's hard to know where its going- there's always a chance that it might even veer into ghost story territory.

It's an enjoyable, festive little mystery that fits the pre-Christmas bill when it's still a bit early for A Christmas Carol and 2016 has left you with no motivation to read or do anything other than scream into a pillow. I can see why some readers might see it as slow, bland and lacking in excitement, but sometimes, a nice gentle, surprising mystery is just what you need. Like the book equivalent of tea and toast.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, by Agatha Christie

I've had a really tough time this autumn (this year really) finding 
the motivation to read. My annual 'books read' total is almost half what it usually is...not that I set targets as such, but I do keep track of what I read and when, make notes and lists, and record any particularly impressive quotes or passages that I like. So whilst I don't keep records specifically to track how much I'm reading, it is easy to tell how much I've read. Maybe it's the horror show of 2016, the year that humanity irreconcilably pushed itself over the social PONR. Maybe it's because I got a puppy this time last year and now she's a big massive dog that demands dog-time, not book time. Maybe it's the books I'm reading. Maybe it's just one of those things.

In an attempt to kick start the official festive season (any festive inclinations in November are really just pre-amble) and as a return to a tried and tested remedy for sluggish reading vibes, I turned to the queen of crime, the first lady of the drawing room mystery, the Mistress of Murder Agatha Christie. And it worked a treat.

Christie describes this book in the preface as a Christmas dinner of two main courses, two entrees and a sorbet, along with a glorious description of her childhood Christmases in an old, draughty country manor with a boiled turkey, a roast turkey, mince pies and plum pudding.

So the setting of the first main course, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is quite familiar; an old country manor house, two types of turkey, mince pies and plum pudding. I see what you did there AC. Only is M. Poirot enjoying these festivities, not the author. Poirot is dragged, as he often seems to be, to the countryside over the festive period, lured by the idea of central heating and all the mod-cons, to find some rubies stolen by a dastardly ladyfriend of an Eastern prince. Naturally, it is a matter of the utmost delicacy, and Poirot manages to kill two birds with one very large, very valuable red stone.There's a staged murder that takes a turn for the too-real that turns into a happy Christmas for everyone. Appearing originally in 1923 and then subsequently expanded, it's nice to see that almost 100 years ago, people still griped about Christmas not being what it used to be. Even in 1923, the concept of decorating a tree, having an excessive dinner and having the whole family round was seen as kitsch, old fashioned and somehow under threat from the relentless march of modernity. Our trees might look different, our food might be more lavish and a bit more additive-ridden, but our complaints about the cessation of tradition never seem to alter.

The other main course is The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, an old school body-in-the-chest while everyone has a party round it. It reminded me of Hitchcock's Rope, a massively underrated film that also has a big, boxy dead elephant in the room that nobody notices. It's a bit of a nod to Othello and has an interestingly small number of characters/suspects and a pleasingly convoluted, absurd series of motives. Not particularly festive though, if you don't count all the eating.

Then come the entrees, because maybe that's the order that post people eat in. The Under Dog,  a reasonably familiar lots of people living in a big house and one of them is killed deal where our M. Poirot has to look through all their bedrooms in the manner that he seems so thoroughly to enjoy, and Four and Twenty Blackbirds which seems to have been included purely because it is a food based mystery. But what is more festive than food?  Lastly, the sorbet; The Dream, a short, twisty tale with a mad Home Alone style booby trap, identity swapping and murder.

Yes they'e silly and daft and old fashioned and mostly variants on the same themes, but these short stories definitely did the job. I found myself *wanting* to pick this book up; I thought about it when I wasn't reading it; I sacked off boring crap like cleaning and ironing to have an hour with Poirot, careering round country houses and telling everyone why the could've been the murderer but weren't. Anyway. I've ordered the Mystery in White next, cos cosy crime is by bag at the moment and it's too early for A Christmas Carol.

Has anyone else had a really long book slump before?
What do you recommend to get over it? What are your go-to authors or books for re-invigoration?

Monday, 28 November 2016

Broadway Book Club Discussion of Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

So we only had one person at the meeting who actually managed to finish the book- even I didn’t make it to the end of this one- the first time in almost 5 years that I haven’t finished a Book Club title. 
Thanks to Ruth for filling in the plot gaps for the rest of us and Clive for listening to the audiobook and providing us with a handy guide to name pronunciation. Team effort!

So. We began with a discussion of the characters of Half of A Yellow Sun, most notably Richard, Ugwu, Kainene and Olanna. We concluded that as the reader we are offered the story mostly through Ugwu’s eyes, but felt that the author saw Olanna as the novel’s central figure. Olanna’s presentation was almost too good to be true; demure, intelligent, beautiful, kind and graceful- we felt we were supposed to be enthralled and captivated by her in the same way that Odenigbo and Ugwu (and more or less every other man in the book) are. However, we talked about how directionless she was, how she drifted through the narrative. She was incredibly well educated and privileged, convinced she was revolutionary and modern by refusing to marry her lover but ended up in a very feminine, wife/mother role anyway. She was incredibly conventional, but we felt that the author really felt that she wasn’t. Kainene on the other hand was a practical woman with a ruthless business head. Successful, independent- so obviously she had to be kind of ugly. It’s the sort of thing we’ve seen a million times before. Kainene emerged as the strongest character throughout the discussion. We talked about Richard, how he served little purpose and tried to adopt a Biafran identity, resolutely determined to be a Native African despite very little acceptance from the community around him. We felt kind of sorry for Richard and his endless writing- he really was quite pointless as a person- supported financially by his great Aunt, then his lover Kainene. And then there’s Ugwu. Creepy from the beginning, with his sexual fantasies about a girl that might be a relative, his weird voyeurism of his sister’s body…his listening at doors and silent fumbles with servant girls. I didn’t even *Get* to the bar-girl scene, but it sounds like his creepiness only intensified into actual war crimes. His treatment of women aside, Ugwu is an awful snob and a troublemaker among the other help, constantly playing the compound’s staff off against one another. Similarly Odenigbo, for all his high minded liberalism takes zero responsibility for his actions, his mother is awful, Olanna and Kainene’s parents are corrupt, classless and shallow, their friends are interchangeable suck-ups and nobody in the whole novel seems even half way decent as a person. We guessed that this was supposed to cay something about the rotten, corrupt core of Nigeria as a country.

One of the things that we thought was very well done was the Olanna’s internal conflict about her background and education. Adichie writes gorgeously about what it is like to be an educated, African woman of colour; about how education is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a “white” thing, and any attempt by a black woman to educate themselves, to benefit from learning, to be academic is seen as a bit of a betrayal of the community, a move away from the village and its inhabitants into white space, an alignment with the oppressors. “Too much book” as Olanna’s aunty phrases it.

We talked about Nigerian history, and how lacking an English education is in any historical events that did not directly impact upon England. We talked about the colonial MO and how often it has been repeated around the world. Bloody Britain.

We agreed that parts of the book are beautiful and the prose is quite lyrical in places. Significantly, the scenes that really stand out are the traumatic, horrifying events witnessed by Olanna and Richard (personally I never made it much past the Biafran independence, but am assured there was more horror to follow). The scene of the Igbo slaughter in the airport and the things that Olanna witnesses in the village of her relatives and on the train home have a savage, arresting intensity to them. These scenes are incredibly well written; shocking  and intimate and horrifying all at once.  For me personally, these are probably the only parts of this book I will remember.
As with All the Light We Cannot See, we decided that the out-of-sequence structure added nothing to the book. Though it was presumably done that way to make Baby’s parentage and the mess between Richard/Kainene /Olanna more of a reveal, it was pretty writ large what was coming, so it wasn’t really worth disrupting the narrative flow for so little twist. Numerous readers said that they struggled to keep track of events, characters, relatives and dates and that it was kind of jarring to be introduced to young Baby, then almost immediately whisk  back in time so she suddenly disappears. It’s hard to keep track of, especially amongst a backdrop of constantly appearing and then disappearing poets, academics, politicians, revolutionaries, party guests  and so on.

I think the general consensus was that whilst this is probably a worthy and very emotionally affecting  socio-historical novel, none of us really got much out of it and found it a completely uphill struggle. Maybe it’s not the right time to read a book about civil war, state-sanctioned violence and relentless suffering. Maybe it’s just too horrific a subject to expect to enjoy a book about. Maybe socio-historical novels just aren’t our collective bag.
Here’s a recent article highlighted by our resident history source Clive on the lasting implications and deadly legacy of Biafran independence. 46 years later, tensions still seem as high as ever. 

Anyway- we break for Christmas now, so I’ll see you guys in the new year for our discussion of His Dark Materials in January (it’s grim in parts, but hopefully will offer a bit of an antidote to all the suffering we’ve read lately). We will resolve to choose some more uplifting books in January to take us through to Easter, so come armed with a list of things you missed out on when they came out, things that have sat on your shelf for years, new paperback releases or something that you’ve always wanted to read but never got around to.

Monday, 14 November 2016

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

So apparently this sold the most copies in the wake of its nomination for the Booker Prize shortlist, but did not win in the end. But winning isn't everything, right?

His Bloody Project begins with a preface by the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet, recounting how he found the manuscript that you are about to read, intact and inexpertly bound, in the archives of an Inverness repository. The story re-imagines the supposedly real-life story of 17-year-old Crofter's son Roderick Macrae, perpetrator of a triple murder in 1869, the bloody project from which the book gets its name. The narrative is constructed of testimonials from Roderick's neighbours, teachers and other crofters in the township. Opinions of him vary wildly, from gifted (if slightly contemptuous) scholar, to quiet loner, to murderous, dead-eyed miscreant. After the short testimonials, Roddy tells his own story, in an unlikely, flowing prose from his prison cell, recounting the series of events that began with his mother's death, and led up to a triple homicide.

It's interesting in that it is not a whodunnit, because Roddy is never in any denial about his guilt. The interest arises in why. Why did this boy, an apparently clever, thoughtful lad feel driven to murder his neighbours? A boy that, on his first day of employment working for the landowner on a shooting party, scared a stag off to save such a magnificent animal from being slain. What drives a person like that to kill someone? Not just kill them, but full blown smush them to a pulp?

It's an intriguing little book- sort of a literary found footage. It's unexpectedly humorous in parts, with an oddly compelling narrator in the softly spoken, literary Roderick. It reminded me in parts of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, in that it is a memoir written with the noose around the neck. The difference was, that narrator was innocent. It reminded me most of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood; the idea that multiple versions of a person exist to different people perceiving them. The idea that guilt and innocence are slippery ideas, that if a person is devious enough, clever enough, if they believe their story enough they can dupe almost anyone. The innocent party becomes a character to be played, even to  themselves.

In His Bloody Project, the reader is left to make up their own mind about the accused, but they are heavily influenced by his own, lengthy account. We end up sharing Macrae's own perception of himself, whether that is what his peers see or not. We see his background, his treatment at home. We see how his beloved sister is gradually dimmed by toil, abused and then extinguished. We see his aspirations, his unlucky sequence of events. His acceptance of them. His arrival at the only conclusion; a win-win- he is freeing his father from both the burden of his torment, and the burden of his useless son.

It's an enjoyable book that paints a picture of the bleak inevitability of life in the Scottish islands- a simple, ancient life made unbearable by the arrival of power and tyranny. It's unusual in its format, and some readers might be put off by the verbose prose of Macrae's account of his life. I've just realized the author shares a name with his protagonist. *so dense*. I'd definitely recommend this to people who enjoyed Alias Grace, and to readers of crime generally. It's certainly a new and compelling twist on a very, very familiar genre. It must be hard to write a really original crime novel, but GMB has managed well. Memorable.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Broadway Book Club Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,

Everyone in attendance had enjoyed the book; we talked about the readable, engaging prose style, the interesting central characters and the fact that Occupied France and the campaigns on the Eastern Front as World War II narratives that seem to be less common.

Most people agreed that the interweaving of the two plots  was well managed and each strand was equally interesting, but that the jumping backwards and forwards in time and location added nothing to the book. We thought that a chronological narrative would have been easier to follow and would have told the story just as competently. We could never remember if Werner was in the basement of the hotel, in the Orphanage, on the Eastern Front, back in the basement again or at Nazi school because it seemed to change too often and didn’t feel particularly consistent.

We talked at great length about how well the author portrayed the gradual rise to power of the Nazis and how sympathetically Werner and Frederick (poor, poor Frederick- he confirmed what happens to people that don’t fit the fascist mould)  were depicted despite technically being Nazis. How Germany was ruined after the First World War, its citizens struggling to survive- then jobs began to emerge and prosperity gradually returns, thanks to these apparent saviours. People are eating meat again, manufacturing is thriving and gradually more opportunities become available…a frenzy of nationalism emerges, where you are either part of the frenzy or an enemy of the state. We really felt for Werner, whose intelligence and ability bring him to the attention of the Party and he is taken away for training at the most horrific soldier school. We talked about how many ordinary Germans there must have been that were either indifferent to the emerging Nazis or quietly opposed to them, but how ineffective and dangerous this opposition must have been- so they just went along with it. It’s frighteningly familiar. One day it’s not defending a neighbour or keeping quiet when a foreign accent is derided. Pretty soon you’ve got full blown fascism and we all know the rest of that story.

We talked a lot about the book’s other characters; we loved the PTSD suffering Etienne, trapped in his house with the badass resistance leader and long-time maid Madame Manec. The impressive, brutal super-German Volkheimer, a legendary, ruthless giant that trained and posted with Werner. Though he seems so unsympathetic, we really felt for the post war Volkheimer who had sank from Nazi notoriety to a solitary, grim anonymous life of a radio installer. We were universally disgusted by the gross gemologist von Rumpel and his disgusting overflowing neck fat and his obsession with the Sea of Flames

We discussed the diamond and all the coincidences that it had encountered since its ejection from the earth- unable to decide if it was a supernatural object or just another reason for people to fight each other through history- another trinket to own. Fate, coincidence and free will are pretty consistent themes throughout the book , exemplified quite well via the mysterious diamond.

It was a really enjoyable book that prompted a lot of discussion about the tragedy of war, good and evil, doing the right thing, virtual and literal entrapment and the generally interesting things about the French Resistance and other lesser known aspects of the Second World War. We seem to know all about the Blitz and Evacuees and D-Day, but it’s easy to forget the hundreds of thousands of other stories that exist of that time.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Martian, by Andy Weir

It's highly likely that you have read this book and/or seen the film (Award winning Comedy film, The Martian) but I'm going to write it up anyway.

Mark Watney is an astronaut and a member of the crew of the Ares 3, a manned mission to Mars in a future near enough to be indistinguishable from the present, but distant enough for Mars missions to be kind of old hat. This Mars mission *is* Historic, but not because it's pioneering. About a week into the mission while out in a storm that's worsening by the hour, Commander Lewis makes the decision to abort. The wind is high and fast enough to compromise the return craft, so it's back to the MAV for everyone and an early 8 month return to Earth. In an intense, confusing, deadly instant, Mark Watney is hit by flying debris and flung into the fug- visibility is close to zero and his suit is recording no signs of life- Mark is dead- the first person to die on Mars.

This is where the book starts; with a battered, patched up and barely functional Mark Watney surveying his options. He's injured. Has limited food supplies. He's alone on Mars. He's pretty much dead.

The rest of the novel comprises of first person logs by Mark as day by day (or Sol by Sol) he battles against the odds and the never ending hostility of Mars to survive. Luckily as a botanist, engineer and all-round McGyer style scientist, he manages to overcome the most obstacles: growing food, creating water, making contact with Earth in miraculous feats of engineering and pluck. Reading this, I couldn't help but Imagine how I would handle the same circumstances- probably just de-suit and walk out of the airlock to certain, swift death. So I had to very much admire Mark's insane resourcefulness, determination and refusal to die, despite the explosions, depressurisation, flippings, tumblings and starvings that Mars threw at him.

This is one of the few occasions ever where I'm glad to have seen the film before reading the book as so much of the science went over my head. It was also handy to have pre-imagined faces to attach to all the names at NASA- characters that have some pretty amazing dialogue but as characters are kind of interchangeable. Having Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor's famous faces pre-loaded into my head really helped.

Though the NASA guys and the other astronauts are important supporting characters, we find out very little about them- it's very much the Mark Watney show. There's no big emotional reunion with Earth-bound family, no weepy fiancee on the news, desperately waiting for an update on their space stranded betrothed- which I found really refreshing. It wasn't a particularly emotional story, not a vast personal journey- just a really resourceful guy with a sense of humour as dry as his planet, trying not to die or drive himself insane with loneliness, bad 70s TV and disco music and barely managing.

It's pacy and funny and full of action- even if there's never really any suspense (even if you haven't seen the film, it's pretty obvious that Mark isn't going to die- even if he wanted to he probably can't even). It's basically Robinson Crusoe in Space, but funnier. And with more science. I'm pretty sure most of the world have read this- but if you haven't, it's definitely worth giving it a go. It's one of the most universally appealing stories I've read or seen in ages. The film is a really stellar adaptation of the source material, and the book just provides more of the same. More Mark, More Mars, more laughs.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Muse, by Jessie Burton

Starting in the summer of 1967, Odelle Bastien a Trinidadian expat 5 years in London, aspiring writer and current shoe salesgirl, applies on the off chance for a job at the Skelton, an upmarket art gallery. It's the beginning of a period of change in her life, one that sees her finally begin to feel at home in England- new job, the introduction of the enigmatic, glamorous Miss Quick, the gallery director and her best friend and room mate Cynth moving out and getting married. It is at her wedding reception that she meets Lawrence, the producer of the painting which will serve as the historical art whodunnit.

Lawrence brings with him a painting something inherited that may or may not be valuable- a grim, unnerving but beautiful picture of a girl, holding the head of another girl, with a lion. Ms Quick looks like she has seen a ghost and Odelle is immediately curious about what might connect Quick and Lawrence, who profess to have never met before and the painting.

The mystery of the painting and its provenance are gradually unravelled as the story sweeps back to Southern Spain in 1936. Here we meet the moony, romantic teenager Olive Schloss, a secret artist and daughter of a prominent Austrian art dealer (Harold) and a glamorous but mentally ill English socialite mother (Sarah). Olive has turned down a place at art school, perhaps due to a crisis of confidence, perhaps a lack of faith in her future as a female artist- perhaps because she feels that something else is planned for her. Olive's life diverges from her original intentions with the arrival of Isaac Robles and his half sister Theresa. Originally mistaking them for man and wife, Olive learns that they are in fact the children of a local landowner and partial gangster- they are soon integrated fully into the Schloss household, indispensable, essential. Though their intentions are unclear, their influence is palpable. 

Olive quickly becomes at home in Spain, encouraged artistically by the enthralled Theresa and politically awakened by fellow artist and political aggressor Isaac, the man that Olive is, incidentally, infatuated with. The coming Civil War and its obvious early warning signals are steadfastly ignored by the Schloss clan. Olive, knowing that she is at risk of being returned to England and in pursuit of a pure creativity free from the burden of acclaim, hatches a plan with the Robles': they will trick art man Harold into securing the patronage of wealthy american collectors to launch Isaac onto the scene. 

Juggling the two time periods, the two narratives and the two casts expertly, Jesse Burton paints a picture of the burden of creativity, its hidden rules and the double edged sword of public acclaim.  Theresa secretly exposes Olive's talents, while Quick does much the same for Odelle, putting her short story in a literary magazine, also without her knowledge. The success is valuable, but at what cost? The author asks some incredibly complex questions about the creative process- can success extinguish creativity? (With the immense success of the Miniaturist it's not hard to see where this theme might have emerged from!) Does an artist produce for themselves, or for public consumption? When a piece of art/writing/etc is unleashed into the world, does its meaning change? Does the artist ever truly own it after that? What is art actually for?

It's a passionate, fierce novel, filled with themes of identity and creation. The act of expression and the alchemy of painting are explored in a way that is both relateable and very evocative. Both time periods seem to come alive, they are richly written, texture-filled places that are inhabited by entirely real creations- as a reader I felt more drawn to the Spanish narrative not because it was more fully formed, or more realistic, but because the act of painting featured here, an act that seems so vital to the character and to the plot. I loved the detective researcher element of the London story, but the actual act of putting paintbrush to canvas and the feelings released in the process was rendered so fully in this novel. I enjoyed too the not-so-subtle rage-flow of feminist fury at the persistent, even to this day, suggestion that anything produced by a woman is inherently inferior to something produced by a man.

The Muse is a beautifully written and lovingly crafted novel, thoroughly researched so, mercifully, not prone to fall into some of the rookier traps of Historical Fiction. Themes of identity, the elusive nature of creativity and inspiration, love, politics, gender, race and the role, value and purpose of art are combined and gathered into a fascinating mystery, unravelled by a lovable, canny and endearing protagonist- a writer, turned typist turned amateur sleuth. I enjoyed this thoroughly and wish Jessie every success with her next venture and with the TV adaptation of the Miniaturist. That genie is well and truly out of the book bottle now.

Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead

Really, really enjoyed this, and I can see it becoming quite the go-to Middle Grade book for quite a catalogue of events and issues.

Set in contemporary New York, Goodbye Stranger tells the story, in the first person, of Bridge Barsamien,a 7th grader, car accident survivor and medical marvel. It also occasionally jumps forward several months to another story, in the second person, of an older teen, an unnamed girl who is skipping school in an anxious attempt to avoid the consequences of a terrible mistake.

But first Bridge. Convinced she survived her earlier accident for a reason, Bridge is having a bit of an identity crisis- why is she here? What does she bring to the world? Who is she, really? A bit of an oddball, she has recently started wearing cat ears to school. Best friends Tab and Em think it's a bit odd, but whatever- both have their own things to deal with. Em is now a rising soccer star and the recent owner of some new curves that are starting to get her noticed by older students. Tabs is busy excelling at languages, getting into human rights and civil disobedience and gobbling up a (somewhat outdated, 1970s flavoured) feminist agenda from her worshipped teacher Ms Burman. Bridge is quite confused and put out by the focus and talents of her friends, and find herself drifting to the Stage Crew as an after school activity where she meets Sherm, a kid she lives really close to, goes to school with yet has somehow never actually spoken to.

It's a beautifully written book, with gorgeous, evocative prose that washes over the reader. Though not terrible plot driven, it is incredibly realistic and does an excellent job of showing what it must be like to be 12 or 13 in the modern era. The three central girls are working out who they are and what matters to them, whilst trying to navigate the rough seas of adolescence. The book asks some really interesting questions about identity and what makes a person *them*- can you be the same person now that you were 5 years ago? Will your future self be the same person? Can you be two people at once, one that dud something terrible and regrets it, and simultaneously one that understands and would probably do it again?

A lot of middle grade fiction has the trials and tribulations of friendship at its core. The way that friendships can break apart, evolve or become toxic and damaging. We get to see that via the unnamed second person voice, how friends can change and become people that seem like strangers. Bridge's trio fare better throughout the book. Though they have their ups and their first downs, the girls' friendship seems to weather the storm of the 7th grade.

Though not an issue driven book, Goodbye Stranger still offers the opportunity for valuable conversation around important issues in the lives of modern tweens. There is the perennial issue of friendships being made and broken and how to deal withe the emotional fallout, embarrassing, fraying or broken families and the stresses of school, but we also see the emergence of more modern issues- 'sexting', slut shaming (though neither terms are specifically used) and the way girls in particular are expected to behave, scrutinised and judged. There's a lot to unpack for such a short book- I particularly liked how Em's picture being leaked was presented as quite a complicated thing. She was mortified, rightly or wrongly, but still liked the picture and how she looked in it- something that Bridge is baffled by . Em explains "the bad part wasn’t that everyone was looking at the picture. I mean, it was weird and not great. But the bad part was that it felt like they were making fun of my feeling good about the picture. Of me liking myself". It's a big thing to have to think about, surrounded by sub themes of consent, self love and agency.

All in all, it's a wonderful, dual story that points out that age does not always come with wisdom and that older kids make mistakes too,  Nobody is infallible. Some friendships will survive and some will go bad. New friends eventually become old friends. Past and future are mysteries. Teachers will always spend their own money to make things that they care about a success. Girls and boys will, however unfairly, be subjected to different treatment.

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Foolish King, by Mark Price and Illustrated by Martin Brown

This book aims to inspire the next generation to become champion chess players- a game that is apparently played by 500 million people in 167 countries! Who knew?! It's part story, part learning the rules, part mock-up game- there is an accompanying iPhone app too which I guess gives the player chessy scenarios to figure out, but being an android bod I wasn't able to check this out for myself unfortunately...

The book frames the game within a fairytale narrative- A just and beloved leader, who was very into produce and insects and biodiversity generally has just died, leaving his foolish, selfish and greedy son in charge of the kingdom. Under his rule, the crops wither, the people go hungry and the essential pollinating micro-beasts leave the kingdom for more fertile climes. It is up to the Royal Gardener's kids, Holly and Pip, to pursue the fleeing insects to their forbidden underground world, master the game that they play to keep their insect society in order and bring the essential invertebrates back to the kingdom.

The creepy crawlies, creeping away

Once hidden in the insect world, Pip and Holly witness a game played out between the daytime insects and the nighttime insects, in lieu of actual battle. It is a complex game, with lots of specific moves and maneuvers, and some of the insects end up in a kind of prison..

The insects take on the role of chess pieces, Ron Weasley Style

Pip and Holly learn the rules of this game, traversing several training grounds to learn the rules and moves of each piece. Here the Grasshoppers and Crickets are fulfilling the roles of Knights, hopping in L-Shapes around lily pads.

The instruction ends with an illustrated, step by step game played out in stages, with each of the moved explained and justified.

It's a novel idea- something that I think will work very well alongside the app, which will hopefully offer a real-time animation of each move and provide puzzles and scenarios to solve. Where the book could spark interest in the game, the app may take the actual skills of the player further until they are brave enough to battle the board for themselves.

I liked how the game was framed within a fairytale narrative, but I did get a bit lost with which insects were what pieces and had to keep checking back to make sure! The story is fun and engaging, with a nice additional message about the importance of biodiversity...The illustrations are excellent, Martin Brown's brilliant and familiar wide-eyed and characterful figures jump off the page, bringing an otherwise quite obscure game to a new audience- the instructions are manageable and introduced at a pace that is not overwhelming, and examples of all the moves are included. An interesting and unusual mixture of fiction and non fiction! Unfortunately I can't say as I will be taking up chess though- as a terrible tactician and reckless player of most games, it is simply too tactical for me!

Friday, 26 August 2016

Broadway book Club Discussion of Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

As with all the best books, or at least the ones that make for the best discussions, feelings were very much mixed about Jeffrey Eugenides’  Middlesex. Those in attendance were split pretty evenly- 3 for very much yes, 3 not so much, and 1 undecided. We were universally disturbed by how quickly Desdemonda and Lefty, brother and sister, in 1922 decided that they’d get married. Obviously this is the Big Bang moment of the whole story, and everyone’s lives are subsequently affected by this decision- but we all agreed that they were both far too up for it far too quickly. Just no. When your Husband is your brother and it looks like your son is about to propose to his cousin, one needs to intervene. More grandparents are necessary in a family.

Firstly we talked about the narrator, Cal, and their omnipotence- the way they could confidently and with detail tell a story in 1922, 60 years before their birth, how they could definitely impart the thoughts and feelings of characters they were nowhere near, divine reasons for behaviour known only to the person involved. We discussed why this could be off putting, even annoying, and on the other hand why it might separate Middlesex from other multi-generational family sagas that we’ve read. We also talked about the narrator’s Dickensian, flowery language and their choice to address the reader directly, float up and down stairs and point out that this is what they are doing. Also could be considered annoying.

One of the most consistently voiced and agreed upon faults was the book’s odd pacing. Cal spends literally hundreds of pages building his backstory, then undergoes the transformation from Callie to Cal in about a page. The book from that point- San Francisco, the Father Mike debacle, the tying up at the end- seems very rushed for such a lengthy, epic narrative. Even those of us that loved it could not deny that this is kind of the case. The transformation itself we discussed briefly, and it was raised by one member that there was a concern that the intersex/trans experience might not really do justice to such an experience and that it wasn’t handled particularly sensitively- the San Francisco section in particular felt a bit box-ticky “This is the exploitation bit, this is the bit where they’re beaten up in the park” etc. The idea of the intersex experience was barely discussed in any depth- but then Cal does make it clear that he isn’t very involved with the movement and tends to keep away from the whole thing. We had all expected gender identity and intersexuality to be a more fundamental part of the story. We all liked how Cal, as adult Cal, could look back on their life as Callie without any anger or disgust or bitterness. Callie was kind of allowed to live on in memory and was recalled quite fondly by Cal. He allowed Callie to sort of exist in her own time and context, which we all thought was a nice touch.

We talked about Eugenides’ prose and about the bits that really worked that the reader could see came from personal experience- for example, he’s from a partially Greek background, so the big, busy Orthodox Greek family and the 2nd and 3rd generation immigrant element was really believable and immersive. We felt that the city of Detroit was rendered really well (despite the not particularly involving riots), as Eugenides hails from Detroit himself. However, the parts that he obviously had no personal experiences with really stood out as being a bit out of his depth. Namely the intersex experience, which felt a bit haphazard and his borderline hilarious depictions of menstruation, or anxiety about unforthcoming menstruation. It’s not exactly uncommon though- male writers just can’t do periods properly and it’s perhaps unsurprising.

We briefly talked about the very indistinct sexual encounters that Callie has with the Object and the Object’s brother, neither of which seemed particularly consensual. Like many of the book’s other themes, it was very ambiguous.

One of the aspects of the novel that was considered universally effective was the author’s use of duality as a theme throughout the book, demonstrated in a number of ways. Most of the characters experience displacement and duality at some point- Cal/Callie belongs within neither gender. They are neither one thing nor the other. Lefty and Desdemonda aren’t wholly husband and wife, nor are they brother and sister any longer. Ancestrally Greek, born in a part of Turkey contested fro centuries by both nations, the Stephanides family is not wholly Greek, nor are they Turkish. The whole immigrant experience is shrouded in Duality- first generation immigrants rarely feel fully at home in their adopted nations, but neither can they remain completely loyal to their old world. 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants belong to their home nations more successfully, but are obliged to feel the tether of the ancestral home. Sourmelina lives a dual life as a wife and mother, and as a closeted lesbian. Middlesex is a novel full of duality, and we all agreed that this was done particularly well throughout. One member suggested that it’s more realistic for a person to be composed of contradictions, to be fluid and changeable that it is to be the same, unfaltering person day after day, using the disastrous Father Make and his permanent niceness and geniality as an example. He was definitely the worst character.

It was mentioned that the book was very dense, the characters and the themes sort of fighting for space with too much going on. Some readers wanted more time spent on Milton and Tessie’s courtship (cousins, uh-oh) which seemed to jump from having a clarinet played on her to marriage. One member mentioned also that for a book about family and relationships, it was lacking in feeling and actual emotion, perhaps because of the over ambitious timescale or the disjointed structure.

I think there were elements of this novel that impressed everyone (not always the same ones) and elements that frustrated. Though opinions were mixed, we mostly liked Cal as a character and the dense, tangent ridden, meandering Greek epic of his family narrative. Though in places it was missing details, and in places embellished with far too much- though we were occasionally frustrated by his style or his insight, Cal wasn’t the worst storyteller. Though some readers will not be rushing to pick up JE’s other books, Middlesex (despite it's bad punny title) made for an interesting discussion about structure, family, gender, consent, duality, identity and, unavoidably, the very Classical Greek ingredient of incest.

We took the opportunity to select the next four titles which will take us up to the end of 2016(!) and have gone for a nice mixture of sci-fi, war, historical fiction, YA fantasy and book club classics.

Just in case the picture won't load, they are;
September- Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut (given a C grade by its own author)
October- All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (Pulitzer winning)
November- Half A Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Orange Prize winner of winners)
December/January- His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Philip Pullman (Whitbread, Carnegie and Guardian Prize Winning)

The latter of which is the only series that has ever come close to dethroning Harry Potter as my most beloved series of all time. Can't wait.

We will be meeting on Thursday September 29th at 7.00pm to discuss Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, written and illustrated by Kate Pankhurst

I love this book so hard. It has literally everything. It’s beautifully crafted, lovingly illustrated, educational, inspiring and fun to read, even when you’re 28. I’d never heard of Gertrude Ederle or Agent Fifi! Now they’re up there with Harriett Tubman and Hermione Granger as my feminist heroes.

Firstly, the illustrations and text are amazing. The sheer quantity of calligraphy and typography involved in this publication is staggering- it seems so personal and handcrafted and just adds so much flavour and style to the pages- it's one thing to be informative, but being very stylish and gorgeously presented, while being informative is always going to be better. The illustrations are simply beautiful. Lushly colourful, doodly, full of detail, character and personality, each woman is surrounded by a relevant palette of colours. They are adorned with items and accessories of their pursuits, maps, bones, science equipment, cacti- whatever bits and bobs enhance and colour that particular person’s contribution to history. Pankhurst’s illustrations are joyously coloured, strikingly vibrant and infinitely appealing to any reader lucky enough to get a copy of this book in their hands.

The layout too is brilliant- each fantastic woman gets a double page spread and the reader’s eye is directed across the page, tracking the journey of the woman’s discovery, invention, life or achievement. Arrows help to guide the order in which we are supposed to read, as each page features a main story, then additional facts and snippets of biographical information or key terms. The arrows help to keep everything moving in the right direction and in the right order. I loved too how the layout alters to fit each person- going to use Mary Anning as an example because I am a huge dinosaur nerd and she was one of the first Palaeontologists of any gender or nationality- though she was largely uncredited due to her tiny woman brain and lack of scientific credentials.

Three major dinosaur types discovered by one woman! AND all before the term "Dinosaur" was even coined (1842)

So who do we learn about in Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World? Some are rightly famous, some are undeservedly obscure or scandalously forgotten. The full roster of remarkable ladies is; Novelist Jane Austen, Channel swimmer and Olympian Gertrude Ederle, Fashion designer and businesswoman Coco Chanel, Artist Frieda Kahlo, Nobel Prize winning chemist Marie Curie, Palaeontologist Mary Anning, Nurse Mary Secole, Aviator Amelia Earheart, Secret Agent Fifi, Translator, navigator and explorer Sacagawea, Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, Civil Rights campaigner Rosa Parks and diarist Anne Frank.
The full set of Fantastic Women, part 1
It must have been really hard to choose who to feature in this book- I really hope there’s a follow up featuring more great women (Elizabeth Fry, Maria Sibylla Merian, Harriett Tubman, Laura Trott, Malala Yousafzai, Irena Sendler, Annie Oakley, Bess of Hardwick, Ada Lovelace, Martha Graham) please please please do a MORE Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World!

I’m going to give copies of this book to everyone I know with small children for Christmas, boys and girls alike, because all kids need to know that it’s ok to explore their talents, be brave, ask questions and discover new things! Girls need to know from as young an age as possible that they *can* do whatever they want, and boys need to know, equally, that they can also do these things, but they’ve got competition.
Favourite page <3
Thanks so much to Lizz Skelly, (who I finally managed to meet at YALC- yay!) for sending me a review copy of this amazing book. I love it.

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, written and illustrated by Kate Pankhurst is out on September the 8th. The kids in your life deserve to read this book!!

Thursday, 11 August 2016

The unboxing of my first #Illumicrate

After seeing this bountiful crate of goodies all over twitter last spring, I was fairly confident that this time around I was going to get myself a piece of that. I'm new to subscription boxes in general (unless you count my brief flirtation with Graze, where I just ate everything in one go and realised that's not how it works, thus; cancelled)

This livened up a pretty dull day of waiting in for a guy to come and do a survey on the house and waiting for the BF's shoes to get delivered. I know- calm down Leanne, with your wild hedonistic ways. What a timely little dispatch to relieve me from literally the dullest day of summer holidays in all of time.

Unspoiled and full of dreams

Naturally, one goes for books first. One is not a heathen. I was super mega chuffed to see The Graces, by Laura Eve, which I had coveted at YALC last week, wistfully gazing at the one promo copy they had on their stand. Seriously, they had a whole stand just for one book, such was the scale of the torment. The samplers, if anything, just heightened the lust for this book. Not normally into Witches, but there are things in life for which we must make exceptions. The other book is a thoroughly attractive Hardback called Nevernight, by Jay Kristoff. I must admit, I'm unfamiliar with this book, not being a huge fantasy reader. I shall go in blind. Also, bookplates!

There were several hints dropped by Daphne, the brain behind Illumicrate on Twitter that there would be a Gilmore Girls inspired item. If I hadn't already subscribed, that would've been my cue to get on it. I bloody love Gilmore Girls. LOVE IT. So. Imagine my joy to find this beast. I love a tote bag. Who doesn't love a tote bag? But this is a GG tote bag you guys. An Illumicrate exclusive, so if you see a fellow toter of the totebag out in the world, congratulate them on their excellent taste.

I'm still not fussed about the comeback series though. Pleased for everybody that's excited and all, but it's just never the same. Look at Bridget Jones. Look at Bourne. Look at David Brent. Look at Jurassic World. Even when it's good- it's not the same. *Looks for Gilmore Girls S1 on DVD. Remembers sister had them. Cries.*

I know right, I KNOW! These are Illumicrate exclusives designed by the amazingly talented @taratjah. I'm one of the very, very few hardcore PotterHeads that is 100% not bothered about seeing or reading either the Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts- it ended, I'm happy with how it ended, now excuse me wile I read HP for the 382nd time. At least I'm consistent, right? BUT. That being said. I am TOTALLY on board with black Hermione. I love these to depictions of my all time favourite trio. True story, the first time I read HP when I was like 13, in my head Hermione was brown haired Smurfette. I don't know why. So nobody's brain can really claim the definitive, one true Hermione. I love her illustrations. I love how cute they are. I am so, so impressed with a person's ability to imagine something in their head, translate it through arms, hands and eyes, and capture it on paper. What a superpower.

So there you have it! So much swag delivered to your door. Sorry if I seem a bit down on revivals of existing things. I'm absolutely not saying that they can't be enjoyed- go for it! But I'm more of an 'I'll stick to what I know' kind of person. I'm still in denial of the existence of a 4th Indiana Jones film.

Thankyou to Daphne, @WingedReviews on twitter, for being the curatororal force behind the happiness of the YA community this week. Mwah!

Saturday, 30 July 2016

The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon

For the most part I really enjoyed this book, but there was one really massive thing that put me off and I'm not sure yet whether it's a dealbreaker or not. *Spoilers*

Since humans began developing clairvoyance some time around the turn of the 19th century, the government has sought to eradicate the 'Voyants', blaming them for all society's ills, campaigning for their destruction, enforcing the death penalty for those captured. 19year old Paige, a powerful type of Voyant called a Dream Walker (the top of the power tree) has made a living in the criminal underground, acting as a sort of out-of-body spy and information gatherer fro Jaxon Hall, her Mime Lord and futuristic Fagin. Clairvoyance works by various types of Voyant being able to access the "Ether" and thus see, sense or feel a person's Dreamscape, an area of a person's mind somewhere between an aura and a soul. A thriving underworld of Voyant syndicates exists under the dictatorial facade of future London. Her syndicate, based in Seven Dials, is the only place Paige has ever felt at home. Surrounded by other voyants of various types (Jax has quite the staff roll) she is an essential part of a highly successful team.

I thought the world building was really, really well done. The steampunk-esque Dickensian London of the Citadel of Scion London combined with 250 years' worth of technological advancement (it's 2059) was a fascinating backdrop for a familiar but well told story. Scion, the big-brother-esque government organisation that seized the city of London is a murky, tyrannical organisation whose rise we do not see. We learn that they have other cities under their control but are not witnesses to their rise to power. I'd love to have seen Scion's rise to power, what happened to make it possible in the first city that they occupied.

On a trip across town to see her father, Paige is spotted by a night patrol of Voyants in the employ of the government- she kills them accidentally and is forced to flee. Pursued across the rooftops of London by an unfamiliar red-jacketed squadron, she is caught. drugged and kidnapped. When she is revived, full of pain and poison Paige finds herself in the city of Sheol 1, a prison city run by a muscular humanoid race known as the Rephaim. Every 20 years, the Rephaim send Bone-Grabbers into Scion London and round up 20 clairvoyants to bring to their city. Voyants are assigned a Rephaim master and those that show a capacity for fighting are used to defend the city against the Emim, a mysterious kind of flesh eating space monster. It is apparently the threat posed by the Emim to the reast of Earth that give the Rephaim their power over Scion, an organisation that was founded when the Rephaim arrived on Earth as a source of human fodder for their defences. Those that fail to show combat skills or are deemed clairvoyantly useless are consigned to a life of poverty in the city slums as entertainers. The non voyants captured by mistake become slaves in service.

The book's core plot is the feisty, displaced Paige finding herself assigned to the Warden, the betrothed of the Rephaim's bloodthirsty leader. Training by night, wandering the city by daym she learns the hierarchy of the Rephaim's structure, immerses herself in the slums and the underbelly of the city, learns of failed rebellions and oppression. The people that she arrived with, other voyants and humans, are mistreated, abused and beaten by their masters. The voyants that failed to become bone grabbers live in humiliation and squalour. She means to get out of there as soon as she can- but how can she leave so many behind?

So. The potential dealbreaker for me (spoilers, FYI) is the idea of a slave of any kind, a branded, renamed, displaced, friends are occasionally murdered in front of her slave like Paige falling for her owner. He might be a nicer, more empathetic, liberal owner, but he is her owner nonetheless. I get that Warden is ideologically separate from the Rephaim. I get that he's a closeted rebel working to incite a human rebellion. I realise that it's not *quite* as bad as it could have been...But this book would have been 100% better for me if their romance had not happened. It would not have damaged the plot, not made the ending anti-climactic. I'm not saying Humans can't go in for alien species- just look at The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, that pulled off the whole human/alien pairing OK- it's the slave 'falling for' the handsome, 'he's not like the rest of them' owner that bothers me. It's so unnecessary and so inappropriate. How can a piece of property be involved in any sort of consensual encounter with their owner? I don't think it would have detracted from the plot at all. We see Paige and the Warden build a shaky trust, each saves the life of the other repeatedly and they do genuinely seem to develop a partnership based on the same objectives. But romance? I can't get on with that. Yes, the Warden is kind of trapped by his situation as a rebel and fiancee of the ruling species. Yes his is beholden to Nashira, he hates her and rises against her- but that's different to being actually branded into actual servitude. 

I'm still having thoughts about this. I'll give the second book a go.
It's such a shame because the rest of the book is so richly layered. The locations are teeming with life and intrigue, the characters are complex and engaging. The worldbuilding is so, so good and I love the idea of the menacing, tyrannical Scion being a puppet government for the depraved, power crazed Nashira. But I just wish the slave/slaver romance trope would stop creeping into otherwise compelling, well crafted novels. It belongs in the book sin bin with the teenager/adult relationship, the pupil/teacher and the Nazi/Jew or the Guard/Concentration Camp prisoner romance. Less please.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Radio Silence, by Alice Oseman

I loved this book so much. It’s vital and vibrant, heartbreaking and emotional. It’s hard to isolate a main storyline in Radio Silence; it’s more of a web of stories and events that sort of tie together. The novel covers themes of identity, the pressure of living up to expectations, friendship, family, fandom and creativity. It also emphasises that it’s wrong and exhausting to force yourself into a role that you feel society, adults, whoever have guilted you into.

Frances, as a gifted student has been guided towards University, groomed Dumbledore style for the academic echelons of Oxbridge. Throughout the course of the novel, Frances comes to realise that there’s much more out there, more options, more opportunities than her blinkered path has suggested until now. Radio Silence reminds readers that though it is scary to find that your hard-won path is in fact the wrong one, it’s never too late to change, so long as you are brave enough to make your own decisions and trust yourself.

I absolutely loved Frances and, despite our 10 year age gap, I identified with her so hard. She refers to ‘School Frances’ the study machine, the one who everybody assumes will ace her A Levels and go to Cambridge and go off to something complicated and important in adulthood. Clever, boring, quiet Frances who has no connection or anything in common with the people she hangs out with and has a constant inner monologue about not giving away her weirdness. Because ‘Real Frances’ is someone else entirely, a person known only really to her mum. Real Frances dresses like a giant child, creates fan art for her favourite podcast in her spare time and is an absolute social hermit. She essentially wears a mask 24/7 and presents a totally different persona to the word outside her home. Her safe space is Tumblr, where she is a prominent member of the Universe City fandom she posts her art as Touloser.

The “Big night out” scenes could have been stolen straight from my own life. AO captures that feeling perfectly of allowing yourself to be coerced into an activity that everybody else is mad for that you simply Do Not Get, mostly just to fulfil social obligations. That sense of looking around at all the normal, happy teens having fun doing something horrendous like shots and clubbing and genuinely wondering if you might belong to another species altogether. It’s on this night out that she meets Aled Last for the first time (properly). Rather than being the beginning of a lame romance, it’s the start of the first real friendship that Frances has ever had, the first time she can be Real Frances to another person. It also just happens that he is the creator of Universe City and has lived across the street from her the whole time.  A naturally reserved person, Aled is not particularly forthcoming about his home life, save for Frances’ prior knowledge of his runaway sister. It will unfold in the most harrowing way, poor Aled.

A beautiful, heartwarming friendship blossoms between Aled and Real Frances- one based on a mutual love of the others’ work, a shared creative passion, a mutual love of goofy clothes and almost certainly on loneliness too. They work on the podcast together testing new stories, they help each other study and become generally inseparable. Two shy, nerdy creative types have found each other and it’s a gorgeous thing to read, not least because of the total absence of romance. I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to read a YA novel where none of the characters are pining, secretly or overtly, for any of the other characters.

Their friendship is tested in the most modern way when some Facebook and Tumblr detective work outs Aled as the Creator of Universe City and his hordes of demanding, kind of scary fans demand a kind of ownership of his creation, something that they as listeners are so invested in that they feel they have a stake in it. It raises interesting discussions about the role and distance of fans and fandoms in the creation of art, but that’s kind of a whole other thing in itself.

It’s a scary thing to realise that the thing you’ve conditioned yourself in to wanting, that main, glorious life goal- is actually not what you want at all and then having the bravery to admit that. The book asks some important questions about identity, about the projection of different versions of yourself and choices. As teens, you’re offered limited choices- it's really not a good time to be making big life decisions. Sheltered for so long in school, the adults that surround you have mostly gone down the same path; university and then teaching. Obviously schools and teachers want the best for their pupils- but to what extent do they get it wrong in the paths that they steer their young people towards?

There is so much to love about this book. Frances has one of the best narrative voices I’ve encountered in a long time; the reader really becomes close to her. The relationships are all beautifully explored, even amongst the supporting characters. Frances’ relationship with her mum is brilliant, all sarcasm and razor sharp but realistic dialogue. Aled’s relationship with his mother is enigmatically creepy. Everything feels so absolutely realistic and developed. It’s incredible. I've just got to squeze in, one of the many, many reasons to marvel at this book is the incidental mixture of characters. A total mixture of ethnicity, gender and sexuality; but it’s not a story about any of that. Not all novels with a POC protagonist have to be thematically linked to race. Sometimes gay people exist in narratives that are not soley about coming out. I feel like Alice Oseman is really leading the charge on representation and love her slightly more for it.

It is pretty much a flawless book and it is, evidently, very difficult to write thoughts about it in a comprehensible manner. Read it immediately.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

The Great Dragon Bake Off, by Nicola O'Byrne

At the Ferocious Dragon Academy, dragons-in- training learn the arts of bone crunching and teeth sharpening. But there is one dragon who harbours a passion for a most unlikely Dragon pastime…
Meet Flamie Oliver.
To look at, Flamie is as terrifying as a dragon can get. But behind closed doors, Flamie is...
...a stupendously spectacular Star Baker! That's right – choux, rough, salty, sweet and puff – Flamie loves it all. In fact, he loves baking so much that his studies at the Ferocious Dragon Academy are starting to suffer, and there's a chance he won't graduate! Flamie's going to need a real showstopper to get out of this one.

It's no secret that I'm partial to a picture book- ESPECIALLY ones about dragons or crocodiles. So. Imagine how pleased I was to discover Flamie Oliver- the dragon with an abundance of baking skills and nobody with whom to share the fruits of his confectionery labour. He's studying at the Ferocious Dragon Academy, learning to rustle sheep, fight knights and kidnap princesses- but Flamie's heart isn't in it. All he wants to do is bake.

With the return of the immensely, inexplicably, unstoppably popular Great British Bake Off returning to our screens soon (it's normally the first or second week in August- can't find a *specific* date) this books could not be more timely or more effective in building that spongey suspense. Personally, I'm an awful, awful baker, so am always insanely impressed by the absolute kitchen wizards on the show, and obviously, of course, with Flamie too.

This is absolutely my favourite page. BIG FAN of bread and this is my dream buffet.

I loved the little in jokes for Bake Off viewers (and for Harry Potter fans too)

It's not just me thinking that this scene bears a striking dragony resemblance to a very familiar
quidditch pitch, a scaly McGonagall and a tower-full castle in the background?

It's a lovely, characterful book filled with brief but funny characters, a cannot-emphasise-this-enough message about how it's ok if you don't fit in with everyone else, share the same hobbies, interests and enthusiasms- because we are all different and have our own unique skills. I know this is a popular message with picture books and always has been, but there is literally no such thing as overdoing this message.

I loved the joyful, rainbow illustrations too. I'm an absolute sucker for colouring pencil illustration. You can see the work that goes into every single line and every little speck of colour.

I think we just need a reminder of Luis' 2014 creation here. It feels right.

Many thanks to Lizz Skelly at Bloomsbury Children's book for the review copy

Monday, 18 July 2016

Songs About a Girl, by Chris Russell

Songs About a Girl is the debut novel from Chris Russell, and also the title of the debut album from hot new superstar boyband Fire&lights. The book opens with Olly Samson, a formerly ordinary 18 year old from Reading, who went to school and liked singing and had a lot a friends. Olly Samson has just got in touch with protagonist Charlie Bloom; a shy, retiring nobody, a year 11 student and amateur photographer that is invisible to the majority of the school population. That’s fine by her because she prefers to go unnoticed. Olly Samson is also a member of Fire&Lights and he’s just messaged Charlie on Facebook asking her to attend one of their sell out arena gigs as a backstage photographer.

Initially freaked out, she declines and shares the news with her computer nerd best friend Melissa (incidentally a hardcore Fire&Ligts obsessive) who talks her into changing her mind. Charlie attends the gig with her battered, second hand camera and bonds with the band. They get friendly, her candid shots are good, they go down well with the fans and the management. She becomes something of a regular at their shows, travelling around the UK to different cities, growing closer to moody Gabe and nice guy Ollie. But when a photo of her and Gabe is leaked onto a fan blog, her identity is revealed by online trolls and Charlie gets plunged into the paparazzi filled world of celebrity and anonymous, online abuse.

There’s also a bit of mystery thrown in when Charlie realises that a lot of Fire&Light’s lyrics bear a striking resemblance to snippets of poetry in her dead mother’s notebooks, lifted word for word from the pages. How can that be? Are the songs about her? Are her and Gabe connected in ways deeper than rock star and a girl ‘not-like-other-girls’?

I must guiltily confess, as bad and as awful as it probably makes me, that I really did not get on with this book. I’ve thought hard about whether or not I should review it or just let it go- but I want to be properly honest. It falls into quite a few of the YA pitfalls (Kooky best friend, at least one deceased parent, love triangle, not like other girls) and I found the prose style quite disjointed and bitty and a bit too propped up by adverbs.

Firstly, I found the characters incredibly one dimensional. As the reader, I wanted to get in Charlie’ s head more, really connect with her insecurities and fears. I love the introvert character type, identify with it hugely. But there was nothing here. I wanted to go with her on a journey somewhere, be there when she realises her true worth. Unfortunately she is characterised mostly by a beanie hat. Her only worth seems to come from having lads punching each other in the face over her. I was just wistfully remembering Toria from Juno Dawson’s All of The Above and what an EXCELLENT hipster loner weirdo she is.

The members of Fire&Lights were also flat, stock characters that were more annoying than anything else. Yuki was immature and irritating, throwing food literally ALL THE TIME, engaging in lame, cringey banter that I guess was supposed to be funny and endearing but just made him seem like an overgrown child. Aiden, the blonde Irish one (wonder who that’s supposed to be?) was just straight up dull. The sensitive one, has a guitar, the one that seems really normal. Gabe and Olly. Fire and light. One a lean, intense feisty bad boy, the other a muscular nice guy and impulsive protector. Points two and three of the love triangle.

Speaking of which, the Young Adult audience has had more than its fair share of love triangles, and this book just delivers another average arc. The steamy, volatile bad boy; dangerous, exciting, sexy. Or the guy who’s just really nice. The one that treats you well, is there when he says he will be, and doesn’t let you down. Lots of to-ing and fro-ing, while still quite being convinced that *neither* of them could possibly like her.

I get that I’m not the target audience for this. I know that Boy Band Lit is alive and well, and that this will almost certainly be a welcome and much enjoyed addition to that genre. Fans of Girl Online are going to love it; girl with camera forms unlikely relationship with sex god rock star. Internet fandom launches hate campaign against girl. Girl regroups.

This book will probably be very popular, and I hope that it is a success. It’s wish fulfilment fame fantasy of the highest, most fulfilling order. It’s Cinderella for the tumblr generation. I just really didn’t like it- but I’m going to assume that won’t have any impact on its popularity.

Thank you to @HachetteKids for the review copy- I'm sorry I wasn't feeling it on this occasion

Monday, 11 July 2016

Gerald's Game, by Stephen King

This was recommended to me by a colleague and I was very honoured to get a lend of her 1992 original paperback that was very much falling apart (it's 4 years younger than me). I love the feel of well read books, they're so pliant.

Stephen King raises the odd eyebrow every now and again for his portrayal of women. Yes, sometimes they're not very good characters. Sometimes they are a bit crazy and monstrous. Sometimes they exist purely to be alluring. Jessie Burlingame is one of his most nuanced and complex creations, holding down a whole book single handed.

The book begins with Jessie Burlingame and her husband Gerald in the bedroom of their summer cabin in lakeside Maine (where else? I ask you). They have decamped to the lake for an impromptu weekend in the interests of romance. Gerald, a successful lawyer but otherwise ordinary man has been able to reinvigorate the couple's sex life by handcuffing Jessie to the bed. Initially Jessie enjoyed the game, grateful of Gerald's renewed interest in her and the rejuvenation of their love life. On this occasion however, the cuffed Jessie changes her mind. She sees understanding and realisation in Gerald's eyes, and with horror, sees him shake them away, pretending that he thinks her protests are part of the game. Blinded by the panic that her dull, ordinary lawyer husband is preparing to rape her, she kicks him in the stomach and groin with all her strength. Gerald keels over, turns red, has a heart attack and dies, cracking his head on the floor for good measure. Jessie is alone, chained to the headboard with two sets of police issue handcuffs, on a deserted lake in the off season.

Gerald's Game reminded me of those sitcom 'capsule' episodes where the characters never actually leave the set and the whole episode takes place in one location. I'm thinking the classic The One Where No One's Ready ("I'm Chandler, could I be wearing any more clothes?"). Jessie, obviously, cannot move and her entrapment forces some very creative writing devices and some incredibly intricate plotting. Over the course of the next 3-4 days, Jessie wages a one-woman war of survival on her own mind and body.  She battles thirst, muscle spasms and desperation. She hears voices in her head; offering advice, bickering, encouraging or discouraging. Each one seems to be based on a her or person in her life, "The Goodwife AKA Goody Burlingame" (a kind of puritan Stepford Wife version of herself), Ruth Neary (a wild college roommate that she ghosted) and Nora Callighan (her  former psychiatrist). The voices all clamour for attention and appear to represent different parts of Jessie's fractured mind. She hasn't spoken to Ruth or Nora in years, but what they do have in common is that they both came dangerously close to uncovering a buried, traumatic childhood memory that Jessie has suppressed for years.

The only other characters that occur in the novel are the Former Prince, a hungry and skittish abandoned dog that risks entering the cabin to feed, to Jessie's horror, on Gerald. The other is a horrific deformed apparition; leering, hideously elongated and reeking of death, it's not clear initially if this is a physical reality or a figment of Jessie's dehydrated mind- but the terror it inspires is real. Interspersed with visits by these two beings, the plot is made up of tiny victories on Jessie's part; lengthy, gradual tasks like obtaining a drink of water, easing her muscles, lifting the headboard, interspersed with flashbacks to college, to a particularly harrowing solar eclipse in the 1960s and to her subsequent periods of trauma. 

It's a really thought provoking book that examines the contrasting expectations that society has of women and the emotional weight that such expectations accrue over a lifetime. Jessie is a silenced, dutiful, manipulated daughter. A trophy wife.  Forced out of a job she loved by a too-successful husband, she begins to take stock of her life, realising for the first time how unhappy she has been in her marriage. She's a plaything, a decorative commodity to first her father then her husband. Her ordeal at the lake forces her for the first time to confront and then reject the roles she has been expected to play. She is forced to save herself from the cycle of abuse at the hands of the men in her life. It's only when she resorts to digging up and accepting the hidden memory that she can start the process of freeing herself from it.

I have to add also that I was utterly heartbroken for Prince, the dog left to languish, starving, afraid and covered in burrs by some Massachusetts asshole in a Mercedes that couldn't be bothered to pay for his licence. The parts where the narrative switches to a Prince-eye-view are so sad to read. Poor prince.

Though I struggled with this book initially, it gripped me shortly after Jessie's first flashback. It's a brilliant character study and an impressive exercise in fiction writing. King can create unbearable suspense in a novel where the protagonist doesn't move, there are no conversations, a single location and a solo character. It's an interesting examination of the strength of survivors, the damage that repressed abuse can wreak on a person's life and the lengths that an individual will go to to survive. It's a lone, desperate woman refusing to give up and to claim her life back from the men that have hurt her.