Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, by Alexie Sherman

Having finally given up on a vastly overdue copy of this in my school library, I admitted defeat and brought a new copy, and I'm so glad I did because this is required reading. This is such a vital, eye-opening novel that looks at poverty, privilege and the power of encouragement and self belief.

Part autobiographical, Part Time Indian follows an eventful year in the life of Junior, aka Arnold Spirit, as he makes the metaphorical leap from the reservation high school to the white high school on the reservation border. Odd looking, a bit brain damaged, poor, but with a quick mind and a talent for baseball offence, Junior is an anomaly. As a narrator, he is hilarious; sarcastic, wry, honest. His stories are told with accompanying cartoons that illustrate his points. His cartoons show, in a way that words can't really, how ingrained, how accepted and how ordinary racism is to Junior's community. It shows that racism doesn't have to be abuse, violence and prejudice. It can be neglect, a lack of opportunity and embedded, inherited apathy.

The plot follows Junior as he tries to fit in at his new school. We see him struggle to make the 22 miles to the school gates through poverty, we see him overcome bullying and grow as a basketball player. We see his family change and dwindle, as tragedy claims some of Junior's closest. We see his ups and downs with his best and only friend Rowdy, another rez Indian who's the toughest, angriest kid in Wellpinit and the sole reason Junior escapes multiple daily beatings. There are things Junior achieves, realisations that he comes to and resolutions that he makes. It's a pretty tough journey for Junior who is something of a trailblazer by doing something as apparently ordinary as transferring schools. He's a classic underdog, and who doesn't love an underdog?

I loved Junior as a character. His style of narration is so endearing and memorable. Alexie does a brilliant job of showing Junior's conflicted feelings about his actions. He's determined to divert his life away from the reservation path that's laid out for him, determined to achieve, to get away- but in doing so he feels that he's betraying his race, his tribe and his family. Most of the community feels that way too. To do well is to live a white life, and that's a traitorous thing to do. He's a very conflicted character. Junior describes the grim poverty of the reservation; the alcohol, the violence, the tumbledown houses. But when he climbs the 150ft Pine Tree by the lake, he's struck by the breathtaking beauty of the place. Home. Identity. Life in general. It's a complicated thing.

It's a funny, tragic story of a kid who dares to look for a life that society deems him undeserving of. It looks at implicit, everyday racism, the racism of lowered expectations and making do, the social and community differences between cultures and what it's like to be a teen boy growing up. And changing schools. And being disabled. And not white. Lets just say he's up against it. The surrounding cast of family and friends add a realistic feel to Junor's dilemmas and conflicting loyalties. His mum and dad love him, they try so hard, but they don't have much to work with.

This book is essential for all teen and adult readers. The novel really shines a light on hidden privilege. So the kids at Rearden are just normal, small-town Pacific Northwesterners, but we're acutely aware that just by virtue of not being Indian, they already have that vital head start in life. They're from a small boring town- but they have potential, expectations, ambitions. To Junior, these are alien concepts. They're things that Indians just don't have by default. Indians have casinos, drinking problems and unhappiness. Their lives are mapped out for them and usually end in violent alcohol related deaths.

I think the thing I'll take away from this book is that oppression doesn't look like slavery, like persecution or like imprisonment. It can, but it doesn't have to. Oppression can be inherited and/or accidental. Oppression can be the removal of self worth, either presently, to an individual, or collectively, historically even. Oppression lasts a lot longer than a genocide or a law or bill.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

I'm going to start off by saying how surprised, refreshed and downright overjoyed to see legit, air-lock requiring, deep-space wandering science fiction on the longlist for a major literary prize. Reason number 49 to love the Bailey's Prize. *heart eyes*

Anyway. The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet starts with the Mars-born-and-Raised clerk Rosemary embarking upon a new chapter in her life. It's evident that she's escaping something, with an illegally doctored ID file and a head full of secrets, she's taken a job on the Wayfarer, a long-haul tunnelling ship. It's what it sounds like- a ship that drives manually from A to B and punches a wormhole through space. Galactic road builders if you like.

The characters in this novel are its true strength. The multi species crew on board the Wayfarer is an eclectic bag of sapients, a glorious mix of oddballs rattling around in space. The motley crew is strange, flawed, and extremely likeable (with one obvious exception who even so proves his worth by the end). These are all complex, developed characters belonging to various species with long and complicated histories. The author did a really good job of capturing the communal spirit of the ship- to live and work at close quarters with a small bunch of people has its pros and cons and it worked wonderfully. The dynamics of the ship's crew was balanced and despite it all quite realistic. I especially loved Sissix the navigator, member of the lizard-esque Aandrisk race.

The majority of the plot is the Wayfarer's long haul journey to a big, life changing job that could provide the capital for upgrades and a better class of job, jobs not usually done by lowly humans. The contract involves punching a tunnel from Hedra Ka, home to a volatile and inherently violent species that have recently and controversially joined the GC, linking them to central space. As the mission progresses, certain secrets and truths about the crew come to light.

I loved how diverse the universe of this book is. To begin with, we have the multi-species crew aboard the Wayfarer. There's a lot of being observant and sensitive to other cultures, habits and opinions that seem pretty alien to members of other species. It's a harmonious crew though, with lots of mutual love and understanding, very little persecution and effort is made to bridge those cultural gaps among friends. I liked the inclusion of some wider political context too- the reader learns quite a lot about the GC, the Galactic Commons, how its organised, who joined when, the unofficial hierarchy of species. It's refreshing to see a narrative that doesn't hold the human race up on a pedestal as the conquerors of space. In this novel, humans, an immature, squishy species that stupidly populated their home planet to death are begrudgingly admitted as to the GC by its founding species (the Aandrisk, Aeluon and the one with the tentacles) after first being taken on as refugees, fished out of space on the life-boat ships. The Exodans, they became known as. Either way, they're a minor species in a Universe and that was quite refreshing.

My one criticism of the book would be a slight underdevelopment in the character of Rosemary. She serves as the reader's introduction to this new world, describing the patchwork hotch-potch of the ship, the appearances of the species, the sights and smells of these new planets...Yes, she is more familiar with the future than the reader, but being born on privileged Mars, she has never been to multicultural Central Space. She has studied languages and cultures but never been exposed to them directly. Though Rosemary is the rookie, sharing all these first encounters with the reader, her character remains quite flat in comparison with the others. There is such vibrancy in the Grungy human Kizzy, the reptilian sass of Sissix, the homely compassion of 6 legged Dr Chef. Even Captain Ashby, the liberal, ambitious and incredibly empathetic captain seems more three dimensional than Rosemary. She is our eyes, but has much less to hold on to than her shipmates. I hope she can be fleshed out in the upcoming (and much anticipated) sequel.

Some elements such as the claustrophobic confinement and parts where characters attempt to describe physics (I mean ??) reminded me a little of Interstellar. The Universe itself is quite reminiscent in a good way of Futurama- all these different races and species going about their daily lives, space travel being the norm, a multi planetary, bureaucratic universe of commerce and rogue technology. The technology angle was really interesting also- there's a species-wide ethical debate about what does and does not cross the technological line of danger and decency and all kinds of interesting bio-metric questions there...

In conclusion, I really, really enjoyed reading this. I haven't enjoyed a Space Sci-Fi this much since I read Stanislaw Lem's Solaris. Obviously they are vastly different books, but both hugely enjoyable. TLWTASAP is funny, humane and heart-warming book about prejudice, friendship and the world beyond our sky. The book manages at once to be an action packed space adventure and an emotional story of identity and belonging. It also raises questions about colonial histories, racial discrimination and the pointlessness of racism, the politics of unions in which there are several clashing cultures and the value of the individual. Despite its population of alien races, it's an incredibly human book.

Brilliant. I hope it makes the Shortlist. I hope it wins. I hope everybody reads it.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Fire Colour One, by Jenny Valentine

Fire Colour One is an engrossing drama of a dysfunctional family collapsing in on itself through selfishness, difference and lies. Iris, the narrator, is the teen daughter of glamorous LA types that are too busy preening, trying to make it big on screen, maxing out their credit cards and drowning their sorrows with vodka to care too much that their daughter has turned to arson as a method of expressing (or repressing) her feelings. 

Fire Colour One is also a painting by Yves Klein, that according to the novel's characters, is unforgeable. To Thurston, an anarchist prankster and Iris' only friend and Ernest, a dying art collector and Iris' estranged father, Klein brings to the canvas an immediacy, an intensity and a genius streak of rebellion that cannot be imitated. That vibrance and fire characterises the whole novel really- its characters refuse to conform. Starkly contrasted against the phony too-white teeth of Hannah and Lowell, Iris, Thurston and Ernest are liberated. Like Klein, they make their own rules, their own art.

Iris is, however, an unhappy teenager. Solitary, save for her one friend Thurston, she lurks around Los Angeles finding things to burn so she doesn't have to feel anything. Mostly ignored by her mother, blamed for ageing her, blamed for Lowell not making it big, blamed for most things. The novel opens with Iris stacking crates in a huge bonfire in her recently reconnected, recently deceased father's honour. It's his funeral, and everything about it has been disgusting to her; the showiness of her mother's power-accessories, the carpets in the crematorium, her stepfather's posy boredom. The plot then backtracks to how this came about, how Iris found her father and witnessed his final, befitting revenge. 

It transpires that Hannah, Iris' designer label-hungry vodka hoover of a mother decided out of the blue to call Iris' father, Ernest; a man that according to legend, abandoned the infant Iris and his wife, taking his millions and disappearing into thin air because he never wanted to be a father. He is gravely ill and does not have much time. Upon meeting her biological father, possibly for the first time, Iris quickly develops a bond with this fading, bedridden man that she might once have had a relationship with; they share a love of art, a disdain for money and a wondrous curiosity. They get on like the proverbial house on fire. Making the most of each remaining day, Ernest shares his stories with Iris, mistaking her, in his morphine haze, for his long dead sister. Iris gets to find out more about the family she could have had, just as its last member is wasting away. Hannah hovers outside, waiting for her still-husband to hurry up and die so she can claim his wealth.

I absolutely loved this book. I was mostly impressed with the prose; it managed to be beautifully subtle but at the same time incredibly rich. It was a heartbreaking joy to read. The descriptions of the fire and how the fire makes Iris feel transport the reader straight into her head- it seems to make so much sense from her perspective and that's communicated brilliantly. She's a fascinating character and an engrossing narrator- I loved how smart she was and how her casualness defined her. Never forced, never trying too hard. She's just naturally counter cultural, born to swim against the tide. I loved Ernest too, how bitter-sweet it was for him to have finally been reunited with the daughter he'd searched for all these years, but has, at most, a couple of weeks left to live.

I liked that it's a story about a teenager who doesn't fall in love, it was refreshing to see. I liked were we left Iris- liberated from her parents, not exactly a happy ever after, but the conclusion has potential. It's filled with a wonderful sort of balance to the story and despite the fact that it begins and ends at the funeral, it's such a celebration of life and art and rebellion that it's impossible not to enjoy Fire Colour One. There's a satisfaction to the ending, the fruits of a revenge twelve years in the making and an overall theme, basically, of YOLO.

It seems that lies and discovering that the truths that you've always taken for granted turning out to be fabrications is very much the theme of this year's Carnegie shortlist. I don't think this book hits hard enough to win, sadly, but it's a beautifully constructed and wonderfully written novel about family, art and being allowed to pursue the things that matter.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Jessica's Ghost, by Andrew Norris

A sweet and uplifting story about battling depression and loneliness and thriving through being different, Jessica's ghost tackles some pretty grim, upsetting subjects in a way that is accessible, relateable and quite enjoyable to read. It reinforces, as does much YA, the merits of being able to be yourself. It shows the liberation of realising that people's opinions don't matter, that none if it matters, as long as there are people in your life that care and that encourage you to be yourself.

Francis, sitting alone on a bench one frost break time is abruptly joined by Jessica, a ghost about his own age who up until now, has not been seen or spoken to, by anyone, in the year since she died. Needless to say, she is surprised to find that Francis can see and hear her. A lonely boy due to his interest in fashion and sewing, Francis and Jessica quickly become inseparable. Francis doesn't really have any friends in school and Jessica is just relieved to have somebody that can see her.

Their happy duo becomes a trio when Francis' mum inadvertently arranges for her son to befriend a newcomer to the street. Andi, thought initially to be Andy, is a rough and ready tomboy, expelled from her last school for fighting and adamant that she will not go to another. After meeting Francis and Jessica (who she too can see), Andi experiences a sudden, dramatic personality change. Her general fascination in Jessica and the fact that she is a ghost creates an instant bond between the three of them and new friends are able to ease her anxiety about school. She goes from being angry, sullen and violent to being reasonable and co-operative, almost over night. For once, she has got people that are willing to accept her, and it makes all of the difference to her outlook and behaviour.

After the miracle that Francis worked on Andi, he's recruited by a second mum, who wants Francis to talk her son Roland into getting out of his room and going to school. Intrigued by Jessica (whom he can see too), it's not long before the trio is a foursome, and Roland is enrolled at their school, much to the amazement of his mum. It's a sweet story really, with Jessica's ghost as a good-deed dooer bringing together three lonely, desperate teenagers, each one of whom has considered suicide. She's hung around after death, convinced that there is something that she's supposed to do but not sure what.

I liked this book's portrayal of depression and found it to be quite realistic and sensitively done. I liked that it raised the idea that depressive thoughts can strike absolutely indiscriminately- no warning, no causes, no pattern and apparently no way out. Jessica talks about falling into The Pit, about how some days a person can feel fine, convinced that the pain and misery was just a blip and it's all sorted now...only to be plunged into despair the next day, thoroughly certain that there is nothing that anybody could do, even if they wanted to, to help. I liked that it acknowledged the difference between the rational, everyday thought process and the thought process of a depressed mind.

Standing out can be painful and alienating and scary, but as long as there are one or two people that you can truly be yourself around, being different becomes liberating. Celebrating each other's weirdness is a powerful thing. I really, really liked this book, but I found it to be thematically quite similar to We Are All Made of Molecules (lots of combating bullies, celebrating what makes us different, anxieties about being weird or standing out, fixing life's issues with the careful application of good friends and family) so it's unlikely that they'll both make the shortlist. I enjoyed this book a lot and thoroughly loved the character of Francis, the dressmaking silver-tongued rescuer that can make all the difference to the life and outlook of a desperate person just by being nice and by being himself, and, of course, encouraging everybody else to do the same.

We Are All Made of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen

A beautiful, beautiful book, We Are Made Of Molecules is a story about modern families and making room for everybody's baggage. It's about making the effort to let go of resentment and anger and caring about reputations and others' opinions and making that conscious decision to be a happier, nicer person. It's about empathy and being comfortable with yourself. It's such a good book.

Stewart, the first narrator, is a kid gifted in the intelligence stakes but lacking with the social skills. He's just lost his beloved mum to cancer and he's dealing with his loss with the help of his counsellor and his dad. He's brilliantly funny, stoic and fabulously deadpan. Two years after her death, his dad has decided to move them in with his new girlfriend Caroline and her daughter Ashley. Stewart finds Ashley an absolute mystery, but he's always wanted a sister, so he's willing to give it a go.

Ashley is the second narrator. She is furious at her father for coming out as gay and is struggling to adjust to having her mum's boyfriend and his weird son in the house. She considers herself to be at the top of the social pile at school, and retains her position with catty comments, manipulative behaviour and a total mistrust of the people she calls friends. When the book begins, she really does not seem a nice person, but it's insecurity about her intelligence and low self esteem that has brought out the worst in her. Ashley is angry and confused and doesn't know who to blame for it.

I absolutely adored Stewart. A bit naive, a bit sheltered, but so mature and incredibly clever. His relationship with his grieving father is touching- they are connected by their loss and are determined to keep their memories alive. I loved how Stewart immediately accepts his new family situation. He's very practical and understands right away that his dad has found a new sort of happiness with Caroline. He gets that she's not out to replace his mom, but he understands that his dad is happy, and that makes him happy as a result. Despite his difficulty with social skills, he gets the duality of people- you can be happy and sad at the same time. You can have moved on, but still love a person who is no longer around. Ashley is the opposite. She's rude and resistant to the changes she has no control over. She's condescending and cruel to Stewart, a nightmare for her mum and concerned only with her own  affairs- clothes, being top dog at school, her reputation and trying to catch the eye of the hottest boy in school. While keeping her dad's new boyfriend and Stewart's existence a total secret. She has to be mean to begin with so she can adjust.

I liked this book's portrayal of a step family and the difficulties that must arise from such a set up. How it must be awkward to discipline a kid that technically doesn't belong to you, how difficult it must be to not take the side of your own offspring, and feeling like you should out of duty and so on. Just the every-day issues that must make things ten times more complex.

The novel touches on quite a lot of contemporary issues that makes it feel relevant and like a believable mixture of things that readers might have encountered. The Mean Girls style school politics, having a boyfriend that at best isn't what he's cracked up to be, and at worst has the makings of a sexually abusive creep and master manipulator. Having to deal with change and conflict and making amends. There's the issues surrounding hate crimes against LGBT people and the loss of loved ones. The narrative doesn't feel overburdened or bogged down by any of these issues, it just feels realistic. The actual plot is quite mundane- it's just real life, plain and simple. dealing with problems at school; bullying, manipulation, people seeming nice and actually being cruel. The difficulty of making friends, the anxieties about feeling accepted. There isn't really a grand climax- it's just people learning what matters.

I absolutely loved this book. It's full of heart and love and unlikely people helping each other out. It's take home message is that families are weird and no two are alike, but if a person is just willing to listen and understand, it's possible for almost anything to work. I loved how Ashley's character developed- it wasn't just that she came to see the error of her ways overnight- I think she hit that adolescent sweet spot that happens to some people. That liberating realisation that it doesn't *Actually matter* what people think of you, that calling somebody ugly might make you feel better for a second but it doesn't make you prettier. She grew up and took some responsibility, and it made her a better person. Guided by the wise and utterly un-self-conscious Stewart.

We are all Made of Molecules falls very much into the "Be Yourself" genre of YA fiction. Those that enjoyed this novel would  also do much worse than to read One by Sarah Crossan and The Art of Being Normal, by Lisa Williamson, both of which are also dual narrated stories about being different, standing out versus fitting in and adjusting to deal with it. Young people's fiction is incredible right now.

There Will Be Lies, by Nick Lake

There Will Be Lies, is Lake's third appearance on the Carnegie list since I've been following it, but I have to confess that TWBL is the first one I've read. The book starts of ordinary enough- modern day Arizona. A dry, dusty, infinitely flat place that has been Shelby Cooper's world since she moved from Alaska as a baby. Homeschooled by her mother and obsessively shielded from the outside world, Shelby is intelligent, naïve but with an appealingly defiant, snarky attitude. The book's other location, "The Dreaming" shows up later on- a mythical space that exists beyond time and before our World and is inhabited by figures from Native American folklore, some of which can pass into the real world.

When the over protected, apparently super-vulnerable Shelby is knocked down by a car when standing outside the library, a coyote appears with the message that "There will be two lies. And then there will be the truth". This cryptic, bizarrely delivered message starts off a chain of events that ultimately highlights how fragile our sense of identity is. Shelby discovers that everything her world is built upon is nothing more than a flimsy web of lies and deception and that her whole reality is threatened by the newly revealed truth. Though I don't want to give too much away, I do want to mention that the final section of the book, post truth, I found to be the most thought provoking and certainly the most emotional. How do you deal with a discovery like that? It's a really unexplored perspective of an unusual crime. 

The theme of identity runs thickly throughout the book. Do we change as we get older? Are we always the same person? What makes us the person that we are? What does a person take into account when building their identity? *Do we* build our own identity or is it built for us? What's left when somebody takes those things away? Do we ever really know ourselves or the people around us?

I really liked Shelby as a character, she was sarcastic, clever and kind of lippy which makes her a really believable, authentic feeling teen girl. I liked her little asides to the reader (the one about her mom's Pyjama jeans especially made me laugh). When Shelby discovers she can enter The Dreaming, she is given a mission by Coyote (Capitalised, as in the archetypal trickster or lore, and AKA Mark, hot library guy). Shelby must rescue the Child and kill the Crone, or the world will end. It seems fairly high stakes and there isn't much contextual information available. It transpires to be a quest with more personal consequences to Shelby than it initially appears.

In the possibly real, possibly metaphorical world of The Dreaming, the Crone has kidnapped and imprisoned the Child to give her more power. Archetypally evil character that she is, this is preventing the rain from falling, parching the land of The Dreaming and starving its majestic wildlife. It's a fairly by-the-numbers quest, complete with animal helpers, flimsy frayed rope bridge and slavering wolves, but it takes on a new significance as Shelby starts to unravel the lies in her own world. I liked that it's never really made clear how concrete the Dreaming is, but the mirroring of the Draming's problems and Shelby's real-life crisis is skilfully managed and it adds a new dimension to the plot. Whilst I found the real-world Thelma and Louise scenario to be much more gripping to read, I can see what this fantastical fantasy world added to Shelby's story, and it provided her with the perspective and the tools to do what she needed to do in the real world. 

It's hard to talk about this book without giving too much away. It's a twisty, intelligent and original thriller that throws some surprising twists at the reader- there are a lot of OMG moments that the reader needs to feel for themselves in order to even attempt to grasp the extent to which Shelby must be reeling. The story is at first glance quite far-fetched, but it's constructed in a way that makes the whole thing quite believable and ultimately tragic. 

I really enjoyed this novel, though oddly I'm not in any hurry to backtrack and read his other titles. There was something about the frantic, mysterious concept of this novel that appealed to me in a way that the others didn't. It really is a very clever book that asks questions about identity, family and love. Shelby's mother, a character I've not really talked about because she's the one that all of the titular lies are orchestrated by, is a really interesting character- she's a good example of how duplicitous and contradictory a person can be, You can never really know. If you enjoyed this, I'd recommend Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley, another book that features a dual reality, a protagonist with a quest and a disability (that only applies in one of the Worlds too, snap) and a really likeable, believable teen girl at its centre,

I do think it will make the Shortlist but I'm not sure about taking home the title- we'll have to see who else makes the final 9.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume

I sort of never got around to In the Unlikely Event- Judy Blume's first adult novel and first release in 15 years. I saw her in conversation with Partick Ness at YALC, which was incredible, and bought this novel on release day but have not picked it up until now. Like an idiot.

JB talked in the summer about how  In the Unlikely Event is fiction based on fact- if you didn't know these events actually happened it would be way too easy to write it off as unlikely, far-fetched impossibility, but Judy was a teenager living in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1952 and lived through the events of her novel. She saw for herself the three separate crashes within three months, saw the aftermath of the disasters and knew some of the victims, some of the families that were broken by those planes. She writes an ordinary, intricate spider's web of community happily going about its business before the first crash and we follow the fallout, the repercussions that are still felt over three generations.

It reminded me in some ways of Stephen King's Under The Dome (which I loved) because it's the story of a town as much as its inhabitants, and many of those inhabitants take a turn at narrating. They offer their own perspective or eyewitness account, usually preceded by a clipping from a newspaper to provide context. We witness the last moments of some of the victims; as soon as these voices describe the departure lounge we know they're doomed. There are at least 20 recurring perspectives and initially it's quite hard to keep them all separate in your head, to remember who is related to whom, who's 'going with' whom and so on. As the story goes on, the characters get more familiar, they grow into their personalities. Miri Ammerman, the first character to appear, provides a sort of anchor for the whole novel. She's a sharp but awkward 15 year old girl, not yet comfortable in her own skin, yet with all the standard life accessories- a 'perfect' boyfriend (they're in love) a 'perfect' best friend whose 'perfect' family she fantasises about being part of. Raised by a head-turningly beautiful Jewish single mother Rusty, grandmother Irene and Uncle Henry, she has a stable and loving home, but with quite an unconventional set up. Miri is our principal narrator, guiding us through that winter and through her own adolescence, her first love and the first life-changing secrets she ever has to keep. She's brave enough to reveal (much to her headmaster's fury) the slightly more unusual theories circulating around the town- three planes in three months? Sabotage? Aliens? Zombies? Communists? The tensions of the time are subtly woven into the characters and their reactions to the events they can't explain.

I loved the 1950s detail of the novel- Miri coveting cashmere twinsets and 'Finished' basements, the Volupté compacts and the glamorous novelty of air travel.  The hamburgers and the department stores. JB does such an incredible job of creating the atmosphere and dresses the set of a small 1950s town beautifully, populating it with real life people whose lives we catch tiny glimpses into. They are all connected by the crashes, and always will be, no matter how much they resolve to carry on with their lives. The atmosphere is often quite claustrophobic, fearful and confused- living under Newark Airport seems to be a death sentence, but the action and the helplessness is always undercut with JB's time honoured trademark humanity, relateability and humour.

Whilst the three plane crashes, each one different but equally as tragic, provides the main thread of the book's plot, there's also a distinct focus on the drama of everyday life. We see characters that are manipulative, deluded, filled with secrets. We see friendships crumble and romances begin. There are people in denial, mental health struggles, divorces, hidden relatives, secret marriages. Even small towns have their dramas. It really mixes up the mundane and the extraordinary- there really is no such thing as normal and no perfect lifestyle. Blume has skilfully created this jigsaw puzzle of stories and events, overlapping lives and secrets against the backdrop of one of the biggest peace time aviation disasters. It's a very human novel that encompasses life in its entirety.

I was incredibly impressed with this novel and like Judy, I'm glad she wrote it before Phillip Roth, another Elizabeth native, got the chance to. I loved how the drama of such an extraordinary situation was contrasted with the drama of the everyday, domestic dramas that can be every bit as life-altering as a plane crash. I was completely gripped by Miri's narrative and loved her as a character. Seeing her in her 50s at the end of the novel is kind of bitter-sweet- she's made a comfortable life for herself and her family, but she's still tied to the events of that winter, like everybody else. Blume is a writer of such talent and heart. I really would recommend this book to fans of Anne Tyler and Kate Atkinson, for people who enjoy narratives that encompass the emotional complexity of multi-generational family dynamics but offer something more than scandal and soapy drama.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

I love Frances Hardinge. One of the reasons that I'm very wary of books set in the Victorian era is down to 1) my deep love for the Victorian era and 2) for about 4 years, I only read Victorian literature and any attempts to replicate the insanely rich tone and feel of that time often seem half-arsed and irritatingly patchy. Hardinge nails it from the first page. She obviously has a real and magical affinity for the period- her novels immerse you in the 19th century so thoroughly and yet so subtly that I genuinely think she's some kind of time traveller, because she makes me feel like one so successfully. The novel is filled with vivid Victorian flavour; post-mortem photography, craniology, ratting, the flamboyance of full mourning...

In a world where Origin of Species has uprooted the religious roots of the known, as Creation crumbles to Evolution and the human race starts to question its place in the world, Hardinge forces the reader to think about women's role in society, about nature and nurture and about the poisonous power of lies.

The Lie Tree deals with the impossibility of being a teenage girl (not a smooth ride at the best of times) with a fierce need to learn and scientific ambitions in Victorian society. As a female, 14 year old Faith Sunderly is expected to be good, be humble, be unassuming, until she can be married and become someone else's responsibility. The book begins with Faith and her family; the beautiful, delicate mother Myrtle, renowned Natural Scientist father the Rev Erasmus Sunderly, hanger-on Uncle Miles and younger brother Howard on a drizzly ferry from Kent to a remote island- ostensibly so Miles and Erasmus can lend Scientific weight and respectability to an archaeological dig in process on the island. Faith, however, has her suspicions. A deep curiosity, nimble fingers and a liar's tongue has furnished her with enough information to know that her family are fleeing scientific scandal and that there is more to her family's flight than meets the eye.

Faith is devoted to her father- she dreams of following in his footsteps to become a Natural Scientist. She has convinced herself that the two share a deep bond, that she is his protegee, that he is proud of her. She is forced to reconsider, hearing such encouraging lessons as; “Listen, Faith. A girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can. If she is not good, she is nothing. Do you understand?”from her beloved patriarch. When Faith's father is found dead the morning after she assists him with hiding a mysterious and valuable specimen in a nearby seacave, the magistrate writes it off as suicide. Unconvinced, Faith vows to find her father's killer, to continue his scientific research and to study the specimen that she believes led him to his death- the tree in the cave. According to his diaries, the tree feeds on lies and reveals home truths, but Faith does not believe that a rational, scientific man like her father could believe such superstitious nonsense. She sets about studying it in detail.

The rest of the novel follows Faith's journey to the truth via a selection of lies; some small, some gigantic that spread like wildfire across the island. She learns the power and the consequences of lies and the impact that it can have on those around her. She's a likeable character, despite the ease with which she lies, and she shows a huge amount of pluck and determination, of scientific dedication and commitment. She is willing to sacrifice her reputation for the truth, to betray her family's trust and position in pursuit of her aims. She is forced to use the intelligence that nobody would ever believe her capable of to outsmart the men of science that lock the doors of knowledge in her face. 

There are elements of the whodunnit, the traditional murder mystery combined with fantastical creation myths and apparently magical powers, and some disastrous secrets that Faith uncovers that make her rethink her opinion of her father and hero, all delivered in a masterful narrative that feels beautifully intricate and well crafted. I love FH's prose too- I love how she uses language, I love the richness of the world she creates and the beating hearts of her characters,. There's so much wit and warmth in her words, so much enthusiasm and eccentricity and heart. She is truly exceptional.

The Lie Tree has won pretty much every prize going this year, and it's a favourite for the Carnegie in June. It would be a deserving winner.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Women's Bailey's Prize predictions 2016

It's that time of the year again! I think the Bailey's Prize is my favourite literary award- there is always so much variety and depth to the eventual shortlist that it always makes for a thought provoking and enjoyable spring hunkering down to get them all finished. There's always something to love and something to discover on the Bailey's shortlist, always an author you'll resolve to keep an eye out for in future and always something you would otherwise never have found.

I've not spent ages agonising over this list, because at the end of the day it's impossible to tell what will get chosen. There's always an absolute avalanche of amazing fiction every year, and it's a brilliant problem to be faced with really; there's just too much good stuff to read. My predictions are assembled from books I've read and enjoyed, books I've got waiting to be read that I've heard great things about, books that I *want* to read very soon and a couple that just seem likely to be included on any longlist for which they are eligible.

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson
The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, by Ratika Kapur
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
Fates and Furies, by Lauren groff
Rush, Oh! by Shirley Barrett
Things We Have in Common, by Tasha Kavanagh
Early on Morning, by Virginia Bailey
Girl at War, by Sara Novic
The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O'Brien
the BUtcher's Hook, by Janet Ellis
The Ballroom, by Anna Hope
In A Land of Paper Gods, by Rebecca MacKenzie
The Mountain Can Wait, by Sarah Leipciger
The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie
Jakob's Colours, by Lindsay Hawdon
Under The Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta

So let's see! The longlist is announced on Tuesday 8th March via the Prize's website here: Bailey's Prize Website

Now's the good bit. We wait, we speculate, we predict...we read!

Are there any books that you absolutely are convinced will be on the list? Any that I've predicted that you really didn't like? What's your wishlist/predictions?