Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Girls, by Emma Cline

What a stunner. A shocking, commanding novel that transports the reader to the tail end of the 60s, to a dusty, sun bleached and grubby California. The same summer, in fact, of the moon landings and Woodstock, though such historical events seem quite removed from the reclusive society of the ranch. It's strange that a novel set 40 years ago feels so un-historical in tone- it feels to immediate, too contemporary to be set so long ago.

The book's narrator Evie, is technically recounting her story from the relatively safe anonymity of middle age, though the book is set predominantly in the shimmering heat-haze of 1969. The summer that Evie was 14, mournfully waiting to be sent to boarding school by her divorcing parents in an attempt to repair her generic teenage problems. Evie submerges the reader in her listless adolescence. Her boredom, her frustration at her vaguely hippy mother, constantly trying out men as prospective next husbands, her inability to connect and her lack of belonging stand out starkly from the page. She is lost and she doesn't care who finds her, if anybody ever bothers.

Evie embarks on quite the journey as a character. She starts off as something straight out of a Judy Blume novel; stretched between naive childhood and uncharted adulthood, already painfully aware of the double standards set by gender roles. Already assessing herself and her body with the critical male eye. She is so hung up on the idea of love, so terrified that she might never deserve it. She is needy, lonely, growing apart from her best friend Connie with whom she practises the rituals of adulthood; they listen to lame records, read trashy magazines and try on clothes together. Evie flirts inexpertly with Connie's older brother- knowing that she doesn't really like him, cataloguing his flaws, but desperate to be noticed, to be validated by male attention. She is passive and prone to drifting, the sort of character that things happen to, rather than that makes things happen. By the end of the novel, she's a sun-browned, skinny 'Girl' narrowly missing out on being a part of one of the most shockingly inexplicable murders of the decade. More by accident of circumstances than by and abundance of moral fibre.

The Girls is a fictionalisation of the Manson Family, of Charles Manson and the raggedy cult of women that orbited him. Here, the charismatic, egomaniac Russell stands in for Manson, though he loiters at the edges of the story, talked about more often than seen. Cline focuses instead on The Girls, his hippie harem, his acolytes. Front and centre is the dark-haired Suzanne; a hypnotic beauty that first ensnares Evie's attention; it's Evie's desire to be close to Suzanne that leads to her joining Russell's community. Evie's love for Suzanne, her thirst for her approval form much of the novel's plot- Evie's gaze is never far from her. The ranch, the Girls; they provide a new world to Evie, one that she can be a part of, one she is accepted by. She can shed her adolescence here, surrounded by the amorphous flock, promised love.

It's more about how hard it is to be a girl, generally, than being a very specific girl in a specific time and place. It's about the gruesome struggle of female adolescence, more than the violence that the Russel/Manson family would eventually go on to commit. It's a testament to Cline's masterful prose that a book with a relatively sparse plot (when you actually think about it) and with such horrific, mindless violence can feel like an illuminating and beautiful experience. I was totally absorbed in the world of this book, in the grubby intrigue of the ranch and its girls. It's not difficult to understand their desire for a more meaningful life, a freedom from responsibility and domestic routine. It's that identification, that alliance with people that are essentially criminally psychotic that is so unsettling. Even in a fictional version, 40 years after the fact- the cult, Evie's circumstances; it all seems so easy to fall into.

A compelling novel, written in some of the most striking, most beautiful prose I've had the pleasure of  reading in a long time. Themes of adolescence and rebellion, of belonging and sisterhood are all folded into her prose. Cults and their enigmatic, delusional leaders are ceaselessly fascinating, and Cline transplants a fiction onto a well known story brilliantly. Suzanne and Russell felt so real- perhaps because, really, the are. This book is going to be huge.

Friday, 17 June 2016

The Dark Half, by Stephen King

So my investigation into the works of Stephen King continues with The Dark Half, a 1989 novel about SK's favourite type of character- the Author. This particular author is Maine native Thaddeus (yup, really) Beaumont, a well-reviewed but not exactly best selling author of two novels and creative writing professor. He is also, secretly, the man behind the wildly popular and incredibly violent Alexis Machine novels, writing under the "Nom de Plume" of George Stark. Despite his fake author bio, his fake author shots and his fake name, George Stark has been paying Thad's bills for years. Following the birth of twins and after a blackmail attempt from a would-be whistle blower, Thad decides to kill off his alter ego and put an end to Stark. His next book will be under his own name, for better of for worse. 

The book begins with an 11 year old Thad having a tumour removed after a series of sensory abnormalities and a fit- only it's not a tumour, it's a partially absorbed fraternal twin lodged in Thad's frontal lobe. Twins and their inherent mirror-traits are pretty recurrent themes throughout this book.

When somebody begins murdering people connected to Thad- his handyman; one of the partners in his publishing firm; the would-be-whistle blower, the assistant who gave the whistle blower information...and leaving Thad's prints all around the crime scene things get a bit paranormal. Enter one of King's specialities- the lovable cop who has trouble connecting the evidence with what's in front of his face. Much like Sheriff Bannerman of Dead Zone, Sheriff Pangborn is a stickler for evidence and good, solid police work and struggles accepting things which turn his whole understanding of reality inside out. Alan Pangborn is almost front and centre in this novel- though the audience kind of knows what's going on earlier, it's his acceptance of the unlikely facts that we are rooting for. Personally I think his character evolves the most; from a jumped up I'm-the-Sheriff-now-boys type to an almost intimate friend of the family. It was for his preservation that I found myself most eager.

The Dark Half an interesting insight into an author's head- that constant walking of the line between fantasy and reality, the dangerous ability to plumb the depths of human behaviour for inspiration and the effect that it might have on the person doing the plumbing. Thad strikes the reader as a clumsy, fairly likeable guy. Ordinary, loves his family, laughs at his own jokes a bit. But it's obvious that he has a great capacity for darkness. His wife Liz hates him when he writes a George- he changes. He drinks a lot and becomes short tempered and cold. Though George is Thad's own creation, she is afraid of the similarities that exist between them.

As ever, a really enjoyable read and I think it's undeservedly overlooked. It's certainly not one of King's most famous books, but it's really worth a read just to hear such a prolific writer's experiences of the writer's process, though they are in this case fictional. Despite this, it's obvious that King's own experiences with pseudonyms is bursting to the forefront. I felt like I really understood how a writer must feel, living with another world, other people existing in their head and the tricks that it must play on their reality.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

#IBW2016 Blogger Tag for Independent Bookshops Week ran by Books Are My Bag

Sooo it's Independent bookshops week from the 18th, so I thought I'd squeeze in a post using the #IBW2016 tag. It's a campaing ran by Books Are My Bag (@booksaremybag) on Twitter, and it's a celebration of bookshops, particularly Indy bookshops and what they bring to a community. Think irreplaceable wisdom, a real human faces and lovely high street locations local to you.

1. What book(s) are currently in your bag?
The Dark Half, by Stephen King because after a string of kind of disappointing for no discernible reason adult novels, it’s the best reading mojo rejuvenator. Seriously, if you’ve always avoided him because he’s pulpy or popular or kind of in need of a harsher editor or whatever other reason you might be putting him off…STOP. He deserves every last crumb of hype and I love him.

2. What’s the last great book you read?
GOD THAT’S HARD. The last book I read that was universally acknowledged as Great, as in of Established Greatness was probably The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. In terms of the last book I read that is the shape of Greatness to come- I’m going to go for The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, or Station Eleven. See next question.

3. What book have you gifted the most?

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandal. I’m like a vending machine where there’s just one option, and that option is end of the world.

4. What’s your favourite independent bookshop?

Page 45 in Nottingham. I DARE YOU to find somebody more knowledgeable and more passionate about graphic novels and comics than Stephen. His reviews (every Wednesday @Pagefortyfive) alone have cost me SOOOO MUUUCH.
Picture source https://twitter.com/PageFortyFive/status/741003899851689988
5. What’s been your favourite book recommended by a bookseller?
Stephen at Page 45 recommended a whole bunch of stuff to me when he visited the book club I attended about 2 years ago (I still attend, in fact I run it now, but he visited about 2 years ago. Probably more like 3 actually)…until then I’d never picked up even a single graphic novel. Since then I’ve sustained a pretty healthy habit. I remember him showing us The Great War by Joe Sacco, a beautiful 24 foot long panorama, a single panel that documents July 1, 1916 the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It’s a crazy cross between Where’s Wally and Guernica and simply a staggering piece of work. It brought me to Graphic Novels and it could not have made more of an impression.

6. What’s your favourite bookshop memory?
I love Belgian comic shops. It’s not a single memory, and it’s not an old memory- but wandering around these cavernous ‘Oh there’s another room behind this curtain and I think that’s a staircase over there’ type shops, full to bursting with these beautiful French language books, things that will never ever be translated into English. The Belgians take their comics and their graphic novels very seriously. They are lovely things. I curse my 13 year old self for dropping French for Spanish. Not that I remembered any Spanish. Other than “Las vistas asombrosas tienes que ver” which, if I remember right is “The views are amazing you have to see them”. It’s not helped me read Belgian comics, I must confess.

7. What do bookshops mean to you? What do you love about them?
I love how you can just walk right in and there are all these books that you’ve never heard of or that you never knew existed, all with these beautiful works of art on the front. I love that you can pick them up and see how long they are. Whether it’s prose or verse. You can see them lined up next to the other ones in the series, or next to the author’s other stuff. You can see that that hardback you couldn’t afford 7 months ago is now out in paperback and it’s on offer this month so woo!, and that you forgot to check the release date but never mind because it’s here. You can talk to people- booksellers, other readers- that properly know their stuff.

8. What are the books that made you? Which books have most affected or 
influenced you?
I know I’ve posted this story before but it is pretty fitting here. I remember being all on track to do a fine art degree at the age of about 17- then reading the (then new) Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince for the first time. The bit where *cough cough* kills *AHEM* at the top of the somewhere (look, the internet wishes death on all spoilers as a blanket policy, so best to be safe) just totally floored me. I remember actually reeling from the realisation that everything I was feeling was the result of words. Just letters on a page, black on white. I guess that changed my course, sent me spiralling off in to literature more seriously and I've never recovered. I guess that marked the point where I stopped reading for fun and read because it was the only thing I wanted to do.

I don’t know who I’d be if I had never read Harry Potter and this was probably the most pivotal moment for me.

9. What book do you recommend readers gift for Father’s Day?
My dad doesn’t read at all, BUT I’d say you can’t go wrong with Day of the Triffids as a good dad book. There’s action, saving the day, a good bit of OMG what would I do? A decent end of the world scenario and it's quaintly readable. Or Station Eleven. Because I will make everyone read it, even your dads.

10. What book is currently at the top of your TBR pile?
They’re not in a literal pile- but I do have a vague “I’ll get around to that eventually” list, ongoing, forever. I’d like to read Radio Silence pretty soon because I’ve heard All Of The Good Things about it and the YA wave of goodness sweeps so quickly there will be more excellent YA novels parachuting into book shops as we speak and it’s easy to get buried and forget to go back and dig them out. Also The Stand, by Stephen King which I've been meaning to read for literally years Arcadia by Iain Pears and Guardians of the Louvre by Jiro Taniguchi.

Read this Book

Carnegie Judges Blog Tour 2016- The mixed feelings stop.

Hi- Checking in as the Carnegie not-voice-of-dissent but also not love-in-facilitator either...I have mixed feelings about the Carnegie and its place within the book prize landscape. I get that it's prestigious; it represents the best of the best...I get that it's an almost impossible task, that prize lists are notoriously tricky, that the criteria is wide and very broad, that longlists and shortlists are never going to please everyone, that people like different things, that a book not being selected does not mean that it wasn't loved by all...I get all of those things, I really do. BUT. I have noticed a bit of a recurring presence from several names over recent years. That isn't to say I don't love these authors (because I do- I will never not love Patrick Ness) but there are authors that seem very likely to appear on the shortlist (or in the last 2 years, the longlist and then the shortlist) if they have released a title that year. There's very little new blood in the gene pool.

I'm sorry if I seem overly critical. Perhaps it's the openness about the process that makes me go "Hey, wait a minute..." and actually think about the process, rather than just being presented, no questions asked, with a Shortlist, like other prizes. Please don't take my moans too seriously judges, I'm know you're all lovely people and we all just want the same thing at the end of the day- kids to read and to love books.
All the best

So here were my questions for the judges- I've tried to stick with a different colour for each judge's answer, but blogger isn't the most spectrum embracing platform...

Is there any element that would get a book straight in the no pile? Even if it is otherwise an excellent book? By element I guess I mean a particular theme, an expletive, non-expletive but still considered bad taste language or a specific event in the plot.

No not at all, all a nominated book has to do is meet the criteria. Martha Lee, CKG Judge for YL Wales

Which books end up in the no pile is all down to how well, under scrutiny, they hold up against the criteria. An expletive on its own won’t be reason unless it is completely out of character or out of keeping with the overall style and effects the overall enjoyment and impact for the reader. The same consideration is given to plot, if for some reason there is an event that makes no sense in relation to the overall it may be considered not to be flowing and therefore put in the no. However, not all criteria have to be met, they may not all be relevant, but an outstanding book will tick the majority of them. All books that have been nominated will meet some of the criteria and deserve consideration. Sioned Jacques, CKG Chair of Judges

Do you think familiar authors are more likely to get short-listed year and year again because they're well known, fail-safe librarian recommendations?

No, we judge the books that are nominated and whether they are debut or established, everything is judged fairly and equally. Martha Lee, CKG Judge for YLG Wales

I don’t believe that the familiarity of an authors or illustrators work is necessarily a guarantee that they will be shortlisted. This year there are several authors and illustrators who have been shortlisted in the past as well as past winners, however as Chair it is my role to make sure that this is not a consideration. The fact an author has been shortlisted is only a testament to the fact that they continue to write or illustrate books of a high quality. I would also argue that despite being familiar this year’s shortlisted authors have developed their styles e.g. Patrick Ness or Frances Hardinge, and taken their writing to new levels. There is also a debut author on the Carnegie, The Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley. There were many familiar authors who didn’t make the longlist let alone the shortlist. This year the standard of the nominated titles were exceptionally high and getting the list down to eight was not an easy task. At the end of the day it’s down to the writing and how well it matches the criteria. Sioned Jacques, CKG Chair of Judges

Do *you* think that there are some authors that seem to show up year after year? Marcus Sedgwick is like Carnegie's Leonardo Di Caprio.

The award only showcases what librarians from around the country nominate, what we as judges analyse depends completely on what is nominated. If people want to see more debut authors or younger books on the list then they have to nominate them. If a librarian thinks that the new Marcus Sedgewick meets the criteria and deserves to be nominated then that is completely up to them. Martha Lee, CKG Judge for YLG Wales

Some authors are prolific writers that succeed in producing high quality work over and over, however this is not a guarantee they will be shortlisted let alone win. Sioned Jacques, CKG Chair of Judges.

Absolutely and I think as readers we should be delighted and thankful for the existence of authors and illustrators who consistently write and illustrate outstandingly. However, our strict adherence to the CKG criteria ensures that all nominated titles are considered only against that and that previous works or reputations do not prejudice decisions. Being shortlisted before is no guarantee that an author/illustrator will be shortlisted again. But if a previously shortlisted author/illustrator continues to produce outstanding work that meets the CKG criteria then we should be grateful for their continuing genius, not bemoan seeing their name again. Amy McKay, CKG National Coordinator.

Is there a difference between what you personally, as a reader not a librarian, would consider an excellent book and the books that you put forward for the shortlilst? For example do you really like an author's work but just think they're not appropriate for the Carnegie?

It’s not a case of what is appropriate or what isn’t, it’s about if that individual book meets all the criteria. As a judge you have to divorce your personal feelings about a book and judge it fairly by the criteria only. Martha Lee, CKG Judge for YLG Wales

There are many interesting and exciting authors around at the moment. From a personal point of view, yes I think that there are novels I’ve read and enjoyed but haven’t considered them for shortlisting or even nominations. It’s usually because the novel might be strong on characterisation but weak on plot and style or any combination of these. Sioned Jacques, CKG Chair of Judges

Is there any particular book from the last 5 years that made it to the shortlist that you think was hands down robbed? If so, which book? (For me this is Midwinterblood)

I would not dare to disagree with past judges knowing how rigorous the judging process is, in the past I was disappointed that nominations I made did not always make it through but as a judge I feel the right decision is the decision that has been made. Matt Imrie, CKG Judge for YLG London.

Having been a judge and understanding just how hard these decisions are and how much work goes into selecting winners, I’d never disrespect past judges by suggesting they made the wrong decision. There of course though books from recent years that I’ve loved and I can completely understand why they made the shortlists. My personal favourites include - My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher 2012 & Wonder by RJ Palacio 2013. They were both beautifully written and have left such an impression on me, that I am always recommending them to my students! When I look at the books, I always have a little sigh to myself and get goosebumps! Tracey Frohawk, CKG Judge for East Midlands

*Just jumping in to say that there's always room for disagreement, really.* Leanne

When was the last time the Carnegie was won by a newbie? I think it might be David Almond in 1998 but not 100%. I know it's not an award for burgeoning talent or new writers, but you'd think that every now and again, an Arctic Monkeys style scorcher of a début might come through and blow everybody's minds? Have you noticed a tendency for an author to have to pay their dues with a few shortlistings before they win?

No not at all. Again, the award can only showcase what librarians from around the country nominate, what we as judges analyse depends completely on what is nominated. If people want to see more debut authors or younger books on the list then they have to nominate them, just because they are a debut author or a book for a younger reader doesn’t mean it won’t long/shortlisted it has a fair chance of getting through as everything else that is nominated as we as judges analyse everything according to the criteria. Martha Lee, CKG Judge for YLG Wales

Jennifer Donnelly won in 2003 with ‘A Gathering Light’. Set in 1906, it was inspired by the real ‘lady in the lake’ murder case and would qualify as a scorching debut. Sally Gardner’s powerful dystopian novel ‘Maggot Moon’, featuring a dyslexic protagonist, won in 2013, giving her richly deserved recognition as a talented author. If an author appears on the shortlists multiple times it is indicative of the quality of their writing. Tanja Jennings, CKG Judge for YLG Northern Ireland.

Frank Cottrell Boyce was the last debut novelist to win the Carnegie with Millions in 2004. Debut novels are given the same consideration as any other novel during the judging process as they are all judged against the same criteria. Robin Talley is a debut novelist shortlisted for Lies We Tell Ourselves and has just as much chance of inning this year’s award as two times winner Patrick Ness. If authors appear over and over again on the shortlist it is a testament to their talent and quality of work. Sioned Jacques, CKG Chair of Judges.

Do you prefer the newer method of releasing the L/L first, rather than just the S/L as in previous years? If so, why?

It is a brilliant idea as jumping straight from a nominations list to a short-list caused so many excellent books to be over-looked by those that follow the awards and the long-list is a way of high-lighting good books that may not otherwise have been discovered by readers. Matt Imrie, CKG Judge for YLG London.

I do prefer this method as it gives the judges the opportunity to create a long list from the nominations list which can be very long and full of fantastic books. It means that we can recognise more of the books and have time to consider the short list from the long listed titles. Lucy Carlton- Walker, CKG Judge for YLG North East.

Yes, I think longlisting and shortlisting is better. As there are so many amazing books nominated for the prize, it’s brilliant to highlight some of the books that are being considered to be outstanding for the prize. Elizabeth McDonald, CKG Judge for YLG South East

Yes, I think to narrow the nominated list to a short list is quite harsh as there are so many excellent books are on the nominated list. The long list recognises the authors who have written beautiful books and is an achievement for them to be on the long list, they will then appreciate their work has been recognised and appreciated by the Judges. Tracey Frohawk, CKG Judge for East Midlands.

Having been a judge using both systems I do prefer the new system of releasing a long list before the short list. It means that we break the process into smaller steps which makes it less overwhelming as a judge. It also means that we produce a long list of books of excellent quality that is of use as a more manageable list of recommendations for guidance in schools and libraries. Tracey Acum, CKG Judge for YLG Yorkshire & Humberside.

In their answers the judges talked quite a lot about the Criteria. This is the criteria as publised on the Carnegie shadowing website

Criteria: Carnegie Medal
The book that wins the Carnegie Medal should be a book of outstanding literary quality. The whole work should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards. 
All criteria will not necessarily be relevant to every title nominated. Where appropriate, consider and assess the following:
Is the style or styles appropriate to the subject and theme?
How successfully has the author created mood, and how appropriate is it to the theme?
Do dialogue and narrative work effectively together?
How effective is the author's use of literary techniques and conventions?
How effective is the author's use of language in conveying setting, atmosphere, characters, action etc.?
Were rhyme or rhythm are used, is their use accomplished and imaginative?
Where factual information is presented, is this accurate and clear?
The plot 
Is it well-constructed?
Does the author appear in control of the plot, making definite and positive decisions about the direction events take and the conclusions they reach?
Do events happen, not necessarily logically, but acceptably within the limits set by the theme?
Is the final resolution of the plot credible in relation to the rest of the book?
Are the characters believable and convincing?
Are they well-rounded, and do they develop during the course of the book?
Do they interact with each other convincingly?
Are the characters' behaviour and patterns of speech consistent with their known background and environment?
Do they act consistently in character throughout the book?
How effectively are the characters revealed through narration, dialogue, action, inner dialogue and through the thoughts, reactions and responses of others?

Now, I ponder this Criteria every year, and every year come to the same conclusion. That it's kind of vague, repeats itself, and basically boils down to two points;

1) Is it good? REALLY good?

2) Does it make sense, consistently, in accordance with its own logic, the characters and plot.

So I'm still in two minds really- the judges are obviously limited to the nominations made by CILIP members (I was going to say 'librarians' then, but it *is* just CILIP members...) and they stick rigidly to the criteria, which is, of course, admirable and not inherently restrictive. But then not all of the criteria points have to apply to all books, as some judges have stated and as the Carnegie organisers also acknowledge...and the criteria is kind of waffly and by its own admission not 100% applicable to 100% of books 100% of the time. I especially wonder at the one that asks if the author is "in control of the plot" and can only imagine the story that resulted in this choice of criterion.

For the record, my colours are nailed firmly to the The Ghosts of Heaven mast, however the judging goes.


Monday, 6 June 2016

Am I Normal Yet, by Holly Bourne

Am I Normal Yet? Is easily one of the most relatable YA novels I've read in a long time- perhaps ever. I genuinely think that if Holly Bourne had been writing books when I was a teen, there's no way I would have spent so long wondering if I was actually a member of an alien species stranded on Earth, or why I was so weird and abnormal. Any reader, teen or teen-once-upon-a-time, will relate to most of this book. Even if readers don't share Evie's specific conditions (General Anxiety Disorder & OCD) I'm sure they can relate to her fear of losing control, of failing at something that you've worked really hard for (not necessarily recovery) and just the general pitfalls of trying to find your feet in life, work out what you're good at and what you enjoy. Life-altering Mental Illnesses aside, I loved how ordinary Evie was. Her worries and anxieties, for the most part, are exactly the same as every teen's: boys, friends, not seeming weird, having fun, trying not to enrage parents unduly. She just has some extra things that she has to learn to deal with.

It's very much a character driven plot, as it's quite a personal journey that the reader is following- it's basically just first few terms of Evie's experiences in college after being home schooled following a meltdown in school and a subsequent hospitalisation. She's eager to get back to being normal and determined that her OCD is under control enough to cope with new people and new places. Her BFF has had an identity transplant after hooking up with a dirty Emo kid, and she's gone full Courtney Love overnight. It's for the best though, as it's Evie's new friends who are the absolute stars of the show supporting character wise- 5ft 11 Ginger feminist Amber (who I'm fairly certain might be me IRL) and friend in primary school reunited, daughter of a hippy Lottie. Collectively, the Spinster Club. I loved these three girls together. Supportive, angry, smart and determined to be active in changing things. I loved how determined they were to pass the Bechdel test in their own conversations. I have not laughed so much at a book in some years, nor felt such affection for a protagonist and her crew. Evie's sister Rose needs a mention too- the wise beyond her years tween that gets some of the book's best lines. Such a brilliant character that I really hope we get to see more of in the ongoing series.

HB deals with mental illness incredibly sensitively- it seems realistic, no melodrama, no histrionics, just an ordinary person trying to cope with a malfunctioning brain in the best way that she can. Sometimes well. Sometimes badly. Sometimes with fury and sometimes with acceptance. I liked how personal recovery is presented- something that's different for everyone. In AMIY? We witness some of Evie's therapy sessions, some of her behaviours...the reader can tell before Evie does that things aren't going well towards the last act. I really liked how complete a character Evie was- her illness was a part of her rather than being the only thing really explored, which is so common. We get a proper picture of what it's like to live with a mental illness, and the horrible decisions that have to be made, and their consequences. Evie tries to keep her OCD a secret from her new friends, convinced they'd abandon her if they knew. It really emphasises the distance we still have to go to de-stigmatize metal illnesses, and really highlights the ordinary, day to day struggles of those that suffer from MH issues.

I loved this novel. I loved its message- that changing to fit in is ridiculous and that you are brilliant the way you are. It really cuts through this sort of collective social neurosis we have; it points out beautifully that everyone battles with insecurity and doubts every day and that there really is no such thing as normal. It's funny and real and warm; it's absolutely real teen life as it actually exists, rather than the TV version. The parties are realistically lame, first dates are horribly awkward. Gigs seem a bit grim and nobody wants to admit that they don't like live music. Everybody is hung up on things like virginity and how long to wait before texting back- things that looking back from the totes grown-up nostalgia standpoint are hilarious in their insignificance. It's incredibly smart, addresses many aspects of feminism from gender roles to the absence of period discourse; it reminds readers that sometimes friends are flaky and sometimes boys are terrible, without any proper reason. It is, simply, brilliant and I can't wait to read the next Spinster Club Book. Can't recommend enough <3

Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, by Catherine Johnson

Sexually assaulted on the Bristol road, a dark-skinned young lady has had her fill of suffering. Broken hearted, abused and mother to a dead child, she has suffered immensely. Instead of choosing suicide, like many ruined, impoverished girls of the 19th century, Mary chooses to disappear. She vanishes, leaving instead the Lady Caraboo- a haughty warrior princess; fearless, exotic and fascinating.

Taken in by the Worrals, a prominent middle class family hell bent on integrating themselves into society, Caraboo is befriended by daughter Cassandra, reader of romantic novels and general Victorian tween. She is obsessed with dresses and ribbons and dances, and the apple of her eye is currently her brother's boorish friend Edmund, who is something of a womanising brute. Mrs Worral is a keen anthropologist and is fascinated by Caraboo, who she assumes is some sort of Eastern Princess based on her headwrap and her proud, defiant carriage. What starts off as a quick way to secure a bed for the night becomes a larger deception as Caraboo goes along with it; making up a language, crafting a bow and arrow and shooting pigeons, climbing trees and praying to her made up, exotic gods. She is a thorough, gifted actress and master of deception, a true con artist. While her actions could be seen as wrong, the reader knows that she doesn't mean any harm by it, and is just trying to escape herself and her meagre lot for a while. Mary is a stronger person when she is Caraboo- she is brave and powerful, and more importantly, she has no history. No lost child, no broken heart.

Caraboo is authenticated by "experts", men of science and experience who are no more real or genuine than the pretend Princess- proof that our reality is built on shaky foundations and that the Princess, though a fraud, is not gaining by her deception. She is an honest forgery, where these experts are not. There's two romantic sub-plots woven into Caraboo's exhibition and attempts to validate or expose her; Cassandra's dreamy romance with the in-keeper's son; a dalliance that Caraboo knows can never end happily. Mary also plots something of a deliberate bewitching of Cassandra's brother Frederick- aiming to avenge, even slightly, the countless women all over the world that are drawn to society men with gifts and promises- then ruined. She aims to get him to fall hopelessly for Caraboo, then disappear, breaking his heart in payment to all the ruined women. Needless to say, it doesn't go to plan.

TCTotLC is an enjoyable historical novel that I think will be brilliant for fans of Tanya Landman and Mary Hooper. The author has built a beguiling novel around the bones of a real historical mystery. I loved the how the book questions identity, how do we tell what is real when everyone is playing a role in society. Though Cassandra and Will's infatuation doesn't add a huge amount to the plot, I thought Caraboo and Fred made a much more interesting pairing. Fred, previously shown to be quite the regular at brothels around his school, is much improved by his relationship to Caraboo. He becomes more thoughtful, more caring- it's the real Frederick showing through the laddish nightmare. In his case, the fiction really is better than the truth, and it's the fiction he tries to desperately to hold on to.

My favourite aspects of the novel is when it begins to question gender roles, particularly via the Phrenologist fool, constantly spewing facts about the tiny female brain. Frederick too comes to realise the disparity of his own future compared to that of his sister. Caraboo demonstrates how capable women can be, and it's a surprise to them all. Also, I liked that an English set historical novel had a POC as their main character. I loved this attempt to redress that lack of diversity.

Tough it's a very well crafted, enjoyable read with an appealing romantic twist on a fascinating true story, I'm not sure it has the same impact or relatability as some of the other YA Book Prize shortlisted titles. Caraboo is a wonderful creation and an engaging character.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The Green Road, by Anne Enright

The Green Road, the first of Enright’s novels that I have read, is a sort of collage of family life, with the wholesome green of Ireland crumbling at the edges, showing the usual staple characters of the dysfunctional Irish family. The drunk. The Priest. The ‘we all know he’s gay but let’s never speak of it’ one. The one that made a load of money in ways that nobody quite understands. The frump. The Mammy.  All with their own dramas and struggles going on, their own lives to lead. There is no single narrator; instead the third-person narrative switches between the five surviving members of the Madigan clan.

The plot follows the lives of Mammy matriarch Rosaleen and her two sons and two daughters; Dan, Emmet, Hanna and Constance. Similar to Anne Tyler’s 2015 offering A Spool of Blue Thread, the plot centres on a reunion, in this case Christmas, the first Christmas with everyone together for years, in the old family home before it is sold off.

We start with a school aged Hanna, smelling the Irish Farm on her father when he comes in from the field. There’s something about a Chemist’s in this part too- it’s all quite rose tinted and vague. Next up is Dan. The would-be Priest whose career plans drove his dramatic mother to her bed, wailing, for days at a time. Only he’s not a priest- it’s 1995 and he’s five years deep in the New York art scene, gently in denial of his homosexuality, hooking up with various men during the AIDS crisis. The gay community are dropping like flies and there’s something tragic and nostalgic about it all. I think Dan’s was my favourite chapter- the section follows him and his world, but weirdly enough he’s not in it a great deal. Discussed, but not always present. Next is Constance, the frumpy, possibly cancerous mother of three teenagers, undergoing a mammogram. She’s the only sibling to have stayed in her home town. Last amongst the siblings to take their turn is Emmet, a somewhat prickly character out in the Missions in Mali. His story centres, oddly, around his live in girlfriend, also a missionary, and her somewhat culturally confusing decision to adopt a street dog.

Hanna gets another go somewhere; we discover that she is unhappily married, a new mother and something of a heavy drinker. Next we jump through time, the children that have been scattered across the globe are back, with their mother, in the family home. It could be any family really. Squabbles, little digs about the fact that nobody actually likes Brussel sprouts. The “moist” turkey comments. The person who spent the day slaving over the Christmas diner left feeling under-appreciated and slightly resentful about it all. There are various teenagers present too, peripheral characters that don’t get much colour- just a few lines here and there. The present section focuses greatly on Rosalind, who is fascinating and deeply unpleasant. She’s catty and resentful, constantly trying to open old wounds and make her children feel guilty. Guilty for leaving? Guilty for being young? Guilty for having their own lives? I’m not sure- but she seems as confused and pained by her own behaviour as her kids to. Her victimisation of Constance in particular, the daughter who stayed, is quite hard to read.

I really liked how strong the theme of ‘home’ was in this novel; the home that is forever lost that you can never stop looking for. It’s this really that powers the whole plot, the actions of the characters. It’s Rosalind’s decision, apparently on a whim, to sell up that drives her children’s feet back home one last time.

Personally, I don’t really know what to make of this novel- it’s not something I would usually read, which is the great thing about the Bailey’s Prize. It was an enjoyable read, not thematically or historically complicated, not melodramatic- but the characters were its strength- none were particularly likable, which is always quite a bold move. They were occasionally selfish and self-absorbed, occasionally dramatic and spiteful. Rosalind seemed thoroughly disinterested in any of her grandchildren, which was quite odd…It’s full of very impressive prose and insightful observations. Enright conjures a very modern, very believable family of infighting and bitterness- siblings who miss each other from across the world but squabble in the same room. I'm not sure if it will win- it doesn't feel as vital or as innovative as some of the other titles.