Friday, 27 January 2017

Unconventional, by Maggie Harcourt

Lexi Angelo, the High Priestess of the Order of the Clipboard has been helping her dad run his events company since she was old enough to hold a walkie talkie. Juggling college, running convention operations and dealing with being a teenager is proving kind of difficult, but Lexi is taking it in her stride. With the power of immense organisation skills, lots of lists and a clipboard- she is somehow managing to get together enough Comic illustrators for the June panel and do an essay on Napoleon on the weekends that she isn’t attending one of her dad’s conventions all over the country.

Anybody who has ever been to a convention, or even been a fan of anything, will relate massively to the general *atmosphere* that is celebrated in this novel. There’s something genuinely life-affirming in being in the same room (yes, sometimes big, noisy, sweaty room with lots of swords and boardgames) as people that are like you. People that understand what it is to be a fan. This novel celebrates fandom in such a lovely way. I also loved that Melinda Salisbury made an eyebrow-raising appearance and the rowdiest table in the post-con bar were the YA authors. 'Surely not!' I hear you cry.

One of this book’s biggest strengths is Lexie- she’s a brilliant character. Frustrating, yes. Insecure and flappy and on the verge of bossiness, but also passionate, capable, a massive ball of geek and fangirl enthusiasm. Anybody who has ever read a book and thought ‘this was literally written for my exact eyes’ will be able to relate to her, con veteran or non-con. Lexi is good at what she does, and she enjoys it. And she enjoys being good at it too, which is absolutely ok. She counts her ‘real’ friends as the other con kids, the ones working operations with her, keeping everything running; Nadiya, Bede and Sam are her literal work family, the friends she sees a handful of weekends a year, but with whom she gets to be her authentic self.

I liked that we as the reader get time to get to know her before she embarks upon her Swoony Romance. We get what makes her tick, her insecurities and her dual persona; college Lexie and Con Lexie. It’s all in a day’s work when she, clipboard in hand, turfs out an unauthorised bod from the green-room and he’s kind of a swaggery jerk to her. “What a dick” she thinks, then goes home to read proof copy of a book that will change her life.

I quite liked the romance as it played out in this book. Ever an insta-love naysayer, I was pleased that Lexi and Aidan started off disliking each other, then slowly evolving from there. They seem drawn together, but reluctant to let anyone else in. It’s awkward and angsty and kind of adorable, in a condescending grown-up way. It’s a gradual, tentative romance; emails and second guessing and trying to divine motives and intentions based on a conversation you’ve re-run 15 times in your head. We knew already about Lexi’s two versions of herself, but in Haydn Swift/Aiden Green we literally get two people. A cocky, spotlight loving bestselling author, then a quiet art-nerd that pales at the thought of the stage. Pretty much everyone has different personas that they arm themselves with to deal with life, and it’s an interesting dynamic to see these two people work out if the real Lexi fits with the real Haydn/Aidan. I really liked Aidan as a character; he was sweet and smart and nowhere near as annoying as a lot of YA male protags who think they’re charming and funny.

A funny, enjoyable, fandom-galvanising read, featuring an intense, slow-burn romance,  good chemistry, well created supporting characters and a good coming-of-age realisation that, at 17, nothing is decided yet and there is still all the time in the world to work out who you are and do whatever it is that you want to do. Definitely a must for fans of Rainbow Rowell (on account of the fandoms) Non Pratt (on account of the lolz) and Alice Oseman (on account of the creative angst, identity themes and general well-crafted, real life teens).

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

The Secret History of Twin Peaks, by Mark Frost

Disclaimer: I’m such a Twin Peaks superfan that I got two copies of this book for Christmas. I had managed to steer clear of any precursory flick-throughs in Waterstones and went in blind, so to speak, not really knowing what this book was, or how it was structured.

The Secret History of Twin Peaks is, as far as I’m concerned, the most thorough and engrossing book ever to be based on a television series. It’s not a book about a TV show, it’s essentially series 2.5 but in another format. A format that compliments the original beautifully. Some bookshops have put it under non-fiction, as “Making of” books usually are, for all the behind the scenes trivia and technical HOW DID THEY DO IT stuff, but this is brilliant, intricate fiction. It’s a document from the universe of Twin Peaks that introduces the reader to those tantilising depths that we all knew were lying dormant under the series that we saw on TV. I was 2 when the original series of Twin Peaks aired, and from what I can gather, it was one of those shows that got shifted about in the UK schedule, airing like 9 months after its US premier and it’s barely been repeated since. It got some casual viewers, it spawned some lifetime obsessives. I only watched it last year, quickly declaring it the official best TV show I’d ever seen.

This is the first book in ages that has made me genuinely excited to get home from work and continue with. I thought about it all day, craving the mysteries and the conspiracy. I don’t know if that’s due entirely to the depth and enigma of the book, or the wonderful world of Twin Peaks that I wanted so badly to get re-immersed in.

The book itself takes the format of an in-universe dossier, found at the scene of a crime in an apparently custom made metal box, triple locked. The document is large; custom bound and made up of pasted-in journal entries, newspaper clippings, photos, official reports and, threading this ephemera together, typewritten commentaries and explanations. Some of these documents seem to be 200 year old originals. The inimitable Gordon Cole, now deputy director of the FBI has assigned redacted agent TP to read said dossier, verifying its claims, making footnotes and summarising its content for their superiors. Identifying the compiler of the document, the author of the commentary, the character self-described as ‘The Archivist’ is priority number one.

I don’t want to give too much away about the mysteries and secrets within the dossier (because, as it points out, mysteries and secrets are very different things). Its contents range from previously unseen (and presumed original) pages from the diaries of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition, eyewitness reports, redacted FBI documents, official Air Force reports, personal letters written in the hands of the show’s characters, newspaper clippings, court documents, journals ect…the voice and curation of The Archivist holds the whole thing together, drawing our attention from one event to the next; from the secret societies to the ancient Native American magic, the aliens and the spirit realm, to the murders and mysteries that remain to the present. The narrative meanders from Westward Expansion era USA to Roswell and delivers cameos from President Nixon and L. Ron Hubbard, among others.

The whole thing is so solid and satisfying, like pre-series-six X Files. It’s dense and intricate, full of lore and mythology, conspiracy, government cover-ups, the occult, small-town weirdness and historical speculation. It’s an incredible whirlwind of information that is an absolute joy to work through. Almost everything in this book has been documented, truthfully or not so, in real life. Which is insane, when you think about it.

We catch up with a few of Twin Peaks’ surviving characters, a bit of a jarring tonal contrast in places, but I suppose essential inclusions. There are a couple of discrepancies between events as the books depicts them (mostly character backstory) and how they were shown in the show, but as you read, you get the sense that this is a chance for Mark Frost to do a bit of retconning and a bit of reshaping the mire-filled mess that s2 descended into. Maybe this was how it was always meant to be- there are no networks to interfere in books. Obviously not *all* questions are answered, but the reader is in no way dissatisfied.

I loved that the book delves into the lives and backstory of some of the show’s more peripheral characters; it seems that the events we witness in the Twin Peaks of 1990 are directly or indirectly dependent on things that happened in the same spot before a single log was felled. I loved that we got to see the origins of one of the show’s most enduring enigmas; the Log Lady. I loved that the town’s *ancient* Mayor Mitford is given time and space for his backstory, revealing himself to be perhaps one of the most influential and secretive hands to ever guide Twin Peaks’ narrative. Underutilized character Deputy Hawk also takes the opportunity to tell the story of Big Ed and Norma and Nadine, which is the single most hilarious segment in the whole thing.

I’m not sure that it would make a massive amount of sense to the uninitiated- I can’t imagine why the non-viewer would want to read it- but it’s an absolute treasure trove to the fans. I absolutely loved it and cannot recommend it enough.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Secrets of Billie Bright, by Susie Day

Billie Bright is part of a big, messy family of boys and they all live in a tiny flat above their dad’s café in Kensall Rise. Billie, aged 11, is about to go to big school thankyouverymuch, the same school as big brother Mikey. Her other brother Raffi doesn’t go anymore and has loads of different jobs for about a week, then gets inevitably fired. Billie’s other bigger big brother Gabriel lives in a fancy flat in Canary Wharf with his boyfriend Aleksy. Billie’s mum died of cancer when 6 years ago, and Billie can’t really remember her anymore. But she prays/writes to her a lot to keep her up to date with what’s going on. Billie knows she’s being watched over by here mum, who was probably very beautiful and liked Coronation Street and knitting.

Starting big school is a big deal for Billie, who has been looking forward to it since year 5. She knows it’s going to be exciting, being so grown up, and that making friends is going to be challenging, because her two friends from primary school have gone elsewhere and Billie has to start from scratch. She’s eyed up small, scared looking Efe as definitely best friend material, but bossy Ruby looks like she’s already decided Billie is going to be her friend. Amongst the whirlwind of emotions and episodes that make up the first week of a new school, year 7 are assigned an exciting task: to compile a research project about their hero. Billie, obviously, is going to do hers on her mum, but she doesn’t know much about her and her brothers are oddly reluctant to talk about her. In the course of her research project, Billie is set to find out all sorts of secrets about her family.

I love how incidentally diverse the book. Billie and her brothers are half Trinidadian, quarter Italian and quarter Welsh. Eldest bro Gabriel is gay, engaged to a Ukrainian. It’s not a plot about race or LGBT issues at all- not every difficulty an 11 year old mixe

d race kid encounters is going to be linked to race. Efe is Nigerian, Ruby is Chinese English, Sam and Sam have two mums- all part and parcel of modern life and it’s wonderful to see such a representative normality in this story. Not a plot point, not a Big Worthy Message or a characterisation short cut cliché. The girls’ problems with periods and bras and keeping on top of how your tie is supposed to be knotted so you don’t look a nerd are universal worries. It’s a coming of age story at its most thoroughly relatable and understandable.

I really loved this book; it was an absolute joy to read.

Billie, as a narrator, is wonderful. She’s sweet and charming and has just the right balance of confidence and doubt. Billie describes her sarcastic form tutor, Mr Miller, as sad and grey “Like Eeyore”. Love love loved it. She makes friends easily with Girl Sam, Efe and Ruby (slightly more reluctantly) and she’s naturally curious and funny. She narrates with a heart-breaking honesty and vulnerability. I love how much she cares about her family, how thoughtful she is.

Anyway; there are year 7 hijinks with sleepovers in the Natural History Museum, practise sleepovers in the flat, bridesmaid duties, fancy dresses, emergency search parties to famous locations and lots of uncovering of heart-breaking secrets that make Billie question everything she ever thought she knew. It’s not an entirely happy ending- there is lots of happiness and love, but also tears, acceptance, disappointment and the acknowledging of fallibility. It’s a very grown up lesson that Billie has to learn the hard way.

Very much recommended for 9 ish-12 ish year olds that are into Jaqueline Wilson, Lara Williamson and Pamela Butchart. Brilliant, obviously, for those slightly nervous of staring Big School.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Girl out of Water, by Nat Luurtsema

I was a bit sad and mopey after my latest reread of His Dark Materials and wanted something completely opposite. I'd seen Nat Luurtsema at YALC on a panel about funny women (with Holly Smale and Katy Birchall, I think) and had made a mental note there and then to read her book as soon as I could find a copy, because long story short, she was hilarious.

Unsurprisingly, Girl Out of Water does not disappoint on the lol front- I laughed through pretty much all of it, punctuated with an actual snort at the 'Pew of Askew' when the Brown family crash a church service.

The girl of the title is Lou Brown and she is out of water because she has just failed to qualify for an intensive training camp for the team GB Olympic swimming squad, a goal that she has been working to since the age of 7. Even worse, Lou's team mate and best/only friend Hannah made the cut and is off to Devon to train and become a national hero. That leaves loser Lou literally high and dry; alone to face school a social outcast and Olympic almost.

After a summer of empty boredom, denial and rage, Lou, completely by accident finds herself coaching a team of far-too-popular-to-be-he-friends boys at an underwater sport she invented whilst moodliy floating around in the leisure centre pool. But at £20 a session, she'll give it a go, despite their swimming ability (poor) and general fitness levels (bad). Their ultimate goal is to audition for what is essentially Britain's Got Talent (mad- where are they going to get a tank for that?). She's got to also cope with being a social leper, supporting her distant friend through the mind-murdering pressure and stress of camp, and avoiding her former frenemies turned straight up enemies from the swim team.

I loved Lou as a character; she's hilarious, unconventional, irrational in her teenage logic and struggling to find her place in the world. I like that she's not particularly interested in clothes or boys or boybands. She wants to be interested in order to *seem* more 'normal' but her indifference just cannot be denied. She looks like a hipless, boobless swimmer, because even people with 0 body fat can still be insecure about their body. I also empathise massively with unreasonably tall characters, being one myself. I loved her family- super popular, trendy but actually sweet big sister Lav, mum (dating) and dad (unemployed, living with divorced wife, not a couple). Lou has a really odd home set up, which they definitely all acknowledge, but it seems to work. The book's main theme really is that sometimes unexpected things happen and you just have to deal with it and sometimes it's better than the thing you wanted in the first place.

Although obviously most people haven't failed to qualify for an Olympic event/sporting career, the idea that the thing you've pointed your whole existence in the direction of not working out is a pretty relatable theme. Whether that's a realisation that actually, this is not what you want at all, or because circumstances have conspired to prevent you from 'living the dream'. I loved the idea that a 'failure' led to the thing that Lou needed most of all, which was friendship and self-confidence, and that's what she came away with.

This book is hilarious; it has brilliant characters, an excellent voice via Lou, the not-good-enough-to-be-Olympic swimmer and a realistic, heartwarming ending that isn't exactly walking off into the sunset, but is believable and satisfying anyway. Definitely good for readers that enjoy the awkward- girl-fish-out-of-water narratives like Princess Diaries, Geek Girl etc. A welcome addition to the coping with school/being bad at teen life canon.

Can wait for Nat's next book.