Monday, 27 February 2017

Pet Semetary, by Stephen King

Why yes. Yes I do intend to read them all eventually.

This is the almost last of the SK books I own with the blood red spine of "Iconic Terror". Famously King cites this as his most horrific book. Not the scariest, or the goriest, but the meanest, darkest of his work, the one he tried to bury in a drawer because it was too horrible.

Inspired by his own move to a Maine University, to a new house in a new town, one near a road frequented by big trucks on which his daughter's cat Smucky got killed, it's a story of what could have happened.

Louis Creed, a doctor from Chicago, takes a new job as director of the University of Maine's campus medical service. Looking to get away from the in-laws he hates and because the job is a nice cushy number of fixing up booze-injured students and fresher's flu, he moves to Ludlow, Maine. Uprooting his wife Rachel, young kids Gage and Ellie, and Ellie's cat Winston Churchill (Church to his friends) from the Midwest is tough at first, but the family settle in quickly with the help of wholesome Yankee father figure Jud Crandall, lifetime Ludlow resident and keeper of secrets. Lou comes to see him as a father figure, and he and his arthritic wife Norma are soon fast friends with the Creeds.

It's Jud that initially warns his new neighbours of the dangers of the highway that divides their houses, claiming that "that road has used up a lot of animals". It's Jud too that takes them to visit the Pet Semetary, a little plot of land tended by generations of Ludlow kids, all of whom laid to rest their beloved pets that the road "used up". Jud is nothing if not an enabler. The night after the family's first visit to the semetary, 5 year old Ellie has a prophetic-feeling dream about Church dying on the highway. Lou sees this emotional outburst as a healthy, normal response to a child's first encounter with mortality- his wife Rachel, who lost a sister young to spinal meningitis has a total death phobia and will not entertain the concept of anyone, least of all Church, dying. This pretty much sets up the inevitable chain of events that follow. There are deaths. There are resurrections. There are ancient Indian burial grounds and spirits of the north and all kinds of ancient malice.

It's not an elaborately plotted novel. To the untrained eye it might look like not a lot happens in Pet Semetary, but it's expertly paced with an oppressive, low simmering malevolence that lurks just behind every line. We follow Louis to work and back. The beers he drinks with Jud. We watch him scoop up his daughter's dead cat, and watch him follow Jud to the secret local-pet-semetary-for-local-people graveyard out in the creepiest woods in literature. We know it's a terrible idea, even before the cat turns up alive- changed, but alive.

I really liked Louis as a character, the Stephen King stand-in for this particular story. His mediocrity is kind of endearing, and he seemed to play the role of "family man" quite convincingly. Mostly enamored with his lovely family, occasionally frustrated and annoyed. Cocks up infrequently, but enough to prove he's a real person. He's a fairly weak character, in denial of his weakness. He blames his shortcomings on anything and anyone he can, he makes excuses. Is he guided and manipulated my some malevolent force? Or does he just make really bad calls?

I loved how subtle this book is, and how pure the horror of its plot. There are no scares, no prolonged scenes of torment or torture, no murders or stalkings- there isn't even a bad guy. It's a type of horror that makes you wonder whether your own morals and beliefs would have stood up to the same test, a creeping, chilling horror at things that seem 95% ridiculous. Pet Semetary is about wanting something so desperately that you do not care about consequences. The refusal to acknowledge that sometimes the hardest thing to do is the right thing, in this case to let go, to grieve, to pick up the pieces and carry on. I guess too it's about how you can never un-learn something, and the deadly temptation that this might sometimes present.

With every additional Stephen King book I read, the more I get why he's sold 350 million books. Man's no amateur.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Unboxed, by Non Pratt

A devastating little novella from the queen of kitchen sink teen drama, Non Pratt. I've loved both of Non's full length novels for their wit and warmth, and for the fantastic way she writes friendship and dialogue. Naturally, Unboxed was no different.

Narrated by Alix, the plot follows four friends as they face the prospect of an awkward reunion in their one time hometown- they are retrieving their buried time capsule from the school's roof. Having drifted apart over the last 5 years, each going off and doing their own thing, nobody is sure if the others will show. The reunion follows the death of Millie, the sweet, happy girl that held them all together. She was the one who made her surviving friends promise that they'd meet up- promise that they'd reunite.

After the stilted greetings and small talk and the clumsy retrieval of the box, we begin to see the friends relax into each other's company a bit more. As they go through the carefully selected memories that each of them chose to preserve, the four reflect on how much they have changed over the five years. They examine their motives for allowing their friendships to crumble. For Alix, it's guilt that she was never able to come out to her best friends. First fearing rejection, then consumed by guilt for not trusting them, she found it easier to drift away.

I really loved this story and was amazed at how much emotion and feeling can be squeezed into such a small book. Who has never looked at a photo of their schooltime squad and lamented "we all used to be so close and I haven't spoken to any of these for years- what happened?" maybe not at 18....but definitely somewhere along the way. I love how Alix voices her insecurities about how people change- relationships change, what people need from and are able to provide for each other changes. Out expectations change. Our priorities and values; guess what? They change too.

It was really satisfying to see a mismatched group of kids- kids that didn't seem like they ever would have been friends at all, be truly honest with each other in a way that requires the sort of maturity and self awareness that you just don't have at 13. It seems unlikely that as story that begins with a nightmare social situation; a person surrounded by ex friends they've outgrown could possibly end with four renewed friendships, cracked, but healed stronger than before. Like bones. And all the way through, the tragic absence of Millie, the missing piece, the one who orchestrated the whole thing from beyond the grave, hangs sadly over the whole thing.

Gorgeous and touching and utterly, utterly real. I genuinely do not know how she does it.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Mind the Gap, by Phil Earle

A compact, compelling little novella from the Patron Saints of accessible literature, Barrington Stoke. Make a story too difficult, turn off struggling readers. Make it too babyish, same effect. Barrington Stoke walk that alchemic line that manages to make a story gripping and gritty, but incredibly accessible too, usually in less than 100 pages.

Mind the Gap is one of their 2017 title in the revamped, squarer format. Nice. It tells the story of a15 year old unnamed narrator who goes to great lengths to try and comfort his bereaved best friend, Mikey.

Mikey's dad Vinny, a waster at the best of times, used to be a laugh. An actor that always seemed on the verge of stardom, he'd disappear for months on end, then show up in a different each time sports car, whisking Mikey and the narrator off for laughter-filled hijinks. Elsewhere Vinny does not seem to have made such a favourable impression.

When Vinny drops dead one day out of the blue, Mikey really struggles to deal with the anger and pain, staggering off down a few badly chosen roads of self destructive behaviour. Missing his lifelong mate and companion, the narrator sets off across London to track down something of Vinnie for his son to remember him by.

Mind the Gap is a touching story of friendship between two down at heel lads on an East End council estate.  It's funny, quickly-paced and heartwarming, and shows that the art of the novella is alive and well, and Barrington Stoke have got some of UKYA's finest in to prove it.

Margot & Me, by Juno Dawson

Fliss, 15year old fashionista, private school attendee and Cher Horowitz wannabe is leaving the lattes and the Topshop of London for a 6 month secondment to the Welsh valleys. Not through choice, but because Fliss’ mum is recovering from a second bout of chemotherapy and needs the help of her frosty mother Margot; Award winning journalist turned smallholder. Fliss, managing as nurse and care giver perfectly well for the last 2 years doesn’t see why Margot has to get involved. Especially not in Wales, on a farm, in the middle of nowhere.

It’s one of the Olay signs of aging: when the period in which you grew up becomes a recognisable setting for period-ish novel. Set in 1997, Margot & Me captures the decade that taste forgot perfectly. Lilac kickers. Princess Diana’s funeral. Purple denim jackets. Lipsy. CD Walkmen. Keanu Reeves. Badger stripe blech highlights.  Eyebrows the width of a single hair. Oh dear god the eyebrows. Juno Dawson crafts the setting of the novel brilliantly, in all its tacky glory. What on earth did we do before phones though?  I appreciated the effort  and commitment invested in whipping up the aura of the Girl Power era, it’s something that will pass by many of the book’s intended audience.

Frustrated by her constant clashes with the judgmental, scornful Margot (never gran or grandma) and aware of how fragile and tired her mum is, Fliss is not having the best time in Wales. She has no more success at school either, immediately drawing the attention of Megan, the tumbledown, backwater school’s skanky megabitch. Conceding social defeat, she throws in her lot with the misfit crew that hang out in the underground school library. Who turn out to be awesome and fun and supportive. It’s very Mean Girls, but with additional hot librarians.

Anyway. Marooned at her temporary farmhouse home, Fliss has to adjust to a slower pace of life. Whilst stowing some excess wardrobe in the attic, she finds a Diary. Thinking she can dig up some dirt on Margot, the owner and author, she starts reading. So begins the second strand of the novel’s plot. Along with Fliss, the reader is transported back to 1941, the year that 16 year old Margot was an evacuee, placed with Welsh farmers in the very farmhouse in which Fliss now finds herself an emotional hostage. The Diary Margot is a million miles from the snow queen in wellies and cashmere that Fliss knows and tolerates. 1941 Margot was feisty, passionate and razor sharp and brought a cosmopolitan sophistication to Wales.

The 1941 parts were some of my favourite moments in the book-I felt totally immersed in Margot’s Wales. I loved how open minded she was, how ahead of her time. She was glamorous and sassy, but more than willing to lend a hand on the farm or for the war effort. I loved how easily she got on with the townspeople and the other evacuees, how prepared she was to put up a fight for what’s right and how determined she was to not be a flighty, besotted drama queen, and how badly she failed. I absolutely understood Fliss’ compulsion to read about the younger days of her grandmother, to see the person she would have got on with so well should they meet at the same age. Unwittingly, she dredges up secrets and heartache and injustice- at a loss to explain how the girl on the page and the woman in the kitchen are the same person.

I really liked Fliss as a character and narrator. She's not a 90s me, but there is always something of the universal teen in JD's characters. The centre-of-the-Universe feelings, the dramatic martyrdom, the absolute conviction that dying of embarrassment or lameness is a legitimate concern. The earnest self-absorption. Though YA fiction professes to be for teens, I think post-teen readers can always get that extra enjoyment from hindsight. The 'Yup. I once thought like that, lol' aspect of teen protagonists. Nonetheless, Fliss is funny and sarcastic, and her inner monologue is a delight to read.

I loved this book. It’s a bit of a departure from Juno’s other books- which are all so sharp and modern- to something a bit more domestic and saga-esque. I liked how Fliss’ relationships with Dewy, Bronwyn and Danny were crafted, more familiar All of The Above footing, with funny but real life dialogue and dynamics, and proper, real character. I loved Margot- I am in awe of her strength and resilience and commitment to her family. The sacrifices she made, the pain she must have suppressed for decades- she is incredible. I love that getting to know Fliss, with her different sort of pain, allowed her to feel something again. Every generation thinks theirs is the most knowledgeable, the most admirable, but Margot and Fliss learned so much from each other. They were a great team.

It’s an emotional book, about loss and family and forgiveness, and about how the human spirit endures whatever is thrown at it, whenever in history and by whom. People persevere, they survive and they look out for that new normal and they live to tell the tale and to pass on their stories to the next generation.

Another absolute belter from the undisputed Queen of Teen.

Monday, 6 February 2017

The Bone Sparrow, by Zana Fraillon

There needs to be a copy of this book in every school, every library, every hospital in the Western world. There needs to be a copy pushed on to every person that has ever been heard to say "Why don't they just go home?", "I have no sympathy for those savages and scroungers in that Jungle" and "We have enough refugees". FWIW, I've heard all of these fairly regularly in day to day life.

The Bone Sparrow starts with a red and mysterious sea lapping at what is revealed to be the tent of Subhi- an imaginary sea that visits him sometimes and leaves treasures from the father he has never met, across the sea in Burma.

Subhi has never seen the real sea. Nor Burma. Nor anything that exists outside the fences of the detention centre in which he was born. With his sister Queenie and his listless, inert Maá, and hundreds of other refugees that arrived illegally by boat to what is revealed to be Australia, Subhi waits. They eat low-nutrition, out of date food. They cower from the angry, violent 'Jackets' who keep order in the centre. They crowd into rat-infested tents, with itchy, parasite riddled blankets. They get ill and die waiting. They scuff around in the dirt, hoping for a while, then resigning themselves to the fact that nobody cares what happens to them. Nobody is bothered what goes on behind the wire and the fences because these are not people. These are problems. Burdens.

The book begins with Subhi and his friend Eli running packages around camp- swapping soap for toothbrushes, underwear for bottled water, things like that. We get a sense of the resentment of the Australian guards for the refugees that they keep corralled; their occasional, inexplicable cruelty, their unpredictability, their indifference. All except for one nice one, called Harvey that behaves like an actual human.

Subhi's existence is pretty grim. No school, no future, no way out, he consoles himself with stories. He draws the stories and the memories of the older detainees, because he has no memories of his own. He lives for stories of hope and escape, of tall trees and fresh air. The monotony of camp life is broken one night when Subhi meets Jimmie- a scruffy, curious little girl form the outside who slipped under the fence. She brings with her new stories, the story of the Bone Sparrow that she wears around her neck. It tells the story of her own immigrant family, generations before, who survived due to the luck of the sparrow. Through Jimmie's friendship and companionship, and her flasks of hot chocolate, Subhi starts to see the power of hope- he starts to see what his sister and Eli have seen all along; that they should matter, and they should never give up on the idea of freedom.

I loved the characters in this novel. I loved Subhi's cheekiness, his inextinguishable hope and thirst for stories. I loved his imagination and his fierce love for what remains of his family. I loved how he tried to ease the suffering of everyone around him, even the rats. He is the absolute embodiment of compassion, even when he has no reason to ever be nice to anybody. Jimmie too was a curious, spunky and intensely likable kid who befriends first and asks questions later. Equally enthralled by stories, she turned Subhi's into somebody who thinks and waits into somebody that takes action; they made the best team.

It's a book that is unexpectedly funny in places, and inevitably tragic in others. The injustice and the inhumanity of Subhi's existence is powerfully depicted, and the book is a real empathy tonic. I defy anybody who reads it to not condemn the way the World treats those who are in need. The luxury of peace and relative stability is something that we in the UK, America and Australia (to name a few) take for granted, almost feel that we deserve as a matter of course, and desire to keep for ourselves. It amazes me how people act like they are born within the arbitrary borders of a peaceful nation down to their own good merit and foresight, not through sheer chance and co-incidence.

I can only hope that this becomes a modern classic- the Boy in the Striped Pajamas for the modern humanitarian crises. I hope demand to see it on the Carnegie list, and on any other list that anybody cares to put together, because it is so essential.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Goldfish Boy, by Lisa Thompson

Matthew Corbin is obsessed with cleanliness; desperately trying to avoid germs and disease, his behaviour has become so extreme that he is missing big chunks of school. His hands are sore and painful from all the washing, his antibacterial spray and latex gloves safely concealed under his bed. Martin avoids all human contact, eats only pre-packaged foods and rarely leaves the house. Instead, he spends his days observing his neighbours from the safety of his bedroom window, noting down what they're up to on his quiet cul-de-sac street.

Unusually, Mr Charles next door is looking after two young children that Martin has never seen before-  a toddler and an older girl. They see him watching them, bestowing him with the nickname Goldfish boy. When the boy goes missing, Matthew is suddenly at the centre of a mystery; one where all his neighbours are suspects. Matthew thinks he might have information that can help, but going outside into the world is quite scary and he's not sure that he's ready for that yet.

Goldfish Boy is a slow-burner of a story, if the reader is expecting a mystery. The missing toddler, Teddy, provides the momentum of the plot, but it is really about Matthew's personal journey. It's about how he deals with losses in his life, loneliness and the early beginnings of friendship. It's quite frustrating at first, because Matthew's parents don't really seem to see how ill he is. Either because he is good at hiding it, or because they don't want to believe that their only son has debilitating mental health issues. As the story unfolds, we start to see that the Corbins as a family are coping in whatever ways they can.

The compulsive cleaning and 'Magical Thinking', while being the OCD bread and butter, are sensitively handled and compassionately explored throughout the book, which feels compassionate and well researched. I felt like Matthew's frustration and fear were incredibly real, and his reactions to these emotions equally believable. I liked that he *knew* his fears were irrational, but his brain was not allowing him to listen to its own reason.

The book is also about suspicion and judgement, and the fact that nobody can ever really know what a person is like, nor how they fell and what they've been through merely by looking at them. I loved Matthew's interaction with Old Nina- how much he learned from her. Matthew's recovery is only really beginning by the time the book ends, but the reader is left with the sense that with his therapy, his newfound friendship with the super-persistent Melody and the 'I'm only mean to you because I'm insecure' Jake and finally being able to be honest about his feelings, it feels like Matthew will be ok.

Very much recommended not so much as a Middle Grade Mystery, but as a novel that really places the reader in the position of a child really struggling with his mental health. Themes of guilt and compulsion and feeling like you're letting people down are explored in really relatable ways, and Matthew is a likable little chap that manages to find his strength.