Trending: Tough Issue Lit for Teens

See, being an eternal optimist, I can’t even bring myself to say the word ‘suicide’ in my blog post title – yet as a subject of teen novels, I’m seeing it and mental health related illness cropping up more and more…

I was hereI bring the issue up as I’ve just read Gayle Forman’s new novel I Was Here, (which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here).

To cut a long story short, on page one, you read the suicide note of Cody’s best friend Meg. They’d grown up together and only just gone separate ways when Meg went off to uni. Everyone is grief-stricken in their small town in the US northwest. Asked by Meg’s parents to collect her things from uni, Cody is shocked to find that there was so much she didn’t know about, and that Meg had been visiting the wrong kind of internet forums – essentially being anonymously groomed towards suicide. I was shocked to find that Forman’s novel was based on a real case! Importantly, Cody’s investigations lead to an appropriate ending, and she is able to move on.

I was here though, is just the latest (bound to be) bestselling YA novel covering this territory – there seems to be more and more of them at the moment. To see just how many there are – a good sample of titles and some intelligent discussion around the subject can be found on the Stacked blog here and here.

Of course, there have always been books which include suicides and attempted suicides, many of which will be read by older teens – The Bell Jar being the classic (see my review here), but many of the suicidal protagonists fail in their attempts to end their lives, recovering to some level and overcoming their depression.  The gritty memoirs Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen and Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel sharing their experiences will be familiar to many too.

its-kind-of-a-funny-storyMoving to 2007 – Ned Vizzini wrote It’s Kind of a Funny Story about a suicidal high school student who gets over his depression (my review here); Vizzini himself tragically committed suicide in 2013. Plath of course committed suicide just months after finishing The Bell Jar. Knowing the authors’ fates makes for a doubly sad read. These two books both feature protagonists who overcame their depression to engage with life again.

The current crop, including I Was Here, often feature successful (that’s so the wrong word, but you know what I mean) suicides though. This does change the emphasis towards what happens next and the effects on their friends and familes, but the act of the suicide always hangs heavily over the whole stories.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskyAgain this isn’t new, Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel was The Virgin Suicides about a family of teenaged sisters who all committed suicide, told after the events from the girls’ boyfriends PoVs; that wasn’t targeted at a YA audience although many older teens will read it. (I’ve yet to read it, but did see the film). Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is particularly well-written in its sensitivity and wonderful young hero Charlie – I highly recommend it.

Despite their sad themes, if you look around the blogosphere you’ll find many YA bloggers who are welcoming these books for giving their teenaged readers a way into discussing their own problems, and explaining to them what being depressed in particular is like – a kind of reading therapy perhaps. For them, it’s all about overcoming the old taboos and fostering a kinder, non-judgmental and more supportive atmosphere in which it’s good to talk. I applaud that wholeheartedly, because I see the pressure to achieve being put on teenagers today and I worry for them.

These days there are also hundreds of books for children and teens about grief, coming to terms with terminal illness, or the death of a parent or loved one. These range from Patrick Ness’ exceptional A Monster Calls about a boy whose mum is dying from cancer, to Sally Nicholl’s heartwarming but sad Ways to Live Forever about a boy with terminal illness, Clare Furniss’ bestselling novel Year of the Rat about a girl whose mum dies in childbirth, and not forgetting Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece which has to win the prize for most elegiac title.  These novels, many of which are eminently suitable for older children and younger teens, are perhaps the natural precursor to those above, but, they are also totally different in that no-one wants to die in them…

So, I also worry because these latest suicide lit books are so real. Where is the escapism and mystery?  I remember escaping into books as a teenager, never reading books that were so close to real life. Admittedly, the thrillers I read were terribly violent (Alastair MacLean and his ilk), but they were not ‘real’ – you engage with them differently. With the exception of The Bell Jar I can’t remember any similar titles around when I was a teenager, but then you didn’t talk about any mental health issues either.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought that all the novels I’ve mentioned and read above were good, they nearly all made me cry too, but so much teen fiction these days is so bleak and seems to want to shock. Given that many of the protagonists are on verge of becoming young adults, it’s such a brutal way to come of age too!

That’s why one of my favourite recent YA novels is Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone. No-one dies, there’s a mystery to be solved, and it still has lots to say about modern life and families. From those I’ve read so far on the longlist I’d be very happy if it won the Carnegie Medal. But, I also fear that to stick one’s head in the sand over this YA trend would be the mark of becoming a sentimental old fool – I’m not ready for that yet!

What is an accident anyway?

Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

accidents-happen-978033054501301

I used to work for one of the world’s major chemical companies whose mantra was that there is no such thing as an accident. After too many ‘accidents’ making explosives in the 1800s, the company became intensely safety focused, and remains so today. They believe, and naturally it rubbed off on me (I ended up as a H&S manager for them) that all incidents have a root cause, and that finding and engineering or training it out etc. if possible is the way to go.

Thus I was naturally intrigued by the title of this novel. Having recently seen Louise speak, I knew I was expecting a tightly plotted psychothriller with some issues of trust and family values at its core, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s one of those stories that crescendos gradually, dropping in little details and clues that will become clear later on in the final climaxes.

Kate and her young son Jack have arrived back from school. Kate is suspicious of everything and everyone – the tailgating driver on the way home, surely there was more in the casserole in the fridge?  She is constantly on edge, and Jack doesn’t know how to handle his mother. She’s in danger of losing it – and we soon find out that they have suffered a double dose of grief from which they’ve not yet recovered. First Kate’s parents died in a tragic car accident, then her husband Hugo was murdered, stabbed in a mugging gone wrong.  She’s all alone, and she feels that Hugo’s parents Helen and Richard think she’s incapable of looking after Jack properly, maybe Hugo’s sister Saskia who was always her ally feels that way too. For it all happened five years ago …

One of the things that Kate has started doing is to do sums… she researches the odds of things happening and calculates the statistics, so she can stop more bad things happening to her and Jack. Nagged by her in-laws, she finally goes to see a therapist and tells her about this:

‘OK, there was a lot of traffic tonight so I decided to cycle. But before I cycled, I did a sum. I worked out that because it’s May, my chances of having a bike accident are higher because it’s summer, and about 80% of accidents take place during daylight hours, but more than half of cycling fatalities happen at road junctions, so if I went off-road I could lower it drastically. So I did. And because I am thirty-five, I have more chance of having an accident than another woman in Oxfordshire in her twenties, but because I was wearing my helmet, I have – according to one American report I read, anyway – about an 85% chance of reducing my risk of head injury. Then when I was cycling I balanced my chances of having an accident with the fact that by doing half an hour of sustained cardio cycling, I can lower my risk of getting cancer. Of course, that meant I increased my chances of being sexually attacked by being alone on a quiet canal path, but as I have roughly a one in a thousand chance in Oxfordshire, I think it’s worth taking.’
She thought she saw Sylvia flinch.

She can’t bear it, so escapes from the therapist’s house and ends up in a cafe where she encounters Jago Martin, a visiting Oxford Professor. He just happens to have written a book about beating the odds. After meeting again, Kate is a bit besotted by Jago, and when he agrees to help her in her predicament she acquiesces with little thought. His methods are not conventional though, he wants to teach her to become a natural risk-taker…

There are many different facets to the drama of this novel – Kate’s relationship with her in-laws, with Saskia, and Saskia’s own relationship with her parents, poor Jack and his over-protective mother, the introduction of Jago, and not forgetting the weirdo student next door who always seems to be haning around.  Over all of them is the aura of Hugo, gone but never forgotten. Kate had always been prone to worrying, but Hugo with his big-hearted happy soul had made things all right, given her life the balance it now lacks.

Millar cleverly misdirects us; everyone has issues, no-one is straight-forward – it’s hard to get to grips with what is bound to happen – or is it more ‘accidents’? The suspense builds.

Imagine a Sophie Hannah novel without the police involved, and slightly more family oriented and you should get the measure of this book. I enjoyed it a lot. (8.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Accidents Happen by Louise Millar, 2013, Pan paperback 426 pages.

 

After the war is over …

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

aftermathThe aftermath of war can be just as hard to get through as the war itself – for both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  Rhidian Brook’s novel gives us a portrait of the British zone in Hamburg after WWII, a city largely destroyed by Operation Gomorrah in 1943.

It is now 1946, and Colonel Lewis, is arriving with his family, to take charge of the British occupying forces.  His staff have found him a house, a large mansion on the banks of the river where an architect lives quietly with his daughter.  Herr Lubert and Freda are due to be billeted elsewhere, but in an unprecedented act of kindness, Lewis offers to let them share the house. The Luberts will move up to the attic servants quarters.

The house is finely furnished, and is full of art, antiques and a grand piano. Before Lewis’ wife Rachael even steps through the door, she is intimidated by the situation her husband has foisted upon her …

‘But I don’t understand,’ Rachael said. ‘Are other families doing this?’
‘None of them has requisitioned a house like this. It’s not really the same.’
Rachael had no space for this. It did not matter how grandiose, how replete with rooms, how exquisite the art of the action of the piano; were it a palace with separate wings and outhouses, there still would be no room for a German in it.

Rachael’s attitude can be easily understood for the Lewis family lost a son in the war, her eldest Michael. She was there when the bomb hit the house, whereas Lewis was away with the Army of course. She has another son, Edmund, but she is still grieving and angry at the Germans and Lewis for not being there.  Her reunion with him after this time will be tough for both of them, and her enforced relationship with the Luberts will become interesting too.

Meanwhile Lewis has to deal with the severe lack of food and jobs for the remaining Germans, who are only allowed to resume their prior work once they have been certified as clean. Intelligence are determined to root out the slightest hint of collaboration or Nazi sympathies, something that goes against the grain of Lewis’ ideals. Lewis is a good man, and is unfailingly polite to his host-nation. He wants nothing more than to let the Germans get back to work, to reunite parted families, to get food to them, start the rebuilding, but bureaucracy is always getting in the way.

Alongside the adults’ stories, is that of a band of feral children, orphaned, living in the ruins close to the Lubert’s house. Ozi their leader, is an expert wheeler-dealer, getting the most for things scavenged.  Edmund spots them one day, and becomes their saviour – Lewis’ cigarettes are better than currency. They are the true forgotten in all of this, living on their wits in terrible conditions.

It turns out that the central premise of Brook’s novel – that of sharing a house with the former enemy – is something that actually happened.  His grandfather, who was in a similar position to Lewis, did just that – he must be proud of him. While all around are taking advantage of being in charge, Lewis and his small team of officers who understand his point of view, show restraint and compassion for their fellow man.

Lewis, Rachael and Herr Lubert are three fully realised characters and as I read, I wanted the best for all of them. That Lewis and Rachael would find themselves again, and that Herr Lubert would be able to begin again too – for as an architect, his skills would be needed to rebuild the city.

This was an emotionally involving novel that gave a rather different take on WWII and I enjoyed it a lot. (8/10)

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Aftermathby Rhidian Brook. Pub 2013 by Viking Penguin, Hardback 336 pages. Sorry – no sign of the paperback yet.

The stages of a widow’s grief

The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson

widows tale

A recently widowed woman in her early sixties flees her London home and well-meaning but irritating friends. She rents a cottage in a North Norfolk village, telling no-one where she’s gone.

There, she gradually works her grief out – all the classic stages of denial, anger, what ifs, depression and finally acceptance. She makes a classic unreliable narrator at first, but as she begins to explore her surroundings and understand her feelings, we gradually learn that there were cracks in her marriage and what caused them.

The writing was surprisingly funny – she’s quite capable of laughing at herself whilst in the troughs of despond. However her moods can go from witty to maudlin within the space of a paragraph or two, just as in real life.

Losing one’s husband is most definitely a bummer. But let’s look on the bright side. I’ve actually lost a little weight. Oh, there’s loss of all sorts going on around here. Mind you, I wasn’t particularly chunky to begin with. An unfortunately, after a certain age, when you lose a few pounds you don’t look younger. Just pinched and scrawny. And those mad, staring eyes don’t help. …

These days it doesn’t take much to get me going –  a lost cat/dog poster, sellotaped to a lamppost – daytime telly – about four bars of Rachmaninov – pretty much anything.

As an exploration of the stages of grief, she goes through it all from the extremes of emotional paralysis to becoming dangerously obsessed by little things. What does become clear though, that despite their relationship being far from perfect i the end, she did love her husband.  One day she makes the mistake of glancing at the Lonely Heart ads in the newspaper…

I’ve witnessed Ginny and other single women discussing prospective partners and it’s pretty discouraging. Within seconds the conversation turns into a pretty crude assessment as to what proportion of the man’s hair and teeth remain. The implication being that, unless you make a supreme effort, or Lady Luck happens to be smiling down on you, you’re likely to end up with something resembling a cadaver.

The funny thing is, if it’d been the other way around and I’d gone first I’m sure John would’ve got remarried in a flash. If anyone would have had him. And, strangely I think someone would. John was one of those men who never quite understood women – he just new that he needed one about the place. It wasn’t even that he was incapable of doing the cooking and the cleaning. No doubt in my absence he would’ve had a bit of a shock and probably appreciated me a little more. But within a couple of months he would have got to grips with most things. And the things he couldn’t be bothered doing he would’ve paid someone else to do. Female company for him was simply an anchor. A point to fix his compass by.

The unnamed widow narrates her story through diary entries. She tells us not just what she does each day, but all the memories and thoughts that came to her mind as she tries to get on with life.  The tone is conversational throughout as you’ll have spotted from the quotations above.  My only niggle is that she is meant to be in her early sixties, and she felt a decade or so younger to me most of the way through – more mid-life crisis territory, and this was not helped by the youthful figure on the book’s cover. This was minor though. The novel is short enough to read in a few hours and  I really enjoyed it. (8/10)
* * * * *
Source: Publisher via Librarything rather a long time ago – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson, pub 2009, Faber & Faber paperback, 256 pages.

A Russian fairytale

The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin, translated by Jennifer Bradshaw

miracle-and-grief

Leonid Borodin was a writer, Soviet dissident and Christian. He was born in Irkutsk – one of those areas of Russia only familiar to me through the board-game Risk! He was imprisoned twice, the second time after the English publication of his writing in the mid 1980s. He died in 2011. Quartet books have recently republished The Year of Miracle and Grief in a handsome quality paperback, and I was sent a copy.

One summer, a twelve-year-old boy comes to a railway town on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, where his parents are to teach at the school. He soon makes friends with the other local children, and spends most of his time outdoors, fishing, swimming, making rafts, building dams, doing boyish things until suppertime.

He is mesmerised by the beauty of the lake and mountains, and keeps finding his eye drawn to a lonely crag with a straggly pine tree on it. The rocky outcrop is known as Dead Man’s Crag – his friends warn him against going up there however the boy, (who is unnamed) feels compelled to try. He scrambles up to the ledge only to discover an wizened old crone sitting there. Once she’s scared him half to death, she introduces herself as Sarma, great grand-daughter of the Great Sibyr. She forces him into a cave, telling to go down to the bottom and return to tell her what was happening.  He goes in, down many stairs before arriving in an immense hall:

On a high-backed throne set on a small rocky platform sat an old man. At least he seemed to me to be very old under the thick white beard which fell to his chest. His clothes, halfway between a smock and a cloak, were navy blue, and against this background the white beard looked like sea foam…  White eyebrows covered his eyes. The face looked sad and austere.
At his left hand, her head leaning on the armrest of the throne, sat a little girl of eleven or twelve. Her dark chestnut hair was hanging down from the armrest and the old man’s hand was resting on the child’s knees. The armchair she was sitting on was somewhat smaller than the throne, but its back was just as high. On the little girl’s left, with his head resting on outstretched paws, lay a small black dog with a brown patch above his eyes.
And all three of them . . . were asleep.

Sarma had flooded the valley to make Lake Baikal in retribution for the Prince who lived there accidentally letting her son die. Ever since she has held the Prince and his daughter Ri captive, unable to forgive, still grieving. The boy, naturally, falls for Ri and begs Sarma to let him come and visit again. After many visits he tries to persuade Sarma to set Ri free, and Sarma bargains – accepting her terms will change his life totally.

Rooted in local myths of the origins of this bleak and beautiful landscape this fairy-tale is, like all the best of its kind, strong on the consequences of dealing with magic. There is a price in suffering to pay for changing the equilibrium. Borodin was a Christian, and so the fairy-tale almost becomes a kind of parable about forgiveness and grief.

Where this book excelled for me though was in the descriptions of the ever-changing moods of the lake and its environs, going from transcendent beauty to stormy waves to icy danger. The translator, Jennifer Bradshaw has done a great job here. For instance, one day:

The water no longer looked like glass. I had the feeling that an immense blue tablecloth had been stretched out between the four points of the compass and that beasts were walking underneath it, unable to reach the shore. The smooth shining waves were not lapping against the bank but flowing on to it in a film of transparent sky blue.

From the start, we know that the boy survives all his trials, as the story is recounted by an older and wiser self. This degree of hindsight and first-person narration gives a totally different slant on what happens, it’s not as immediate as a certain other tale I’ve read recently involving magical sleeping beings in a cave deep under a hill I can think of (Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen that is); they do share the love of landscape though.

If you love Russian landscapes and fairytales this story, at first deceptively simple but then complex underneath, may be one for you. (8/10).

* * * * *
Source: Review copy – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin, Quartet paperback, 190 pages, republished Nov 2013.

A life on hold

Intermission by Owen Martell

intermission by owen martellMartell’s short novel takes a real event, the death of jazz bassist Scott LaFaro in a car accident in 1961, and imagines what followed.

LaFaro was the bassist in the Bill Evans Trio and died shortly after they recorded what are regarded as some of the best live jazz albums of all time (Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby). Before forming his own trio, Bill had played piano on Miles Davis’s seminal album Kind of Blue.  Martell’s story imagines what happened when trio leader Bill went to ground for several months after LaFaro’s death.

Fronted by an epigraph from Miles Davis “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” Martell attempts to do that in a way, but more of that later…

Bill is taken in by his brother Harry after Scott’s death, and later goes down to Florida to stay with his parents, Mary and Harry Sr. These three family members respectively take a turn to narrate the story, each taking a solo before handing over to Bill for the coda. Harry, Mary and Harry Sr reminisce about their own and the boys’ childhoods, growing up and how proud they all are of Bill who made something different of himself. No-one could be prouder than Bill’s mother, who is half-Russian and a musician-manqué herself. Her roots are grounded in Stravinsky and her favourite ballet of his, Petrushka, which contains the famous dissonant ‘Petrushka Chord’ much beloved of jazz artists too – indeed Harry’s first section is named after the chord.  Bill, stricken by grief and heroin, resembles nothing as much as the Russian puppet who comes to life.

This novel was not really what I expected from the blurb and the intriguing cover art. We learn virtually nothing about Scott, Paul – the other member of the trio, or the New York jazz scene – they are all peripheral to Bill’s grief,  it concentrates entirely on Bill and his family.

It’s all elegantly done, but there’s little jazz in this novel. Bill’s passivity absorbs all in its wake. The resulting prose is beautiful and carefully crafted, but was too drawn out to keep my full interest during the first two thirds; by the time that Bill begins to snap out of his funk, it was too late, so for me this book was disappointing.

Returning to Miles Davis’s epigraph, the author has looked at “what’s not there” – and eloquently described a musical void. But, the emphasis on the stop light on the cover and the novel’s title itself, do give a strong hint of the hiatus to come. (6/10)

* * * * *
Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon Vine, please click below:
Intermissionby Owen Martell. William Heineman hardback, pub Jan 2013, 167 pages.
Sunday At The Village Vanguardby the Bill Evans Trio (CD)
Waltz For Debby [Original Jazz Classics Remasters] by the Bill EVans Trio (CD)
Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis (CD)

A portrait of a family’s grief …

After Phoenix by Martine McDonagh

I really enjoyed Martine McDonagh’s debut novel I Have Waited and You Have Come, which was a dystopian psychodrama, so I was very happy to read her second novel – but it couldn’t be more different to her first.

After Phoenix

It’s Christmas, December 1973, and we meet the Jacobs family: lefty hippy parents JJ and Katherine, son Phoenix – just back from his first term at uni, and fifteen year old daughter Penny.   Phoenix is overjoyed at having persuaded his parents to get him a motorbike for Christmas.  Penny did well out of that too, getting the record player she was desperate for. Cut to New Year’s Eve – partytime at the Jacobs house.  Phoenix has a fumble with Penny’s best friend Jackie – she’ll not let Penny know who she did it with.

Cut to the New Year – January 1974. Phoenix is dead – his too big helmet slipped, he lost control of his motorbike and hit a van.

Katherine and JJ are catapulted into freefall in their grief. Katherine blames JJ for persuading her to let him have the bike. She can no longer talk to him.  JJ responds by giving her the space she appears to want – he retreats into his shed, his home office where he writes his newspaper columns, eventually moving in there completely.

Quick footsteps on the stairs. Not Penny’s. Now on the landing. A faint rap at the door, the wrong door, and a timid: ‘Katherine?’ She heard him open their bedroom door and go in. A few moments later he crossed the landing again and she heard him open and close the door to Phoenix’s room. He knocked at the bathroom door.
‘Go away. Leave me alone.’
‘I thought you might like a hot-water bottle. I’ve put it in the bed.’
‘Please leave me alone.’
‘Katherine, talk to me.’ He was loud-whispering.
‘No. I can’t talk to you any more. You killed my son.’
‘Katherine, please let me in. I don’t want Penny to hear this.’
‘She’s not stupid. You heard what she said as well as I did. She knows you killed him.’
‘Penny doesn’t know any such thing, and that wasn’t what she meant, you know that. Kathy, I can see how you’ve come to think the way you do, but you know it’s not true, I know you do. You’re grieving. We all are.’
‘Don’t tell me what I know. Go away. I want my son back.’ Katherine’s words wavered as they forced their way up through the constricted pipe of her throat.
After one last desperate, despondent ‘Kathy,’ JJ shuffled his feet and after a bit went downstairs.

It’s left to Penny to carry on as normal and look after things, as her parents’ relationship gets worse and worse.  Then one day Katherine snaps. She realises she needs help and signs herself in to the local psychiatric hospital – it’s the beginning of the long road to recovery.

This book is raw.  Between Katherine’s breakdown and JJ’s compassionate yet silent disbelief at what happened, this novel needs the life goes on attitude of teenager Penny to give some breathing space.  That’s not to say that Penny doesn’t feel grieve for her stupid brother Phoenix too.  Each of the Jacobs family members has to find a way to deal with it separately before they can begin to come together again.  JJ the hermit, throws himself into his work; Katherine gradually restores her sanity; and Penny gets fed up with Jackie, and makes new friends.

My bike - a Honda CB250RSOn an aside, in the early 1980s and in my twenties, I had a motorbike for around five years, (right – a Honda CB250RS).  I was proud of being a biker-chick, and I did spend out on good equipment – helmet, gloves, boots, and my beloved scarlet leather jacket,  kit which would help to minimise injury – but I still had my fair share of hairy experiences.

I was lucky. I rode from Gt Yarmouth to Harlow, Essex (around 110 miles) every weekend to see the boyfriend – and back.  I came off it on the A11 at Thetford; I skidded on a patch of oil, and was lucky to not get hit by a car, just dislocated my shoulder, but ended up in Bury St Edmunds A&E.  I also got blown off by the shock-wave of a lorry going past on a windy day on the Acle straight between Norwich and Gt Yarmouth. Too scared to get back on that time, I pushed the bike the couple of miles into town.  

I never told my parents about the bike until after I’d sold it.  So, I can understand Phoenix’s desire for the bike. It was a cheap and affordable option for independent transport in those days. I can also understand Katherine’s reaction and grief.  I’m very glad that my daughter will want to learn to drive a car.

With each chapter titled after a pop hit of the day, the period details in After Phoenix were spot on – I remember it well.  The regime in the hospital too was horribly as expected, (in the Guides, we used to go up to our local psychiatric hospital to sing to the patients at Christmas).

Despite beginning with a tragedy, this book is never entirely without hope though and is a powerful portrait of grief and how time heals. Powerful stuff.

* * * * *
I received a review copy from the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
After Phoenixby Martine McDonagh. Pub Jan 2013 by Ten to Ten Publishing, paperback 220 pages.

An exceptional story for all ages…

A Monster Callsby Patrick Ness
The British writer Siobhan Dowd won the Carnegie Medal posthumously in 2009 for her last book, Bog Child.  She’d started working on another, but died of breast cancer before she had started writing. Her outline was handed to Patrick Ness, author of the acclaimed Chaos Walking trilogy and he wrote the book she didn’t have time to.  A Monster Calls went on to win the 2012 CILIP Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Award for its illustrator Jim Kay – the first time a book has achieved both.

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.
Conor was awake when it came.
He’d had a nightmare. Well not a nightmare. The nightmare. The one he’d been having a lot lately. The one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming. The one with the hands slipping from his grasp, no matter how hard he tried to hold on. The one that always ended with-
“Go away,” Conor whispered into the darkness of his bedroom, trying to push the nightmare back, not let it follow him into the world of waking. “Go away now.”
He glanced over at the clock his mum had put on his bedside table.12.7. Seven minutes past midnight. Which was late for a school night, late for a Sunday, certainly.
He’d told no one about the nightmare. Not his mum, obviously, but no one else either, not his dad in their fortnightly (or so) phone call, definitely not his grandma, and no one at school. Absolutely not.
Whatever happened in the nightmare was something no one else ever needed to know.
Conor blinked groggily at his room, then he frowned. There was something he was missing. He sat up in his bed, waking a bit more. The nightmare was slipping from him, but there was something he couldn’t put his finger on, something different, something-
He listened, straining against the silence, but all he could hear was the occasional tick from the empty downstairs or a rustle of bedding from his mum’s room next door.
Nothing.
And then something. Something he realized was the thing that had woken him.
Someone was calling his name.
Conor.

Conor is thirteen.  He’s alone and doesn’t know what to do. His mum has cancer, and the treatments don’t seem to be working any more. His dad has a new family across the pond; his grandma is too un-grandma-ish; and he’s being bullied at school. It’s no surprise he is confused and angry with life and has nightmares.

When the monster comes for him, he is unfazed by it’s appearance, but scared at its purpose. This personification of earth magic wants to tell him stories, to show him that life isn’t black and white, that good things can come from bad. It wants him to acknowledge the truth.

This is a beautiful book. The original illustrated edition has the brooding monochrome drawings by Jim Kay which are so evocative of the elemental tree man monster and Conor’s dilemma.

It is a simple story, gut-wrenching, yet in its way, heart-warming in its bravery, with a young protagonist that is entirely believable and in desperate need of help. Ness has taken Dowd’s idea and run with it to create an exceptional novel that can resonate with all ages, and especially with anyone who’s ever lost someone close to them.

By its inevitable end I was blubbering like a baby, remembering my own mum who died from breast cancer a couple of years ago. It felt good to cry. This book helped. (10/10)

* * * * *
I bought my original illustrated copy, and the publisher, Walker Books, kindly sent me the new edition – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

A Monster Calls: Illustrated Paperbackby Patrick Ness
A Monster Calls (non illustrated)by Patrick Ness
Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd

Who is John Wayne? Who killed Susan? Does it matter?

Newton’s Swing by Chris Paling

Chris Paling has written nine novels, but it’s taken those nine to get some real recognition via being chosen as one of Fiction Uncovered’s 2011 crop of the best authors you haven’t read yet with his book Nimrod’s Shadow.

That book is in my TBR pile, but I discovered I already had an earlier one of his novels Newton’s Swing , which was published in 2000, so I decided to read that first.

Susan lies dead on her bed, shot in the side.  Her husband John, has dialled 911, but is shocked and confused, and is unsure what to do. Rewind a decade…

John Wayne is an Englishman, an ad-man working in New York who finds ‘the world is split between those that make a joke about my name, and those who don’t’.  Naturally, he prefers those who don’t.  He works for Angel, head of the agency, who is famed for his ‘parties’, where no-one goes by their own name. ‘That way even if the girls get hurt, reputations stay safe.’ John meets a beautiful art dealer, Susan, (whom Angel knows as Leona), and despite the instant hatred between John and her best friend Angela, they become a couple and have a son, Jordan.

John tells his story through his relationships with friends, colleagues and family. Flicking back and forward through the years, contrasting episodes from his life with Susan to the fall-out of her murder, and the re-building of the bond with his son, and eventually auditioning replacements for Susan.

John is racked with grief, guilt, self-doubt.  Eventually someone is jailed for Susan’s murder, but you never feel that they got the right man.  All the way through as we negotiate life’s quagmire with John,  there are moments when you think you know what happened, but then again …

Wayne is a complex character, an outsider who somehow manages to fit in, but not completely. ‘Susan’s world had a secret door to it. A few people had the key: Angela, a couple of other women, Jordan, perhaps another man. Not me.’  All of them have something to hide, yet it is obvious that he and Susan did have something, but they connected on another wavelength entirely.

Written in a taut and sparing style, I was drawn from the beginning into John’s world. Regardless of whether I trusted his memory or not, I wanted him to come out of his internalising of Susan’s death, and to really get to know his son.  There is some humour and light, but John’s story is serious, a little cold and aloof and an absolutely compelling read.  I’m going to have to read a lot more of Paling’s books if they’re this good. (9.5/10)

* * * * *

I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Newton’s Swing by Chris Paling. Vintage paperback, 240 pages.
Nimrod’s Shadow by Chris Paling.

A book of homecoming and letting go …

Like Bees to Honeyby Caroline Smailes

It was Juxtabook’s review of this book a couple of weeks ago, that made me pick this book up to read immediately, and she wasn’t wrong – this book is LOVELY!

It tells the story of Nina, a Maltese woman, whose rather traditional family disowned her when she got pregnant as a student in England. Marrying her baby’s father Matt didn’t help either. Some years on, she is drawn back to Malta, to see her family and ageing parents. Nina is depressed and grief-stricken and needs to lay her ghosts to rest, literally.

As Nina finds that Malta is both different and the same, we are treated to a tour of the island – all its best bits, as Nina sometimes feels like a tourist in the land of her birth.  Through some innovative touches the author brings the island to life, but also its culture and spiritual side for Malta is a place to heal.  Snatches of the Maltese language and their translations are wafted through the text, sometimes repeated, like bits of a favourite tune hummed in the background.

This is a book of strong emotions and equally strong contrasts – tradition vs modern liberal attitudes, homecoming vs letting go, and all through coloured by Nina’s battles with her depression.  If that makes the book sound rather dark – maybe it is in parts; however Nina is surrounded by people who care for her, and they’re not going to let her go down without a fight.  They bring some Mediterranean sunshine and much humour.

I’ve deliberately not told you much about the plot, because if you’re tempted to read this book, you should discover it for yourself. In the author’s safe pair of hands a story, that otherwise could have been overwrought or cloying, is instead a breath of fresh air, and you too will feel better for having read it.  (10/10)

* * * * *
Like Bees to Honey by Caroline Smailes