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!

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School’s out, summer’s in, time for Panic…

Panic by Lauren Oliver

Panic_HC_JKT_des4.inddScene – a small town in middle America, school’s out for summer. For those who’ve graduated high school, finding a full-time job will be a priority unless you’re one of the lucky few who are off to college. The town of Carp is small and poor – no-one has any money.  But there is one way out… to win ‘Panic’ – the annual top secret knock-out challenge for high school grads, with a pot this year of $67k for the last one standing at the end of the summer.

Lauren Oliver’s new thriller for older teens and up explores the lives of this year’s players – they all have their reasons for wanting the money.  The first challenge is to announce you’re in by jumping from the rocks into the lake at the quarry. Heather only decides at the last minute after she sees her supposed boyfriend snogging another girl.

 “Announce yourself!” Diggin boomed out.
Below Heather, the water, black as oil, was still churning with bodies. She wanted to shout down – move, move, I’m going to hit you – but she couldn’t speak. She could hardly breathe. Her lungs felt like they were being pressed between two stones.
And suddenly she couldn’t think of anything but Chris Heinz, who five years ago drank a fifth of vodka before doing the jump, and lost his footing. The sound his head made as it cracked against the rock was delicate, almost like an egg breaking She remembered the way everyone ran through the woods; the image of his body, broken and limp, lying half-submerged in the water.
“Say your name!” Diggin prompted again, and the crowd picked up the chant: Name, name, name.
She opened her mouth. “Heather,” she croaked out. “Heather Nill.” Her voice broke, got whipped back by the wind.
The chant was still going: Name, name, name, name. Then: Jump, jump, jump, jump.
Her insides were white; filled with snow. Her mouth tasted a little like puke. She took a deep breath. She closed her eyes.
She jumped.

This is the start of a summer that will test Heather, her best friends Nat and Bishop, and outsider Dodge to the limit.  The challenges in Panic are top secret, and announced by coded signs and text messages.  Heather and Nat initially decide to make a pact to share the winnings – half of $67k would be life-changing for either of them – but the pact will put more pressure on the pair rather than lessen it.  Bishop, the girls’ best friend is very quiet about the whole thing, he’s not taking part, just supporting.  Dodge is the surprise element. He’s out for revenge against Ray Hanrahan, whose older brother Luke caused his older sister to be badly injured and crippled in her year.  His best way forward is to side with Heather and Nat for now until the numbers reduce, but he expects Hanrahan to play dirty…

The challenges are all really dangerous – from walking a high-up plank between two water towers, to stealing something from a trigger-happy red-neck’s house amongst them.  The players tend to pull out rather than get taken out, but nasty things do happen.  When it gets down to the last few – anyone who’s seen the films American Graffiti or Rebel Without a Cause can guess what form the final challenge will take – however, who will be doing it?  The police of course, are always one step behind. They know it takes place every year, but the code of secrecy between the players and their friends is solid, the police will only be able to react when something happens.

Despite the severity of the series of challenges they have to go through, there was never quite enough danger for me – but then I am probably more used to the even more full-on goriness of adult thrillers – you have to remember the primary audience for this one. The stakes were high but The Hunger Games it ain’t, thankfully you don’t have to die. Most of the players retire through sheer terror one way or another but this for me downplayed the gladiatorial nature of the game.

The story alternates between Heather and Dodge who have contrasting motivations for playing.  Heather just wants to for her and little sister Lily to be able to escape the trailer park and her slutty mother.  Oliver does succeed in making you care for Heather, but she lacks back-story and is not a complex character, whereas Dodge is more interesting psychologically, although less likeable for it. The tension between Heather and Bishop, the best friends who are obviously made for each other, could have been built up more too. There’s no doubting Heather’s courage and determination once set on her path.

This novel doesn’t dwell on the past – we get few snippets about previous years’ games which again, could have added some more depth and more tension as you imagine what the next challenges could be this year.  It was certainly page-turning in fits and starts, and had its little twists and turns, yet was pretty transparent and predictable. It felt real enough though, bored penniless teenagers looking for thrills – don’t get any ideas! …

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Panicby Lauren Oliver. Pub March 2014 by Hodder & Stoughton, hardback 408 pages.

 

A sad beginning and a happy ending cut oh so short by tragedy …

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

While I was doing some research into age appropriate novels for younger teens for a post on the topic back in November, I kept coming across books for older teens that I wanted to read myself. This was one of them, so I ordered a copy, and added it to my YA shelf.

its-kind-of-a-funny-storyIt’s a kind of funny story is a novel about a teenager suffering from depression. It is clearly autobiographical and Vizzini has said it’s about 85% true. As a fan of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, it sounded as if I’d enjoy this book too.

I wasn’t planning to read it so soon, but a news item from the Huffington Post here made me go straight to it…

The author, Ned Vizzini, then 32 years old, committed suicide on December 19th by jumping from the roof of the building where his parents lived, leaving his wife and son.

Shock over his tragic death drew me to read the novel as soon as I could.  Although my reading was coloured by reality, it is a fine novel, and really helped to understand some of the pressures on teenagers today. It begins …

It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint – it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come ou tin chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.

Craig Gilner is fifteen. He’s spent much of last year cramming to ace his application to Executive Pre-Professional High School in Manhattan. He gets his place and starts school alongside his friend Aaron only to discover that he’s not a natural genius like most of the other students there including Aaron. He’s instantly behind, and anxiety sets in. Discovering pot leads to less desire to get started on catching up, and he’s also jealous of Aaron’s girlfriend Nia, always being the gooseberry.

It all builds up and soon he can’t eat without throwing up afterwards, everything is entwining him in ‘Tentacles’. He needs to find some ‘Anchors’.  He is blessed with a lovely and supportive family who try everything to help – he ends up on medication and with twice-weekly visits to a shrink, Dr Minerva, who helps to anchor him.

However Craig’s medication runs out, and he stops taking it. Soon the depression leads to suicidal thoughts of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.  One night it just becomes too much and he phones a suicide helpline, who tell him to get to the hospital down the road. He admits himself to the short stay psychiatric unit, and finds he’s not alone, and thus begins the road to recovery.

It all felt horribly real. Craig is unflinching in telling us all about his problems, from the conversations, all the tentacles, waiting for ‘the Shift’ to happen – that live or die moment. It sounds grim – it is grim, but it is also grimly funny in parts.

What was hard to bear was the amount of pressure that Craig was putting on himself – it’s not like it was coming from his family, who still saw a Maths score of 93% as brilliant. That’s not the case though when everyone else gets 100 at this school, (which was based on the Styvesant School in NYC where the author went).

The second half of the book, set in the psychiatric unit, contrasts enormously and young Craig, put in the adult ward as there is no room in the teen one, quickly becomes a good luck charm to the other residents which, of course, is confidence building.  The other residents are, as you might expect, a collection of seriously ill misfits, suffering from psychotic episodes to bipolar, from phobias to self-harming, and not forgetting Craig’s suicidal deep depression.

Ned Vizzini in 2012, (Photo by Sabra Embury, his wife)

Ned Vizzini in 2012, (Photo by Sabra Embury, his wife)

I think it is important for any older teens reading this book to realise that there is a way back from depression and other mental health issues but it is a long road – often two steps forward and one (or more) back, and although an important part, it can’t be controlled by medication alone.

I did well up with tears several times whilst reading this brilliant novel, and when I reached the end and saw the little afterword that tells you that the author spent five days in a Brooklyn psych unit like Craig, you just knew he was telling it from the heart, and his legacy will live on in this book.

My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends at this most difficult time. 

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For anyone who wants to read more about depression, amongst books Ned Vizzini recommended on his website is The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon (see link below).

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, 2007, Miramax/Hyperion paperback, 444 pages.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression by Andrew Solomon

Be of good cheer! (No, not that type of cheer)…

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

DARE-ME-PBBAn image of pony-tailed cheerleaders is arguably the ultimate cliché when we think of the most popular girls at High School in the USA.  Most teen films portray them as bitchy, and not big on brains. They are there to look like clean-living girls next door, to strike poses, but act like teen temptresses and get first pick of the jocks on the soccer team.

The Cheerleading squad in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me are not like that at all. They are fit and lean athletes who train hard every day. They live for cheer, boys are mostly an encumbrance.

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something – anything – to begin.
“There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”
Coach said that once, one fall afternoon long ago, sharp leaves whorling at our feet.
But she said it not like someone’s mom or a teacher or the principal or worst of all like a guidance counselor. She said it like she knew, and understood.

Beth Cassidy is the captain of the squad and her best friend Addy Hanlon is her lieutenant. Everyone wants to be like them, they are admired and feared in equal measure. When a new coach arrives – everything changes.

Coach French wants to take the team to the next level, to raise their game so they can compete in cheerleading competitions.  At first she appears to be the Mary Poppins of coaches ‘practically perfect in every way‘. She’s inspirational, she changes the way the squad works – without a captain. She invites the girls to her house to hang out – they all love her (except Beth).  Coach French really seems to take to Addy, effectively estranging her from Beth – and this, of course, will have consequences, for Beth wants the old order back.

Then someone dies. There is a connection to the coach, and thus the squad, the police begin an investigation. This happens as the girls are making the final push, training for the season’s finale and a performance in front of a talent spotter. The stakes grow ever higher and loyalties are tested to the limits…

The most striking aspect of this novel, apart from the psychothrilling triangle of Addy, Beth and Coach at its heart, is the sheer physicality of it. These girls are serious about cheer. They’re not conventional friends outside of the squad, they’re work colleagues – or soldiers even, assembled into a formidable team whose goal is to support and catch the ‘flyer’ at the top of the pyramid at the climax of their routine. This is something that most people don’t see. As Addy says:

That’s what people never understand: They see us hard little pretty things, brightly lacquered and sequin-studded, and they laugh, they mock, they arouse themselves. They miss everything.
You see, these glitters and sparkle dusts and magicks? It’s warpaint, it’s hair tooth, it’s blood sacrifice.

But it’s more than just training, the higher up the pyramid you are, the lighter you have to be. There are many scenes involving girls throwing up what they’ve just eaten, surviving on just protein shakes and grass juice shots, varying shades of bulimia and anorexia. One scene that stayed with me is not so horrific (perhaps), but very visual:

We get a fat-slicked chocolate-chip muffin, which we heat up in the rotating toaster machine. Standing next to it, the hear radiating off its coils, I imagine myself suffering eternal damnation for sins not yet clear.
But then the muffin pops out, tumbling into my hands. Together, we eat it in long, sticky bites that we do not swallow. No one else is there, so we can do it, and Beth fills tall cups with warm water to make it easier then spit it out after, into our napkins.
When we finish, I feel much better.

NOOOOOO!

Coming back to that central triangle briefly… The novel is narrated by Addy – the sensible one, and it is Addy that is stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between Beth and Coach. Beth and Coach compete for Addy’s attention, each confiding in her, yet never telling her the whole story to keep her wanting more. It’s psychological warfare – very creepy.

Dare Me is Abbott’s sixth novel. Her first four are all slices of classically styled 1950s noir with strong female leads – I would love to read these, and have heard good things about them. With her fifth novel The End of Everything, she moved into new territory – that of teenage sexual awakening – apparently Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is a big influence (I really must read that too, the film was fab). I gather that Dare Me is going to be filmed, Natalie Portman has been linked for Coach.

The author has obviously done a lot of research into cheerleading, (you can read about that here). Although it was fascinating (in a horrible way) to read about how a normal cheerleading team become a great one, there was a bit much of the cheer which didn’t allow the psychodrama enough space to breathe. This also meant that the only two male characters of any note in the book were too mysterious, even by the end – and they are crucial to the plot. Abbott is clearly an author to watch, and although this book wasn’t quite a hit for me, it was well worth reading. (7.5/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dare Meby Megan Abbott, pub Picador (2012), paperback, 320 pages.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

YA books and sex!

I wasn’t going to write a post featuring the book below as it was a DNF (Did not finish) for me, but it did raise questions and I wanted to ask your opinions, especially after I heard someone calling for debate on lowering the age of consent to 15 on the radio this morning …

My daughter, now 13, is getting into reading teen romances and has been a fan of Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, and Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicholson diaries for a year or two now. I’m always on the lookout for new authors to introduce to her and came across the following book on a review list – the text description said 12+ …

When it happens by Susane Colasanti

when it happensThis is a book about a girl who is looking to find love – and has a clear idea of who will fit the bill, but ends up falling for the complete opposite. Set in NYC, senior year of high school, with the Battle of the Bands as a backdrop.

When it arrived there was a sticker on the front cover saying ‘Contains explicit content’. I visited the UK publisher’s website and there it says 14+, so I started to read the book to see what that was. I made it about a third of the way through, and skimmed the rest.

I found there was a lot of sex talk and it seemed that most of the characters were only after one thing which was more to do ‘it’ – sex, rather than find ‘it’ – love, although being a teen romance, that true love is found too in the end. OK – they are all in their senior year at High School, so the place is likely to be seething with sex, but there are references to girls doing it since they were 14 etc. Within the first few chapters, Sara, the virginal lead character was getting instruction on how to put a condom on – educational, yes, but any romance was spoiled.

Definitely one for older teens I thought.

Contrast that with …

Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher

billy and me

The debut chicklit novel by the wife of McFly’s Tom. It’s about a young woman coming to terms with being the girlfriend of a teen heartthrob actor and the scrutiny that she as the WAG is exposed to. It’s pure fluff – chaste and charming, yet it is specifically marketed as chicklit.

I got sent a copy by Penguin (thank you), and after my 16yr old niece recommended it, I was more than happy to let Juliet read it, and she enjoyed it too.

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I love reading YA fiction for myself now, but I usually stick to books with a fantastical element of some kind.  As a teenager, I went straight from children’s books to adult titles – there were few written for teens in the 1970s, but I got largely sucked into science fiction then.  The only romances I read as a teenager were the Regency ones of Georgette Heyer – so this is a new area for me, and I have to admit…

I’M CONFUSED!

Naturally, I want to encourage my daughter to explore and find books she wants to read for herself, (with just the occasional nudge from me). I don’t want to censor her reading – I think she has good taste in that regard, but I want to canvass your opinions too.

How is it that a teen book can be more explicit than chicklit?
Can you recommend any good teen authors who deal with sex in a less in your face way?
Or, am I too prudish and worrying too much?
Do share your thoughts!  Thank you.

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To find out more on Amazon UK, please click below:
When It Happens by Susane Colasanti, Scholastic paperback.
Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, Penguin paperback

Old heads on young shoulders, and yet …

Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

absolute beginners

Narrated by an eighteen year old photographer, MacInnes’ novel captures the essence of what it was like to be a teenager in London in the late 1950s …

Mr Wiz continued, masticating his salmon sandwich for anyone to see, ‘It’s been a two-way twist, this teenage party. Exploitation of the kiddos by the conscripts, and exploitation of themselves by the crafty little absolute beginners. The net result? “Teenager” ‘s become a dirty word or, at any rate, a square one.’
I smiled at Mr W. ‘Well, take it easy, son,’ I said, ‘because a sixteen year old sperm like you has got a lot of teenage living still to do. As for me, eighteen summers, rising nineteen, I’ll very soon be out there among the oldies.

Ah – the arrogance of youth, to be considered old at twenty!

The novel follows our unnamed narrator through the summer of 1958, and we gradually meet all his friends like Mr Wiz above and neighbours, plus the love of his life Suzette.

Suze is a problem – she says loves him, but she also loves money and the trappings it can buy. She is tempted to marry an older homosexual chap to give him cover and her money. She dangles the narrator on her little finger yet carries on having flings.

The narrator has a small flat in a vibrant and Bohemian area of West London, which he finances through his photographic work – mostly selling pornographic pictures at this time, although he does have artistic ambitions. Downstairs lives Cool, a black man, whose white half-brother has just come to warn him of impending unrest…

‘…he gets round the area and knows the scene, and he says there’s trouble coming for the coloureds.’
I laughed out loud, but a bit nervously. ‘Oh Cool, you know, they’ve been saying that for years, and nothing’s happened. Well, haven’t they? I know in this country we treat the coloureds all like you-know-what, but we English are too lazy, son, to be violent. Anyway, you’re one of us, big boy, I mean home-grown, as much a native London kid as any of the millions, and much more so than hundreds of pure pink numbers from Ireland and abroad who’ve latched on to the Welfare thing, but don’t belong here like you do.’
My speech made no impression on Mr Cool. ‘I’m just telling you what Wilf says,’ he answered. ‘And all I know is, he likes coming here so little it must be something that makes him feel he ought to.’

As the summer heats up, so brews the tension. This is the era of Vespa scooters, Mods and Teds, rock’n’roll, and it will end in the Notting Hill race-riots.

If exploring youth culture and the social make-up of young London is the most serious theme of this novel, the lighter side is seeing what your average London teenager wears, and what they listen to.  The narrator is unusual for one who left school at fifteen in that he’s a reader.  He was lucky to have an inspirational teacher.

… he made me kinky about books: he managed to teach me – to this day, I don’t know how – that books were not just a thing like that – I mean, just books – but somebody else’s mind opened up for me to look into, and he taught me the habit, later on, of actually buying then! Yes – I mean real books, like the serious paperbacks, which must have been unknown among the kids up in the Harrow Road those days, who thought a book’s an SF or a Western, if they thought it’s anything.

Good chap!  But books aren’t his only love. Also very important, more important even, to most teenagers of the time (and now still?) is the music they listened to.  In the late 1950s, it wasn’t so unusual for teens to be into jazz…

…the great thing about the jazz world, and all the kids that enter into it, is that no one, not a soul, cares what your class is or what your race is, or what your income, so if you’re boy, or girl, or bent, or versatile, or what you are – so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself, and have left all that crap behind you, too, when you come in the jazz club door.

absolute beginners penguin first edition

Contrasting against the non-stop activities of the teenagers is the different kind of relationship he has with his parents. He only really visits them in Pimlico where his mother runs a boarding house for unsavory types to use his old dark-room. There’s no love lost between the narrator and his mother, but he is determined to give his poor hen-pecked and ailing father a bit of fun this summer – they go off for a day cruising up the river.

Then it reaches September and the end of the summer. The tensions which had been simmering now begin to boil over. Our narrator turns nineteen, and it’s as if a switch is flipped in him – he does indeed have an old head on young shoulders.

Published in 1959, MacInnes (whom I discovered is Angela Thirkell’s son), was in his mid forties when he wrote it. His narrator uses a rich and complex vocabulary that seems older than his years – not quite Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange which would follow in 1962, more like the verbal flourishes that Russell Brand uses.  No-one is known by their real names either, it’s nicknames all the way – just like today’s teens.

What is scary is that in those days, the majority of teenagers were released from the shackles of school out into the big wide world at the age of fifteen.  I was scared stiff to leave school at eighteen twenty years later!  Through MacInnes’s eyes, these teenagers seem so worldly and happy-go-lucky as they dive into London life with real gusto.

absolute beginners film tie-in editionSome of you may recall the 1986 film adaptation starring Patsy Kensit as a rather toned down Suzette and theme tune by David Bowie. Bowie also acted in it, alongside Ray Davies as the father.

Those are the names I remember, but also in the film were James Fox, Mandy Rice-Davies, Steven Berkoff, Lionel Blair, and Edward Tudor-Pole, plus Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman no less!

absolute beginners single david bowie

I remember seeing the film on the big screen and really enjoying it – but it was a big flop for the British film company that financed it. In particular, the critics didn’t like a 1950s film with a 1980s soundtrack – Sade and The Style Council contributed; authenticity was added by veteran jazzman Gil Evans, but that wasn’t enough.  I bought the 12″ single though…

I’m currently very drawn to British books set in this pre-Beatles era.  Absolute Beginners is the middle novel of a trilogy of standalone novels by MacInnes – together known as his London Trilogy.  The others are City of Spades and Mr Love and Justice and I would definitely like to read them. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Absolute Beginners (Allison & Busby Classics), paperback, 350 pages.
City of Spades, Mr Love And Justice

Come dine on – oops – with me…

The Savages by Matt Whyman

savagesNot since I read the wonderful book, The Radleys by Matt Haig, (reviewed here), have I found a YA novel such fun.  Just look at the cover – you know it’s going to be hilarious.  You can sense that the Savages are a close family – like The Munsters or The Addams Family perhaps, and the strapline tells you they probably have a huge secret… 

The story begins at the end of a family dinner, cooked to perfection by mother, Angelica. After her younger brother Ivan has left, fifteen year old Sasha seizes the opportunity to tell her parents about her new boyfriend Jack – who is a vegetarian.

Events then flash forward:

Before the story broke, Sasha was all set to turn sixteen with only her exams standing in the way of the best summer of her life. Then the truth emerged. Overnight, as if a spell had been cast from above, she and her family became monsters.
…Besides, with every last scrap of evidence out in the open, from phone records to witness statements and even the grisly report from the drainage experts, it only takes a little imagination to get under the skin of the Savage family, and come close to the truth about what really happened.

What follows, to fill in what happened, is an hilarious black comedy involving using their house as the location for a commercial shoot, a bulimic super-model, a journalist turned investigator who is digging into Titus’s business affairs, and boyfriend Jack of course, alongside plans for more gourmet dinners.

The Munsters 1964-6

The Munsters 1964-6

To all external appearances, the Savages appear totally normal – unlike the Munsters who (mostly) appear monsters, but are totally benign.  The Savages’ family secret has its basis in true history, explained by grandpa Oleg. This helps to humanise them,  which is necessary, because we do find ourselves wanting to like this strange family.

Whereas in The Radleys, the teenagers don’t know their family are vampires, apart from the baby, the Savages are fully aware of their family secret. When Jack challenges Sasha to go veggie for a month, teenager that she is, that is her chance to rebel against her family traditions. Little does she know that (natch) Jack’s intentions are not entirely honorable, and also that this relationship could also signal the beginning of the end…

Having the time-honoured themes of a portrait of family life and teenagers growing up at its core, allows Whyman to have great, gory fun with the Savages. There are laughs aplenty, and some imaginative set-pieces, yet there was enough depth to satisfy this adult reader. I loved it – and I’ve managed to fudge around the Savage’s secret too! (9/10)

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Source: Review copy – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Savages by Matt Whyman – Hot Key books, pub June 2013, paperback 288 pages (12+)
The Radleys by Matt Haig.

‘I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood’…

The Almost Lizard by James Higgerson

almost lizardI’m twenty-one years old today, and once I’ve finished this little introduction I’m going to kill myself. …

Not many can spend their final few weeks on this earth writing their autobiography, a to-the-minute summary of all that has occurred within their lifespan. But most of us leave this world not of our own volition. Most of us make the decision to hang on in there as if life is some precious gift that we must savour every moment of. Not me. I’ve run my course and the day I finish writing my life story – today – is the day I have chosen to die.

Yup, we know how this book is meant to end from the first page.  This whole novel is in the form of ‘possibly the longest suicide ever committed to paper.’  The book is not about how it ends for Danny Lizar, but how it got to this point…

As in most memoirs, Daniel starts by telling us about his parents. His mother, Jacqui, was the favoured older half of a pair of identical twins, born either side of midnight August 31st, meaning they were forced into different years at school by an unbending system and never bonded the way most twins do. His father, Malcolm, was brought up in a Blackpool B&B where he learned the trade as a youngster and charmed the guests. They met when Malcolm, who had been dating twin Anne, unwittingly slept with Jacqui, and realised she was the real love of his life, further alienating Anne of course.

So the stage is set-up for family life chez Lizar, (Daniel never explains where his father got his surname from). As a child, Daniel has a fairly normal life, although his father works away during the week as a restaurant manager, and he doesn’t find out about bad Auntie Anne for years.  He does have a best friend though in Alex, and their parents also become best of friends too.

The seeds that will grow up to shape Daniel’s life are sown when he becomes addicted to watching soap operas on the TV with his mum, while his dad is working.  He cautiously tries some of the things he sees on screen  – he changes the story he was meant to read to a younger class to a deliberately nasty and provocative one he composed, and is secretly pleased by the reaction from the kids and their parents.  He seeds rumours to rid himself of friends he doesn’t want – this deals with the Dominic problem, but he upsets Alex to in the process – but not for long.

Daniel starts to get obsessed, and out on his paper-round, he replay scenes in his head, writing himself into the script.  Before long he has developed his own soap concept ‘The Almost Lizard’, and it stars him as ‘Danny’ – and his family and friends, he imagines the storyline, framing and filming it in his head.

But then, Daniel takes it to the next step. He makes his life into the soap, and begins to use anyone who can move the storyline along in real life.  He manipulates  them all – as Danny. He uses rumour, being disruptive in class, cultivating the wrong type of friends, saying things for effect – anything to get the scene in the can.

He saves being normal Daniel for home where he studiously makes sure he keeps up with his homework so his parents and the school aren’t too concerned with his behaviour.

However, Daniel is well aware of the power of the cliffhanger ending to soap episodes, and how they save major ones for Christmas.  The Lizars and Alex’s family, the Proctors always spend Christmas together, and Danny engineers a spectacular climax that took weeks in the planning and that will blow the two families apart.

Being Danny has become an addiction for Daniel. His real and fantasy personalities are becoming integrated into one. He tries to disengage from his soap, but when the sniff of a good new storyline comes along, he knows he shouldn’t do it, but he can’t resist, even if he has to play the victim sometimes – as a lead character, he has to keep his popularity up after all.  There is almost nothing that Daniel/Danny won’t do to get the shot.

It continues right up into college and one eventful holiday with friends to Majorca before something happens and real life catches up with Daniel – making him a character in someone else’s storyline…

Higgerson just about pulls it off with his creation of Daniel, whose voice tells his story with the requisite drama, leavened by humour – it’s not all darkness.  He manages to keep just enough of the normal, likeable teenager that Daniel can be in his narration to make us care about what’s going to happen.  All the time we’re waiting to see whether Daniel is able to snap out of being Danny, to stop being on the road to becoming a fully-fledged sociopath.

Knowing from the start of the book that Daniel intends to die at the end of it, we can read his story as a confession, finally atoning for all the wrong-doings, the manipulation, the hurtful deeds and words, all done to the people he cares for the most. This allows us to have some sympathy with him as he realises the repercussions of all that he has done.

Call me cynical, but you can also read this confession in another way – with Danny, not Daniel as its author. The arch-manipulator, an unreliable narrator making us, his audience – for we should never forget that he needs one, part of his story too. That thought gives me the creeps slightly!

At 460 pages, this book is long – although it does have two lives, Daniel and Danny to chronicle. It was in the best soap tradition, thoroughly page-turning and full of big moments and cliff-hangers.  Some actors in soaps end up typecast and mistaken for their characters in real life when their personalities are quite different; we the audience tend to encourage this in our celebrity-obsessed times. Daniel is sort of the reverse of this.

An interesting and thought-provoking debut from a promising young author. (8/10)

P.S. The quotation at the top is from the song ‘Don’t let me be misunderstood’ which was written in 1964 for Nina Simone.  I was previously only aware of the hit version by The Animals from 1965.

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.  To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Almost Lizardby James Higgerson, Legend Press paperback, March 2013, 460 pages

Q&A with Sophie McKenzie and a giveaway of her latest teen book…

This week the final part of author Sophie McKenzie’s hard hitting ‘Missing‘ trilogy for teens is published. Missing Me completes the story started in Girl, Missing, and continued in Sister, Missing.

The books follow the story of Lauren, who is adopted and has always known that. In Girl, Missing, Lauren is fourteen. One day she finds a picture on the internet of a missing American child that was believed to have been kidnapped years ago, and looks like her! When her adoptive family goes on holiday in the US, she takes the opportunity to run off in search of her birth parents with her boyfriend Jam, and there is the question of how her adoptive parents got Lauren to consider too…

I won’t say more about the plots of the novels here, except to say that the thrills and revelations about Lauren and her families continue. I’ve read all three, and it’s probably best for new readers to start at the beginning. The books have a great combination of being thrillers, but also novels about growing up and finding one’s identity; they have a lot to say about modern families.

Personally, reading them as an adult and Mum, at times I found Lauren rather irritating and self-centred, which while understandable given her situation, does get her into trouble! Her boyfriend Jam meanwhile is too good to be true; however Madison who takes the leading role in the third book is great fun – I probably enjoyed Missing Me most out of the three.

The language and romantic content are broadly suitable for 11+, but some of the topics like IVF (bk1), sperm donation (bk 3), and actually having a baby, although with very little gory detail (bk 3) may need some adult discussion. Additionally being thrillers, there is some violence and kidnappings, although people die off the page, so to speak.

The plots are full of twists and enough coincidences to keep younger readers guessing all the way through, and are neatly tied up. I can see why they are so successful – all three books are terrific page-turning adventures that move at a cracking pace.

Girl, Missing was Sophie’s debut novel published in 2006, and it went on to win many prizes. She has since had another fifteen or so novels published, falling into several series – from the futuristic thrillers of the Medusa Project to teen romances.

My daughter and her friends are all fans of Sophie’s books, and as part of her blog tour to promote the new one, we got to ask Sophie a few questions, (which got me huge kudos with the girls by the way!)…

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Katie:  I’ve always wondered about Lauren in the Missing books – is she based on a real-life person?

Sophie: No, she isn’t. However her situation – wondering if she was stolen away from her birth family as a toddler – was inspired by an actual missing children’s website. I was looking at one boy on the site who disappeared aged two and who, if he were still alive, would now be fourteen and I wondered what he would do if he came across the same website and wondered if this particular missing child was him.

Juliet: What books are you planning next, especially for younger teens?

Sophie: Missing Me will be the last book in the Missing series. At the moment I’m working on a romance series which began with Falling Fast and continues with Burning Bright, published Jan 13. There will also be a new thriller coming out in the autumn of 2013.

Me: Can you give some tips for young writers on where to get inspiration from and how to get started writing.

Sophie: Inspiration can come from anywhere and everywhere. It’s always handy to carry a notebook so you can record any ideas that occur to you. If you want to write, my best advice is to read as much and as widely as possible. When you find a book you really like, containing the sort of story you’d like to write yourself, then read it again, trying to work out what the author did that made it so compelling.

Thank you very much Sophie for answering our questions. The girls are loving the Missing books, and are looking forward to getting stuck into the romance ones later.

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AND FINALLY … Simon & Schuster are kindly offering two copies of Missing Me as a giveaway to readers in the UK. If you’d like to be in with a chance to win, just leave a comment below by Friday teatime, (my daughter’s friends can email, but for everyone else entries are by comment only).  We will make the draw at the weekend. Good luck!

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I bought the first two (for my daughter), and the publisher kindly sent the third – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Girl, MissingSister, Missing – pbks
Missing Me – pub Sept 13. Simon & Schuster childrens books. Hardback, 304 pages.

You shall go to the ball …

Invitation To The Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

Florence at Miss Darcy’s Library is hosting a week of reading Rosamund Lehmann. She is another of those authors from the middle decades of the twentieth century that I’ve been meaning to read for ages – and luckily I had one of her books on my shelf.

Invitation to the Waltz, her third novel, was published in 1932.  Set in the 1920s, it is the story of Olivia Curtis’s first dance. Written in three parts: the lead up to the dance and getting her dress, the day of the dance and getting ready, then the dance itself.

It all starts on Olivia Curtis’s seventeenth birthday.  Her older sister Kate has come to wake her up, and Olivia is reluctant to get out of bed …

Another five minutes, thought Olivia, and shut her eyes. Not to fall asleep again; but to go back as it were and do the thing gradually – detach oneself softly, float up serenely from the clinging delectable fringes. Oh, heavenly sleep! Why must one cast it from one, all unprepared, unwilling? Caught out again by Kate in the very act! You’re not trying, you could wake up if you wanted to: that was their attitude. And regularly one began the day convicted of inferiority, of a sluggish voluptuous nature, seriously lacking in willpower. After I’m married I shall stay in bed as long as I want to. Girls often marry at my age. Seventeen today.

The novel is full of Olivia’s internal monologues. She discusses everything withself, analysing, trying to understand her observations, but she’s also a romantic and wants to believe the best of everyone and everything.  Today, she’d much rather stay in bed, than do breakfast with the family and be the centre of attention.

To go to one’s first dance, one needs a dress.  Luckily one’s mother gave one a bolt of flame-coloured silk for one’s birthday. Mother would have preferred a paler colour, but Kate persuaded her. So Olivia takes the cloth to the young Miss Robinson to have it made up.  Poor Miss Robinson has been left on the shelf – her family is too respectable for her to marry a farmer, and after the war, there is no-one else, so she makes dresses.

All week, anticipation builds towards the dance.  Some relief comes when mother’s godson Reginald is able join them to partner the girls. He turns out to be a bit of an odd fish, planning to take holy orders.  Neither girl thinks he will be the man for them.

Time to get ready: bathing, primping, hair-styling, and finally – the dress …

‘It simply doesn’t fit anywhere…’ The words burst from her chokingly. ‘It’s the most ghastly – It’s no good. I won’t go looking like a freak. I must simply rip it off and burn it and not go to the dance, that’s all.’ She clutched wildly at the bodice, as if to wrench it from her.
Kate cried suddenly:
‘You’ve got it on back to front!’
Olivia’s hands dropped.
‘Have I?’ she said meekly.
‘You would.’ With the asperity of relief Kate seized and reversed her hurriedly, plunged her once more through the armholes. ‘Now let’s see you. Hm. It drops at the back now, of course.’
Olivia turned away from the glass while Kate hooked, tweaked, patted her into shape.It was a comfort to look into space for a little while before having to face once more the now irrevocable and perhaps scarcely improved image.

Diaster averted, it’s off to the dance, in the longest part of the novel.

Arriving at the Spencer’s mansion, Kate is soon away dancing – her card filling up. Olivia is content to observe, but can’t be a wallflower all evening, being introduced to a wide assortment of partners and conversations – from an old gentleman with lovely hair, to a young man blinded in the war, a poet up from Oxford who refuses to dance, but also a boy she remembered from a childhood party. Olivia watches everything with a sort of wide-eyed innocence, and is unfailingly polite to all her partners and interlocutors, wishing she had some of the poise and confidence that the Spencer children and others in the hunting set have.

Such an evening is bound to have its highs and lows – the same must still be true for today’s teenagers going to their first dance or proper party.  I well remember my first visit to a dance hall – the famous Mecca Blue Orchid Ballroom in Purley – I can’t say it was a big success!

Lehmann captures the workings of Olivia’s teenage brain so well, contrasting with the more knowing Kate. The class divides between the various tiers are equally well drawn – from the aristocratic Spencers to the middle class Curtises down to Miss Robinson and beyond.  I did hope that as the Bingleys are to the Bennetts in Austen’s P&P, that there may be hope for Olivia and Kate …

We’ll find out the answers to that in the 1936 sequel Lehmann wrote, The Weather in the Streets, which continues Olivia’s story ten years later. I’m now very keen to read that, as Invitation to the Waltz was a totally charming book, I loved it. (8.5/10)

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I did a bookswap for my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Invitation To The Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann, Virago Paperback
The Weather In The Streets by Rosamond Lehmann, Virago Paperback