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!

It’s Shiny linkiness time …

I haven’t told you about all the reviews I wrote for the latest edition of Shiny New Books yet… If you’ve not visited yet, there are around 80 new pages of reviews and articles and our editors’ picks competition on the front page as usual.

Back to me!  This time we’re concentrating on fiction reviews:

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A Price to Pay by Alex Capus

a-price-to-pay1-190x300

Capus is a Swiss-French author writing in German. This novel, translated by John Brownjohn, opens in November 1924 at Zurich railway station with three people passing through it at the same time but they never meet. We follow these three through their lives into WWII, in which each will have a part to play and pay the price. Based on real lives, they will become the forger, the spy and the bombmaker. The book relates its history calmly and thoughtfully, giving us the space to appreciate the characters’ fates – and leaves us wondering what would have happened if these three people had actually met?

Read my review here.

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Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

hornby funny girl

You’ll probably know that I’m a big Hornby fan (see here and here for previous reviews).

Funny Girl is set during the golden age of the 1960s for TV comedy and concerns a northern lass who was nearly Miss Blackpool, but escapes to London to become a star in a TV comedy that follows the trials in the lives of a young couple.

The show itself is really the star of this book, and we get an inside view on it – from concept to finished article, and all the lives of those concerned in between. Hornby could have chosen an edgy show to feature, instead he went the cosy route. We have a charming heroine and everyone behaves as expected. To be honest, it’s not Hornby’s best, but it was still very enjoyable, nostalgic fun.

Read my review here.

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The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

ghosts-of-heavenIf I’m a big Hornby fan, I’m an even bigger fan of Marcus Sedgwick, one of the best authors of teen fiction that really does cross over to make satisfying adult reads. (see here, here and here for previous reviews).

His latest novel is a cycle of four novellas – each having a focus on spiral patterns. In the order published they move through from stone age to middle ages, to Victorian and then the future – but he says you can pick your order to read them in. I preferred the gradual reveal of the interlinking between them so stuck to the natural order, and it wasn’t until the last part that it clicked that the whole novel was a homage to a certain other story – and I loved that!

The hardback is also a lovely thing, with gold foiled covers and turquoise page edges – but in side is a fine novel too. I loved it.

Read my review here.

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Sources: Top two – publishers – thank you. Bottom – my own copy.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Orion books, 2014, hardback 448 pages, paperback coming March 5.
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby, Viking, 2014, 352 pages.
A Price to Pay by Alex Capus, Haus Publishing, 2014, Hardback, 240 pages.

 

The Carnegie Medal Longlist 2015

The books longlisted for the 2015 CILIP Carnegie Medal were announced a couple of days ago. The CILIP Carnegie Medal is awarded annually by CILIP for an outstanding book for children. (CILIP is the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.) As usual, many schools will be shadowing the awards, especially once the shortlist is announced on March 17th. The Medal will finally be awarded on June 22nd. Does the fact that the shadowing process appears to be mostly undertaken by years 6, 7 & 8 (10-13yrs) mean that the trend towards giving the Medal to books for older children will continue?

Call me a cynic, but there some wonderful books in the list to explore. As always there is a real mixture, and it will be interesting to see which way it goes. There was much controversy over the bleakness of the 2014 winner – The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks (wonderful, but so bleak – read my review here). What will come from this year’s crop.

Here’s the longlist – I’ve read a couple of them, and have six others on my shelves already.

My Brother’s Shadow by Tom Avery (Andersen Press)

Us Minus Mum by Heather Butler (Little Brown, Young Readers)

year of the ratWhen Mr. Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan (Bloomsbury)

Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)

The Company of Ghosts by Berlie Doherty (Andersen Press)

The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss (Simon & Schuster Children’s Books) – my review for Shiny New Books here

Tinder by Sally GardnerTinder by Sally Gardner (author) and David Roberts (illustrator) (Orion Children’s Books) – on my shelf.

Monkey and Me by David Gilman (Templar)

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan Children’s Books)

The Fastest Boy in the World by Elizabeth Laird (Macmillan Children’s Books)

More-Than-ThisBuffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman (Walker Books)

Scarlet Ibis by Gill Lewis (Oxford University Press)

The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean (Usborne Books)

Hello Darkness by Anthony McGowan (Walker Books)

More Than This by Patrick Ness (Walker Books) – on my shelf.

picture me goneClose Your Pretty Eyes by Sally Nicholls (Marion Lloyd Books) – on my shelf.

Trouble by Non Pratt (Walker Books) – on my shelf.

Picture Me by Meg Rosoff (Penguin Books) - My review for Shiny New Books here.

Smart: a Mysterious Crime, a Different Detective by Kim Slater (Macmillan Children’s Books) – on my shelf.

grasshopper-jungleGrasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (Electric Monkey) – on my shelf.

Do share your reactions to the list?
Have you read any of them?
Which should I add to my own YA reading list?

My Books of the Year 2014 – Part Two – The Blog edit

Yesterday I shared my best reads of 2014 as reviewed for Shiny New Books. Today, I turn my attention to titles reviewed here. The links will return you to my full reviews:

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Best Retro-Subversive Laugh-Out-Loud Book

scarfolkDiscovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler

So nearly my book of the year, Discovering Scarfolk is just hilarious! Stuck firmly in the 1970s world of public information films and Cold War paranoia, every page of this little book which is designed from front to back yields gems of parody and references in its tale of a missing man who got stuck in the unique town of Scarfolk.

There is also an comic twist to each illustration too, which ironically does make you look again to see if you missed anything…

For more information please reread this poster.

Best Illustrations

sleeper spindle 1The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

sleeper spindle 2Gaiman’s reworked fairy tale is fabulous on its own, but with Chris Riddell’s illustrations it reaches a new height.

Inked in black and white with gold highlights, Riddell’s characteristic strong-browed young women, cheerful groteseques and skull-like gargoyles are simply gorgeous.



Horrorstor_final_300dpiBest Cover Art

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

And whilst we’re on the subject of illustration, I must mention the best cover concept of the year – in this horror spoof of the IKEA catalogue.

The graphic design extends to the inside of the novel too with lots of attention to detail, but the story itself, although entertaining, is standard horror fare.

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Best in Translation

my brilliant friendMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein)

Like many this year, I too have caught ‘Ferrante Fever’. The first in a sequence of four novels by the elusive Italian author captures growing up in backstreet Naples in the 1950s perfectly for two young girls. Volumes two and three are now available, with the fourth to come. I’m so looking forward to catching up with Elena and Lila’s lives.

Best Medical Drama

Dirty WorkDirty Work by Gabriel Weston

The second book by Weston, a surgeon herself,  is a novel that looks at one of the toughest things that obs & gynae surgeons may ever have to do – provide abortions.  It was not an easy book given its subject matter, but it was completely compelling to read and gives a profound insight into this difficult area.

 

Best Sequel

echoThe Echo by James Smythe

My book group will disagree with this choice for they hated the first book (The Explorer) in this planned quartet. However, I loved the utter claustrophobia of outer space in these books, and The Echo takes the central premise of the first book and keeps twisting it further with great effect. Roll on the third volume I say.

 

Best Book-Group Choice?

all-quiet-on-the-western-frontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maris Remarque

Arguably, we read some great books this year including Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but the added poignancy of reading this novel of WWI during the centenary month of August was very fitting and moving too. Our discussions were wide-ranging and everyone enjoyed the book, proving you don’t always need a voice of dissent to have a good book group meeting.

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Best YA Shocker

BunkerThe Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

I am glad to have read the controversial Carnegie Medal winner to see for myself what it was all about. I can honestly say it is the bleakest novel I have ever read and it is for younger teens and upwards. If it had been written for adults, we wouldn’t find it so shocking at all, but despite its subject, I wouldn’t stop any child from reading it – I would encourage discussion afterwards though!

… And Finally, My ‘Blog’ Book of the Year

hangover squareHangover Square
by Patrick Hamilton

I read this back in January it is still, frankly, the best book I’ve read all year.

Set in 1938 pre-war Earls Court in London, this is the story of George Harvey Bone and his unrequited love for the teasing Netta. This tragic novel is billed as a black comedy, and I suppose it is in a way. The laughs, however are never at George’s expense. When they come, it is Netta and her friends we laugh at, over their outrageously bad behaviour that makes them targets for our scorn. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.

Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I shall be reading more Hamilton in 2015.

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So that’s it for my Books of the Year.
Have you read any of these from yesterday or today?
Do share yours too.

My Books of the Year 2014 – Part One – the Shiny Edit…

hollyThis year for the first time, I’ve split my best of list in two. Having read around 130 books this year, there are too many to feature in just one post and there is an obvious split – today’s first part will feature those books that I’ve reviewed over at Shiny New Books

Forgive me for continually banging the drum, but I’m inordinately proud of Shiny and I am immensely grateful to all the lovely bloggers, friends, authors, translators, publishers who have written reviews and features for us. Special thanks to my three co-editors: Victoria, Simon and Harriet.

Tomorrow’s list will feature my favourite books this year reviewed on this blog, which includes many titles not published this year. 

But first over to the Shiny Edit! The links will take you over to my full reviews:

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Best (Auto)biography

bedsit disco queen

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a pop star by Tracey Thorn.

Tracey writes beautifully about life, love and the music business but does it quietly with warmth, wit and wonder at the good luck she’s had along the way. I loved this book so much, that sharing a maiden surname, I wish I was related to her!

Best YA Read for Adults Too

picture me gonePicture me Gone by Meg Rosoff

This novel about a girl and her father who go on holiday to visit his best friend only to find him missing is an understated novel, with a teenager as its reliable narrator who discovers that it’s the adults who are unreliable. Gently told, there are no big shocks but it reveals a lot about how we learn to see the world in shades of grey rather than black and white.

Best Coming of Age

american sycamoreAmerican Sycamore by Karen Fielding.

A tale of siblings growing up by the banks of the Suequehanna river in north-eastern USA. Billy Sycamore’s life may start off as a modern day Huck Finn but something terrible happens that affects his whole life and family. Narrated by his young sister, it is both funny and sad, and has some transcendant turns of phrase.  Loved it.

She was beautiful, our mother; an extrovert yet flammable, a walking can of gasoline just waiting for a match.

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Best Woods

into the treesInto the Trees by Robert Williams

Forests play a huge part in mythology, yet can a modern family find their own enchanted life living in one?  The very first paragraph of this novel tells us that the forest may be a safe sanctuary one moment, a dangerous and lonely wild place the next. This is a powerful drama of families, finding a life-work balance, true friendship … and trees.

Best Totally Un-PC Book

BonfiglioliDon’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli

Imagine a 1970s Jeeves and Wooster crossed with James Bond, an upped double-entendres quotient and totally un-PC and you’ve got the Charlie Mortdecai books, of which this is the first. Written in the late 1970s, these capers narrated by the art-dealing aristo are great fun.

 

A Quick Mention for These Two

Mother Island by Bethan Roberts and Tigerman by Nick Harkaway.

The former a drama about child abduction and growing up on Anglesey in Wales, the latter an eco-thriller set on an island paradise that is ‘full of win’. Totally different, but both fab.

… And Finally, My ‘Shiny’ Book of the Year

StationelevenUKHCStation Eleven
by Emily St.John Mandel.

I loved this elegant dystopian novel that takes place in the aftermath of a flu pandemic and following the links from former lives that persist between some of its survivors.

Awful things happen, yet seen through the journey of the Travelling Symphony – a collective of musicians and actors who struggle to keep the canon alive – there is positivity instead of despair for the fate of mankind.

Speculative fiction is possibly my favourite sub-genre of reading and this book is superb.

Read my review at SNBks.

 

 

 

Christmas Shiny Linkiness …

Today, I’d like to direct you over to my reviews in the Shiny New Books Christmas Inbetweeny.  By the way, have you tried our Shiny Advent Quiz yet? Ideal as a post-prandial competition… But back to my reviews as these books are all too good to leave off mentioning here too:

The Islanders by Pascal Garnier

islanders Translated for Gallic Books by Emily Boyce, with whom I’ve been having some lovely email conversations.

I’m a recent convert to Garnier (see here), and if his novel The A26 was ‘the Road to Hell’, the latest to be published – The Islanders is certainly about the Christmas from Hell!

A man returns home to Versailles just before Christmas when his mother dies in the coldest December for years and re-encounters an old flame… cue memories and murderously dark noir events tinged with humour.  Absolutely brilliant!

Read my review here, and Emily wrote a piece about translating it for Shiny here.

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The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli

head of the saintYA books in translation are a rarity – so I lapped up the chance to read this one by Brazilian author Acioli, developed at a writers’ workshop hosted by the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It’s a lovely quest story about a young boy who sets out to find his grandmother when his own mother dies and he ends up sleeping inside the giant saint’s head that never got raised onto the statue. A magical and lovely tale.

Read my review here.

 

 

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Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Do No HarmI always find accounts of lives worked in medicine absolutely fascinating, especially those of surgeons, who live on the cutting edge (sorry!) of medical science.

Henry Marsh is one of the UK’s foremost brain surgeons and his account of a life in neurosurgery is candid, honest, reassuring and totally engrossing and fascinating. Successes and failures are all discussed with compassion and wit where required.

Now out in paperback and a must-read for all those fascinated by doctors and medicine.

Read my review here.

 

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Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry book cover Perry’s book, which is essentially a transcript of his Reith Lectures for the BBC last year, seeks to demystify the modern art world in his trademark flippant yet serious at the same time style.

It’s fully illustrated with his cartoons too, which accompanied the talk, but which we couldn’t previously see on the radio where the lectures were broadcast.

Full of anecdotes, advice and jokes, it’s great fun.

Read my review here.

 

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Shiny New Books will be back in late January with a new batch of reviews and features for you, but there is still much to explore in Issue 3 of Shiny, which includes the Christmas update. Also why not explore the archives from Issue 1 and Issue 2 you can explore for inspiration, especially as some of those books are now available in more affordable paperbacks.

 

 

A novel of fragile youth and Sylvia Plath…

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

belzharuk

Meg Wolitzer is best known for her quirky feminist novels about gender politics. I admit I’ve not read any of them, although the comedy aspects of her novel The Position appeal, in which a couple’s children discover that their parents are the creators of a sex manual featuring themselves, this event having ramifications that last through the ensuing decades.

This autumn she has published her first novel for a teenaged audience and it has the potential to have some crossover appeal. More on that below, although my title of this post does give it away.

Belzhar is narrated by a teenager known as Jam, who is having mental health problems. It begins…

I was sent here because of a boy. His name was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me. Finally it was decided that the best thing would be to send me here. But if you ask anyone on the staff or faculty, they’ll insist I was sent here because of “the lingering effects of trauma.” Those are the words that my parents wrote on the application to get me into The Wooden Barn, which is described in the brochure as a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers.

Jam knew Reeve for precisely forty-one days. He was a tenth-grade exchange student from London, spending a term at Jam’s school in New Jersey. He was very different to all the American boys, Jam describes him as looking “like a member of one of those British punk bands from the eighties that my dad still loves…” Jam fell for him hard and it seems he really liked her too, but we don’t find out until much later in the novel what happened between them and how he died.

The Wooden Barn is set deep in Vermont. It’s a really supportive community, a small school full of teenagers that need help to get their lives back to normal; no cell phones, no social media, the students are given time and space to heal.  Jam is assigned to share a room with DJ, who has eating issues and squirrels away food to binge on when stressed. The two girls seem to get on together, but DJ is a bit jealous that Jam, a newbie, has been picked to take the ‘Special Topics in English’ course.

In fact, it will be last time that Mrs. Quenell teaches this course, for she is retiring. Each term she selects just five students, from across the years. The course focuses on a single writer – a different one each time – and this final time, she has picked Sylvia Plath. She hands out copies of The Bell Jar, and despite feeling stunned, the five are almost itching to read it and to see how Plath’s autobiographical novel resounds with their own experiences.

The other thing Mrs Q. does is to give each student a journal – red leather-bound, old, well-made writing books:

“Once the spirit moves you,” says Mrs. Quenell, “you will write in the journal twice a week. And you will all hand your journals back to me at the end of the semester. I won’t read them, I never do, but I will collect them, and keep them. Like the writing itself, this is a requirement.” (p33)

The five will find that writing in their journals will transport them to a world they will call Belzhar, where they don’t have to be sad any more.

Jam, Sierra, Marc, Griffin and Casey, will become very close friends over the next weeks.  All will get the chance to tell their own stories of how they ended up at The Wooden Barn. It won’t be easy, there will be obstacles to overcome but, as you can imagine, it will make them stronger and able to accept themselves again.

Belzhar is aimed primarily at a YA audience, particularly those who enjoy John Green’s novels (another YA author I haven’t read yet), and Megan Abbott’s later novels for older teens.  However, the inclusion of The Bell Jar as a catalyst and the obvious comparisons between Mrs Q. and John Keating (Robin Williams, R.I.P.) in Dead Poet’s Society may interest other readers.

The Wooden Barn seems too good to be true. Of course, we only read about it through Jam’s eyes, so we get no real idea about the rest of the school or any real therapies to help its ‘fragile, highly intelligent’ pupils. Do such schools really exist? Mrs Q is well aware of the effects that her class and the journal writing have; she would have been fired long ago had the secrecy not been maintained. A certain amount of disbelief has to be suspended.

The book also tried rather too hard to be inclusive, one diversionary sub-plot felt rather shoe-horned in. There is no sex, bar a little teenage groping and occasional swearing – even though Jam is only fifteen it felt too safe at times.

I rattled through this novel, just about finishing it on a return train journey to and from London. My first reaction to it though was to pull The Bell Jar off my shelves the minute I got home to finally read this modern classic – which I did, and I’ve just started, (I’ve ordered a DVD of Dead Poet’s Society too). Both of these are good things and should be encouraged – whether you need to read Belzhar too is up for debate… (6/10)

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Source: Publisher. Thank you.

To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer, pub 9th October by Simon & Schuster, UK paperback original, 272 pages.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Dead Poets Society [DVD] [1989]

“…good to get out of the rain.”

You all know how I love to use a good quote from a song lyric to introduce a review. There are just so many songs about rain though… but I have two oft-used favourites that always seem to yield an appropriate phrase for me – one is Hotel California by the Eagles; the other, as used here, is Horse with No Name by America.  Add in the blues chord glide from The Rain Song by Led Zeppelin (A-flat9 into G9) and we’re ready to go…

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The Rain by Virginia Bergin

rain

When a colleague at school told me that a friend of hers had written a YA novel and would be glad to get a review, I ummed and aahed a bit, said sure I’d take a look at it and gave her my email. When I discovered that it wasn’t self-published and that Virginia had been signed up to Macmillan for two books, also that it had a post-apocalyptic setting – of course I was going to read it.

Set in the near future, the Earth has been saved from an asteroid collision. They nuked it – problem solved and life goes on. It’s a summer evening, the air is thick with the smell of barbecues and Ruby Morris is at Zak’s house: ‘sitting in a hot tub in my underwear snogging Caspar McCloud.’

Suddenly, Zak’s parents arrive home early, the party’s over and all the drunk teenagers get dragged inside, out of the imminent rain and warned NOT to go outside. There’s something in the rain – there are warnings on the radio, they need to sober up – fast.  But Caspar wants his MP3, left out in the rain. He makes a dash for it and slips back in. No-one notices until he groans…

He looked at his fingertips, at the blood and bits of torn-up skin that coated them. There was blood running down; not tons of it, but trickles and smears . . . from his scalp, from his face . . . where there were sores, red marks, like burns, but bleeding . . . He looked like one of those gory Jesus pictures, minus the crown of thorns. Wherever the rain had touched him, wherever it had seeped through the towel, there was blood . . . even his shoulders, even his chest. Soaking through the kaftan. His naked feet looked like he’d walked a mile on broken glass.
Saskia flounced back into the room and screamed.
Sarah rushed over to Caspar – ‘Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him!’ said Barnaby – and she hesitated. […] ‘It might be contagious.’

The asteroid dust coming through the atmosphere had not only caused brilliant sunsets, but released a dormant, deadly bacterium that reanimated in the water vapour in the air.

So we are now firmly thrust into survival territory. People will find out the hard way what water is safe to drink and what isn’t – and thirst will become the major issue for everyone. We know that Ruby lives at least until the end of this book (yes, there will be a sequel), as she is our narrator, but will any of her friends? What of her family? Will they find enough clean water to survive? Will someone find a way to kill the bacterium? How contagious is it? Is it the end of the world? Has Ruby survived by luck or clear-thinking?

The story continues to follow the usual post-disaster tropes of fighting for survival, finding unusual comrades, searching for loved ones, trying to find a safe haven, and so on, but what makes The Rain different from other YA post-apocalypse novels is its narrator. Ruby is a delight. She is down-to-earth, yet quirky, fun – but sometimes very irritating. She’s also a bit naïve in the ways of the world – Caspar would have been her first real love, yet she is sassy and garrulous and finds it so hard to be separated from her phone. Touchingly, although the situation she’s in makes her need to swear about it, she can’t bring herself to do it in front of us as her mum wouldn’t have liked it – so the text has the occasional butterfly inserted instead of bad words, which is a novel way of getting around something that is often a problem for YA books.

As the publisher’s blurb suggests, The Rain is very much ‘Georgia Nicholson meets the Apocalypse’. (For anyone who doesn’t know – Georgia Nicholson is the narrator of Louise Rennison’s fab teen diary series which begins with Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging – made into a film a couple of years ago.)

The mixture of a likeable heroine and a credible disaster leavened with lots of humour, a bit of gore but also inevitable sadness is a great combination. I devoured The Rain, enjoying it very much and I hope it does well for Virginia. Roll on volume two – The Storm! (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Rain by Virginia Bergin. Published 17th July by Macmillan Children’s Books. Paperback 400 pages.
Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging by Louise Rennison

So bleak – thoughts about the Carnegie winner

The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

BunkerI’d been too busy lately to get involved with reading any of the Carnegie shortlisted books this year until the results were announced. The Carnegie Medal for 2014 was recently awarded to Kevin Brooks’ latest novel The Bunker Diary – and it’s been very controversial. I immediately turned to the copy I’d bought and read it in one session with a short pause to make tea. Gosh! It was good … BUT … and there is a big but – it is the most depressing book I have read in a long time.

It’s now traditional for years 7-8 in schools (11-13yrs) to shadow the Carnegie Awards and pick their own winner from the shortlist. The boys at my school picked this book as their winner, as did a wider group of Abingdon schools (see here), so it has been very popular with early teens indeed. Let’s find out a little about it.

The book starts with a boy telling us how he’s woken up to find himself in a concrete room – a small complex with six bedrooms, a bathroom and communal area. The only way in is by lift. He’s all alone. He tells us how he was kidnapped: ‘I thought he was blind, that’s how he got me.’  He went to help a blind man lift his case into a van…

Teenager Linus has been living on the streets for five months, he ran away ‘to escape the shittiness of school and the emotional madness of being at home.’  His father is a successful cartoonist and illustrator and has no time for his son. His mother is gone. Linus’ father is rich – he supposes he’s been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. That hope is dashed a couple of days later, when the lift comes down and disgorges a seven year old girl, Jenny, from Essex where her father works for a DIY chainstore.

It’s obvious that they’re being watched. Linus and Jenny try sending messages up in the lift to ask for food. It works. But the lift also brings down four more people to fill the rooms: Fred, a big burly junkie, Bill a businessman, a woman Anja who mostly keeps to her room and cries, and Russell an older man who is already dying of cancer. You’ll root for Linus and Jenny all the way through as they are forced to grow up fast in the changed dynamics of the group and take the lead on thinking of escape plans.

I have to pause there for a *** SPOILER ALERT *** I won’t discuss the plot any more in detail, but it is difficult to discuss the novel further without giving away the sense of the ending.

I mentioned earlier that there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the selection of this book as the Carnegie winner. The Carnegie awards were set up to champion children’s fiction, and the short-listed books ‘appear’ to be edging up the age range each year. The Bunker Diary is a young adult novel. Despite the 11-13 year-olds enjoying it in the shadowing exercise, I wouldn’t recommend it to that age group in general. If you look at the official shortlist page here, you’ll see that three of the eight books including The Bunker Diary are recommended for 14+, four are 11+ and just one is 9+. The Carnegie Medal is, according to the website, ‘awarded by children’s librarians for an outstanding book for children and young people,’ so it is fair to include YA books isn’t it? Or should a separate prize be developed for 14+ titles?

If you look at the list of winning books there are many titles that are full of war, violence, revenge, bullying and so on – all challenging subjects for young people to read about. Not all the prize-winners have happy endings either, e.g. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and even C.S.Lewis’s The Last Battle, however, the context that they are set in, i.e. war in both these cases makes tragedy seem an acceptable way to end a novel. The Bunker Diaries doesn’t have that excuse – the kidnapping and forced imprisonment of the six is apparently entirely at the whim of the kidnapper. There’s no explanation about it at all. It doesn’t even feel like the kidnapper is treating them as experiments – it’s purely a game until the end, like a cat playing with a half-dead mouse. Nasty, nasty, nasty.

I think it’s this feel of senseless violence and gratuitous torture that has got people riled. Read Alison Flood’s coverage of the debate in the Guardian here, and see what novelist and children’s book critic Amanda Craig says here. It’s fascinating stuff.

I must admit to feeling a bit conflicted. I didn’t like it – it’s not a book you can like, but I appreciated it and was numbed by it. I’m not a fan of unnecessary happy endings, but this one got me asking why, why, why? There are no answers, but yes, I would let my daughter read it if she wanted to, and I would be happy if they were to discuss it at school. Not every parent or librarian will feel this way though.

junkCILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals aren’t afraid of controversy though…

Can you remember back to 1996 when Melvin Burgess’ novel Junk, about teenage heroin addicts won?

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Bunker Diaryby Kevin Brooks, Penguin 2013, paperback 272 pages.
Junkby Melvin Burgess.

 

Half bad? Not at all … it’s all good!

Half Bad by Sally Green

half bad

This is the latest teen crossover fantasy hit that everyone’s reading, The Hunger Games is so last year dahling! At first I was resistant, but when it was picked for our book group choice, I grasped the mettle and am really glad I did read it.

If you read the blurb which mentions witches a lot and being kept in a cage – it immediately makes you think of Harry Potter and the broom cupboard under the stairs. There are some superficial similarities – The Ministry of Magic’s less benign aspects resemble Green’s Council of Witches, the Death-Eaters are certainly similar in some respects to the black witches here, but that’s as far as it goes. Potter may have been one inspiration, but in fact, Half Bad owes a lot more to Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking Trilogy in style, for it is a gritty and violent adventure too, although set firmly in our world rather than a frontier planet.

It starts in an interesting way.  A few pages in and we’re introduced to Nathan’s typical day:

Waking up to sky and air is OK. Waking up to the cage and the shackles is what it is. You can’t let the cage get to you. The shackles rub but healing is quick and easy, so what’s to mind? …
You’ve got to have a plan, though, and the best idea is to have it all worked out the night before so you can slip straight into it without a thought. Mostly the plan is to do what you’re told, but not every day, and not today.

In Nathan’s England, witches live amongst the normal folk, the ‘fain’, and the vast majority are white. Nathan’s mother was a white witch, his brother and sister too will become white witches when they reach seventeen. Nathan is different, his father was a black witch – he’s half and half by birth, and thus of special interest to the Council of Witches, who control all the white witches. Whilst growing up he will be tested regularly, to see if he’s showing black witch tendencies. Black witches are murderous loners, who’d as soon dispatch their own kind as their enemies, the whites. The Council is totally intolerant of black witches, and would like to destroy them all.

We periodically flash back to hear more of Nathan’s childhood, and find out how he came to live as a prisoner in a cage out in the wilds. Nathan is desperate to escape. His seventeenth birthday approaches – he needs to be given three gifts and blood from an ancestor. His mother died years ago, his grandmother is under the Council’s controls – he’s never met his father. He’ll die without the blood, he needs to escape and find Marcus.

That’s all I shall tell you, as there is a whole raft of adventure coming for young Nathan and it’s thrilling stuff. There are twists and turns and some shocking scenes and reveations along the way, not least finding out how bad the white witches really are, which I’m sure you will have surmised already.

Interestingly, the book is written totally in the present tense, but you can distinguish between the past and the present by the past being written in the second person, and the present in the first. This combination makes the narrative very immediate and intense. You’re instantly on Nathan’s side – for a lad who could turn out to be the next Voldemort so to speak, he appears to be a reliable narrator.

It will be interesting to see what our book group think, but I really enjoyed this novel.  It was pacy, easy to read, and very dark. Roll on the sequel. (Surely you didn’t believe this would be a standalone volume!)  (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below…
Half Bad by Sally Green, Penguin paperback, March 2014, 400 pages.