It’s a break-up novel…

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

10798418Daniel Handler, best-known as the author of the Lemony Snicket series of books for children has also written several novels for adults; I reviewed one of them – Adverbs here. Like Lemony Snicket, Adverbs was quirky and full of off-beat humour. Why We Broke Up is a little different in style. It’s still quirky, but its humour is more ironic and very bittersweet – it is, after all, a break-up story.

It sits firmly in crossover territory – being published in the UK under Egmont’s YA imprint, Electric Monkey, but is actually a sophisticated tale that teens and adults can enjoy alike. Each chapter is prefixed by a colour illustration by Maira Kalman and these are equally quirky and fit the novel’s style perfectly. One last bonus is that on the inside cover – instead of publicity puffs from other authors and celebs, there are short paragraph teenaged break-up stories from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Brian Selznick, David Levithan and Holly Black – some of the cream of current YA writers – a neat touch. This is backed up by a Tumblr blog where readers can share their own break-up stories.

Why We Broke Up is the story of the short-lived relationship between Min Green and Ed Slaterton, as told by Min. It starts:

Dear Ed,
In a sec you’ll hear a thunk. At your front door, the one nobody uses. […]
The thunk is the box, Ed. This is what I am leaving you. […] Every last souvenir of the love we had, the prizes and the debris of this relationship, like the glitter in the gutter when the parade has passed, all the everything and whatnot kicked to the curb. I’m dumping the whole box back into your life, Ed, every item of you and me. I’m dumping this box on your porch, Ed, but it is you, Ed, who is getting dumped.

She’s not bitter at all then?!  They meet at a party, not the usual type of one Ed goes to. He’s a jock, one of the stars of the basketball team – he only goes to non-jock parties when they lose.

– and then you asked me my name. I told you it was Min, short for Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, because my dad was getting his master’s when I was born, and that, don’t even ask, no you couldn’t, only my grandmother could call me Minnie because, she told me and I imitated her voice, she loved me the best of anyone.

You said your name was Ed. Like I might not know that. I asked you how you lost.

“Don’t,” you said. “If I have to tell you how we lost, it will hurt all of my feelings.”

I liked that, all of my feelings. “Every last one?” I asked. “Really?”

“Well,” you said, and took a sip, “I might have one or two left. I might still have a feeling.”

I had a feeling too. Of course you told me anyway, Ed, because you’re a boy, how you lost the game.

We then go on to work our way through the box with Min explaining each item’s significance chronologically. The first item is a movie ticket from their first date. Min is an arts student and an aficionado of old movies. She and Ed go to see Greta in the Wild, which stars the beautiful, young Lottie Carson. As first dates go it’s a success and Ed is amazed by this quirky ‘different’ girl who persuades him that an old black and white film is the business! He indulges Min who is convinced that an old lady who goes to see all these vintage films is Lottie Carson herself – and this becomes a bit of an obsession for Min which escalates throughout the novel.

Romance blossoms for Min and Ed, despite Min’s BF Al and Ed’s older sister Joan knowing it’ll never work. Geeks and Jocks just aren’t really made for each other – they’re too ‘different’. Min has a go at watching basketball practice along with all the other jock’s girlfriends who seem happy to be bored out of their brains on the benches – it’s so obviously not her and naturally, Al feels ignored missing their after-school chats.

It works for a while though…

I loved this novel. Its monologue style reminded me of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (review here). They may share a High School setting, but Why We Broke Up is a good old-fashioned romance, it’s not issue-led like TPOBAW, although that is one of my favourite novels of this type. The added mystery over Lottie Carson gives Why We Broke Up all the side-plot it needs although that was rather over-extended. It was, however, a relief to read compared with all the dark Issue lit on the YA shelves these days. It’ll make a great movie …

Sophisticated, tender, bittersweet, quirky, funny – this is a YA/Crossover novel to savour and enjoy. (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (2012), illus Maira Kalman. Paperback (Jun 2015) Electric Monkey, 368 pages.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, paperback.

More Shiny Linkiness

Time for some more links to reviews I wrote for the latest edition of Shiny New Books. Please do click through and read the full things if these teasers interest you. Feel free to comment here or there. Today’s choices are YA titles:

Half Wild by Sally Green

half wildHalf Wild is the middle book in a trilogy which started with Half Bad last year (my blog review here.)  The first volume was rather unfairly described by some as Harry Potter for teenagers, as the story is about witches – black and white, good and bad. The tricky bit is to identify which lot are the good ones and which are the bad – and it’s not always the way round that you’d think. Stuck in the middle is Nathan Byrne, a young lad of mixed parentage, having a black witch father and white mother. He ends up on the run searching for his father who has to give him his three gifts and blood on his seventeenth birthday to fully fledge him as a witch.

In Half Wild, Nathan is still on the run from the white witch hunters, and the novel becomes a thriller – a classic chase across Europe, not made better by the object of Nathan’s affections being a white witch, Annalise. It is pacy and definitely more grown up than the first novel and huge fun.

Read my full review here.

The Door That Led to Where by Sally Gardner

door that led to whereSally Gardner is one of my favourite YA authors – her light touch with magic and soaring imagination make all her books a treat.
This, her latest, is all about a teenaged boy discovering his ancestral heritage. AJ, a failure at school apart from an A* GCSE English, gets a job as a ‘baby clerk’ in the law firm that his mum used to clean for. There he discovers a key with his name on, and it opens a door – a time portal into Dickensian London. It turns out that lots of other people want control of the key and AJ and his friends will have some interesting adventures in both worlds before deciding ‘when’ they want to be…

This book is a well-plotted adventure that has a lot to say about friendship. It was surprisingly gritty too, so not for the youngest of teens perhaps.

Read my full review here.

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Source: Own copy and publisher respectively
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

‘Get Lost – Get Found’

Paper Towns by John Green

PAPER-TOWNS-POSTER-570I still haven’t read John Green’s best-selling The Fault in Our Stars – but I did see the film. I enjoyed it and predictably, I cried. My daughter lapped up book and film, and is forever quoting ‘it’s a metaphor’ at me; she surely wants to go to Amsterdam and sit on that bench. (We will do that someday, OK?) Anyway, Green’s previous novels are now getting the big screen treatment, with films of his 2008 novel Paper Towns coming out this summer and Looking for Alaska in 2016. I decided to get ahead of the game this year, and appropriated Paper Towns from my daughter’s TBR pile…

paper townsPaper Towns is set in a suburb of Orlando, Florida – it’s not just a holiday destination, people do live there and the action takes place during the last couple of weeks of High School following a group of friends who will be graduating and going off to college in the autumn.  It begins:

The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, a least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracly was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Our narrator is Quentin, he has known Margo since they were kids. Despite moving in different circles, they have a shared experience that will link them forever – as children they found a dead body in a park together!

Q, as he is mostly known, tells us this in the prologue. Q is best friends with the oversexed Ben and geeky Radar. The prom looms and the key thing in most of the students’ minds is getting a date. Relationships between the graduating students are being redrawn daily it seems. Q doesn’t have a girlfriend, and seems resigned to not going.

Then one night, at midnight, Margo appears at his window and tells Q that he needs to get the keys to his mum’s car and that they are going out. He can’t refuse… they sneak out and Q is driving following Margo’s directions:

“I love driving under streetlights.”
“Light,” I said, “the visible reminder of Invisible Light.”
“That’s beautiful,” she said.
“T.S.Eliot,” I said. “You read it, too. In English last year.” I hadn’t actually ever read the whole poem that line was from, but a couple of the parts I did read got stuck in my head.
“Oh, it’s a quote,” she said, a little disappointed. …

I’m glad Green signposts the quotes, for I wouldn’t have recognised it (further research leads me to a chorus in The Rock – a pageant play with words by T.S.Eliot, published 1934).

Anyway, Margo and Q spend the night playing pranks on all those who have slighted Margo, putting fish in places where they’ll stink, shaving off a bully’s eyebrow as he snores – that kind of thing. It’s slightly dangerous and a real thrill for Q and even when they get caught later, trying to sneak into Seaworld, Margo can talk her way out. Q is besotted with Margo, and hopes that it will lead to something.

The next day Margo doesn’t turn up at school. She’s run away – something she’s done many times before. She always leaves a convoluted trail of cryptic clues, but as she has just turned 18, her parents are at the end of their tether, her little sister needs them. So it’s up to Q, with his friends to decipher her plans and find Margo before graduation – they only have a few days. Quentin begins the tortuous procedure of deciphering the clues. He has an increasing worry that she’s done something more ‘final’? Will they find her in time?

I must admit that I’m rather glad that the American High School culture of ‘Prom’ wasn’t around when I was at school, the pressure they all put themselves under – to get a date, to lose their virginity, to conform – I always end up thinking of Carrie!  There will always be those who get left out, and also those who choose not to participate – like Q and Margo respectively. Quentin is a lovely young lad, and I felt confident that he would blossom at college later. Margo though, the girl of mystery, wild-child, with an independent streak a mile-wide, really just wants to be loved. Why else would she always leave clues?

It’s on their night out before she runs away that Margo talks about ‘paper towns’ first – likening Orlando’s bland expanse of white roofs viewed from a high-rise to a sheet of paper you could fold up into a plane and throw away.  That’s a nice metaphor, but the reality of the ‘paper towns’ is fascinating. The term refers to copyright traps – ficticious towns placed on maps, so publishers know if their map has been plagiarised. This concept will be very important in finding Margo.

I am so behind on John Green, the phenomenon, that I didn’t know about his Youtube channel – the vlogbrothers in which he and his brother Hank talk about all sorts of things – and style themselves as ‘nerdfighters’. I’ve watched a few of the videos and it’s lovely to see these men in their 30s championing nerds and nerdish pursuits, talking at nineteen to the dozen like overgrown teenagers, offering good advice and having fun. I’ve subscribed!

One thing is clear – John Green reads a lot – and he has a mission to sneak as many literature references as he can into his books. Apart from the Eliot quote above, we get Moby Dick and Emily Dickinson in Paper Towns, and I’m sure I’ve missed many others. The Fault in Our Stars, of course, is itself a mashed up quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’  This referencing to literature in American High School novels is not just limited to Green though – Meg Wolitzer’s recent novel Belzhar (my review here) is entirely based on The Bell Jar by Plath and there are others which I can’t recall at the moment. I don’t recall British YA novels mentioning A-level set texts in the same way though!

I can see why John Green has become so popular though. His text is literally full of great one-liners – both comic and serious, that are just crying out to be put on a T-shirt, or made into a poster. If you google John Green quotes and look at the images, you’ll see thousands and thousands of fans’ artworks featuring his words. One thing I did pick up on from Paper Towns though, is that he is a big fan of using the word ‘metaphor’ – but if I hadn’t know about the ‘It’s a metaphor’ quote from The Fault in Our Stars, it may not have stuck out quite so much…  This was a really enjoyable novel, and I really want to explore his others now.  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon (affiliate link) please click below:
Paper Towns by John Green, Bloomsbury childrens books paperback, 320 pages.

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:

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.

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.

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:

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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!

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… 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:

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!

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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… 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]