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.

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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?

“…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

The Savages are back …

American Savage by Matt Whyman

savagesLast summer I had the pleasure of reading one of the funniest YA novels I’ve yet encountered in Matt Whyman’s The Savages – don’t you just love that cover?  Although it was written as a standalone novel, so many people wondered what happened to the family in it, that Matt has now written a sequel – American Savage.

At this point, if you haven’t read the first one – you should click here to see what I’m talking about, and read no further below for now…

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AMERICAN_SAVAGE (2) The first novel started briefly at the end – with an exquisitely cooked feast from which the Savage family had to flee before flashing back to tell their story.

The sequel sees them safely escaped to America where they’ve settled into the quiet seaside town of Jupiter, Florida.  Titus is a property manager and has gone a little paunchy and Angelica is a fitness freak with an adoring Argentinian personal trainer. Ivan is being bullied at school by the jocks on the football team, big sister Sasha is now at university and doesn’t make an appearance this time, baby Katya is now a Disney princess at primary school. Titus’s centenarian father Oleg lives in a nearby old people’s home where he’s found love again at 103.  Lastly there is lodger Amanda, a vegan who recognises that the Savages’ predilection for a particular kind of meat represents the ultimate in local sourcing and makes this exception.  As before it starts with a feast, and Titus is regarding his table:

Right now, Angelica looked quietly satisfied that she had delivered another unforgettable spread. Titus lifted the spoon to his mouth. Sensing his shirt pull tight across his belly as he did so, the slightest hint of self-loathing soured the mouthful. There was no denying that he had put on a few pounds lately. Ever since the family had moved here, in fact, he found himself climbing onto the scales with a heavy heart, but what could he do about it? He had always taken pride in locally sourcing food for their feasts, and it was inevitable that the meat from these parts would carry a little extra fat. There also tended to be a lot more of it on the bone, and the Savages never left anything to waste.

If you’ve stayed with me, I assume you have twigged what’s different about the Savages. However abhorrent it may be, like Tony and his family in The Sopranos, there’s something strangely lovable about them. They don’t whack people to eat unnecessarily – they are chosen carefully, people who won’t be missed (a bit Dexter-ish don’t you think), then lovingly prepared and consumed at a feast. They eat normally the rest of the time, except for Amanda.

The trouble starts again when Amanda gets a job as a waitress at a sports bar, and refusing to dance for the patrons manages to get it closed down. Unfortunately the bar was owned by the Russian gangster and used for money laundering. The gangster is rumoured to be a cannibal, who ripped off a guy’s ear in prison and ate it raw. He makes threats to Titus and his family – they need a plan. The answer is to reopen as a vegan restaurant – something totally new in Jupiter, Florida, the land of rib-joints.  The only problem is that they make a success of it, and the Russian gets interested again… Set against the main story is Ivan’s battle with his tormentors. Ivan is at a tricky stage of adolescence and needs, in his mind, a way of getting even – how would a Savage do it?

Necessarily, in reading this book, we are in on the secret, and it loses its initial shock value.  However, Whyman again has huge fun with his characters.  The shock of Titus harvesting a victim gets replaced with a different kind of shock when he realises he’s no longer fit enough to do it in that way – the tables are turned, and more resourcefulness is needed.  Through this and other sequences, Whyman is able to have a discussion about food and healthier lifestyles – even eating less, but better quality meat – ha, ha!  By being quite matter of fact about the cannibalism, the book stays on the right side of goriness. There is plenty to laugh about, but the feasts are always treated with reverence.

This family is too much fun to leave to live happily ever after. I’d love to see them in Hollywood or the frozen north of Canada for another adventure or two, and also to read about how Titus met Angelica.  Please…

Why should teenagers have all the fun in reading about the Savages?  In the tradition of The Radleys by Matt Haig (see my review here), both of these novels ought to be crossover hits with adult readers too. I loved this sequel even more than the Savages’ first outing. (9.5/10)

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American Savage (Savages 2) by Matt Whyman. Published by Hot Key Books, June 2014. Paperback, 288 pages.
The Savages by Matt Whyman
The Radleys by Matt Haig

 

My last inbetweeny review from Shiny New Books

There’s still one of my reviews from what we editors have called the ‘Inbetweeny’ issue of Shiny New Books that I haven’t highlighted here on my own blog.

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

picture me gone

Picture Me Gone is a complex and intelligent exploration of parenthood and the effects that events can have upon relationships, seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old Mila who goes on a road trip with her father to find his missing best friend.

Being an American who has lived in London for twenty years or so, Meg Rosoff is more able than most to do justice to both sides of the pond.  She has now written seven YA novels, and they’re all different and each rather wonderful in their own way – I’d urge you to give one a try. Picture Me Gone could be a good starting point.

See the full review here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff, 2013, Penguin paperback, 208 pages.

A’s HoB Q&A – The Answers – Part one!

Book questionThank you for asking some great questions – some of which required a lot of thought to answer!

I’m splitting my answers into two posts – the specific science questions will get their own treatment in a day or two, but here are my answers to all the rest – and do feel free to add your two pennyworth to the discussion:

Dark Puss asked: Why are so many readers of fiction keen to say that they don’t read “Science Fiction” (or indeed “Romantic Fiction”)? Surely there are good books, average books and poor books and some deal with romance and some with a different sort of imaginary world. Why the desire to categorise and is it ever helpful?
If we disregard quality of writing and just concentrate on categorisation or genre, I think there are pros and cons to this issue:
My local indie bookshop did an experiment to see if integrating all the crime and SF&F novels into one big fiction selection made a difference. It did – fans of those types of novels couldn’t find their preferred fare and didn’t buy any books – so they sorted them back again. I use tags for genre on my book reviews so I can find similar types of books easily. These sorts of categorisation are helpful.
It’s less clear with some types of book however whether categorisation is useful. For instance, the crossover appeal of many YA titles these days is increasing, but many adult readers still don’t want to read what they perceive of as children’s books. But, put a YA book with the adult novels rather than on the YA shelves, and it will sell to adults.
Variety is the key to my reading – I try not to read similar books one after the other. I read across genres quite widely – yet ‘romance’, ‘Chick-lit’, or ‘commercial women’s fiction’ – whatever you want to call it, is a genre I rarely venture into. But that’s not because I don’t enjoy it – when I pick a good romantic novel, I love reading it. I do, however – whether true or not, perceive the majority of these titles published as not meeting my quality threshold for a good read – yes I can be a little snobby on occasion about what I read. (Ditto many popular thrillers like the one I read the other week, ‘Misery Memoirs’ too).
Which brings us back to quality – but that is another issue.  Dark Puss, you do pose some fiendish dilemmas!

quoyle1The shipping news by Annie Proulx - Random House 25th Anniversary editionKaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings asked: If you had to (or even could!) pick one desert island book, what would it be?
This is easy after the last question! I would pick The Shipping News by Annie Proulx which I re-read last year and reviewed here. It’s a book I’ve read several times, and I still love it. But vitally, each of the chapters is prefaced by an illustration from a book of knots – and knots will be useful (once I’ve managed to make some string or rope!).

Simon T (Stuck in a Book) asked a whole batch of questions:
1. Which book do you think is the most underrated?
That’s difficult for me, for I’m relatively easy to please generally. If you’d asked which book I think is the most overrated I’d have instantly replied back with The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho!
However, I do think that Ernest Hemingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises is underrated because it is so literal and repetitive – in that the bunch drink, fight, make up, drink, fight, make up … His style instantly clicked with me though when we read this for book group back in 2007. Not everyone agreed.

2. If you had to go on the same holiday every year for the rest of your life, what would it be?
My immediate reaction was Provence or Sorrento – villa with a pool, good food and wine. But y’know, if I had to do it every year I’d be really bored. So I’ll have a staycation and plump for Cornwall (or Northumbria if Cornwall was cut off). I’d need a large cottage with all the modern accoutrements, sea-views, beach within a few minutes’ walk, good pubs and a chippy nearby, ideally a good bookshop in the nearest town. There’s plenty to do in either location – and I could take the cats…

3. Who would play you in the film of your life? Emma Thompson naturally (with soundtrack by Tracey Thorn of course).

4. Which is your favourite Oxford college?
I didn’t go to Oxford – I went to Imperial in London, and then I lived for ages in Cambridge (which I think is a more pretty and compact city). Now I live ten miles outside Oxford in Abingdon which I love. I’m still getting to know Oxford, but I’d have to say my favourite college is an unconventional choice. I am a fan of Modernism, so I’ll go for the Grade I listed and Arne Jacobsen designed St Catherine’s.  I went to a ball there many years ago before moving here and the dining hall was striking as the design detail goes down to the table lamps and cutlery, and trademark Jacobsen chairs.

5. A bit of a vague question, but I’d be interested to know how you go about writing a book review post – people’s different techniques and approaches always fascinate me.
As I read a book, I use lots of those sticky tabs to mark places I might want to refer to when I write the review, but when it gets to writing the review itself, it often takes a good deal of pondering to get started. I like to find a hook to hang the review on – the USP of my reading experience of that book – be it positive or negative. The hook dictates the style the review will take. Whilst thinking about that I’ll do the set-up bits – the title, the cover photo, other photos, the bit at the bottom – source and affiliate links. If inspiration still hasn’t come, I’ll type up the quotations I’ve picked, and start on some plot summary. Rarely do I start a review at the top and later arrive at the bottom. I tend to get a lot of typos this way though, as half-finished or edited thoughts sometimes get miss outed or left in with extraneous words… apologies for this. Sometimes I’ll nip in to tidy it up once posted – I am my own worst proof-reader, even in preview mode. I can’t dash off posts though. The better ones take at least two hours to write with more honing.
Thank you Simon!

snow childDenise asked: What’s the book you would most like to see turned into a film/TV series?
I think Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child (see here) would make a wonderful film, as long as the question over whether Faina is real or imagined is never answered or given an American ending, ie: kept art-house.
Peter Wyngarde as Jason KingI would love to see a TV series of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels, Rivers of London and its sequels. Shot on location, and given decent special effects. Slightly strangely perhaps, I see Inspector Nightingale as Peter Wyngarde playing Jason King back in the 1960s.

Queen of the Park asked: As a ‘passionate reader’ what do you love most about living in Oxford?
Firstly, I think I’m going to remove the word ‘passionate’ from my About me. It’s overused these days, especially on Masterchef and its ilk!
Now I’m going to commit a bit of a heresy, and say although I live near Oxford, I don’t actually know it that well despite living only ten miles from the centre in nearby Abingdon for over a dozen years now. I’ve never drunk at the Eagle and Child where the Inklings went, I’ve not been inside many of the colleges, etc. But: I have been to book events at the Sheldonian, exhibitions at the Bodleian Library and this year I went to my first events at the Literary Festival, I’ve eaten at Inspector Morse’s favourite pub The Trout, I’ve shopped at Blackwells many a time, and also met some lovely bookish Oxford people including Simon. I’d say Oxford has a lot still for me to discover as a reader!

Jane at Fleur in her world asked: How does being the mother of a daughter influence your reading?
That’s a wonderful question – but strangely, the answer is not a lot! I’ve always loved to read children’s books, I get a lot out of them, and I have a huge admiration for the best authors who create engaging works that don’t talk down to children and are just as well-written as novels for adults (often better, as they have to be more careful with language and sex etc).
faultMy daughter has singular reading habits. She positively dislikes any book with more than a hint of the paranormal or alien about it. When she chooses for herself (as opposed to school saying you must read a *insert genre here* over the hols) she enjoys reading two types of novel – teen romances and mysteries. I was surprised at the latter, but at the moment she likes books that give closure – the girl gets her boy, or the mystery is solved.
However, when I look at the YA shelves now, I do see them differently – thinking would Juliet like that, so she is beginning to influence me. Recently, she asked me if I had any John Green books – and I was able to say, ‘Yes!’

Jenny@Reading the End asked: Is there now, or has there ever been in your life, somebody whose book recommendations you absolutely trusted? If they say “read this” then you read it straight away, no questions asked?
That was certainly the case with my late Mum. We shared a lot of books and fiction-wise I know that anything she enjoyed I would too – but only for fiction though. And it mostly worked the other way around too, provided I left the quirky stuff I’m very fond of at home, I’d take her a bagful of books on a visit, and they’d all come back read with post-it notes on telling me what she thought – and we usually agreed.
I could swear that my local indie bookshop gets in quirky novels and puts them on display just in time for me to come in the shop and buy them too.’We only put that book out today,’ they say!