Posts Tagged ‘coming of age’

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I am a huge Patrick Ness fan!

Let me put that out there at the start of this.

I hugely admired his Chaos Walking Trilogy but was utterly blown away by the visceral emotion and mythic scope of A Monster Calls. There are few books that dig inside you as much as that one.

This book is different again: much closer to the feel of Chaos Walking although without the epic scope and scale – and no less powerful for that.

At one level, the book is a rip-roaring adventure: Seth, our protagonist, dies in the prologue. On page 11. Dies with 469 pages left to fill. Those pages recount what Seth does after his death. Maybe.

Having died in a frigid ocean, in winter, in America he is somewhat surprised to have found himself on the path of his parents’ old house in an abandoned and apparently post-apocalyptic English town in Summer. Alone. Perhaps.

Echoes of I Am Legend, Robinson Crusoe and George Romero’s films – minus the zombies – abound as Seth navigates this empty town, discovers and loots from camping stores and supermarkets. There’s even a discovery of a foot print to make the link to Robinson Crusoe stronger.

Seth discovers – or is discovered by – two other survivors in the town: the defensive and resilient Regine and the delightfully tenderly vulnerable Tomasz. And with them, the book acquires other echoes: a sinister black-clad visored Driver pursues them as if stepping out of a Terminator movie; the world has – or may have – integrated – or been forced to integrate – itself into a digital alternative reality programme in the style of The Matrix.

There are sufficient run-ins with, escapes and rescues from and fights with the Driver that this book could be read purely at that adventure story level.

It does follow the tropes, patterns and cliches of the science fiction / action adventure movie genre.

And behind the adventure that awaits Seth in the world he wakes up in is a beautifully tender and painful tale of growing up. Seth is one of the very few gay characters I can bring to mind in Young Adult fiction. His secret relationship with Gudmund is described in beautifully tender prose. The taking of the photograph, which eventually exposes their relationship, is real and touching and deeply moving. As is the pain of separation between them.

And beneath this coming-of-age narrative is the deeply traumatic tale of Owen, Seth’s younger brother, who was – perhaps – abducted from their home when Seth was eight.

It’s a book of books, of stories, of narratives. Characters’ pasts are revealed in dreams and flashbacks; characters reveal parts of their own stories to each other. The sharing and offering of their own stories rendering them vulnerable and binding the trio together.

Towards the beginning of the book in a flashback, Seth and his friends Gudmund, Monica and H are discussing the cheerleaders and Gudmund considers having sex with one for a bet to which Seth replies

“What,” Seth said, “and then secretly find out that she’s got a heart of gold and actually fall in love with her and then she dumps you when she finds out about the bet but you prove yourself to her by standing outside her house in the rain playing her your special song and on prom night you share a dance that reminds not just the school but the entire wounded world what love really means?”
He stopped because they were all looking at him.
“Damn Seth,” Monica said admiringly. “‘The entire wounded world.’ I’m putting that in my next paper for Edson.”
Seth crossed his arms. “I’m just saying a bet over Gudmund having sex with Chiara Leithauser sounds like some piece of shit teenage movie none of us would watch in a million years.”

And that’s the point. Seth knows how cliched some of the events are. He avoids living in the cliches of these narratives. The existence of convenient cliches cause him to come close to dismissing the reality of the world because it follows narrative tropes. He recognises that last-moment rescues would be expected if he were living through a story. He expects apparently dead antagonists to return for one last assault.

And he questions that. And we question it.

Is the world real? Are his memories and dreams real? Are Regine and Thomasz real? Are they echoes of Viola and Manchee from Chaos Walking? Are Owen, Gudmund, H or Monica real? Is the love between Seth and Gudmund real?

And does it matter?

This is one of the most thoughtful and – dare I use a deeply unfashionable word? – philosophical novels I have read for a long time. And the philosophy within it never becomes pure exposition. It is always embedded in character – and often undermined by either Regine’s pragmatism or Tomasz’ affection. As Regine tells Seth:

“I think I’m the only real thing I’ve got… wherever I am, whatever this world is, I’ve just got to be sure I’m me and that’s what’s real.” She blows out a cloud of smoke. “Know yourself and go in swinging. If it hurts when you hit it, it might be real too.”

In addition to the characters and relationships, the flashbacks and the power of stories, what (else) I love about this book – and I imagine others will be put off for exactly this as well – is that, in the end, on the final page, Seth and we are no clearer to knowing where this world is, how real Seth’s experiences are or what is going on. At all. Ness saw no obligation to explain, tie things up or concretise anything.

The entire book is unsettling. Disrupts our sense of reality. Deliciously tilts our world. And it achieves it through simply written, elegant prose.

Remarkable.

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There are some books that revel in plot, action and events.

Other books – perhaps quieter books – are content to develop narrative: characters and settings, relationships and language.

This book by Ali Shaw is very clearly and very effectively one of the latter: little really happens, but so much is created.

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Lets take the setting initially. The book is set on the fictional island of St. Hauda’s Land, somehow far Scottish or Norweigan in flavour. It is the perfect setting for this novel of transformation as the sea and the land are constantly changing and metamorphosing: the very fabric of the island is being eaten away by the sea. Within the island are towns, forests and bogs all of which contribute their distinctive character to the novel.

Next, the characters: the delightful Ida Macleod and the less appealing Midas Crook. Midas… named for the King whose touch transformed everything to gold; and Ida who is transforming from the feet up into glass. Yes, glass.

Don’t expect Shaw to give you any explanation. Explanations are not offered by Shaw. No more for this transformation than for the creature whose glance can turn everything it sees white or the moth-winged cattle that also inhabit this island. Ida is turning into glass. Those characters who seek explanations and cures are the least likeable and the closest Shaw gets to villainy.

And that tranformation is physically traumatic, genuinely terrifying but visually stunning.

“Her toes were pure glass. Smooth, clear, shining glass. Glinting crescents of light edged each toenail and each crease betweent he joints of each digit. Seen through her toes, the silver spots on the bedsheet diffused into metallic vapours. The ball of her foot was glass too, but murkier, losing its transparency in a gradient until, near her ankle, it reached skin: matt and flesh-toned like any other. And yet… Those few inches of transition astonished him even more than her solid glass toes. Bones materialised faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily-white and precise nearer her unaltered ankle, shrouded along the way by translucent red ligaments in denser layers. In the curve of her instep, wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles. And there were places where the transformation was incomplete. Here was a pinprick mole, there, a fine blonde hair.”

It is no surprise that the writing is so visual: the majority of the book is narrated from the point of view of Midas who is cripplingly shy and / or capable of being located somewhere on the autistic spectrum disorder. He is a photographer. The simple image of his camera (disappointingly digital) as the barrier and (literally) lense through which he sees the world but also distances himself from the world is a beautiful one – speaking as someone who has experience of ASD. Again, as a photographer, he is allied with the static and the captured moment in a story about fluidity and transformation; Ida is transforming into a solid just as his photographs capture movement and still it. Don’t expect value judgements in the book – Smith does not lecture you to embrace change or counsel you to celebrate the static – but the play between the still and the mobile, between static and transformation is beautiful and magical.

The ending of the novel approached with a terrible sense of inevitability and was beautiful, heart wrenching and even managed to wring a tear from this cynical teacher.

A fantastic, fantastical fairy tale of a book!

This is a truly exceptional book!

And, before I discuss the book, a truly exceptional reading of it by a chap called Chris Nelson. Now, I don’t know who Chris Nelson is. I have googled his name idly but I have no clue. I do not know his age or where he is from.

But he is the absolutely perfect voice for this book: a thirteen year old boy from Worcestershire in 1982. I mean, seriously, the accent is so authentic it must be genuine! And the sense of character, of knowingness and innocence and ignorance is astounding. I can’t believe Chris Nelson is 13, but I wholly believe his voicing as a 13-year-old.

There have been a couple of downloads from Audible.com where the voice has been a barrier but here it is spot on. When I read the last few places, it was in Chris Nelson’s voice!

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Chris Nelson reads the narration is Jason Taylor in this first person story. It is – as Wikipedia claims – a Bildungsroman although not in the board sweep that we might expect from reading Great Expectations. That novel follows a life; Black Swan Green follows Jason Taylor for a mere year. It is a focused and tight structure but the boy we see at the beginning of the novel is very different to the young man we see at the end.

Taylor’s narrative voice, created through Mitchell’s language, drives the book. Mitchell creates a wholly convincing voice for me: the use of colloquialisms, some of which seem specific to the Worcestershire area and some specific to the 1980s; the pattern of language; the slightly geeky enumerating of the details of his world; the litany of the listing of his friends; the sometimes clumsy and sometimes startlingly beautiful attempts to poeticise the world around him; the balance between revulsion, fear and fascination with girls (and breasts). All these details and no doubt more that I have forgotten created the voice perfectly. And matched with Chris Nelson’s voice. As close to perfect as you could hope for.

And the world that Mitchell creates of 1982 through Jason Taylor’s eyes is superbly done. I know much of the novel is at least semi-autobiographical: Mitchell would have been 13 in 1982 as well; he shares Taylor’s stammer; he too was brought up in Worcestershire. Therefore, the realism of the world is understandable. And, as I would have been ten in 1982, completely convincing and recognisable.

The casual bullying of the school scenes; the arrogance and smirks of boys getting one over on the student teacher; the petty hopes and devastating tragedies that pattern Jason Taylor’s year; the slow disintegration of his parents’ relationship. The cultural and historical references. The Daily Mail – which shifts in Taylor’s mind from being accepted as gospel truth to a more appropriately critical stance. The Falkland’s War. His older sister Julia’s presence. The unspoken but bitter tensions between Jason’s family and Uncle Brian and Aunt Alice and their pretentious prig of a son, Hugo.

It is perhaps possible to say that there are a myriad of Jason Taylors in the book: there’s the unborn twin, the voice of chaos urging him to misbehave or rebel; there’s maggot urging him to hide and cave in to the bullies, the ‘loser’ persona that some kids try to force onto him; there’s Hangman, the embodiment of the stutter; there’s Eliot Bolivar, the somewhat pretentious but promising poet. Perhaps the book is as much an account of Taylor balancing or choosing between these voices and personas as anything else.

There are a few incidents that did strike me as slightly artificially shoehorned into the narrative. Madame Cremmelink’s forays into mentoring Jason’s poetry and his stumbling into a gypsy encampment in particular.

But these are minor quibbles.

Very minor.

There are a myriad of standout moments in the book but my absolute star moment was Jason trying out for The Spooks – the local ‘gang’ of cool kids. His initiation gave him 15 minutes to run through a string of back gardens and we overhear a sequence of conversations and witness tableaux of other characters and their families. It is masterfully done: we see tenderness and humanity and depth in some of the more minor characters that flesh them out beautifully.

And beautiful is absolutely the right word for this book: it is convincing, credible, honest and – above all – beautiful

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I was lent this by a student at school – ironically as one of the main features in the book is that Charlie is lent books by his English teacher! It took a while to get around to actually opening it, until I ran out of time and had to read it before the kid left school! I think the word “wallflower” in the title put me off! Once I did start though, I did have to concede that it is an extremely good book!

The book is an epistolary novel and we are never told to whom Charlie, a rather disturbed young man at high school, is writing. I suppose that this anonymity is designed to encourage the reader to feel that the letters are written to them directly. The story, therefore, needs an authentic and engaging voice to succeed, and I felt it did achieve this. It is clear throughout that the narrator is not a traditional school child: there are elements that feel autistic, elements that feel almost schizophrenic in his character; he is under the care of a psychiatrist throughout the novel and has difficulty engaging in his own life. He seems to prefer being the “wallflower” of the title: observing life around him, rather than taking part.

The novel does have a rather sixties / seventies feel to it, possibly because some elements of the story are meant to be autobiographical. The drug taking, LSD and cannabis, did feel out of date and, despite these nebulous sixties feelings, i felt that there were strangely few references to specific culture or contemporary life to fix it in time. I suppose this may be a deliberate choice to create a “timeless”, “classic” feel but it did jar a little.

There is a twist at the end of the novel, which does lend some explanation for Charlie’s condition, and it has to be said that this actually took me by surprise! Without wanting to sound big-headed, but as an English teacher and avid reader, that doesn’t happen often!!

And of course there is the film coming out this year too, apparently.