Posts Tagged ‘young adult’

I have read this solely because it is on the Carnegie 2012 Shortlist which I am leading a shadowing group for at my school. Something about the title, the rather pastel chintzy cover, the subject matter simply didn’t appeal. At the risk of being judgmental it struck me as a rather girly book.

All I can say is that I was wrong. It happens. More frequently than I like, but this time I am glad to say I was wrong.

The story revolves around Jamie, a ten year old boy whose remarkably well adjusted for a child whose older sister has been killed in a terrorist attack, whose mother’s left them, whose father’s an alcoholic and who’s being bullied at his new school. The novel revolves around the first term of the new school year and follows Jamie’s various triumphs and tribulations; his growing understanding of the world in which he lives.

It is not, despite the title, too much focused on the sister’s death. I had dreaded that this would become a mawkish clumsy coming-to-terms-with-death book. And whilst it does do that, it is by no means the entirety or even majority of the book. In fact, those parts of the book that deal with the sister are perhaps the least successfully managed: I wasn’t convinced by Roger the cat but without filling the review with spoilers I can’t really say more!

There were done rather contrived plot devices: seating Jamie beside Sunya at school set up a rather obvious plot trajectory, using the Britain’s Biggest Talent Show, paralleling the results of the Ofsted’s inspection with the family was a little obvious perhaps. However, whilst a dry analytical part of me recognised and gently scoffed at the devices, the other warmer (moister?) parts of me loved the way in which those devices played out.

There is something very evocative in Pitcher’s descriptive writing: she very often evokes an almost synaesthetic effect most obviously with the sparkles in Sunya’s eyes but also elsewhere such as the words that were too big to get past Jamie’s teeth like the cupboard his Dad tried to get through a door, or the word ‘sober’ hanging in the air like deodorant after its sprayed.

It was interesting having the bonus short story from Jasmine’s point of view too: Pitcher clearly changed her writing style for her narrators and it was a brave decision to choose Jamie over fifteen year old Jasmine as the narrator. But the relationship between the brother and sister was very nicely balanced between mutual irritation and mutual dependence. There was clearly potential in Jas’ story in its own right and the occasional references to how skinny and thin she was suggested that she was probably suffering from anorexia or some form of eating disorder. I wonder whether the earliest drafts of this story were narrated by her…

It is telling that Pitcher has worked in education – I think as an English teacher. Her description of Ofsted’s arrival and the sudden imposition of Brain Gym and Learning Objectives will make any teacher smile wryly if not laugh out loud. But it also shows in her understanding of the children she depicts. I genuinely felt that this was the voice of one of the most convincing child narrators I’ve come across. He is more concerned about getting enough party food whilst his parents towed over his mum’s affair; and dreads the emptiness of the house in case his dad had left a suicide note on the table.

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So now I’ve finished, did this novel improve?

Unfortunately no!

It is entirely the fault of the narrator I think and just shows how hugely important the narrative voice is in a first person narrative. Here it is the voice of a thirteen year old boy and he just annoyed the hell out of me (and as a parent and teacher, I have quite a high threshold for teenage annoyance!)!

The episode where he stole a ute and drove into a stampede of cattle in order to save his camel left me speechless for all the wrong reasons! He needed a good slap for endangering himself, the cattle and the car. And if he told me once more that being allowed to do something adult made him feel “taller” I may have put the book on the fire!

The descriptions did improve from page 91: the descriptions of the cows being burned – reminiscent of foot-and-mouth pyres – were gruelling. But the language was almost completely bereft of adjectives or figurative language. I do accept that the choice of a down-to-earth home-educated teenage boy narrator limits the literariness of the writing but, even so!

And the obvious device of using the rain to conclude the book felt clumsy.

I also had a problem with the language here: there are many Australian slang terms littering the book but they didn’t strike me as authentic, more as if they had been shoehorned in to give a veneer of authenticity (to mix my own metaphors!). Cliche was also a difficulty here: Danny’s father seemed to speak in them which Lewis then highlighted by putting them in italics!. The rain at the end of the book, the pathetic fallacy of the deepening drought that reflects the deepening rifts within the family all struck me as cliched.

I feel I’m being unfair! This is not a bad book. I just did not gel with it. Two more on the Carnegie list to go!
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Ok, I’ll be honest, I’m not thrilled with this book. It’s set in the Australian desert in a family run cattle station, not dissimilar to that shown in Baz Luhrman’s film Australia.

It is narrated through a first person voice of Danny, the middle son who is struggling to come to terms with his older brother Johnny’s death (apparently by falling off a roof, memories of The Archers’ Nigel Pargetter spring unbidden to mind) and his sister’s pregnancy.

Actually, that seems unfair: save for a couple of conversations and references the death and pregnancy have been hardly dealt with at all. Perhaps this is because 13 year olds do deal with things by ignoring them – mine does – but it means that the book seems to do no more than recount the day to day minutiae of ranch life… and it’s really rather dull!

And descriptions seem to be lacking. The butchering of the killer could have been described in detail but is instead only obliquely referred to. Again perhaps this reflects the matter-of-fact nature of death on a cattle station. Perhaps it is a nod to the sensibilities of a young adult audience (who have a stronger stomach than this book may assume).

Perhaps I am being unfair: I am only 91 pages into it. But I’m not gripped by the narrator or the writing …

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A lovely and somehow old-fashioned adventure tale. Somehow reminiscent of Enid Blyton… As well as the plethora of games you can get now where you investigate various settings, find clues, use them to unlock new rooms…

This is a Carnegie 2012 shortlisted tale and very much aimed at the lower end of the age bracket: the main character Stuart is 10 years old and that gives a strong clue as to it’s intended audience. Some older readers may find it a little light. Personally, I started reading it at four o’clock and had finished it by nine o’clock, having made tea in the middle!

Stuart is made to move homes at the start of the summer holidays because his mother has a new job. Aside from mild annoyance, don’t expect family angst or emotional trauma from that fact! He moves to his father’s home town of Beeton: quiet, Midlands and rather dull. There he discovers that his Great Uncle was a stage magician (why wouldn’t his dad have said before?!) and had given his father a money box years before. Opening the money box, Stuart discovers a horde of old three penny pieces which then inadvertently lead him onto a trail of clues to discover his long lost secret magic workshop. There are friends made along the way; enemies thwarted; clues deciphered; perhaps even true magic discovered.

Small Change … was, I felt, a good read. Younger readers will enjoy it and I am sure there will be a number of people for whom this is the book that turned them on to reading.

A good book however demands that the reader give it time; a good book has me reaching for a pen to highlight and annotate. The margins of Small Change … are – in my copy at least – as clean as the day it left the print run!

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This is a very powerful book: all the more powerful and painful as it is based on historical fact and first-hand accounts.

Lina is a fifteen year old Lithuanian school girl, a talented artist, a member of a loving family. In 1941, caught between Hitler’s fascism to the west and Stalin’s communism to the East, Lithuania was invaded and annexed by Russia and Stalin ordered the deportation of thousands of people to prisons, slavery and work camps. Lina and her family become one of them.

The book opens with the NKVD assaulting Lina’s home and taking her in the middle of the night. The novel then moves in three sections: the horror of the train carriage in which they are imprisoned to travel weeks across Russia; their time in a Siberian beet farm; and finally their further deportation into the arctic circle.

Be careful before choosing to read this book: the horrors and deprivations faced by Lina are not shied away from here. There are moments of violence, brutality, horror and abuse. That said, there are also images of hope: Lina’s drawings, the stone that Andrius finds and gives Lina, moments of generosity from people who have nothing; characters who show dignity in the worst situations; characters whose basic goodness comes out in the painfully few times they can show it.

A hugely powerful book and shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. I do question whether it is really appropriate for a Young Adult / Secondary School readership? I’d be careful advising anyone under KS4 to read this!

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Just finished My Name Is Mina. Good book, interesting but I don’t think it’s a winner. It tells the story of Mina from Skellig, essentially recording her thoughts in a journal over the winter / spring before she met Michael. I have a memory of her being quite mysterious and enigmatically in Skellig and was looking forward to hearing her voice.

I have mixed feelings about it: it doesn’t feel to me like it is a prequel, more of an extended prologue to Skellig. There was something powerful in her dogged desire to be true to herself and not straitjacketed into a niche in society. There are also moments of genuine pathos… But I didn’t find her voice as compelling as I’d hoped. I also felt I’d have liked to see more of her mum: having lost her father and husband, fiercely protected her daughter, taken on her home schooling and nurtured Mina, I felt HER story would have been interesting. The moment when she is called into THE HEAD TEACHER’s office after the triumphantly disastrous SATs could have been brilliant but seemed anti climactic to me!

There are some interesting things here about education and children and creativity, all of which I personally support. I’m also glad that the anti-education system philosophy was tempered by an understanding that the teachers weren’t all bad too! The Blake references were all there as would be expected; interesting ideas about the power and playfulness of words. But for a book that purports to champion the ‘weird’, I felt it wasn’t quite weird enough…

Anyway, my next book is due and I will probably reread Skellig whilst waiting.

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Oh, this is an extraordinary book!

There are very few books that make me feel genuinely emotional and (a very little bit) teary but this was one. There is something about in simplicity of the prose, the inevitability of the ending, the unflinching acceptance of extraordinary and unavoidable pain, the wonderful mythic nature of the eponymous monster… It is simply deeply powerfully moving.

The story revolves around Conor O’Malley, a school boy whose mother is painfully and fatally ill. Although its not spelled out – and one of the delights here is that Ness is respectful enough of his audiences that he doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out – it is clear that she is suffering from cancer. As the story is based in an idea Siobhan Dowd had as she faced and lost her battle with cancer there is a potent autobiographical parallel here.

As Conor is awoken by the sound of his name one evening he sees “the great yew tree that rose from the centre of the graveyard” as it’s branches “gathered themselves into a great and terrible face, shimmering into anything and nose and even eyes peering back at him.” The yew tree becomes “the spine that the mountains hang upon… The tears that the rivers cry … The lungs that breathe the wind … The wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly… The stag, the mouse, the fly that are eaten… The snake of the world devouring its tail… Everything untamed and untameable”. This language is so lyrical, so primal, so mythic that the creature itself is a towering literary creation.

It reminds me of The Iron Man in its sheer alienness and inhumanity.

Stories are at the heart of this book. The Monster – like Dickens’ ghosts – has three stories to tell and asks for (expects, demands) a fourth rom Conor.

Half way through the novel, Conor discovers that his mother’s most recent chemotherapy treatment is derived from the yew tree. We witness him from inside the novel try to force the narrative into a fairy tale on which he has summoned the monster in order to heal his mother. Ness, however, refuses to allow the narrative to become quite so trite: it is genuinely heartbreaking when the Monster tells him “I did not come to heal her. I came to heal you”. In fact we the reader share Conor’s experience: the conclusion is utterly inevitable; we all know what will happen; but we all hope for and deceive ourselves into looking for an illusory happy ending.

Parallel to the Monster, Ness offers us snapshots of Conor at school. These chapters offer a contrast to the myth of the Monster but complement it beautifully. The strained friendship between him and Lily is beautifully judged and again Ness avoids the temptation to be trite and wrap up the trauma with his mother in a jarring sugar coated romance. Understated, quiet and moving, the friendship, their alienation and reconciliation is – as with the whole novel – simply beautifully judged.

This is as close to perfection as I could ask for in a novel. Simply stunning. I challenge anyone not to be moved to (near) tears by it. These are characters who will live with you and hang you beyond the end of the novel. Beautiful.