Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Today Everything Changes

Today Everything Changes
Andy McNab
London, Corgi, 2013, 105p

Andy McNab is an inspirational writer. His journey from disillusioned boy to SAS Officer is incredible. He is an admirable spokesperson for young men who do not see a bright future ahead for themselves.

Today Everything Changes is McNab's biography. In his youth, he was angry at everyone, isolated from society, and living in poverty. He rejected authority and the education system, in preference of petty crime and disobedience. Then he is recruited by the army, and finally finds something he is passionate about. Despite the challenging nature of the training, he is ambitious, hard-working, and eager to move up through the ranks. 

Later in his military training, he is realises that the ability to read will open up a million opportunities to a young army cadet. He has a great teacher, who tells him he is not stupid, but just isn't educated yet. That 'yet' is all McNab needs to inspire him and push him towards success. He loves reading and loves to learn. Through his biography, he inspires others like him to empower themselves through reading. 

In my opinion, McNab is one of the best voices for promoting reading for pleasure amongst  young men. He is easy to relate to - many young men today are feeling what he once felt - lonely, isolated, angry. McNab speaks of opportunity and choice; he makes reading masculine and inspiring. Many of us talk about how to engage reluctant readers, but here, McNab has actually achieved something brilliant. 

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Love is Blind

Love is Blind
Kathy Lette
London, Transworld, 2013, 121p

I thought I would take a short break from teenage literature to indulge in a trashy romance. It's been a while since I read something with such a bright pink cover, but I tried to put aside my prejudices and read something less challenging.

Unfortunately, I found this short novel so far from challenging that I was bored. Love is Blind is a story about two sisters, Anthea and Jane. Anthea is beautiful, successful, and engaged to a rich lawyer. Jane is plain, spontaneous, and lonely; so travels to Australia in the hope of meeting the man of her dreams. When Jane succeeds, Anthea follows her to the Outback, determined to talk Jane out of marrying a ruffian. Unfortunately, things conspire against her, and she is stranded with said ruffian during a terrible storm, culminating in bush fires and an inland tsunami.

Yes, it is as weird and unrealistic as it sounds. I have nothing against novels where you have to suspend every concept of reality and step into a new world (see previous review), but this was beyond belief. All the events happened with quick succession, as is inevitable with a short read, but it was all just too much. 

None of the characters were particularly likable. And the plot is incredibly predictable. As you might guess, Anthea's eyes are opened to what true love can be when she sees her sister infatuated with this strange Australian man. I was hoping for something more unusual, like one of them actually going blind. Instead, nothing was left to mystery - the plot and context was laid out in such a manner that I could not imagine anything for myself. I read on in the hope that things would get better. I was disappointed. 

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making
Catherynne M Valente
London, Constable & Robinson, 2012, 328p

How is any lover of literature meant to be able to resist a book with a title like this? It has the word "circumnavigated" in it!!!

This is the tale of September, a young girl who escapes the boredom of her lonely house, and is carried off by the Green Wind on the back of a Leopard. The Green Wind helps her through customs into Fairyland, but cannot escort her through the mysterious world. Instead, he tells her the rules of this strange land, and leaves her to make her own friends and adventures. 

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making is not a light-hearted romp of a fantasy. It takes inspiration from a plethora of resources - fairy tales, classic literature, modern culture - and brings them all together to make one of the most surreal worlds I have ever had the joy to explore. If it had been written badly, this could have been one of the most cliched novels in literary history; but Valente has such passion and knowledge that she creates a world that few others could have even dreamed of.

My favourite character is a sort-of dragon, a Wyvern, called A-Through-L. His father is a Library, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of anything beginning with letters A to L. September finds many friends along her journey, and is loyal and loving towards them all. Although she is only twelve years old, she is wise and generous, and incredibly brave.

I say the book is not light-hearted because it is very dark in places. September suffers, separated from her friends, attacked by strange creatures. At one point she even turns into a tree. Life in Fairyland is far from easy, under the difficult rule of the Marquess. 

With any fantasy literature, the reader must suspend their disbelief, at least to some extent. In reading this brilliant novel, it is a pleasure to step into September's world, and sometimes it is a struggle to come back to reality. Everything in Fairyland is so unusual and wonderful, and created with such love, that it comes to life in a way no other fantasy world ever has.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013


Sylvia Plath
London, Faber, 2010, 81p

Earlier this month we marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Sylvia Plath. In the same week, I found out my library had absolutely no Plath literature in stock. I was appalled, and I immediately rectified the situation. 

I first discovered Sylvia Plath at school, in an Extended English module - we learnt about literary theory and criticism, and started by analysing Ariel. I didn't rate it much at the time - the structure was perculiar, and the words didn't seem to make sense, like they had been placed on the page at random. Later at college, I read The Bell Jar, and now I am reading the her most famous collection, Ariel, in full for the first time. Somewhere along the way, I have started to understand the structure, and make sense of those words. 

Plath's writing is incredibly powerful, with recurring themes of death and mental health issues. She is famous for her psychiatric state. In Ariel, she writes about her experiences of mental institutions and her attempted suicides, claiming: "Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well" (Lady Lazarus). The way she places "dying" on a separate line, all by itself, shows how explicit she is willing to be. She also references self harm, describing the sight of blood as "a million soldiers / Redcoats, every one" (Cut). In the same poem, she calls this injury a "celebration". It is incredible how she makes physical pain seem so wonderful.

Her state of mind is clear from her poems. She was not helpless or unaware of what was going on around her - if anything, she seems to be more sensitive to the world, to see it and describe it more clearly. Her words are meaningful, though subtle; and although the arrangement of the words on the page is difficult to follow, it forces the reader to really concentrate, to look closely at the words.

She was not docile or weak. In fact, her poems are incredibly aggressive. In 'Daddy', each word packs a punch. To read it out loud makes one's pulse race with the anger. I came close to shouting as I spoke the words. The imagery is dark and the language is emotional. This poem comes from somewhere deep within Plath.

My favourite, which I studied at university whilst looking at 1950/60s feminism, is "The Applicant". Some of Plath's poems are about the role of the woman in the domestic, middle class household, though few of those poems are in this collection. "The Applicant" is to do with the stereotypes of a 1960s housewife, defined by her appearance, trapped within the expectations bundled upon her by a misogynist society: "It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk talk". The tone is mocking and dark, dehumanising and objectifying the subject to "it". 

It is tragic that Plath took her own life whilst still so young. In terms of prose, I feel she had her best work yet to come; The Bell Jar was just the start. But Ariel is undoubtedly one of the most wonderful, powerful and emotional collections of poems every published. It is a must-read for any self-confessed feminist, any ambitious academics, and all budding writers.

Monday, 18 February 2013

My Mad Fat Diary

My Mad Fat Teenage Diary
Rae Earl
London, Hodder, 2012, 342p

I hadn't realised the new show on E4 was adapted from a novel. But since I haven't been tempted to watch the new show on TV, perhaps I should have guessed I wouldn't be that bothered by the book.

Rae is an overweight seventeen year old, recently released from a mental institution. She is depressed about her weight and appearance, and suffers from anxiety about many wider political problems, including Nelson Mandela's imprisonment and the fall of the Berlin Wall. She feels as though her behaviour can influence the outcome of world events, for example turning off all the switches in her house helps prevent nuclear war.

As the novel progresses, her self-hate increases. Often it fluctuates - she is happy when she spends time with her friends, and sad when she accidentally upsets someone. She has a wonderful group of mates by the end, and a lot of the novel centres around their nights spent in the pub, chatting about music and drinking. 

The book isn't bad per se. It was a little cliched - the same themes about friendship, school, and boys; the same insecurities that recur in most teenage diaries. It was unique in that it is set in 1989, so all the cultural references are very dated, but most were recognisable. And I guess, in terms of the television adaptation, this means the show appeals to the teenagers of today and their parents. 

So yes, the book wasn't bad. Unfortunately, I found it to be too caught up with the obesity theme.  Teenage diaries about skinny girls barely need to mention their weight, but teenage diaries about fat girls are all about it. Sometimes, it can be beneficial to talk about something - this book offers young readers an a-typical role model, a protagonist who isn't size ten - but it also means that other areas of teenage angst are ignored. I am yet to decide if I am for or against such a strong focus on the character's weight.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful Creatures
Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl
London, Penguin, 2013, 563p

It is not often that I am unable (or was I unwilling?) to finish a book; but, though I tried, I can not read any more of this novel.

Beautiful Creatures has been hailed as the new Twilight, but I didn't want to be put off by that. I wanted to see what all this supernatural fiction was about - everyone seems to adore it. I couldn't stomach Stephanie Meyer, but, attempting to ignore the comparisons, I attempted Beautiful Creatures.

It is the story of Ethan, a boy from the south of the United States, who meets the girl who has been haunting his dreams, Lena. She is ostracised at school and throughout town; but Ethan thinks there is more to her, and is determined to understand why he feels so drawn to her. As the novel unfolds, it would appear that she is a caster, which is Garcia and Stohl's attempt at distancing themselves from previous witch stories. On her sixteenth birthday, Lena will either be taken by the darkness or the light - it is her curse.

Of the hundred or so pages I read, I found myself unsure if this book has even been edited. The descriptions are short and unimaginative, the dialogue is stunted. The pages are littered with lazy cliches and unrealistic events. When Ethan ran out of school, chasing Lena to comfort her, risking joining her in being a victim of school mockery, I wasn't convinced. 

I was unsure of the male narrative voice. The story is told from the view of Ethan, and my feminist self automatically went on high alert, as Lena instantly became defined by his male gaze. This, I found to be unusual, since the authors are female. But neither of the characters were very well developed, neither gained my sympathy.

I hate being unable to finish a book. In many slow-starters, the plot or characters eventually develop enough to deserve my attention. But there is so much juicy literature out there, I do not want to waste any of my precious time.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Everything Beautiful

Everything Beautiful
Simmone Howell
London, Bloomsbury, 2008, 277p

Everything Beautiful is set at a Christian camp in Australia. Riley is sent there by her parents, and is very reluctant to participate. She is an angry young woman, who has recently lost her mother, and now has to deal with an unwanted stepmother. 

But she is not the boring, moody, rebellious teenager you find in so much teenage fiction. She knows the difference between right and wrong, and, more often than not, does follows the good path. She feels guilt and takes responsibility for her actions, sometimes as well as the actions of others in order to protect her friends. Her deviance comes in the form of sex and smoking, but it seems as if she does these things in order to find a place in society and find a release for her confusion. She does not act out of spite. 

The religious elements are thankfully subtle. She does not undergo some dramatic conversion from athiest to Christian - the development of her character is more meaningful than that. Faith and spirituality presents itself in the form of friendship. On arrival at the camp, Riley is determined not to participate, and unwilling to make friends. She even has an escape plan, to get back to her home for a friend's party. But friendship creeps up on her, and she finds herself surrounded by support and love. 

The novel is realistic, not your typical over dramatic teenage angst story. Riley is resentful of religion, but this is not exaggerated beyond belief. Her narrative voice is witty and emotional, making use of teenage slang and other terminology. I was expecting a religious conversion; but the story is believable, her development is natural, and the ending is optimistic.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

In the Orchard, the Swallows

In the Orchard, the Swallows
Peter Hobbs
London, Faber, 2012, 139p

This week, I had the honour of meeting some incredibly brilliant young people at the First Story Arvon Residential Week. If they are the future of literature, I cannot wait!

I also had the priviledge of meeting Peter Hobbs and Salena Godon, who were the tutors for the young writers. During the week, they inspired and supported the students, bringing out their best work. They also shared their work, and I was lucky enough to borrow Pete's own copy for a quick read.

In the Orchard, the Swallows is a beautiful short novel about a romantic encounter between a young couple. Later, the young man recalls the night they spent together in the orchard, and the tragedy they faced when they awoke the next morning. Their love is forbidden, and he suffers, disappears, and is imprisoned.

The opening of the novel is intriguing. The young narrator does not give everything away at one, but promises his reader to reveal more "in time". He swaps between past and present, building the readers' intrigue. The style is like a diary or a letter, talking to the reader, who we later discover is intended to be his love. His memory of her is so strong, it is powerful enough to help him overcome any suffering. 

Beneath the romance, political elements seep through the words. The story, set in Pakistan, highlights the potential of disillusioned men turning angry and violent. Our young narrator is lucky - his love pulls him through the torture of imprisonment - but he acknowledges that need for a release, and the dangerous lure of the Taliban.

My favourite part was the description of a sunrise. Hobbs' language is so beautiful. As the sun comes up over the city, it is like removing a veil of the night. The imagery is so powerful and visual, and the moment is one of shared love.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood
Haruki Murakami, trans. Jay Rubin
London, Vintage, 2003, 386p

I want to read this book again and again and again. It is a beautiful masterpiece of love and loss and friendship. It is gripping and clever and emotional. It's the kind of book that will reveal more and more with each read.

Toru Watanabe stumbles across his past when he stumbles across his best friend's girlfriend in Tokyo. He is a thoughtful, quiet, intelligent young man. Increasingly, he finds himself spending more and more time with the beautiful, delicate Naoko, wandering through the streets with her.

Norwegian Wood reminded me of when I studied performance theory at university - the theory that our identities are performed, chosen by us depending on our situations and surroundings. One of Murakami's characters, Midori, performs her identity like she is on stage. She is outgoing and sensual; no, sexual. She speaks her mind, but seems to be pretending to be embarrassed by this. During a fight with Watanabe, she refuses to speak to him, but later explains she wanted to punish him, and she really missed him, too. 

The story is written from a narrative that looks back, almost twenty years. Watanabe questions his memories as he writes, trying to recall and identify the truth. An important theme is that of mental health. Many of the characters suffer at varying levels, but this novel asks what is normal. One scene I found particularly effective  - on a visit to a psychiatric house, he commented that he couldn't tell who were doctors and who were patients.  

The novel is very literary, by which I mean it has subtle underlying meanings, both metaphoric and symbolic. The descriptions throughout are detailed and visual, taking you right to the heart of Tokyo. Each word feels like it was chosen for a specific purpose

I love novels like this. I feel truly touched by it, and inspired. It is not a clear cut romance, but has depth and meaning. It is full of literary magic - the characters comment that they love the way Watanabe speaks, and I do, too. Although not explicitly, he grapples with the definition of love, and is haunted by the memory of his mistakes. It is a novel about real life.
This blog post is for Sam, as a belated thank you letter. 

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest
Stieg Larsson
London, MacLehose, 2009, 746p

It is always bittersweet to come to the concluding novel in a series. You can't help but want more, and even if there is a film adaptation, you know it probably won't be good enough. In this final part of the Millennium series, there were highs and lows, as Larsson tied up all the loose ends; but for once, I really enjoyed an ending.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest follows on immediately from the last novel, whereas there has been a year break between the first and second. Lisbeth is in hospital, in a critical condition, and under arrest. Zalachenko is within touching distance, and she is frustrated that she is unable to do anything about him. Lisbeth is such a stubborn and proactive character that she finds it impossible to be locked in a small room, left to recover. She wants to get out - she knows that a long prison sentence is facing her.

This novel centres around the trial of Lisbeth Salander - she has many charges against her, including attempted murder and possession of illegal weapons. Luckily, no one seems to know about her skills with technology, so, once she is reunited with an internet connection, she is able to start the search for evidence to prove her innocence.

She also has an excellent team behind her - Blomkvist, Palmgren and Armansky of course, but she now also has Blomkvist's sister, Annika Giannini, who acts as her lawyer, and a number of members of the police force. Unfortunately, she has some powerful people against her: namely an unmonitored section of the state security police who need to destroy her reputation in order to remain in existence - it's kill or be killed, and they are more than prepared to kill. 

I must say that I did not find this novel as gripping as it's predecessors. Larsson had a lot of explaining to do, meaning this final installment is longer than the others. Much of the text was taken up with the discovery of evidence, which made for a slow pace and lots of description. But the resulting trial was fascinating, with Giannini pulling out all the stops to destroy the prosecution. 

I found some of Giannini's tactics particularly interesting, including when she cited her own teenage deviance as evidence to prove Salander had behaved like a normal teenage girl. Giannini's confessions shocked me - in England, it seems you must live like a saint to get into a position of power, such as in law or politics; but in Scandinavia, perhaps they recognise that it is unrealistic to have such high expectations. In any case, the result of assuming sainthood tend to result in the revelation of scandalous cover ups. Even politicians are human.

Again, Blomkvist is irresistible to women, taking on yet another lover. (How does he remember all their names?) Salander spends most of the novel avoiding him - though she is helped by the fact that she is either hospitalised or imprisoned. But he proves himself a loyal and dedicated friend. I would definitely want him on my side.

I commented earlier that I really love the ending of this novel. Often, such long series seem to end abruptly or too romantically and therefore unrealistically. Yes, Larsson tied up all the ends into a nice bow here, but he offered his reader more than the cliche finale. He offered his characters redemption. Within the closing pages, Salander finds herself faced with a choice. As she reflects on her options, we realise how much she has been through, and how far she has come. She is less spontaneous, less violent, more thoughtful. She is more aware of the responsibilities she has to herself and to others, and the consequences of her actions. She does not change beyond recognition - I still love and admire her  - but she has progressed and she has learned. The difference is not explicit, but Larsson offers us this final slice of the pie to mull over after the story ends.

P.S. Rumour has it, there is a manuscript for a fourth novel in the Millennium series out there. We can only dream of such things!!

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Room 13

Room 13
Robert Swindells
London, Corgi, 1990, 158p

Room 13 is one of my favourite scary stories ever. Somewhere in my memory, the fiction has become mixed with my reality, so that I confuse the plot of this novel with some of the events of a residential school trip I went on in Year 6. So perhaps it wasn't the best thing to read a few days before another residential.

Inspired by and credited to a group of school children, Room 13 is a ghostly tale about a class of students on a residential trip to Whitby. The children arrive knowing rumours about Dracula, being suspicious of supernatural happenings, and end up caught in a web of mystery and horror.

The book is a perfect Gothic concoction. The evil is explicit from the first page, as we find ourselves with Fliss in a nightmare, which makes her unsure she wants to go away on the school trip. But as her mother notes, things seem better in the morning, and she departs with her classmates. It is only at night that her nightmare returns, seemingly turned into a dark reality in which she hears footsteps in the hall. At midnight, the linen closet along her corridor turns into Room 13, and one of her classmates is drawn there by an overpowering force.

Of course, the children are not believed by the teachers, so they find themselves regularly in trouble. But Fliss and her friends know they have to do something about the happenings in Room 13. 

All fans of Gothic literature will recognise the tropes, but that does not take away from the brilliance of Swindells' writing. He gets right into your deepest fears, building the tension with mystery and suggestion. And the result is an unsettled night of sleep - exactly what you are looking for in a scary story.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Sabrina Fludde

Sabrina Fludde
Pauline Fisk
London, Bloomsbury, 2005

There seems to be all sorts of magical things going on in Wales. Pauline Fisk draws upon the mystery and fantasy of the Welsh mountains and valleys to create an adventure story full of originality.

Sabrina Fludde begins when a young girl is washed up on the bank of a river in a small town. She can't remember her name or her history. She doesn't know how she got there, or even where she is. Left to fend for herself on the streets, she makes friends: first with a boy called Bentley, who she finds playing his saxophone under the railway bridge, and whose parents take her in; and then Phaze II, a homeless boy who shows her the ropes. The social services want to reconnect her with her parents, but she isn't sure she wants to go back.

The novel is beautifully written - incredibly descriptive. Fisk details every element of every scene. There isn't much dialogue, as most of the plot circles around Abren and her feelings. But the Welsh landscape is vast and inspiring, and sometimes rather terrifying. 

Sabrina Fludde is part mystery, part drama. It is rather slow in pace, due to, and allowing for, the descriptive passages. It is not until the mid-section that the drama kicks in, and there is a serious element of danger facing our young protagonist.

I enjoyed this novel with regards to the exploration of lonliness and isolation. Abren is sometimes surrounded by people - friends, sort-of-families - but she seems to be constantly isolated. She is trying to work out who she is, but, as many do when searching for their identity, she neglects to look to those nearest and dearest. It is a touching novel.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

A Gathering Light

A Gathering Light
Jennifer Donnelly
London, Bloomsbury, 2003, 398p

I started this book blog because I am a rather forgetful person. I like almost anything I read - I have had complaints that these reviews aren't particularly critical, and that I never have a bad thing to say about the books. That's because I appreciate the fact that someone has taken the time to create something for me. I admire that. This blog isn't critical because it is for my own benefit - if anyone else enjoys it, that makes me very happy - but I read so much that I often forget what I have read, even if I can remember that I loved it.

A Gathering Light: case and point. I read this novel last year, as it was on the Carnegie medal in 2003 - as part of my MA in Librarianship, we were discussing the formula for an award-winning piece of children's literature. And Jennifer Donnelly has it down to a fine art form.

But when I recommended it to a student this morning, I found myself at a loss as to why I had loved it last year. So after a quick skim read (and a more detailed read of my favourite parts), here is a summary of my thoughts.

This novel is the story of Mattie, who I adore. She is a masterpiece in the form of a teenage girl; she is unbelievably real. She is a young girl torn between obligation to her family and her desire to get away to be educated in the big city. She is equally smart and loyal; but she struggles to know which path is the right one for her.

Mattie's story is paralleled by the story of Grace Brown, whose body is found in the river that runs through Mattie's town. Mattie finds Grace Brown's letters, written to her lover in the build up to their elopement. A tragic tale unfolds, with Mattie as the witness.

Throughout the novel, Mattie is learning new words, which she shares with her family and with the reader. I learnt a lot of incredible language. Mattie is supported by her school teacher, Miss Wilcox, who dreams of seeing Mattie in New York City at school. Miss Wilcox is also encouraging Mattie's best friend Weaver to go off to school - Weaver is an African-American boy who is brilliant at maths. She is an inspiring teacher, willing to believe that these children can achieve anything they want to. She gives them private tuition, and allows Mattie to borrow anything from her vast library. 

This award-winning novel has everything. It is has friendship, family and romance. It has hard decisions and everyday drama. It has comic characters, to lighten the load. It has an incredibly heroine, surrounded by brilliant friends and teachers who help her find her way. 

But best of all, it was realistic, timeless, a classic. It speaks to me, despite being set over 100 years ago. I relate to Mattie, even though she is only 17 years old. I understand the difficulties she faces, having made similar decisions in the past. And I hope the student I recommended it to, currently deciding what to do with her future, will also take something meaningful from Jennifer Donnelly.