Thursday, 30 January 2014

Invisible Girl

Invisible Girl
Kate Maryon
London, HarperCollins, 2013, 255p

Kate Maryon is a brilliant realist writer, engaging with challenging subjects in an informed and sympathetic manner. Her latest novel, Invisible Girl, is about children who run away from home. 

Gabriella has a horrible new stepmother who has taken over the house. Her dad is letting Amy walk all over him, and only Gabriella can see things will not end well: she is worried they will spiral into debt like they have in the past. Then one day, she finds Amy packing a bag for her, telling her that her father and stepmother are going away and Gabriella has to go and stay with her mother in Manchester. In one moment, she's lost her home, her friends and her family, and is bound towards a mother who still haunts her nightmares. 

Unsure of where to go, Gabriella ends up on the streets of Manchester. She befriends some children who live on the streets, hiding with them from the police, all of them too scared to go home. There are many reasons why these children are on the streets, though most of them keep pretty quiet about it. 

Gabriella ends up in trouble due to her new associations, who have to resort to disruptive behaviour and petty theft for entertainment. Reading from Gabriella's point of view, you sympathise with the children, lost and alone, constantly scared and in danger. Gabriella is a big-hearted, kind young girl, and, at only twelve years old, it is distressing to read about her plight.

Maryon's novel is supported by the Big Issue Foundation and Railway Children, charities for homeless children who have slipped through the gaps. You are forced to think differently when reading Invisible Girl, as it challenges many of the assumptions people have about the homeless. It is an upsetting read, and yet I would undoubtedly recommend it to any young reader. 

Monday, 27 January 2014

101 Poems for Children

101 Poems for Children: A Laureate's Choice
ed. Carol Ann Duffy
ill. Emily Gravett
London, Macmillan, 2013, 193p

It is a valuable skill for a poet to be able to create a succinct and engaging anthology of poetry. With so much choice, the editor must be very well read and able to create a flow through the various works of multiple artists, bringing them together in one book.

This is precisely what Carol Ann Duffy has achieved in 101 Poems for Children. The poetry comes from many authors over lots of countries across many centuries and yet it flows brilliantly. Each poem leads into the next one, without any breaks or bumps along the way.

And the selection is very entertaining, exploring tales about animals, families, seasons and journeys. There are some with rhyme and some without; some are short and some are long; but all are exceptional demonstrations of language and writing.

One of my favourites, which I had not read before, is one of Carol Ann Duffy's own: F for Fox, a lovely piece that uses the letter 'f' more times than I imagined possible in one poem! As she discusses in her introduction to the collection, children's poetry is often characterised by the rhythm and simple use of language. Recurring tropes include alliteration and simile, and writers use the full extent of poetic license to make up new words.

I've been dipping in and out of this collection over the last couple of weeks, and was sad when it came to an end; and not least because the last poem in the collection is about the wonder of libraries!!

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Knightley & Son

Knightley & Son
Rohan Gavin
London, Bloomsbury, 2014, 329p

Sherlock Holmes has been in the forefront of my mind over the last couple of weeks, following the final episode in the most recent series and many fascinating discussions with my friend who is studying Arthur Conan Doyle for her PhD (see her progress here).

So when I picked up Knightley & Son, I was a little worried it might be a step too far, as it draws very explicitly from the classic tropes of Sherlockian detective stories. But I was surprised to find myself engrossed with a clever, action-packed story about a father and son detective team and their mission to understand what is causing unexplained mayhem throughout the nation.

A new book, The Code, is shooting up the best seller charts, offering life advise to all it's readers. But it is also the only link between several unusual recent crimes, committed by individuals with no criminal history and no other link to each other. When Alan Knightley awakens from a four year long coma, Scotland Yard come calling, hoping the brilliant detective might be able to solve the mystery. Knightley's son, Darkus, insists on coming along, soon proving himself invaluable to the investigation. 

The story is told from the perspective of Darkus, who possesses every Sherlockian characteristic going. He is socially awkward but highly intelligent. He dresses beyond his years and talks with the widest vocabulary I've ever seen. And he takes after his father, who is equally independent and perceptive. Knightley wants to protect his son from danger, but comes across as being distant and patronising, especially as Darkus shows how useful he can be. 

There is a little magic behind the evil in this novel - it is not a straight forward mystery. But it is perfectly constructed and executed. Rohan Gavin is a fresh and thoughtful writer, taking his audience on a clearly signposted path where everything is explained thoroughly and planned in detail. 

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath
London, Vintage, 2005, 234p

I have a whole lotta love for Sylvia Plath, despite her reputation as being rather depressing. I first read The Bell Jar during A-Level for my coursework, for which I set about on a focused study of the themes of the novel, with a particular emphasis upon gender. It has been such a long time since I read it that it felt like reading it for the first time, and again I savoured every minute.

Esther Greenwood is spending a summer in New York, having won a writing scholarship to work at a reputable fashion magazine. Holed up in a female-only hotel full of fellow winners, she is trying to make the most of this opportunity, but finds herself overwhelmed by the hypocrisy of world in which she finds herself. On returning to suburban Boston, Esther is exhausted but completely unable to sleep, and spirals into depression as she contemplates her future prospects. 

First published in 1963, The Bell Jar outlines the plight of the educated, middle class young woman in a society with offers limited opportunities outside domesticity. Esther is surrounded by women who work under the thumb of powerful men or gave up their jobs to marry. When she thinks of her future, she knows that whatever decisions she makes will cut off a hundred other opportunities, and she finds herself unable to act. The feeling of completely lack of control overwhelms Esther, making her feel stifled and suppressed, like she is trapped beneath a bell jar. 

Reading today, with a better understanding about mental health, the story of Esther Greenwood is disturbing and frustrating. She finds herself isolated, unable to talk to anyone about how she feels; and when she tries to explain, she is patronised and mocked. Contemporary treatments included electroconvulsive therapy, a traumatising experience that offers no solution to Esther's feelings. 

The story is thought to be semi-autobiographical, with Esther's life unfolding in a similar way to Sylvia Plath's. But I always felt this novel was more universal than that, appealing to many young people, growing up unsure of what lies ahead. 

But there is such beauty in Esther's sorrow. The imagery she uses is profoundly unique, demonstrating the complexity of the depressed mind. It is almost as if she sees more than the rest of us, and this deep awareness sinks her into melancholy. The Internet is flooded with meaningful quotations from the novel, adopted by readers as a reflection of their own lives.

Reading this again, I was able to distance myself from Esther's story, whereas I used to read too deeply into it and relate it to my own life. Now, I am able to note the beauty in the melancholy, seeing the nuances of the language and the detail in the images. For me, this novel is not a sad one, but one of incredible originality, poignancy and beauty. 

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Real Rebecca

The Real Rebecca
Anna Carey
Dublin, The O'Brien Press, 2011, 256p

For some reason, the Bechdel test keeps coming up in conversation or my reading recently. This is a standard used by some feminists to judge and critique films, books and other media. The criteria ask
  1. Are there at least two women in the film / novel / other
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something other than men?
Subconsciously, I often use these points to judge what I read, especially with fiction targeted at young women. Many novels written for teenage girls have an element of romance within them, but it is the addition of other causes of drama that make such novels enjoyable.

Rebecca is the subject of one such novel, though in a rather unconventional way. Her mother is an author who has just decided to delve into the world of young adult literature. She has written a book which she claims is based on the 'antics' of her two teenage daughters, and Rebecca is overwhelmed with embarrassment at her mother using her life for inspiration. So she sets out to show everyone The Real Rebecca, by rebelling against everything that characterised her mother's new protagonist. 

The teenage girls written about by Rebecca's mother are boy-obsessed, fashion-obsessed and have even started their own pop band. So when Rebecca and her friends set out challenge the assumption everyone had about the character being the same as Rebecca, I was surprised when they started their own band, albeit more indie than pop. The friends are working towards an upcoming Battle of the Bands competition, which they are entering in part to show off to Paperboy, the man of Rebecca's dreams. 

As you can see, in trying to show her real self, Rebecca seems to be reinforcing the similarities between herself and her mother's fictional character. And yet, I didn't abhor the character, as I sometimes do with books like this. The Real Rebecca just scrapes through the Bechdel test, but the female protagonists are well-developed, interesting and probably just the sort characters I would have enjoyed reading about as a young girl. 

Monday, 13 January 2014


Trouble: Two Tales from Devana High
Bali Rai
London, Tamarind, 2013, 328p

Although he is a rather popular author in my library, I have not previously read any Bali Rai novels. A lot of my energy is taken up in promoting books that are not read very often, and I do not have a problem with Rai's fiction, as it is constantly on loan. 

The Devana High books are a new series about six teenage friends. This novel focuses on Grace and Dean, offering the reader two separate stories about the same characters within the space of one book. Grace is a quick-witted girl who is fed up with always having to take late lunch and eat the leftover food. So when she and Dean find about about the lunch time clubs, which will allow her and her friends to leave lesson early for lunch, she jumps at the opportunity to get some decent food. In Dean's story, keen to get his hands on some extra cash, Dean agrees to help his brother sell some phones and games around school. 

Despite appearances, Dean and Grace are not naught kids - just a little misguided and cheeky- and inevitably, they end up in trouble (hence the book's title). But they are the kind of characters young readers can relate to, being flawed and human instead of delightful angels. They chat back to teachers, turn up late to school and wind each other up, but they are essentially good students. And when the find themselves in trouble, they aspire to do the right thing and make things okay again. Beneath all the bravado and excitement is a story with a moral message. 

As an adult reader, I struggled a bit with some of the slang in this book. I'm sure a younger reader would make sense of it all, but I occasionally tripped over the words. And Dean lives with his grandfather, who speaks in such a broad Jamaican accent that even the family cannot always understand him. 

Trouble is a fairly easy read, with the drama flowing succinctly and the characters maintaining the reader's interest. Each of the six characters have their own story, and I find myself wanting to read about the other individuals, too. Bali Rai has achieved a great thing by putting the stories of a male character and a female character in the same book, meaning this cannot be labelled as either "for boys" or "for girls". And his ability to characterise and infiltrate the minds of these two separate characters is brilliant, bringing to life two distinctly different individuals within the same pages. Whilst some writers cannot even create one convincing protagonist, Bali Rai has produced six!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014


Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert & Richard Isanove
Marvel, 2011

I have been looking forward to reading this for months, so when I found myself with a quiet weekend, I indulged in a bit of Marvel gone historic.

It's 1602 and Queen Elizabeth is close to death. In her court, Doctor Stephen Strange and Sir Nicholas Fury conspire with the Queen to protect her, concerned that her death might bring forth the rule of King James, who has no love for magical arts. Witch-like activitiesn will be supressed and a reign of Catholicism will rule over England.

This gripping Gothic graphic takes all our favourite Marvel heroes back in time. From the X-Men to Fantastic Four to Captain America, they are all hidden under historical guises, unaware that they are about four hundred years too early. Something unexplained has disturbed the chronology of history, and somehow these characters have langed in Elizabethan England, unaware that they are destined for another time.

It is incredible how easily the Marvel characters slip into the seventeenth century - you might think that there would be profound differences in their situation, but actually it turned out to be rather easy to surplant them in another time. As in the twenty-first century, they are at risk of prosecution for their abilities, forced into hiding and always in conflict. Scientific explanations for their powers are replaced by magical and supersticious explanations, but the core 'otherness' remains.

There are many layers to this story, but the brilliant and detailed illustrations keep you abreast of the flow, and so it is able to jump around from each characters' storyline until they all come together to overcome the darkness that hangs over the world. For some of the characters, it is clear who their modern alter-ego is, but some are more subtle, revealing themselves to you as you read on and learn more.

I found myself completely engrossed in this story. If anyone has any doubts over the educational potential of graphic novels, surely this overcomes any argument against, as it teaches seventeenth century history through the medium of the superhero story.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Ketchup Clouds

Ketchup Clouds
Annabel Pitcher
London, Orion, 2012, 293p

Annabel Pitcher has wowed me again. Ketchup Clouds is just what I needed to get me back into teenage fiction after my break into the world of adult novels. 

We are introduced to Zoe through her letters to Stuart Harris, a man on Death Row in Texas. She has found his information online and feels a connection to him, as she carries the guilt for something she cannot bare to tell anyone else. Zoe confides in Mr Harris, and her story is told through a series of letters she addresses to him. 

It's rather difficult to say much about the book without revealing some of Zoe's secret. Suffice to say, it being teenage fiction, there is an element of romance, and the boy of her dreams is wonderful. He is clever and funny, and, just like every girl wants, completely gets her. Zoe gets caught up in the romance, loving the distraction from the issues facing her at home. She is under pressure to succeed academically, her parents pushing her towards a career in law when all she really wants to do is write. And on top of that, mum and dad keep arguing, making Zoe and her sisters worry that they might split up.

It took me a little time to get into this story, mainly because of the long winding sentences Zoe writes in. She gets caught up in a thought and it carries her away, producing muddled paragraphs and obliterating any sense of chronology. But overall, this adds to your sympathy for the girl.

Ketchup Clouds is a rewarding book - it gives the reader a sense of perspective on secrecy and guilt. Everyone in the novel seems to be keeping a dark secret, from the unfortunate Mr Harris, to Zoe, and even her parents. Underneath the story, there might even be moral guidance about honesty. 

Friday, 3 January 2014

Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth
Ian McEwan
London, Vintage, 2012, 370p

Due to high demand amongst staff at my school, a colleague and I are establishing a staff book club, starting with Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth

Although McEwan has a tendency to be incredibly tough on his protagonists, I like his writing. He is gritty, getting right into the minds of his characters. They are not flawless objects you cannot believe in, but detailed and flawed individuals who often cause their own demise. 

Serena Frome is no exception. She is an attractive, intelligent young woman, fresh out of Cambridge, when she is spotted by MI5. She is recruited for operation Sweet Tooth, a project to mould the face of British culture through supporting writers who reflect the government's desired national mood. It is 1972 and society is in a difficult place, with the Provisional IRA threatening terrorism, workers going on strike, and the Cold War hanging over Europe. Serena is told to manage Tom Haley, an English professor who has shown an aptitude for writing what MI5 want to see. She admires his work, and when she meets him, falls for the man himself. 

This novel did not unfold in the manner I had expected. The blurb is enough to make you anticipate fast-paced action, but the drama occurs in a rather more leisurely manner. The reader is aware that Serena is doomed from the beginning, unable to tell Tom who she really works for. The secret builds between them as they become closer and closer, threatening to unravel their peaceful seaside idyll. 

And yet, I hugely sympathised with Serena. It might have been her unadulterated love of reading or her misguided approach to romance, but despite her being incredibly different from me, I related to her feelings. This is where I think McEwan is highly skilled: he gets right into the subconscious of his characters, breaking down their motives and movements so that the reader becomes in tune with the protagonist, and you start to believe you might have acted exactly as they did. 

I am really looking forward to discussing this novel with my colleagues and friends - even if we conflict, I love exploring a novel through someone else's eyes.