Monday, 24 April 2017

Crongton Knights, by Alex Wheat;le

The first Crongton tale, Liccle Bit was narrated by the Lemar 'Liccle Bit' Jackson- we were introduced to the tapestry of life on his estate, and to his mates Leon and McKay. The sequel, Crongton Knights is narrated by McKay, so we get a fresh perspective on the Crongton housing estate- a place that is impoverished and struggling, tormented by blood feuds and turf wars but that is joined by community.

His mum has died, and McKay, his brother Nesta and their dad muddle along, trying to cope in their own ways. Nesta is struggling to keep his nose clean and has become caught up in some kind of feud with a local bigman over the theft of his beloved bike. McKay's dad works nights, struggles to make ends meet and his youngest son suspects there might be something his dad and brother are keeping hidden from him.

Crongton Knights focuses on the three amigos being talked into embarking on a mission for V, the apple of Liccle Bit's eye. She's had her phone stolen by an ex boyfriend with compromising pictures on it. Together with V, her friend Saira, and a hanger on nicknamed The Boy From the Hills they brave riots and looting and the world's most awkward bus ride to the Notre Dame estate way over the other side of the city. Things, naturally, get out of hand and there are decisions made, consequences suffered and lessons learned by all.

I love the characters in this series; they are all so complex. McKay especially is the one we get the clearest insight into in this instance. He's a talented chef but sensitive about his weight, so we understand his insecurities and his ambitions. He's really sweet to Saira and Valencia- interested in what they've got to say, defensive of them when in danger, he loves his brother and his dad and just wants to stay out of trouble and for his brother to be safe. The dynamics within the friendship group are believable, often hilarious and just so warm and affectionate. They're so loyal to each other and obviously all highly value their friends.

I particularly liked the introduction of The Boy From the Hills in this book-  a sad, lonely kid that McKay defended once and now can't get rid of. He's desperate for company and friendship and follows them around like a lost pup- quietly rich but definitely unhappy who covertly tags along but ends up earning the respect of the group and finding a place for himself in their circle. His burgeoning friendship with the 2 girls and 3 boys is beautiful to read, and so well deserved. I'd love for him to be in Straight Outta Crongton.

I love Alex Wheatle's books. Though the plots are often straight forward (Hide a knife, retrieve a phone) they're about more than just these little quests; his books are about bad decisions, the consequences of poverty and struggle, family, friendship, loyalty, the limited options that are available to estate kids. His use of language is masterful, there really is nobody in YA who writes like Wheatle- his words have a rhythm and a lilt all their own. It's not that his language and dialogue are particularly believable or gritty or reminiscent of American gang culture, it's like he's created this whole new world that has its own slang and voice totally apart. It's a self contained world that lives and breathes all by itself.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Seeing, by José Saramago

Despite the heavy rain, the presiding officer at Polling Station 14 finds it odd that by midday on National Election day, only a handful of voters have turned out.
Puzzlement swiftly escalates to shock when eventually, after an extension, the final count reveals seventy per cent of the votes are blank - not spoiled, simply blank. National law decrees the election should be repeated eight days later. The result is worse; eighty-three per cent of the votes are blank. The incumbent government receives eight per cent and the opposition even less. The authorities, seized with panic, decamp from the capital and place it under a state of emergency.
In his new novel, José Saramago has deftly created the politician's ultimate nightmare: disillusionment not with one party, but with all, thereby rendering the entire democratic system useless. Seeing explores how simply this could be achieved and how devastating the results might be.
I read Blindness, Saramago's most famous (and also amazing) novel in 2013 and did not realise until half way through that this is the sequel. Perhaps a closer look at the titles would've illuminated me. Anyhow.

Seeing takes place in the same nameless city of the same nameless country (Portugal in mentioned, purely as an example). Only this time, the epidemic that seems to be sweeping across the nameless capital is political apathy. Political apathy which is confusing, unexplained and dangerous. Therefore it is swiftly upgraded to domestic terrorism; the city evacuated by the authorities and placed in a state of siege to sweat it out. The remorseless, treacherous inhabitants will stew until they are sorry.

The first part of the book is back and forth squabbling between the interior minister, the prime minister, the president and the exterior minister. All are, initially, aware that casting a blank vote is not an illegal act- what is and is not illegal is conveniently irrelevant during a state of siege. Good idea. After much discussion, observation of the chain of command, faffing about what should and should not be done and generally demonstrating perfectly why powerful men are essentially useless, the government seems to conclude that the people trapped within the city, 83% of whom cast blank votes, are enemies of the republic, miscreant anarchists with no respect for democracy or civilization. They declare them to have brought this all on themselves, with their savage, conspiratorial ways and the chaos and villainy that befalls them is their fault alone. Logic is the first casualty of this particular position. Truth swiftly follows. They have no plan. They have no sense. They have no courage or morality. They are politicians. They retreat, set up a border and see what happens.

After a period of siege, during which the besieged go about their business in a bemused, non violent and positively collaborative way, the government receive a letter. It it a letter from the first blind man, who four years ago fell in with a woman who retained her sight through the blindness epidemic. He tells of her leadership, her bravery, the fact that she did not go blind. Seizing this non existent connection between the previous and the current epidemic, the increasingly paranoid Governments gets a bee in its bonnet about bringing to justice the person that they believe to be the ringleader of this corrupting war on democracy- the doctor's wife. There is nobody else it could be; they will find the evidence to prove her guilt and expose her as the cold hearted criminal kingpin that she is.

The second part of the novel is three police officers, a superintendent, an inspector and a sergeant conducting an investigation into the supposedly suspicious activities of the doctor, the doctor's wife, the girl with dark glasses and the man with an eye patch, the first blind man's ex wife and the dog of tears. The first blind man, he that wrote the letter, is not under suspicion, being a patriotic informer. He probably cast a valid vote. The boy with the squint cannot be traced.

Personally, I found this second section much easier to read. The internal struggle of the superintendent is kind of heart breaking to witness. He has been explicitly ordered to conduct an investigation, and implicitly (though no less clearly) told what its outcome is expected to be. To see a man wrestle with what is obviously a very finely tuned conscience is grim; to see him still try to stick to his moral code and be good at his job. I got quite attached to the superintend ant and his fatherly stewardship of his subordinates. I liked that he was occasionally insecure about his decisions, endearingly methodical and occasionally quite grumpy, but he's the novel's hero really. He sees the goodness in the doctor's wife from the first moment and his quest for evidence against her dies quickly.

Written in Saramago's margin to margin text, disregarding most punctuation and dialogue conventions, Seeing is a slow burner. The squabbling politicians, though deplorable and eye-rollingly, infuriatingly familiar, are never exactly exciting and are (I think) intentionally interchangeable. The novels is a fascinating and depressingly accurate satire on the ineptitude of politicians and their obsessive need to point the finger, to be seen to be solving things. To get their bravado on and be Big Men. Their hell-bent determination to pursue a pointless, destructive, impossible plan and to expect demand, the pie-in-the-sky outcomes that they dreamed up is bitterly recognisable.

The end of this book is just so horrifyingly unjust. So abrupt and unsatisfying. Not in a badly written, structuraly way, but in a "That's life, what's now?" kind of way. I'd love to know what the government did next. Their master plan- so expensive, so ill thought out, so destructive and morally bankrupt, has demonstrably failed. Now what? How are they going to manipulate their populace, now the crowds and even the papers have failed to back their crazy movement? It's that spiral of increasing desperation on the part of the powerful, decreasing influence on the part of the 99%.

If you have not read Blindness, definitely do that first. Then feel the impotent rage after you finish Seeing.

Monday, 3 April 2017

The Call, by Peadar O'Guilin

Ireland has been cut off from the rest of the UK and the rest of the world, trapping every person on the island, Irish or not within its borders. Nobody in, nobody out. No internet, no new technology- nothing. For decades, every adolescent Irish citizen has been ‘Called’, an ordeal that can happen at any moment of the day or night and last for 3 minutes 4 seconds Earth time, but a whole day in The Grey Land- a sulfurous hellscape, a pain ravaged world straight out of a Bosch painting. The survival rate is about 1 in 10, and those that come back are usually traumatized wrecks, psychologically and physically bent and stretched beyond recognition. Each Irish teen must fight for their life against the torturing, flesh sculpting Sídhe, a beautiful, deadly hill-dwelling creature of folklore, banished beneath the Earth by the Irish countless generations ago.

Our protagonist is Donegal girl Nessa, a fifth year student at a college that trains teens to battle the Sídhe. They learn hand to hand combat, hunting skills, how to hide, bushcraft, folklore and study the testimonies of those that survived their Call. It’s almost easy to forget sometimes that this isn’t a normal boarding school, with the usual teen dramas and friendships and teacher-dodging going on- but there’s those little reminders that Ireland is not a thriving nation; the terrible food, the lack of resources, harsh punishment and the fact that adolescents will disappear regularly leaving behind a pile of clothes until they return dead or alive three minutes and 4 seconds later. There's a decent cast of supporting characters, ever dwindling as they are Called, that populate the school. Conor, a swaggering, treacherous 'Elite' has assembled a round table of followers, ego strokers and minions to parade himself in front of. His story arc is an interesting  study of the power hungry types blessed with physical strength, confidence and charisma, and how sometimes it can be their undoing.
Detail from The Last Judgment, by Hieronymus Bosch, 
I really liked Nessa as a character; she was resourceful, focused and had just the right amount of sass. Nobody expects her to survive because she has weakened, malformed legs and feet from Polio- so cannot run fast or walk without crutches. This just makes her more determined to survive, and she has upper body strength that puts the rest of her school to shame. Nessa comes across as cold and aloof, but it’s only because she knows that as the weakest combatant in the college, she cannot afford to be weakened by personal relationships, attachments and worrying about others’ welfare. Having said that, best friend Megan and would-be-more-than-friends-but what’s-the-point Anto have found a chink in her armour.

I loved the questions the book asked about conflict, colonialism and conquest. It asks; what are the consequences of war? What is the cost of victory? Who pays that cost? How do we determine who is responsible for actions of the past? What does it mean to be guilty or innocent? Who inherits that guilt? It’s so insightful and so subtle. The book refrains from taking a stance on the matter mostly, but it’s made clear that the Sídhe are not mindless destroyers of nations; they are trying to claim back what was stolen from them. Their vengeance is a consequence of displacement. They are a conquered people desperate to be restored to land they consider their birth right.

I really, really liked this and read it in one sitting. I really had to force myself to not skip ahead to see who died- an unusual show of self-restraint from me there. As with the best speculative fiction, The Call delivers us metaphors that force us to examine our world and question our actions, perspectives and opinions. In Britain, now especially, we have a tendency to romanticize our horrendous colonial, genocidal, tyrannous history- erase whole periods in some cases. I loved that this novel used a combination of Irish legend and mythology, poetry and language to create this tapestry of history that was kept alive at a horrible cost. And wrapped it up in a haunting, heart-pounding, breathless action narrative of death, trauma and merciless continuation.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

How Not To Disappear by Clare Furniss

A gorgeous, heart-breaking story about family, being let down, making decisions and identity that manages to be tragic and poignant but also funny and life affirming at the same time. It’s a coming of age story and also about THE CIIIIIIIIRCLE OF LIIIIIIFE and paying particular attention to the relationship between the beginning of and end of life. I loved the way the auth
or handled the subject of aging and dementia- sensitive and empathetic, but without any kind of sugar coating.

17 year old Hattie is pregnant- she knows it, we know it very quickly too. Her flaky, charming, debonair friend Reuben doesn’t know it though, and he’s the father. He’s currently drinking and seducing his way through Europe. In an attempt to avoid having to have the “baby or abortion” conversation with herself, Hattie instead finds distraction in a long lost great aunt named Gloria.
Contacted via a neighbour, Hattie learns not only that Gloria exists, but that she is also not in good health. Upon their initial meeting, scathing, cold Gloria seems drunk and cruel- and not that keen on Hattie. Hattie is trying to dig up details about the dead father that she barely remembers, but Gloria is being deliberately difficult. She seems to be struggling with the early stages of dementia and lashes out, resulting in Hattie revealing that she’s pregnant. Pregnant and miserable. After she storms out, Gloria becomes keen to make amends- suddenly Hattie Is more interesting, and Gloria suggests a trip for the two of them. A bucket list trip where Gloria gets to revisit places that have impacted on her life. She considers to herself that as the only keeper of her secrets, the truth about her family and her past is quickly receding from her memory- and once she forgets, the secrets, and technically Gloria will cease to exist.

I loved the dual narrative- Gloria takes us back to her adolescence, her spirited teen years and her first love with Sam. She reveals her story bit by bit, claiming forgetfulness when it gets too painful and doesn’t want to go on. Gloria’s memories are full of fascinating social history and cruel glimpses into the prejudices and attitudes of the post war era. Her home life sounds awful, but her love for her sister Gwen, Hattie’s Gran is obvious- we puzzle why they lost touch and why Gloria didn’t attend the funeral. Hattie becomes a historical detective, determined to uncover Gloria’s history. It’s a gripping, devastating mystery that seems so cruel and unfair. I loved that the growing trust and (sometimes begrudging) affection between Gloria and Hattie is the crux of the story- not romance, or revolution. It's a private, slowly burgeoning relationship built on the balance of experience and age, and youthful enthusiasm. 

I loved Gloria. I loved how stubborn she was, how arch and sarcastic. Partially to protect herself from her increasingly vulnerable neurological state, partially because she’s not going to stop being a sassy devil any time soon. She’s old school glamourous, suffers no fools and needs only herself and a gin sling to be happy. As the story goes on, her strength and bravery becomes more apparent, and the reader’s heart breaks for how much she has been through, resolutely refusing to let it crush her. The secondary women in this novel are all brilliant too- they have their own temperaments, flaws, life goals, agency. Edie is brave and wonderful… Alice, Hattie’s little sister is basically a micro Gloria, and Hattie’s best friend Kat and her Mum too; we just don’t see enough of them. I want more interesting, flawed, opinionated women just *being* together. It’s something I don’t think happens enough in literature.

How Not To Disappear manages to touch on so many issues, but manages to avoid being preachy. It feels very real, very true, and imbued with that sort of barely-believable, tragic ‘scandal’ that blights the past of most families. The problems encountered by these characters feel real, the characters feel real. We feel invested in the consequences. The importance of the decision making process is really highlighted- it is suggested that a person can never feel real regret if they made the decision that was right at the time. The book deals too  with decisions that are taken away or made for someone.

In conclusion, How Not To Disappear is a wonderful dual narrative story about estranged relatives getting to know each other. It’s about how society and social attitudes change, but they don’t change enough. It’s about doing the right thing for yourself, admitting responsibility and letting yourself be open to people, to heartache and to pain. It’s about me memory and emotional trauma and how unfair life can be. There are wonderful characters, funny dialogue and one of the most badass old ladies in YA fiction.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The Monstrous Child, by Francesca Simon

Hel, half god half giant, daughter of Loki and corpse from the waist down is the reigning queen of the underworld. Not through choice, but because she was flung there by Odin, the one-eyed seer of everything. She's a goddess, but one with the worst gig going.

I'm not even a novice at Norse mythology. I know Thor had a hammer and Thursday and (probably) Thunder are named after him, Odin had Ravens. That's pretty much it. I found the relationships between gods and gods, gods and giants, giants and people, gods and people to be very confusing. I just wasn't feeling the mood and the atmosphere that the book conjured up. Yes it's unusual, but I'm not sure that it was enough to win me over.

I found the narrator, Hel, rubbed me up the wrong way. She starts her story with her birth, to a mother who wasn't that keen, way back before the beginning of time. I suppose it's something of a saga. She is, for me, too knowing, too sly, to bilious. Yes, even for keeper of the underworld. Where she probably thought of herself as sassy and fearsome, she just sounded like a stroppy, bratty child, lashing out at anyone who'd listen. Maybe she was. She muses on the pointlessness of poetry, references the passing of time and its ultimate redundancy for immortals such as her quite frequently, and eventually I was just getting kind of frustrated with it all. Yes, we know you're immortal. Yes we know you don't like the dead. What else is going on down here? I just found her to be overwhelmingly surly, and by the time I started to feel an inkling of sympathy for her, it was far too  late.

Hel spends the middle section of the book pining for married god-man Baldr, the one person that she encountered that wasn't disgusted by her during the brief interlude that she lived in the world above with the other gods. He spun her around once, so naturally, that must mean he is in love with her. That's about all you're going to get in the plot department, apart when things in the god world above start to get a bit end of days.

It's certainly a unique book, one with a very unusual protagonist. I found that whilst I wan't enormously keen on Hel, it might well have been entirely intentional, and I found the first person voice to be very consistent, characterful and very well executed. I felt that Hel was a whole, complete person, even if I wasn't finding her massively appealing. It's entirely possible that my lack of knowledge about Norse mythology prevented me from getting too into this. Interesting, but I don't think it was for me.

Friday, 17 March 2017

We Come Apart, by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

A verse novel that alternates between two very different voices of two narrators that have been brought together via the same crime, but from very different backgrounds. Jess is in trouble quite a lot- caught shoplifting, third offence, she is sent on a reparation scheme to 'give back to society'. Nicu is caught once, but perhaps due to him being a recent Romanian immigrant, seems to find himself on the same scheme. They form an unlikely bond, one that doesn't quite spill over into school immediately, but one that makes Jess re-think what she wants from friendship. It makes he reassess who she is, why she behaves how she does and surrounds herself with toxic people.

There are no chapter headings, but it's always easy to tell who's narrating- one, because it's so well written, and two because the voices are so distinctive. Not only because Nicu's broken English is quickly identifiable, but because the characters' personalities are very evident from what they say and think. The reader gets such an instantaneous, illuminating glimpse into these teens' heads. Nicu is fun loving, romantic, goofy and keen to please. He just wants to make friends, be liked and get people to smile back at him. He knows that as a Romanian in England the deck is stacked against him. It's quite heartbreaking how low he's set the bar for acceptance. He's like a beaten up little puppy that still wants to see good in everyone. Jess is literally the opposite. Cynical, angry, powerless; she lives with her doormat mum and her abusive stepdad and feels complicit in her mother's abuse as she is unable to stop it. Jess doesn't trust anybody; her dad left her, her brother left her. She is afraid to show any kind of vulnerability or weakness. It's fairly plain to see what Vile Terry's ling term goals are for Jess. She sees no realistic future for herself so despite her cocky attitude, her self esteem is dangerously low.

Though bullying, prejudice and  small-town Brexit-based hatred are prominent themes throughout, it remains a story about friendship. Nicu is head over heels for Jess pretty much on first sight, but it's a slow burning relationship that has to overcome trust issues, secrecy and the vile attitudes of Jess' 'friends' and stepdad. It's hard to watch Nicu be slandered and bullied- he stays so calm and dignified while Jess stays silent. It's interesting to see how social influence, power and acceptance shifts, changing the characters as it settles.

Through their friendship, though support and trust in one another, each character grows in confidence and self worth. Naturally, it's too good to last. Tragic, somewhat inevitable bad decision is made, one of those sorts of wrong place, wrong time, unfair little life wreckers that you cannot win either way. It's an emotional narrative, full of injustice and powerlessness, where the reader just has to wonder why we spend such time and effort being assholes to one another. It's short, bittersweet and thoroughly captivating- a modern tragedy of a beautiful friendship that society just refuses to allow.

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

I have tried to write this review so many times and nothing feels right. So. I am just going to go a bit off piste, format wise, and post the blurb, then simply rave about all of the different reasons why this novel is amazing and why you should read it. It has temporarily suspended my ability to be anywhere close to articulate when it comes to trying to describe this book. So the blurb:
Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed.
It's easy as a white, British person to feel like this can't be real life. Our Police for the most part don't even carry firearms. How can this happen? But it does; "Unarmed Black Man" has been heard enough to become a stock phrase. It's simply baffling to think that a person can be pulled over for a rear light being broken and end up dead. How?

This is such a powerful, important, vital story inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. It's blood-running-cold kind of powerful that leaves the reader brimming with impotent rage at the injustices of judicial systems. Infuriating and baffling, yes, but it's also beautifully crafted- brilliant storytelling filled with wonderful prose. I flat out refuse to believe that this is a first novel, because the hand that has written it is nothing short of masterful.

Moving on to the characters. The protagonist is amazing. Starr Carter is fearless (even when she's scared, she carries on). I cannot emphasize enough how fully-realized and complete Starr was as a person. Her inner monologue, her double life, the fears of being labelled a girl from the ghetto, but feeling conflicted about betraying her race and her upbringing are presented in such a way that it impossible to not be affected by her situation. It must be exhausting to have to be so many things to so many different people, to live up to or defy their expectations. She's real, likable, easy to root for. She talks like a real teen! So many writers get teen language and dialect wrong- there's always some veneer of 'something' that prevents if from feeling real. As adults it's hard to become the voice of teens authentically, but AT pulls it off beautifully. I loved the quips about Future Husband Drake and Cousin-by-Marriage Beyonce. Realistic dialogue is my Holy Grail with YA- it's hard to find, but when you do, it is such a pleasure to read. Obviously this book addresses a really serious theme, but it also manages to be unexpectedly funny, and full of quips and verbal sparring and witty, playful dialogue. Because even when horrible things happen, people still sometimes say funny things.

So not only is Starr the most lovable protagonist I've encountered in ages, there is also a brilliant cast of supporting characters, all of whom have their own struggles, passions, lives and personalities. Even story lines. DeVante, Seven, Uncle Carlos- all proper, rounded characters that exist beyond the pages of a book, beyond the scenes in which they feature. Out doing their own thing. I loved too that the novel showed married 40 something parents that are in love, respectful, supportive of one another. So may YA contemporaries feature broken homes, step-parents, drama, breakups, divorces. It is wonderful to see such a strong family unit full of such well crafted secondary characters. Yes, the Carters aren't perfect, but they make it work and they work hard doing so. I love that Starr has learned how to be treated by a man from her dad's good example. I loved that Starr calls her parents her OTP. It's just too adorable.

On top of the obvious essential social issue context, it is also simply an amazing contemporary novel. The Hate U Give also looks at coming of age, boyfriend issues, female friendships, school, family dynamics, community. Many YA contemporaries struggle to tell even a straightforward frenemies in high school story; with this novel you kind of get that for free, served on the side of a story of injustice, bravery and rage.

I especially loved how Garden Heights and its inhabitants were depicted. Obviously it's a problematic neighbourhood, but the sense of community was so evident. People looking out for one another, cooking food for each other, looking after one another's kids. Despite this, it's easy to see how characters like DeVante and Khalil fall in with bad crowds when there are no opportunities, no accessible role models, no money and no futures available any other way. Even though it's a serious novel about injustice and prejudice, it's also full of hope and courage and inspiring people.

THUG Forces the reader to think about their own prejudices and wonder what they'd do in the same situation. Not just how you'd react in Starr's position, but the conclusions that might be jumped to when seeing news reports or police incidents. It reminded me a bit of the brilliant Asking For It by Louise O'Neil; the assumptions about the victim eclipsing the crime committed against them, that some crimes are justified by the appearance and past behaviour of the person against whom they are committed.

It left me pretty numb to be honest. It's a thoroughly engrossing, emotional and should be essential reading for literally every person, but most especially anyone that has ever said "All Lives Matter". It's so easy to just ignore issues that don't impact upon you personally; to not even have to think about how they won't ever impact upon you. It is privilege in action. The Hate U Give left me asking myself "How can I be better at not being a well meaning but clueless white person? Is there any little thing I can do or change or say to make even a tiny flake of difference?"

This book is going to be massive, should be massive, and Angie Thomas deserves every breath of praise that she gets. The emotional labour of getting a story like this on paper must be pretty huge.

Thank you so much to Walker Books for the review copy and thank you for helping to put this book out there. I still feel like I've not even managed to convey how incredible it is.