Friday, 20 April 2018

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust vol 1, by Philip Pullman

I was kind of apprehensive about reading La Belle Sauvage, because His Dark Materials holds an incredibly special place in my heart and revivals, retcons and prequels are rarely good. This is not the place for that list.

I was just so happy to be going back into this world, with young Coram and Sophonax, and the chugging of tokay, and the glow of anbaric light and the Daemons and Dust... I did get the unusual feeling, however, that despite LBS occurring earlier in the timeline, the world just felt more modern than the almost-19th-century of Northern Lights? Just the way people spoke and behaved felt much more contemporary. The "otherness" of Lyra's universe has always felt very palpable, but in this book I found that whilst many elements were the same, I got a much more modern vibe from the environment. It's hard to explain. The world of LBS felt both familiar and altered at the same time.

La Belle Sauvage charts the journeys and adventures of 11 year old Malcolm Polstead of the Trout Inn, near Oxford. Friend to nuns, clearer of glasses, canoe skipper extraordinaire. Whilst exploring the riverbanks one day, Malcolm and his daemon Asta accidentally intercept a coded message hidden inside a wooden acorn- apparently a method of passing information used by secret organisation Oakley Street. This leads him into a friendship with Alethiometer-reader and scholar Dr Hannah Relf, and to her engaging him as a sort of protégé scholar-spy-book-reader and eventually into inevitable danger and adventure. Malcolm has also befriended a baby in the stewardship of the nuns, a 6 week old called Lyra who is apparently unwanted by her mother and both  inconvenient to and endangered by her father. When a deluge unlike anything ever seen before is foreseen, most people choose not to listen. Once the river rises, taking much of the surrounding towns and villages with it, Malcolm, baby Lyra and Alice, a surly nemesis of Malcolm's from the Inn are stranded in the canoe, the Belle Sauvage. Nothing remains but to get Lyra to Jordan College, to claim Scholarly Sanctuary.

I did quite like this book's darker tone. The 1984-esque informant culture of Malcolm's school, of the teachers that refuse to tow the line disappearing overnight. The oppression and the creeping fingers of religious indoctrination, guilt and a sickening sort of righteous patriotism begin to strangle society. It felt like the beginning of something, a foreboding prelude to bigger, scarier things. The parallels with today's unsettling climate of Nationalism and a slide into dangerous far-right discourse and attitudes cannot be ignored. There is one of the creepiest, most skin-crawling villains in a long time, deeper exploration of the fantastical elements of the World, including an River God, a pretty terrifying baby-snatching, Rumpelstiltskin-esque enchantress and a mysterious twilight world of opulence and ignorance, and plenty of river-based adventure.

It was an unusually speedy read for me, I was absolutely swept up in Malcolm and Alice's endeavour. I loved their changing relationship and their familiarity as heroes- Malcolm is capable and mature, intelligent and curios, dependable and honest to a fault. He is a traditional Hero in the most complimentary sense of the word. Alice is surly and bitter, she has borne a less comfortable upbringing than Malcolm and sees little opportunity available to her. She too is competent and loyal, she is tough and courageous, capable of looking after herself and anybody she feels protective of. Though I read the book quickly and thoroughly enjoyed it, looking back I think I would struggle to fully explain what happened in any meaningful way- criticisms of it being episodic are difficult to deflect.

I think we are all lying to ourselves if we claim this is as good as His Dark Materials, but it is nonetheless an absolute joy to be permitted to revisit Lyras world, to spend some time with the people that were instrumental to her early life, whether she will turn out to remember them or not. Also, the concept of baby daemons? Cutest thing I've ever read in my life.

Rook, by Anthony McGowan

Nicky and Kenny live with their previously single father shift-worker dad and most of the time, his girlfriend Jenny. It seems that since Jenny's arrival, life has got easier in the household, with barren years of cold rooms, dirty clothes and beans on toast hopefully gone for good. Nicky, a year 11 pupil, is the narrator- a middle of the road kid of kid. Not popular, but not the absolute bottom of the pile. Money is tight, opportunities are few and he gets a lot of hassle about his younger brother, Kenny, who has a learning disability and goes to a special school.

Out walking their dog one day, Kenny and Nicky come across a half-dead Rook- the victim of a particularly powerful sparrowhawk. They take it home to nurse back to health, like they did with a badger one time. Kenny is relentlessly, tirelessly kind, and Nicky just wants him to be happy. The rook acts as a bit of a fable-narrative. A reminder that things can look desperate sometimes, and then they can seem hopeless entirely, but sometimes situations can be misread. Nicky learns, via the allegory of the rook, to have a bit more faith in the world.

I liked Nicky as a narrator, he seemed real and was very endearing. He has a bit of a tough time throughout the book- frustrated, wrongly blamed for something. He makes some bad choices, but it's easy to see how they might have seemed sensible or necessary at the time. He is angry, often very bottled-up and fiercely protective of his family. He's basically just your average, angry, mixed up  teen, languishing under the poverty line and left for collateral, trying to keep his head above water at home and at school.

The real strength of the novella is the relationship between Nicky and Kenny. Nicky is a very honest narrator, he talks about how he'd always imagined that Kenny only really ever existed in relation to him, like if he was out of sight, he ceased to exist. There's a refreshingness about somebody so candidly talking about something that the acknowledge was wrong of them. It's an interesting journey that Nicky goes on, in how he relates to the world around him. Kenny is a wonderful character. He's funny and stubborn and brilliant, and he loves Nicky to bits.

Reading this as accessible, low ability high interesting fiction, it is excellent. It's gritty and realistic, full of themes of injustice and poverty, and a good Coming of Age story about bullying and crushes and being a bit of a loser but resolving to be the best person you can be. Another cracker from Barrington Stoke.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The One Memory of Flora Banks, by Emily Barr

I didn't really know what to expect from this novel, and blew hot and cold whilst reading it, but came out very much on the pro side in the end. It was a cleverly constructed journey that makes very good use of the unreliable narrator trope to mess with the reader, the protagonist and the entire timeline of events.

The book is about 17 year old Flora, who has little to no short-term memory following the removal of a brain tumour as a 10 year old child. She remembers things for an hour or so, but cannot commit things to memory. She's basically human Dory and is using a very Memento-ish technique of writing herself notes and remainders (on her arms, hands, in notebooks and post-its) to keep herself up-to-date with her own life. Every day when Flora wakes up, she is 10, her best friend is Paige and they both wore pig-tails on the first day of school. Every morning Flora has to read about her operation, her anterograde amnesia her medication and the fact that she is actually 17.

Flora attends a party for Paige's boyfriend Drake (yes, Drake) who's leaving to study on Svalbard. She gets confused and leaves, making her way to the quiet of the beach. Drake follows her, and kisses her on the sand. The next day, Flora remembers. She remembers their conversation, remembers him asking her to spend the night with him, remembers their kiss and the black stone she put into her pocket as a keepsake. She has retained a memory. 

When Flora's parents are called away on an emergency to Paris, Flora is left home with Paige. Only Paige skips out on the gig because she's mad, so Flora's incredibly protective parents don't know that she's alone. Fixated on her new memory, she sets off to the Arctic to find him, convinced that he is the answer to unlocking her memory.

Once Flora gets to Svalbard with the help of a Passport she didn't know she had, a notebook full of notes and her one memory, she really begins to develop as a character. She's a lovable, spontaneous, infectious person, a person that makes friends easily, does what she thinks is right and makes up her own mind. She's endlessly resourceful and determined and brave, and funny and warm. She has to grow up 7 years every day, but she's firey and independent and pretty much unstoppable. Aided by emails from her older brother in Paris, she starts to piece together her own past and Paige's dastardly betrayal begins to look like pretty small fry in the grand scheme of things. (LOVED Paige's brother Jacob, effective having him on paper only in the story, never in person. Really emphasizes his absence)

Initially, this books tricks the reader into suspecting that it could be in danger of fulfilling so many damaging tropes about disability and mental health- that True Love Cures All, that taking medication changes you as a person and suppresses the True, Authentic You. But the novel cleverly subverts those ideas and makes for a much more robust character and a more fulfilling depiction of a young woman living with neurological injuries. It's not the boy she is chasing but the memory, it just takes some new context to know that. It's not *medication* that alters personalities, but there are some things that do.

A very unique, compelling book with a wonderful main character, the Worst Parents, Worst BFF, Worst Boyfriend and Best Brother. It asks questions about memory and identity and how much we take it for granted, how much memory builds the people that we are and the decisions that we make. Also, interesting plot point about the gas-lighting of vulnerable people and on a related note, trying to seduce a woman that believes she is 10 and hopefully won't remember tomorrow is probably the creepiest move I have seen in YA fiction all year. Just wanted to get that in.

Sophisticated, carefully crafted and brilliantly characterised. Very much recommended.

Release, by Patrick Ness

I will read anything that Patrick Ness writes and I will love it because I am predictable and he is wonderful. I love his characters, his style, his general ability to just make you understand and feel absolutely everything his characters think and feel.

Release, like Mrs Dalloway that partially inspired it, takes place in one day (also, wonderfully, with the protagonist mentally resolving to buy the flowers themselves). This is Adam’s Worst Day. A catalogue of Objectively Bad Things happen, but it is also the day that it begins to dawn on him that the golden (though not always plain sailing) time of his youth is drawing to a close and there are unknown, scary, grownup things looming on the horizon of adulthood.

I did feel bad for Adam. Heartbroken, rejected Adam. Adam, harassed by creeps. Adam that knows he’s not being completely present with the people that care for him. Adam that is examining his romantic life and his home life and is beginning to form the conclusion that maybe he just doesn’t deserve to be loved. He’s lost and in pain and vaguely aware that he is hurting people that don’t deserve it, so hating himself a bit more. It sounds a bit melodramatic, but doesn’t feel that way on the page. It just feels painful and raw and exhausting. I loved how authentic Adam felt- it was a very real sort of anguish that any reader would connect with.

I LOVED Adam and Angela, the BFFs relationship that really, this book is about. Tiny statured, pizza toting, bouncy Angela who is so completely honest and refreshing and fun. Such a good, wholesome, platonic love. I loved that they both really wish they were attracted to each other so could just get solve the “Finding a Life Mate” problem but no, it doesn’t work like that and you both have to suffer instead and trial and error your way through the relationship minefield like every other chump. This is where the Forever inspirations are a bit more evident. Angela is fairly open about her sexual experiences and how disappointing and unremarkable they were, how something so apparently culturally significant could just be a bit of an awkward but not particularly regrettable episode that is un-noteworthy in almost every way. Adam too is open about his sexual history, ranking somewhere between a Monk and Byron, his recollections are frank and kind of informative, without being traumatic or sensational. It’s some incredibly skillful writing.

I can’t not mention Linus, Adam’s current boyfriend. I wish we saw more of him. He was sweet and attentive and understanding, he got mad enough at the way he was being treated to show he has integrity, but was understanding enough to show that he is a Genuinely Nice Person and I just hope it works out for the two of them and what this book lets us see is a reasonably rocky day in what will become a solid and loving relationship. I liked that it is not at all a Coming Out Story, which there are approximately 3 million of. There’s unspoken knowledge that Adam’s parents know he’s gay- he knows they know, and he knows that they don’t approve and believe that it’s a choice and a sin. It doesn’t build up to a big, dramatic revelation. He isn’t learning to live with his sexuality or coming to terms with how people treat him because of it. He’s just kind of getting on with life in spite of the unfortunate reality of Religious parents who are very hypocritical in the way that they dish out carefully portion-controlled helpings of their love. It's Coming of Age, not Coming Out and it is much more complicated than who you are attracted to.

I will say that I could have 100% done without the super hench Faun and the trippy Meth Murder victim and her identity struggle with the Pond Queen, but I read this a couple of weeks ago and my brain has sort of revised the whole thing to just be Adam and his Bad Day which works much better for me.

It's such a well crafted book that wears its influences on its sleeve, features complex, crisis-surviving teenagers that feel real and authentic, and though it is bittersweet and painful, the reader does kind of come away from it feeling that things will get better.

Friday, 16 March 2018

S.T.A.G.S, by MA Bennett

S.T.A.G.S is a prestigious, elite boarding school, founded when there were still three numbers in the year by a Saint that once made a stag turn invisible. Greer MacDonald, ordinary girl and film enthusiast has won a scholarship to study there for sixth form and after one term is finding herself lonely and isolated. She sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the old money student body, the kind that are all either minor royals or 25th generation minted, have family crests and heirlooms older than Hadrian’s Wall, and know what each of the 1,000 utensils are for at a formal table setting.

Needless to say she is baffled and curious when she receives an invitation to spend the Michaelmas weekend (October Half Term, for normal people) at Longcross, the ancient country pile of Henry de Warlencourt, the Country Life poster boy king of the school, for a weekend of Huntin’ Shootin’ and Fishin’. Despite apprehensions due to never having done any of these things before, Greer accepts, thinking that this is finally her being recognised as ‘One of them’, and a chance to get to know (and possibly join) the Medievals, the unofficial kings and queens of the school. Despite her Buzzfeed feminism, Greer still wants to fit in, something that she kind of despairs at herself for.

Togged up in very worn but obviously once expensive Country Clothes, think tweeds and Hunters, installed in one of the suites, Greer is surprised to discover that there are no adults on site, just some surly but incredibly compliant servants. Greer, Shafeen and Chanel, the other outsiders selected for the weekend are at the mercy of their gracious, generous hosts. Each of them is committed to ingratiating themselves, despite occasional derision and vicious attacks from the Medivals. As the three bloodsports, the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ take a very accident prone turn, it becomes increasingly apparent that the stags, the pheasants and the brown trout aren’t the only things being hunted.

I liked the idea of this novel, it was unique and it kept that question mark hovering over exactly what was going on- it reminded me of e. lockhart’s We Were Liars in that respect. In one instance because it’s a book about privileged white kids doing whatever the hell they want to and hang the consequences, but also because it dangles the truth just above the reader’s head the whole time. It’s there to see, but the prejudices and the hopes, the bias and the objectives of the narrator sort of conceal it. In this case, Greer and the ‘I think he likes me’ vibes she is picking up off Henry, lordling of the manor. Can somebody that charming, that friendly and someone so committed to showing her a good time be as evil as they suspect?

I liked how Shafeen, Nel and Greer grew closer through their plotting and their sneaking, developing more in the last third of the book than in the first parts. I feel like this was the first glimpse we got into the deeper workings of any of the nine characters. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but the three ‘Sirens’ and the two boys that weren’t Henry seemed pretty interchangeable.

I was not a fan of the tacked-on feeling ending and I felt that it needed just a little too much disbelief suspension to buy. Though it was an easy enough read, I found my attention drifting quite often. I quickly felt frustrated with the constant film references. I get that it was Greer’s *thing*, and that’s okay, I guess, but I think that particular pudding was marginally over-egged, with a reference on literally every other page. Like, it’s fine to make just a Hannibal Lecter reference. You don’t need to say Hannibal Lecter, from that film Silence of the Lambs. There is only one Hannibal Lecter, we know which one you mean. Assuming you are not an *actual* teen, in which case you probably haven’t seen Silence of the Lambs anyway, so never mind. I also thought that if this Michaelmas ritual had been going on for as long as suggested, maybe the perpetrators would be a bit better at *the objective*, rather than going about it in the half-hearted way that the Medievals demonstrate in the 2017 season. I didn’t feel that there was enough threat, no commitment to the actual cause, so the whole thing lacked the necessary tension…

All in all, it’s a bit of a mixture, is S.T.A.G.S. I really liked the combination of rich kids, boarding schools, privilege, class structure and cults, but I just felt that the whole book failed to deliver what it promised. I was expecting something more Until Dawn, with tension and desperation and gore. I like the insanity of the idea that people are too superior for the act of murder to affect them in terms of finance, morality or prosecution, it was very Rope. Or, as Greer would say, “Have you seen the Alfred Hitchcok film, Rope? Where a character considers himself to be so mentally superior that it makes him capable of pulling of a random, perfect murder? It was like that, but with a class motivation.”

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Moonrise, by Sarah Crossan

A beautifully written, emotional story about broken families, fragile hope, the legal system, the trap of poverty and being *present*. I love Sarah Crossan, I love her gorgeous verse and her carefully chosen words that can be so fragile one minute and devastatingly fatal the next. Verse just seems to suit her stories so well.

Moonrise is the story of Joe and his family. When Joe was seven, his brother was arrested.  Now Joe is 17 and alone in Texas, and he is seeing his brother, Ed for the first time in 10 years. Nobody has seen him since he disappeared with their aunt’s car a decade ago. Since then Joe and his sister Angela have been raised by their Aunt, after their drunk, pharmaceutical addicted mother walked out on them.  Since that time Ed has been in a high security prison, convicted of murdering a young police officer. A death penalty offence in Texas.  Joe has a couple of weeks with the brother he barely knows before he is put to death for something he claims he never did. Nobody has visited, they have barely written. Joe’s aunt has insisted all along that the best thing to do is forget all about Ed- he’s the reason the family fell apart.

I liked the portrayal of the broken Moon family, and Joe’s struggles seemed really real. We start off by thinking that the brothers barely know each other. But the flashbacks that occur throughout fill in some of the brothers’ history: Ed, wayward as he is, was basically both parents to his kid brother- a responsibility that it seems was just too much for someone so young. The story is emphatic that no matter how broken and dysfunctional a family, there is something that holds you together, for as long as you want to be held. No matter how wobbly, no matter how imperfectly. It makes you recognise that it’s a family that brings you up, even if it isn’t parents specifically.

Joe has a lot to work through whilst in Texas; the realisation of his brother’s future, the prospect of being the only family member there when it happens. He struggles with finances, with loneliness. He reflects a lot on his upbringing and who has and has not been there. He also meets a girl at the diner, Nell, that he becomes friends with that helps him through his impossible summer. I liked the presentation of this relationship too- it was fragile and precarious, temporary but significant, kind of unreal. The whole town had a feeling of unreality, a town that wasn’t really anything beside a place that was close to a prison.

The verse really suited this story. It made the narrative seem immediate, considered, bursting with feelings and so honest. Every word seems carefully selected and lovingly curated. Every line feels important, just like every day feels important to somebody on Death Row.

With every Sarah Crossan novel I read, I am more in awe of what she is able to do with words. Though her characters and narrators are often private, insular people, people that are vulnerable and lost, she manages to project them so clearly and so precisely into the reader’s mind that they kind of stay there forever. They are so distinct and so affecting, and I think it must be the verse that does that.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

It Only Happens in the Movies, by Holly Bourne

I love Holly Bourne. She is part of the UKYA quadrant that I’m always kind of expecting to see secreted away in an eavesdropping corner of the school that I work at, because her teen characters, the way they act and speak and coexist are so 100% percent accurate that she obviously has some sort of secret pipeline into schools. When you, a sensible, nearly 30 YO official Grown Up Person reading Holly Bourne, it's *creepy* the way the years fall off and you're 17 again and there's boy drama and UCAS and Leeds Festivals and staying on sixth form because college seems too scary and HOW DOES SHE DO IT??

It Only Happens in the Movies is about sixth former, amateur actor, cinema employee and professional cynic Audrey. She is done with love. Recently dumped by her ex-boyfriend after a minor bedroom mishap and major betrayal of trust, she has spent the last year watching her family implode after her dad walked out on her mum for a younger woman and won’t stop rubbing their noses in it, another major betrayal of trust and of love in general. Audrey is so absolutely done that she is going to write an A Level Media Studies essay about how damaging and unrealistic and dangerous romantic comedies are, with their perfect couples and their clichés and their airport dashes and declarations and kisses in the rain. Real life is not like that and the world needs to know.

There were a lot of things I loved about this book. I shall nebulously list them.

I loved Audrey. Caring for her mum alone, whilst her dad coos with his new, better family, and her brother is off at uni, she is struggling to manage her mum’s depression and irrational behaviour. It shouldn’t be down to Audrey to cope with it, but here we are and she endures in an incredibly realistic way- resentful, bitter, but with love. Because nuance, people. I loved that she tried to keep that line open to her dad, it shows she’s a good person. But it was good for her to confront her anger too. She was resolute and vulnerable, smart and honest and I would absolutely have been friends with her as a teen. I am also a very big not-fan of romance films (10 Things being the exception, I’m not a monster) but I loved how in tune with, and also disgusted and outraged by the tropes and expectations of both cinema and society she was.

I loved how all of Audrey’s friends were nice and supportive, and no matter how much she isolated herself from them or felt that she didn’t deserve them so she’s doing them a favour by cutting them off, they were still waiting for her when she figured something out. They didn’t intrude, but let her grieve and be angry and waited. Leroy was lovely and hilarious, and I would absolutely read the Spinster-esque spin off with him as narrator. LouLou was incredible, with her pink hair and her sass and everyone was just a part of a drama-free, supportive friend network and that was brilliant. More please.

I liked Harry. I did not love him. He was charming and funny, he was capable of being serious and a talented filmmaker that saw Audrey’s talent. I loved that he made her see her worth, and that it was a value that existed separately from relationships and men and love- it was a talent and a value that was just hers. I liked their relationship. I liked that Audrey knew he was a cliché bad boy, and that it was both futile and formulaic for her to believe that she would be any different than his other many conquests, or for her to even think that she could try and change him. She is also aware of the irony that being aware these things does not mean that she will not attempt them anyway. And then be mad at herself for being predictable and stupid. Audrey is a contradiction, like us all. She knows at the outset that she’s falling into to plot of a rom com, but, aware as she is, she is powerless to stop it. Until she does stop it.

I loved the uncommonness of the ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but it is so unusual for a romantic heroine to get to choose. To not have a guy foisted on her. She gets to put herself first, and to make a decision based on what is going to be the best for her long term, averaging out the ups and the downs of a relationship. 
*spoilery* The “I love you but you are bad for me, so I am going to decline even though it will hurt very much for a long time” is so rare and refreshing and, to prove Audrey’s point, it’s something you rarely see in the movies.

If you love romance films, read it.
If you hate romance films, read it more.
If you like hilarious, realistic stories with awesome, smart, tough young women in them, then definitely read it.