Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin

Having read the entire shortlist in record quick time (for me anyway), I decided I would embark on reading every Carnegie prize winner since the prize was inaugurated (1936 as it turns out). This is not going to be a quick effort I don't think.  Most of the books are still in print (which is pretty impressive, really), but some are trickier to track down.

Lots of my favourites are represented.  The second ever winner was The Family From One End Street, which is one of my favourite books of all time (obviously A hated it, as the fates would suggest).  I would strongly encourage you to read it if you haven't already, it's short and really very good indeed. Tom's Midnight Garden, Watership Down and The Ghost of Thomas Kempe are other books I have loved.

I've read lots of the classic winners, and also most of the winners from the late 1990s and early 2000s.  I trained to teach English in 2003, and our tutor was very passionate about the need for us to keep up to date with YA literature, so that we can push our students on and make recommendations based on contemporary knowledge.  This was fine when I was a student and had no children and not a great deal else to do.  I read voraciously and with great enjoyment. 

I still find time to read YA literature; mainly because I now only work two days per week (more accurately, I am only *paid* to work two days a week).  I honestly don't know how full-time English teachers manage to keep up with YA literature now, along with their absolutely crippling workload.  And I know you'll all think - in their 13 weeks of holiday, but for teachers who are also parents, that's their time for re-introducing themselves to their own children. And catching up with the marking and planning for the term ahead. The answer is that probably most English teachers don't.  Which is sad and worrying.

Anyway, I started my quest with Whispers in the Graveyard, which won in 1994.  I don't remember this book, but I'd say it's probably aimed at younger secondary aged children and I was at the dog end of my compulsory schooling by 1994. It's very good.  It's like a Kestrel For a Knave-lite mixed with The Graveyard Book.  The main character is loveable, and there is a redemptive Miss Honey figure who the reader can't help but fall in love with.  Excellent for boosting the confidence of children with dyslexia, which is one of the themes of the novel.  It's a very short read, so good for a holiday bedtime story.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Now that I've finished reading all of the books shortlisted for the Carnegie prize (oh yes, and burned quite a lot of toast along the way, "multi-tasking"), I have decided which one I want to win (I have never actually agreed with the panel on this front, by the way, which is a bit of a blow.)

Ironically it's the one about which I said to our school librarian "I don't want to read that one. I bet it's really, really boring".  She said that she'd thought it was really rather wonderful, and, in fairness, I normally agree with her about books, but my hopes were still not high.  A feels the same, and said "I'll read that one last. It's the one Mrs D says is most appropriate for Year 7, so it'll probably be rubbish."

Oh, but it's not.  I don't know if an actual child would like it as much as I do.  It's a sequel to Five Children and It.  I do not have fond memories of this particular work.  I never actually read it, but when I was at school the cool girl who got all the boys, and looked a bit like me but prettier, and had a figure a bit like mine but with bigger boobs, and got the solo I wanted in the choir concert, she used to call me Psammead.  We're actually very good friends now, despite the fact that she looks about ten years younger than I do, and is still sickeningly good looking. She doesn't call me Psammead any more, in fairness.

It's fair to say, I wouldn't have read this if it hadn't been shortlisted.  The psychological scars are still too deep. However, I'm so glad I did.  It made me laugh, sob, REALLY care about what was going to happen and think about the past, forgiveness, guilt and regret (I hope it makes my friend feel all these things too! Joking, obviously, I am so over it, honestly.  Completely, that's why I've hardly even mentioned it in this post).

It's set during WW1, with the original five children, plus their youngest sister, who was not born during the events of the first book.  I don't want to ruin the plot, so won't say too much, but the threads of the story are drawn together in a hugely satisfactory way.  It feels nostalgic, but not cloying.  It's an incredible achievement.

I really, really hope it wins.  I cannot urge you strongly enough to read it to your child (I would say 8+, there is death, but in an honourable non-gory Harry Potter way.)  I am going to read it as our next bedtime story, in the hope that reading the ENTIRE interminable series of Origami Sodding Yoda will make C more open to something he wouldn't normally choose.  We'll see...

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

Well now, this one was the most expensive on Kindle, hence it was the last one I read.  Over eight of your English pounds no less!  And yes, I know I should have ordered it from the library and waited, but our local library is open for about an hour on the third Wednesday of the second month (this may be a slight exaggeration), and when I need to read a book, I need to read it right now. This is also the way I feel about tea.  I should be glad, I think, that I never got into smoking and that red wine brutally disagrees with me.

Anyway, what an amazing book.  It's aimed at a YA audience, but I really think everyone should read it. Yes, everyone in the entire world, and that includes you.  Assuming that at any point in your life you have felt a bit unsure of yourself, like every one of your friends is only pretending to be your friend, and actually they feel really sorry for you, and that you are actually a bit rubbish at everything you do, and that will, ultimately cause everything to go horribly wrong for you and everyone you love.  If you've never felt that way, then fab, keep on keeping on, and good luck to you and all that, but I don't really trust you, by the way, not really.

I'm so glad Patrick Ness thought of this idea, and not someone else, who has great ideas but not the technical skill to create a great novel out of it (see my review of The Killables hidden deep somewhere in this blog). I would do a link, but I'm ill in bed, and that's far too much effort, so just read the whole blog, and you'll find it.  I'm sure you have time to do that, what with not having any real friends, and everything.

I'm not going to say too much about the idea of the novel, because discovering that is part of the joy of this novel (I suggest you don't read the description, the blurb, or any of the reviews, apart from this one). It follows  18 year old Mikey, in the weeks leading up to his graduation.  I think, even for the most tethered-to-reality of us, that's a difficult phase in your life anyway, where things become a bit less obviously planned out. A personal chord was struck for me by the fact that Mikey and his big sister Mel are both old enough to leave home that summer, leaving their 10 year old sister home with her (dysfunctional) parents.  This might well be what happens to BabyM.  This is one of my personal weak spots since one of my colleagues, on seeing my obvious bump said "Wow, that's a bit age gap you'll have there!  I'm by far the youngest of my siblings.  I've always completely hated it.  It's like they had this family, and then I just came along afterwards and never really fitted in" Thanks for that. I hope it's not quite such a difficult home as theirs, but I guess the issue is we all think we're actually perfectly normal really, and that's part of the point of this novel.  Also, that not being normal is actually find and OK.  But not in an "Hey kids!  It's OK to be just who you are!" kind of way.  In a brilliant novel kind of way.

I hope this doesn't win the Carnegie, because Patrick Ness has won it loads of times before, and books like this seem to win it year after year.  But it is brilliant, and it possibly should win. And you, yes, you know who you are, should definitely read it.  And get your kids to read it too, but not the little ones because there are adult themes (ie sex). Read it first, and then decide.  I don't think you'll regret it.  (You might of course, and then secretly hate me even more than you did before.)

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

Now.  I know a lot of people like depictions of the darker side of life in their cultural consumption.  There’s an awful lot of murder, abuse, genocide in films, books, television.  This is fine, each to his own and all that, but if you’re all have a pint of very dark bitter tasting ale, I’ll have a Malibu and pineapple with a paper umbrella in it, thanks.  I mean, sometimes I’ll have a nice glass of Burgundy, but probably with a handful of Mini Eggs, just to sweeten things up.

It’s not that I don’t like books that are a little dark. My favourite book as a late teen was Wuthering Heights, which is not exactly the epitome of all things cheery.  But, here’s the thing.  Wuthering Heights was exceptionally good.  Interesting plot, complex characters – a masterpiece.  It had something new to say about the world, and didn’t leave you feel as deflated as a balloon that a toddler has loved.

Marcus Sedgwick is a good writer, I don’t doubt that.  C absolutely loves his Raven mysteries, A adored She is Not Invisible, I liked Midwinterblood a lot.  This book is a little like the latter, in that it’s four interlinked stories.  Well, three stories, one poem.  Unfortunately, unlike Midwinterblood, it’s not very good.

So we’ve got four tales, and the topics we cover are genocide, executing innocent young girls, abuse and suicide of mentally ill people, and mass murder.  Linking these four stories is the symbol of the spiral, which, Sedgwick seems to say, will result in the same people killing and obliterating each other, ad infinitum.

This book made me too unsettled to sleep, and depressed at the state of the world, with no redemption whatsoever, and it’s not even very clever.  The “link” between the four stories is a clumsily added motif.

I really hope this doesn’t win the Carnegie, as it’s the only one on the shortlist this year, that, to my mind, does not really merit its place.

Its themes mean that I wouldn’t recommend it to under 13s.  I have already suggested to A that she leave it till last, in the hope that she’ll never actually get to it. 

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Fire Colour One by Jenny Valentine

Another strong female protagonist (complete with a side order of arson issues) and a sad, complex family tale, with a bit of art thrown in for good measure. I expect A will enjoy this one, it’s rather good for exploring teen angst.

It’s the story of Iris, daughter of a selfish mother, who only gets to know her father as he is dying.  Iris’s mother is a consummate gold digger, and, since she is broke and still married to Iris’s father, she sees his death as the ideal opportunity to get her hands on his priceless paintings.

A fabulous plot and some characters to care about and to despise, this is a good read.  It also encouraged me to look into some new artists, so is a good one for any arty types.  It’s not for little ones, secondary school age plus.  You may get some interesting questions about arson.

Friday, 25 March 2016

There Will be Lies by Nick Lake

There Will be Lies by Nick Lake was the next cheapish Kindle purchase.  Also, its cover makes it look like a typical dystopian adventure, of which I am a massive fan, so I expected to love it.  I did love it, but it’s utterly not a dystopian adventure, despite its cover looking a lot like Uglies.

Lake was previously shortlisted for the Carnegie for In Darkness. I didn’t realise this until my friend, who happens to be the school librarian mentioned it after I told her I’d read it. I absolutely would not have known that the author was the same person.  Looking back with the benefit of retrospect, the expert handling of a dual narrative, although less obvious in this novel, was employed again.  I much preferred this novel though.  Although In Darkness was powerful, it took about half the book before I even understood it, let alone started to enjoy it.

I enjoyed this book from the very beginning.  It reminded me of Room in lots of ways, although it is more appropriate for a YA audience than that novel.  It’s a very clever exploration of relationships and how we construct our view of ourselves. 

There are twists aplenty, as the title suggests there will be, and they all had me flummoxed.  The plot moves swiftly and is interesting, the heroine is complex and likeable.  I absolutely love it.  I don’t think it will win, because it isn’t self-consciously literary enough to win the Carnegie, but I think it’s great.  It’s not quite my winner, I don’t think, but it’s a very, very good read.

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

True to form, I moved on to Lies We Tell Ourselves because it was cheap in the Kindle store.  I was a bit concerned that it was going to be a little IN YOUR FACE ISHOOS, and that the characters might suffer as a result.  In fact, the heroine, who, like Faith in The Lie Tree, is quite an angry young woman, is rather wonderful.  The reader is supposed to admire Faith, but I don’t think the reader is expected to like her, since she is a rather unlikeable character.  However, the success of Lies We Tell Ourselves depends on the reader liking the heroine, Sarah.  She is wonderfully drawn, the narrative wonderfully depicts a strong and bright teenage mind in utter turmoil.  Not only does Sarah have to deal with the disgusting behaviour displayed by the white students at her new school, she also has to deal with the realisation that she does not have the feelings she is supposed to have for boys, but she has them for girls instead.

This, rather wonderfully, does not make for a depressing book, although the depiction of racial hatred is often very uncomfortable to read about.  Indeed, the book is full of hope, and of the belief that people can change the world, even if it’s a very little bit at a time.

It’s for the more mature reader. For a start, there are the issues that it deals with, along with the associated language. There is also violence and abuse of innocent young people.  It’s a book that makes the reader angry and motivated to challenge abuses where they are seen, but it is hard hitting.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

This one felt a bit like doing my homework before it was even set. I’d read this before the shortlist was announced.  It was an impulse purchase in WHSmith when I was a little befuddled by the hugeness of Westfield in Stratford.  And when I am feeling befuddled, the smell of a new book can help to anchor me to somewhere I feel safe, since there is always a new book smell somewhere in my house! Anyway, this one had won a prize in a competition that wasn’t just for children’s books, which is pretty amazing.  I had been rather nervously looking for a book to recommend to my book group; nervously because what if everyone else in the group thought it was rubbish? What if all the books I like are terrible?  Will I get kicked out of Book Group?  I decided that if this book was good enough to win a prize that wasn’t a horribly literary prize for boring books, then I’d probably be OK.

To cut a long story short, The Lie Tree is rather fab.  It also has the benefit of not being about racism or lesbians, so the questions from my eldest offspring will probably be more along the lines of “what does vehemently mean?”, which are, on the whole, easier to deal with during her brother’s bath-time than “but why were the Southern states of America in the 1950s structurally racist?”

The Lie Tree is about feminism, but not in an ISSUES way, in quite a clever, woven into the story kind of way. It tells the story of Faith, daughter of a famous scientist, who is embroiled in a mystery as to why her previously esteemed father has been disgraced. I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Age 11+, but the language is difficult and old-fashioned, so for strong readers or one for parents to read out loud.  Not for the very nervous.

Carnegie Shortlist

This year, I am more determined than ever to read all of the books shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.  Last year was the first year I managed to do this, and it was wonderful when the winner was announced to think “Yep, read that, it was good”.  I think that’s the other thing too, I’ve never read a bad book when reading the Carnegie shortlist.  I’ve read some that weren’t necessarily to my taste, but I’ve never read a bad one.

This year, A is joining the Carnegie Shadowing group at school.  She’s had to have a special consent form to be allowed to do it, as she’s only in Year 7 and some of the books have a content guide of 13+.  However, given that I was reading Danielle Steele at the age of 10, it would have felt somewhat churlish not to sign that form.  At least she’s more likely to get a well-rounded view of love and romance from gritty teenage fiction than she is from sub Jilly Cooper formulaic claptrap (my apologies to Ms Steele, because it was rather fabulous claptrap, at the time.) So that’s probably another reason to want to read all of them – so I know exactly what new things she will be learning.  There have been some interesting discussions so far occasioned by the first book she has read, which takes as its themes desegregation of Virginian schools and lesbianism.

I tend to look at the shortlist and have a view about which one I am going to like the best.  If I had all the books in front of me, I’d probably start with the best, and work my way down to the ones I’m least looking forward to reading, which is a terrible, terrible idea.  However, luckily, I have a different method of choosing – whichever book is cheapest on kindle on the day of shortlisting is the first book I read.  I’ve found that the prices of kindle books can change day to day, so by the time I’ve got through the first few books, the others have generally come down in price.  And it means that I spread out the books I’m looking forward to with the ones I don’t think I’ll like.

That being said, I should really have learned by now that the ones I think I’ll hate often end up being the ones I like the most…