YA Book Review: “36 Questions that changed my mind about you” by Vicki Grant

This book took me straight back to being a teenager, not so much because I empathised with the central characters, but because reading it felt like a complete guilty pleasure. And I loved it!

36 questions that changed my mind about you imgThe central character, Hildy, is a slightly quirky, slightly awkward 17 year-old. She has two close friends – her best friend is Max, who is gay and fairly camp with it, and her other good friend, Xiu is much more astute, confident and successful in affairs of the heart. She confides in them extensively about her feelings and worries. Hildy has not had a boyfriend for some time and so, out of a degree of desperation signs up for a research programme which is exploring whether it is possible to facilitate a romantic relationship between two people by making them ask and answer a specific set of (36) questions. Hildy’s ‘partner’ in the programme is Paul, who, from the outset, makes it quite clear that he is only in it for the $40 fee and who is a nonchalant and frustrating participant to begin with; where Hildy makes an effort to answer the questions truthfully and fully, Paul is uninterested and uncooperative, and obfuscates throughout. Their first session ends with Hildy throwing a tropical fish at Paul that she had bought for her younger brother on the way to the meeting.

Hildy’s violent reaction to Paul’s behaviour is clearly sobering to him and he contacts her afterwards to apologise. They continue their interaction and to work through the questions via social media messaging and eventually agree to meet. Hildy’s home life is complicated, however; her parents are going through a difficult time in their marriage (she doesn’t realise why at first, although this is revealed towards the end). Her mother is a hospital emergency doctor and her father the Principal of her school. She has an older brother, with whom her relationship is somewhat distant, and a 12 year-old younger brother, towards whom she is very protective, especially as she feels he is suffering most from the troubles at home.

Slight spoiler alert….if you don’t want to know any more about the plot don’t read the next two paragraphs, though I won’t give away the full ending.

Paul also has his fair share of troubles; as their relationship develops, he confides in Hildy that his mother (who was a single parent) died in a car accident when he was young, and that he carries some guilt for this.

A crisis at home means that Hildy fails to make the coffee shop meeting with Paul they had arranged after carefully rebuilding the rapport between them after the fish incident. Since one of Paul’s most hated things is lateness, this causes another major setback. Hildy had no way of contacting Paul because he does not carry a mobile phone. She then has to set about tracking him down, knowing very few actual facts about him.

The usual question of whether the boy gets the girl/girl gets the boy, hangs over the rest of the book right to the final page.

The book has an interesting style, which I think will appeal to the target audience (13-15 year olds), with some chapters written in prose style, while those sections which make up the interactions between Paul and Hildy are written like dialogue in a drama. This writing style variation seems to be quite common now in YA books, I guess because it makes them a bit easier to read for an age group traditionally seen as having more limited attention spans. It does indeed make it an easy quick-fire read.

It is a romance, but it does deal with some of the issues teens face – peer pressure, how to deal with worries at home, social anxiety, awkwardness interacting with others in whom you are romantically interested.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and recommend if your teenager would like something light and unchallenging to read. Will probably appeal more to girls.

How do you feel about your teens reading light romantic novels? Is it okay or do you wish they read weightier material?

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Advice wanted on Paul Auster’s “4321” please!

Around the middle of September, the six-book shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, the foremost literary award in the UK, and one of the top prizes globally, is published. I usually clear the reading decks for the next five or so weeks and set myself the goal of trying to read all of them before the winner is announced in mid-October.

Last year, I did pretty well, managing almost five before making my (incorrect!) prediction. Amongst many book bloggers, and reading groups, things become a bit competitive, and some years the books are long and it can become a real slog. In 2016, I struggled to get through Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which I found very sludgy at first, but thoroughly enjoyed by the end. I finally published my review of it this time last year, about six months after the Man Booker shortlist was published.

Alas, I have beaten that particular record… six months on and I have still failed to complete Paul Auster’s 4321. And this is making me a bit gloomy. It’s not that I’m not enjoying it, I sort of am, but to say it could do with some robust editing is an understatement. I crawled through the first 200 pages (which, incidentally, in a normal book with a normal typeface and normal line spacing would, I am convinced, be at least 300 pages), but I still have 650 pages to go! And it’s been so long since I read any of it that I’ll probably have to go back and start again.

It’s really heavy to carry around – definitely not one that slips in your handbag – and the audiobook is 37 hours long, which would still take me weeks to get through!

So, what to do? The reviews I have read say it’s great, which makes me want to continue, but it also feels like a huge commitment.

If you have managed to finish this book, do you recommend I continue?

Book reviews: Super-readable YA fiction

It’s easy to get young kids reading – as a parent you do all the right things: show them picture books from birth, read to them (honing your animal impersonations as you go!), read with them as they begin their own journey, take them to libraries and story circles and buy them books. But what happens when they don’t want you reading to them in bed any more? What happens when they are old enough to choose electronic devices over books? What happens when they “have” to read books at school they don’t enjoy? What happens when you’re too busy or too worn down to police the mobile phones, the tablets, the games consoles?

These challenges are particularly acute for parents of teenagers – isn’t it hard enough having teenagers in the house, without bringing in yet another source of conflict or disagreement? If this sounds familiar you might want to look into “super-readable YA” books. These are relatively short YA books, with highly-engaging contemporary themes, easy plots with the most succinct scene-setting, and high action. I read a couple recently which I can recommend. What is more, these two have a specific typeface and are printed on paper with limited ‘ghosting’ (where you can see the text on the reverse of the page through the paper) making them highly suitable for kids with, for example, dyslexia.

Grave Matter by Juno Dawson

Grave Matter imgJuno is a widely-published author, Queen of Teen 2014 and member of the LGBT community. The story begins with a funeral, for Eliza, girlfriend of central character, Samuel. Eliza was killed in a car accident in which Samuel was driving. He is grief-stricken and finds himself in conflict with his family, who do not understand his torment. Samuel seeks out the estranged sister of his vicar father, with whom he cut off contact after she began to dabble in the supernatural. Through his Aunt Marie, Samuel enters a world where he can bring Eliza back to life, but at a deadly price.

This book will appeal to teens who enjoy science fiction and fantasy or have tendencies towards gothic themes. There is some light swearing and some fairly gruesome scenes as well as some challenging themes so I would recommend for 15+. It is ultimately about accepting realities and coping with bereavement.

The Last Days of Archie Maxwell by Annabel Pitcher

Last Days of Archie Maxwell imgI found this grittier and rather more challenging than Grave Matter. It would suit teens who enjoy social realism or who may be coming to terms with difficult family relationships or with issues around sexuality. The book opens with Archie’s parents announcing they are to separate. Archie’s sister suspects it is because their father is gay. This is going on in the background, but Archie also has issues at school. He is part of a gang with some of the cooler kids, but who are actually unpleasant bullies. He befriends one of the more desirable girls at school, Tia, about which he is mercilessly teased by the other lads. Tia’s brother committed suicide on the railway line near Archie’s house, a year earlier, and he finds himself telling her that he saw her brother just before the day he killed himself, because she seems to need this to comfort her in her grief. As a result they become close. Thus, Archie finds himself sucked into lying, whilst his own home life seems to be falling apart.

Archie ultimately contemplates suicide himself and this is where (as a parent of a teenager) I found the book very challenging. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t do it! I guess this will be helpful to teens who may themselves be suffering from depression, as we see the disastrous after-effects of suicide for those left behind (Tia’s brother) and how it ultimately solves nothing. Jared, the openly gay school student in the book is a great role-model, confident, self-assured and who faces down the bullies, who are exposed as gutless and superficial. I enjoyed the book, but it’s quite a tough read. There is a lot of swearing and sexual language and references. On the plus side I liked how it looked at relationships from a boy’s perspective, which is quite unusual.

Both the above are published by Barrington Stoke, so take a look at their website for more suggestions for all age groups.

Can you recommend any easy books to get teens back into reading?

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My top ten literary film adaptations

serving the Oscars is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware of the froth and fakeness of it all – the ostentatious outfits, the overly emotional speeches, the elitism, the hangers-on – but there is something about the pictures and the footage which just sucks me in. I’m not a film buff, but I do love a film and am always interested in any with a literary connection. This year’s Oscars were a much-discussed affair; I have only seen one of the big contenders (Phantom Thread), but I feel I know all the others having heard so much about them. Oddly, the winner of the Best Film, The Shape of Water, is the only one that I probably won’t be rushing out to see.

Look in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for literary connections; in 2016 we had The Danish Girl, The Revenant, Room, Brooklyn and Carol among the big winners. That was a high point, as this year none of the big winners had a literary connection. James Ivory (so well-known for A Room With A View, Howard’s End  and The Remains of the Day adaptations) won the Best Adapted Screenplay award for Call Me By Your Name, based on a novel of the same name by Andre Aciman. This year, it felt to me as if the Academy Awards were more about the politics than the art.

So, the Oscars make me hunger for a good film based on a book. Here are my top ten favourites, in no particular order. They are not my favourite books (Ten! I couldn’t possibly choose just ten!) they are film adaptations that have stuck in my mind as most memorable and enjoyable – and no doubt in the days after posting this I’ll think of another half dozen that I should have included!

  1. The Wizard of Oz (1939) – based on a novel by L. Frank Baum.
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) – a favourite book and a favourite film, based on the Pulitzer prize winning novel by Harper Lee. Gregory Peck is just stunning.
  3. Macbeth (2015) – my favourite Shakespeare play, this is a brilliant film that conveys the passion, the grime and the extreme violence in a way that makes the Bard completely relevant to a contemporary audience and very accessible.
  4. Brooklyn (2016) – this was one of the first ‘grown-up’ films I took my two daughters to see (they are now 13 and 11). They have Irish heritage and we visited family in New York City the same year, so it felt highly relevant and they were able to empathise with the story quite deeply. Saoirse Ronan is stunning and it’s just a sheer pleasure to watch.
  5. Great Expectations (1946) – I am a huge Dickens fan and watch most of the film and television adaptations. I usually love them all, but this film is a classic. Directed by David Lean and starring John Mills and Alec Guinness.
  6. Apocalypse Now (1979) – based on the Heart of Darkness, the novel by Joseph Conrad, but relocated to the Vietnam War. The film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and stars Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen. Incredible book, incredible film in its own right. The 1991 documentary about the making of the film is also a must-watch, as it was beset by disasters both natural and man-made.
  7. No Country for Old Men (2007) – based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy this is a brilliant film by the Coen brothers, though parts of it I watched from behind a cushion!
  8. Wuthering Heights (1939) – possibly my favourite book ever (if I had to choose only one) it is hard to leave this wonderful film starring Laurence Olivier off a best anything.
  9. Gone With The Wind (1939) – haven’t read the book, but I love this film.
  10. Sense and Sensibility (1995) – I couldn’t not have a Jane Austen in my list and this is my favourite. It also stars some of my favourite British actors – Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, the late great Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant.

Having re-read this list, I’ve just realised what an incredible year 1939 was – extraordinary when you think of everything else that was going on.

 

What are your favourite film adaptations of books?

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Kids book review – “Kick” by Mitch Johnson

I read a super little book for children last week – Kick the debut novel from Mitch Johnson. It is set in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the characters are the poor people of that city, and, more specifically, young children who have to work in the sweat shops and on the streets of that city to help their families make ends meet. The theme is an important one and it is a book that will enlighten your child to international issues about which they may know very little, but it is not preachy.

Kick imgThe central character in the story is Budi, a football-mad eleven year-old boy whose hero is an English footballer called Keiran Wakefield, who plays for Real Madrid. Budi and his friends spend all their free time playing football, role-playing their favourite teams and stars. One of Budi’s friends has an old television and they sometimes watch matches together too, late at night Indonesia time. To that extent Budi and his friends are like any other boys their age and your children will be able to identify with their passions and their aspirations. The similarities end, however, when you compare the daily lives of these children with ours in the developed world; Budi and his friends work in factories, mainly sweat shops, where the conditions are poor and where the manager is cruel and exercises discipline through the use of corporal punishment. Budi makes football boots that are shipped off to Europe. They work for a pittance and, despite both Budi and his Dad working, the family still does not have enough income to eat a meal every day. Budi’s best friend is Rochy who lives with his mother and two sisters (his father is dead). Budi tells us that Rochy is the cleverest person he knows but that he had to withdraw from school because he needed to work to support his family. His existence is altogether darker – his mother barely communicates (depression?) and there is the suggestion that the two sisters are involved with the sex industry, although younger readers will not pick this up.

The community is also threatened by corruption; a local gangster, the Dragon, extorts protection money from local businesses and residents with impunity due to his familial links with the head of the police, and is reputed to have murdered his own brother. Unluckily for Budi, he crosses paths with the Dragon one day when he accidentally kicks a ball through the window of the Dragon’s apartment. The Dragon demands that Budi steal a pair of football boots for his nephew from the factory in recompense. He tells Budi that if he fails to deliver, then his family will be evicted and they will have to go and live in the slums.

Budi perceives the task as impossible and is ready to accept his fate, even to die, but then miraculously, the boots get to the Dragon. There is uproar in the factory as the foreman threatens everyone that they will suffer unless and until the thief is identified. A young girl is blamed and brutally ejected from her job. Budi learns only later that it was Rochy who stole the boots and passed them on and that he has effectively saved Budi’s skin.

The first half of the book is good fun: young readers will be able to engage in some gentle comparison of their lives versus Budi’s, the differences in wealth and circumstances as well as the similarities in outlook and dreams. The author subtly juxtaposes the poverty in the factory and in the society more generally with the excesses of the footballing world which the children so admire. Budi and Rochy discuss Western advertisments for cars, which they see whilst watching football matches, and to see the absurdity of them through their eyes is very funny and very enlightening

The second half of the book is darker. Budi’s life becomes even more challenging and some of his innocence is lost as he has to grapple with the realization that his dream of becoming a professional footballer like Keiran Wakefield may never be realized. We learn more about the activities of the Dragon and in particular a plot to traffic people to the West that Budi becomes embroiled in. This strand of the plot involves a dock-side shoot-out. There is also an earthquake in which Budi’s Grandma dies and Rochy’s mother and sisters go missing and are presumed dead.

This is a book which will need to be read with younger readers; parents will need to be on hand to explain and reassure. For readers 12+ the characters and writing style may feel quite immature on one level, but they will better understand some of the themes, which may well complement their secondary school syllabuses in a very accessible form.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book myself and ultimately it is uplifting. Although some of the events are bleak, Budi hangs on to his dreams and hope ultimately triumphs.

“The trouble with being a dreamer is that occasionally you’ll have nightmares – you’ve just got to make sure they don’t ever spook you enough to want to wake up.”

Recommended for 10-13 year olds.

How do you feel about exposing younger readers to difficult issues, such as the human rights abuses that many children in the world endure?

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Book review: “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges are not the only fruitThis was February’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was a feminist novel, in part to mark the 100th anniversary of the extension of the vote to a section of the female population in Britain. This book is normally considered a classic of the LGBT genre rather than feminist fiction, but, for me, Winterson is one of the most eloquent and interesting feminist authors around today, so I definitely felt this book was a worthy choice for the theme.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was Winterson’s first published work and proved a stellar launch to what has become a brilliant writing career. It was published in 1985 and won the Whitbread Prize (now known as the Costa book Awards) for a first novel that same year. I was a teenager at the time and can’t say for sure that I was particularly aware of it. I remember more vividly the 1990 television adaptation (written by Winterson herself) starring the late Charlotte Coleman (Marmalade Atkins, Four Weddings and a Funeral) which also won a BAFTA. This is a book with quite a pedigree.

Although Winterson insists this is a novel, it has strong autobiographical elements: the central character is adopted and called Jeanette, it is set in a northern industrial town, (the author grew up in Accrington), and it concerns a young woman’s discovery of her sexuality against a backdrop of religious zealotry. Winterson makes no apologies for this and writes in the Introduction to the 2014 Vintage edition that she “wanted to use myself as a fictional character – an expanded ‘I’.” She points to her 2011 memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? as being more authentically autobiograpical.

I had not read this book before but my memories of the television series were of something bleak and dark (and Charlotte Coleman’s brilliant orange hair!). I was expecting a sombre book with an overriding feeling of cruelty and oppression. In fact, it was lighter than I expected (Jeanette escapes, of course) with a great deal of humour, particularly in the characters, or rather caricatures, the author creates.

I’ll outline the story briefly. Jeanette is an only child, adopted as a baby. Her mother is a maniacal Pentecostal Christian “Old Testament through and through”, and her father, who has only a vague presence in the book, goes along with it, for a quiet life you suspect. In bringing up Jeanette, the mother attempts to instil in her daughter her own extreme religious views, keeping her as far away as possible from all other influences, including school. Every aspect of daily life is dominated by the church and all values and principles are predicated on the Bible teachings.

“The Heathen were a daily household preoccupation. My Mother found them everywhere, particularly Next Door.”

It is assumed that Jeanette will become a missionary when she grows up, like the charismatic Pastor Spratt, for whose work Jeanette’s mother raises substantial amounts of money, and for whom she harbours strong feelings which she would not describe as sexual, but which undoubtedly are.

There is cruelty in Jeanette’s childhood, in the way she is initially prevented from going to school, in the way her mother controls all aspects of her daily life, and attempts to control her mind, and in the way she denies her normal social interactions. This is tempered by the pithy and humorous observations the author makes about the church community, the hypocrisy, the characters she creates, and the naivety of some Jeanette’s observations. The following is an example – not long after Jeanette has started school, she reads out an essay in front of the class about what she did during the summer holidays:

‘”This holiday I went to Colwyn Bay with our church camp.”‘ The teacher nodded and smiled. ‘”It was very hot and Aunty Betty whose leg was loose anyway, got sunstroke and we thought she might die.”‘ The teacher began to look a bit worried but the class perked up. ‘”But she got better, thanks to my mother who stayed up all night struggling mightily.”‘ ‘Is your mother a nurse?’ asked the teacher with quiet sympathy. ‘No, she just heals the sick.’

There are passages in this book which are truly hilarious and it’s hard to pick out the best ones.

The level of cruelty, however, intensifies in Jeanette’s teenage years. This is the stage that her mother sees the greatest threat to the control she exercises over her daughter, and when the measures she adopts to keep her become the most extreme. Jeanette discovers she has feelings for a girl who has a Saturday job at the fish stall in the market. She contrives to spend time with her (in Bible study) but they become intimate. When this is discovered, Jeanette is forced to undergo a degrading ‘cleansing’ process, a kind of exorcism. At this stage the book becomes much darker.

Jeanette’s mother, although a frightening and unforgiveable bully, is of course a victim herself, driven to religious fanaticism, as the outlet for the frustration she has endured in her own life. Her bitterness and her need to oppress others, stems from her own anger and feelings of repression, and the author knows this. That is where I think a more feminist reading of the book can be taken. The men here are weak, pathetic, complacent, or downright creepy. The women are unfulfilled, frustrated or resigned. And it is this which has created the environment in which the promise of something more interesting and more empowering, albeit in the most dysfunctional of ways, through blind religious fervour, can thrive.

This is such a clever book, incredibly well-written, but complex. There are elements which are vaguely unsatisfying – the author tells a great story, but to some degree it is left unfinished. I found myself wanting more, wanting some answers. For me, it did fizzle out a bit at the end, but I can forgive this because the first half of the book is just glorious.

Highly recommended, but whatever preconceptions you might have about this book, set them to one side.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this book, if you have read it.

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Kids book review: “The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare” by Zillah Bethel

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare imgThis book is set in a familiar country (England) but in a future time where life has changed and the world is very different: bus journeys cost hundreds of pounds, many routine tasks and jobs are carried out (not very well) by robots and everyone carries a QWERTY, which it seems is some next generation pocket computer. Auden Dare is an eleven year-old school boy who lives with his mother in Forest Gate in east London. When we first meet him we learn that his father is away fighting in the war in Europe. Climate change has taken hold and water is scarce. Indeed, water, or the lack of it, seems to be the root cause of the conflict in which Auden’s father is involved. Auden has a condition called achromatopsia, which means he is unable to see colours, only shades of grey.

Auden and his mother move to Cambridge when Auden’s uncle, Dr Jonah Bloom, his mother’s brother and a brilliant scientist, dies and leaves them his cottage. She sees it as an opportunity for them to make a fresh start. When they arrive at the cottage, however, they find that it has been ransacked, as have his rooms at Trinity College, where he worked. It is clear that there is something amiss. Auden makes a friend at his new school, Vivi, who, it turns out, also knew Dr Bloom very well. The two young people decide there is something suspicious about Jonah Bloom’s death and set about to uncover the mystery.

Very soon Auden and Vivi discover that Dr Bloom had invented a robot, Paragon, which they find in a secret chamber underneath the garden shed in the cottage garden. Initially, Auden believes that his uncle was in the process of inventing a machine that would enable Auden to see in full colour. However, it turns out that the robot, in fact, has a much higher purpose.

This book is part adventure story, part mystery and has all the usual tropes you would expect from a children’s book of that nature: a brave and bold character in Auden, a brilliant female mind in the form of Vivi, an external threat in the form of the Water Allocation Board, which also wants to get hold of Dr Bloom’s work and in particular the robot Paragon, and a race against time, with moments of high tension. There are underlying themes here around the power of friendship to overcome adversity and how individuals can take control of their own lives and defy the destiny society has decided for them. It is also about taking a stand and doing the right thing.

As a rule of thumb, kids like reading books about characters who are slightly older than them; Auden is 11, but I would say this is a book for 10-12 year olds, rather than 9-11s. For a start it’s quite long and the plot is at times quite complex. Also, some of the themes may be quite challenging for younger readers, for example, the vision of the future, a kind of police state where the head of the Water Allocation Board is hostile and threatening. There is also the suggestion that Dr Jonah Bloom has been illegally murdered by the state and that Auden’s father has been wrongfully imprisoned by a corrupt military authority. Echoes of 1984!

Spoiler alert….

Also, the robot, Paragon, who develops a strong personality and whom Auden grows to love, ‘dies’ when he self-destructs after fulfilling his purpose as a rainmaking machine. Younger children might find some aspects of the book challenging or unsettling.

In places it is really funny; it reminded me a little of Time-travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford, so kids who enjoyed that book might like this one too (although for me it’s not quite as good or as well-written).

Recommended for 10-12 year olds who like an adventure mystery and can cope with some threat.

If you or your children have read this book, do you agree with my thoughts about the reading age?

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