The latest in YA books – books for teens

Last week, I blogged about some of the interesting new children’s titles that had caught my eye. In recent years, YA fiction has rightly developed as a genre apart from younger children’s fiction, and there are some fantastic young writers out there catering for the needs of this age group. Most adults would accept I think that the pressures on teenagers these days are numerous and new, and for many parents navigating this unknown terrain can be challenging and worrying. In the same way that children’s literature can help our little ones work through some of their fears and worries (from the monster under the bed to the impending arrival of a sibling), so YA fiction can help teenagers deal with the issues they face, when they may feel their parents just don’t understand.

Here are a few of the titles that have attracted me.

No Filter

 

Irish writer Orlagh Collins’s story No Filter covers traditional teen territory, that of first love. It tells the story of Emerald who comes from a privileged background, and appears to enjoy an outwardly perfect life. Then Emerald discovers her mother unconscious on the bathroom floor and her world begins to fall apart. She is sent off to stay with her grandmother in Ireland for the summer, where she meets Liam, and begins to reevaluate what’s important.

 

 

Just Fly AwayJust Fly Away is the debut novel from 1980s brat-pack actor, turned award-winning director and author Andrew McCarthy. It tells the story of fifteen year old Lucy who discovers that she has a half-brother, the result of an affair her father had, living in the same town. Like No Filter it is a novel about secrets and lies, as Lucy escapes to Maine to live with her grandfather, himself estranged from the family, and to work through the confusion and torment her discovery has left her with.

 

 

all the things that could go wrongFinally, on a different topic, there is All the Things that Could Go Wrong by Stewart Foster which concerns the relationship between two boys, initially at loggerheads, who find common cause when they are forced to spend time together. Alex suffers from OCD and worries about everything. His condition is so severe that he rarely leaves home. Dan is angry, because his older brother Alex has left home and he feels lost. Initially, he takes it out on Alex, whom he perceives as weak and ineffectual, but the boys’ mothers force them together on a garden building project and the understanding that develops between is healing for both.

 

I hope one of these might be of interest for your teenager. Better still, take them along to the library or bookshop and let them choose something themselves.

I’d love to hear what your teens are reading just now. 

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Book Review: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is what we would politely describe as quirky. She lives a fairly isolated lifestyle, seeing no friends or relatives. She lives alone in a flat where she was placed by Social Services after leaving the care system. She is a creature of habit, wearing identical clothes each day, and following habitual daily and weekly routines. She works, in the accounts department of a design company, but her lowly position seems out of kilter with her high intelligence. There is nothing especially remarkable about her quirkiness (apart from the fact that she drinks two bottles of vodka every weekend), but her habits mark her out from the usual crowd. In particular she eschews social interaction, is cool, often hostile, to her co-workers, looking down on them, never wears make up or gets her hair cut. She appears to others as someone who doesn’t make an effort, but through Eleanor’s eyes we observe some of the absurdities of ‘normal’ life and there are some real laugh-out-loud moments, for example, when Eleanor goes for a makeover at the department store.

Eleanor OliphantEleanor communicates poorly with others, being rather too literal and pedantic for most people to tolerate and is therefore unable to form effective relationships.  At first, she is not an easy character to love, except that we as readers know a couple of things about her that her workmates do not, and which make us more sympathetic to her. Firstly, we know she drinks herself into oblivion at the weekends: as a reader we are bound to ask what she is trying to escape from. Second, there is Eleanor’s mother, with whom she speaks every Wednesday evening; “Mummy” is controlling, manipulative, cruel, nasty. Eleanor is an adult and yet there is something disturbing about the way she always refers to her parent as a child would (never ‘Mum’ or ‘my mother’). The fact that Eleanor also receives regular monitoring visits from social workers tells us that there is something dark in Eleanor’s past that has contributed to her present quirkiness, but we are not told what.

Two incidents in Eleanor’s life set off a cascade of events that will alter her life immeasurably. First, she encounters and develops a teenage-like crush on a musician. He is the lead singer in a band, well-known in the Glasgow area, lives locally and Eleanor has a remote connection with him as he attended school with a work colleague’s brother. Eleanor decides that the musician is the one she wants to spend the rest of her life with. She fantasises about a romance with him and ultimately marriage. Emboldened by conversations with Mummy, who is all in favour of “the project” (whilst also questioning Eleanor’s worth), she tasks herself with contriving to meet him, including visiting his apartment block, and sets about buying new clothes and improving her appearance, to bring herself up to the standard she anticipates he would expect from a partner.

The second incident is the collapse of an elderly man in the street. The old man is immediately attended to by Raymond, not a co-worker but someone she recognises as working in the same building, and he involves Eleanor and commands her help. Between them, Eleanor and Raymond manage to give the man first aid and call an ambulance. After this, Raymond draws Eleanor into an unplanned friendship. It doesn’t seem to be something that either of them is seeking, particularly. Indeed at first Eleanor is very cool towards Raymond, looking down upon his smoking, his eating habits, his text-speak and what she sees as his lazy dressing habits. But he is warm and patient with her and the friendship evolves. Through Raymond, Eleanor gets a glimpse of what ‘normal’ life and ‘normal’ family relationships can be, with all their faults.

The action takes place over a few months and the pace is measured and authentic. It is ultimately a novel about mental illness, triggered by trauma in Eleanor’s case, and as the story unfolds, and we learn more about Eleanor’s past, so her present, tightly ordered life, held together so flimsily by a set of rigid habits, begins to fall apart. This unravelling may be painful for some readers. The novel echoes that tendency we all have to say we’re ‘fine’ even when we’re not, and Eleanor learns, the hard way, what ‘fine’ means, and how to use that word honestly on her path to healing. There are some dark moments but there is also humour, particularly in the drawing of Eleanor’s character. I found myself laughing both with her and at her, which was, I must confess uncomfortable in the context of later revelations, and caused me to reflect on how we as a society react to those who do not present with an ‘average’ or ‘easily-fit-innable’ personality.

Gail honeymanThis is Gail Honeyman’s first novel and it is a stunning achievement. A thoroughly enjoyable read. In an era where poor mental health, social isolation and dysfunctional relationships seem to have reached epidemic proportions, this novel is both an examination of one person’s particular circumstances and an antidote. Highly recommended.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

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The latest in children’s literature

It was the Autumn Equinox yesterday, exactly halfway between the shortest and longest days, when the hours of daylight and the hours of night are the same. From now until Christmas, the nights will begin to draw in. It’s a while before you notice it fully, of course and I always find that as the leaves on the trees begin to turn and fall and the temperatures cool, I actually feel a burst of energy and an increased desire to get out for walks and enjoy nature. It’s as if I only realise what I have when it starts to go and then I want to make the most of it! Yes, that certainly sums up part of my personality!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and getting, correction, KEEPING kids reading – don’t they all love to be read a story when they’re little?! When and why does that stop? I spent hours in libraries when my kids were little, but I struggle to keep my 11, 13 and 16 year old children into their books. I’m not going to moan about screens; they are as inevitable a part of young people’s lives as food and drink, and, frankly, now mine all have pretty independent lives, I quite like the reassurance their mobile phones give me.

Help your child imgIf you are finding it hard to motivate your children to read you may find this little book helpful – Alison David’s Help Your Child Love Reading – which I’ve reviewed here and plugged many times, because it contains practical advice and will not chastise you for allowing them screen time.

I love the title and the cover photo – it’s not an instruction guide on how to make them do something against their will, but how to embrace one of the most joyful and stress-relieving habits there is. And with the shocking news this week about how many of our young girls experience depression, reading is a hobby that all of our children can benefit from. So as life for those of us in the northern hemisphere gradually returns to the indoors, there is no better time to revive a reading habit. As is my regular wont, I’ve picked out a few children’s books that have caught my eye recently.

Pax by Sarah Pennypacker (age group 8-12 years) was published last year, but seems to be getting a lot of publicity at the moment. It has a beautiful cover and is the story of a boy’s friendship with a fox. I’m really keen to read this one. Birthday Boy by David Baddiel (age group 9+) looks like being another smash hit in this genre for the comedian turned children’s author. Published earlier this month it considers the question, what if it was your birthday every day? Be careful what you wish for is the message! A Place Called Perfect (age group 8-12 years) by Helena Duggan concerns Violet and her family who move to the town of Perfect, where everyone has to wear glasses to stop them going blind and where nothing is quite (as perfect) as it seems.

Most primary school age children are fairly easy to manage and get reading; it’s those pesky teens who present the biggest challenge! I’ll give you some ideas for this age group next week.

Happy reading!

Do you have any children’s books to recommend?

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Book Review: “The Blood Miracles” by Lisa McInerney

I LOVED The Glorious Heresies; we read it in my book club last year after it won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and all of us thought it was fantastic. A well-deserved winner. So, we had no problem picking the follow-up to read as one of our summer three and I had very high expectations.

The Blood Miracles imgThe novel begins more or less where The Glorious Heresies left off with the central character, Ryan Cusack, embroiled ever more deeply in the Cork city underworld of drugs, money laundering and violence. McInerney has managed to keep Ryan’s character consistent – he has evolved in an entirely credible way – although, unlike in the first novel, there now seems almost no hope of the more refined, gentler side of his personality prevailing to choose a different lifestyle. He is more embedded in the criminal fraternity than ever but remains an engaging and attractive central character. If anything, his charisma grows as he matures; true, he does some pretty unpleasant things, and not always at the behest of his criminal masters, but you can see that McInerney, if this turns out to be part of a series of novels, is building him up to be the tormented gangster.

Other characters remain consistent too. There is Karine, Ryan’s long-suffering girlfriend; their teenage romance was a beautiful precious thing in the first novel, amidst the degradation of events. Their relationship continues in The Blood Miracles but with new twists and turns as they grow up and innocence is left well and truly behind them. The addition of another potential love interest, in the form accountancy student Natalie, brings some further complications to Ryan’s messy personal life. There is also Ryan’s father Tony, the broken man, an alcoholic who was widowed young with five children to bring up. Portrayed as pathetic and useless in the first novel, he plays a lesser part here, but in some ways his strengths and his importance to Ryan become more apparent. I was puzzled by the title of the novel until almost near the end when an exchange between father and son on Ryan’s birthday makes it clear – blood, family, can drive the greatest and most profound acts in all of us.

The remaining characters include the two senior gangsters – Dan Kane, for whom Ryan works as a dealer, and Jimmy Phelan, who was so prominent in The Glorious Heresies – and their various acolytes, including Maureen Phelan (Jimmy’s mother) who once again plays a pivotal role. The city of Cork also looms large in the novel, as does Ryan’s love-hate relationship with it:

“This city, like all cities, hates its natives. It would rather be in a constant state of replenishment than own up to what it has warped.”

The basic plot is a drug deal, a major shipment of MDMA from Italy to Ireland. Ryan’s mother was Italian and he speaks the language. This has made him an instrumental part of the deal with the Camorra in Naples. The drugs go astray in what appears to be a theft from Dan Kane’s girlfriend after she’d picked up the shipment and was moving it to a safe house. The rest of the book is about solving the mystery of the missing merchandise and the accusations and counter-accusations.

I found the novel a bit slow to start and I was worried that it wasn’t going to live up to the promise of The Glorious Heresies, but about a quarter of the way through the pace changes quite significantly. So, if you’re struggling initially, persevere at least to page 100! You realise that in the first part of the book there is a lot of scene-setting going on and the author is working hard to recreate the settings, themes and characters from her earlier book. If you hadn’t read The Glorious Heresies this would help set the context for you, but you will enjoy this book more if you’ve read the first. As the plot around the missing drugs thickens, it becomes completely compelling and the denouement is utterly brilliant – I could actually feel my heart beating faster!

Can’t tell you more without giving too much away, I’m afraid. Suffice to say it is a page-turner. It’s earthy and visceral with plenty of sex, drugs, booze and swearing! The writing is incredible, particularly the dialogue. It is narrated almost like one of those old-fashioned 1950s gangster movies, with smoke-filled rooms, seductive women and a lilting sax in the background! Like the title of the first Ryan Cusack novel it’s also glorious!

Highly recommended.

Have you read this book? How do you think it compares to The Glorious Heresies and do you think you can read this without reading the first?

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Book review: “The Power” by Naomi Alderman

So earlier in the week, I posted about the Man Booker 2017 shortlist and today I want to tell you about a prize winner, The Power by Naomi Alderman which won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in June. This year’s shortlist was a strong one, so it did well to come out on top. I’d also read Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Stay With Me from the shortlist; this latter book is wonderful and so I was expecting great things from The Power. I took it on holiday with me and read it in just a handful of sessions (my favourite way to read) and I’m afraid to say I was a little disappointed. For me, it was not better than Stay With Me.

Naomi Alderman

I’m not a huge fan of science fiction; my last foray into this genre was Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, which I think I probably enjoyed more than The Power if I’m honest. Because I’m not a big reader of this genre I find it quite difficult to review. I’m not sure what the norms and expectations are, so the things I might criticise or dislike are perhaps standard constructions in science fiction. For example, when reviewing a historical novel, we expect accuracy, realism, research. When reviewing a novel set in our own time we expect realism in the sense of standards that we recognise as possible. With science fiction, however, it irritates me that all normal conventions are suspended. Perhaps that why SF writers write in this genre, because they are free of those constraints, but to me it seems a bit lazy. I’ll give you an example: I enjoyed Station Eleven but I couldn’t get this nagging thought out of my brain that we were dealing with one small part of the United States, and I just couldn’t quite believe that the rest of the world had been similarly afflicted and could not make contact – pre-electricity societies managed to get around the globe fairly successfully!

img_3831However, The Power is a prize-winner and seems to have been universally lauded, most notably by Margaret Atwood (Alderman’s literary mentor) whose ground-breaking novel The Handmaid’s Tale has just enjoyed a very successful television adaptation. The premise of The Power is a subversion of current social norms where men dominate, to one where women discover that they have a physical superiority, an ability to electrocute and disable, even kill, men. The novel begins (presumably in the current time) when women begin to discover they have this power and start to use it in ways that enable them to dominate. The story is told through the experiences of a number of women and a male. First there is Roxy, the young daughter of a London gangster who, once she discovers her power, undertakes a purge of all her male foes, her father’s enemies, and her half-brothers who threaten her, to become the top gangster in her field. Then there is Margot a small-time US politician who discovers she has the power and uses it, over a period of years to eliminate her political enemies and rise to great things. Initially, Margot has to hide her power; society is initially hostile to it, and therefore those who have it, seeing at as a threat which could upset order and stability (yes, much of the novel has to be read as a deep irony). Margot, as a politician is also connected with a number of corporations who would no longer support her if they knew she was a carrier of the power. Third, there is Allie, a teenager adopted into a right-wing southern American Christian family (more irony). She is abused by her adoptive father and in one of his assaults she electrocutes and kills him. She then escapes to a convent from where she morphs into Mother Eve, the head of the cult which spreads the power worldwide. One of the followers of the cult is Tatiana Moskolev, the estranged wife of the President of Moldova, who sets up her own republic in the north of the country and establishes a brutal regime where men are mere playthings, sexually abused and murdered at will. Finally, there is Tunde, a young Nigerian, who when we first meet him is trying to seduce a young woman, unsuccessfully as it turns out, because she gives him a small but still very humiliating electric shock when he makes his move on her. It is clear the power dynamic has shifted! Tunde senses that change is about to come to the world and so he sets about travelling the globe, posting his obervations on the internet and thereby becomes an international journalistic sensation.

The story has a complicated structure, which at times I found difficult to follow. It is very much a satire, but not in the mode of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which won last year’s Man Booker Prize. There are parts of the book which are almost too brutal, too visceral, too emotionally raw for satire (maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the age we live in?). At 42 the author is not much younger than me, so I can’t say it’s a generational thing, although I note that among the many other strings to her bow she is a computer game designer. I wonder whether the kind of violence common in that medium means the author has a different perspective (taste?) for use of violence and physicality in art.

It’s a clever book, the idea is fantastically original, subversive (women dominating men!) and mischievous. Alderman is also a very able writer, and it’s an impressive read. I did find the book a page-turner, but it fell off towards the end for me. It just got a bit…silly! But then I also accept that maybe it wasn’t supposed to be credible, and that is indeed the powerful central irony. It’s a good read, but I still preferred Stay With Me for the Bailey’s Prize!

What did you think of The Power? I’d be interested in your perspective if you’re a regular reader of science fiction.

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My 100th post! (And the Man Booker shortlist)

This is my 100th post and I feel it’s quite fitting that I should be writing on the very day that the Man Booker 2017 shortlist has been announced. Last year, I set myself the task of trying to read all six books on the shortlist before the prize winner was announced. I managed three and a half! This year, I’ve cleared the decks and am going for it again – all six books by 17 October…34 days.

If you haven’t seen the shortlist, here it is:

 

Autumn and Exit West have been on my ‘to-read’ list for a while. Autumn is a post-Brexit novel and is about the fissures that became apparent in UK society after that referendum, seen through the eyes of elderly Daniel and youthful Elisabeth. It may help with understanding this social turmoil. Exit West is also about social and political turmoil and its effect on the lives of ordinary people, lovers Nadia and Saeed, forced to flee their homeland when it is torn apart by civil war, and seek refuge in the West.

Veteran prizewinner Paul Auster’s latest novel, 4 3 2 1, has won praise for the deft handling of a complex storyline in which he explores four possible paths that an individual’s life could take. It’s the longest book on the list by some distance! Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is the first venture into fiction by a well-established writer and is a fictionalised account of the true story of Abraham Lincoln and the loss of his eleven year old son at the start of the American Civil War.

Finally, from two less well-known writers, to me anyway, A History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, which is about a fourteen year old girl living a sheltered life in rural Minnesota, with unusual parents, and her association with a new family that moves into the area, forcing her to confront some uncomfortable truths. And Elmet  by Fiona Mozley, another first novel from a young British writer, is also about the effects of growing up in an unusual family and how that prepares people for a challenging world.

I haven’t read any of these (no head start for me this year then!), so I can’t judge the shortlist at the moment, but I am surprised by some of the omissions. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are everywhere at the moment and have been highly praised. It’s always surprising to see Zadie Smith left out of this kind of list, huge talent that she is. Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I reviewed here in June,is possibly the best book I have read this year and I’m astonished that it’s not shortlisted. That novel will be my benchmark for judging these.

Anyone care to join me in the shortlist challenge?

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Autumn resolutions

back-to-school-1622789_1920

January is never a great time of year for me – I’m not good with the cold, dark days of winter so it’s pointless me making New Year’s resolutions. In contrast, Autumn is, for me, the perfect time of year to reflect and think about the future. As a mother of three school-age children, my life is, in any case, dominated by the term time calendar, and there is something about the feeling of newness (shoes, pencil cases, planners, etc), the fresh start and the enthusiasm (yes, really, even the kids are usually excited to get back) that screams hope. Outside it’s the time of year associated with decay, when the blooms in the garden are starting to fade, the leaves on the trees begin to turn brown and fall, and the nights are definitely drawing in. In a funny way, though, I find this reassuring. It makes me feel that everything is in the right place, the natural order of things is safely on track, and that is a comfort to me in this era of accelerated climate change.

Big MagicSo, September is my month of choice for resolutions. My reading challenge this month is to read a self-help book and after a bit of indecision I’ve decided on Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s actually been on my list of books to read for some time, but seems particularly appropriate now as my main resolution is to complete at least a third of the book I am writing by half term (and hopefully another third by Christmas). I’ve been tinkering with it for months, and made some good progress with Camp NaNoWriMo in July, but I feel really focused now and am keen to capitalise on my motivation.

2017-07-26 20.42.01Before the summer break I also read WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel and it caused me to reflect on the time and care I give to myself. I think it’s true to say that, as a mother, when you have young children you can often put yourself and your needs at the bottom of the priority list, well after the rest of the family. Ultimately, this often takes a great toll. Now that my children are older, (all at secondary school as of this week, my eldest now in sixth form), I find myself not so much with more time, but definitely with more mental space to tend to my own needs, pursue some of my own passions and award myself more respect. So, I am re-reading WE, slowly and deliberately, a little each day, and working through the exercises.

As a Mum I feel I have for years ricocheted between feelings of resentment at the extent of my ‘self-sacrifice’ and guilt at not doing or being enough! I hope that over the coming weeks the reading and the exercises will help to shift my mindset more towards contentment, resilience, and gratitude – the Holy Grail! I don’t find it particularly difficult to change my habits, get a better eating or fitness regime, etc, but mindset change is much harder. Wish me luck!

Are you one of those who prefer to make their resolutions in September rather than January?

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