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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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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Book review: “Just Fly Away” by Andrew McCarthy

I posted earlier in the week about getting your teenagers reading in the school holidays. Well, here’s a book they might like, and the author brings back memories of my own teenage years! Andrew McCarthy is better known as an actor and director (Pretty in Pink, St Elmo’s Fire), but in recent years has turned his hand to writing. This is his second book and his first work of fiction and is aimed at teenage readers. As regular readers of this blog will know I have launched an online reading challenge through Facebook, with a different genre or theme for each month. January’s was a YA novel, for which we read The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy. My book club decided to follow suit and we selected Just Fly Away. Just to warn you, this review contains spoilers, as I’m writing this for parents who might be looking for reading material for their teenagers and want to know what the book is about.

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The central character in the novel is Lucy Willows, a 15 year-old living in New Jersey with her parents and younger sister, Julie. The novel opens with the family enjoying a day out at an amusement park on the Jersey Shore. It is a normal happy existence and Lucy’s life appears to be like that of any other teenager, a mixture of the humdrum and the special where family relationships go through the usual ups and downs. Then Lucy overhears a conversation between her parents about someone her father “would be proud of” and her fear and curiosity are aroused. She confronts her parents about it and they decide it is time to reveal to their daughters that Lucy’s father had an affair some years earlier which resulted in the woman having a child. The boy, Thomas, is now eight years old and lives in the same town.

Lucy’s world is turned upside down. It is important to note at this point that whatever issues there may have been between Lucy’s parents, they have put the matter behind them, and Lucy’s mother appears to be completely reconciled to her husband’s past infidelity and to have forgiven him. It is in fact she who started the conversation with her husband about Thomas. As an adult reader, I was inclined therefore to think a) it’s the couple’s business not Lucy’s, and b) so what? If they are over it, Lucy should accept it and move on too. But that is to miss the point, and one of the aspects of the book I really liked, the fact that the story is told entirely from Lucy’s point of view. Any parents of teenagers will know that they tend to see the world entirely from their own perspective, their capacity for empathy at this stage in their development can often be quite low, particularly where their parents are concerned! Therefore it is entirely credible that Lucy should react so strongly to the news and to have the reactions she does to her parents. She hates her father at this time and seems also to despise her mother for not having left him!

An important sub-plot to the novel, and which will broaden the appeal to young people is that Lucy develops a relationship with Simon, the older brother of a school friend. Simon is ‘different’; he has some sort of learning difficulty that is not fully explained, and goes to a different school. Simon is handsome, charming, warm, sensitive, and caring. He proves to be a great support to Lucy.

Lucy is curious about Thomas and finds out where he lives. She persuades Simon to go with her and the two make contact with him, without revealing the connection. Lucy thinks this encounter might help but instead it throws her into a tailspin. One day, whilst heading out to the shops, she decides on a whim to take the train to New York City and from there to travel to her grandfather’s house in Maine, whom she has met only once previously as there has clearly been a difficult relationship between him and Lucy’s father. Her journey is more than just a series of scary late night encounters and bus rides, it is a metaphor for her growing up and away from her parents, making it on her own, with limited funds and a new-found resourcefulness. Through the contact she then has with her grandfather, she glimpses some of the challenges to be faced in parent-child relationships and it helps her to reframe the situation she finds herself in with her own parents.

Spoiler alert…

Whilst Lucy is staying with her grandfather he has a massive stroke. Lucy’s father travels to Maine both to collect Lucy and to visit his Dad. Upon his arrival, Lucy’s father starts to ‘tell her off’ but it is clear that Lucy has grown out of this sort of admonishment and his reprimand seems hollow and out of step. Grandfather dies and this is an emotional element to the book, but I think this will be tolerable to teen readers because he is elderly and his peers seem to accept it as natural and not untimely. The event also serves to bring the family back together and into a new phase. Simon also makes the trip to be at the funeral for Lucy, and so he gets to meet her parents, and they seem to approve of him and accept their daughter’s maturity.

Lucy is a great character and not too feminine so I think even young male readers could identify with her. It’s a good story, easy to read and whilst Lucy, to an adult reader, might seem to overreact at times, it is a reminder that, as a parent it is important to realise that what may seem ‘small stuff’ to us can be ‘big stuff’ to them.

There is some light sexual content and occasional swearing. Recommended for 14-17 year olds and a nice read for grown-ups too!

Do you have any suggestions for YA novels for older kids to read?

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Book review: “The Disappearances” by Emily Bain Murphy

At the start of this year I set up a Facebook reading group, based on a challenge I undertook for myself last year where I read a book with a different theme each month. I have been delighted with the response and that so many people are keen to push their reading boundaries a little. The theme for January was a YA book and I chose The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, a first-time American novelist. This book has had rave reviews and I’ve come across a few vlogs where the reviewers have spoken passionately about how much they loved it. I was keen to see what all the fuss was about!

The Disappearances imgThe book is set in Connecticut in 1942-43. Aila, is 16 years old when we first meet her and she has a younger brother Miles. Their mother, Juliet, has just died and their father has been called away to fight in the war. Aila and Miles are sent to live in Sterling (their mother’s birthplace) with Matilda Cliffton and her family; Matilda was Juliet’s childhood best friend. Aila is keen to take something of her mother’s with her and she finds a volume of Shakespeare’s complete works, much scribbled in, into the back of which has been placed an envelope, containing a ring Juliet always wore, and a mysterious note to an unknown person, Stefen, at the end of which Juliet signs herself ‘Viola’.

 

When Aila and Miles arrive in Sterling it quickly becomes clear that things are not as they should be. First of all, Aila notices that other townspeople seem quite hostile towards her, and that this has something to do with Juliet. She also quickly observes that there are no stars and no smells in Sterling, and that the inhabitants have no reflections. Matilda Cliffton reveals to her the curse that struck Sterling (and its two nearby ‘sister’ towns Corrander and Sheffield) some years before which means that every seven years something in their life disappears (ie stars, reflections, smells). They are due another Disappearance shortly. Over the years, Matilda’s husband, Dr Cliffton, has been instrumental in developing ‘Variants’, powders which temporarily restore the losses, and these are traded in the market in town. Thus the scene is set and Aila and her brother settle into life in Sterling. We see Aila making friends at the local high school, particularly George, Beas and Will, the Cliffton’s son, and a few enemies, namely Eliza, who has a thing for Will and whose indifference to Aila borders on antipathy.

Interspersed between the events in Sterling are short italicised chapters where we meet the dark characters of Stefen and his father Phineas. Phineas is a former grave-robber, and has served time in jail for this. He is also dying. We know that Stefen wants to find ‘the Stone’ to try and save Phineas’s life though it is not clear how it would do so. Stefen is also obsessed by birds and at the start of each of these chapters is a short description of a bird species, and its characteristics give the reader clues to the action that is taking place in Sterling.

A kind of chase commences, as Stefen goes in search of Juliet’s ring, and Aila tries to understand the root cause of the curse (suspecting that it is somehow connected with her mother). She is convinced she can also find a way to lift it, and believes clues to the mystery lie within the Shakespeare volume of her mother’s. The plot is complex and I have to confess that some elements of it left me slightly confused. However, I loved the characters, particularly Aila, who is well-developed and very credible. I also loved the handling of the relationships among the young people, particularly the dynamic between Aila and Will. The book is beautifully written and the Shakespeare references are lovely and very cleverly incorporated. It is well-researched and well-thought through. I liked the ‘fantasy’ element less, but perhaps that is because I am not a particular fan of that genre, though I can see how it would appeal to a YA reader. Also, the twist at the end (which many of the YouTube vloggers loved) left me feeling a bit cold. I just couldn’t believe in it. The pace of the book is also a little uneven; the reader is thrown into the action and the plot quite quickly, but then it slows right down and becomes less engaging before the sprint at the end. Those things aside, it’s a good read that I would recommend and I think if you do find it a bit slow, stick with it because you will be rewarded. Hence, I’m not giving spoilers on this one!

For younger readers I would recommend the 14-17 age group. The plot is complex and not likely to appeal to those under 14, and there is some romance more suited to slightly older teens.

Have you read The Disappearances? Did you think it lived up to the hype?

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Book review: “Norwegian Wood” & “The Strange Library” by Haruki Murakami

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Gorgeous covers

Murakami is a giant of Japanese literature, and it was Norwegian Wood that sealed his international fame. Prior to its publication (in Japan in 1987) his reputation and readership were more modest, but when he became internationally famous with this book, he fled the country and eschewed all publicity (oh for that luxury!). I had read nothing by Murakami before this although a friend told me (when I’d only just started it) that Norwegian Wood was his favourite book of all time and after reading he went out and got hold of everything else Murakami had written.

It’s a book that really defies description. To say it’s a love story (which it is) does not do justice to the complex interweaving of themes, the darkness, the painterly portrayal of intimate relationships and the forensic examination of the dilemmas of youth and coming of age.

Toru Watanabe is on a plane at the age of 37, about to land at Hamburg airport, when the song Norwegian Wood by The Beatles is played on the aircraft’s PA system. It takes him immediately back to his youth, when he was at university in 1969. His girlfriend at that time was Naoko, a fragile young woman with whom he used to walk miles around Tokyo. Naoko was, previously, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide. Thus the scene is set that this novel is going to explore some challenging themes.

Naoko and Toru become lovers, but their relationship stalls when Naoko is admitted to long-term psychiatric care for severe mental health issues. Toru remains loyal to Naoko, visits her occasionally at the special hospital where she lives, some distance from Tokyo, and also strikes up a friendship with Naoko’s roommate Reiko, who, because of the very close relationship she has with Naoko, appears to know everything about Toru. A further character then enters and places Toru in something of a love triangle; Midori is a feisty, passionate fellow student to whom Toru is immediately attracted. They become friends but nothing more, mainly because of Toru’s loyalty to Naoko. Midori also has a boyfriend, although she says is not in love with him.

It is a novel in which nothing very much happens, so I don’t want to say more about the ‘plot’, and I have had some difficulty explaining to myself what is so engaging about it; I had high expectations after my friend’s endorsement. When we discussed it in my book club, we all said we found it a slow read; it is not a book you can read quickly. In a weird sort of way it forces you to read at reading out loud pace. You have to take in and savour every word, and every word has been written to be savoured. The level of detail in the observations is extraordinary. The main characters, especially Toru and Naoko, are so gentle and sensitive, that it almost has the same effect as when you hold a newborn baby – they are so fragile that all your movements become softer, your heart and breathing seem to slow down. The purpose of this, I think, is to try to take the reader deeply into the private worlds of the characters, to feel what they feel, see what they see.

There are some brash peripheral characters in the novel, such as Toru’s dorm mates, and there is a strong sense of time and place – student revolts in Japan in the late ‘60s – which serve to highlight the quietness and sensitivity of the main characters, even Midori, who comes across initially as a strong personality, but who is masking deeper insecurities.

It is a novel about coming of age, about growing up, but also about the deep darkness of depression and suicide. Insofar as it is a love story, it asks the reader what the limits of human beings’ commitments to one another are, but it will not give you a straightforward answer.

After reading Norwegian Wood I was given a copy of another of Murakami’s works, published in the UK in 2014, The Strange Library. This is a work of short fiction, a very surreal and fascinating story about a young boy who is imprisoned in the bowels of his local library after being tricked into following a strange old man in search of a reference book about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Whilst trapped inside he meets a collection of other weird and wonderful characters also trapped in a kind of time and space limbo. Like much short fiction it concludes in a way that leaves more questions than answers. The edition I read is beautifully illustrated, which added to my appreciation of it immensely, and it has left me wanting to explore more of Murakami’s work.

Norwegian Wood is a strange and powerful novel that will certainly leave its mark. It stays with you long after you finish it. Highly recommended.

If you are familiar with Murakami, which of his books would you recommend?

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December reading challenge: a short story

2017-12-18 10.46.14So, it’s my final reading challenge post of 2017, and this month it’s a short story. Just as well, because there isn’t very much month left! The reason I picked this genre for December is that I predicted, correctly, that it would be a busy month and my reading would slacken off. It is taking me ages to get through the book I am currently reading (the book club’s choice of Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami).

I’d been thinking for a while what I might read this month; there are some fantastic short story writers out there, and I have to confess to not having read many of them, so I wanted to make a real effort to delve in. Then last week I heard about a short story published in the New Yorker magazine recently that has caused a furore on social media, provoking praise and disdain in equal measure. I have also learned a new word as a result – ‘misandrist’ – a person who dislikes, despises, or is strongly prejudiced against men, the opposite of misogynist. You have to wonder why we don’t hear this word very much!

Anyway, Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian is about sex and relationships in the 21st century. What’s not to like?! If your appetite is whetted by this, you too can read along by clicking on the link below:

Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian

Let me know what you think!

Book Review: “Portrait in Sepia” by Isabel Allende

 

 

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My Reading Challenge for November, was to read a book by a writer from the southern hemisphere. The reason for this was to try to distract me from any midwinter misery! As I write this, the light dusting of snow which made everything look so pretty these last few days, has given way to a persistent rain and I feel plunged into dark greyness once again. I swear it stayed night until about 11am today! Less than two weeks to the Winter solstice and we can start to look forward to longer days again.

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Stunning front cover

Chilean author Isabel Allende has to be one of the finest writers alive today. As in most of her books, the central characters are strong females. This novel tells the story of Aurora del Valle, who was born in Chinatown, San Francisco in 1880. Her mother was a spectacularly beautiful but fatally naïve young woman, Lynn Sommers, who was duped into sleeping with the wealthy and wayward Matias Rodriguez de Santa Cruz. Lynn is the daughter of Eliza Sommers, and Matias the son of Paulina del Valle. Both these women were central characters in the forerunner to this book, Daughter of Fortune. Severo del Valle, Matias’s cousin, marries Lynn to spare her honour (though the marriage is never consummated) and becomes Aurora’s legal guardian. Lynn dies from a haemorrhage just after her daughter is born so when Severo returns to Chile to fight in the war he leaves the child in the care of her maternal grandparents, Eliza and her husband Tao Chi’en. Aurora spends her first five years with them, happy and much-loved. When Tao Chi’en dies, Eliza fulfils a promise to return her husband’s body to his native China and leaves the child with her paternal grandmother, the indomitable Paulina del Valle. Paulina agrees to this on the basis that Eliza sever all ties with the child.

Thus, Aurora grows up with Paulina and the rest of the story follows her life, from her early years growing up amidst the pomp and wealth of her voracious grandmother’s vast household, such a contrast from the modest life she led in Chinatown, through to her early adulthood as the family moves to Chile. Allende gives a stunning account of the Chilean civil war, and the effect this had on the family, particularly Severo del Valle, who has now married his cousin Nivea, and with whom he goes on to have fifteen children. Nivea is another strong woman in the book, an idealist with fierce views on women’s rights, who does not let childbirth get in the way of her campaigning. She is devoted to Severo and their marriage provides a powerful model of spousal partnership for Aurora. Her grandmother Paulina is also a strong role model, teaching her about business and about feminine power.

In the latter part of the book, the adult Aurora becomes a photographer and enters into a disastrous marriage with Diego Dominguez. Lacking the wilfulness of Paulina and the inner confidence of Eliza, Aurora’s life is miserable, stuck on a farm in a rural part of Chile with a husband who does not love her. She feels as if her fate is not in her own hands.

The novel is classic Allende, an epic saga, covering the period 1862 (before Aurora’s birth) to 1910 with a beautifully drawn cast of characters. Yet despite its scale, the novel digs deep into the human condition – what it is to love and be loved, romantic love, marriage, the love between child, parent and grandparent, blood ties, and the pain and the pleasure that family can bring. The meaning of the title is cryptic, but it is revealed beautifully by the author at the end, in such a way that made me want to go straight back and read it all again! It’s a novel to get lost in, and Allende has this immense talent for drawing the reader in to the extraordinary world she creates.

A flawless book, highly recommended.

Have you read this book? How does it compare with Allende’s other works?

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