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: “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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‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

This might be one of the strangest books I’ve ever read and certainly one of the most unsettling reads in a while. It’s the sort of book where you find yourself shifting uncomfortably in your seat as you observe some very disturbing behaviour.

The Vegetarian imgIt’s basically a book about sickness, and the various forms it takes; the sickness of the troubled central character, Yeong-hye, whose decision to renounce meat from her diet is the catalyst to a catastrophic sequence of events; the sickness of some of her relatives who simply cannot accept Yeong-hye’s decision or who use it to perpetrate their own base acts; and the sickness in the society which degrades and dehumanises Yeong-hye. The insidious and malevolent control meted out to Yeong-hye over a period of many years (a control that was legitimised by social and cultural norms) leads to her attempting to starve herself in a desperate attempt to assert her autonomy, and this has explosive consequences

The novel is written in three parts (originally each was published separately). The first part is narrated by Mr Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband. Mr Cheong is a selfish, misogynistic fool who is completely indifferent to his wife. There is no trace of affection in their relationship. Any fondness that may have existed has disappeared and Mr Cheong is now bitter that Yeong-hye makes no effort to be the good wife: she embarrasses him in front of his boss, fails to wear a bra and does not keep the house tidy. Mr Cheong rapes his wife repeatedly and sees nothing wrong in ensuring his physical needs are met in this way. And yet, so desperate is Yeong-hye’s family to save face in what in their eyes is a good marriage, they turn against her when she decides to stop eating meat, seeing it as a kind of protest which must be seen to be crushed. There is a very disturbing family dinner scene.

The second part is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, her sister’s husband. At first he appears more sensitive than Mr Cheong and shows some kindness towards Yeong-hye, particularly after the events at the family dinner party. He is an artist and claims he has always been fascinated by his sister-in-law’s fragility, both physical and emotional. At first he seems to be helping her, enabling her to express herself in a new way. But, ultimately, he too will exploit and damage her.

The final part concerns the relationship between Yeong-hye and her sister, In-hye. She emerges as the strongest character in the book and through her we have a reliable witness to the events of the novel. She reflects on the period since her sister became a vegetarian and how her world, and her family’s world has turned upside down. But rather than see it as her sister’s fault (as her parents do) she understands how Yeong-hye’s mental illness has been brought about by the abuse she has experienced.

The Vegetarian img 2

This book won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 and has had universal acclaim. It is a very poetic novel, beautifully translated by Deborah Smith; the motif of Yeong-hye’s dream and her desire to transform into a plant provides a powerful element of fantasy, although for me this was not always coherent. However, it is also deeply troubling. Not one for the faint-hearted!