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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How to get their noses in a book this half term

When my children were young, I found it relatively easy to entertain them during school holidays; they still liked going to parks (sighs wistfully!), did not roll their eyes when I suggested a museum or gallery (usually running a school holiday activity), even a bus or train ride was a novelty! And if I needed to work or just needed a break, there were always organised activities, sports clubs, etc. Now, two of my children are teenagers, and the third is there in spirit if not in chronological years. They can entertain themselves, often making their own arrangements with friends, requiring only transport assistance from me, and this is great; they are independent and there is a lower impact on my writing life.

girl-672267_1920However, with autonomy comes power – if they are having an ‘at home’ day they can simply slip under the radar and spend a great deal of quality time with their phones and tablets (oh for the days when I only worried about how much Balamory they watched!) They can secrete themselves in their bedrooms while I lose myself in all my usual activity. At their age, sure I watched a lot of telly while my parents were out at work in the school holidays, but I also spent plenty of time with my nose in a book. Digital distractions were fewer and less powerful.

I’m not looking back with rose-tinted specs thinking ‘if only their lives could be like mine…’ no way; I know I would have loved the internet! However, now I’m a 21st century parent I can see how easily it is for the reading, no, the whole cultural habit to slip away and get lost in the mire of competing forms of entertainment. So, what can be done? Well, if the scenario outlined above sounds familiar and, like me, you would like your young people to engage more with paper and page-turning rather than screens and swiping, here are some thoughts for you:

  1. Don’t panic and don’t give up – even the most avid readers have dry periods and the teenage years are unique and short-lived. They have many things to contend with and reading may not be top of their list. Hang on in there and see below.
  2. Let them see you reading – I work mostly from home and my kids are fascinated by what I do all day! When they are off school I make sure they see me switching off the phone and the computer and reading; don’t save your reading until bedtime. Ten minutes reading in front of your kids is far more powerful than all your verbal exhortations to read – they listen to nothing you say but they watch everything you do. Model the desired behaviours.
  3. Bring books into their life – yesterday I went out with one of mine and treated them to a hot chocolate…in the bookshop cafe! And afterwards we had a browse. Later in the week I may find I need to call into the library while we are out.
  4. Seek out literary-themed days out – you may have at least one planned day out while your kids are off. Did a favourite author live nearby, whose home you could visit? Is there some literary link to a local beauty spot? I live in Manchester in north-west England and we are very fortunate to have a rich local literary heritage – Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, four fascinating libraries (Central library, John Ryland’s, Chetham’s and the Portico), and the Lake District is nearby (Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome).
  5. In fact, any culture will do – museums, galleries? Many are still free so there is no pressure to spend all day there, just hang out for an hour or so. Engagement with any kind of cultural activity will demonstrate to your teens that life exists beyond the screen and even if they start bored, they will probably have to read something, even if its only the descriptions of the exhibits.
  6. Watch a movie adaptation together – the key word here is ‘together’. If it’s their choice, maybe an adaptation of a YA novel, so much the better. If they like the film, but haven’t read the book, suggest getting it for them.
  7. Revisit a once-loved childhood classic together – were there books they loved reading as children? Perhaps dig out an old favourite, they’ll enjoy the nostalgia. My eldest still goes back to Harry Potter from time to time.
  8. Buy newspapers and magazines – all reading is good.
  9. Finally, leave all kinds of reading material lying around, in every room, even the kitchen and bathroom. When they’re off school and they’ve more time on their hands they may be inclined to linger.

The key thing is to show an interest and not to judge. I consider myself an avid reader these days and I did read a lot of classics when I was young, but I read some ‘trash’ too, and I loved comics and teen magazines. Value their choices, even if you secretly wish they’d read something different, and talk to them about what they’re reading.

What do you do to try and get your kids reading, particularly the older ones? 

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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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#Top Ten tips for helping your teen with English Lit

read-515531_640Many households up and down the UK will be like mine this summer – tiptoeing around a teenager revising for their exams. In my household, my eldest is doing his GCSEs so this is our first experience of exams that really matter. It’s so hard for them and as a parent there is not a great deal you can do to help – which makes it hard for us too! At 16 they need to be working out their own best revision and study methods (definitely not the same as mine!) so although my heart is desperate to ‘help’ my head tells me that I need to step back and avoid interfering. Also, many of my son’s chosen subjects are areas I know very little about – Spanish, Russian – or have limited interest in – physics, electronics – or remember very little about – mathematics! So, beyond providing encouragement, food and drink, and making sure they’re getting enough sleep, what more can you do as a parent?

One area I can help with is English literature. It also happens to be the subject in which my son has least confidence (how? why?).  It’s difficult isn’t it – I have a degree of knowledge and expertise and can geneuinely help my child, but at the same time I don’t want to undermine my son’s confidence, or indeed alienate him, by coming across as some sort of expert, or for him to feel self-conscious with me. You know how sensitive teens can be!

So, I have given a great deal of thought in recent weeks as to how I can best help my son with his English Lit revision. Here are my top ten tips:

  1. Get to know their set texts yourself – feel it with them! I have re-read Michael Frayn’s Spies and re-acquainted myself with The Merchant of Venice this year. It has been very pleasurable for me and I’m hoping that some of my enthusiasm will rub off.
  2. Get hold of an audio or video version of the books – they need to know the texts well so there is nothing to lose by watching or listening to the texts being performed or read. I got a free audiobook of Spies with an Audible trial and borrowed  a DVD of The Merchant of Venice from the library. They may well have watched DVDs at school but it will do no harm to re-watch.
  3. Discuss the texts with them – have conversations with them about the books and talk enthusiastically. They don’t have to be big set-piece conversations, you could have a 10 minute chat over dinner or in the car, which will be more memorable to your teen than a sit-down ‘session’.
  4. Read through their English notes – identify the key themes their teacher has directed them to learn about and understand these yourselves. You could also buy study notes booklets or there are various websites which give you textual study guides, such as the BBC’s GCSE Bitesize.
  5. Test them on examples from the text – it’s absolutely key that they can provide evidence for points they make – they have to illustrate with examples from the text. So, from Spies, I might ask for three examples of Keith’s controlling and bullying behaviour towards Stephen. It comes back to knowing the text really well, so if they can’t remember, re-read/listen/watch extracts to make sure they can recall the examples.
  6. Make a plan for yourself – I find that my conversations with my son are best done in shortish informal bites rather than scheduled sessions. He is more relaxed and therefore more responsive. It’s all a cunning ruse, however, because I have my own plan about what to discuss with him and when.
  7. Set questions for them – if you’re busy, work and have other children, helping your teen to revise can seem like an additional chore. So, if you find that on some days you simply don’t see them much, or there isn’t time for your revision chat, set them a question to answer. This will also give them practice in writing about their texts.
  8. Teach them how to mindmap – as a grown-up you will know how mind-mapping can be a great tool for committing things to memory or exploring an idea, even for the least visual among us. If they haven’t done mindmapping yet at school, get them a big piece of paper (flipchart or some old wallpaper) and a marker pen and do it with them. It can be done for themes as well as for plot and character (they MUST get the basics right so make sure they know all the key characters and how to spell their names correctly). Stick these on their bedroom wall, be creative, print out pictures or draw the characters, use different coloured pens.
  9. Help them to memorise quotes – it’s always useful to have a few key quotes up your sleeve so help them identify some (eg the “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech from Merchant of Venice) and test them.
  10. Finally, praise. Your job now is building confidence.

 

If you have any other tips for helping your teen with English Lit revision I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, best of luck!

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Are ‘mature’ Mummies allowed to read YA (young adult) fiction?

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Well, this Mummy did and really enjoyed it! It wasn’t, like, really obvs. (sorry, can’t resist a bit of punctuation, which I fear may become extinct in my lifetime) since the book concerned was a) written by someone of my own generation, and b) the cover doesn’t give too much away, so not totes embarrassing to be seen reading in the company of my daughter and her BFFs.

(Enough teen-speak now, I think, especially since I’m rubbish at it.)

I got an advance copy of The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr from Net Galley. This is a website you can subscribe to, free of charge, and it gives you a chance to get electronic copies of books (so you need an e-reader device), usually ahead of publication. In return you are simply asked to leave a review of the book on the website. I guess it gives publishers an idea of how the book might be received, and informs their marketing. The books available are mostly by less well-known writers.

Emily Barr has written a number of novels, mostly in what is often called the “chick-lit” genre, though I think this is her first venture into YA fiction. I first came across her many years ago when she gained a bit of fame for being a very young journalist at The Guardian and for having a relationship with a senior MP. I remember enjoying her columns as she was a very witty and very clever writer. Here are my thoughts on the book, which was published earlier this month and I note is widely available, including in my local supermarket, so being heavily pushed.

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Seventeen year-old Flora Banks is the narrator and central character. At the age of 10, Flora developed anterograde amnesia. This condition means that Flora has no short-term memory; she cannot remember what happened even a few minutes ago. Her parents micro-manage her life and Flora has various techniques and strategies to help her. For example, she writes things on her arms and hands that she needs to remember and keeps detailed notebooks about past events in her life which enable her to contextualise the present.

Flora is at once a reliable and unreliable narrator: the former because she tells things directly as she sees and experiences them, but unreliable because she cannot give us any background to the story, apart from what she recites from her notebooks. For example, it is some time before we learn what caused Flora’s condition and this is an important key to the story because it helps to explain the motivations of other characters in the novel. It is an interesting narration: there is a great deal of repetition as Flora struggles to memorise events, which I found irritating at first, but then it also enables the reader to empathise with Flora and see how life might be from her perspective.

Flora leads a sheltered life in Penzance until two events shake up her mundane existence: first, she attends a going-away party at her best friend Paige’s house. Paige’s boyfriend, Drake, is moving to Norway to study. At the end of the party Flora finds herself on the beach in the company of Drake, who kisses her and expresses feelings for her. This has a profound effect on Flora and becomes the singular event of the book’s title that Flora can permanently remember.

“I kissed Drake on the beach. I am alive in that memory.”

The second event, is that Flora’s parents have to go to Paris to see her brother Jacob who is dangerously ill. They don’t reveal the details of the illness and promise to return home soon. They leave Flora at home, for what they say will be just a few days with all her meals and strict instructions, and arrange for Paige to stay at the house to take care of her. Paige, however, has found out about the kiss with Drake and in a fit of pique decides that she will not Flora-sit. Home alone, Flora’s highly ordered life begins to unravel. Most significantly, Flora fails to take her medication. Now obsessed with Drake and the kiss and the conviction that his love for her will somehow begin a rehabilitation process (because the kiss is such a powerful memory) Flora discovers a resourcefulness she never knew she had, and takes herself off to Arctic Norway to find Drake, all the while convincing her parents that she is still at home with Paige. Flora then has an epic adventure.

Once I got into it, I really enjoyed this book. It is a very cleverly-crafted piece of fiction. Flora is a fantastic creation and I can really see how both she and Paige would be appealing characters to YA readers. Whilst Flora’s problems are very rare and very specific, I think there is a wider theme here about parenting and how, in seeking to protect our teens from the dangers the world presents, we may in fact deny them the very experiences that will enrich their lives. Flora has no capacity to weigh up risk so she is an unusual case (or maybe not!!!???), but the people who aid and abet her (Paige and Jacob) do have that ability, which suggests we have to trust the decisions young people make.

So, a thought-provoking read, which I will be passing on to my youngsters, and recommend to a non-YA audience too, even mature Mummies and Daddies! It’s Zoella next for me – now that WILL be embarrassing! 😉

If you or any young people you know have read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

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