Thursday, 6 October 2016

A Robot in the Garden, by Deborah Install

This is a lovely, lovely story that is really quite special and completely heartwarming - don’t mistake it for sci-fi just because it has the word ‘robot’ in the title!

One morning Ben looks out his window to find a small robot sitting at the end of the garden, watching the horses in the field next door. Ben can’t get much sense out of the robot except his name – Tang – but, much to the disgruntlement of his wife, decides to take Tang in.

Tang is like a small child, fascinated by everything and leaving a trail of trouble, but Ben – like I couldn’t help doing either – quickly becomes rather attached to him. The question is, though, where did Tang come from? He doesn’t remember, but when Ben discovers a vital part of Tang is on the verge of breakdown, he and Tang set out to find Tang’s first owner to see if he can save him. Following the trail of clues around the world, both Ben and Tang are set on a path of discovery and the makings of a friendship like no other.

“A story of the greatest friendship ever assembled,” is the tag line on my copy of the book, and I’d have to agree. Deborah Install fills A Robot in the Garden with the perfect mix of humour, adventure and discovery, and subtly makes you question the balance between father and child. It's a very gentle story, yet an awful lot happens all at the same time - Ben is a bit of a lay-about at the beginning of the story, but Tang's presence changes everything and their road trip helps them to both grow an enormous amount. A book that leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside; I loved it.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Wolf By Wolf, by Ryan Graudin

Yael’s story opens in 1944 on a death train, squashed in among five thousand others, no food, no water, for three days. She is six years old. But when she arrives at her destination she will be saved by Dr. Geyer – if you can call it that.

Cut to 1956. Germania, the capital of the Third Reich, where we learn not only that the Nazis won the war, but that Yael has what she calls the ability to skinshift: she can take on any face she chooses, change her appearance at will. And now she is going to use this skill to change the world.

Ryan Graudin sets the scene in the opening chapters of Wolf by Wolf absolutely perfectly: here is a young woman with a terrible past that we can guess at but only guess at, a young woman with an intriguing and unusual twist that makes you immediately engage with her and want to know more – more about what happened to her, and more about what is going to happen. Because Yael, working with the resistance, has been tasked to kill Hitler.

Every year, Germany and Japan hold The Axis Tour, an annual motorcycle race, a grueling, cross-country race for thousands of kilometers, from Germania (aka Berlin) to Tokyo. Only the best riders from Germany and Japan can enter, and only the best rider will win. But what a prize: accolade, yes, but also attendance at the winner’s ball and an audience with the Fuhrer himself, the only time he is ever seen in public these now. Yael’s task is take the place and the face of last year’s winner, Adele Woolfe; to be her, to race as her, and to win.

Wolf by Wolf is absolutely brilliant and massively enjoyable. It basically has everything, interweaving the trials and traumas of the bike race with flashbacks to Yael’s past, revealing the history behind both her special abilities and the five wolf tattoos racing down her arm. The race is not only physically trying but full of emotional and psychological challenges too, from the riders who will play as dirty as they can get to having to evade Adele’s brother Felix and his prying questions, and navigate the unknown history between Adele and fellow racer Luke. Everyone has something to hide and murky motivations and Yael has to make tough choice after tough choice throughout the race. Will she make it? Will she win? What will she lose or have to shed along the way?

It is no longer just about winning the race and doing what she has to do, Yael is also fighting herself and her past and Adele’s past all in one. The only thing that doesn’t change when she skinshifts are the wolf tattoos: they ground her and remind her who she is and what she’s fighting for. Because, if you don’t have your own face any more, what is your identity and how do you hold on to that?

I love the cover of Wolf by Wolf with the overhead view of Yael on her motorbike, their combined shadow taking the form of a wolf. From the tattoos along Yael’s arm to the surname of her doppelganger, wolves are obviously a pretty clear theme through the story. Yael is riding with a pack of biting, arguing wolves in the Axis Tour, yet in some ways she is the wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding in plain sight, hoping to get access to another wolf’s lair. She knows she should trust no-one, but sometimes that is easier said than done. Because in order to stay human, you have to love, and without trust, how can you love?

Wolf by Wolf is a smart, many-layered thriller that not only kept me right on the edge of my seat, but kept me guessing right up until the final, scary, and completely unexpected twist. An alternate history, a brutal race, a secret mission, with a pinch of sci-fi to set it going – hands down to Ryan Graudin for coming up with something so entirely different.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Seed by Lisa Heathfield

The Oxford English dictionary describes a cult as:
“A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object,” 
“A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.”
The second of these two definitions particularly brings to mind the idea that, most probably, those who are part of a cult aren’t likely to think of their group and/or beliefs as being a ‘cult’ because, today at least, the term ‘cult’ tends to have negative connotations – if you were accused of being in a cult, most people’s instinct would probably be to defend themselves against that concept. If Pearl was told she’d grown up as part of a cult, I’m sure she wouldn’t believe it (although someone might first have to explain to her what a cult is!).

I’ve always found the idea of cults kind of fascinating, so was very much drawn to Seed as a result of that. Why do people form cults, join them, and get pulled into their strange rules and belief systems? How can they believe the sometimes crazy things that some cults invoke, and what would possess them to carry out the acts that some cults require of their members?

Pearl has always lived at Seed. She was born there, grew up there; it is everything she has ever wanted and everything she has ever needed. Seed is her family, her home, her world. She is watched over by Papa S and the Kindreds, who have taught her everything she knows and believes, from harvesting honey and planting crops to the dirty, unhappy, state of the outside world – and, given the state of this outside world, it’s little wonder that there will soon be three new people joining them at Seed: teenaged Ellis, his mother, and his little sister Sophie.

Apart from the slightly strange ritual Pearl has to endure in the opening couple of chapters, at first it seems that to grow up at Seed must surely be a sort of idyll: Pearl and everyone there have to work hard to grow the things they need and to take care of each other, but it seems like a fairly free existence, with few concerns other than day to day life. Inevitably, though, as we are introduced to Pearl’s world, little things are revealed that make the reader question Pearl’s reality. At first these things are as simple and subtle in the story as a little comment or hinted-at off-page action, and it feels as if they are just small things, things that hardly happen and could even be neither here nor there. But then I wondered, what if they happen a lot but Pearl has simply glossed over them? What if, care of her indoctrination, she doesn’t understand how significant they are?

And then, of course, Ellis arrives. He says some strange things, things that only a crazy person could believe – like space travel and humans walking on the moon – and even questioning some of things about mother nature that she has always known to be true. But what if they aren’t? Gradually, Ellis’s presence begins to force Pearl to look at things differently, and the ‘little’ things that felt out of place start to escalate, quickly becoming more obvious, more numerous, and more ominous.

I really liked the nature worship aspect of Seed, but in this case the whole manifesto has clearly been dreamt up by some guy with not-so-pleasant intentions. The plotting is really well paced, gradually revealing things - slowly at first, and then with ever greater speed, all whilst carefully straddling the border between only implying certain aspects of the storyline and life at Seed versus shouting out the details from the rooftops. Pearl’s character development is very realistic too, following a similar pattern to the plot: slowly, slowly at first as it is so hard – almost impossible – to imagine that things could be different from what she has always believed, and then faster and faster as events and her gaining knowledge spirals.

There are a lot of different threads to follow too, which gives the story good substance: not everything hinges upon Ellis’s presence and Pearl’s coming-of-age story arc; there is also the mystery of Sylvia, Elizabeth’s illness, Kate’s erratic behavior. What I would have liked more of is the back story to Seed, and the role of Pearl’s little brother Bobby and his insights could have been developed more. And I didn’t think that Pearl’s voice was particularly distinctive – Lisa Heathfield’s style tends towards the ‘I go here’, ‘I have this feeling’, ‘so and so does this’ which is a little bland. The emotions are very guarded somehow, which makes the drama quite guarded too.

Nonetheless, Seed is a gripping first novel brimming with ideas on freedom and truth and lies, the cult setting allowing her to dabble in the dystopian form in a different way whilst simultaneously avoiding the typical dystopian categorization and idea rehashing. Everything seems innocent on the surface, but what are Pearl and those at Seed – her siblings especially – being told just to keep them in line? How far will Papa S go to keep control of his family and what consequences will this have on the person whom Pearl is to grow into?

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Railhead, by Philip Reeve

Anyone looking for an awesome new sci-fi novel to read, look no further. Railhead is the one. And even if you're not looking for sci-fi, you should still read Railhead...

Welcome to the future. A world brimming with technology, running on data networks, androids ('motoriks') and bioengineering; a galaxy of planets watched over by god-like A.I.s, tasked by Old Earth to look after humanity. A place where K-Gates and network rail speed you across the galaxy in a matter of minutes, on trains that sing and talk and think and feel.

Zen Starling is a railhead: he loves to ride the trains, station to station, planet to planet. He’s just a petty thief, a nobody really, so why is he suddenly being followed? Who's after him and what do they want? Taken onto a part of the network he never knew existed, Zen meets Raven, an enigmatic figure who gives Zen a job: steal a small box from the ruling family’s luxury, high security train.

But – of course – things don’t exactly go according to plan. From the preparations for the heist, entrance onto the train, and the explosive consequences – in more ways than one – Zen is about to uncover a lot more than he bargained for. What's in the box? Who is Raven? Who can be trusted?

This book is brilliant. I mean, sentient trains, anyone? What else do you need? Every train has its own character and its own foibles, and Philip Reeve’s world-building is exceptional – there is so much to discover, for us and for Zen, and it all fits together perfectly. I don’t want to say too much about the story – much better to discover it for yourself – suffice to say there are plenty of different elements to get your teeth into. The set-up reminded me a little bit of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a government spread across the planets, the different layers of citizen, but Railhead is much more sci-fi and much less Western than Firefly.

Once there was a boy, Raven tells us… We all like to know the truth, but what if, this time, the truth will destroy us?

I loved Railhead. In fact, I think I might go and read it again.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Fuzzy Mud, by Louis Sachar

Fuzzy Mud is the story of Marshall and Tamaya and one “little” science experiment gone just a little bit out of control…

Seventh grader Marshall and fifth grader Tamaya live on the same road and go to the same school and Marshall, as the older of the two, is responsible for walking Tamaya home. Tamaya is uncomfortable about not sticking to the rules and not telling the truth, so when Marshall suddenly decides to take a short cut home through the out-of-bounds woods that border the school property she’s not sure which is worse: entering the woods or walking home alone. But really, what’s the worst that can happen? It’s just a bunch of trees, after all…

And why does Marshall take this sudden deviation from the norm? To avoid Chad, of course. The biggest bully in the school and a kid intent on making Marshall’s life as difficult as possible. Unfortunately, Chad is not so easily deterred, and follows Marshall and Tamaya into the woods.

Fuzzy Mud is the result of a confluence of events: a bully, a trip into the woods, a victim (or two), and an escaped ergie. The ergie is a man-made, single-celled, high-energy, fast-multiplying microorganism. Aka: fuzzy mud. And when Tamaya defends herself from bullying Chad by scooping up a handful of fuzzy mud and flinging it into his face, well, that’s the beginning of everything…

What is the nasty rash Tamaya develops on her hand, and what has happened to Chad?

Fuzzy Mud is – as you’d expect no less from Louis Sachar – completely brilliant, and I loved it. It’s a little bit like Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, but for middle grade readers instead of teens – the style is kind of similar, and both books cover the subject of man’s hubris when playing with the natural order of things (in the case, the creation of the ergie). Fuzzy Mud is told using a mixture of techniques, combining reports and interviews with the interchanging stories from Tamaya and Marshall.

What happened at SunRay Farm and how is it linked to Marshall and Tamaya?

Sachar incorporates lots of different themes into this swiftly told tale, from bravery and bullying to what ‘doing the right thing’ means – plus the science, of course. The rime counter included at the start of the chapters adds an extra sense of urgency, as you see how fast things develop, and this feeling is increased by the physical count of the ever-multiplying ergies.

How can they stop the fuzzy mud from spreading? Is it the end of the world?

Marshall and Tamaya are two very different characters but they’re both really easy to like, and the events of the story really bring them both out of their respective shells – lots of lovely character development! This is an excellently written page-turner, and brilliant choice for any young (or older!) readers looking for something just a little bit different.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Big Lie, by Julie Mayhew

Jessika Keller is a good girl. She knows she is; it’s her duty, after all: to be faithful, to be pure, to be German. She is German and she is British, but it is really only the German part that matters. It is 2014 and she is the 16/17-year-old daughter of a high-ranking official of the Greater German Reich. She is going to be a champion ice skater and her best friend is Clementine Hart.

Correction. Her best friend was Clementine Hart.

The title of this book, The Big Lie, references an expression coined by Adolf Hitler in his book Mein Kampf: it is much easier to convince the masses of a big lie than of a small one. Julie Mayhew’s use of the term for the title of her novel seems to allude to the big lie that her fast-forwarded version of the Nazi regime has created: Jessika’s world is one where they are told that they are the best of the best and everyone else, everyone who isn’t pure or doesn’t conform to the ‘government framework’ is untermensch – inferior.

It’s a tough world for us to imagine: no individuality, no freedom of expression. But for Jessika it is everything she knows. That is, until she begins to have feelings that she has no compass for, and until Clementine begins to say things and do things that make no sense to Jessika. Gradually Jess is forced to consider that perhaps there are alternatives to what she knows. We know from the start of The Big Lie that something has changed for Jessika, and as she reveals her story in flashback we discover that there are all sorts of lies – big and small – that being good is not always straightforward, and perhaps the worst thing of all is the lie of omission.

Julie Mayhew has constructed her story really well, from the way she leads us to question why exactly Jess’s father ‘tipped Herr Hart off’ about the house next door being available, how Jessika believes she is helping her friend whilst actually informing on her, and how the Greater German Reich engineers a visit from a US pop star in a way that turns him from being exciting and forbidden to a disappointment. Jessika is an unreliable narrator – she tells us what she chooses to tell us, leading us in one direction, and then revealing that actually there was a whole other part that she left out. How much more has she omitted to tell us? There are all sorts of interesting parallels here between this technique of story telling and the way that the Greater German Reich has indoctrinated her and the rest of the German/British population.

Alternate History’ novels and the question of ‘what if the Nazis won the war?’ are certainly not new, but one of the really interesting things about them is that there are so many directions to take – there are basically endless possibilities and endless stories that could be told using this technique. The Big Lie takes a fairly straightforward approach to its tale, but this is nonetheless very effective. I did feel there were maybe one or two questionable plot turns – how does Frau Keller find out about Jess’s dalliance with GG and, after the explosive events of the concert (which bring everything to a head for Jessika), why do they choose to act against Jessika at the strange point in time that they ultimately choose? But these are little things, and perhaps feed into both the bigger atmosphere of ‘big brother is watching you’ and Jess’s semi-unreliable narrative.

There is another really excellent new YA Nazi alternate history book out this autumn, Wolf By Wolf by Ryan Graudin, but it could not be more different to The Big Lie. What I think Julie Mayhew’s novel made me think more of is another novel altogether: Seed by Lisa Heathfield. Seed is the story of Pearl, who grows up in a small community/cult, and I can see a lot of similarities between Pearl’s indoctrination in her community’s rituals and beliefs and Jessika’s – they are simply performed on a different scale.

How many lies has Jessika been told? Perhaps we’ll never know, but as she becomes an expert on zwischenraum – the space in between, like twilight – it certainly gets the reader thinking. She is stuck in this space in between: neither good nor bad, neither liar nor truth teller, neither child nor adult; never quite free. Thank goodness the Nazis did not win the war – but, nevertheless, there are still plenty of places around the world, big and small, where children and adults are conditioned. It is probably even happening on your own doorstep, albeit hopefully to a lesser extreme: what do you believe in that isn’t true? As Mayhew said in an online interview about the book, “We all get subtle messages about race, class and gender as we grow up - messages that often need to be challenged.”

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Running Girl, by Simon Mason

Generally speaking, I don’t normally pick up crime/detective books, but right from the get-go Running Girl seemed like it would be something a little different: its unusual puzzle of a cover, its unusual main character, and its shortlisting for the Costa Children’s Book Award were all big ticks, in addition to which, everything I’ve read from David Fickling Books recently has been really excellent. So I thought, why not?

The ‘running girl’ of the title is Chloe Dow, athletic and beautiful, the girl everyone at school watches. And now: dead. Who killed her, and why? What exactly was she involved in, and what was she doing in the hours that led up to her death?

Garvie Smith, one of Chloe’s ex-boyfriends, doesn’t exactly want to get involved, but he can’t help but try and make sense of things, to add the pieces of the puzzle together, and when he can’t make them fit, he can’t help but try and figure out why. He’s smart but lazy, failing school despite having the highest IQ of anyone there, consistently unmotivated and seemingly unmotivatable, except when it comes to this case, and even as he gets pulled further and further into a world he doesn’t really want to be a part of, and even as both his mother and DI Singh, the inspector in charge of Chloe’s case, get increasingly frustrated with him, he’s unable to leave it alone.

Several reviews of Running Girl that I’ve read have said how unlikeable they found Garvie, but I didn’t have that experience. Frustrating at times, yes; a very different sort of person to me, yes; but at heart he’s a good kid, just bored by pretty much everything except this case. The story is told partly from a mix of Garvie’s perspective, police interviews, and DI Singh’s perspective, which I think gives the book more layers and depth than you’d perhaps get if it was all Garvie’s story (although I will say I think it went on just a little too long for me, Simon Mason adding in an extra level of plot twist that I’m not sure was really needed).

Running Girl also feels very different to a lot of YA that’s currently being produced and definitely stands out from the crowd, not only thanks to the excellent cover, intriguing premise, and characterful protagonist, but because it has a very grown up feel and could sit on an adult fiction shelf just as comfortably as on a YA one. Plus it’s refreshing to have both a lead and a supporting character who don’t fall into the stereotypical white, Christian, middle class (Garvie is black; DI Singh is Sikh) – and, perhaps even more importantly, without the story being anything at all to do with these parts of the characters, these aspects being just one part of who they are, but not determining the plotline nor their personal fates.

Are Garvie and Singh destined to clash or will they find an uneasy compromise? Can Garvie persuade Singh to listen to him, and can Singh find a way to bring his team – and his boss – onto his side? And of all the different things that Chloe was dealing with, which one was responsible for her death?

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Demon Road, by Derek Landy

Derek Landy is the ENORMOUSLY popular author of the ENORMOUSLY successful Skulduggery Pleasant series. Demon Road is his first outing into a new fictional world, and it's pretty much guaranteed to be a big hit.

Amber’s life has always been fairly normal. Sure, her parents are pretty odd and wield a surprising amount of power in the community, and sure, they might not show her much love, but she’s always had everything she else she’s ever needed. So it comes as a bit of a shock when she discovers that they’re murderous demons and that – bigger shock – she too has a demon self. But – even bigger shock! – there’s also the part where they want to eat her as part of some power-absorbing ritual. Needless to say, she goes on the run. And boy is it going to be “one hell of a road trip”...

Reviewer describes Demon Road’s layout/plotting as being episodic in nature – like a T.V. programme – which is so true. It works nicely, adding to the road trip aspect of the book and makes it feel a little like a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, albeit with more horns. I loved the Charger (a car with a difference) and Milo (Amber’s protector on the Demon Road) and Milo’s development through the story. And hitchhiker Glen was pretty awesome too. I’m usually pretty rubbish at imagining the accents of characters in books and just give them straightforward English voices when I’m reading, but with Glen his Irish accent really jumped off the page and into my head.

Demon Road absolutely does what it says on the tin and I’m certain that Derek Landy’s die-hard fans will be very happy with the new story and the new story world. There’s a lot going on: Will Amber manage to evade her parents AND the Shining Demon, with whom they made a deal so many years ago? How will she adapt to her demon side? Can we figure out Milo’s big secret? And what about Glen and his own mortal countdown?

Overall, I enjoyed Demon Road and I certainly wanted to find out how things were going to work out, but I think I expected there to be more to it somehow. It doesn’t really do anything more than what it says on the tin and I didn’t find much much subtlety in the writing or the storyline, particularly the language, which in some places – to be brutal – didn’t so much border on the cliché as step right into it, making it a bit hammy horror. I have two thoughts about this, though: (1) Does it really matter? (for most people: no); and (2) Is this the point? Is it deliberate, to make sure the book falls solidly within the conventions of the genre, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way? (maybe, maybe not)

A couple of the ‘episodes’ dragged for me, and I’m not entirely sure what their purpose was within the greater story other than to add a bit more supernatural stuff. There are parts to them which are relevant to the main storyline, but these particular parts of the story felt slightly unwieldy, or over-egged. I’m sure Landy is more than capable of having done better with this part of the story; instead it feels like he got a bit lazy with it, which I found disappointing – I felt that the ‘furthering’ that was done in here could have been done better and more in line with Amber and Milo’s main mission.

Lastly, there is Amber. For much of the story she felt very two-dimensional to me. Her character does develop some – e.g. from someone whose instinct is to run and hide to someone willing to stand up for a stranger on the street – but I didn’t feel like her development was completely rounded. I spent some time trying to understand what it is about her that quite didn’t hit home for me and I think it’s because we aren’t really introduced to who she is before everything changes for her. We know she was in trouble with her headmistress, we know she had a job in a diner, and we know she had a few online friends, but that’s about it and it’s never fleshed out at all – for me, all of this made her difficult to understand exactly what changes for her as she experiences her new reality.

Secondly, much is made of the fact that Amber’s demon form is considerably more beautiful than her human one. I have mixed thoughts about this. It’s really, really good that Landy has chosen to make our heroine not the standard blonde bombshell but dark haired and a bit on the pudgy side. But why would this aspect of her change when she becomes a demon? The demon part is the stronger, more confident part of her personality and I’m not sure if it’s Landy falling back on some sort of stereotype – that heroines are always beautiful to behold – or if its all a metaphor for the beauty under the skin. I’m just not sure on what his line of thought here is which, in a book of this ilk, suggests that some little thing is missing. In many aspects he makes Amber a brilliant feminist, the sort of person who will stand up for a girl being hassled by a jerk on the street, but it doesn’t always follow through in every part of the story.

All of this said, plaudits must go to Landy for the things he has achieved in the story: It’s fun, has a good bit of gore, plenty of supernatural shenanigans and nicely avoids the YA romance cliché whilst twisting the traditions of both the coming-of-age and road-trip stories. Demon Road is ultimately a cool new YA title that I’ve no doubt will have mass appeal. I’ve also no doubt that a lot of people will disagree with my thoughts here and simply read the book for what it is, without needing anything more. And that’s great. My little quibbles are simply because I think that Landy is capable of more. But: go read it yourself and make your own mind up!

Thursday, 3 September 2015

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

This is a book that gets under your skin in a million little ways; a book that demands to be read; a book which you simply have to keep reading, and even when you stop to do something else, is there in your mind, the story and characters ticking away, urging you to go back to them.

A Little Life is, at the beginning, about four college friends, but really it is all about just one of them: Jude. Once I reached the end of this immense, heart-wrenching story, though, I began to reassess: rather than being about Jude, it’s ultimately, perhaps, about the relationship between Jude and Willem. Because, if anything endures from our lives, if anything lives on beyond us, then surely it is the relationships we form around us, and the impact we have upon other people’s lives.

I’d heard that this book was breathtaking and should be read, but that it was depressing. It is breathtaking and it should be read, but it’s not depressing: if anything, it is incredibly sad, but even this is certainly not all that it is. It is everything; it is life encompassed. Hanya Yanagihara has an amazing power of observation, especially of people, and the book is full of little things that strike home and made me think, yes, that is so right; and it has made me re-evaluate how I think about my own friends and the relationships we share, how not everyone thinks or is able to respond to things the same way that I do.

In the first section of the book we hear only from Malcolm and Willem and JB: what we know about Jude, we only know from them, and I was expecting this style of storytelling to continue, so was pleasantly surprised when Jude’s voice is introduced in part two, followed swiftly by another change to a mix of first and second perspective storytelling, care of a fifth key character. It was interesting to me that as Jude’s ‘little life’ progresses, Malcolm and JB begin to take a back seat, and we only rarely hear from them again other than through Willem and Jude.

Jude is a conundrum: on the surface, in his professional life, he is so assured and confident and capable, but underneath he suffers such turmoil. He is impossibly, unimaginably damaged, and as his secrets are gradually, devastatingly revealed, Yanagihara paints what feels to be an unutterably true portrait of how it must be to be stuck inside the head of a person who feels about himself and believes about himself the things that Jude believes, in spite of all that the people who love him try to tell him otherwise. He is not haunted by ghosts so much as by hyenas. When he is young he seems mostly to be able to lock them away, but as he gets older they begin to truly start clattering about, demanding to be felt, and only one person has the power to help him tame them – or partially tame them, at any rate. I found myself thinking, if only he would speak about it, but the worse it gets, the harder it seems to become for him to articulate the things that haunt him.

The lives of Jude and Willem and Malcolm and JB are strangely, seemingly timeless. As I began reading, the story felt contemporary, that it begins perhaps now, or perhaps, at a stretch, in the nineties, but surely no further ago than that (though maybe it is simply my own vantage point that controls this; someone else might imagine a different decade). Yet, as I read, and the characters grew older and I knew that time was passing, it stills feels like it is the same; no future world is imagined here, it is all the present. And even the characters – even though I knew they were now forty, forty-five, fifty – seemed in my mind to be the same in age and looks and appearance as when they were twenty. Perhaps this is the conundrum of being an adult, though, for even as I know I am getting older, that my appearance must surely be changing, I find it hard to believe. I still feel the same; I still feel like me, not some older version of me.

As well as the concept of experience and how this shapes our lives, I also found interesting the question of healing and the human fixation on fixing things, whether physical things or mind things. That, after all, is why we have shrinks: to fix ourselves, to fix others; the idea that we all need to be perfect and whole. But what if something cannot be fixed, what if it is so deeply imbedded within the soul that it simply is; perhaps then the only way to fix it is to acknowledge and accept it and find a way to live with it, to work with it, to reduce it’s ripple effect rather than fruitlessly attempting to eradicate it. Acceptance, sometimes, is everything. This is an idea that has been touched upon in several books I’ve come across recently in terms of physical health, and it’s an idea that I try and try again to apply to myself. And so to see it here, so beautifully considered, is wonderful too.

As Jude ages, the things that matter changes: from being safe, to being loved, to the question of legacy. This is what A Little Life does: it incorporates a lifetime; even as things stay still, so do they change; the progression of thought and understanding and also, not-understanding. Our lives may be little, but they are also big.

This book absolutely deserves all the praise it is receiving. The words will become blurry with tears as you read and yet it is somehow wonderful, full of real things and real feelings that burst upon you with every page and every turn of events. It is beautiful and sad and truly extraordinary.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Fire Colour One, by Jenny Valentine

Sometimes you pick up a book and, within the first few pages, find yourself asking, why have I never read this author before? For me, Fire Colour One was one of those books.

This is Iris’s story. Bright as flame but troubled, thanks to her turbulent childhood with her horrible, blinkered mother Hannah, and self-absorbed stepfather Lowell. It is also Ernest’s story – Iris’s real father – and Iris’s uncovering of it. While Hannah snoops and fishes for a hefty inheritance, Iris sits at Ernest’s bedside during the last days of his life and learns a million things. Things like how her parents met, and how everything really ended. Things like the truth.

My copy of the book describes it as ‘A bold and brilliant novel about deception, love and redemption,’ and that’s exactly what it is. It’s hard to put my finger on what makes it so good, it’s just got that je ne sais quoi that books like The Fault in Our Stars have. Iris is so vivid, and I felt so much for her – so much pain and so much love. She misses her lost friend Thurston so much, but doesn’t know how to find him; and she needs something more, something indefinable, but she doesn’t know how to find that either. So she builds fires. She doesn’t really build them to cause trouble or to cause damage; she builds them because she has to, because she loves the flames so much, because fire makes her feel better, because it encompasses her. Fire is magic and alive – it even needs air to be able to breathe, while Iris practically needs fire to be able to breathe.

“We see what we want to see, regardless of what we are actually looking at, nothing at all to do with the truth,” (pg.113) Iris tells us, and this is so true - of everyone, I think - but especially of her mother. Themes of lies and truth run through this novel like smoke – ever present, but impossible to catch hold of – along with themes of art and fire. It’s irresistible and unputdownable and truly excellent.

And the title? Fire Colour One is also the name of a painting by Yves Klein – a real painting, not a fictional one, and rather an important one too. But you’ll have to read the book to learn of its significance to this particular story…

I’d heard good things about author Jenny Valentine and knew that Broken Soup, her second book, had been shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize when it came out. But, for whatever reason, I didn’t expect the exceptional story and writing and characters that I found inside the pages of Fire Colour One. John Green, eat your heart out. I definitely need to go back and read her other books now.