Reviews: Recommended and Steer Clear!

It’s been a long old time, not least because I’ve gone a bit blog-crazy and set up two new ones to incorporate my latest passions: running and crafting (the two don’t exactly go hand-in-hand, I know). However, I haven’t stopped reading (nor have I perfected the recipe for adding a few hours to the day, sadly); below are my must-reads and my to-avoids of 2019 so far – see if you agree…!

Must Reads:

9781784759438Tom Hanks: ‘Uncommon Type’

I adore Tom Hanks – he always comes across as humble, hilarious and witty, so when I saw he’d tapped out a book on one of his many typewriters I knew I’d have to give it a go. It’s a collection of short stories ranging from the everyday to the (literally) out of this world. They’re simple, they’re straightforward, they’re just darn lovely. What I loved about these stories was their easygoing nature; nothing took itself too seriously, it was a pleasant read at the end of the day to ease myself into rest for the night. Definitely a must-read if you want the calm and chilled story.

Deborah Rodriguez: ‘The Kabul Beauty School’

I love the ‘Coffee Shop’ books by Deborah Rodriguez, and ‘Kabul Beauty School’ has been sat on my shelf a shameful amount of time. It’s insightful, it’s funny and it’s heartbreaking, but what a wonderful way to get to know one of the perceived most dangerous areas in the world. I would never have associated Afghanistan with the need for manicures, but what Rodriguez shows you in sparkling style is how even the humble haircut can change a life for the better in the most troubled of times. She doesn’t deny the harsh realities of living in a war zone, but this is complemented with the rays of sunshine poking through the clouds. It’s a gem and an enlightening experience.

Ben Elton: ‘Blind Faith’71rxq3s2bccl

I LOVE Ben Elton; his writing is never overly-intellectualised or complicated, but it is so incredibly precise in aiming its satire right at you and making you reevaluate your entire life that it feels like I’ve been stripped and judged to my very soul. ‘Blind Faith’ is no exception: I genuinely can’t take the world seriously any more. I can’t see an ill-fitting outfit without thinking of the citizens in the book defending their right to flash everything. I can’t go on social media without reflecting on the absurdity of communitainment advice. And when the royal baby name came out? I couldn’t help but wonder if Archie Happymeal might be on the cards. Read this for a real examination of our cultural values, delivered so obviously yet subtly; it’s a masterclass in exposing people without them realising it, and Elton is certainly a magician in revealing what was there all along.

Elizabeth Gilbert: ‘Eat, Pray, Love’

Another one sat on the shelf for longer than it should have been, this wasn’t overly complex but it was thoughtful and written so as to make you reassess your life without preaching at you, which is a dandy old combination for me! It’s a treasure trove of wonderful sayings, quotes and mantras designed to help enrich your life and put a smile on your face; I challenge anyone not to come away without some form of gentle resolve for their everyday existence.

9781782118640Matt Haig: ‘How to Stop Time’

Haig’s book follows what seems like an enviable character: he doesn’t age. But the downsides become a heartbreaking journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Yes, the climax seems a little odd after such a drift-along gentle plot on the whole, but it serves the purpose to fly our characters into love, happiness and acceptance; and perhaps its readers, too.

 

 

Steer Clear:

Aidan Chambers: ‘Postcards From No-Man’s Land’51w16tpa6wl._sx326_bo1204203200_

Granted, the target audience for this is probably a lot younger than man, but as a former teacher I’ve always taken a keen interest in what teen fiction is coming out now, and as a Carnegie Medal winner it piqued my interest. Don’t get me wrong, some of it was touching and beautifully written, but for me, particularly with my ex-teacher hat on, it tried to do too much too subtly. I’m not exactly daft and I struggled with why it was ‘postcards’ when it seemed more of a reflection/diary, and I’m so glad it was spelled out Ton was a boy early on as even when rereading I couldn’t pick up on those clues. There were just too many threads being pulled at: sexuality (big disappointment: potential homosexuality quickly overshadowed by heterosexuality, this felt like it undermined itself), war, identity, death…Each issue was so vast and weighty that none got their full worth recognised; it was clumsy and clunky to get through, and not an experience I’d repeat.

Mary Renault: ‘The King Must Die’

I read this because everyone kept comparing the wonderful Madeline Miller (a la ‘Circe’ and ‘The Song of Achilles’) to her predecessor; how could I resist? Boy, I wish I had: I don’t know how I got to the end of this but it’s incredibly literal style, paired with expecting you to know things have happened when you’ve not been told, completely lost me. I’ve got another Renault on my shelf, but I’m not sure I’ll manage another dose of cold, stark history lesson, so I might give it a miss!

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Carnegie Nominee: ‘Rooftoppers’ by Katherine Rundell

Having already won and been shortlisted for various awards, I was expecting ‘Rooftoppers’ to be gripping and heartening, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

The story of orphan Sophie and her nearly-adopted father figure Charles Maxim was incredibly heartwarming. A man who would encourage his child’s possibles to the ends of the world (or Paris, in literal terms), and a girl without prejudice or corruption leading a search for her heart’s desire, both wrapped up in a tale of adventure and exploration. Compared to the other Carnegie nominess this is (thankfully and wonderfully) light-hearted, aiming to lift spirits to the rooftops and show that anything is possible with a little dreaming and a lot of hard work (and, of course, fabulous fun along the way). Yes, the plot is stretched and implausible, but isn’t this the point of the book? To stop us from believing in the logical and learn to imagine beyond our expectations? As Charles says at one points, adults can be terribly afflicted with a need to only believe in what is in front of them, and that is a tragic hinderance in our ability to reach our desires. 

 

I think my favourite aspect of this tale is Charles, the adult that I’m fairly sure could never exist but everyone should want him to. He indulges Sophie in the best possible way, not raising a brat as one would expect, but a child who sees beyond the limitations of senseless arbitrary rules and instead views the world with an intense amount of compassion and love. He ranks amongst the top fathers within literature who offer emotional strength and wisdom without preaching or condescension. 

 

The only thing I found a little grating in this (and it was marginally so) was the scene with the railway children. In one sense I understood it perhaps showed passion and unity in the face of oppression, in a more intense way than Sophie’s opposition to the repressed knowledge of the police, and it fleshed out Matteo’s troubled and fascinating character by adding depth to the notion of him being a survivor, but it also seemed slightly senseless in its violence. This is me being very picky though in the sense of fairness to the other Carnegie reviews, and it really didn’t detract from the book at all, it is perhaps just a personal reaction to a change in the positive adventurous nature of the book. The scene was concise, Rundell crafted it only to serve the aforementioned purposes and therefore did not draw it out, which is to her credit. 

 

And the ending…well, I won’t spoil it for you, but it serves as a reminder of the beauty of art, life and love in a world that can sometimes be troubled and difficult, reminding us that to pursue a possibility is always a good thing regardless of the outcome. 

Carnegie Award Nominees: ‘Liar and Spy’ by Rebecca Stead

‘Liar and Spy’ revolves around a pre-teen boy struggling with a family move, school bullies and learning how to play by the rules. It becomes a tale of survival and learning which rules should be kept, and which should be entirely your own.

Overall, this is an enjoyable read. Drip fed throughout is the idea that bigger things are happening in Georges (don’t forget the silent ‘s’) life that he is repressing, and that his school issues and his fledgling relationship with the spy upstairs, Safer, are masks for bigger issues he’s avoiding. Georges story is sweet and one that can probably relate to anyone who’s had to deal with a crisis in their life and not known how to tackle it, and perhaps the nature of the issue (without any revelations) shows how human worries can make even the most straightforward issue into a mountain of pressure, and only by learning to scale the mountain do we realise it was never quite as big as we imagined.

Although it is clear throughout that Georges is hiding something, the way in which the final reveal happens is slightly disappointing. There’s a section where Georges talks about images dropping through his head, but it’s more like they’ve been plonked their in the actual revelation of his real story; to be fair, I’m reading this as an adult whereas it’s presumably aimed at pre to early teens, so maybe I’m expecting adult levels of subtlety which just aren’t appropriate for the target audience. Likewise, Safer’s story was just wrapped up in a moment, which (considering the audience) suggests that anyone who cannot just pull themselves together despite crippling issues is being ridiculous, which is clearly untrue. In a way, although the continuing thread throughout this is Georges learning to survive the wide world, the subplots are a little neglected in terms of depth, particular things like overcoming bullies, which is perhaps the most transferable issue regarding real life in this story.

This is a pleasant read and we do share in Georges maturation throughout the novel, which means we feel his upset and his triumph as he learns to navigate a world which we’re still learning to cope with.

Carnegie Award Nominees: ‘All The Truth That’s In Me’ by Julie Berry

I kick-started my Carnegie Award reading with Julie Berry’s ‘All the Truth That’s in Me’ and initially thought I was in for a disappointing beginning, but by the end of the novel I was able to appreciate why this was a real contender.

Set in American in an unspecified past era, where religion determines lifestyles and attitudes, Judith Finch suffers a horrific tragedy when she is abducted and only released when her tongue has been cut out to ensure she can never tell of her two-year captivity.

I’ll keep it short as it’s difficult to review this without giving too much away, but initially Berry’s novel seems a bit directionless; is it a love story, coming of age novel, a murder mystery…? At times it attempted to be all three, and this genuinely felt a little claustrophobic in terms of understanding what we were supposed to think and feel. At times, it became difficult to figure out which character or event was being referred to, but this eased up and became clearer throughout. I think what didn’t help with this were the (somewhat pointless) chapter divisions; a double page spread could contain up to six chapter breaks, a bit excessive and unnecessary when the story was (for the most part) chronological, making the divisions somewhat arbitrary.

However, in content this book goes from shaky beginnings to obvious strengths, in how it reveals our ignorance in accepting reality for what is in front of us, instead of delving into the truth behind Judith’s mutilation and her allegedly ‘ruined’ status. It’s always fascinating to have your own perspectives challenged, particularly living in such a liberal world; to live in a community where a victim can receive such hostile treatment (in terms of Judith and her love interest Lucas) is unfathomable, and yet prejudice like this still exists and it’s important to remember that not everyone is as fortunate as you are.

The interweaving characters were often interesting in their own right, and yet underused; I loved the outright friendship and simplicity of Maria Cartwright, and enjoyed seeing Darrel learn, through his sister Judith’s silent compassion and sense of duty, that people should be evaluated on what they do, not what they cannot do through misfortune.

In all, this is a strong contender for this year’s award; its unique handling of fairly adult themes being distanced from us in terms of time and culture allows us to gain a perspective on moral issues and strengths and question our own treatment of the world around us.