Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks

Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks, first published by The Chicken House, UK, 2002.

What attracted me to this book was, I admit, the cover. It's a nice cheery yellow, but it was the words that really did it: "Did I hate him? Of course I did. But I never meant to kill him." I just had to read it and find out who he killed and why...

The first thing I want to say is that there are no spoilers in this review. I know that I am often guilty of that, but not with this book. 

The second thing I want to say is: read this book. It is both dark and funny, it is a good murder mystery, and it is what I call 'a true book'. By this I mean that the characters seem real and that the book hits at the heart of being human. I don't give many books this tag.

Thirdly, this is the kind of book that you keep thinking about when you have finished it. If that isn't enough for you, I don't know what is.

Fourthly, I am going to find all of Kevin Brooks novels and read the lot.

What's it about? Martyn Pig is a teenager who lives with his alcoholic dad. He has a crush on the girl next door, Alex. He hates his aunt. And that is ALL I am going to say. Read it!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Shaolin Burning by Ant Sang

Shaolin Burning by Ant Sang, Harper Collins, NZ, 2011.

I have to admit to never having watched Bro Town, though I have heard about it. Ant (Anthony) Sang, an Auckland-based cartoonist, was one of the creators of this animated television series. I also have to admit that I am not a big fan of graphic novels: I read this one for this year's Book Bingo and, sadly, the last graphic novel I read was for last year's Book Bingo! My idea of a good cartoon book is the original Asterix books. 

The graphic novel I read last year (which has happily faded from memory) used a lot of anime techniques and I found it really hard to understand the page layout and work out which frame I was meant to be looking at in which order. There was a minimum of text with a lot of the story being told purely through the visuals. Unfortunately, the style of the drawings was such that I often couldn't understand what I was looking at; what the characters were doing. By the end of the novel I felt as bewildered as some of my student doubtless feel after reading what I consider a 'real' novel - I had a vague idea what it was about but didn't really understand it! I concluded that I was simply not in tune with graphic novels.

On my hunt last week in the library for a graphic novel for my book bingo square, I came across Shaolin Burning and recognised it from the cover as a book which had been around in my classroom this year on a regular basis as a student choice for silent reading time. I decided that this was as good a recommendation as any.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the style of Shaolin Burning was easy for me to follow and the artwork easy to understand and interpret. Sang used text to introduce scenes and to explain the characters'  actions and motives, as well as simply for dialogue. Having been a fan of the David Carradine Kung Fu TV series as a child I was familiar with and sympathetic to the Kung Fu themes and storyline. I liked the fact that the central character was a 'kick arse' female fighter, and that she had been trained by a tough old lady kung fu nun. I read the whole book at one sitting, unlike last year's thankfully nameless graphic novel which I had to force myself to read in 10 minute bursts during silent reading times.

Overall I enjoyed Shaolin Burning and recommended it to my partner, who enjoys watching martial arts movies.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver, by Lois Lowry, first published by Houghton Mifflin, USA, 1993. My edition: Harper Collins Essential Modern Classics, 2008.

The Giver was first published in 1993, a time when I was working at the Ministry of Education and not necessarily keeping up with current YA fiction. Despite the fact that it won the Newbury Medal I didn't get around to buying a copy until 2008, and it had been sitting on my 'to be read' pile ever since! Now that a film adaptation has been made there is renewed interest in the book and one of my Year 10 students recently recommended it to me. Since I have a rule of never seeing a movie until I have read the book (if I can possibly avoid it), it seemed a good time to move this book from the TBR pile and actually read it.

Dystopic fiction is such a pervasive genre in Young Adult fiction today that I needed to remind myself that the story and scenario would have been a lot fresher in 1993, 15 years before The Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched, etc. Jonas' anxious wait for his adult work assignment preceded all these.

Plot-wise the only thing I thought was stretching plausibility slightly was the way that Jonas' father
was permitted to take keep the baby overnight at their home on such an extended basis. While a necessary plot element to provide the final spur for Jonas' flight, it seemed to me that a society with such regimented family relationships and rules around emotion would have been alert to the dangers of attachment. I don't think making the whole family sign a disclaimer would really have cut it!

I liked the growing relationship between Jonas and the Giver, as the latter begins to pass on the memories and Jonas begins to feel real emotion for the first time. I particularly like the way the Giver identifies his feeling for Jonas as love and sees himself as a parent to him early on.

As one would expect from such a well-estabished, award-winning author, Lois Lowry's style is seamless and the neologisms she creates to describe the society are skillfully integrated into the narrative in a way which makes them seem logical and inevitable, as well as simultaneously shocking us by their difference: Elevens, newchildren, Assignment, the evening telling of feelings, and so forth. The description of 'release' and the stories the children are told about what happens, are later starkly contrasted with the ugly reality which so shocks Jonas.

My Year 10 enthusiast has urged me to read the sequels to this novel which, seeing as I enjoyed The Giver very much, will not be a hardship.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Dragon Harper: A New Adventure of Pern by Anne & Todd McCaffrey

Dragon Harper: A New Adventure of Pern, Anne & Todd McCaffrey, Corgi Books, 2008.

Warning: contains a plot spoiler!

Although a fervent lover of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series, I had sworn I was not going to read any of the Pern books written collaboratively with (or more accurately, by) her son Todd. That was before I found that I had to read "a book with a dragon" to fill a square on my book bingo. A frantic scan of the school library revealed that I had read pretty much every dragon book available with the exception of Dragon Harper, so I decided to give it a try.

The last Pern novel I purchased was Anne McCaffrey's final solo novel in the series, The Skies of Pern, which she had published in 2001, at the age of 75. The novels published as collaborations with her son Todd, which I chose not to buy or read, were issued in the intervening years between then and her death in 2011, with the last published posthumously in 2012. According to a letter quoted on her Wikipedia entry, "In the Pern collaboration with Todd, she was mainly 'making suggestions or being a sounding board'."

I hate reading connected books out of order and, from the bewildering amounts of backstory being referred to in the opening chapters of Dragon Harper, it rapidly became clear that it was part of a series. This also meant that there was a lack of introduction of some key characters, who had clearly been treated in greater depth in previous books. 

Dragon Harper, which came out in 2007, is in fact the fourth of the novels published collaboratively by Anne & Todd McCaffrey and is considered the third book in a trilogy with Dragon's Kin and Dragon's Fire.

Although it was nice to be back in the world of Pern, I did not feel that Todd McCaffrey's writing stood up by comparison to his Nebula Award-winning mother's. It was not just the writing itself but more the characterisation and lack of... passion, emotional connection. He just did not manage to make me care about Kindan, Koriana, Nonala or Vaxorum in the same way I had cared about Lessa, F'lar, F'nor, Jaxom, Menolly, Robinton, Piemur and the other characters of the original two trilogies. When Masterharper Robinton nearly died in the original series I was in tears the first time I read it (and this is NOT a normal occurrence for me while reading), whereas 


Vaxorum's and Koriana's deaths felt more like: 'Oh dear, how sad, never mind.' Todd McCaffrey's characters were more two dimensional and less real, whereas Anne McCaffrey's were individuals who felt to me like 'real people' that I knew. (Also, to be honest, Todd's character name choices were just weird, as opposed to his mother's characters' names, which were weird and interesting.)

Then there was the plot, revolving mainly around an influenza epidemic (with some hopeless romance thrown in). This seemed like a thinly disguised recycling of the scenario from Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern and Nerilka's Story. I wondered exactly how many more novels could be created in the Pern world using variations on the "dangerous pandemic" story. Sadly, I decided I do not care, and am also not interested enough in Todd McCaffrey's characters to want to know what else happened in the collaborative series, either before or after Dragon Harper.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull, junior fiction, Aladdin Paperbacks, 2006.

I have recently read and enjoyed the first two books in Brandon Mull's Five Kingdoms junior fiction fantasy series, Sky Raiders and Rogue Knight, so I was quite excited to try the first of his earlier Fablehaven series.

The Five Kingdoms books, although junior fiction, after the first tedious chapters getting into the fantasy world, proved to have interesting imagination and increasingly in-depth characterisation as I read - enough to make me read the second in the series and look forward to the third. Fablehaven did not have quite the same impact, unfortunately. It is kind of a cross between The Secret Garden and  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, without the style of the former or the humanity and intelligence of the latter.

As Fablehaven proceeded I found myself increasing irritated with some of the characters. The protagonists, Kendra and her younger brother Seth, are set up as opposite personality types to a degree which becomes at first irritating and then tedious. By halfway into the book I could cheerfully have strangled Seth, who made me fervently grateful that my parents had not presented me with a younger brother. Every single rule or piece of advice the children are given is ignored by him, while Kendra does a good imitation of Susan in the Arthur Ransome books, being sensible at all times. In the meantime, the adults seem determined not to give them any reasons for the rules they set, thereby increasing the likelihood that their guidelines will be ignored.

I hung out throughout the novel for the appearance of what seemed to be a dragon on the cover picture, but was doomed to disappointment. It still looks like a dragon to me, even though I now know that it is supposed to be an illustration of a troll. I feel cheated! Fablehaven didn't really grab me, but as I enjoyed Mull's Five Kingdoms books I may give the second book a try to see if this series gets any better.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, first published by Heinemann, 1963. 

I suddenly felt moved to read this novel after having avoided it for many years. Why? Well, if you are a person who suffers from clinical depression from time to time there is something truly disturbing about reading books by people who are depressed, especially when you know that they suicided within a short time of writing them. But I survived Camus' L'Etranger, and reading Janet Frame's Owls Do Cry only made me slightly loopy for a while. I admit I have never tried to read her autobiographies though, too scary a prospect. It was time to tackle The Bell Jar because... the heroine of 10 Things I Hate About You has been reading it on and off in my film study for weeks... and I was wondering if it would work for a novel study alongside Hamlet. 

The first thing I have to say is that I have not read a selection of criticism of this novel before reviewing it. This is just my take on it. For a start, it strongly reminded me of Marilyn French's The Women's Room, which I have started three times and always given up after the daughter's rape when everything gets incredibly depressing. Or Dancing in the Dark, by Joan Barfoot (Women's Press, 1982), where the protagonist, trapped in her ostensibly perfect suburban housewife's life and discovering it to be (what a surprise!) totally unfulfilling, puts on some music and lies down in the dark to imagine dancing and singing, before stabbing her unfaithful husband (take that, you bastard!).

Plath, like these other writers, no doubt imitative of her, is setting out the essential hopelessness of being female in a time when, even more than now (and don't kid yourself that sexism or the glass ceiling have cracked themselves), women of intelligence, spirit, skill and ambition had their lives essentially amputated to exist as the adjunct of someone fortunate enough to be born in a male body.

The Bell Jar's protagonist and first-person narrator, Esther, who is at college on a scholarship, has won an internship to a fashion magazine in New York "by writing essays and stories and poems and fashion blurbs". One could ask why Esther, who is clearly not very interested in fashion, thinks it is fine to work for a fashion magazine. "I was supposed to be having the time of my life," she tells us. But she isn't.

Esther's mother teaches shorthand and hates it, but she keeps encouraging Esther to learn: "My mother kept telling me nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter." Way to go, mom. Sounds exciting.  Not. As Esther rebelliously puts it: "The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters."

Esther sees her life choices as mutually exclusive: wife, famous poet, brilliant professor, amazing editor, travel, Olympic rowing crew champion, etc. "I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest..." Fifty plus years later, I don't understand why she could not have aspired to and achieved all or most of her ambitions in one lifetime, but I guess that is thanks to women like Sylvia Plath, Marilyn French et al.

Esther also rails against the sexual double standards of the time, as set out in a Reader's Digest article her mother mails her at college: "...the best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even if they weren't pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex. Of course they would try to persuade a girl to have sex and say they would marry her later, but as soon as she gave in, they would lose all respect for her..." Ironically, it is Esther who loses all respect for Buddy, when she discovers that he is not 'pure', deciding that he is such a hypocrite she could never marry him. "Finally I decided that if it was so difficult to find a red-blooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one I might as well forget about staying pure myself and marry someone who wasn't pure either..."

Essentially, however, Esther does not want to marry, if marriage means the kind of relationship being presented as the norm in her world of the early 60s. "That's one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a Fourth of July rocket." Marriage in this time means being a housewife and giving up the idea of a career. As Esther points out, "This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A's, but I knew that's what marriage is like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard's mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university professor and had been a private school teacher herself."

From observing both Buddy's parents' marriage and her own parents', Esther is under no illusions about what life with Buddy would be like: "I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs Willard's kitchen mat." Buddy, who has told Esther that poems are "dust," also told her "in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems any more. So I began to think that maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state."

Depressed anyone? Is it any wonder that Esther is? She has a breakdown and after attempting suicide ends up hospitalised and having electric shock treatment. What intelligent, capable female wouldn't, when faced with this kind of future and being expected to think it is happy and desirable?

I think the saddest thing of all though is that real-life Sylvia Plath, who tried to achieve some of those ambitions (poet, wife, mother) ended up committing suicide over a plonker like her husband, poet Ted Hughes, who was off having sex with another woman on the night she killed herself. (Read all about it here.)

Right, so now I have cheered myself up a bit, I think I will go and mark a few essays. Um, should you read The Bell Jar? Yes. It is very good, it is one of those "true books" - but if you are female, do it with care.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Conrad Cooper's Last Stand by Leonie Agnew - Puffin Books, 2014.

This children's book by Leonie Agnew was a finalist in the NZ Children's Book Awards this year, and won the 2015 Esther Glen Medal for Junior Fiction and the Storylines Notable Book Award 2015. I have been wanting to read it for a while and cherished hopes that it might prove a good junior text: knowing that it was set against a backdrop of the Bastion Point protest I hoped it might actually be a political text which would address Maori Land rights and Treaty issues from a child-friendly perspective.  In a way it does and, via the persona of Conrad's Irish next door neighbour, Mrs O'Leary, even manages a few pointed parallels between British colonialism in Ireland and New Zealand.

Yet I was doomed to disappointment. Firstly, as I probably could have worked out in advance from it being in the Junior Fiction section of the book awards rather than Young Adult fiction, this book is written for a younger audience than Year 9 or 10, featuring a primary-aged protagonist. Secondly, despite some nice touches in the narrative and dialogue, Leonie Agnew falls into the fatal trap of 'dumbing down' her writing for the younger audience. To Kill a Mockingbird and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas have shown that it is not necessary to 'dumb-down' in order to tell a story through the eyes of a child protagonist who does not fully understand everything they are narrating. All we achieve by this 'age-appropriate' dumbing down is a nation of students with an incredibly narrow vocabulary, reading about things they already know.

However, my third and greatest disappointment with the novel was that it is not a fun story about kids getting political, rather the main plot revolves around Conrad coping with his dysfunctional family: an abusive step-father and his co-dependent mother. It is The God Boy updated by 20 years, cleaned up slightly and without a murder; just not as well-written.

However, before I discount the possibility of using the book totally, I would like to read some reviews from the target audience. Maybe young people today do want to read books about children living in apparently hopeless family situations. Personally, I just found it depressing.