Friday, 31 October 2014

Halloween Horror

Most of us have a reading comfort zone -- and for me, the horror genre is definitely at the margins.  I simply do not thrill to the sensation of being scared.  I do not dwell on death; I do not desire a good haunting.  It was a challenge, then, to read a long list of horror novels in October; hopefully, like any decent ghost, I've risen to it.

Lots of readers DO like to be frightened -- whether by real monsters, or imaginary ones -- and the horror genre has enduring appeal for many teenagers.   Stephen King has been widely quoted as saying that horror "allows us to safely vent our uncivilized emotions."  Since King stands as one of the best-selling authors of all time, he has clearly tapped into something quite potent.  I tried to read King's famous novel Pet Sematary, partly because he considers it to be his most frightening novel, but I couldn't bring myself to read the ending.  I could guess where he was going, and I really didn't want to go there.  Of the many horror novels I did manage to read, and that list ranges from the contemporary to the classic, the following two managed to convince me that I did rather like horror after all. 

Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver, is a horrifically effective ghost story because it plays on such very common fears:  the fear of being outcast, and the fear of being alone.  The author takes a character who has been orphaned, and then marginalized in a number of ways, and then she really ramps up the psychological suffering.  Fear of the dark?  Fear of being left out in the cold?  Imagine being stranded on a remote island in Arctic Norway with only a tortured ghost for company.  If you like a dark-night-of-the-soul kind of story, this one is highly recommended.  It is sophisticated, subtle and suitable for both young adults and the 18+ crowd.

The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey, is another scary story that has really stuck with me.  Definitely not for the squeamish, but if you have a strong stomach, then have I got the perfect book for you.  I've read some of Darren Shan's most popular books, and in my opinion, Yancey takes gory and gruesome to a new level.  I particularly enjoyed the voice of the 12-year-old orphan who narrates this book.  Apprenticed to an OCD scientist-cum-monstrumologist, young Will Henry is strangely matter-of-fact about the challenges of his unusual job.  Another pleasure is the 19th century New England setting.  It simply oozes Gothic atmosphere, whilst putting the novel's rather extreme horror elements at a comfortable remove.

Visit the TRAC website for more recommended reads.
Check out the complete Halloween Horror list.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Mother/Daughter Book Club: Graceling Realm series

For several years I was involved in moderating Book Clubs for 11-13 year-olds.  Initially, the idea of the Book Club was purely academic; a small group of mothers wanted their children to be reading more extensively as they prepared for scholarship exams.  Over time the Book Club concept evolved into a more general idea of enrichment, and what I learned was that the children seemed to benefit the most if their mothers read alongside them.

How do you encourage lifelong reading habits in your children?
Reading research and my own experience (as both teacher and mother) would recommend three broad strategies.  First, read to your children; second, let them observe you reading regularly; third, read alongside them.  There's no great secret or trick -- just perseverance.  Of course, it does help if you have a sincere love of reading!

So many adolescents fall out of the habit of pleasure reading, but parents can really make the difference.  This August, the Financial Times ran an article about the growing popularity (and sales figures) of young adult literature.  Gillian Tett, the author, pointed out that "as this young adult literature becomes more subtle and multifaceted, the boundaries between 'adults' and 'teen' literature are collapsing as well".   Tett concluded her article by suggesting that reading young adult literature together might even "help some parents and teens to connect with each other a little better this summer".

My 16 year-old daughter and I read many books "alongside" each other this summer, but absolutely hands-down our mutual favourite was Kristen Cashore's Graceling Realm series.  This fantasy trilogy is widely appreciated by American readers, and regularly makes "best" and "favourite" lists, but it truly deserves a wider UK reading audience.  Beautifully written, original and brave, this series puts young women at the centre of the story in a way that is rare.  The three novels -- Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue all feature a female protagonist.  (The books are separate stories, but cleverly interconnected.  Unlike most trilogies, you do not have to read all three to get plot resolution and emotional pay-off.)

Of course, there are many books in which a young woman is the main character, and perhaps the difference is only subtle, but these female characters are in command of their own destinies.  They have extraordinary physical strength (Katsa in Graceling), mental strength (Fire) and emotional strength (Bitterblue), but what they all share is a particular toughness that enables them to make difficult decisions -- but not without a cost.  These books send the message that growing into your own powers isn't easy, and that no one should expect it to be.

Although the novels are set within a fantasy world, there are no fairy tale conventions of "love at first sight" and "happily ever after" in these emotionally realistic stories.  The protagonists experience real, complicated love that grows (usually not smoothly) out of friendship and mutual respect.  If that sounds a bit dull, it's really, really not.  Quite unusually for fantasy, or indeed any other young adult literature, these novels also have a sophisticated, realistic attitude to sexuality -- including the practical matter of birth control.

But really, love and partnership are just one aspect of these stories -- not the be-all, and certainly not the end-all.  These three women are all leaders, and they must make complicated decisions that are not without personal sacrifice.   Without giving too much of the plot away, this fantasy series strongly suggests -- and yes, the idea still feels slightly revolutionary -- that women's destinies may include options other than being a wife and/or mother.  And that is by not choice, not default.

I feel sure that I am not the only mother who worries about the constant barrage of mixed messages that our daughters are exposed to, particularly through social media.  It's a narcissistic, selfie-driven age, and it often seems like physical appearance and "presentation" are what really matters.  There is social pressure to not be too smart or too strong.  It can be so difficult to talk openly to our daughters, but reading books together can be an important way of getting a message across, encouraging debate -- of even just having a conversation.

Graceling featured on TRAC's recently published "fantasy" list for recommended reading.  Visit the TRAC website or this link for the full list.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Books Are My Bag


Did you visit a bookshop on Saturday?

Saturday, October 11 was a day for celebrating bookshops in the UK.  It was the second annual  Books Are My Bag campaign launch; a day promising 'An Author in Every Bookshop'.  Unlike most other book events, this campaign is a collaboration between publishers, bookshops and authors.

According to the BOOKS ARE MY BAG website, "56% of all book buying decisions are made by consumers in a bookshop and high street bookshops (both chains and independents) still account for almost 40% of books bought by consumers. Yet, many high street bookshops are under threat."
Most of us will acknowledge that there are times when the convenience of Amazon wins the day (and book-buying pound), but there is something special about the book-browsing experience that just can't be duplicated in an online transaction.  Some of the bookstores which regularly get my business are Daunt Books and Foyle's Bookshop in London, Blackwell's in Oxford, Madhatter Bookshop in Burford -- and of course my nearest Waterstones.  In the past five months, I've read between 60-70 Young Adult novels and a sizeable percentage of those were purchased as a direct result of scanning bookshelves and beguiling 'feature' tables.  If you want to interest your child in reading, the nearest bookshop is the way to start.

I couldn't make it to the bookshop on Saturday, but I visited my local Waterstones today -- and the Tracey Emin designed book bag is still on offer.  I also picked up a few intriguing titles for TRAC's "War-Torn Worlds" book list, coming in November.  If you, too, missed Saturday's events do remember that it is always worth visiting a bookshop.  They absolutely rely on Christmas book sales; and of course, a book is always the right size.