Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Asking for It

I "recommend" this book to you with many reservations; perhaps it is more accurate to say that I bring it to your attention rather than actually recommend it.  I disliked this book from the beginning, and found it to be an emotionally gruelling read in every sense.  I felt completely wrung out by the ending, and I couldn't sleep for thinking about it.   I cannot say that it has any literary qualities, either, unless you count a brutal realism.  I do not think it reflects the reality of all 18 year olds - which is the age of protagonist Emma O' Donovan - but I suspect it will be realistic for many young adults.  Yes, this book is deeply disturbing; but then so is the issue that it is unflinchingly describes.

Other Young Adult books have tackled the subject of rape - Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak comes to mind - but I don't think any book has been brave enough to set up its victim in every possible way, and still bring home its point.  The really provocative thing that Irish author Louise O'Neill does is create an unsympathetic protagonist, and then demonstrate that no woman or young girl deserves her fate.  Emma O' Donovan is the town beauty - the town being Ballinatoon, Ireland - who has traded on her beauty all her life.  She is vain and superficial; she doesn't treat her friends particularly well; and she enjoys the power over boys/men that her face and figure give her.  Listening to Emma's internal dialogue was like fingernails on a chalkboard for me (ie, deeply grating).  But even at her most unlikeable, Emma is still only 18, and still insecure and vulnerable at her core.  Her beauty is a double-edged sword after all, and that she fears that no one - not even her mother - sees her as having any other value.

So Emma goes to a party:  she dresses provocatively, she drinks too much on an empty stomach, she takes drugs in order to appear cool, she flirts with a man, not because she is really attracted to him, but because she wants to make someone else jealous, and she loses control of the situation.  What happens next is clear-cut rape, and yet almost no one - including Emma - wants to call it what it is.  This story is one big set-up of "blaming the victim," and the author is quite adroit at showing the reader why we still do blame the victim in what is supposed to be a more enlightened, less mysogonistic age.  Social media plays a role, too, and Emma is further humiliated and victimised by Facebook.  Her case then becomes a "cause celebre" in Ireland, and her privacy is violated again and again.

For much of the novel, Emma is too immersed in her own sense of shame and humiliation to even feel righteously angry on her own behalf.  As much as I disliked this novel, I do admire the author's bravery and willingness to draw attention to a deeply rooted cultural problem.  Sexual assaults and rapes are rarely prosecuted, or even reported, and female victims are still very likely to be blamed - and to blame themselves.  This book is deeply discomfiting, but it is thought-provoking, too - and will probably be eye-opening for those who undergo the ordeal of reading it.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

A Court of Mist and Fury

When my daughter was a young teenager, we discovered the novels of  Robin McKinley together.  McKinley won the Newbery Medal for The Hero and the Crown in 1985, and has been specialising in  a particular kind of fantasy novel ever since.  Most of her novels (20+) are inspired by fairy tales, but with a notably feminist slant:  a young woman is always the heroic figure at the heart of the story.  When done well, this is a formula that my daughter is guaranteed to love - so I am always seeking out new titles which have these same characteristics.  In the past year, I have had some notable successes:  first, with Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and then most recently with Sarah J. Maas's "A Court of Thorns and Roses" trilogy.

Sarah J. Maas has gained a huge fan base with her Throne of Glass series, and her latest series incorporates many of the same ingredients.  You could argue that they are coming-of-age books in which a young girl - isolated in a variety of ways - is given much in the way of natural (and magical) gifts, but then much is asked of her.  She must grow in strength, and fight through a world of evil in order to rule.  And as we all know, it's not easy being Queen.

A Court of Thorns and Roses begins with the familiar outline of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale:  three sisters, a merchant father who has lost his fleet and fortune, a desperate bargain, a dark curse.  Feyre is the youngest of three daughters, but the only one who has the strength to go out into the cold, dense forest and hunt for her family's supper.  When she kills an animal who turns out to be High Fae in disguise, a dreadful lion-like beast turns up in a rage and claims Feyre as his recompense.  She must accompany him to his kingdom, on the other side of a Wall that separates human and the Fae (ie, faeries), or have his vengeance turned on her entire family.  Like most good fairy tales, this one begins with a sacrifice.

So far, so familiar . . . but Feyre's story quickly develops into something unexpected, something that draws upon both the old and the new in terms of magic and folklore.  Feyre brings her human qualities (notably her strength, stubbornness and loyalty) into a situation where nothing (neither creatures nor landscape) is at all what it seems.  And unlike the original fairy tale, love alone will not break the spell.  Feyre has to undergo trials which the original Beauty couldn't have imagined, much less endured,  and there is adventure, violence and a touch of the macabre in the book.  There is also some strong language and some sexual scenes, which firmly place the series in the upper reaches of YA (Young Adult) fiction - or what some people are now describing as "New Adult."  This is not your children's fairy tale, likely to show up in a Disneyfied animation.  There are fairies, yes, but they are complicated creatures.

A Court of Mist and Fury is the second book in the series, and I am not alone in thinking that it is a great improvement over the first book.  Feyre still possesses a human heart and understanding, but her body has become magical and eternal.  Rhysand, the High Lord of the Night Court, was both adversary and unexpected ally in the first novel, but Feyre's relationship with him will be transformed in this second instalment to the series.  I don't usually look for life lessons in fantasy novels, but Mass does something very interesting with the two lead male characters in this series.  There is a world of difference in the way that Tamlin (the Beast) and Rhysand treat Feyre, and it forces the reader to consider her own expectations regarding romantic relationships.  There is emotionally satisfying romance in this series, but it is always secondary to the adventure - and even more importantly, the growth of the central female character.  

My daughter has reached an age in which we can enjoy the same books, and we are both eagerly awaiting the third instalment in this exciting series.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, 6 April 2016


Does this book cover draw you in or put you off?

I'm a big believer in the importance of reading outside of your comfort zone . . . not all the time, but certainly once in a while.  Although I've enjoyed some science fiction books, sci-fi is definitely not the first genre I'm drawn to.  I was never that kid watching Star Trek.  But sometimes, it really is invigorating to be shaken out of one's comfortable reading groove.

It's difficult to categorize either the plot or the appeal of Illuminae, but I'm pretty sure that most reviewers will resort to the word 'original' at some point.  It combines a science fiction technology and time-frame with a post apocalyptic virus run amok . . . not to mention an operating system with a God complex.  There are war games, mysteries galore, paranoia to spare, and incredibly creative graphic elements that piece the story together.  Usually graphic novels are easier to read than traditional prose, but not this one.  It reminded me that science fiction reading preferences are definitely associated with high IQs.  I struggled to follow all of the technical bits -- which is where the average computer-savvy 17 year old will probably be way ahead of me -- but the romance, suspense and humour were strong enough to keep me engaged as a reader.  The main characters, on-off couple Kady (a gifted hacker) and Ezra (athlete turned fighter pilot), are strong, smart, brave and quick with the witty IM banter.

Definitely recommended for older teens, especially the hard to please male contingent, anyone who likes science fiction and those readers who want to try something really 2575.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

The problem with reading book summaries is that they often focus on some aspect of the plot that might seem "gimmicky" (at least to this reader), and that can put me off.  Neither the title nor the "hook" of this book encouraged me to read it, despite the almost universal acclaim.  If you have been similarly disinclined, let me reassure you:  this book is a must-read for fans of contemporary Young Adult literature.  It is frank, funny, warm and has such a great voice.  Author Becky Albertalli is a clinical psychologist who works with teenagers, and her love and respect for her subject shines through every aspect of this book.

The plot kicks off with 16 year-old Simon Spier engaging in a highly secretive email exchange with another boy in his school.  Through the freedom of an anonymous email account, Simon (aka Jacques) is exploring the possibility that he might be, probably is in fact, gay.  Neither Simon nor his confidante "Blue" is ready to come out, even to each other, but their email confidences gradually deepen into a relationship which is important to both of them.  So here's the rub, and nub of the plot: Simon gets busted by Martin, an acquaintance in his drama group.  Martin proposes a deal (ie, blackmail):  He will keep Simon's secret, as long as Simon champions his courtship of Abby (an alpha female who happens to be one of Simon's best friends).  Although Simon's "coming out" is the central drama of the plot-line, the book is exceptionally strong on friendship.  For most people in this age group, friendships are far more important than romantic relationships -- and this is underscored over and over again through Simon's bumpy progress towards romantic happiness.

There were was so much to admire in this book, but I particularly appreciated the active presence of loving parents.  There are so many examples of dysfunctional or completely absent parents in YA literature; sadly, it is almost a novelty to find a positive (yet realistically so) parent-child relationship. Probably the worst thing about Simon's father, in particular, is that he makes the common mistake of being tragically "hip".  Not only does this result in tasteless jokes, but it also defies that generational law:  Thou Shalt Not be Hipper Than Thy Teenager.  Even teenagers from close families need their emotional space, and I haven't met a teenager yet who wants to discuss his or her sex life with parents.  One of the funniest lines in the book, at least for me, was Simon's rueful acknowledgement that his parents' eager desire to "share" with their children could be "more exhausting than keeping a blog."

We still live in a world where most parents, no matter how liberal and loving, will have a bit of an emotional adjustment period at the revelation that their child is gay -- if only because of worry for the greater difficulties that their child may face.  One of the things that Albertalli gets exactly right is that she creates something close to a best-case scenario -- good friends, supportive parents -- and then she acknowledges that "coming out" is still a difficult thing.  The truly genius thing about this book, though, is that it is so much more than a coming out story of one boy.  Simon knows his parents will accept his sexuality with grace; the thing that really worries him is the scrutiny.  Adolescence is a time of great flux -- of figuring out how you are -- and that can be both tiring and painful.  As Simon puts it:

All I ever do is come out.  I try not to change, but I keep changing in all these tiny ways.  I get a girlfriend.  I have a beer.  And every freaking time, I have to introduce myself to the universe all over again. 

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@Barrie Summy

This book appears on TRAC's First Love reading list.  Please visit the TRAC website for more details about the Teen Reading Action Campaign.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Wolf Wilder

Thoroughly immersed in the BBC's sumptuous production of War and Peace, I have been in the mood for all things Russian in the past few weeks.  In my corner of England, we've yet to see snow -- but there is snow aplenty in Katherine Rundell's The Wolf Wilder.  The main character, feral wolf-girl Feo, plays with snow, hides in it, feeds it to wolf cubs and uses it as a weapon.

This is Russian winter set approximately 100 years after Leo Tolstoy's epic novel.  There are rumblings of revolution -- an ineffectual Tsar, decadent aristocrats and the cruel General Rakov who abuses his absolute power and serves as the novel's villain.  

Unlike War and Peace, this fairy-tale-like story takes place in the wild and on the fringes.  The three main characters -- Feo, Ilya and Alexei -- are a wolf wilder barely out of childhood (Feo), a young soldier who wants to be a dancer (Ilya) and a budding revolutionary (Alexei) who wants retribution for his burnt-out village.  Not forgetting the wolves, of course.  The wolves, like the children, still have enough wildness in them to resist brutal attempts at taming.

In this world, St. Petersburg aristocrats keep wolves as status-symbol house pets.  But wolves can only be tamed to a point.  The wolves are overfed and indulged until the day they rebel against their capricious masters and revert to their -- well, wolfish -- instincts.  This is where Feo and her fierce mother Marina come in.  They teach the wolves to be wild again; they return them to their rightful home and proud, fierce natures.  While the adults in this world are terrified of harsh retribution -- with the exception of Marina, who has been jailed for her defiance -- the children are still wild and bold enough enough to fight against unfairness.  Yes, the children show the adults the way . . . a time-honoured theme in children's literature.

Although there are hints of history, the book is more of an old-fashioned adventure story.  Feo goes on a journey, which is both literal and figurative, making friends along the way.  It ends with a triumphant storming of the city; although, inevitably, there are some sad losses along the way. Although it is probably a middle-grade book, according to the rules of judging these things, it has the ability to appeal to all ages.  As C.S. Lewis so wisely said, "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest." 

If you care about the look and feel of books, do buy this one in the beautiful hard-cover edition. The combination of Rundell's spare, elegant words and Gelrev Ongbico's delicate, smoky illustrations is truly transporting.  The mood is Russian winter, folklore and fairy tales and wood-cuts, in all of its dangerous beauty.

For more information about the illustrator, and a peek at the gorgeous illustrations, I recommend this fabulous post at tygertale

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@Barrie Summy