Archive for May, 2018

May 25, 2018

Anthony McGowan, Rook

rookrookrookRook is the third book in a series (following Brock and Pike, neither of which I’ve read) featuring two brothers who occasionally find and rescue animals. That description makes it sound a bit Willard Price (incidentally, McGowan wrote four sequels to Price’s Adventure series; this intrigues me very much) but going by this book the animals form only a part of the several things that are going on in their lives. At the point when this book opens Kenny and Nicky’s family is doing better than has been the case in the past. Their father, recovering from alcoholism and dating a woman whom the boys like, is able to give his sons more attention than has sometimes been the case; Kenny is happy at school and has made an exciting new friend; money is very tight but things seem not to be completely desperate. Theirs is not, however, the first perspective we see. The opening chapter is told from the perspective of the titular rook, who is having quite a nice day until he’s savaged by a sparrowhawk.

It’s an opening that I really like–we’re immediately thrown into this other perspective, and a voice which is both colloquial and lyrical but (crucially) not twee. It’s treated seriously enough that you’re not immediately hunting for meaning or allegory–though you could, having read the book, link the rook’s injury (implied to be a result of the flock’s bullying of a small male sparrowhawk) to that of Nicky’s bully Pete.

The plot: Nicky and Kenny find the rook, in time to prevent their dog Tina from injuring it further. They take it home and look after it, but while Kenny seems convinced that it’ll be fine Nicky, who narrates the story, is more pessimistic about its chances for survival. Meanwhile, Nicky is being bullied at school, targeted both on the subject of Kenny’s learning disability and his mother (of whom I assume we hear more in one of the earlier books). Nicky also has a huge crush on Sarah, the popular and unattainable sister of his main bully, Pete. Things are taking their toll on Nicky and he lashes out at his brother and his father; he also retaliates and pushes Pete, at which point things go horribly wrong. Pete, who has epilepsy, has a seizure and Nicky is blamed and expelled from school.

[There's a lot to  discuss here about the relationships between the different members of this family, about the prose, about the familiar setting, even the ways this book measures up to the Carnegie criteria; typically, I'm going to talk about none of it.]

Rook is a beautiful object–the thick matte pages are lovely and tactile (this is a pragmatic decision to make the text more readable, but its aesthetic value is a really happy side-effect), and the cover picture and font remind me a little of the Penguin Modern Classics editions with the matte silver spines and backs. Publisher Barrington Stoke aims to provide books with age-appropriate content for children and teenagers with dyslexia or other barriers to reading, and in that context this very consciously grown-up cover makes a lot of sense. It signals its affinity to the sorts of books that get these sorts of covers, suggesting that while it may be easy to read, it’s not for very young readers.

A slight detour but I promise I have a point of some sort: mere hours after I finished Rook I watched the Andrew Haigh film Lean on Pete, about a teenage boy who develops a bond with an aging racehorse doomed to be sold and slaughtered. Before the film I checked with various people whether I should brace myself for an upsetting film in which a beloved animal died–the consensus was that yes, I should; in stories like this the beloved animal always dies. In the circumstances, it’s unsurprising that Rook and Pete should be intertwined in my head. Both are interior stories about teenaged boys with complicated and loving relationships with their families; in both stories the potential death of an animal reflects a larger, awful reality. There are differences, of course; in tone Pete perhaps feels more like the cover of Rook than the book itself.

I went into Lean on Pete bracing myself for the horse to die; Nicky goes into his own story with a similar conviction that the rook isn’t going to make it. Next to Nicky’s cynical resignation, Kenny’s belief looks naive. When Kenny tells his brother that their father has taken the rook to some people who can make him better, Nicky’s sure he knows what that means. He doesn’t–their father really has decided to spend some of the family’s scant funds on Rooky (rather to the puzzlement of the staff at this refuge for wild birds); Pete’s family have spoken to the school and have had Nicky reinstated; Kenny’s new friend may not be the real Doctor Who (though he might be) but he’s pretty amazing nonetheless; Sarah may or may not be interested in Nicky romantically, but the romance takes second place to his recognition that he’s gained a valuable friendship.

It’s possible that I’m arguing merely that Rook is a book in which some good things happen and that is nice–and honestly, that is reason enough to praise it. But I think there might be more than that. It’s not that the world is fundamentally better than Nicky thinks it is; we value these acts of kindness to friends and strangers precisely because they burst out like little miracles in a world that we, and he, know to be difficult. In stories like this the beloved animal always dies–but sometimes maybe it doesn’t.

May 12, 2018

Lissa Evans, Wed Wabbit

Wed Wabbit opens with responsible older sister, Fidge (Iphegenia, which is a weird choice to name one’s daughter), a bit fed up of her younger sister Minnie’s (Minerva) particular fantasies. Minnie is obsessed with the Wimbley Woos, colour-coded and bin-shaped creatures who live in the tellytubbiesesque pastoral idyll of Wimbley Land, and whose adventures Fidge is sick of reading at bedtime. There’s also Minnie’s beloved stuffed animal, Wed Wabbit, which Fidge dislikes–in an unguarded moment she kicks the Wed Wabbit out into the street; Minnie follows, is hit by a car, and hospitalised.  Even as Minnie waits in hospital for her beloved sister to visit with Wed Wabbit, supernatural events have transported Fidge (and her annoying cousin Graham) to Wimbley Land, where they must fulfil a prophecy and save this world if they (and Wed Wabbit) are ever to get home again.

I knew nothing about Wed Wabbit when I started reading it, and there was a point when I wondered if this genuinely was a creepy toy horror story. The rabbit is creepy enough, and I can imagine my easily-terrified childhood self being incredibly reluctant to read this. At the point at which Fidge and Graham were magically transported to another world, that genre possibility seemed to have ended, and others opened up. An older sister on a quest through a fantastic land in order to redress a mistake made out of annoyance and save a younger sibling; my first thought was of Labyrinth, my second of Shalini Srinivasan’s fantastic Vanamala and the Cephalopod.

But more importantly (to me, anyway), Wed Wabbit is a portal fantasy, and has a surprising amount to say about that genre. It even begins with a map.

Wimbley_Land_map

Fidge enters Wimbley Land having already read everything she needs to know–that she wasn’t paying enough attention isn’t entirely out-of-genre behaviour. Minnie’s beloved book, The Land of the Wimbley Woos, presents the sort of totalising knowledge of the secondary world with which portal fantasy readers and protagonists are often provided–the Wimbleys are conveniently colour-coded in the distribution of particular skills and character traits; blues are strong, purples know things, pinks really like hugs. On top of this, she finds herself the subject of a prophecy–one that is written on an actual parchment scroll (with a literal wax seal), is a riddle in verse, and declares her one of the “four brave strangers / to release us from all dangers”. The book continues the tradition of treating the secondary world as a form of therapy–the new landscape provides Fidge and Graham with opportunities to face their individual weaknesses and get past them, so that on their re-entry into our world they are better equipped to cope. Both have wise guides to help them understand the new landscape–except Fidge’s is a rather excruciating elephant toy, and Graham’s is a plastic carrot called Dr Carrot. It’s so on the nose that I’m pretty sure Evans knows exactly what she’s doing–you could pick up any scholarship on the portal fantasy (e.g. Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy) and this would feel like a point-by-point embrace and parody of all the features of the genre that it identifies. (The other reason to think of this as a book more broadly in conversation with portal fantasies is that Graham is so very clearly a descendant of Eustace Scrubb. Graham’s foibles, arising from real health issues, are however treated more seriously, even if they’re also played for knowing laughs.)

This knowingness about the genre feels more significant when you begin to realise how much of Fidge’s information is inaccurate. Major changes have taken place that have rendered The Land of the Wimbley Woos out of date–the former king is in jail; the blue wimbley woos, driven by their greed for sweets, form a totalitarian police force and carry out the orders of the mysterious new dictator who recently appeared in their world (spoiler: it’s Wed Wabbit). Meanwhile the very existence of the country is at stake–some mysterious force is sucking all the colour out of the world at the boundaries of the country and whatever it is it’s moving inward. (Early in the book, Fidge guiltily uses Wed Wabbit to mop up some spilled orange juice.) Further, the prophecy which she is given suggests that she needs to look past the current anthropological classifications of the Wimbleys, “look again at every hue / a different word for each is true”. In the end,once all the lost colour has been restored, it comes in a giant explosion (“like a paintbox blowing up or a really huge kaleidoscope falling to bits or being shut inside a washing machine filled with sweets or spun about by a tornado full of confetti”), splashing everywhere so that the colours are all mixed up, so that none of the Wimbleys is one solid colour/trait anymore–previous categories of Wimbley are now entirely irrelevant. (And in any case, Wimbley Land is too anarchic to be particularly amenable to that sort of categorisation; in some crucial ways it’s more Alice in Wonderland than the Chronicles of Narnia.) The book’s epilogue shows that this state of affairs has continued–in the new book about Wimbley Land, published sometime after these events, “the rhymes are dreadful, and the colours are all mixed up and they’ve introduced new characters–an elephant and a … a vegetable of some kind”. (A stray thought here about the power fantasy of materially affecting the media one consumes.)

A few more stray thoughts:

I enjoyed Wed Wabbit because it felt like a parodic take on a genre I know well–it’s harder to imagine how it would read to someone without that knowledge. My friend Mariana suggests that the book’s humour in general is a bit too knowing and thus inaccessible to most children. I think this is true of a lot of humour (and is double-edged–feeling like you’re in on the joke is an incredibly welcoming sensation as a child reader) but it does bother me that, as Mariana points out, a lot of the foreknowledge it assumes is tied to a particular social class.

I’m not sure what to do with the revelation that the real solution to Wimbley Land’s problems is to hug your evil dictator. In the context of the plot it makes perfect sense, if only to squeeze out the sucked-up colour; and it’s of a piece with a general tendency in kidlit to teach children to see other people’s points of view, understand that they have points of view, and troubles of their own, etc. The recent Wrinkle in Time film, for example, has a scene where Meg learns that her most dedicated bully has massive body-image related insecurities, and while it’s a useful and necessary bit of characterisation it really could do with an explicit “but that doesn’t cancel out the harm she has done” statement. It’s relatively easy not to worry about it here, given that everything about Wimbley Land is ludicrous, but. Sometimes bad rulers like hugs a little too much.

I’m also not sure what to do with Wed Wabbit‘s implicit understanding that people who can’t pronounce their “r”s are inherently funny–my own inability to do this caused school friends years of hilarity, and in discussing this book with other people I’ve tended to construct my sentences so that I avoid saying the title. (Then again, one of my favourite children’s books [di Larrabeiti’s The Borribles] also plays this for humour, so I’d be a hypocrite to object here.)

Do I think it will (or should) win the Carnegie? Probably not, but I enjoyed reading it.

May 11, 2018

April Reading

Perhaps it’s time to accept that I’m only going to read two or three books a month, and stop trying to excuse it? Anyway.

 

Nisi Shawl, Everfair: Read as part of the book group/podcast I mentioned in last month’s reading round up–along with Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People and Samatar’s Winged Histories. All three books bounced off each other in ways that were genuinely productive and sometimes unexpected, and this one in particular satisfied my love of nineteenth century settings, and worlds that are big and rich and (politically, socially, ideaswise) interconnected. I did some inarticulate flailing to Jonah and Maureen, and that podcast will eventually be available for your consumption, but I’m a little bit in awe of this book, and the depth of knowledge and research (even if, as Maureen said, it wears that research lightly) and ambition it represents.

The other reason the book felt immediate and real to me was that I’ve spent a lot of the last few months thinking about activist movements and their dynamics–because of my current research, and the university strikes, and other movements elsewhere, as well as things I’ve been reading and watching. There’s a certain blend of hope and exhaustion and cynicism and utter despair that Shawl’s characters sometimes tap into and that is overwhelmingly familiar (one particular moment, towards the end of the book, utterly destroys me). It’s good, and you should read it, is my point here.

 

Lissa Evans, Wed Wabbit: I’ve decided to shadow the Carnegie shortlist again this year; partly because the medal has finally achieved a not-entirely-white shortlist, and partly for academic reasons. This was a book I knew very little about, I was really pleased to see a solidly middle-grade title on the list. Now that I’ve read it, I have a lot of thoughts about portal fantasies–to be revealed in a forthcoming post. I don’t know that I’d consider this one of the best children’s books published in the UK this year, but it is good.

 

Sharanya Manivannan, The High Priestess Never Marries: I’d had this for a year or so, and kept meaning to read it–I like some of Manivannan’s nonfiction, and this collection promised me mermaids and loosely connected short stories and characters who tell stories. It has all of those things, and yet I felt disappointed–I wanted to be more startled than I was by the people here; wanted them to be less same-y; wanted the prose to be … not less purple, necessarily (though tightly controlled prose will always be where my heart is), but purple in ways that wrongfooted me. The story about the red giraffes, however, was great.

 

May 5, 2018

Lauren Wolk, Beyond the Bright Sea

Are we doing this again? We are (or I am). I’m reading the Carnegie shortlist again. There’s a Patrick Ness book on there (again), and a Marcus Sedgewick (again); is this 2016, and were the last couple of years a horrible dream?

I’ll be blogging this year’s shortlist in the order in which my shadowing group read the books–we’re doing two books every couple of weeks. First up, then, Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea. This is one of a couple of (very welcome) middle-grade-ish books on the shortlist this year. It’s set in 1920s America, in the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts. One of these islands, Penikese, historically had a hospital that quarantined and treated leprosy patients (when the book opens it has been deserted for a few years), and at the beginning of the book our narrator, Crow, learns that many in her community believe her to have been born there. As a baby, Crow washed up on the shore of a neighbouring island in a leaky boat and was found and raised by Osh, an artist and himself a relative newcomer to the islands. Crow is determined to learn who she “really” is; Osh, who has raised her, is both nervous at her apparent need to discover a family other than him and concerned at what she might find if she stirs things up.

I’d expected to begin this post by saying something like “obviously it’s impossible to talk about this book without talking about Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything“, a book which was also set partly on a real historical island that was used to quarantine those with leprosy, and which was also nominated for the Carnegie this year. It turns out that beyond that similarity of setting (and the Phillippines and the north Atlantic are quite different settings) there’s very little that the books have in common in tone or plot. It does intrigue me, though, to think that at some point the judges of the medal might have been judging the two books directly against one another.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book very much–the cover matter seemed to me to emphasise a generic Girl Goes Off to Find Herself plot (alone, in a boat, sailing into the distance). Luckily, this turned out to not at all be what the book was about–Crow does “find” herself, in the sense that she ends the book with a more definite understanding of who she is, but she’s never alone, and the book’s real focus seems to be her consolidating her sense of herself as part of the small community/family that she, Osh, Miss Maggie and Mouse-the-cat have forged for themselves. Rather remarkably for the protagonist of a children’s adventure, Crow actually talks to the adults in her life, telling them when something odd or potentially dangerous has happened to her, particularly when it might put them all at risk. She sees them as potentially vulnerable people, as they are–for example, the book is pretty straightforward about Osh’s discomfort with Crow’s quest to find her biological family. Actions are seen to have consequences for the group as a whole–when a dangerous object is hidden on Miss Maggie’s property, Crow and Osh both take for granted the fact that Miss Maggie should be warned of the potential danger to her. As they should (it’s basic decency), but so many protagonists seem to barge heedlessly through the world that it’s a relief when one doesn’t.

This sense both of the vulnerability of individuals and the ethics of community living is something that recurs through the book in minor ways. While lobster fishing with Osh, Crow ponders the fact that islanders never steal from each other’s lobster pots, even though it would be easy to do, because the community requires that shared trust to function (Osh compares these small island communities to settlements in Westerns). These ethical* (but not necessarily nice) relationships extend to animals as well–Miss Maggie, who feeds whisky and milk to wild turkeys in the winter, is sorry for the dead rabbits that she turns into stew, and mourns a dead lamb; Osh, who will eventually kill and eat the lobsters he catches, but will not leave them in their traps longer than he can help, and who devises a unique strategy to eat starfish without killing them.

If the whole book had been quiet island life and ethical community living, I’d probably have liked it more (though, as other participants in the discussion noted, the prose in these sections isn’t effective enough to take full advantage of this setting). Instead, the book throws several plots at us and never really gains focus. We’re landed with the mystery (not much of one to a reasonably experienced reader, but perhaps that’s an unfair standard by which to just an MG book) of Crow’s parentage, the mystery of the pirate treasure rumoured to be buried around these parts, a thriller plot involving a violent treasure seeker who pops up at unexpected moments, and finally Crow’s discovery that she has a brother, still alive, and that there may be a chance of finding him. It’s all a bit too much, and ends up feeling uneven–the final sections in particular feel particularly rushed.

The book’s thinking about community and care almost, but doesn’t quite, extend to one of these major subplots–the one where Crow finds pirate treasure. Unable to openly claim the treasure, as the island on which it was buried is state-owned land, she nevertheless wants to keep certain keepsakes in memory of her mother. The rest, Osh suggests might be given away. The treasure is divided (as her brother, should she find him, might reasonably expect to have some of his parents’ legacy) and hidden in separate caches–Crow eventually chooses to give most of hers away to orphanages. It feels like this variation on the found treasure plot ought to be significant, yet Crow’s dithering over what to do with it and the questions that her possession of it raises are things the book skims over as if it weren’t interested.

It strikes me that many of the things I admire about Beyond the Bright Sea are negatives–it doesn’t treat Crow’s biological family as more significant than the one she has created; it doesn’t provide us the happy sibling reunion we might expect; Crow’s adventures don’t need to involve lying to or concealing things from the people she loves; no one is rich off the treasure. The thing that it actively does do, its treatment of its loving community, is worthwhile, and I wish I felt that the book was willing to centre it and value it more. Ultimately the thing about this book that matters to me is Osh’s deep conviction that the island life that he and his companions have built is something fragile and precious, that must be protected and defended.

 

 

 

 

 

*I’m using “ethical” here to signify that the characters have given real thought to the morality of these actions/relationships, not to imply that their choices are unquestionably Correct.