July 4, 2018

June Reading

Almost all of the things I read this month were children’s books (the Carnegie and Little Rebels prize shortlists both contributed to this), and a couple of things I had to stop reading, like Emma Glass’s Peach (I will go back to this, but … not yet, I think), but it was still a better month for reading than I’ve grown to expect over the last couple of years.

 

Henry Lien, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword: I’m writing a longer review of this for Strange Horizons, so expect to see it there soon. But: this was a lot of fun. Since I read it I’ve been reading Lien’s other stories set in this world, which add a further layer of complexity, but it works very well as a standalone piece, as a fantasy school story, as an increasingly complex middle-grade novel. I liked it a lot, basically.

Elys Dolan, Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory: I didn’t have time to read all of the Little Rebels shortlist this year, but I picked up a few of the books that were on it anyway. This is a picturebook about labour rights in a chocolate egg factory, where the workers are chickens. I’ll be writing about it at length, but as with other children’s books about labour rights, I was disappointed that it didn’t go far enough. No one seems to have the courage to depict the violent overthrow of the system, which is a shame.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Beautiful Ones: This is a historical romance, of the sort we’re all familiar with–awkward debutante, beautiful and sophisticated older woman, intriguing self-made man who has travelled to parts of the world that seem strange and exotic to his own people. It’s also a fantasy because of the setting–another world, but with fashions and social mores drawn from our own 19th century (Moreno-Garcia describes it as inspired by the Belle Époque)–and because some people in this world, including two of the protagonists, have telekinetic powers. The fantasy is perhaps the least interesting part of this story–it’s never very clear to me that the world is significantly altered by the presence of telekinesis, and all it does is give Antonina and Hector something in common; references to the larger, alternate geography are intriguing, but the plot doesn’t give us much opportunity to explore. I’m not sure that matters though, because the relationships do work. If this is a romance, it’s a conflicted one–do we accept Hector’s reform because Nina does? And what Hector feels for Nina may be very wonderful, but at some level the book knows it’s not the same thing as what he felt for Valerie and the difference may matter someday. There’s a yearny, bittersweet undertone to all of this; it’s a little bit Barbara Pym. Which is not a comparison I thought I’d be making when I started out. (The Les Liaisons Dangereuses comparison, which everyone has made, is also accurate.)

Geraldine McCaughrean, Where the World Ends: Several words on this (excellent) book here; it has since won the Carnegie medal.

Patrick Ness, Release: Several words on this book here.

Zanib Mian, The Muslims: This won the Little Rebels award, and I enjoyed it very much; I was interested particularly in how directly it addresses islamophobia and racism in the UK by building them into the book’s structure: the title, for example, is derived from a bigoted neighbour’s constant references to what sinister activities “the Muslims” are up to (she does learn to like them, but there’s a hint that her acceptance of these racially-other neighbours doesn’t extend to other communities). Since reading the book, I’ve also used it in a class (about antiracist activism, children’s literature, and illustrations) with some school students, who were intrigued by it. I’ll be writing about it separately soon.

Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, The Racial Imaginary: I was looking for a particular piece in this collection (it turned out to be one of Loffreda’s own entries), and ended up reading the whole thing, almost straight through, over a couple of days. It wasn’t the ideal way to read the collection, which I’d only dipped in and out of previously; but there are a few pieces in there (Bhanu Kapil!) that stood out to me despite my fire-hose approach to reading it.

 

June 18, 2018

Geraldine McCaughrean, Where the World Ends

world endsI wonder if there’s something to be said about the fact that “based on a true story” is so big a part of this year’s Carnegie shortlist? Where the World Ends dramatises events of 1727 -28, when a group of boys and men from St. Kilda left the island of Hirta to harvest birds for food on nearby Stac an Armin, and were stranded there for several months as, due to an outbreak of smallpox on Hirta, no one was able to sail out and collect them. When they returned, their community had been almost entirely wiped out by the disease. In her afterword to the book, McCaughrean claims to have altered some of the details–she adds another child to the group of 8 recorded in the historical account, and softens the blow of their return slightly by leaving a few more survivors in the village.

McCaughrean’s version of events is told through the eyes of Quill (or Quilliam), a boy probably in his teens who has been on the journey to the stac before. His reluctance to leave Hirta at the beginning of the book is entirely due to the presence of Murdina, a visitor to the island who tells stories he doesn’t know, and who speaks to him of trees. As the group on the stac first realise that no one is coming for them and then begin to buckle under the strain of the circumstances, Quill takes partial refuge in imagining Murdina on the stac with them, and himself becomes a storyteller, attempting to give shape and meaning to the lives of his struggling companions. Quite a few of the reviews, and even the blurbs, for this book refer to Lord of the Flies, and it’s a rather obvious comparison to make. I think that there’s a difference, though. Readings of Lord of the Flies as being About The Inherent Savagery of Humans are a bit glib and annoying (among other things, to insist on reading general “human nature” from a bunch of posh British schoolboys feels limited to say the least), but the book is fundamentally allegorical. Where the World Ends is not. Though the characters occasionally tip over into moments of irrational rage or cruelty, they usually do so in ways that are consistent with their individual selves. There are two moments when they seem to lose all sense of self, but as horrific as they are they’re also temporary. Having said which, if you’ve read Lord of the Flies (or anything in the larger horror category in which humans succumb to sudden bloodlust) it’s probably hard not to have that narrative hanging over your head and making you wary. Particularly when I discovered that one character was a girl in disguise I was bracing myself for some horrific act of sexual violence. (Her transition within the book from having lived as a boy all her life to a relatively unproblematic girlhood was a bit hard to believe; I had to tell myself that Quill probably wouldn’t have seen the complications that might arise so their omission from the narrative was justified.)

This sense of the characters as individual people is important because one of the things that McCaughrean does very well here is to plausibly and complexly render a set of perspectives that are really far removed from those of her presumed readers. Finding themselves abandoned with seemingly no attempt at rescue, the only explanation that the companions are able to imagine is that the world has ended, their families ascended to heaven, and they, hidden on this small rock in the sea, have been overlooked. This sincere religious belief is twinned with a strong sense of the myths and superstitions of St. Kilda in general and Hirta in particular, and there’s a really strong sense of the interplay between these sets of beliefs and how they exist for each individual person. Quill’s perspective is, unsurprisingly, the closest to what most readers might feel–whether or not he believes that the world has ended, he’s willing to make up stories about it to make the others feel better (which suggests that for him finding a narrative that enables them to survive is more important than the truth of the matter). I was prepared to roll my eyes a bit at Col Cane, one of the monstrous characters one often finds in children’s fiction, who weaponises religion in order to commit acts of shrill cruelty*, but there’s enough variation in the beliefs on display here to make his form of faith only one of many. The other characters include a saintly young boy whose faith is so strong that he sees visions and feels guilt at not being able to walk on water, another small child who believes his mother to be in heaven yet is worried that his absence will mean she’ll lack enough peat to burn through the winter, and Quill’s friend Murdo, whose main regret at the end of the world is that he never got to sleep with a woman–”Ye canna do that while you’re standing about in Heaven singing hymns, and with all sorts looking on … And I d’na think we get to keep our bodies there, either. We are just wee spirity things, a-floatin’” (I don’t feel able to discuss McCaughrean’s rendition of the characters’ accents.)

The book dramatises one important moment in these islands’ history–it makes reference to another as well, though McCaughrean makes no explicit mention of this in her quite detailed Afterword. In 1840 the last Great auk in Britain would be captured on Stac an Armin–its captors beat it to death some days later, believing it to be a witch that was causing a storm. Four years later, the bird was extinct worldwide. A Great auk, or garefowl, plays a major role in this story. Quill is surprised to find it living alone on the island, as he knows that birds of this species generally live in large flocks. As the months go by, Quill feels a growing bond with the bird, which is tangled up in his feelings for Murdina. The others, however, find the garefowl uncanny and a little too human–particularly after it seems to attempt to feed a trapped boy. In a genuinely shocking scene (the book’s Lord of the Flies moment, if it has one) towards the end of the book, Quill’s companions turn on the bird and reenact (pre-enact?) the scene that will take place a little over a century after these events–they believe it to be a “witch” and “storm-bringer,” and they put a sack over it and beat it to death with a rock.

Reviewing another book on this Carnegie shortlist, I don’t think I said that it had disappointed me by being set on a small island and not giving me enough seabirds and saltwater and wind. Where the World Ends made up for this by being tremendously evocative of all of those things (and rock, and horrible rotting-things smells). Best of all, the book ends with a glossary (with illustrations!) of sea birds native to St. Kilda. That alone would have won me over.

 

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The Carnegie announcement is a few hours away, so this is a good time for predictions. I haven’t had time to write about the last book on the list, Will Hill’s After the Fire–that post is forthcoming, but I’d be surprised if the book were to win the medal (it did win the YA book prize a couple of weeks ago, though). On the whole, this has been a relatively good year for the award, or at least for my reading of it; in previous years I’ve disliked the majority of the list and been actively angered by (on average) about a quarter of it. This year, I genuinely liked at least three books on the list (The Hate U Give, Where the World Ends, and Rook); felt well disposed towards some others (Wed Wabbit, about 60% of Release), and only actively disliked one (Saint Death). Despite this, before I read Where the World Ends I thought that The Hate U Give was the best book on the list by a huge margin–I still think it’s the best book on there, but WtWE is polished enough to feel like a serious competitor.

So a decent year for me; but what does this shortlist say about the Carnegie itself? I was glad to see some actual middle-grade books make the list, given the dominance of YA in recent years, but it’s still very unbalanced (and I understand makes organising school shadowing groups quite a complicated procedure). And, given a chance to demonstrate a willingness to engage with criticisms of the award’s lack of racial diversity, the fact that the shortlist excludes any UK-based BAME writers feels like a doubling down–as if change can wait until after the Diversity Review. Whichever book wins (I’ve discussed  my ambivalence on this subject), this year’s medal will feel a bit overshadowed by that context.

 

 

 

 

*On this shortlist alone we have versions of the character in this book and After the Fire (Release does not, though the version of Christianity espoused by some of its characters is a deeply unpleasant one); of the books on the longlist The Island at the End of Everything also has one.

June 15, 2018

Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give

THUGIt feels a bit ridiculous blogging about The Hate U Give midway through 2018; it has been so central to pretty much every conversation about YA over the last year and a bit that everything that there is to be said probably has been already. It has won multiple awards (William C. Morris, Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Printz); the movie’s on the way; it has been on the New York Times’s bestseller list since it came out. Nothing that I can say is going to be new or original. (I do have some thoughts on its position on the Carnegie shortlist, as will become apparent.)

What I like most about the book, however, is the way it works as a pedagogical text. Children’s lit and YA, and those of us who talk about them a lot, often find ourselves dancing a complex line between condemning didacticism and thinking of children’s literature as something that does teach, or least provides its reader with increased context, or reframes the world in ways that are inherently educational–even if that teaching isn’t as straightforward or unidirectional as some of us sometimes imply. One of the several things that The Hate U Give does is provide a way into a history of black political struggle and all its complexities. Starr is surrounded by people who have actively participated in and thought about that struggle (the adults in this book are, rather unusually, people with distinct politics, personalities and flaws), and so it makes perfect sense that this knowledge is something she accesses with relative ease. It also makes sense that sometimes another character has to swoop in and join some dots for her.

The book uses Starr’s perspective (a teenage girl who has grown up in a very politically aware family and now goes to an elite, mostly-white school, and is forced by these circumstances to mediate constantly between very different social circles) to negotiate the shifts between its multiple audiences. There are going to be readers who grew up knowing who Huey Newton was, or what the Ten-Point Program was; others, particularly outside the US (I don’t know how well American educational systems teach this bit of history, but I’d be surprised if many of the British students I’ve met and taught had more than the bare minimum context, and it certainly didn’t feature on the Indian curriculum I grew up with) are going to see these new names and hopefully look them up–the book isn’t going to provide little potted histories for them, but it is going to make it easier to know where to look. On the other hand, there are little asides that feel very basic, and are clearly instructions on how to negotiate particular situations. At one point, as Starr and a group of her friends are listening to music, we see her (white) boyfriend Chris who clearly knows all the words but never speaks or mouths the n word–his reticence is observed with an approving “as he should” that seems to come equally from Starr and the book itself. Chris, though in many ways a good boyfriend and friend, still has to ask a ridiculous question about African Americans and their “weird” names, presumably in order to provide the teaching moment. I’d find it clumsy in a different book, but teaching is such a major part of this novel that it fits in.

thug2I don’t think it’s teaching, so much as a sort of remembrance, that structures how the book situates itself within the history of police shootings and other racist murders, particularly those of the last few years. One major subplot has to do with the breaking down of Starr’s relationship with her former friend Hailey, who unfollows her tumblr after Starr has posted an image of Emmett Till, and it’s not merely an indication of her racism (which the book reveals to be vast and terrible*) but of an unwillingness to see and remember. Late in the book Starr lists other murder victims: “It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Ezell. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando.” The list is an incredibly powerful format (I’m thinking of the list of police brutality victims that was a part of Beyoncé‘s tour a few years ago, or the one in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen); it’s a demand for remembrance, and I think the fact that this is a list of first names demands that the reader remember them almost instinctively, that we don’t have to think to remember who these people were or which of the several horrible news stories was about them. There’s a moment near the beginning of the book, just as we’re reeling from the shock that the police shooting that we were braced for has come this quickly, when Starr says “They finally put a sheet over Khalil. He can’t breathe under it. I can’t breathe,” building Eric Garner’s final words into the text at the most fundamental level.

So, I think The Hate U Give is very good; it’s good at political commitment, thinking about ethics, working through and with despair at unchanging systems (one of the [unfortunately several] things I dislike about Marcus Sedgwick’s Saint Death, also on this shortlist, is its inability to imagine anyone having any agency under the weight of structural violence, which only ends up absolving its readers of any need for action).  And it’s good at all the sorts of things that the Carnegie criteria think are important (structure, characterisation, setting). This ought to be enough reason to explain its presence on this shortlist, and I think it’s the best book on here. On the other hand, this comes in the wake of the last several years of all-white Carnegie shortlists, and in the context of the current “Diversity Review” after last year’s all-white longlist finally garnered enough publicity that CILIP was forced to take action. Had The Hate U Give been one of multiple books by authors of colour on the list (of which there were several real possibilities, but the omission that really surprised me was Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut) I’d be uncomplicatedly pleased by its inclusion; as the only one, I find myself questioning not whether it deserves to be there (it does) but what work it’s doing on the list. Given the Carnegie’s history of championing books about racism (albeit by white authors) as long as they locate it in America (I’ve linked to this post by Karen Sands-O’Connor before but here it is again); given that Thomas’s, and Starr’s perspective is a lot more “accessible” to a white and middle-class audience than a lot of other voices would be; and given that the book was already a massive global phenomenon, its presence on the shortlist doesn’t exactly suggest a radical shift in perspective. I want it to win because I think it’s an excellent book; I’m concerned that if/when it does it will be used to suggest that the Carnegie’s race problem has been substantially resolved.

Then again, every time I’ve thought something was certain to win this award in the past I’ve been wrong, so the question may never arise.

 

 

* Hailey is a “feminist”, and her outrage early in the book at Chris pressuring Starr to have sex with him is sharply contrasted with her refusal to see racism. I felt a little uncomfortable at my disproportionate hate for her among all the other harmful and outright murderous racists depicted here, but it’s a relief to see this character (the feminist who is somehow incapable of seeing other forms of bigotry and structural inequality) depicted uncompromisingly in fiction (particularly in Britain where this seems to be the persona adopted by most public feminists), so I absolve myself.

June 14, 2018

Patrick Ness, Release

Release begins with a quote from Mrs Dalloway and another from John Grant’s “Glacier”. I’d been feeling rather unenthusiastic about the book, but I like both Grant and Woolf, so that this combination of epigraphs made me a lot more curious about what I was about to read. Even more so when the story itself began “Adam would have to get the flowers himself”, suggesting that Ness was aiming for a closer link to Mrs Dalloway than a mere epigraph.

Release takes place over one particularly bad day in the life of 17 year old Adam Thorn. Already feeling apprehensive about the party that is to take place this evening (to say farewell to Adam’s ex boyfriend, whom he is still a bit in love with, and who is leaving town), over the day he has multiple run-ins with his ultra-conservative religious (and homophobic) family, comes out to his father, is sexually harassed by his much older boss, is victim-blamed by his father, and discovers that his best friend is also leaving town in a week. Structurally, this is the Mrs Dalloway aspect of the story; a series of incidents over a single day, culminating in a party, with the passing of time marked in various ways throughout.

releaseIn the afterword, Ness says that the book’s other intertext is Judy Blume’s Forever. I haven’t read that book in about twenty years, but am told by people who’ve read it more recently that the links are obvious to them. There are in-text references to Blume as well, but also a major debt that children’s and YA lit owes Blume is the ability to depict and talk about sex frankly and entertainingly. Ness clearly understands this; I don’t think I’ve ever seen sex between two men shown this clearly in YA, and I’m a bit moved by how many reviews online say the same and are genuinely excited by this aspect of the book. I’ve said in the past that Ness is particularly good at the specifics of individual people and situations and weaker on the big, structural parts of his worlds, and that holds true here–there’s some really sharp observation underlying all of Adam’s various interactions (I think I actually barked at an aside in which we learn Adam’s parents like his best friend Angela because she gives them an opportunity not to be racist), and the emotions are realistic and heartfelt. (Though I remember being mildly annoyed about the deceitful bisexual heartbreaker plot in More Than This, and here it is again, though tempered by the presence of other characters who are attracted to people of multiple genders.) Had the book simply been this–Adam’s story, told well–it would have been a very successful, very polished novel, though perhaps not a very ambitious one.

But there’s a B-plot; one which refers to other events in Adam’s small Washington town. A teenage girl, Katherine, has recently been murdered by the lake, her death impinging on the lives of Adam and his friends only as a puzzling background noise and something that might cause their parents to object to the evening’s lakeside party. Katherine’s spirit has somehow risen from the lake, and is seeking to understand her death, but she has also become entangled with something else—a spirit known only as the Queen, and attended by a worried and rather ineffectual 7 foot tall faun (probably my favourite character). The Queen and Katie sometimes understand themselves as separate, sometimes as the same, but the faun knows that unless the Queen can work out how to disentangle herself by nightfall, some horrible, world-ending thing will take place.

It’s tempting to take the Mrs Dalloway reading as far as it’ll go and try for a direct comparison to the Septimus plot, but that wouldn’t be doing Release any favours—presumably its relationship to the older book is more complex than this sort of direct one for one substitution. But part of the reason it’s tempting to use Woolf as a model for mapping the relationship between the two parallel stories is that there’s not enough in the text itself to give you ways to read it. My Carnegie reading group was pretty unanimous in feeling that this entire plot was all but disposable, and looking for reactions online I discover that most readers have been baffled by it. What we know about the Queen/Katie plot is that it’s very definitely the subordinate plot—it’s both sparse and entirely in italics, which stylistic choices made me feel that the book wasn’t really committing to it. It made me think of Ness’s earlier The Rest of Us Just Live Here, where the larger supernatural plot is relegated to the chapter headings and the contrast between it and the more ordinary concerns of the protagonists is part of the point. I wasn’t a fan of that structure there, and here, where it seems like almost a side-effect, it continues not to impress me.

But, as I say above, a book which abandoned the Queen and focused entirely on Adam might feel a lot more coherent, but it would also be rather unambitious. I don’t want this to have been a different book, but I wish it had been better.

(I don’t think it’s going to win the Carnegie, but then I’m always wrong about what should win the Carnegie.)

June 3, 2018

May Reading

This is probably the most reading I’ve done in a single month this year; but then awards shortlists will do that to you.

 

Lauren Wolk, Beyond the Bright Sea: From the Carnegie shortlist, and written about in quite some detail here.

Anthony McGowan, Rook: This was also a book on the Carnegie shortlist, and I’ve discussed it in a bit more detail here.

Becky Albertalli, Leah on the Offbeat: This book was very nicely timed–it arrived shortly after I’d watched Love Simon, the film adaptation of Albertalli’s Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, to which this is a sequel. This also may have been why it was a bit of a disappointment to me–the movie really heightened the anticipation, and in the end, while I genuinely enjoyed this book, that was about it. Some of it was simply that I find it hard to read adults writing teenagers in fandom without cringing a little bit; but also it didn’t feel as knotty and interesting in its character work as Albertalli’s last book, The Upside of Unrequited. There are moments, however, that are genuinely wonderfully done–there’s a scene when Leah is buying a prom dress, finds one that actually fits her and that she likes herself in, comes out of the changing room, and has her otherwise lovely mother just be lukewarm all over it; and it’s so sharp and well-observed and you’re reminded of how good Albertalli can be. And I wish there’d been more queer romances starring fat bi girls when I was a teenager (or, indeed, now that I’m in my 30s).

Marcus Sedgwick, Saint Death: Also on the Carnegie shortlist (which is rather dominating my reading at the moment). Alas, I’m not a fan.

Rick Riordan, The Burning Maze: Someday I’d like to actually read Riordan’s books consecutively and with an actual recollection of the plot in the previous books–since the first Percy Jackson series I’ve been reading the Greek and Roman books as they came out, but because I’m extremely vague on plot and characters my investment in them is limited. I enjoyed this, like I’ve enjoyed all the others in the series so far, but (as with a Wes Anderson film, a comparison with Riordan that probably hasn’t been made before), a few hours after finishing I couldn’t tell you why.

Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give: Also on the Carnegie shortlist. Further thoughts to come, but this is a very good book.

 

 

June 1, 2018

Marcus Sedgwick, Saint Death

stdeathSedgwick’s Ghosts of Heaven was on the Carnegie shortlist last time I read it (two years ago); a book in conversation with various texts that I love, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it as a whole but really liked many of its parts. Despite this, my overwhelming feeling on first encountering Saint Death was: why? Why would Marcus Sedgwick be my first port of call for a story set on the Mexico-US border featuring narcos, gambling,and the politics of immigration?

The plot: Arturo lives in Anapra, on the outskirts of Juárez and only a short distance from the border with the US. He lives alone–we discover later that he has an abusive and absent father who hates him, after Arturo reported him to the police. The plot opens as his closest friend from school, Faustino, returns from a long absence and in some danger. Faustino has become involved with a gang, and has stolen money from his boss, El Carnero, in order to pay for his wife (Eva, also an old school friend) and newborn son’s journey to America; though the traffickers have accepted a lower fee on the understanding that Eva will be a drug mule. He enlists Arturo’s help in winning back money to replace what was stolen, through Arturo’s skill at calavera (a card game; I’m not sure if it’s real or just another way of shoehorning death into the story). Things go horrifically wrong when Arturo, intoxicated by his initial gambling success, overreaches–at the end of the game he owes five times the money that Faustino originally needed to repay, and he sets out on a quest through the city, trying to scrape together the money and very aware that both his life and Faustino’s will be forfeit if he fails. Along the way he meets various friends (a couple who own a bar, and an old schoolteacher), each in their way complicit in the system that Arturo is finding impossible to navigate and that he knows will kill him. Throughout, Arturo keeps thinking of Santa Muerte, a figure who seems sometimes to be supporting his endeavours, sometimes thwarting them.

Okay. It’s not an original story, and it’s pretty grim, but it’s often well written–Arturo’s disastrous game of calavera nearly had me shouting at the page. Unfortunately, the story itself is punctuated by small essays (or blog or forum posts–one of them claims to be by user “chomsky68″) explaining the larger political structures that govern the cartels, immigration, US-Mexico trade relations, the global politics of the drug trade.

I suppose many teenagers coming to a book like this might benefit from some Chomsky, but this format really does not work. In part because it suggests that the framework for understanding Arturo’s world needs to be one imposed from outside the story–it might be possible that chomsky68 and whoever else is writing these sections are young Mexican boys, but there’s nothing to suggest this. At only one point in the main story does a character express knowledge of these broader political events; Arturo’s friend Siggy (short for Siegfried; his boyfriend is Carlos; they’re named after Freud and Jung), an American who has immigrated to Mexico, lectures Arturo on how “[t]he world as we find it is a lie. A lie made between those with power: those who run the companies, those who run the government and those who control the police and the army,” while Arturo himself listens wide-eyed. “he doesn’t understand half of what Siggy is saying, not in detail, but he doesn’t mind. He knows it’s important, and he thinks he might understand, one day.” The Mexican characters (and Faustino, who immigrated from Guatemala as a child) live with the consequences of imperialism and global inequality, but are still portrayed as unable to understand these things–Arturo’s bewilderment at Siggy’s speech suggests that they never even talk about them. Even the understanding that NAFTA is hugely unequal has to come from outside the plot, as if these characters somehow wouldn’t know this.

Or perhaps the book just isn’t interested in whether its characters are aware of these things or not, because they’re not its audience. Saint Death opens with a Charles Bowden quote, and Sedgwick himself says in this interview that the reason for including it is to emphasise the interconnectedness of the world. But the quote in question (“This book is about other stories, that occur over there, across the river. The comfortable way to deal with these stories is to say they are about them. The way to understand these stories is to say they are about us.”) does this partly be re-emphasising the “over there”; both in Bowden’s quote and in Sedgwick’s text it’s made very clear who the them and the us are, who is being spoken to and who is being spoken about. (The interview linked to above also mentions Sedgwick’s desire not to italicise the Spanish words in the book–my kindle edition certainly has them italicised …)

I’m writing this post shortly after reading and discussing another book on this Carnegie shortlist, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (thoughts on that forthcoming), which also dramatises a longstanding and violent political issue, but makes very different (and better) choices about how wide a scope it can manage and how to mediate between its multiple audiences. That book is as grim as this one in its understanding of how violent institutions preserve and perpetuate themselves; but it’s also full of activism, history, real people living with and working against these systems, building better worlds. I can’t blame Saint Death for having no solutions (I also have failed to save the world this week), but between its relentness grimness, the inability of its characters to do anything, and the book’s own lack of interest or belief (whichever it is) in their ability to think about their world, it all just becomes tragedy porn.

Perhaps I can use this book as a stepping stone to getting some people to read Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World though?

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.