The Smell of Other People’s Houses- Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

alassi
Alaska in the 1970s, a typical summer day

Alaska was a lost place in 1970… a location which no one can particularly relate to. Except of course Hitchcock, who grew up there, creating an aura of the authenticity of the poverty and setting. It was time of social revolution, where in this novel the boundaries between child and adulthood are blurred beyond conception.

There are four protagonists Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank, with the story being woven between their viewpoints. It creates an intriguing variation for the reader because their lives are revealed through this medium, with the stories being surprisingly knitted together by the closing chapters.

Ruth is arguably the pivot of the plot: her parents have by tragic circumstances fled (as no self-respecting book these days can have a child with 2 living parents it seems) and this leaves her with a strained grandmother and a plethora of rules. This environment creates a palpable sense of tension, especially when Ruth becomes rather involved (ahem) with a popular boy.

On other hand, Dora has the predictable cocktail of the hapless mother slurring her Sundays with beer, and a father who thinks it’s fun to beat her up. Just to make things more interesting, Hitchcock also decided to make her have Inupiat origins so that there could be scenes of racism as well. Which is fine if this was a creative writing project of how many different social problems you can portray in one sitting, however if you’re reading it the main thing that comes across is a desperation to: reveal the scope of characteristics you can write about, appeal to every liberal audience and seem to be supremely intelligent. Which is fine, as long as you don’t want anyone but your inflated version of self to like your book.

9780571314959

Alyce is sadly a stereotypical story: girl has dream, but family duty calls. Goes to do family duty (here fishing because for some reason the father can’t hire someone or has any friends) and wishes that she could be persuing her dream, ballet-dancing. Readers supposedly are emotionally invested in this girl because of the “heart-wrenching” situation, until (after she has a supernatural whale moment which is frankly weird) she eventually goes to this ballet audition after months of no practise and aces it, which in reality would never happen, but neither do random whale moments. Sorry to ruin the story, but you know you already saw it coming,

Then just to add a male voice so that there was a vague stab at equality (which was never truly reached) there is another storyline. I know, you’re bored already of all these characters vying for attention and so am I. Hank, who it seems thought that running away from his mum and despicable stepfather (because no one in Alaska can have any unclichéd background) was a great idea. The best Hitchcock could do was describe him as a ‘mangy stray dog’ and ‘short and squat, with stubby legs’. Because if a parental figures has stubby legs, you know you’re trouble.  I honestly don’t think if you are living in Canada that just because you hace a bit of family disagrements you will take your two brothers and just go off. That’s all there is to it: people are not that stupid. And then to have a brother who fell off a ferry, (ditto earlier comment as this is out-right stupidity) be magically saved by whales. Really.

So in short, it’s disastrously confusing and although the writing is at first enchanting, by the fifth page it’s clear that the deep-seated editing went into the opening scene and that by the end of the first chapter they thought that ‘Well, if they’ve read this far, they’ve probably bought it and the hook of elaborative worked, so who cares what they think later on.’ Even the better language is simplistic with deer’s hooves being described as ‘pointy like a ballerina’s toes’. (Yes, because there is only one pointed thing in the entire universe, with it also an inappropiate comparison as it makes things more muddled as this girl has no interest later in dance as opposed to Alyce.)

Surprised how this came to be on the Carneige Shortlist.

Advertisements

There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake

The title is correct; I can certify that this novel does involve lies. A plethora of them, in fact. And all these lies revolve around a deaf teenage, Shelby, who lives with a bolshy, and strangely overprotective mother. Shelby is harshly restricted by the strict rules and precautions that she is entitled to follow- but she understands that Shaylene just wants her to be safe. However, once Shelby is admitted into hospital, following a horrendous car crash, her previously sheltered life begins to reveal the seemingly implausible lies that have clung to her throughout her life. And each layer of deceit is peeled away, Shelby’s world is spun ever faster into the oblivion of the astonishing.

liar

I thought that this novel was relatively engaging, although I thought that there wasn’t enough momentum to motivate me as a reader in the first half of the novel. There was a delightful contrast between the whimsical magical world called “the Dreaming” and the harsh, terrifying world that Shelby predominately inhabits. However, I was more drawn to the magic orientated world: I found myself impatiently waiting for the reality chapters to be finished, hurriedly reading them, so that I could reach the more appealing thread of storyline.

The characters were arresting, but were not particularly relatable or appealing to my sense of affection. Shelby’s mother is frankly psychotic for incredibly poor reasons, and also is brimming with confusing character inconsistencies. Shelby was courageous and smart, yet occasionally I perceived her to be over emotional, and that she made several times some peculiar decisions that I would question. It must be admitted though, that the ending was wildly unpredictable, and that it wouldn’t have ended so unanticipated if it wasn’t for characters’ bizarre motives.

There Will Be Lies is a devious type of novel; riddled with mystery and erupting with twists, you are guaranteed to surprised, if not only by portrayal of a deaf protagonist. Have you read There Will Be Lies- do you think it deserved to win the Carnegie Medal?

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

A playful, charming, yet striking anti-war novel on the lives of children growing up during the war.

This novel is a follow-through sequel to a prized and beloved trilogy; it is so highly regarded it’s practically a national treasure. Can you guess the novel yet? I’ll offer one word; the Psammead. No? Alright a few more; grumpy, sand fairy and wishes. Yes, that is correct. The Five Children on The Western Front tells us what takes place after all the children from Five Children and It have morphed away from their adolescent selves and are fully fledged adults. Anthea is no longer a naive little girl; she’s at art college, Jane is a nurse, Cyril’s off tending to that awfully impractical First World War and Robert is (a scholar) at Cambridge. The Lamb is no longer a sweet chubby baby, but a mischievous 11 year old, who is always keeping his younger sister, Edith, in check. The two youngest miss their other siblings’ company, especially the magical stories about the queer Psammead, that they were often told.

Except suddenly he is no longer merely the figurehead of far-fetched tales: he surprisingly reappears in their sand pit. It is the perfect excuse to distract the siblings from the gloomy war, yet it turns out that the Psammead is no longer a wish dispensing machine, and he actually has a vaguely serious purpose behind his resurrection in their lives.

I have mixed feelings about the Psammead; sometimes he is a moaning, whining creature, which can get tiresome, whilst on other occasions he is veritably sweet and charming. He has a complex character to say the least; a lot of attitude from such a small being that’s for sure. Through the Psammead, the Lamb and Edith are introduced to the brutal nature of war; they experience it from every point of view- soldiers in trenches, nurses, those left in the country and more. But soon it becomes apparent that the youngest siblings don’t require these adventures to experience the impact of war. Eventually it wriggles it’s talons into the Pemberton’s lives, and brings the reek of sadness with it.

five

I admit it. I haven’t read Five Children and It. Yes, it is utterly frustrating, and I really ought to have read it before hand, but unfortunately it didn’t happen. So…despite this slight setback, I loved this novel. I wholeheartedly adored it, for so many different reasons; it preliminarily was simultaneously light hearted, making it an enjoyable fun novel, whilst having also having more serious undertones. I have been enveloped with heavy, hard hitting novels that scream about the outrage of society in general recently, and so it was massively relaxing to be enjoy a more vivacious novel. Having said that, when I was feeling in a more receptive mood, I appreciated the anti-war cries and the solemn messages about character that were being emanated. So this novel essentially can bend itself to your emotional needs. Importantly, it displays a touching account of the war, that is made hugely personal through our connection to not only one, but actually nearly all the characters. Not an easy feat to carry, so I applaud you Saunders. Also, it was impressive to see the story undertake metamorphosis; at first it is bursting with innocence and naivety but soon experience crawls in and before you know it we are struck with aching issues like the cruelty of war. We reach a point that none of the children can return from, not with without shedding the blinds of the innocent. This was executed masterfully; I was so easily engrossed in the story (I read this novel in a day) and I felt like the storyline was unforced and flowed beautifully.

So take a chance, pick up this novel and enjoy a comedic, memorable and above all heart-warming wartime novel. Have any of you read Five Children and It- what are your thoughts on the novel? Have you in fact read that novel and Five Children on the Western Front- which one did you think was better?

Lies we tell ourselves by Robin Talley

An eloquent, impressive and poignant novel about the integration of black students into the previously segregated Jefferson High, Virginia, 1959.

lies we tell

Sarah is one of the ten black students starting at Jefferson High this year; after years of persistent battling in court, she’s finally going to get the best education possible. But the abuse she and her friends receive when they start is overwhelming, and they all feel a wave of despair when it doesn’t even start to cease. And then Lindsay Hairston catches Sarah’s eye. The daughter of the state’s most influential pro-segregation journalist, and Sarah can’t stop thinking about her. And now Sarah isn’t only afraid of what society will think of this aching desire, as tendrils of disgust and fear are already writhing around her own heart. Because not only is she afraid of everyone’s opinion, but startlingly, she’s frightened of what she is feeling, too.

Firstly, this is a novel which admirably recreates and explores the racial tension that society strongly felt at the time. It is an arduous topic to write about, especially to such high standard, so that Talley deserves credit for that. But occasionally I felt that the plot became slightly flat because Talley got so caught up in the issues she was writing about, that there was less of a drive in certain parts of the novel. It is told from the alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Lindsay, which enhanced the novel because it was useful to see the contrast between the two characters’ lives.

Sarah, the protagonist, is a resilient, intelligent and kind character, which is fortunate for her, because everyday at school she faces physical and mental abuse. In fact, soon after you pick up the novel, you will find yourself cheering for Sarah as she starts to forge her own destiny out the prejudices she faces.

The title is smart; it relates to the rest of the novel because every chapter title is a lie; the lies the various characters tell themselves. I thought that this was a clever touch because often the title of a novel is seemingly irrelevant, detached to the actual content of the novel that follows. On the other hand, there was one major fault; eventually, the chapter names became increasingly similar, to the point of sharing the same meaning with previous titles i.e ‘Lie no. 11 If I keep pretending everything will be alright’ and ‘Lie no. 15 Pretending will make this go away’ or “lie no. 17 I give up” compared with “Lie no.19 There’s no use fighting”. I understand that at one point there will only be a limited amount of options, but I doubt that it is not so limited that there is a lack of variation in this when performing this smart idea.

The themes in this novel are obviously racial tension and violence, (as there are several aggressive episodes in towns and public places throughout the novel where the black and white students are locked in confrontation), and then, there is LGBT+, as Sarah finds herself falling in love with Linda. Truth be told, I was disappointed with this aspect of the novel; admitted, there were instances when thoughts were uncovered showing that they both had feelings for each other, but there were only a few romantic moments, and most of the romance was lost in the  violence towards the end, or two characters lamenting about how sinful and evil they both apparently felt they were. I wasn’t convinced in the end that they were going to become an interracial lesbian couple because there were only a few instances where they honestly faced their feelings.

This novel is great if you have an interest in civil rights, or historical YA fiction. This topical novel is definitely one to watch, and overall is a great debut! Also, please note that this appeared first on the Guardian’s site. So have you read this novel? What did you think of it?

 

Book of the Month June- The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

An astounding, sharp novel, with a twist (literally…) I adored this smart novel- the concept behind it was original and I loved the refreshing style using the short stories: the book is split into four stories, and each one has a completely unique storyline, set in various stages of our time on Earth, including the future:

ghosts.jpg

The first story, Whispers in the Dark, is set in the stone age, and is written in lyrical prose, which is a contrast to what is normally found on YA bookshelves. It was interesting. Except personally I found that the language was too simplistic, although this may have been intentional on Sedgwick’s part because it is told by a girl whose community haven’t formulated language yet. Still admirable what can be illustrated with few words though.

The second quarter, called The Witch In Water, is set in the Puritan times and opens with the funeral of the protagonist’s mother. It is during this time period being accused of Witchcraft was common practise, and when a replacement priest starts to dominate the town, the unsuspecting girl is put on trial for being a witch.

The next story is the Easiest Room in Hell and personally my favourite out of the four. This was because it was took place in a 1920s lunatic asylum and was a bizarre, yet slightly unsettling setting. It follows the work of a new doctor, as he not only befriends one of the inhabitants, but learns of the dark secrets lurking between the asylum’s walls.

The final story is The Song of Destiny, which is set on a spaceship. It is set in the distant future and is not only an incredibly philosophical tale, but also brimming with mystery. This is because the meagre number of passengers onboard the spaceship is starting to rapidly deplete- but clearly these deaths are not natural. There is a murderer onboard the ship. But who?

The best thing about this novel is that it is written in a way that these quarters can be read in any order, (that’s 24 different combinations,) and it will still make sense.

I enjoyed reading these short stories because they were completely self-contained, and each one was entirely distinct to the others, both in form and style. This means that the stories can not only be enjoyed as snippets of a wider message, but as creative stories in their own right.

Each quarter has a slither of information linking it to the next, (whichever next story you may choose that to be) and this aspect is ingenious and fabulously well-thought through.

Most notably, the spiral is a core motif in this book, recurring continuously, as it reminds us of the continual nature of the universe; after you read this novel, you start to notice them everywhere! I chose this novel to be the book of the month because I think that this is one you can read again and again and you will still find intelligent nuggets of information you didn’t notice the first time around. Also, it is utterly unique to any other book I have encountered before (which is quite a few). So it definitely deserves credit.

The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

An optimistic, thoughtful and fresh novel which oozes the reassuring theme that the role of a being the superhero, the one that snatches at salvation as it slips through everyone else’s fingers, actually can be left to someone else.

the rest of us.jpg

Mike is on the cusp of graduating, and is savouring the meagre time he has left with his friends. Admittedly, the Summer that is stretching ahead is pitifully unwanted; with his crush Henna travelling to Africa, his compact group of friends will methodically unravel, leaving it to be bland and uneventful holiday. This period of time is therefore precious, and when these supposedly memorable last weeks are tainted by the arrival of Nathan, Mike is unimpressed, as well as the fact that it’s happening. And whatever it is, it might as well as happen after he graduates; he doesn’t want the indie kids getting the school blown up. Again. Mike’s not entirely sure what is going on, but who ever is? All anyone ever can say is that the indie kids are in some way responsible; in the meaningless town squashed in the middle of nowhere, bizarre things take often place, and it’s always the indie kids which save them all. They are always the saviours who, with hippish names like Satchel and Finn, eventually wrench them from the jaws of doom, like they did with those vampires a few years back. So when random pillars of blue, and glowing policemen riddle daily life, Mike just gets on with it. After all, he has only a few weeks left to enjoy his tight friendships, and he’s not going to let this get in the way.

I enjoyed certain aspects of this novel, yet overall it wasn’t particularly outstanding. I loved the two plots that happened simultaneously throughout, and the different tones they had, because this gave the novel some variety. On the other hand I wasn’t that keen on the style of the majority of the novel; this was because the writing felt light, in the insubstantial sense of the word, and was frequently diluted with various airy metaphors. This novel would have also been improved greatly if the characters all didn’t simply “say” things when they spoke, too. It was the only verb he used, and frankly, after a chapter, it got monotonous. Also nothing happens. Except that Mike gets jealous of Nathan the whole time, and most of the novel is illustrating how slightly needy Mike is yet everyone loves him anyway but he can’t see that. Also, I understand that Ness is taking a slightly John Green approach, and is telling the story from a point of view of someone who has an intimate group of friends that are all equipped with seemingly under-represented characteristics, for want of better word, but I feel like it is slightly excessive; Mike has severe OCD, his best friend is gay, his sister is recovering from anorexia, his father is an alcoholic and his mother is so wrapped up work that she is neglectful to her children.

It’s too much. Way too much to take in.

I don’t think highly of this novel, which is disappointing because I enjoyed More Than This   and A Monster Calls. But, they are not on the same page, or even planet. This novel seems like a wispy project which was started on a sunny holiday, then ignored and completed between stitches of time. It waffles on and nothing happens. The plot is non-existent, although the underlying message was charming.

the rest of us q..jpg

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

A sinister Victorian murder mystery that revolves around the force of lies, the power of a patriarchal society and revenge.

the lie.jpg

When Faith’s family suddenly moves to the dull, rainy island Vane, she is told that  her father is visiting an archeological dig, but soon she beings to have suspicions. Her suspicions blossom, and despite the her family’s best attempts, so do the locals’. When the island finds out the true reason behind their escape from England, their carefully constructed reputation shatters, and they are alienated from society.

Now Faith is suffering; lonely and isolated, with only a vain mother, uncaring father and pestering brother for company. And books. Faith adores knowledge, consumes it and inhales the facts. Or she used; now, it is uncalled for ladies to desire knowledge, and it’s dangerous too.

So, late one night when her father calls her into his office, seeking her to join him on an expedition, she is delighted. It is an opportunity to learn more, enjoy the rare company of her father, and to slip out of her prim orderly life for an evening. Yet by the next morning her father is dead, and she has an obscure tree to look after. It is where the lies begin. And then they gain power, morphing into a life of their own, and soon, are unstoppable.

This novel was incredibly atmospheric; immediately after I started reading I felt enveloped by the dense words and was transported into Faith’s peculiar 19th century world. However, at times I felt like the writing was very heavy and over-bearing to read, making it a slightly painful experience, because I always had to be concentrating to fully understand what was going on, and felt I couldn’t always relax into the novel. The book progresses massively in style; for me the opening scene was excruciatingly bland but as I trudged on further through the chapters, I was rewarded. Having said that, it was written cleverly, and it always appeared to me that the plot had flourished and grew on it’s own; that it wasn’t the outcome of some author’s toil. All of it seemed to happen so naturally.

The characters developed wonderfully, and by the end were overflowing with rich desires and feelings, something which was unclear at times previously. The climax was near the last section of the novel, and it was amazing-There were mountains of suspense and the air was cracking from the tension; I fully understood the characters at this point too, and was comfortable with the plot.

I only mention the latter, because at several points I was overwhelmed by the amount of middle-aged male characters, and kept on confusing them in my mind. I think this was predominantly because Hardinge had not given them any specific defining features, physically and internally. I became more familiar with them towards the end though, and was able to differentiate them mostly by their actions, not by their intrinsic identity.

Faith was a tremendous protagonist. We start off the novel and she has glassy-eyed, slightly subdued character, where she only voices her timid opinions internally. Later on though, as several events influence her, she gains confidence and becomes a more forceful person. A large leap, one might say, particularly a society run by patriarchs…

There wasn’t any romance in the novel, and although I thought this generally suited the plot, it would have been even more dynamic with it. I was unsure why Faith hated Paul Clay so much as well, because he didn’t do anything outstandingly resentful, therefore making her strong feelings slightly unnecessary.

This was a great novel, extremely atmospheric and thrilling. It was slow to start off with, yet gained momentum as the plot progressed; some think that this is ideal because it sets up the scene whilst others feel that it’s unnecessary. I personally think that, although it is labelled YA, it is an intriguing and thought-provoking read for everyone who enjoys fantasy. Please note that excitingly, this review appeared first of the Guardian Children’s Book website- which I am really pleased about because it means that my reviews are going places!

Fire Colour One by Jenny Valentine

A courageous, remarkable novel about family relationships.

Iris doesn’t know her father, Ernest; he left Iris’ mother, Hannah, before Iris can even remember. But that’s alright; life for her certainly isn’t perfect but Iris has her best friend Thurston to see her through things, and anyway, she hasn’t heard from Ernest in over 10 years.

fire colour one

Iris’ mother, Hannah and her boyfriend, Lowell, are drowning in debt and are struggling to keep up the facade of being an extravagant and thriving family. Yet, despite their finical status, they continue to uphold this illusion. They have to; Hannah’s obsession with luxurious fashion must be maintained, and visiting casting directors won’t hire Lowell if they look like they are sinking into the depths of poverty.

So when Hannah hears that Ernest, Iris’ father, is dying, she jumps at the opportunity to see him. Why? Ernest is a millionaire and she is keen on snatching a large proportion of his wealth through her daughter, as soon as he is dead, so that Hannah can continue to live in the upper echelons of L.A society.

Iris reluctantly comes, after all Hannah can’t visit without her, and is surprised. The walls of Ernest’s humble house are covered in priceless masterpieces. They are all there; Picasso, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Renoir. But once Iris peers past these incredible paintings into her father’s eyes, she discovers an unbelievable truth.

I liked the characters in this novel because of their rich personalities; Iris is a pyromaniac, and devotes her free time either to setting fires, or spending it with her older creative yet homeless best friend Thurston.

Thurston appears to have a mysterious, innovative character and an intriguing past. However, he had no clear role in the novel except as the one person who Iris is emotionally attached to, as well as a shadow to Iris’ father (both are characters she nearly loses as they temporarily disappear). But unfortunately he plays no outstanding role bar him cameoing in several of her flashbacks; it is a shame because there is no obvious significance in his role generally (*spoiler* except at the end, but it didn’t necessarily have to be Thurston who made the final bid for Fire Colour One. Yes, it was a pleasant touch that it was him, but it wasn’t a character specific role; anyone could have done it).

Hannah is Iris’ self-indulgent mother, and is determined to accumulate as much of Ernest’s wealth as possible, in order to launch her out of debt and ricochet her and her like-minded boyfriend Lowell, back into the life oozing with luxury. Hannah is similar to greedy stepmothers in fairytales; portrayed hyperbolically and one dimensionally. She has a truly despicable character but has been depicted too brashly, and seems to have an unrealistic character.

The novel read easily and amiably, but too often did I find blatant cliches, which were, frankly, a disappointment. On the other hand, there were incredible lines of literatures scattered around, and it felt wonderful reading them. So, in the sense of the actual writing, there was much divergence. The main theme is novel is relationships, so there is exploration of that in most of the chapters, as well as the theme of family. In Iris’ case, her real family offer no comfort, so the reader observes her try to piece her own version of a family, albeit unrelated through blood, together.

The plot unfurls through the eyes of Iris and there is a clear direction, although it is frequently punctuated with fragments of the past, which adds complexity (but I think that without these occasionally irrelevant dips into history, the novel would also be extremely short, because without the buffering of these accounts, relatively little happens). I thought the ending was cunning and satisfying, but various important pieces of information were brutally shoved upon the reader in the closing pages.

This novel has been nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, and therefore is predominantly aimed at the younger spectrum of teenage readers. I agree with this, because the language and use of stylistic devices is recurrently simplistic. Having said that, it was an enjoyable, light, minimal attention required holiday read!