Thursday 25 August 2011

REVIEW - 'Winter', John Marsden (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2000, this edition published 2011)

Sixteen year old Winter is returning to her family homestead after being shipped of to relatives following the tragic deaths of her parents when she was four years old. Spurred on by her unease and the desire to uncover a family secret, the prickly Winter seeks to lay claim to what is rightfully hers.

Being one of those English people, I am a relative newcomer to the works of Marsden. This is only the second book of his that I've read, the first being the rather brilliant, rather shocking 'Letters From the Inside'. With both, Marsden delivers an emotional heavyweight in a very slim volume.

Our narrator, Winter, is beautifully drawn. Her narkiness and stubbornness are given a sympathetic edge - I immediately got where she was coming from, why she was acting like she was and I forgave her for it.

The real winner here is the plot. A genuinely intriguing and intelligent mystery surrounding the deaths of her parents that kept my hands glued to the pages from start to finish. A few not-too-obvious red herrings are chucked in to keep us guessing, but the ending does not underestimate the intelligence of the reader. A satisfying romantic element is also there - a must for this reader! Can't really say much else about the book here without ruining it so I'll keep schtum.

Highly recommended. Short, but not-so-sweet. And all the better for it.

Thursday 18 August 2011

REVIEW - 'Just In Case', Meg Rosoff (Penguin UK, 2006)

This is the story of David Case. On the run from fate, which he is convinced is out to get him (and he's not completely off the mark on this one), he changes his clothes, his world, his name.  Meet Justin Case...(do you see what she did there?)..Can he really out run fate?

Now, I really, really, really, wanted to LOVE this book. In fact, I expected to love it. I pretty much took it for granted. Which is unfair, on any book, opening it up, expecting to adore it, when 9 times out of 10, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment.

I like most books I read. I enjoy many. But I love a very select few. And these very select few include three Meg Rosoff books.

I'm a recent convert to Rosoff. In the last six months, upon deciding to pen my first young adult novel, I have made it my mission to immerse myself in all things YA. 'What I Was' was one of the first books I picked off the shelf of my local library and it pretty much had me at hello. It was love at first word... Ok, maybe sentence.

And when I say love, I mean I fell completely in love. A feeling that was repeated when I started both 'How I Live Now' and 'The Bride's Farewell.' I love them for there uniqueness as well as their similarites. But here is not the place to talk about these books. Just trying to put this review in a bit of context...

I really did try to care about David/Justin, but he was a very difficult boy to warm to. Rosoff does an excellent job in creating a very insular world - we inhabit the existence of someone going through a process that most people may struggle to comprehend. And she manages to make his fundamental problem seem a very real concern. How do you make the completely irrational appear rational? Well, she nails it, for the most part.

My main problem with this is the characters; as with our protagonist, they give us very little to hang our emotions onto. Most just seem to drift on the surface of the story, threatening to make an impact but never delivering.  David's parents are apathetic, selfish and generally a bit useless. The only reason for this behaviour that I sould see was to move the plot forward. These characteristics are not put into an appropriate context - would the parents of a troubled teenager be this uncaring? And if this is the case, I need a convincing reason to explain this behaviour.

I had a MAJOR problem with Agnes. A 19-year-old fashion photographer who spots potential in the unique 'Justin' persona, winning his affections, but using him for her own gain. Are we supposed to empathise with her or despise her? Personally, I just thought her downright annoying. We are given her point of view without getting any insight into her personality, apart from the fact that she's a bit of a quirky dresser.  She in neither involving nor sympathetic. And what is an edgy photographer and fashionista doing living in Luton? Not entirely implausible, but never alluded to or explained.

I must mention the point of view, which flicks back and forth between characters, sometimes mid-paragraph. Now, Rosoff has used this technique in other books, but it was so seamless and skilfully done, I have barely noticed. But here, it jars and interrupts the flow of the narrative. Again, annoying.

However, one thing I cannot fault is the prose, her amazing use of language. I don't think I have come across an author who can use so few words to describe so much and create such an impact.

Maybe it's unfair of me to expect so much. All the right components are there, but the characters let the story down, and without them, the rest just doesn't cut the mustard.

Saturday 6 August 2011

REVIEW - 'Speak', Laurie Halse Anderson (2001, Hodder, UK)

Melinda starts high school as an outcast and must survive the year, abandoned by her friends, struggling to communicate with her distracted and warring parents and being eaten from the inside by a horrific secret that has taken her over.

I have to admit, I tend to give issue based reads a bit of a wide berth. I'm not saying this is correct and I'm sure I'm missing out on many a gripping read. But after the twitter furore surrounding the recent Wall Street Journal piece (see my blog post on the matter), I felt it was my duty to delve a bit further into the darker depths of the YA genre courtesy of one of it's main players. And, of course, I'm so glad I did.

Coming from sleepy middle class English surburbia and attending a rather conservative all-girls school in my youth, the American high school experience is such a departure from my own memories, yet, from immortalisation on page and screen, it remains achingly familiar and fascinating all rolled into one.

 'Speak' tells the tale of a young girl in the aftermath of a brutal attack, abandoned by those who are supposed to offer support, struggling to merely exist in her first year of high school. The structure follows the many events that make up a school year; the sporting events, the art projects, the clamour for acceptance, and our narrator watches on, only desiring invisiblity. And for the most part, she gets it, expect from the person she wants to be reminded of the least.

Halse Anderson's characters are spot on; the impatient parents, the disillusioned teachers, the fickle friends. And she never betrays the voice of Melinda, all the more heart-breaking, because the character's wit and intelligence shines through, showing us her potential. The gradual reveal of Melinda's secret is skillfully done, exposing a girl who, at first glance appears to be an introverted girl with self-esteem issues into a victim of a traumatic and horrific act.

My one gripe, and it is a tiny one; why does Melinda have to excel at something to be accepted, or accepted to a certain degree? The world is full of average students, not 'brilliant' at anything, but muddling through, scraping by. Why is it necessary for our heroine to have a hidden sporting prowess? I felt just a little let down by this towards the end. It undermines her quest for normailty somewhat. Can't we just have a heroine who can be heroic and average?

Like a said, minor gripe. This ticks all the boxes, and was a gripping read, which is all you could ask, really. I delayed a day's housework for it. What more can I say?