Wednesday 28 November 2012

YA REVIEW - 'Life: An Exploded Diagram' - Mal Peet (Walker Books, 2011)

This is a brilliant coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Cold War and events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Clem Ackroyd lives with his parents and grandmother in a claustrophobic home too small to accommodate their larger-than-life characters in the bleak Norfolk countryside. Clem's life changes irrevocably when he meets Frankie, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, and experiences first love, in all its pain and glory. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Well, this one's going to be a bit tricky to write. and not because I hated, or I loved it. But possibly both. At the same time. All at once. Let me explain....
Life: An Exploded Diagram
When I first read about this one, well, to say I was intrigued was an understatement. Code Name Verity had given me an appetite for some more exquisitely written twentieth century historical YA fiction and the political angle of this one got my attention, being in the possession of a politics degree myself (although I have never actually used it from the moment I graduated). 

Let's start with the positives - the writing. It was superb. It was funny. I spent the first half of the novel highlighting at least a paragraph a page. It made me want to eat my Kindle it was so damn good. 

Nostalgics believe that the past is nicer than the present. It isn't. Or wasn't. Nostalgics want to cuddle the past like a puppy. But the past has bloody teeth and bad breath. I look into it's mouth like a sorrowing dentist.

The first third builds up a picture of Clem's family history in intricate and personal detail, going back to his great-grandparents. Each member is so brilliantly captured, especially his grandmother Win and father George, and it felt like a privilege to read such fantastically-written characters.

However... as wonderful as this prose was, when it was getting close to the middle of the book and I still knew very little about our protangonist, my mind started to wonder where the hell this was going exactly. The whole family history thing reminded me of Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, but whereas that was like a jigsaw slotting into place as the book went on, this felt like the author was giving us all this background information just because he could. As gorgeous as it was, I just wanted it to have more of a purpose.

My mixed feelings continued when it came to the whole concept of the novel. I loved the idea of this - one of the key events in twentieth century history having an indirect influence on one of the key events in the life of a seventeen year old boy in a remote part of Norfolk. And I really, really wanted it to work. And it sort of did, but, well, it would have been and much more enjoyable read if there was slightly less history and slightly more Clem and Frankie. Every time we got to one of those key moments in Clem's love life, it was abandoned and we're back with JFK for another two chapters. Although I enjoyed the way he made major political figures characters in this story (especially JFK with his randiness and his ailments), it was felt overdone, clunky and forced a lot of the time. What could have been a way of making history more fascinating may well have become, I fear, even more of a turn-off to those who aren't already fascinated with it.

The other thing I was never quite sure of was Clem. We learn so much about those around him, yet I finished the book feeling I didn't know that much more about our narrator than a the start (or more accurately, the middle or thereabouts when Clem finally became a character). His voice didn't half tell a great story, but the overriding impression I got of him was just a boy who was desperate to get his first shag. And that's about it. And I wish we'd got more of Frankie into the story. I learned so much about her from just one sentence (not all of it good, mind), and I would have loved to see more of her character that wasn't only to do with her relationship with Clem.

Despite my critisisms, I would still very much recommend you read this - it's original, beautifully written and doesn't patronise the reader - like with the best YA, I can imagine people of all ages enjoying this (ok, maybe not ALL ages). I just wanted all the elements to gel together more seamlessly and to care just a little bit more about the story and the person telling it.

But it also serves as a very important reminder of a period of history that could well have been the darkest of them all, and for that it must be applauded.

Friday 16 November 2012

SHORTS ON SHORTS - 'Love Letter Straight to the Heart' by Terry Tapp

I was trying to find a story to write about today that I could link to. However, I just could not find anything that grabbed me. This might have something to do with the fact that I'm knackered and reading small print off the screen of my laptop is making my eyes feel scratchy. So, I'm afraid I had to pick one out of an old-fashioned paper anthology and I'm afraid I couldn't find an online link to it. Sorry. Must try harder tomorrow.

Anyway, this one grabbed me in my tired state. I found it in a short story anthology I picked up from a second hand bookshop in Brisbane called Paper Windows. The book was called Paper Windows, no the shop. Although, that would be a BRILLIANT name for a second hand bookshop. But apart from that I can't find that much information on the story, or the author, apart from the fact it was written in 1978 and he is English. And he has a really cool name. Seriously, who wouldn't want to be called Terry Tapp?

In a nutshell...

A man is rifles through his morning mail and comes across a letter from his younger lover. He contemplates his dilemma of whether he could leave his wife for her.

My favourite quote...

She placed the egg in the boiling water, noticed that the shell had cracked and said 'Damn,' causing a cylinder of ash to fall from her cigarette into the boiling water.

If I smoked (which I don't), I could so easily see myself doing this.

Bits and pieces I will take away...

This is short, but very satisfactory. And very clever. And kind of funny. The ending made me gasp and then giggle and then shake my head in a 'you-sneaky-little-short-story-writer so of way. And I can't really say much else about this as I will be a big old ruiner and ruin the smarty-pants ending.

Hopefully I'll find something with a link tomorrow, but I'm not making any promises.

Thursday 15 November 2012

SHORTS ON SHORTS - 'Letter for Carlos' by Michael Morpurgo

Wow, I've managed to keep this up for three days in a row. I don't normally manage this level of blogging commitment. Yay for me. Anyway, today's short story is Letter for Carlos by Michael Morpurgo. This story is featured on the Guardian website as part of there week-long feature for National Short Story Week. It's a bit like my week-long feature for National Short Story Week. But not as good.


Well, I'm a little bit ashamed to admit that I haven't read any of Michael Morpurgo's novels. I have them there, sitting on the Kindle, and I've been toying with the idea of reading Private Peaceful fairly soon (which may or may not have something to do with this), but it hasn't quite happened for me yet. This story originally featured in his anthology Singing for Mrs Pettigrew: A Storymaker's Journey, but you can access it here. And instead of me relaying more background information about it, have a read of this interview where he explains the inspiration behind the tale. And a very interesting read it is too.

Singing For Mrs Pettigrew, A Story Maker's JourneyIn a nutshell...

On his tenth birthday, Carlos is given a bike and a letter from his long-absent father.

My favourite quote...

When I looked down upon you that last time, cradled in your mother's arms, I remember I tried to picture you as a grown boy. I couldn't then and I still can't. For me you are that sleeping child, yawning toothlessly, fists clenched, frowning through your milk-soaked dreams.

Bits and pieces I'll take away...

This is a really interesting take on a very big subject, but I'm guessing that Mr. Morpurgo is rather experienced in writing captivating tales on the subject of warfare for a younger audience. It's a wise and  rather moving account the the reality of war from a disillusioned young man, but I just felt there was something missing  - maybe flipping back to Carlos's perspective would have help the story feel a bit more complete for me. But otherwise, this was a brilliant read, and also suitable for slightly younger readers. You might have already guessed from the title, but a large section of this takes the form of a letter. This is of interest to me personally, as the story I am working on a the moment takes the form of a letter, so thank you Michael Morpurgo, not only have you written a powerful story, but you have also given me a mini-creative-writing tutorial.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

SHORTS ON SHORTS - 'The Paper Menagerie' - Ken Liu

Well, I hope you enjoyed yesterday's post. Today's is going to be a bit tricky to write about. And that's because it's so bloody good. And by good, I mean don't-even-think-about-reading-this-one-on-public-transport-for-fear-of-bawling-your-eyes-out-and-scaring-a-few-people good. Yes, THAT good.

Ken LiuI first read about it when Flannery over at The Readventurer listed it as a must-read in her International Short Story Day post. And me, like the fool that I am, didn't read it STRAIGHT AWAY (which I hope you will do after reading this). And it comes complete with accolades a-plenty - The Paper Menagerie was the first short story ever to win the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. You can find out a little bit more about Ken Liu right here, and here's the oh-so-essential link where you can read and weep..

In a nutshell...

A young man with a Chinese mother and American father reflects on his upbringing and his complicated relationship with his mother, a former mail-order bride.

My favourite quote...

Blimey, where do I begin? Even typing this out is making me well up again..

Mom looked at him. "If I say 'love', I feel here." She pointed to her lips. "If I say 'ai', I feel here." She put her hand over her heart.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg, people.

Bits and pieces I'll take away...

This really is a reminder of how powerful writing can be in this form and how vital every sentence, every word really is. I don't really know what else to say, apart from if you think that reading short story just won't give you the full-on emotional whack that a novel will, that reading a short story just won't have as much of an impact, that it will be forgotten as soon as you've finished that last line, then you really need to read this.

Seriously, READ IT.

Wowsers. Well, I hope that tomorrow's story can keep up the standard....

Tuesday 13 November 2012

SHORTS ON SHORTS - 'May Malone' by David Almond

When I made the rash decision to start this feature yesterday, as soon as I wrote my introductory post, I made for the bookshelf and started rifling through a few anthologies. But then it struck me - bloody Twitter of course! Whenever I see a link to a new story, I favourite it with every intention of going back to read it later, but of course, later always turns into next week, or thereabouts. I do get around to it eventually, promise...

Anyway, I noticed this one the other week. It was posted by Thresholds, which is home to the International Short Story Forum. If you haven't had a look yet and you're interested in short stories, please do, as it is a mine of information, including submission deadlines for publications and competitions. And you can follow them on Twitter @ShortStoryForum.

The Children's Hours: Stories Of ChildhoodAnyway, back to the story - May Malone by David Almond. Probably most famous for Skellig (which you can check out a recent review of right here by the lovely Jo), this originally featured in The Childrens's Hours Anthology in 2008 but you can read it here.

In a nutshell...

Miserable teenager Norman decides to investigate the mythical monster rumoured to be kept in the house of local lady with not-too-savoury-a-reputation, May Malone.

My favourite quote...

Ok, so I can't include my favourite quote because it's a bit of a spoiler, so I'll opt for this one instead...

Norman thought about illness and death and dying all the time. He thought about the devil and Hell. And those nightmares! Boiling oil and scorching flames and red hot pokers and devil's horns. He told the priest in confession about it and the priest sighed. Oh dear. Such fears and dreams were common enough amongst his flock. We all had such a cross to bear.

Bits and pieces I'll take away...

Oh gosh, it's all so sad. Is it supposed to be sad? I can't really say much else apart from poor Norman, just when he thinks he's gained an understanding and a new smidgen of maturity, well...

And also, green coat and read nails. I know it's slightly off the point, but is it me, or does this sound rather fabulous?

And also, I wasn't sure what I was expecting, but this is really astonishing writing. So I urge you to click on that link and read it please. I bought a copy of Skellig the other day that was way down on my TBR pile, but now I think it might be moving up a few places.

Anyway, come back tomorrow for another Shorts on Shorts for National Short Story Week.

How many times can I use the word SHORT this week? I might go for the record...

Monday 12 November 2012

A Little Something for National Short Story Week...

So, it's National Short Story Week (you may have already sussed this from the title of this post), and I quite like short stories. I quite like reading them and I quite like writing them. And hopefully you do to. In which case you might quite like to read this post...

In the last celebration of stories in their shortened form, International Short Story Day (gosh, these things have a lot of themed time periods attached to them), I wrote a post about how I was going to spend the summer looking at them. Yeah, well, that didn't quite happen to the extent that I planned  for many reasons that I won't go into here, but now it appears I have been given another chance to redeem myself on the short story front. So to celebrate the week, starting from tomorrow, I'm going to read a short story a day and do a little post containing my random thoughts about it. What form those random thoughts will take, well, you'll just have to wait and see. But hopefully they will encourage all of us to pick up a few more short stories in the future.

To find out a bit more about National Short Story Week, just take a look here. Personally, of particular interest is the recommended reading list for children and young adults, from which I shall attempt to delve into, if not this week, then at some point in the future. Also, the Guardian website is participating by publishing some of the stories from their reading list. At the time of writing this, none have been put up yet, but hopefully I might read one or two at some point in the next few days...but here's their Short Stories page in the meantime for you peruse.

So, I hereby declare Anna's Shorts on Shorts well and truly open...let me just make it clear, there will be no posting of pictures of me in shorts at any point in the next week. Shorts HATE me and I have long since accepted that they will form no part of my wardrobe ever again. Just thought I'd clear that up in case there was any confusion.

Friday 9 November 2012

MY YA CONFESSIONS #3 - I really should be reading more UKYA...

My reading habits fluctuate, much like everyone's else's I should imagine. Although, recently, they've come to a bit of a standstill. You know the usual excuses, life, kids, work, blah blah blah, so I won't go on about it. BUT I really need something to give me a bit of kick start and this post gave me just that the other week. The lovely Flannery over at The Readventurer put together this rather astonishing wall of awesome UKYA titles. when she asked me to contribute my Top Ten, I was like 'yeah, sure, no probs...' but when I actually came to jot them down, something struck me. Some of my all time favourite titles have been written by UK authors, so I had no grappling around for ten titles (although I cheated a bit with Rosoff and Ness, but they live here, so there). But when I noticed that my choices we limited to so few UK authors, I realised I haven't actually read a huge amount of UKYA, in whole the scheme of bookish things..

And then I looked at my bookshelf and on the old kindle and noticed a few more things, namely the sheer amount UKYA waiting to be read, a lot of it also featuring on Flann's wall. So why do I choose to overlook it so much? The subject matter is intriguing, the covers are striking and original, so why aren't I chomping at the bit to devour them? I think one of the issues I've had in the past with some titles is that sometimes the writing style can feel a bit young and considered in comparison to some titles from Australia, say. Is this me being ridiculously unfair? Or maybe this is just my very narrow opinion as an older YA reader. But it is definitely wrong of me to generalise based on a few off experiences.

So here is my pledge. I will now be much more patriotic in my reading habits and will go on a UKYA binge for a bit. I have kicked off by continuing with His Dark Materials trilogy - something I started with Jo's Pullman Week a little while ago. Although I won't be reviewing them because, well, I wouldn't have the foggiest where to start. I've never read anything like them before and probably never will again. There you go, that was a mini review of sorts.

So here's a few title's I'm going to be picking up in the next few months...

Twelve Minutes to MidnightDoing ItThis is Not Forgiveness
I Capture the CastleSugar RushLife: An Exploded Diagram
AdorkableThe Enemy (The Enemy, #1)Naked

There will be more, but I have temporarily misplaced my Kindle and I can't remember what else I have on there. Let's see how I get on...

Friday 2 November 2012

YA REVIEW - 'The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay' - Rebecca Sparrow (UQP, 2006)

Seventeen-year-old Rachel Hill is the girl most likely to succeed. And the girl most likely to have everything under control . . . that is, until her dad invites Nick McGowan, the cutest boy at school, to live with them. Rachel worries that this could only be a recipe for disaster, but her best friend Zoe thinks it’s the perfect opportunity for lurve. Sparks start to fly for all the wrong reasons. Nick finds Rachel spoiled and uptight and Rachel dismisses Nick as lazy and directionless. But a secret from Nick’s past draws them together and makes the year Nick McGowan came to stay one that Rachel will never forget. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

The Year Nick McGowan Came to StayYou may or may not have noticed me mention Rebecca Sparrow before. If you didn't notice, I will offer you the chance to take note again here, but in brief, I picked up her debut novel, The Girl Most Likely from my local library when I was in Brisbane last year, after reading a short piece in the local paper about local Brisbane authors. And I quite fancied doing my bit for the locality. AND I LOVED IT. It made me proper chortle. Lovely, slightly manic Rachel Hill, closer to 30 than to 20 and finding herself back at home after work and relationship disasters give her a bit of a knock. I remember seeing The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay on a few bookshop shelves before we left Brissy, but as I was under pressure to decrease my own book collection at the time, my grabby, cover-caressing hands had to be restrained and I missed my chance to own a copy on Aussie shores.

This is why I had no clue that this book is actually a prequel to The Girl Most Likely. Do you have any idea how happy this made me? It's possible I may have fallen a little bit in love with this book before I'd even read the first sentence. And a big thank you to Maggie from Young Adult Anonymous for drawing my attention to this, gawd love her.

Well, I'm happy to say that my love-at-not-quite-first-sight did not diminish when I started this. In fact, it continued to turn me into a rather giddy, giggly excitable person, which happens to be one of my top 3 reactions to a book. 

It's 1989 and Rachel is 17, focused, ambitious and fond of shoulder pads and Huey Lewis. But also a bit spoilt and self-centred. Actually, quite a lot spoilt and self-centred. This is a good thing, by the way - Rachel leaps straight off the page with her pithy one-liners and stresshead behaviour. I love it when a writer offers up an unapologetic character on a plate so I can really dig my teeth into them. And the famous Nick McGowan manages to get away with being all fit and mysterious without falling into the usual YA boy-being-fit-and-mysterious traps. You don't want to slap him, for starters. He's a great foil for Rachel - dismissive, witty,, mysterious. Trust me, he's not that YA boy. He's lovely. And fit. And mysterious.

Their story develops at a cracking pace, with the aforementioned Nick-centric mystery bubbling away nicely, along with the changing dynamic in their relationship. My only wee criticism on this front deals with what kicks off their whole interaction - I wasn't completely convinced by some of Rachel's actions - ok, she doesn't want him there, but she does care that he thinks she's dripping with cool. But I couldn't quite tally this up with her taking a sudden interest in his career choice. Whatever, I don't care, it kicked off the rest of the story which was flawless. 

I have two favourite things about this book. And I can't decide between the two, so I shall gush about both in equal measure - 

1) THE DIALOGUE. Bloody hell it was brilliant. If I could write dialogue this good, well, I'd be a good  dialogue writer *fails miserably on the writing front there* It was incredibly funny, sharp, convincing, clever...and if you haven't gotten the idea yet, let me show you...

When Rachel tells her best bud, Zoe Budd about Nick's imminent arrival...

'"This is great. You get to have sex with him."
So I hit her with my three-hundred page Web of Life Biology textbook.
"I can't believe you just hit me. I mean, think about it. You can lose your virginity in the comfort of your own home. Think about Lisa Staples, who did it with Gavin Piper out by Trudy Garrison's pool. On twigs and shit. No, this is much better."

2) This isn't a bog standard YA romance. Without giving the ending away, it's about something that is so much more heart-warming and resonant with a teenage audience, in my opinion, anyway. Sometimes I get so sick of all these 16 and 17 year olds declaring their undying love for each other and that this is the happy ending done and dusted, forever and ever, when in reality, this doesn't tend to happen too often. I love it when contemporary stories are about more than romance, about other types of connections and relationships that are formed in teenage years. 

Ok, so I've thought of a third favourite thing about this book - even though it's set in the 80s, the whole nostalgia thing is never rammed down your throat with constant cheesy references. The period isn't central to the story (although I did appreciate the occasional Phil Collins reference) and the interaction between the characters never felt dated or forced. 

So you might have guessed that I enjoyed this one quite a lot. It's been ages since I've finished a book in a day and it's such a great feeling when I do. Ok, it's a short read, maybe a bit too short. Although that might just be me being  a greedy guts, as I tend to be in so many facets of life, but I can't emphasise enough how much this book made me smile, right down to the last page. But that might have also had something to do with the mention of the pub in Brisbane where my now husband took me on our second date.

Ahh, memories... 

(of drunken attempts at playing pool and singing along to Crowded House)