Tuesday 7 May 2013

YA REVIEW: 'The Reece Malcolm List' - Amy Spalding (Entangled Teen, 2013)

Devan knows very little about Reece Malcolm, until the day her father dies and she’s shipped off to live with the mother she’s never met. All she has is a list of notebook entries that doesn’t add up to much. L.A. offers a whole new world to Devan—a performing arts school allows her to pursue her passion for show choir and musicals, a new circle of friends helps to draw her out of her shell, and an intriguing boy opens up possibilities for her first love. But then the Reece Malcolm list gets a surprising new entry. Now that Devan is so close to having it all, can she handle the possibility of losing everything? (Synopsis from Goodreads)

The Reece Malcolm ListRecently, when I was supposed to be working, I was in fact half-listening to a radio interview I had on in the background. A film director was talking about his latest project (I can't remember who it was or the film - I did say I was half-listening), but a point he made really caught my attention - he said that in real life our relationships with our friends are never black and white and that people we like often do annoying or bad things but it doesn't stop us being friends with them because everyone is slightly muddled, but that you can't really convey this on film, because things tend to need to have a stronger message. Or something like that. I don't think I necessarily agree with his point, but this kind of describes the thing I loved most about The Reece Malcolm  List - that fact that people aren't perfect and their characters can sometimes be a bit murky and annoying but that's what friendship, and relationships are all about. It's not the main plot of the book, but it's the one that sticks in my mind the most.

I do apologise. That was a very long-winded way of starting a review.

Anyway, this was one of those books that I kept reading until about two in the morning. Which I wasn't expecting in the slightest when I first started it. On the face of it, this has very similar elements to a lot of contemporary YA - death of a parent, trying to fit in with new surroundings, fancying the pants off seemingly unattainable bloke, you know the drill. I was expecting mild diversion rather than a full-on kindle-clutching fest.

But the writing really elevated this - Devan's voice is spot on. I'm always a bit sceptical when I know the main character is a shy and awkward type because so often this veers into annoying and self-pitying territory and I end up shouting 'GROW A PAIR!' at the book. Even though I use to be a shy and awkward teen myself. But I loved Devan - just the right balance of wariness and hidden determination. I was a bit worried about how a self-styled 'fashionista' and belter of show tunes could also be a bit of a mouse, but I guess it's testament to the quality of the writing that I ended up being utterly convinced by her. And the eponymous Reece Malcolm - another triumph of a very guarded woman trying to do her best in an unusual situation.

There were a few irritations, one being the love interest. He was alright, I suppose. And I'm always a fan of the expectation of the kissing, and there was a lot of that here. But he was just a bit too needy and whiny for my liking. And this brings me onto another conundrum - I'm never sure quite how much I like an author to describe a character's appearance, because I ended up getting a bit confused with this one - he's described by someone as like Disney's Aladdin - all good, but in my imagination, I had to tone down the hair somewhat. But then someone else says he has big hair. And now I'm all confused again. And then he's unexpectedly toned, but I had him pegged as lean because a T-shirt 'hangs on him like the shirt had fulfilled its sole mission in life.' In the end, I couldn't get the image of a tall but overly-muscle bound bouffanted boy out of my head. CONFUSION. Some things are best left to imagination.

But like I said before, for me, this was all about the realistic depiction of friendship and how much it means to teenagers. Muddled relationships are the way forward! 

Sunday 5 May 2013

YA REVIEW: 'In Darkness' - Nick Lake (Bloomsbury, 2012)

In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake a boy is trapped beneath the rubble of a ruined hospital: thirsty, terrified and alone. 'Shorty' is a child of the slums, a teenage boy who has seen enough violence to last a lifetime, and who has been inexorably drawn into the world of the gangsters who rule Site Soleil: men who dole out money with one hand and death with the other. But Shorty has a secret: a flame of revenge that blazes inside him and a burning wish to find the twin sister he lost five years ago. And he is marked. Marked in a way that links him with Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian rebel who two-hundred years ago led the slave revolt and faced down Napoleon to force the French out of Haiti. As he grows weaker, Shorty relives the journey that took him to the hospital, a bullet wound in his arm. In his visions and memories he hopes to find the strength to survive, and perhaps then Toussaint can find a way to be free ... (Synopsis from Goodreads)

In DarknessSometimes it's the books that are the most difficult to catagorise or pigeon-hole that are the ones worth seeking out. I wouldn't describe this as either contemporary YA or historical YA, yet it contains elements of both and manages to fuse them to make something quite unique. It annoys me when people sometimes describe UKYA as 'gritty', maybe because what is perhaps intended to come across as edginess only ends up sounding forced and might as well have  LET'S TALK ABOUT ALL THE ISSUES plastered across the cover. But not only could this be described as 'gritty' (I wouldn't use that word personally), but reading it almost felt like I was picking bits of the grit from open wounds. This is a good thing, by the way. 

I'm struggling to think of a YA book I've read that's come close to this in terms of unflinching power. Emotion, yes, but it's the combination of subject matter and the unapologetic way it conveys it that's pretty damn amazing. Put it this way, anyone who thinks of young adult fiction as 'fluffy' needs to read this - it's about as fluffy as heavy-duty sandpaper.  And the prose is just so skilled - switching between the two completely different voices of Shorty and Toussaint and remaining utterly convincing with both, for example. Sometimes, when I'm reading a book, I think along the lines 'oh, that's fantastic writing, I can see what they did there' which is great, but the whole point of fantastic writing is, in my opinion, for it to completely submerge me in a book so I shouldn't even notice these things. And, for the most part, this book did just that...eventually...

Which brings me to the downside of picking up such a powerful read, and I think this probably is more a criticism of my reading habits than the book itself. I've talked about this in previous posts - my concentration when it comes to reading isn't quite what it was and it's very rare that I actually get the opportunity to sit down and lose myself in a story. I think this book requires that of the reader to fully appreciate it. I kept having to dip in and out and as a consequence, the impact was a bit lost. It was only when I was getting to the last third that it really took its hold.

Like I said before, I think he really nailed the two voices of Shorty and Toussaint perfectly, but for me, sometimes the switching back and forth slowed down the action, especially in Shorty's tale. As much as I loved the story behind Haiti's independence, it was Shorty's struggle in the aftermath of the earthquake and the recounting of the loss of his innocence that had the real emotional pull for me.

So if you're thinking about reading this one, set aside a few hours without interruption and let these words consume from the inside out. That's much more appealing than it sounds.

Oh, and tissues. Don't forget tissues. You will need them. Plenty of tears and snot. Nice.