Friday, 13 May 2016

Another installment of great reading...

Following her last reading marathon reviewer Bridget Carrington has been stoically reading all the books I send her (and believe me my pile is still huge as you will soon see when Summer Armadillo goes live - all the Also Out books are the titles I have been reading)!

So now I bring you Bridget's latest thoughts on some of the latest goodies that have found their way to her ...

I’m writing this just before midday on April Fools’ Day, when anything can happen! Something really good that has happened recently is the way in which teachers try to engage children with reading, despite the shackles with which state education tries to prevent us.
New ways to read books are always fun, and John Fidler, himself a teacher, has come up with a winner. Little Red Riding Hood, The Wolf, Grandma and the Woodcutter from Creative Education Press is an intriguing modern variation on an old idea used by musicians who shared a single score while sitting around a rectangular table. Originally produced in monochrome, but now brought fully to life in simple colours, Fidler’s retelling of the Red Riding Hood traditional tale appears on the page as a central square which cleverly contains a four-part image, each part facing a different side of the square, and illustrating the text which is written along the square’s outer edge. Each side tells the part which Red Riding Hood, the Wolf, Grandma and the Woodcutter plays in the story. This way four readers could sit round the book and each read/play the part of one of the characters, while building up the complete story. It’s a pretty traditional telling though not as gruesome as Perrault’s original, and the illustrations maintain a folky feeling somewhat reminiscent of Eastern European art. This is a beautiful book for all sorts of reasons, and I look forward to seeing more of Fidler’s work.

Although all are about castaways, Olivia Levez’s debut novel The Island, from Oneworld’s YA imprint Rock the Boat, is about as unlike Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins as you could imagine. Frances (Fran to her few friends, and Frannie to her brother, who she calls Monkey) describes herself as ‘cold as rock, hard as stone’, resulting from the traumatic family situation which has resulted in her beloved little brother Johnny being taken into care. Her anger at what she sees as a betrayal by a trusted teacher has resulted in her ending up in court, but instead of a custodial sentence she becomes part of an experiment to place young offenders in a situation where they will work co-operatively to help communities in the developing world. The plane taking Fran and other workers crashes, but she survives and reaches an uninhabited island, where she has no option but to learn how to survive, and eventually discovers that there are at least two other survivors. In the very short unnumbered passages which comprise the novel Fran recounts in turn both her current situation and the events which have brought her to it. While this takes time and patience for the reader to navigate, we gradually see what the drivers were for her anti-social behaviour, and to realise the close and enduring bond which exists between Fran and Johnny, to whom she has been a surrogate mother. At the book’s end we see Fran, a dog and a gravely sick survivor on a makeshift raft, attempting to find civilization and medical help. There’s much to think about underlying the immediate story, and we’re left not knowing how things end. Perhaps Levez will write a sequel? She has practical tips for lone desert island dwellers 

Monica Hesse’s The Girl in the Blue Coat (Macmillan) is a move away from the author’s previous YA sci-fi fiction. Instead her journalist self has painstakingly researched an aspect of the Dutch Resistance movement and while the novel revolves around a Dutch Jewish teenage girl, the result is an interesting alternative to Anne Frank-related books. The Girl in the Blue Coat herself only appears towards the end of the book, and the ‘heroine’ Hanneke is not Jewish, and indeed her Aryan good looks allow her to undertake her Black Market activities under the noses of the occupying German soldiers. When one of her regular Black Market customers asks her to try to find Mirjam, a Jewish girl she was hiding, Hanneke is reluctant. Still unable to come to terms with the death of her boyfriend during the invasion of the Netherlands, and emotionally crippled by her guilt at having encouraged him to join up, Hanneke seems a somewhat remote, aloof and unfeeling character, but as she gradually understands what the student members of the Resistance risk to move Jewish children to safety, and to record everyday life under the Nazis she becomes increasingly, if still reluctantly, determined to find and save Mirjam. There are several twists in the story, with a major one right at the end of the book, but possibly the greatest interest lies in Hesse’s carefully constructed account of life under the regime. While with Anne Frank’s account we learn about life in hiding, through Hanneke’s experience we appreciate the restrictions to ordinary everyday life – school, work, romance, travel – that occupation imposed on those Dutch citizens who were supposedly free to live their lives.

Somehow the Manson murders seem an odd topic for a YA novel, and Alison Umminger’s My Favourite Manson Girl (Atom Books) is an odd book. In this Bildungsroman, fifteen-year-old Anna tells her own story and we learn that she has ‘borrowed’ her step-mother’s credit card to enable her to run away to LA to join Delia, her older sister, a bit-part actress in the movies. Her home life has been disrupted by her mother’s new relationship with Lynette – now her step-mother – and the birth of their child, Birch, and despite her deep love for the new sibling, she cannot cope with the change of home and school. Needing to pay back what she ‘borrowed’ and at a loose end while Delia is filming, Anna accepts a job researching the Manson murders, for a film that Delia’s obsessive ex-boyfriend is planning. While we learn a lot about Anna, about life on the edge of the starry world of movies, and about relationships, both relating to family life and sexuality, we also unpick the reasons behind what drove Charles Manson’s group of adoring girls to commit murder for him. This may still intrigue US readers, but fifty years on from those events it’s unlikely that this part of the story will resonate with many UK YAs. Somehow I feel a potentially good novel about the complexities of growing up has been side-tracked by the Manson element.