handled with the same combination of sensitivity and heightened emotion - Bird keeps a formidable number of literary plates spinning!
This is a rich, dense read which skilfully employs dramatic tension to absorb the reader wholly into a constantly shifting world of revelation and self-delusion.
VR The Life of a Banana HHH
P.P.Wong, Legend Press, 978-1-910053-21-8, 272pp, £7.99 pbk
A banana, in addition to being a popular fruit, is a Chinese person who is yellow on the outside but white on the inside. Xing Li and her brother Lai Ker fit this description perfectly. Born and raised in London they belong nowhere and when their mother dies and they are sent to live with their fabulously wealthy but vindictive grandmother and dispatched to an exclusive private school in which bullying is rife they feel more alienated than ever, unsure of their place in a world which is openly racist.
Salvation presents itself in the form of an enlightened Head Teacher, who recognises Lai Ker’s potential and saves him from a life of crime and Jay, Xing’s only friend, similarly shunned because of his Jamaican/Chinese origins.
Grandma’s household also consists of her mentally ill son Ho and her actress daughter Mei, herself a victim of racial stereotyping in the unsympathetic film world. When Ho - a tormented recluse - asks for Xing’s help in ending his life, the narrative seems to become rather too heavily freighted with issues: mental illness, bereavement, bullying, first love, racism, identity-a broad sweep for any one narrative to explore, perhaps.
Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see a British-born Chinese novelist making her first entertaining foray into the world of YA fiction and Wong’s Banana Writers initiative, set up to give a voice to new East Asian and South East Asian writers, may well ensure that we see many more. VR
A Little in Love HHHH
Susan Fletcher, Chicken House, 9781909489462, 288pp, £6.99, pbk
Rare the classic novel that is as familiar in adaptation as “Les Misérables”; thanks to the recent film starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, and the internationally successful musical production, seen by some 60 million people over the past thirty years. One of its most moving aspects remains the unrequited love of Éponine for Marius, culminating in her death in his arms, having taken the bullet that was destined for him.
In A Little in Love, Susan Fletcher gives street girl Éponine – ‘the broken heart of Les Misérables’ - voice to tell her life story, from her birth in the year of the Battle of Waterloo to her
death on the barricades of Paris during the anti-monarchist uprising of 1832. And rather beautifully she does it too.
Fletcher takes us back to Éponine’s early childhood in Montfermeil, at the inn run by her unscrupulous parents – the Thenardiers - who thieve from their customers and compel their daughters – Éponine, and her younger sister Azelma – to do the same. Éponine tries hard to be good, caring for her neglected baby brother Gavroche, and being kind to Cosette, the angelically pretty but wretched girl, abandoned by her mother to the mercy of the Thenardiers. But urged on by her mother (‘Then be cruel. Cruel! It’s what will save you!’) Éponine’s benevolence dissolves into hatred.
Eight years later, with Éponine now forced to fend for herself on the streets of Paris – a city of ‘danger and beauty and love’ - she and Cosette meet again. A reformed character, Éponine is desperate to make amends, but the price of Cosette’s forgiveness and friendship is Marius, with whom she is more than ‘a little in love’.
Susan Fletcher brings considerable credentials as an adult novelist to this, her first crossover title, having won the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Betty Trask Prize for her debut, Eve Green. And the result is beguiling. Against all the drama, sound and fury of the epic novel which inspired it, A Little in Love sets quiet but captivating storytelling, driven by the supressed emotions of its downtrodden heroine, as she makes her turbulent journey towards redemption. Fletcher has a notable ability to capture character and atmosphere in a few short phrases, whether it be the stench of Paris (‘It was dung and bones and rotting meat and human muck’) or the virtues of Marius (‘He looks up at cathedrals as he walks past them…He’s kind to an old man in Austerlitz. When he passes a stray dog he always pats it... When he’s very tired, he rubs his knuckles into the corners of his eyes’).
Above all, we feel the ache in Éponine, whether she is wrestling with what use there might be in kindness; craving the love of her hard-as-nails mother (‘I drank up my mother’s kiss like it was water’) or a great romance: (‘To be loved would be better than a coin, or anything’). It is to Fletcher’s great credit that a novel that could feel bleeding heart sentimental – and even surplus to requirements – is both enhancing, and true to the great novel that inspired it.
The Impossible Knife of Memory
Laurie Halse Anderson, Scholastic,978 1407 14766 6, 373pp, £7.99, pbk.
Hayley Rose Kincain is an American girl of seventeen. She has been travelling with her widower father
Andrew, who is a war veteran. Andrew was fighting in Afghanistan and is now suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and from alcoholism. Given the seriousness of his problems the teenage Hayley is very much the carer.
Andrew’s problem with alcohol is also shared by Trish, a woman who cared for Hayley when her mother died. Hayley was then aged seven. Trish accompanied her through many childhood stages, such as learning to ride a bike. At a critical point however Trish departed, leaving Hayley feeling lost and betrayed.
In her final high school year most of Hayley’s marks are disappointing. But her scores in preparation to study calculus are especially abysmal. She needs individual tutoring. A boy, Finn, is chosen as her tutor and turns out to be helpful and amusing – though not much a respecter of rules. He is quite willing to take Hayley to places she is not supposed to visit and to teach her to swim, something he was not requested to do.
The characters – teenage and adult – embark on a voyage of self-discovery. They must learn to realise their own lives in a world riven by tension and must establish viable relationships with each other.
Anderson’s narrative capability makes these characters live and renders
multi-dimensional beings, a substantial feat of creativity. The narrative pace is sustained most of the time but occasionally flags, leaving the reader to make the effort of traversing some testing passages. Variations in pace are needed in an intense story like Hayley’s, but sometimes the breathing space is too long.
The book ends with two characters facing mortal danger, brought together by the common fate they might share. This is a scene (along with others in this book) that seems custom-made for the cinema screen. Producers, please bring out your cheque books.
The Manifesto on How to be Interesting
Holly Bourne, Usborne, 9781409562184, 448pp, £7.99 pb
Bree has spent most of her time at school being the odd one out. She is 17 years old and very clever, not interested in fashion, popular culture and all the things that girls of her age usually are, and as a result she is deemed boring and not part of the ‘in crowd’. When she decides to do something about it, her only friend comes up with the idea of starting to blog about it. Bree also tries to be more interesting by having the same interests as her peer group at school. Gradually she begins to become more popular, but at what cost? There are times when it feels that a small fish is surrounded by a group of sharks. The consequences of Bree’s efforts are shocking but the author manages to provide an ending that
gives everyone hope for the future.
This is a quite stark tale at times and it is definitely not for younger children; the publisher has put a parental advisory notice on the back, so 14+. I felt quite frustrated that a person of Bree’s age can find herself in this kind of situation, where she lacks that street sense that is becoming so important today. The author and the setting are in the UK, which means that there is a familiarity and understanding of the school environment. In a world where we are surrounded by social media, where being popular or a ‘celebrity’ is seen as really important it is good to hear Bree’s words to some of her tormentors: ‘How pointless it is worrying all the time what people think of us?’ Definitely a book with a few lessons to teach us and although it is aimed at a female audience there are many things that teen boys could learn as well. It really makes you think about the world our young people are growing up in.
MP Frozen HH
Melissa de la Cruz & Michael Johnston, Orchard, 978 1 408 33466 9, 368pp, £6.99 pbk
Teenager Nat is marked – a person born with a distinctive birthmark indicating they possess one of several extraordinary powers, generally feared by the populace and shot on discovery by the authorities. Seemingly at the heart of her unpredictable and as yet unknown power is a monstrous voice Nat hears in her mind, which guides her to escaping a shady governmental facility and hiding out in the city of New Vegas.
The city is one of a handful remaining after a flood and subsequent ice-age has choked the polluted planet Earth and forced most humans into a harsh poverty-line existence, but also caused ethereal, magical species to immerge into the world.
The voice compels Nat to get to ‘the Blue’ – a place many have searched for in vain, where the earth is warm and untainted, and which is rumoured to be gateway to the source of the magic into the world. To get there she must traverse the frozen wastelands and deadly seas of this ruined world, which are filled with eerie creatures and people with dark purpose, and learn to trust the handsome mercenary who seems to have his own agenda in helping her.
This is the first book in a new series, The Heart of Dread, and it’s an unusual and intriguing blend of fantasy and sci-fi that is brimming with great imagination – but often to its deficit. There are so many elements for the road-trip story to incorporate that it often feels as if they don’t mesh that well, with uneven progression and gaps of explanation. There is plenty to engage the interest of keen readers of YA dystopia and fantasy, though – from oppressive governments and dragons, to romance and dark backstories – but it’s frustratingly hard to get swept away.
MH Books for Keeps No.208 September 2014 31
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