April 13, 2015

It's Pretty, But Is It Art? (Review: I'll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson)

I’ll Give You The Sun
Jandy Nelson
Walker 2015

Noah and Jude are twins, linked in that ineffable way that twins so often seem to be.  Inseparable for their childhood, things start to change as they get older and I’ll Give You The Sun tells their story from two points in time and alternating perspectives: Noah at thirteen and Jude at sixteen.  Hugely talented artists, we see them as they compete and negotiate, taking nothing off the table – not the moons, the ocean, the stars… not even their mother.  As we read their wildly different realities it quickly becomes clear that they are telling their story from opposing sides of a terrible tragedy and that, for all their trading of the world and everything in it, there is far more at stake than the sun.

Noah’s narrative voice is strikingly resonant and entirely unique.  An artist, his world is a painting made real, a kaleidoscopic whirlwind from the palette of a mad painter, swirled through with emotion and confusion, ambition and longing.  Struggling with worn down truths and surprising new edges, not least the boy next door who gives him whole new universes, Noah longs for his sister even as she drifts from his reach.  He is a character that is extraordinarily alive and his battle with himself is shot through with moments of sheer joy that will lift reader’s hearts even as his world darkens.

Seemingly the less talented twin Jude, in the three years between Noah’s narration and hers, has changed from the punchy, adventure seeking, rebellious sister that Noah watched with such awe and dread.  Instead, she lives in a world that has been muted and drained of colour.  Everything she touches seems to crumble and she seems haunted by what might be an angry ghost or what might be her own suffocating conscience. She’s a sculptor, encased in her own stone prison, endlessly reaching for a brother she no longer recognises nor is sure she deserves. Her grief and wearisome guilt is tangible on every page yet so is her latent passion and she’s a fascinating character to get to know.

In fact, I’ll Give You The Sun is filled with fascinating characters, all of whom are beautifully drawn by Nelson’s unique hand.  Interweaving the story of Noah and Jude is a father who comes into focus differently depending on whose eyes view him; an erratic, all-consuming mother; a dead, yet surprisingly vocal grandmother; a boy with a face like a cracked mirror and a bowler pitching meteorites.  All are compelling although if there is one weakness in the book it is the twins’ father, who is seen so differently by each of his children that he never entirely comes into focus for the reader.

The writing, as with Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere, is exceptional.  Weird and truly wonderful, her prose lifts from each page and is vivid, visceral and lush, allowing the reader to transcend the basic plot and envelop themselves in a world that is a splurge of winding words and heavy metaphor. It shouldn’t work, particularly the level to which that heavy metaphor is used in each and every sentence, but it does.  Magical, yet real, readers will find themselves entranced by this imagining of traded suns and grandmother’s who float by propelled only by magenta parasols.

While Nelson, as with her debut, riffs on sex, death, life, love, lust and identity – and does so with thought-provoking aplomb – what I’ll Give You The Sun is really about is the intangible relationship between twins: the endless push and pull, ebb and flow of two distinct hearts wrestling for ownership of a shared soul.  It is fascinating, different and brilliant.  For lovers of the gorgeous madness of Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle and the billowing prose of E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars this is surely a must read.  For everyone else, if you love words and those who use them beautifully, this is your book of the year. Highly recommended.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird who spent her morning stroll along the beach searching for red sea glass and sand dollars, so thanks for that Jandy Nelson.  You can read her equally glowing review of The Sky Is Everywhere here. I'll Give You The Sun is available now. Thank you to Walker Books for providing us with a copy of this title to review.

March 26, 2015

Secrets and Lies (Review: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher)

Thirteen Reasons Why
Jay Asher
Razorbill 2007

Slightly late on the uptake - story of my life - but I have been looking forward to this for a while now. Goodreads reviews are hugely mixed and there has been a fair bit of controversy banded around.  So is the fuss justified we rightly ask?

Clay arrives home from school to a package on his doorstep.  The package has no sender or return address and contains 7 cassette tapes explaining the 13 reasons why Hannah Baker, Clay's schoolmate and object of his affections, chose to end her life.  The tapes are being sent on a "round robin" to each of the people involved in the reasons for Hannah's decision, meaning that Clay knows almost from the opening of the book that he has, in some way, contributed to the suicide of a friend. And the vast majority of this book is simply the reader listening in real time as Clay hears these tapes for the first time.

And I loved this.  The reader is given next to no context to this story - we know very little of Clay and all we know of Hannah is really what she chooses to divulge from her own perspective.  The reader is essentially a voyeur to one night that changes Clay's life, after which we are left to draw our own conclusions as to how he has been affected by what he has learned.  So what has he learned? What could a teenage girl believably have thought of as justification to take her own life?  Well, as you may have expected from a teenage girl and to avoid any specific spoilers, a lot to do with friends, or the lack of, boys and the way she is perceived by others.  At the time of reading each "tape", I remember clearly thinking that a fair few of the 13 reasons when considered in isolation were ridiculous.  But considering, as Hannah calls it, "the snowball effect", suddenly I was completely invested and convinced of the downward spiral of this poor girl.  Factor in the helplessness of Clay who is hearing Hannah's reasoning for the first, and voice for the last, time, the effect is pretty unique and utterly entrancing.

And so to one of the more controversial discussions points, the elephant in the room.  There are bloggers, publishers, parents and others who believe, in some cases very loudly, that Thirteen Reasons Why glorifies suicide.  I disagree.  Whist I can see that Hannah being our narrator, and a very eloquent one at that, along with the odd manic-pixie-dreamgirl trait would have some people think she is exuding control from the great beyond, I don't think this is a glorification of her choice. Hannah had a story to tell that, for many reasons, she didn't have the opportunity to tell in life and so chose to tell it afterwards.  As she says herself, the tapes are not about revenge, she has forgiven almost all who are mentioned in them, they are about the chance to be heard and it is so important for us to remember that that is the one thing so many in similar circumstances do not feel they have.  To suggest that anyone, even a fictitious character, does not have the right to share their story with the world after taking a decision which was theirs and no one elses, I can't help but think would send a dangerous message, a message that would read, "You made the choice so your story doesn't matter".

For me, Thirteen Reasons Why isn't primarily a book about suicide.  It's a story of grief and acceptance and acknowledgement, the acknowledgement that our actions, however small, directly affect all of those around us and we must use them wisely.  But, mild controversy aside, a really strong read.  I enjoyed it greatly.  It's accessible without being simple and thought-provoking without being preachy (which I am aware I have more than made up for with this review).  Proof that a small leading cast of really well written characters along with some fantastic scene setting gets you far. Good work Mr A, looking forward to reading your other offerings soon.    

This review was brought to you by Polka-Dot Steph.  Who is worried that she's been a bit ranty.  But we believe it's an articulate and interesting rant. So, er, there.


March 24, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Childhood/Teen Books that I'd like to Revisit.

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme run by The Broke and The Bookish.  It involves lists of, well, top tens. We like lists.  This week's Top Ten on the Mountains of Instead is brought to you by Splendibird.

The problem with loving to read is that there are so many, many books in the world and so very little actual time in which to read them.  This means that while I most certainly am a re-reader, I don't often get the opportunity to revisit the books that I would like to, including those that I re-read repeatedly as a child and teenager.  This was by far the easiest top ten I've taken part in yet because these books lurk constantly, tempting me to turn away from the endless TBR pile and towards the past.

Gone Away Lake by Elizabeth Enwright

This was a book that I read a lot at about the age of eight. Until recently I couldn't remember what it was called but managed to track down the title with the help of the brilliant site What's That Book  When I think of this book I have images of butterflies over a swamp, a rock inlaid with garnets and a hot and dreamlike summer filled with all the very best kind of things.  I remember it so fondly that I am almost scared to return to it and ruin the memories I have of a halcyon read.

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

I've always been a sucker for time travel, for which I blame Doctor Who and also for boarding school stories for which I blame the Chalet School series.  However, perhaps I should be laying the blame elsewhere as Charlotte Sometimes, a much beloved read of my childhood, contains both. When Charlotte heads off to boarding school she inadvertently heads off to the past at the same time where she appears to be an entirely different person. If you haven't read it, this is all you need to know.  Head off and get a copy now.  Really.  Off you go.

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

This is cheating as I actually revisit this one all the time.  I have always loved the story - it is absolutely my favourite fairytale.  However, it is the specific edition that I had as a child that I particularly love, entirely due to the absolutely stunning and frighteningly magical illustration by Errol le Cain.  Google them, they're beautiful.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Because who doesn't want to have a boat and no parental supervision and an island and pirates and general shenanigans.  I mean, seriously.

Remember Me by Christopher Pike

When I was a teen, there wasn't much in the way of Young Adult literature and what there was, from my hazy memories,  revolved largely around the Point Horror stable of horror-lite, Caroline B. Cooney and Christopher Pike - all of whom I adored.  Remember Me was my very favourite Pike book (although Weekend gave it a decent run for its money) what with the dead girl and the MURDER and the twist.  I'd like to see how it stands up to the YA titles of today.

The Dark Half by Stephen King

In lieu of a large YA section in my library, I floated (like so many teens in the '90's) towards Stephen King.  While I don't think The Dark Half was the first King title that I read it was absolutely the one that captured my imagination the most and I've been meaning to re-read it for years.  The idea of a fictional character becoming an enraged reality still fascinates me and, to this day, I happily admit to getting creeped out by sparrows.  Especially if they are flying.  Again.

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico

I have only very vague recollections of this story but what I have are enchanting and also sad.  I remember feeling utterly transported as it was read to me, possibly because it was one of the very last books read aloud to me before I insisted on reading to myself.  I'd like to see how it would make me feel now.

The Chronicles of Pantouflia by Andrew Lang

I could actually revisit this right now, as I bought it recently for my daughter.  It's a wonderful selection of stories that includes seven league boots and a princess who attracts bees because she wears flowers in her hair and many other wonders.  Also, I loved that cover as a small girl - I can remember just gazing at it because I thought it was so beautiful.  I might read this tonight, actually. I have no doubt that it will be just as good as it was thirty years ago.