“Wonder” by R. J. Palacio (2012)

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“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.”

Many of us don’t even realise how privileged we are. We have money, security, health, and we only notice we’ve got it once it’s gone. Books have that amazing ability to transport us into someone else’s way of life and see how things might be different for others. I’m not even talking about fighting dragons or hurtling through space this time, just simple things about people who are just like you and me, but society treats very differently.

Wonder introduces us to August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy who has Treacher Collins syndrome, which has caused his life thus far to be one of homeschooling, endless operations, and constant stares and whispers from people on the street when they see him for the first time. His unusual appearance has completely changed how he sees the world, and he prefers to hide under an astronaut’s helmet than endure the looks he gets.

His parents, however, have decided that it’s time for him to go to middle school, and he is introduced to the kind Mr Tushman and three students who have been selected for being particularly kind, and gets a tour of the school from them. But once he starts, it’s clear that perhaps those students weren’t the best start and after a rocky few days, August begins to wonder if he should just give up and drop out, as it seems that no one can see past his face. Or at least, almost no one…

I thought I was going to end up coming here today to write this and complain, as ever, about the child narrator. The book actually is in several parts, with most of them being narrated by August, but other characters also step forward and give their versions of the events. My usual complaint – the children talk like adults – stands, but for one, it really doesn’t seem to matter. There is something a lot more important going on here. Palacio says that she was inspired to write the book after a real-life incident involving a young girl with TCS. She was stood next to the girl and, convinced her children were about to say something embarrassing, she hurried off, thus making the whole situation worse. This incident appears within the book, too.

Many people may not think anymore about an incident like this, but Palacio obviously couldn’t let it lie. She thought long and hard about what it must be like to be stared at constantly, for something you have no control over and have people unable to look past. While the book naturally deals a lot with the idea that you shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance, it’s also keen to consistently point out that kindness is perhaps the most important trait someone can have. As Mr Tushman quotes later in the book from J M Barrie, “try to be a little kinder than is necessary”. All sorts of kindnesses are shown within the text, from the children who do look beyond August’s appearance and find a funny, charming and clever boy beneath, to the story of how Mr Pullman rescued their dog, and Miranda’s act of sacrifice to save an old friendship.

Children are shown here, as is so true in real life, to be far more honest than adults, although that honesty isn’t necessarily always welcome. Children can get used to anything though, and it really is older people who struggle with change and the unfamiliar. Just look at the amount of basement-dwelling nerds who have nothing better to do on the weekend than complain about why Doctor Who isn’t as good as it once was, or feel the need to irrationally argue on Twitter with anyone who espouses a different worldview.

As August says, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.” If R. J. Palacio doesn’t deserve one for this gorgeous book, then I don’t know what she has to do to get one.

“The Rest Of Us Just Live Here” by Patrick Ness (2015)

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We can't all be the Chosen One.

We can’t all be the Chosen One.

“On the day we’re the last people to see indie kid Finn alive, we’re all sprawled together in the Field, talking about love and stomachs.”

Every good story needs a hero. The Buffy Summers, Harry Potter or Darren Shan of the piece who has to save the world (and often just the school) from imminent destruction from the Villain of the Week. But there are only so many zombies, ghosts or dark lords to defeat, so not everyone gets to do it. This is a story about those who aren’t chosen. These are the characters who, rather than wanting to save the world, just want to make it to graduation without the school blowing up or any of their friends being used for a sacrificial ritual. After all, what was Hogwarts like if you actually attended all your lessons and never had to smuggle dragons out the castle or do battle with giant snakes?

Our narrator is Mikey, a high school senior with OCD who is struggling with growing up, the friendships that may be about to end, and his unrequited feelings for his friend Henna. Along with his sister Mel, a recovering anorexic, and his best friend Jared, who happens to be a quarter God, he’s counting down the days until the school year ends and he has to leave his pathetic little town in the middle of nowhere.

He has problems, but they’re mostly ordinary. Jared is keeping a secret from him, Henna seems to have developed a crush on the new boy Nathan, Mikey’s mother’s political ambitions are perhaps getting in the way of letting them have a united family, and to cap it all, Mikey’s OCD is getting worse again. Still, at least he’s not one of the indie kids. They’re the kids who keep getting involved in the strange events around town. Years ago it was zombies, or vampires, but this time the town is at risk from Immortals who glow with a blue light and are killing anyone in their way. But that’s not Mikey’s story – he just hopes no one blows up the school before he can get his diploma.

This is such a cool concept for a story. Yes, there is a massive threat to the town, and possibly the world, but this time we’re not going to be part of it. Every chapter opens with a brief summary of, basically, what we would see in that chapter if we were following the hero indie kids, but then will cut to a very ordinary event with Mikey and his friends. They sometimes brush up against the fantasy story, but they’re not directly connected. This adds so much to the world of fiction, and brings home again the notion that we are all the heroes in our own stories, but every single one of those stories are connected. Some people have to save the world, and some just have to survive the consequences.

Both heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure, the story details much about the nature of family and friends, especially the family we construct from our friends and how that’s different for everyone. Patrick Ness writes with such warmth and sweetness that you can’t help feel for Mikey, Mel, Jared, Meredith, Henna, and the rest of them with their struggles. Jared is particularly interesting, as I love the idea of someone who just “happens to be a God”, but he doesn’t really let it affect him when he can help it.

A wonderful, funny and sweet novel about growing up, feeling unloved, struggling to move on, and why sometimes it’s best not to be at the heart of the action.

“Jude In London” by Julian Gough (2011)

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jude“I left the iceberg behind me and swam toward England.”

My knowledge of Irish literature is scant. When I visited the Writer’s Museum in Dublin last year, I found myself facing the facts that I haven’t read much that’s come out of the country, mostly because I immediately think of James Joyce and the bits of Ulysses I read at university, which sends that part of my brain scurrying away beneath a desk and hoping no one mentions Finnegan’s Wake. I’ll probably get around to some of the less terrifying ones in time. I bring this up because the hero of today’s novel, Jude, is an Irishman, and there’s some suggestion that this book is an updated version of Tristram Shandy, but I’ll have to take the word of other reviewers for that.

The book opens with Jude clinging to an iceberg in the Irish Sea, floating towards Great Britain where he hopes to find the woman he thinks he’s fallen in love with, Angela. It’s worth noting this early on that this book is actually a sequel, so I assume the first book gives detail as to how he’s got into this situation. However, the book does nicely open with a recap on what we’ve missed, including the details that after an accident, Jude has had reconstructive surgery so that he looks exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio, except he has a fully functioning penis as a nose. Oh yes, it’s that sort of book.

Anyway, Jude washes up on the shores of England (or Wales) and then begins his journey to London to find Angela. But things aren’t as simple as just tracking down the love of his life. Along the way he saves the universe, stars in a porn film, chases a monkey, gets mistaken for an artist, kills the Poet Laureate, and comes close to finding out who abandoned him in an Orphanage eighteen years ago. He also finds himself in conversations about Irish literature, comparing them to famous superheroes, and a lengthy but brilliant explanation of the credit crunch using goats.

The plot itself is thin, but that’s not why anyone’s here. We’re here for the sheer strangeness of the novel. It’s well written, and you find yourself pressing on because you can’t imagine where on earth it’s going to go next. I don’t think Gough himself knows. While Jude’s situations are, frankly, unbelievable, you can’t really stop yourself from reading them. It’s sharply satirical – there’s probably a lot about Irish culture that I don’t get – and delights in messing around with surreal jokes, curious construction, and general piss-taking. I particularly enjoyed seeing him arrive early at the Tate Modern and decide to tidy up, which includes making a messy, unmade bed, and cleaning out an enormous fish tank with a dead shark in it, with a long piss in a handy urinal afterwards.

If you like a book you can understand, give this one a miss. If you like something rambling, funny and strange, then there are few books that fit the bill better. Odd, but satisfying.

“The Beginning Of Everything” by Robyn Schneider (2013)

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beginning“Sometimes I think that everyone has a tragedy waiting for them, that the people buying milk in their pajamas or picking their noses at stoplights could be only moments away from disaster.”

When I was in my third year of university, a strange thing occured. My reading list, which up until that point and Dickens aside hadn’t been too bad, contained a title that as far as I was concerned had no place on such a list. It was that well-known dung heap, The Da Vinci Code. This isn’t like a subjective hate either – it’s universally considered a bad book, and this was 2008 when the stench of it and the film were still fairly strong. My professor, however, ensured me that all would become clear in the following lecture and I should just read the damn thing. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) I had read the book years back just to see what all the fuss was about and so wasn’t about to waste my week doing it again. I skimmed reviews and Wikipedia and then, indeed, the idea was very clear in the next lecture: this was a lecture about how not to write fiction.

I’ve since then been intrigued by the idea of finishing up bad books simply as a study in how not to write. I happen to have rather a good knack for choosing books that I do go on to enjoy, but occasionally one or two slip through the net, including Witch & Wizard, Don’t Read This Book If You’re Stupid, Humanzee and Sick Building, to name a few. From each, I have learnt more than I could’ve done had I read an essay on how to write. I’m not by any means claiming that I am a good writer – my novel is never going to be a bestseller – but I read enough to know when something is really badly written. All of this will now be leading you to thinking that the book in question here joins this list. And you’re absolutely right.

The Beginning Of Everything starts out vaguely promising, but quickly goes downhill. The main character, Ezra Faulkner, describes how everyone gets a tragedy, and in the case of his best friend Toby, it’s when he was on a rollercoaster and caught the head of a tourist in front of him who got decapitated by standing up on the ride. Ezra meanwhile has a tragedy all of his own – his girlfriend cheated on him. Granted, he then stormed from a party, had a car accident and his leg will never heal so he’ll never be able to play tennis again. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, none of his friends will talk to him anymore! Luckily, when he gets back to school, finding himself the unwanted centre of attention due to his accident, his old friend Toby (who he’s ignored for the last four years) decides to befriend him again.

Meanwhile, there’s a new girl at school, the wacky and kooky Cassidy Thorpe, and the two of them have been signed up to the debate team with Toby and all his misfit, madcap friends. Ezra finds himself attracted to Cassidy and her goofy ways and soon memories of his air-headed ex Charlotte are a thing of the past. But Cassidy is hiding a secret, and perhaps she’s not the manic pixie dream girl that he hopes she is after all…

I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed.

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

Formulaic to a fault, this reads like John Green has started giving lessons on how to write obnoxious, pompous white teen male protagonists, or else is writing under a pen name himself. Ezra (because these characters are never called Dave) is fundamentally unpleasant, stumbling over himself to tell the reader that he didn’t mean to be so popular, or that he didn’t ask to live in a six-bedroom house with swimming pool, and that it isn’t his fault that he doesn’t really study but is just naturally so gifted. So he’s got a busted leg, big whoop. Cassidy, in turn, is everything a manic pixie dream girl should be – full of stories about her adventures abroad, has a disregard for school dress codes that would get any student but her suspended, and a penchant for fun childish adventures while avoiding talking about her deep, dark secret.

The characterisation is all off, too, and I’ve got page numbers to prove it. Ezra is painted as early as page 69 as an “illiterate jock” and yet this goes out the window just nine pages later when he discusses themes in Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez, a book he read for extra credit. On page 108 he finds himself in a university level organic chemistry class (don’t ask) and finds he’s an expert on the subject and just totally gets it. On page 276 he mentions and defines the German word kummerspeck, despite implying earlier he had no knowledge of even basic German. On 289, it’s noted that he understands the Latin term memento mori well enough to make a “joke” about it. And every other chapter gets a mention of The Great sodding Gatsby thrown in, given that it’s the only book most American high schoolers seem to have read.

I’m not even going to attempt to define the humour, but there are a lot of paragraphs where the characters get into hysterics or simply crack up at a comment one of them has made, but it’s an informed humour. I don’t see it. Schneider also appears to have them slightly out of time. If they’re sixteen, presumably they were born in the mid-to-late nineties but still have a moment where they pine for a life before mobile phones, which is a time even I barely remember, and I’m a good decade older than them.

There’s also the unforgivably bland and immature-sounding line, “and she bit my bottom lip a bit as we kissed, and I pretty much wanted to die, it was so sexy.” I read it deadpan and the action has never sounded quite so unsexy. These books do nothing but give teenagers an unrealistic picture of the world. It’s enough to give anyone a complex.

Granted, I will throw in a positive or two. Cassidy shoots Ezra down by the end and calls him out on treating her like a manic pixie dream girl (but even that’s not novel anymore) and the treatment of a student’s evolving sexuality is handled rather nicely, but otherwise, you can predict pretty much every page before you get to it, and call me old-fashioned, but I still like to be surprised by my literature every now and again.

If everyone does indeed get a tragedy, then this book may well have been mine.

“Lolito” by Ben Brooks (2013)

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lolito

I haven’t read “Lolita”, so don’t expect any comparasions…

“We’re fifteen and drinking warm cider under the cathedral grounds’ pine trees.”

Ben Brooks is my sworn enemy, although I don’t believe he’s aware of the fact. He was born four years after me, has had six books published, and the only thing that keeps me from giving up now and drowning my tears in a bottle of house wine is that we write in different genres and in a very different language.

I read another of his books a few years ago, Grow Up, and once I’d become less bitter, I actually rather enjoyed it, despite the strangeness of it. I thought I’d try again, and here I am with Lolito.

This is the story of fifteen-year-old Etgar Allison. He has just discovered that his girlfriend of three years, Alice, has “sort of” cheated on him. When punching the other guy involved doesn’t solve anything, Etgar locks himself away, drinking heavily and calling Alice to call her a walrus. Bored, he stumbles into adult chatrooms where he meets Macy, a similarly bored older woman in need of a little comfort. He pretends to be a twenty-something mortgage broker and the two are soon engaging in cybersex.

Macy then announces that she’s going to be in London soon, so Etgar books a hotel to go and meet her. His actions are not those of a smart person, and indeed, I suppose, neither are hers, but they meet and things soon go down the path you would expect them to. But the consequences are dire, and no matter how either of them tries to justify what’s happened, they’ve definitely broken the law…

To be honest, the relationship, such as it is, between Macy and Etgar is probably the bit of the story that is easiest to believe. I suppose that some of my disregard for it comes from the fact that I was a late bloomer and have never been a rebellious soul. These characters are, almost without exception, vile and disgusting. Etgar watches gore videos online with Alice and drinks so much that, were he real, he would almost certainly end up with his stomach pumped. This also appears to be a world in which no one ever gets asked for ID when buying alcohol. The kids – and they are indeed kids – are all fucking each other with such abandon that it shouldn’t be a surprise later on when one of the characters (at fourteen) has just had her second abortion, but it is. They’re busy pretending to be grown up, all doing drugs and drinking from the age of twelve upwards, but the language with which they speak is ultimately juvenile. In fact, the most sympathetic character is probably Macy, and even she’s less than pleasant.

And yet, despite my annoyance at Etgar and the others, there is definitely something about this book, much like the last one of Brooks’ I read. I’ve no idea what it is, but there is something intangible that just lingers out of reach, but makes you want to carry on and find out what happens. At one point I thought it was a sweetness, but that quickly dissolved. Maybe I’m too old, and maybe this is what “the kids” are doing these days, but how many fourteen-year-old girls really know what a golden shower is, much less want to perform one?

I cannot explain this book adequately. I liked it, but the reasons are lost to me. It’s ridiculous, disgusting and runs very close to the bone, and yet there’s a heart in here.  The characters seem cartoonish, sure, but something about them draws you in, regardless. The book is worth a read (although it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart or those of a sensitive disposition – it is, after all, about paedophilia above anything else) and maybe you’ll find something in it and be able to explain to me what it is.

In the reviews on the inside flap, a Tim Key describes Brooks as “a frightening young talent”. I have to agree – he’s talented, but my god if he isn’t horrifying.

“The Knife Of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness (2008)

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It ain't for butter spreading.

It ain’t for butter spreading.

“The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.”

The excitement in her voice was palpable as she almost threw the book at me saying, “You will love it! Honestly, you’ll be asking me to lend you the sequels without a doubt!”

“But what’s it about?” I asked.

“Just read it,” she said.

I am, naturally, talking about one of my friends – in this instance, the psychologist – who has given me a copy of The Knife of Never Letting Go. I don’t know it, have never heard of it, but the opening line is known to me. I don’t know why, or from what situation, but I have heard that line before. I’m always wary when people are so keen on a book, if only because I don’t want to hurt their feelings when I’m unimpressed by it. But, in this case, she was absolutely right.

This is the story of Todd Hewitt, who is the last boy in Prentisstown. All boys become men on their thirteenth birthdays, and Todd is still a month away from his. None of the men want to talk to him anymore, so he is left with his dog Manchee, a dog he never wanted, and his two sort-of-fathers, Ben and Cillian. Prentisstown, however, is not your average town. Firstly, there are no women. Secondly, everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts. They call it the Noise, and it means there is no privacy or secrets anywhere, as anything you think can immediately be read by everyone else. And it’s not just the humans – you can hear the thoughts of the animals too.

But then, quite without warning or preparation, Todd stumbles upon a pocket of complete silence – something that cannot and should not exist, and yet does. When he returns to the farm and Ben reads in his Noise what he has found, everything begins to change, and Todd and Manchee are forced out on the run when the Mayor comes knocking and demanding Todd be handed over to him.

I wish I could tell you more of the story here and, while I can, I think it would be unfair to do so. There are so many surprises along the way and it wouldn’t be right of me to remove the joy of experiencing them from you first hand. As such, this review is going to be rather vague.

First things first, quite simply, this novel is incredible. It clocks in at almost five hundred pages, but it’s so gripping and fast-paced that you barely notice. Todd is a young narrator who doesn’t make me want to commit infanticide. He’s naive for his age, but it is merely a product of his very sheltered upbringing. The primary villain, Aaron, is a masterful creation of what happens to men when they become monsters, driven by madness and their own agenda.

The book doesn’t shy away from graphic violence and showing the effects of it. The bigger themes are those of doing what is right and what is easy, about how information overload can do dangerous things to you (it was this theme that made Ness choose to write the book for teenagers), and also how the choices we make impact the sort of man or woman we grow up to be. There are some dreadfully sad moments (this is not a funny book) and some passages are a little dry, but on the whole the action and exposition are so neatly entwined that I can’t complain about it. I’m particularly fond of the representation of the Noise which, when in Prentisstown, is displayed as dozens upon dozens of overlapping lines of speech in various handwriting, showing the reader how overwhelming the situation must be.

The ending … well, it totally rests on a cliffhanger that sets you up for the next book. I will be continuing this series in 2014, so watch this space!

15/01/2014 EDIT: My review of the second book in the series is available here.

“The Universe Versus Alex Woods” by Gavin Extence (2013)

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Alex Woods

Hardly a fair fight.

“They finally stopped me at Dover as I was trying to get back into the country.”

It’s been a while since my last post but I assure you all that I have not been slacking. I’ve actually read three books in that time (although I’m only reviewing one of them), have been doing my own writing, working and attending a good friend’s wedding. But I’m back here now, happy to say that the universe has not been against me. Alex Woods cannot say the same.

Alex Woods is seventeen-years-old but he is anything but normal. Everyone in the country (and maybe the world) knows his name because he is one of only two people in all of history to have been hit by a meteorite. It shot down through the atmosphere when he was ten years old, smashing through the roof of his house and knocking him on the head, putting him into a two-week coma. Later, side effects such as epilepsy developed and he spent much of his time at home, studying astronomy and science.

He returns to school but is the victim of bullies, who – like so many bullies – are unable to understand the joy of learning and want to pick on Alex just because he’s a bit different. (There’s actually a brilliantly observed piece in here about how that is the only rule that exists in school politics: “Don’t be different”. It’s absurdly true.) On one of these occasions, Alex is chased into the garden of Isaac Peterson, an old and irritable widower. Blamed for the destruction of Mr Peterson’s greenhouse, Alex’s mother (a new age, tarot-reading clairvoyant) insists that he will do chores for the old man until his debt is repaid.

Mr Peterson opens up Alex to a new world by teaching him about Amnesty International, human rights, and the works of Kurt Vonnegut, who quickly becomes Alex’s favourite author. Their friendship begins to bloom and Alex starts finding ways to help Mr Peterson and bring him out of his shell. And just when everything seems to be going swimmingly, their lives come crashing down around them. Mr Peterson has a progressive disease that is affecting his mobility, eyesight and ability to speak. In a matter of years, maybe months, he will be unable to look after himself at all. Certain that this is not how he wants to end his life, he and Alex make a decision – they’re going to Switzerland so that Mr Peterson can die.

This quotes and reviews on the book cover promise a hilarious novel, but in that respect it certainly doesn’t deliver. There are moments of light-heartedness, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not laugh out loud funny. It’s very moving, and very heartfelt, that cannot be denied, and that is how I’m going to approach this.

The book touches on lots of big topics – particle physics, Kurt Vonnegut, astrology and astronomy – but primarily the discussion here is about death and, more specificially, assisted suicide. Alex assures us that it is Mr Peterson’s human right to decide that he wants to end his life so he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong in helping him make his plan come to fruition. I happen to agree, as it goes, and I fully support euthanasia and assisted suicide as options. It’s about quality of life, basically, and is it not potentially better to be dead than trapped in your own body, unable to move but in agonising pain. That seems cruel, to me. We wouldn’t let a dog live that way.

But I’m getting off topic.

The book is quite sweet, and there are some delightful moments within. Alex is a strange mixture of innocent and intelligent, having knowledge in the wrong areas, but he is great in that he sticks to his guns, does what he thinks is right, and knows that as long as he can justify what he’s doing, then it must be done. He is unwavering in his support for Mr Peterson’s decision, and it is a phenomenally brave thing he does to help him go through with it. While I feel he’d not be someone I’d particularly want to meet as I imagine him to be somewhat insufferable, I will nonetheless raise a drink to him.

The characterisation is a bit haphazard elsewhere. Alex’s mother seems a delight, a hard-working single parent who respects her son and isn’t about to stand in his way. Ellie sort of appears from nowhere as Alex’s friend, asking for a job in his mother’s shop. She then sort of pops up now and again for the rest of the novel, but we don’t see a huge amount of interaction. Mr Peterson himself is a very interesting character too, with a sense of purpose and a deep love of reading and culture, that has possibly been somewhat diminished since the death of his wife.

The action takes place over about six years, and obviously you can’t narrate every single day of that, but it does seem that we miss out on quite a lot. How Mr Peterson came to like Alex, for example, is barely touched upon, and their relationship just shifts quite abruptly. It all seems to fall into place a little bit too easily. Because the book jumps back and forth in time a bit as well, there doesn’t always feel a stable bedrock to the action, but this is easily ignored for the writing, which is very interesting.

Aside from the moment when Alex discusses how diversity is wrong at schools (yet brutality, cruelty, violence and holding people’s heads down toilets are all accepted), there is also a wonderful scene inside London’s Natural History Museum, a place I continually deem my favourite building on Earth. It’s described with wonder and beauty that certainly does it justice and made me want to jump on a train and go there for the millionth time.

A good book, and a super debut, but there was something lacking. I don’t think I can really explain what it was, and maybe you won’t notice it, but I definitely got that impression. Anyway, time to leave modernity behind – I’m going back to an Agatha Christie.

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