“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.

“Pigeon English” by Stephen Kelman (2011)

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pigeon“You could see the blood.”

From the rich streets of California, to an London tower block, I have once again skipped location, genre, narrator and time for a new story. I remember Pigeon English coming out and being immediately popular. As such, because I’m a nightmare for things like that, I ignored it. It didn’t seem like something that would interest me very much. Fortunately, I have a friend who understands me and my literary tastes perhaps better than my own. After discussing Bradbury with her last week, I was prompted to pick up this book which she bought for me last year.

Pigeon English is the story of Ghanaian immigrant Harrison Okupu, who is eleven years old and lives in a London tower block with his mother and older sister Lydia. The rest of his family – Papa, Grandma and baby Agnes – are still in Ghana and he speaks to them regularly on the phone, but they are still saving up to move over for a better life. Harri is a bright and curious young boy who spends his time being the fastest runner in Year 7, talking to his friends about superheroes and cars, and annoying his sister. He is innocent in many respects, but wishes to become friends with the Dell Farm Crew, a gang of Year 11s who are, in his eyes at least, very cool.

The novel opens with the death of a teenage boy who lived on Harri’s estate. He was stabbed outside a chicken shop and, because the dead boy once spoke to Harri and he considers that they would have become friends, the intrepid young boy takes it on himself, with the help of his friend Dean, to find out who killed him. Armed with a sense of duty, some cheap binoculars and Dean’s encyclopedic knowledge of crime dramas, they set about their mission, which is interspersed with singing in church, playing dares and watching the pigeon that always seems to be around.

Harri forms a close bond to this particular pigeon who always seems to return to him again and again. The novel appears to be Harri telling the story to the pigeon and, in a wonderful little bonus, the pigeon sometimes shares its thoughts in return. It talks about being attacked by magpies, about the joy of shitting on people’s heads, and also gets very deep – the pigeon knows that there is a Heaven. The pigeon is benevolent and there to keep Harri safe.

Kelman’s interpretation of the way pre-teens speak and act is brilliant and while the slang has certainly moved on since I was that age (a sobering fourteen years ago), the sense of wonder and that feeling of being the centre of the universe is definitely relatable. Harri is still excited by the Tube (even if he thinks it smells of farts), loves Skips and the way they fizz on your tongue and knows all the rules that he’s learnt from school, like “No running on the stairs”, “Always put your hand up before you ask a question” and “He who smelt it, dealt it.”

I’m particularly fond of his relationship with his sister, Lydia. She’s about 13 and thinks she’s the big “I am”, especially in front of her friend Miquita, but while the two tease and taunt each other mercilessly, the siblings clearly do love each other and have fun of their own. When push comes to shove, Lydia will go above and beyond to help and protect her little brother.

It’s a funny book, but it’s definitely dark. Harri doesn’t really understand certain things, like why his aunt burns her fingerprints off, or why her boyfriend carries a baseball bat around. It’s a book of hope in the harsh reality of twenty-first century Britain, a story that touches on poverty, immigration and the gang culture that seems to be so deeply ingrained in London and other places today. It will make you laugh, but it will also make you cry.

Heartwarming, heartwrenching and just a little bit magical.

“The Wasp Factory” by Iain Banks (1984)

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wasp

Oh. Oh no.

“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.”

Despite what I’m doing here, I’m not one to read reviews, especially before having read a book. After I’ve finished one, I will spend some time seeing what other people thought of it, what they liked and if they thought the same as me. In particular, I do my best to avoid any reviews of people who make their money from reviewing. It seems to me that they also think it’s part of their job to insult and pick holes in whatever they’re reviewing, be it a book or a restaurant.

The Wasp Factory was given to me with the warning, “You have to read this. I can’t promise you’re going to like it, but it’s very memorable.” I realised not long after starting that there were actually some reviews in the front of the book, so I did a quick scan. And then read them all. Excerpts include:

“There is something foreign and nasty here.”

“Perhaps it is all a joke, meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish.”

“There is nothing to force you … to read it; nor do I recommend it.”

“A repulsive piece of work.”

“The majority of the literate public … will be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at any of it.”

Basically, this is a book that seems so sure of itself that it is willing to fill the first three pages with negative reviews. Considering that Iain Banks (or Iain M. Banks as he is known to science fiction readers) is now considered one of the best writers of the last century. This was his debut novel, and there’s nothing like entering the scene with a crash, which is exactly what he did. The book was controversial at the time, and remains so now, nearly thirty years later.

The blurb alone warns you that this is not going to be a particularly happy read, telling as it does that the narrator has killed three people, and is just sixteen years old. These deaths are later played out in complete and gory detail within the story, although they are probably the parts that are easiest to read. If you are in the least bit squeamish, you shouldn’t even consider this book.

6_wasp

Pictured: the novel’s most sympathetic character

There isn’t a likeable character in here, not one that you wouldn’t mind being stuck in a lift with for three hours (possible exception to be made for Jamie the dwarf). Frank, Eric and Angus are all lunatics, living on a secluded Scottish island, each wrapped in a cocoon of secrets, both against the outside world and each other. With twists you shouldn’t even try to second guess, the book, while disgusting and shocking, is one that keeps you going, although there are some chapters that shouldn’t be read over lunch, as I discovered to my own cost.

Frank is a keen abuser of animals, a trait he appears to share with Eric who, it is claimed, set fire to dogs before he was sent to a  mental institution. Dogs, however, are not the only animals here to find themselves getting the abuse. The titular wasps get it, as well as other various insects, rabbits, gulls, crows, hamsters, mice and even an adder.

If you enjoy being shocked, want to read the literary equivalent of a video nasty, and have a strong stomach and a mind capable of living with the knowledge of this book for the rest of your life, then by all means try this book. It isn’t bad, in fact, it’s very good, tightly constructed and well written, but I don’t feel I can properly recommend it out of a sense of duty.

If you aren’t into this sort of thing, then go and see Les Miserables again, and I’ll be back here when I’ve read something a little more innocent.