Monday, April 23, 2012

Pure by Andrew Miller

This is not so much a review as a brief rave about how brilliant and beautiful I think this book is. Pure is my favourite read this year so far. For me, it was one of those books that you wait and hope to come across, that makes you realise how incredible writing and language and books can be.

I have read some reviews that expressed slight criticism because Pure isn't really big on plot or narrative drive. For me, this didn't even factor. I was so immersed and intrigued in the world Andrew Miller created, and so taken in by his beautiful writing, that I kept returning to the book at every available moment.

There is simplicity here, but also gorgeous, breathtaking descriptions and reflections. Yes, the book does pretty much cover the methodical destruction of Les Innocents, but it is so fascinating. And without anything of great distinction actually happening, a palpable sense of dread and atmosphere builds and builds. This book is earthy but at the same time has a refined elegance. It is humane, with the large and small fallibilities and fancies of people laid out effortlessly on the page. It has a lovely optimism while still retaining an authentic feeling of despair and disillusion.

The historical detail, the philosophy, is there, but it is all mixed into a much greater idea that concerns the workings of the human soul. The ordinary is made beautiful and alive.

This is literary writing at its loveliest. I thought Pure was dazzling and I was utterly enchanted by it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Queen of the Night by Leanne Hall

First published in 2012 by Text

Hall’s first book (the Text Prize winner), This is Shyness, was one of my favourite reads in 2010. I thought it was brilliant and quirky and a stay-up-all-night read of the best sorts. Queen of the Night takes us back to this same world. The style, the hipness, the gorgeous dream-state is still there. Shyness is a fascinating world to get lost in, and Nia and Jethro (Wildgirl and Wolfie), are great characters to take us there.

When I read This is Shyness it had such a unique quality and I just fell in love. Although Queen of the Night is as unique and clever and imaginative, some of the novelty of Hall’s writing has worn off and simply for this reason I didn’t love it as much as This is Shyness. It’s amazing to fall back into that world but the ‘wow’ factor was just missing. Which is not to say that it wasn’t as good, more just a case of ‘second time around’ syndrome.

There was a lovely bittersweetness to Wildgirl and Wolfboy’s relationship this time around. What impressed me so much when they first met were the witty exchanges, the excitement of discovering each other, the charged flirtation. In this book Hall has captured wonderfully that feeling of trying to get over someone, of missed opportunity, of hope even when you know there is no substance to it. I really liked the first half of Queen of the Night when Wildgirl and Wolfboy were dancing around each other. And of course, when they do meet again, they still retain their strong, individual personalities that drive the narrative forward.

The action picks up in the second half of the book. The plot line this time revolves around Doctor Gregory stealing people’s dreams – in this case the dreams of Wolfboy’s depressed friend, Paul. Because of this, Paul has gone into a catatonic state. Wildgirl must enter a dream world to try and bring him back. It is all very hip and lovely-weird and whimsical but always in a contained, unself-aware way.

I have found with Hall’s books that they are less about the plot and more about the experience. The adventure drives forward the themes, the relationships, the ideas. The suburb of Shyness is as alluring as ever. It creates such a wonderful space to explore the imagination. The writing is actually quite concise and straightforward, but the world and thoughts it gives rise to elevate it beyond the words on the page. It was nice to see Wolfboy’s relationship with Ortolan and Diana develop, although I feel their interactions in Queen of the Night were really just to lay the foundation for possible development in a third book.

Another enjoyable and imaginative outing from Leanne Hall. She has a very distinct voice in Aussie YA fiction and is one of the few authors who I actually follow from book to book, waiting to see what she will do next.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Scarecrows by Robert Westall

First published in 1981

The Scarecrows was first published in 1981 – it’s more of a recent children’s classic, but rightly so, because it’s one of the best contemporary children’s novels I’ve read. I say contemporary even though The Scarecrows does have elements of horror and the supernatural – but these things arise out of the main character’s psychological trauma. The way Westall does this is seamless and powerful. Some of the content is quite daring – a few of the passages would not make the final edit these days, I feel – but at the same time, it feels like they need to be there. These things make us understand the fear, isolation and confusion Simon feels as the realities of being ‘grown up’ push their way into his life.

Simon is thirteen years old and The Scarecrows deals with how he copes in the face of his mother’s remarriage. He feels betrayed by her, and he feels she has betrayed the memory of his dead father. At boarding school he is often taken aback by fits of rage, which he describes as the devils coming in. When his mother remarries and he goes to stay with them at Mill House, the devils chase him there too, and eventually get the better of him in the climax.

What I loved about this book is the perception in it. Simon’s thoughts and feelings ring so true. Often when I come across a passage in a book that ‘just gets it’ – where the emotion and insight is just so spot on, often where it cuts into your heart – I dog-ear the page (bad, I know) so I can come back to it later and savour the perfection. There were a lot of dog-ears in this book.

Westall was so clever when he created the Simon character – I think certainly he is unlikeable, but we always understand where his actions and thoughts come from. He is never whiny or sulky or bad-tempered – he is just hurting, and we can feel this. He is quite funny and endearing, in his own way. We know he cares. We know that he knows many of his actions are wrong. But we understand why he does it. Just brilliant characterisation. I particularly loved Chapter Four, the scene with his mum in the car. It plays out so perfectly – Simon knows he is making things worse, is digging himself deeper and deeper. But he can’t, won’t, give in: when you’re hurting so much the only way to stop it is to make yourself hurt more – this just leaps off the page.

The Scarecrows is genuinely, for a kid’s book, scary. And what makes it even more terrifying is that the horror comes from the ugliness of human emotions. This is a psychological thriller at its best. Three scarecrows in a field and a decrepit mill – in Westall’s hands, these things are truly frightening. When Simon first sees the scarecrows in the field and goes to investigate – I think my eyes were bugging out of my head. Great atmosphere. Simple, but effective writing.

I also found this book to have a great balance. There is some genuinely funny stuff, like when Simon climbs up the tree to spy on Joe painting. His stubbornness itself makes me smile. There is also great emotional truth. The periphery characters are fantastic – Jane is such a little creation, and Mr Mercyful commands the pages he’s in. And the historical back story never intrudes but only enhances the main setting and story.

The Scarecrows is fantastic and a must for school libraries. It is one of the only realistic/contemporary-based children’s classics in my Top 20 list. Past entries included below:

Number 20:  Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

Number 19:  The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Number 18:  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Number 17:  The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt

Number 16: The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber

Coming soon: Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

CBCA Book of the Year Shortlist 2012

I was going to do a post about it, but they seem to be popping up everywhere.

Kids Book Review has a great summary of all the shortlisted nominees in each category for the 2012 CBCA Book of the Year. Link here: CBCA 2012

I do sometimes feel that the nominees are a little 'safe'. But I am happy to see Andrew McGahan, Bill Condon, Susan Green and John Flanagan nominated in the Older and Younger Readers categories.

Anyway, fantastic news for all nominees. Getting recognised by the CBCA is quite the honour, and actually does have an impact on sales. After the shortlist is announced, at my bookstore we get so many orders from our school clients for the CBCA books, and a lot of customers ask for 'CBCA' books.