Paradox

Rainbow Rowell Kindred Spirits Macmillan 2016

“Kindred Spirits” is a novella the bestselling US author wrote especially for World Book Day 2016 in the UK and Ireland. Its sixty-odd pages tell a sweet story of how teenage Star Wars fan Elena determines to show her independence of mind by joining a queue at her local cinema, in Omaha, for a first showing of Episode VII of the franchise. She has high hopes of being part of a tribe of fellow enthusiasts, sharing the bonhomie and exuberance that she anticipates from her understanding of such occasions. But she is disappointed that, four days before doors open, she is third in a line of only three, and that it remains so for a good many days. With so many things to contend with — her mom’s disapproval, the cold December nights, and anxieties about the call of nature and what she considers her “mid-trovert” temperament (being neither introvert nor extravert) — she fears she won’t last the four days and instead yield to the lure of home comforts.

Her fellow travellers are Troy and Gabe, with whom she has to establish a working relationship where she had instead expected the anonymity of the crowd. Troy is the garrulous confident one while Gabe is taciturn and self-contained. Elena, feeling as a newbie a natural loss of confidence, is concerned that not having seen Episodes 1 to 3 will result as well in loss of face. Everything seems to be militating against her attempt at independence. But the mini-crisis that arrives is not what she expected, nor is the fallout from that what she anticipated.

This is a delightful short story, exactly catching the angst of being a teenager, especially the sense of simultaneously being different while yet wanting to conform and belong. Balancing this paradox is, for Elena, both painful and yet delicious. For readers it must also be satisfying, as they decide whether they too feel kindred spirits with Elena and her new acquaintances — perhaps just like Star Wars fans feel they’re kindred spirits with Leia, Han and Luke.

Making tracks

tracks

China Miéville Railsea Pan Books 2013 (2012)

Imagine a world covered in railway tracks, the occasional settlement sticking out like an island in the ocean. This is the Railsea, a non-aquatic environment sailed by merchants, pirates, navies,hunters, explorers and scavengers in trains of every size and shape, powered by every means of locomotion you can imagine. China Miéville’s collision of steampunk and dystopia has the young hero, Sham ap Soorap and a pair of siblings — orphans all — off on quests to find the answers to secrets that beset them, holy grails that reveal either whether a mythical goal is real or the truth behind the disappearance of their birth parents. Could it be that both quests are destined to converge onto the same single track?

Continue reading “Making tracks”

Conflicted emotions

churchyard yew
Churchyard yews

Patrick Ness A Monster Calls
From an original idea by Siobhan Dowd
Illustrations by Jim Kay
Walker Books 2012 (2011)

Anyone who knows or knew anyone with a prolonged life-threatening illness may well sympathise, even empathise, with young Conor in this moving story. His mother has for some time been an out-patient at a local hospital but the doctors have to resort to alternatives when her illness fails to respond to the usual treatments. Meanwhile Conor has to hope against hope that things will get better, but at the same time has to cope with a recurring nightmare, bullies at school, a disapproving grandmother and a father whom he sees less and less of, due to a demanding new family across the Atlantic in the US.

And then a monster calls. Or does Conor call it?

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Dream-like and disorientating

mist

Carlos Ruiz Zafón The Prince of Mist
Orion Children’s Books 2010
Translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves
(El principe de la niebla 1993)

The fiction of Ruiz Zafón reminds me of dreams bordering on nightmare. Everything is vague: geography (even when set in a well-known city like Barcelona), supporting characters (especially when they appear able to anticipate the protagonist’s mood and thoughts) and time (even when we’re given a specific year and month in which the story takes place). Disjointed places and sequences cause confusion and disquiet in dreams; in novels they can also be frustrating and irritating. Ultimately I found The Prince of Mist — the author’s first novel, in this instance for a young adult readership — as unsatisfying as the dream-like adult novels he is more famous for; unsatisfying because they are full of manufactured mysteries as insubstantial to the grasp as shadows, winds and mists. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

It is June, 1943, and it is Max Carver’s 13th birthday. His father Maximilian, a watchmaker, gives his family some unwelcome news: they all — Maximilian and wife Andrea, along with Alicia, Max and Irina — have to leave the city and relocate to a small village on what appears to be the Atlantic coast. At journey’s end, after three hours on the train, they arrive at a seaside station — only to be joined by a mysterious stray cat, who seems to have adopted them.

Further mysteries await: Continue reading “Dream-like and disorientating”

Making the transition

tunnel

Philip Pullman
The Broken Bridge
Macmillan Children’s Books 1998 (1990)

Ginny Howard’s mother was from Haiti, and it’s from her that Ginny apparently inherits her artistic talents. She now lives with her widowed father in a Welsh village near the sea, and for a fifteen-year-old of mixed descent that isn’t easy. Come the summer holidays and some of the mysteries concerning her mother and family start to emerge, upsetting the sensitive but determined teenager at that crucial period when she is making the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood.

“Coming-of-age”, “teenage-angst”, “identity-crisis” – yes, these are all appropriate labels to pin on this novel, but they only convey part of what Pullman is about. Continue reading “Making the transition”