Book Review: Code Name: Butterfly by Ahlam Bsharat

The NCRCL Book Review Series is written by  NCRCL students. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions. 

Review of Code Name: Butterfly (2016) by Ahlam Bsharat, translated from Arabic by Nancy Roberts

By Rebecca Sutton

code-name-butterfly-cover-2Butterfly, whose ‘real’ name is never revealed, lives in occupied Palestine. We join her on the journey towards adulthood as she deals with common adolescent concerns such as periods, first crushes, friendships, identity and sexuality. Alongside these, and through the eyes of Butterfly, writer Ahlam Bsharat offers frank descriptions of less universal concerns, of the violence and conflict occurring in Palestine’s occupied territories. With graphic descriptions of a “massacre”, the death of Uncle Saleh who was shot “over and over” and the mine that caused Bakr to lose both his legs, this is no ordinary adolescent journey, but a seemingly commonplace one for teenagers in Palestine. The novel is clearly pro-Palestinian in its ideology with vivid first-hand experience from Bsharat woven in throughout.

However, the conflict in Israel/Palestine is not the main focus; it is Butterfly’s inquiring mind, the questions she asks and the place where she stores these questions that occupy the main space of the narrative. Like many adolescents, she feels unable to talk to her parents, her siblings or friends, and so stores her questions and dreams in an imaginary treasure chest, which she declares almost full to bursting point. Herein lies the sadness: her questions are neither asked nor answered and her dreams are never shared, but by the end of the novel she realizes that grown-ups do not have all the answers and maybe more importantly, that they themselves have many unanswered questions of their own.

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Roehampton Readers: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Lies We Tell Ourselves

Image via Carnegie Medal

Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

By Kay Waddilove

Lies We Tell Ourselves is a historical YA novel which interweaves a story of friendship, teenage identity crisis and burgeoning love into a brutal account of horrifying racism and prejudice. Set in the fictional US town of Davisburg Virginia in 1959, the story is narrated by two female protagonists; Sarah, a black girl entering a previously all-white high school, and Linda, a white girl who is the daughter of the town’s newspaper editor, a fervent white supremacist. In 1954, a time when open segregation was common in the southern states (‘white’ cafes, ‘whites only’ toilets, etc), all US schools, by Supreme Court ruling, had been required to become racially integrated (the Brown v. Board of Education ruling); the Court ruled that states must integrate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” Nevertheless, many Southern politicians resisted the ruling, utilising technical delaying tactics (some schools were shut down by local politicians or school boards for months or years – a history alluded to in the book), economic reprisals and direct intimidation in order to maintain a segregated and two-tier education system. Robin Talley grew up in Virginia, and decided to write this novel after hearing her parents discuss their own teenage memories of high school desegregation in the 1950s. She investigated historical records, including diaries of black students, and speaks on the Carnegie website of her shock at what she discovered during her research and her determination that the facts of history should be better known.

In 1957, a federal court ordered integration of the Little Rock, Arkansas public schools and nine African-American teenagers were enrolled into the Central High School. Such young people had thus been placed in the frontline of the struggle for civil rights, and on arrival, the ‘Little Rock Nine’ encountered a vicious white mob. This scenario clearly inspired the powerful opening chapter of Talley’s book, when the ten new black students turn up for their first day at Jefferson High, to be greeted by “a sea of angry white faces” and calls to “keep the niggers out”. The author pulls no punches in depicting the intimidation that her fictional characters face; from the outset the shocking language and physical violence aimed at them is described in challenging terms. As the progress and experiences of these students are followed throughout the school year, Talley maintains and builds suspense through her realistic description of events. No-one, apparently, is safe; incidents such as the false arrest and subsequent vicious life-threatening beating of Chuck, Ennis’s decision to leave Jefferson, Sarah’s final assertive rejection of her parents plans for her future, all reinforce the realism of this text while also ensuring that reader engagement is rooted in the unexpected turns of the plot.

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Roehampton Readers: There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake

Review: There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake

By Julie Mills

There Will Be Lies

Image via Carnegie Medal

The themes of the novel are identity and change manifested in the person of adolescent Shelby about to become adult at age 18, and of course lies. The story is told in a dual narrative set in present day USA and in “the dreaming”, an imagined, fairy tale, mythological location influenced by legends of the Native American peoples. The two narratives echo, mirror and complement each other and gradually become more overtly closely linked. In one of the narratives we are on a typical “road movie” trajectory running away from events and in the other we are on a quest in search of the evil crone and to rescue “the child.”

The lies begin at the beginning. The author/narrator lies to us right at the start. Shelby’s Mom has been lying to her all her life, she lies during this story. The coyote figure tells Shelby that there will be two lies and then there will be the truth. This may be about the only thing which is reliable, although we are kept speculating about which stories/versions/revelations are lies – or the lies.

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Roehampton Readers: Fire Colour One by Jenny Valentine

Fire Colour One

Image via Carnegie Award

Review: Fire Colour One by Jenny Valentine

By Lorna Collins

Fire Colour One is the story of a young girl, Iris, whose first meeting with her father, Ernest, is not until shortly before his death. The narrative revolves around Iris’s growing relationship with her father in the short period she has with him. However, we are introduced to the main characters immediately after Ernest’s funeral. The author takes us through the events leading up to the funeral, moving backwards and forwards in time throughout the book. Potentially, this could have been confusing, but Valentine handles it extremely well and we are taken, along with Iris, on a journey of discovery. Valentine manages to successfully blend instances in Iris’s previous life and her friendship with Thurston, with those of Ernest’s earlier life with his sister Margot, and then his later marriage and its subsequent break up. All this is seamlessly interwoven with the story of Iris’s reunion with her estranged father and the growth of their relationship. The book’s ending may be considered a little too contrived; however, I felt it worked well overall, leaving the reader feeling that justice was done.

Valentine uses contrasts in the book to highlight opposing views of certain issues. She quotes Grayson Perry’s autobiography in which he talks about going to college and learning art as something you do, then moving into a squat with people who lived it ( Iris’s best friend, Thurston is still in California and although Iris has been unable to tell him of her departure to England, she constantly refers the reader back to some of his escapades, portraying him as an artist in the true sense of the word – someone who lives art, rather than someone for whom art is something you do. On the other hand, Ernest is a collector of works of art as possessions and for financial gain (although Iris discovers later that this is not the whole story). Iris’s relationship with Thurston, who likes her for who she is, also highlights the lack of a proper relationship with her mother, for whom Iris is merely a bargaining chip to be used to help her and Lowell acquire Ernest’s art collection.

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Roehampton Readers: Footpath Flowers illustrated by Sydney Smith

Review: Footpath Flowers by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith

By Clare Walters

The wordless picturebook, Footpath Flowers, was conceived by the award-winning Canadian writer and poet JonArno Lawson. Lawson (who says he was inspired by a real walk he took with his seven-year-old daughter) created the initial plot line and storyboard sketches, and these were then brought to life by illustrator Sydney Smith – an artist who, like Lawson, is based in Toronto. It was clearly a successful partnership, as Lawson has said, ‘It was as if I’d written a melody, and he [Smith] wrote not just an accompaniment, but an entirely new melody that harmonized with it.’

The picturebook draws on a long tradition of wordless books, from Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward in the 1920s to Shaun Tan and Aaron Becker in the 2000s. As with any purely visual text, there are narrative ‘gaps’ between each image, which the reader must complete to create his or her own version of events. But Smith uses a number of visual ‘clues’, such as colour, line, perspective and composition, to draw us through the story.

The plot centres round a little girl who collects wayside flowers on a walk through a city with her father. It is set in a contemporary urban landscape and begins in austere high-contrast black, white and grey, with the girl’s bright red coat providing the only colour. Yet as the child gathers more flowers and gives them as gifts to various recipients, the volume of colour increases, until finally the book ends in vivid full colour. This infusion of light, bright shades onto the pages highlights the girl’s innocent generosity; by giving away her flowers, she literally brings colour into a grey world.

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Roehampton Readers: Tinder by Sally Gardner

Review: Tinder by Sally Gardner (text only, Carnegie Medal)

By Julie Mills

Sally Gardner’s Tinder is inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Tinderbox. It is an illustrated novel for older readers – not a graphic novel but very graphic in descriptive text and illustrations.

Building on the bones of the taut form of some re-tellings of the fairy tale – (the returning soldier has a chance meeting with an old woman who asks him to retrieve a tinder box, guarded by three dogs each one bigger than the last, and his reward is as much gold silver or copper as he can carry, but the soldier, naturally, keeps the magical tinder box and achieves his wishes of riches and a beautiful bride) this story expands on the plot to fill in the back story of principal characters, also providing motivation for actions, descriptions of the setting and landscape, portraying emotions such as grief and in particular the reality of the consequences of war. So the actions of the soldier – such as the killing of the “witch” who sets him to fetch the tinderbox – are no longer apparently random and motiveless – but interwoven within the plot; the simple hollow tree trunk containing the tinderbox becomes an elaborate castle of trees, roots and branches. Far from being set in an imprecise fairy tale past the setting and date is given from the start as 2nd November 1642 Battle of Breitenfeld. The protagonists name is Otto Hunderbiss – a name meaning dog bite which has reverberations throughout the unfolding tale. As the plot is driven on, the motivations of the characters are revealed as passion, greed, revenge, lust for power.

The writing style is lyrical and descriptive and has an archaic quality without being at all obscure. Alliteration is used frequently – p 102 The hall hummed with the buzz of bluebottles ……. whirring wings. P32 the young lad is described as “ fast on his feet” and having a “feminine façade”. The font is faintly gothic.

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Roehampton Readers: The Promise by Laura Carlin

Review: The Promise by Laura Carlin

By Kay Waddilove

Laura Carlin is an award-winning artist who has illustrated many children’s books, including The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. The Promise was selected by The New York Times as the best illustrated title of 2014, and came 19th (out of 51) in a list of ‘Best 2014 Women-Illustrated Picture Books’ – a somewhat dubious selection, which does not (surprise, surprise) appear to have been matched by a ‘Best Men-Illustrated’ prize … However, given the word limits imposed by the NCRCL blog reviews, I intend to refrain – with some difficulty – from engaging in the murky and well-worn debate around gender-restricted prize lists. Although I would be fascinated to know how the outstandingly successful Janet Ahlberg, Ruth Brown, Lauren Child, Shirley Hughes, Jill Murphy, Helen Oxenbury, Beatrix Potter – a random selection of names culled from a quick scan of my kidslit shelf – might have viewed such phenomena. Not to mention visiting Kate Greenaway’s grave (located in Hampstead Cemetery if anyone is interested) to check for signs of spinning. Certainly Carlin herself should be immune to any implication that the abilities of high-achieving women are somehow unusual; the ‘dog on its hind legs, walking well’ phenomenon. In addition to her successful illustration career, Laura is a noted ceramicist who has won the V&A award and been honourably mentioned in the Bologna Ragazzi Award, as well as being voted an ‘ADC Young Gun’ – one of the 50 most influential international creatives under 30 years of age. She also currently works with Quentin Blake in an advisory role for the development of the House of Illustration, which will be mounting an exhibition of her work between October 2015 and January 2016.

The Promise is a fantasy story of discovery with an environmental, political and philosophical theme. In a mean and ugly city, a young thief lives by stealing, but when she tries to snatch an old woman’s bag, she is forced to promise something in return – to “plant them all”. Discovering that the bag is full of acorns, the girl begins to understand the meaning of her promise; in starting to plant them, she embarks on a journey that changes her own life and that of others. Nicola Davies, author of the text, has written a number of previous titles that, like this one, are informed by the belief that a relationship with nature is essential to every human being, and that there is currently an urgent need to renew that relationship. The narrative was inspired by Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees (1953), and the stories complement each other, both highlighting the transformative power of trees, although The Promise is set in an urban rather than a rural landscape. The vision evoked by word and picture captures the young girl’s journey from a grim urban reality to the beauty and vitality of a changed world, in which people and nature live in harmony in the city. Interviewed on the Carnegie website, Laura Carlin describes The Promise as “a book about hope”.

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