Review: Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce
By Julie Mills
Frank Cottrell Boyce won the Carnegie award for Millions (2004) and his novels have been regularly shortlisted/nominated for the Carnegie medal since then. His children’s novels include Framed (2005), Cosmic (2008), The Unforgotten Coat (2011) and The Astounding Broccoli Boy (2015). He has also revived Ian Fleming’s famous flying car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again (2011).
Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth gives us a hearty helping of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s humour and fantasy whilst being grounded in the not so wonderful life of Prez, a young boy who is living in temporary care. It is a boy-orientated narrative with episodic flights of fancy and imagination.
The flights of fancy are great investigations of “what if?” – What if the remote control really could rewind real life? Or a reverse explosion could rebuild Hadrian’s Wall? Or the supermarket self check-out gave you money and not the other way around? – all delivered with Frank Cottrell Boyce’s trademark humour. These sequences also allow him to explore big themes: time, ageing, death, love, home (Life, the universe and everything?). The story also gives insight into the experience of children who are carers, living with dementia and life in care for both young and old.
Review: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk
By Clare Walters
Set in rural Western Pennsylvania, USA, in 1943, Wolf Hollow (2016) tells the story of 12-year-old Annabelle’s bruising experiences with an ‘incorrigible’, ‘dark-hearted’, older girl, Betty. It is a coming-of-age novel, a Bildungsroman, in which the protagonist goes through a period of intense psychological change over a matter of a few months. She transforms from a happy, innocent child into a more wary, but stronger and independent, young person who’s had first-hand acquaintance with the underbelly of humanity.
The story, told in the first person, is narrated by a mature female voice, reflecting on a time when she was younger. The older Annabelle recalls how, during a few momentous months, she was forced to reconsider both her place in the world and her understanding of other people. She ‘learnt how to lie’, and discovered that what she said and what she did actually ‘mattered’ – that her actions directly affected others.
As Lauren Wolk explains in her video on the Carnegie shadowing website, Annabelle is a good girl, with a strong sense of right and wrong, who tries to solve a problem without recourse to her parents. In doing so, she discovers her own moral strengths and weaknesses. To cope with the situations before her, she has to face her own fear and draw on reserves of courage. Annabelle is both brave and loyal, but she is also subject to emotions such as anger and meanness (at one point she prays for Betty to get blisters from her encounter with some poison ivy). She also experiences constant confusion, as she’s unfamiliar with dealing with the difficult new challenges that tumble fast, one upon the other.
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
Butterfly, 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.
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.
Review: There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake
By Julie Mills
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.
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 (http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/watch.php?id=). 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.
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.