Things A Bright Girl Can Do : Sally Nicholls

Things a Bright Girl Can DoThings a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been sitting on this review for a week or so, in that gloriously selfish phase of having read a Good Book but not wanting to talk about it. Sometimes I want to wallow in that sensation and just hold it tight to myself, that feeling of having read something transformative, big, honest and real. The events of the past few days have, however, reminded me of the importance of talking about this sort of thing and so here I am; earlier than I intended, because this book is not due out until September, but I think now’s the right time to tell you about it.

Sally Nicholls is a joy. She has this great gift of story; and so I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Things A Bright Girl Can Do. It’s Suffragettes, it’s history, it’s bravery, it’s love. It’s gorgeous, really, and it made me so utterly possessive of it. It follows the stories of three different girls as they work to realise their political and personal views. They fall in love, out of love, and the relationships which underpin this novel are beautiful and sensitively told. Honestly too; there’s no easy racing off into the sunset here, everything has to be earned.

I loved this book. It’s so determined and genuine, and Nicholls tells the story with such a straightforward honesty that it’s hard to not get sucked in. It’s a perspective that I haven’t read enough of and so I also welcome this. To add to that, I’m also very grateful for the rise of overtly political and politicised young adult fiction. Things A Bright Girl Can Do doesn’t sugarcoat the process of becoming politically active, but it does render it as an absolutely vital experience.

And it believes in teenagers, young people. It believes in their chance and their ability to make a difference. Get this on pre-order now, and when it comes shelve it with something like Troublemakers, and let them work their respective magics.

As I said at the start of this review, I didn’t really want to talk about Things A Bright Girl Can Do because I was selfish over it. Possessive. But here’s the thing, that’s what a good book gives you. You have that moment with it and then you realise that, as great and vital as that moment is, it’s time to share it with the world because you can’t let a book that’s as good as this go unheard.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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I Have No Secrets : Penny Joelson

I Have No SecretsI Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this potent and markedly well-told thriller, not in the least the vibrant delight that is the narrator Jemma. Unable to communicate, yet possessed of a quick-thinking and fiercely distinct personality, Jemma now needs to communicate more than ever. Somebody has been murdered – and somebody’s confessed to Jemma that they did it.

Much of the strength of this book comes from Jemma; she’s a delight. Funny, warm and brave, she’s the centre of her foster family and the secrets that they hold. She witnesses her foster siblings fight their own battles, and upon the news of a personal revelation for herself, she starts to take some immense steps towards independence. It’s difficult to not root for her; She’s so well-drawn and convincing that I Have No Secrets races by.

I was in a bit of a reading dip before this, having just read a ton of things with hideous opening chapters, but I couldn’t put this down. Isn’t that cliche? Yet all cliches come from fact and in the case of I Have No Secrets it’s true. I couldn’t put it down. It was refreshing, and sort of wonderful even in how it dealt with some very dark and complex issues. To put the murder itself aside, both Olivia and Ben, Jemma’s foster-siblings, face some complex troubles of their own.

Thematically, it’s a little Wonder and a little Jacqueline Wilson, and as much as it pains me to do that compare and contrast thing, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise with this book because it’s in doing that sort of comparative analysis that you realise how this book is something furiously singular, immensely readable and something quite valuable indeed.

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Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979 : Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a delight.

The second of two boarding school histories that I’ve breezed through recently, Terms & Conditions is an absolute delight. The first – Alex Renton’s Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class was a much more different experience, focusing as it did upon the male experience of boarding school life and wrapping this around his own experiences. I found Stiff Upper Lip a dry read; interesting, yet I skipped over a substantial chunk of it.

Terms & Conditions, however, wasn’t anywhere near long enough. I loved it. I devoured it. I suspect my different reaction to the two books is partially due to my own research interests and angle of interest, yet Maxtone Graham writes with a sheer verve and narrative drive that can’t be denied. This is an honest, warm-hearted, genuine and sympathetic book.

Ending just before the popular arrival of the ‘duvet’, that blessed piece of night-time warmth, Maxtone Graham ranges through a series of tightly structured chapters constructed around the recollections of her interviewees. Being a big children’s literature fan, I was delighted to find that Judith Kerr functioned among these. What’s great is that Maxtone Graham admires these women that she works with and talks to, and she admires them openly. It’s so interesting to me, this complex ideal of the boarding school woman – of women, generally – because as they grow older, they are expected to be less visible. Less forthright. Yet as Maxtone Graham comes to articulate, these are the women that have remarkable stories – ranging from being pummeled outside in the dark as part of a new girl ritual, through to spending the night on the Kings Road with boys and making it back to the convent school in time for morning. I welcome anybody who works to make these stories visible, I really really do.

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The Hate U Give : Angie Thomas

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is remarkable.

The debut novel from Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give is a ferociously crafted and brilliant and startling novel. It’s hard to not exhaust myself of superlatives for it but it is something else. I’m often a little nervous about those books that get a lot of good press because I don’t want to be the one who goes ‘actually..’. I really don’t. I don’t review to shoot things down, I review books for their bookish ways. For what they can say and do and how they say and do it.

Page two. That’s how long it took for me to know that I was going to review this book; that’s the moment when I read a sentence so utterly perfect that reader, I stared at it and marvelled at how wonderful a thing language is. I stared at the sentence in the way you do when you read a lot of things, when reading is your quote unquote job and you have seen it all before but you have never seen this. The Hate U Give gave me something new, something so fiercely beautiful and resolute that I’ve had difficulty stepping away from it. Thomas’ use of language is immense. Firmly, fiercely, immense.

Starr lives in two worlds; high school and home, poles apart. When she is the only witness to a shooting, those barriers start to crumble and Starr must figure out how to live her life and how to find justice. I read this, I devoured it, and it made me think of that maxim often trotted out in creative writing classes. Write the story you need to tell. Not the story you think people want to hear, nor the story that you think people might be able to sell, but the story you need to tell. And that’s what Thomas achieves here; every word cracks with fury and pain and beauty. It is remarkable. It should be epochal.

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Shocks for the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Shocks for the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #29)Shocks for the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a point somewhere around Peggy that the Chalet School series seems to start to mark time a little. The novelty of the Island setting has worn off, a batch of eminent faces have been shipped off to the Oberland and Canada respectively, and so we’re left with a school that doesn’t quite have the right feel to it because it’s waiting for the status quo(s) to be restored. But then there’s Emerence, and everything comes back right again.

Shocks is the debut of Emerence Hope, a little “firebug” from Australia, and she’s obnoxious and brilliant. I’d forgotten how much I loved her, but then, really, she does everything that she does in this book and it’s a delight. It’s so easy for Brent-Dyer to present girls who adapt and thrive, but she steps back from this with Emerence. She’s allowed to be hideous; and it’s interested to read this sanctioned bad behaviour against somebody like Eustacia who, simply, isn’t allowed to get away with anything remotely similar without being badly physically punished. (I adore Eustacia, she is my secret star of the series).

One of the great things about having so many characters removed from the forefront is that it allows some others to step up. There’s some lovely character work here for Jack Maynard and Captain Christie respectively, whilst the book also contains one of my favourite moments in the entire series. It’s a moment of ferocious particularity but one which has always stuck with me. I won’t spoil it for you but suffice to say it was the first thing to teach me what tautology was. Vocabulary tuition! Plus a lifelong concern about dying from hiccups! What a series this is!

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Troublemakers : Catherine Barter

TroublemakersTroublemakers by Catherine Barter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to write this review. I loved Troublemakers but I didn’t know how to write about it. It’s a curious thing, sort of not quite what I expected it to be and somehow more than that. It’s a big book. It’s thick and edible and layered with a thousand different notes, and all of them hook into you and don’t let you go. I loved it. I don’t know how to write about it, so maybe I’ll try and give you something different than my normal reviews.

But let’s begin with the blurb. Alena lives with her half-brother, Danny, and his boyfriend, in the east end of London. She has never known her mother who died when she was a baby. Danny and Nick are her family. Danny, though, has taken a job with a local politician who’s aiming to be London Mayor; somebody is terrorising the local area by leaving bombs in supermarkets, and Alena’s suddenly desperate to know more about her past. Her family.

This is a coming of age story, and it’s a yell into the world, that moment when you walk to the edge of the beach, dip your toes in the sea and yell out into the blue beyond that you are here that you matter that you exist. Troublemakers is an affirmation; a defiance, but it’s also somehow more than that. It’s like Sunday Lunch with the people you love, those lunches where you know everything almost a moment before it happens because you know these people. It’s about family, forgiveness, foolishness, love. The shape of people. The mistakes of people. The love. The cup of tea, the feet up on the sofa, the recognition of what makes you you. It’s a little bit Jenny Downham, a little bit Annabel Pitcher, but it’s very much itself. It’s feelings, and fear and friendships. Coffee. Hope. Hate. Joy.

I still don’t know how to write about this book, but oh I know how to write about what it made me feel.

My thanks to Andersen for a review copy.

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The Calling – Endgame #1 : James Frey

The Calling (Endgame, #1)The Calling by James Frey

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

 

 

The reviewer sat down. She opened up her laptop. She navigated to Goodreads. She typed in the title. She found the book. She rated it one star.
She paused.
She had not enjoyed The Calling. She had found it somewhat challenging, complex, problematic.
It had begun promisingly; a good looking book is a good looking book.
It speaks of money, cash, investment.
Hope. Ambition.
But this book had not provided hope.
Or ambition.
It was not that the narrative was problematic. It had reminded her oddly, confusedly, strangely of The Amazing Race. It was The Amazing Race meets The Hunger Games and, in a way, she could deal with that. She could even deal with the paragraphs that seemed to be averse to indents, to the stilted and problematic third person, or to text that used one adjective when three could do, because this looked like it could be an interesting book.
But The Calling was not an interesting book.
It was a bad book.
She began to read parts of it out to the people she lived with, asking them to share in paragraphs that read like the literary equivalent of a hernia. A moon was 21 degrees above the horizon. Cars drove through countries and each and every country was named. Characters were bored, and the causes of their boredom were listed for the next five thousand paragraphs.
This book read, she realised, like somebody who was trying to hit word count.
Like word count, the count of words, the word of counts.
And she liked some of it, even though she was appalled by how badly it was written. How poorly it was scribed. How problematically it was inked.
But mostly she disliked it.
She did not normally review books like this, but The Calling had frustrated her. Annoyed her. Made her disgruntled.
It was in the distrust of the story for itself. There was a good story underneath it all, she realised, but it was so desperately cloaked with something else. Something that wanted to dazzle and spin. Something that felt it necessary to point out every little piece of detail in the scene. Something that could squeeze thirteen hundred words out of a person standing up.
Something that felt a little bit frantic and a whole lot of unnecessary.
She did not normally review books like this.
It did not feel constructive.
But The Calling had made itself an exception.

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