Clean : Juno Dawson

CleanClean by Juno Dawson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The versatility of Dawson never fails to astound me. She is a writer who imbues a sense of truth into everything that she does, and this is no exception. Clean is a beautiful book. It really is, because Dawson manages to twist all of the pain and anger and fear and sadness into something honest and truthful and human. That underneath it all, we’re all still people. We’re all still somebody and sometimes finding that somebody, that essence of truth, is the hardest thing to do. This book is full of truth, but also of sympathy. Being human isn’t easy. It’s not pretty. But it is achievable, someway, somehow.

Rich socialite and it girl, Lexi Volkov is forced into rehab after a near-overdose. It’s time to get clean and to face up to her demons. As she gets to know herself, and her fellow inmates, she starts to realise just who she really is. And who she’s going to be.

Reminiscent of Melvin Burgess at his fiery best, this is an unsparing and unafraid book. It touches on some challenging issues, uses some challenging language, and yet does it all in a justified and straightforward manner. Dawson’s not working for shock value here, but rather for a kaleidoscopic truth. Lexi isn’t the most likable of characters at times, and yet, in a way, that made me like her even more. It’s easy to root for the people who have failings, and for the authors who allow these failings to be shown. It’s human, and I like writers and books that are able to acknowledge the truth of that experience.

I also have to add a note of praise for the Quercus design team. This is an outstanding front cover. Absolutely, so.

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Wave : Suzy Lee

WaveWave by Suzy Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a remarkable and show-stopping thing, let down only by the printing format itself. Lee’s art is a delicious joy, telling the story of a girl on a visit to the beach. It’s wordless throughout and delivered in a simple, clean palette of blacks and whites and blues, and it’s beautiful. You can see some pictures in this tweet and really, it’s the moments of this book that make it what it is. That sheer, wild pleasure of stamping in water; of teasing the edge with your toes before jumping fully into it; of being soaked, suddenly, beyond your imagination, before you can quite realise what’s happening. It is lovely and it’s very, deliciously primal. Wave is a book that speaks to that child that we all have inside of us, and I would pay quite happily to have prints of it on my wall. The vibrancy, the sheer truth of Lee’s art is inescapable.

As I said however, the book is let down by the printing and the relationship between the artwork and the gutter. The gutter is a pivotal space within picture books, providing as it does a space for innovative acts of storytelling but also for training children to understand the shape of books, and the pattern of reading itself.

In Wave, the gutter is too tightly bound or the dimensions of the artwork are off or something, because certain parts of the image get caught up in the gutter and lost or cut-off. The girl, for example, loses part of a limb at one point, whilst the delicious edge of the wave, with its kaleidoscopic edge of fragmented blue, is stopped bluntly by the gutter. I can see some point for that in some spreads, to emphasise the barrier between the girl and the wave – the distance – but in others, the gutter forms a heavy handed truncation of what might be a perfect, endless book.

Wave thus becomes a bit of an oddity, where the raw, distinct beauty of the book and its utterly perfect grasp of the ‘moment’ becomes tied back by this gutter problem, becomes bound by something heavy and solid and blunt. It is an undeniable recommendation nonetheless because Lee’s artwork is beautiful. Utterly, utterly beautiful.

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Home Home : Lisa Allen-Agostini

Home HomeHome Home by Lisa Allen-Agostini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a point towards the end of the first chapter of Home Home where I got The Feeling. You’ll know what The Feeling is; it’s that moment when you read something, maybe a word or a sentence or a metaphor, whatever, but you know that it’s good. Your spine tingles. Something settles inside your head. The conscious recognition of skill, there, bubbling beneath the surface. The realisation that you’re in good hands.

Home Home is the story of a depressed Trinidadian teenager, Kayla, who is sent to live with her Aunt in Canada. Whilst there, Kayla must come to terms with her mental health, her new family and indeed her new home. I received it for review from the publisher and was grateful for the offer: I want to find these sorts of books and see them participating within the world, and Home Home more than holds its own. It’s worthy of attention on a thousand different levels.

My only caveat with Home Home is that it is a relatively slender piece, and as such seems to almost finish before it starts. There’s an undoubted element of frustration there that I need to acknowledge because, I suspect, were it given some more space, this could be something kind of great. At present, it feels like there’s not enough space for it to fully explore its potential but, equally, it offers a ton of potential for follow up activities and close reading exercises.

I also don’t want to deny the fact that what is in Home Home is kind of fascinating, occasionally rather beautiful, and kind of great. Home Home exists somewhere between raw, Tumblr-esque truth and a whole hearted stream of consciousness vibe. There’s power here, particular in its honest and vivid truth and the way that it sometimes tumbles together and makes itself known at the least opportune moments. It feels in fact like something that you might find tucked away on a blog somewhere by somebody who feels the need to express themselves and to feel out the edges of that expression, and in the process to find themselves. I don’t think that’s a bad legacy for a book to have.

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A Pony For Jean : Joanna Cannan

A Pony for JeanA Pony for Jean by Joanna Cannan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a reason I practically fainted when I found this in the pound shop and that reason is this: A Pony For Jean is a stone-cold classic, rich and evocative and unapologetically ponyish and it should be in the hands of anyone who is interested in ponies, children’s literature, or those curiously timeless stories that bubbled up in the 30s; stories of girls and families who survived troubling times simply by being themselves to the utmost and most emphatic ways.

Forgive me for being disjointed, but books like this are history and Cannan is a pivotal figure in the world of pony stories. She was one of the first (perhaps the first? I’m not sure) to write from the individuals perspective, stepping away from that Black Beauty-esque point of view, and stories sing of practical and foolish and passionate and realgirls who just burn from the page with presence. And of course, she was the mother of the Pullein-Thompson sisters, and delivered one of my favourite ever quotes where, upon the birth of Diana and Christine, she was asked “Are your twins normal?” Her delicious reply was, “Good God, I hope not.” What is there not to love about this person?

A Pony For Jean is one of those awful books that will give you the impression that the world is like this, that this is what it does, and if circumstance conspire and your rich cousins are just rich enough, you too will end up with a pony of your very own. It’s the stuff to scar you for life. It’s perfect.

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The Three Jays Against The Clock : Pat Smythe

The Three Jays Against the ClockThe Three Jays Against the Clock by Pat Smythe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been aching for a reread of Pat Smythe’s pony books for quite some time, and so, dear reader, when I found a copy of The Three Jays Against The Clock in the bookshoop I clutched it to my chest and practically skipped all the way home. It’s difficult, sometimes, to understand the place that a series can hold in your hearts but for me, these Pat Smythe books were everything. They were full of that intense detail that only the small and ponyish child can wallow in and they were never that easily available so they became something of the Chalet School of the pony world, to be read and devoured on those fleeting moments when they appeared back in the world.

Much of these fleeting appearances stem, I suspect, from the fact that they were not as brilliantly rendered as some of the pony books that were in the world at that time. And there were a lot of pony stories making their presence felt, from the Pullein-Thompsons through to Ruby Ferguson. Pat Smythe is no P-T sister, and I’ll take that critique and live with it, quite happily because I don’t think that’s the space that she ever should be considered in. Smythe has this habit of being most practical with her work; a conundrum is introduced, a cliff-hanger posed, but then we are all sorted and back with the ponies and jumping clear rounds. And I love that, God, I love it so much. You can’t remotely consider these as high literature but you can absolutely worship at their altar of readability.

So this is the second in the series, and it’s resolutely Blytonian in its furious efficiency and blunt style. The Jays decide to go on a pony trip, calling in every now and then to let Pat know that they’re alright. They inevitably run into problems on the way, and a lot of Useful Pony Knowledge is imparted with not the least hint of subtlety. We learn how to make string from a ball of hemp (seriously, even typing that sentence sounds like witchcraft) amongst a thousand other pieces of information ranging from how to walk a course to why you should never judge a book unless you’ve read it. It’s delightful. It’s resolutely of its time at certain points, but then you read these sorts of books with an awareness of the differing – and by no means appropriate – cultural standards of those times.

One final thing to note is that this book contains one of my absolute favourite sentences at all time:
“Nuts,” said the simple child simply. . And if ever a sentence captured style, and the thrust, and the sheer lovable frankness of these books, then I think that this may be that sentence.

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Little Liar : Julia Gray

Little LiarLittle Liar by Julia Gray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Julia Gray is quietly producing some of the most complex and challenging books out there, and Little Liar is a spectacular addition to her canon. I’m fascinated, really, by books that do not do what you expect of them nor what you think they should, and this is one of those books that quietly and determinedly does what it has to do in its own way and pulls you in with every step it takes. I have time for books that do that, and I have such time for books that do it well.

Nora, the narrator, is a liar. She has told lies before, about many things, but one lie in particular starts to change everything. Like a pebble dropped in water, there are ripples and aftershocks that reach farther than Nora can imagine. Her new friendship with the rich, unpredictable and talented Bel is impacted; her world changes. And choices, inevitably, have to be made.

I devoured this. I’m not sure the ending quite delivered on what I wanted it to be, but then I’m not sure something like this can ever do what you want it to do because of the nature of the beast. I’m also not sure the title is the best one, and I have concerns about it being overshadowed by more visible titles. I say these sorts of things because the story here is so very good that I do not want that to happen. It’s precise, pained, and beautifully crafted, and every now and then Gray has the skill to throw in a minute that makes you genuinely gasp. And I did, and can I tell you how rare that is? To physically pause and gape at a book and have that moment of full body reaction?

Little Liar is a complex book full of complex characters and it’s often unattractive, dark and challenging. There’s a level of bravery in that because nobody can easily, nor coherently, be rooted for and nobody gives you those (so often impossible or ripe with cliche) moments of fictional happiness. But then, do you have to root for somebody in a book? You can root, perhaps, for the way that a book makes you feel; the way it may bring you to the edge of your senses and block out the world beyond it; the way that you can’t describe it in one sentence; or, perhaps, the way that you are genuinely part of this world and at a loss for what will happen next but knowing, knowing that you can’t stop reading?

I can root for that.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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What Lexie Did : Emma Shevah

What Lexie DidWhat Lexie Did by Emma Shevah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked this. Shevah is one of those authors whom I’ve been aware of for a while but never got quite round to reading; suffice to say, she’s a joy and this is a solid and richly told story of family fit to put alongside the work of Hilary McKay, Jacqueline Wilson and Susie Day.

‘What Lexie Did’ follows a lie that spirals out of control in that way that lies can and so often do. Lexie is best friends with her cousin, Eleni, who has a heart condition, and has looked after her all of her life. Their friendship is one of delicious intimacy and all consuming-closeness, again in that way that early girl friendships so often are, but all that is tested after Lexie tells her lie. It ends up pulling the family apart, exposing tensions between her parents and Eleni’s parents, Eleni and Lexie, Lexie and everyone, and everything goes horribly wrong. She knows she has to tell the truth – but where? When? How?

Shevah’s got this lovely richness about her work, and I was very pleased to see that she’d spent some time ensuring the honesty of writing about a Greek Cypriot family. It pays off; this is a book that’s thick with identity and loveliness. Shevah also deserves plaudits for her handling of the adults; they’re realistic and sympathetically drawn. I liked this a lot. It’s a genuine, heartfelt and rich book – and any book that has a cinnamon cake recipe at the back of it is a good book by me.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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