Listen to the Baby Animals : Marion Billet

Listen to the Baby AnimalsListen to the Baby Animals by Marion Billet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I need to tell you a little bit about this book that, I suspect, might appeal quite immensely to the adults amongst you who have Suffered From Noisy Book Syndrome. Come on, we all know what I mean. Those books that children adore – and rightfully so – but that you’re quite tempted to flush down the toilet after the 365th tinny repetition of ‘Jingle Bells’.

THIS BOOK HAS AN ON AND OFF SWITCH.

IT IS HIDDEN BEHIND A PANEL THAT IS ACCESSIBLE ONLY TO ADULTS AND THEIR DEXTEROUS DRIVEN BY NECESSITY AND AN URGE TO PRESERVE THEIR SANITY FINGERS.

Like, what an amazing thing is that? It’s pretty much the interactive board book equivalent of inventing the wheel and I love it, ferociously, because it’s a gesture towards the parents as much as it is to the children. This isn’t just to turn the noise off; how much of a Gandalf will you look when you turn the noise on? Clever design benefits everyone, and Nosy Crow are so on the ball with this. Immensely.

I wouldn’t be writing this fulsome review of a book based solely on a switch, brilliant as it is, because the book itself needs to stand up and be worthy of interest in its own right. I think sometimes, especially with this age group, we can rely on tricks and *jazz hands*, and the story element itself gets neglected. Luckily enough, Marion Billet has done something quite intensely charming here. It’s a simple journey through a series of scenes, each of which introduces a baby animal with their parent, and the artwork is charming. Round-edged, thick, blunt colours, and a gentle prompt for the reader to encourage interaction.

This is delightful all the way through, from Billet’s fat and thick use of colour, through to the sounds – actually real life yips from puppies and cheeps from chicks (no tinny nonsense here!). I’d also direct you to Billet’s Listen To The Birdswhich features actual recordings of nightingale song and sort of blew my mind a little bit.

I could write about board books like this forever.

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Collecting Sticks : Joe Decie

Collecting SticksCollecting Sticks by Joe Decie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was at a conference the other day where talk turned to the idea of ‘kindness’ and how writing can give an opportunity for emotions to be expressed another way. To shine a light into the darkness. It’s a complex idea and one that I suspect I’m going to be unpicking for a while, but what stuck with me was that idea of kindness. I have been moving closer to it for a while now, seeking it particularly in the children’s books I work with but also elsewhere. That acknowledgement that the world is a complex and challenging and intimidating space and that we are just people trying to do our best in it. Kindness. It’s hard to find in a book, hard to consciously seek it, but when you find it, you find a fat and rich and genuine warmth that sings of love and hope and belief in people in all of their foolish and idiosyncratic ways. Kindness.

And so I came to Collecting Sticks by Joe Decie, a comic book that I’d seen reviewed elsewhere and ordered at the library as a consequence (reviews! they work! colour me stunned!). It is a beautiful, beautiful book and I loved it. It’s a slender, elegant visual note, rendered in a black and white wash and wry notes and asides towards the reader. It’s autobiographical, covering a glamping trip undertaken by Decie’s family, but rather deliciously global in the same way; Decie focuses on the moments at the heart of his panels and lets the white space of the page or the quietly focused background of the panel provide that universal backdrop that means these moments of family and conversation could, perhaps, be in your house right now. It’s delicately done and all rather wonderful.

Seek this out if you’re a little tired with the world, or if you’re looking for something to remind you of the intense potential of people. Collecting Sticks has such a delightful warm rhythm to it that it beats with family life, of closeness and of love. It’s eccentric, funny, and self-conscious, and it’s full of utterly delightful beats. And it is full of kindness. Warmth. Empathy. Love.

This is a beautiful, beautiful little book.

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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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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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The Yellow Room : Jess Vallance

The Yellow RoomThe Yellow Room by Jess Vallance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t know what to expect from this. I picked it up because of the cover, and for some reason came home from the library with a handful of yellow books. Perhaps colour-based selection will be my new method when I’m not sure what to get; after all, it worked perfectly here. This is a hell of a book and it is surprising. It’s not often that I get to use that about a thriller because we are so familiar with what they do. We are trained to look for twists and turns and lies and deceit but sometimes a book just throws itself in a direction that you don’t expect. And when it does it well, oh that’s a good moment indeed.

The Yellow Room is outstanding.

The central protagonist, Anna, received a letter from her father’s girlfriend, Edie. It is unexpected: her father is dead, and Edie would like to meet her. The two start to form a close relationship and Edie provides much of the mothering that Anna lacks and needs – her own mother is preoccupied with work, and their relationship is deeply fractured. Yet Edie has problems and secrets of her own;, and secrets always have a way of being found out…

Vallance’s writing is calm and controlled and wickedly strong. It’s hard to write something like this because the temptation is to strew it with Conscious Things That You Should Pay Attention To. Vallance doesn’t do this; she laces her work with a sort of conscious believeablity throughout and everything that is within it is sort of normal and okay and then, when the shifts come and Things Happen, you sort of can’t process it because it’s so out of the blue and yet, in a way, it was there all along. That is an awful sentence but it’s the nearest I can come towards conveying the experience of this book. The last third, in particular, is vital and tense and brilliant.

I also loved how Vallance didn’t seek the easy way out. I’m starting to cleave towards these texts that treat every individual within them as human. Adults, child, all of them. No character left behind, no character placed in just as a cardboard cut out. Everyone has motivation, depth and when they do the things they do it is understandable. It is sympathetic, even when they are awful and unconscionable things. Give me depth, and I will follow you to the moon and back. I really will.

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