Wing Jones : Katherine Webber

Wing JonesWing Jones by Katherine Webber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the first things to note about Wing Jones is the beautiful production values that surround it. There’s a lot to be said for noting how people publish a novel. A lot of them exist in the world. A lot. How do you make yours stand out? How do you make yours sing of the faith and the hours and the money and the love that you have poured into it? In the case of Wing Jones, it’s a dynamic cover and some beautiful ombre page edges that shift from pink through to purple and oh, it’s beautiful. It says so much when publishers do this sort of thing because the book itself, it becomes something a little bit more eye-catching, a little bit prouder, a little bit more determined to make its mark.

And Wing Jones does, immensely. It’s the story of Wing Jones who doesn’t easily fit in. She has one grandmother from China and another from Ghana, and knows the problems of figuring out who you are in the world first hand. Her brother, Marcus, though, he’s working it out a lot easier than her. But then something terrible happens and it’s down to Wing to figure out who she is all by herself, save for the help of a magical dragon and lioness who come to her in the night. It’s a fiercely contemporary novel which deals with some stark issues and yet, there’s that touch of magical realism to it. A poetic of space, somehow, that twists the world that Wing’s in and makes it something else. Something that she can control. Something that she can run in.

It’s Webber’s debut novel this and there were a few moments where I’d have liked it being crafted in a slightly different manner, but I say this in the light of the great achievement that this book is. I am picky, undoubtedly so, because I think Webber’s quite remarkable with her language and oh, how I want more of that. She writes with a cadence that I’ve not found for a while, a sort of musical rhythm to her paragraphs, twists of languages and sudden symphonic sentences. And that, is perhaps more than anything, the reason I recommend Wing Jones. Webber’s language, her ability to craft a world that is rarely written of, and her ability to make that sing, utterly, and to make it beat like the pounding of your first-fallen-in-love-heart is quite something. Wing Jones is good. Extremely. Utterly. But I suspect Webber’s next book might be even more so.

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Margot and Me : Juno Dawson

Margot & MeMargot & Me by Juno Dawson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s hard to write through tears and yet, here I am, pushing through and trying to capture what makes Margot and Me so rather utterly wonderful. It is wonderful. I have written a thousand sentences trying to capture the nuances of this beautiful and heartfelt novel and I don’t think I’m anywhere near capturing it.

But I will try, and it starts with how Dawson understands character. She writes thick and fat and full and round people, believable people, understandable people, and this book is one that it’s hard to step away from. I love it. I love Dawson’s writing and how she crafts something so perfectly nuanced and, when it needs to be, kind.

Margot and Me is a split narrative between present day, where Fliss and her mother have moved to her grandmother’s farm in Wales, and the second world war diaries of her grandmother. Fliss’ mother is recuperating from chemotherapy and the farm stay is to help her recover. But Fliss’ grandmother, the redoubtable Margot, is not the easiest person to live with. It is only when Fliss discovers Margot’s WW2 diaries and starts reading them that she comes to figure out a few things about her…

Margot and Me inhabits a very distinct ground and it owns that ground so clearly and distinctly and so brightly and so perfectly. Think of the perfect A Little Love Song, think of Carrie’s War, think of The Other Way Round, and you’ll have an idea where this ferociously contemporary and deeply sensitive and nuanced book is. It hybridises that second world war story of growing up in extraordinary times with a consciousness that life, living, whatever time it is, is complex and troublesome and hard and a story that is needing to be told.

And I am still crying over the way it so, so perfectly does that.

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A Brush With The Past : Shirley Hughes

A Brush With the Past: 1900 - 1950 The Years that Changed our LivesA Brush With the Past: 1900 – 1950 The Years that Changed our Lives by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was upon reading this that I came to realise something about Shirley Hughes and that is the great genuine humanity of her artwork. I have spoken before about how much I love her work (Alfie Gets In First possesses what is perhaps the most skilled usage of the picture book format I have ever seen) and A Brush With The Past is a rather wonderful addition to that canon. Canon. We don’t often use that word with children’s literature, or picture books, and it often gets fixed to something deeply removed from most people’s experience. The highest of terms. But in doing that, in allowing it to be taken and applied to work that perhaps deserves such a label yet achieves that at the exclusion of others, we do ourselves an injustice. So here I shall reclaim it. Shirley Hughes has a canon; it is a nuanced and smart and genuine and human and wonderful space which reflects all of what we are and all of what we could be. What skill this is, what skill.

A Brush With The Past is constructed on a quietly steady pattern, hinging on the dialogue between singular pages of information and lusciously rich double page spreads which detail the fifty years of history between the 1900s and 1950s. This spreads, human all, show different scenes from the period ranging from a family meal to lunching alone through to a business man’s meeting.

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It’s the double page spreads that make this book into something quite spectacular. The detailed little notes around the years are fabulous; alternatively exuberant or quiet, calm and vibrant, and burning with the eye of an observer. We know Hughes can draw, but this is somebody who can capture. These are moments of life; all of them grounded in the human experience and captured so very carefully. An artistic blink. But oh those double page spreads, the richness of them. I returned to them often in this book just to stare and to let the great power of Hughes’ work hit me. This is palpable, honest, heartfelt and loving art. Look at how a boy sat at the table could sit with both feet flat on the chair but instead doesn’t; look at the energy trapped in that left leg of his, and the raised sole of the right foot. He doesn’t want to be there any longer than he has to be. IMG_20170103_221733931.jpg

Look at the other end of the table; the vague outline of the bare-boned tree outside and the little tableau occuring between the two women. The ambition that she’ll eat it. That she’ll appreciate it. The certainty that she won’t. The cat lurking, ready to pick up any leftovers. This is what I mean when I talk about humanity; Hughes finds detail and she pushes her work full of it. IMG_20170103_221723239.jpg

The Journey : Francesca Sanna

The JourneyThe Journey by Francesca Sanna

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Journey is something rather special and painfully beautiful; it’s a picture book which retells the journey of a nameless family of refugees. Told in a mixture of calm double page spreads, and singular pages, the family have to leave their home after the war begins. They set off on a journey to “another country. A country far away with high mountains”; and it is a journey that has to go on without a member of the family. (I shall not spoil what happens to this member, suffice to say that it delivers one of the most poetic, restrained and pained double page spreads I have seen for a long while). The book ends on an unfixed note; the family are still traveling and the narrator sees some birds up above: “I hope, one day, like these birds, we will find a new home. / A home where we can be safe and begin our story again.” In an echo of these words, the final endpaper sees a birds eye view of a red train cutting through the landscape of an unknown country populated by trees and with mountains in the distance.

This book is endorsed by Amnesty International and it’s not hard to see why. The Journey treats its topic with a sensitive restraint and, through refusing to name either the countries involved or the people, invests the narrative with a pained every man quality. Sanna’s work here is vivid, quiet and subtle. It’s work that I suspect is for the slightly older edge of picture book readers and that’s simply due to the layering at work here. There’s so much going on in these wonderful, poetic, nuanced images. It’s Miyazaki meets The Last Unicorn meets an Aubusson tapestry meets a nightmare. Hard to describe, yet unforgettable.

There’s a dark edge to the aesthetic: scenes of familial bliss are edged by the dark edge of something threatening, whilst, in one of the most heart-rending scenes, the children sleep in their mother’s arms whilst she silently weeps into the night. As the text says, the children are unaware of this: “But mother is with us / and she is never scared. / We close our eyes and / finally fall asleep.” It is rare and brilliant work, this, and The Journey is something wonderful to end the year with this book. It is rather special and I hope a future classic.

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Username Evie : Joe Sugg

Username: EvieUsername: Evie by Joe Sugg

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Created by the ‘Sugg Squad’, and led by Joe Sugg who ‘created the storyline and characters and directed the project’; Username: Evie is a complex and often frustrating read. Yet, it’s equally important to note that it is a graphic novel with its heart in the right place. The central message is one of understanding the impact of your actions, and that being mean does have a consequence. It’s a message often lost in some frantic and overwrought panels, and quite confused writing, but it is still a dominant message throughout the comic. It’s not great, but it does try to do great things.

Evie is a fairly standard protagonist who doesn’t fit in. She lives with her dad, a terminally ill coder, who is secretly building a virtual environment for her to use after he passes. Following his death, and her discovery of his work, Evie experiences ‘e.scape’; where everything is perfect and wonderful and, as is always the way, this doesn’t last. A corrupting influence is thrown into the code and soon her idyll turns out to be something quite different.

It’s a beautifully produced book, drawn by Amrit Birdi and coloured by Joaquin Pereyra with letters by Mindy Lopkin, and the artwork is immensely accessible. Certain panels, particularly in the prologue, reminded me greatly of Fray and the visuals of Username: Evie situate themselves quite comfortably alongside such books (though I could happily step away from its obsession with perfectly crafted jawlines).

Where it struggles is the plot; there’s simply not enough time within this book for characters to develop further than their one-note beats, and where they do develop, their characteristics aren’t justified and instead read as a little bit weird. It’s as though it’s one of those creative writing exercises where you label a character with a trait pulled from a hat and forget, somehow, to make the rest work. Evie’s got this weird thing about hiding in the fridge when she’s stressed out. In. The. Fridge.

Though Matt Whyman is credited as “the person who took the story and created a gripping narrative”, I’m not sure where to apportion blame for the scrappy nature of Username : Evie and would, instead, lean towards a critique of the fact that this book doesn’t quite seem to know where or what it wants to be.

Username: Evie has its heart in the right place and tries to say the right thing; and has something immensely interesting to say about Evie’s father (the ethics of his actions are a whole novel in themselves and something the book barely considers), but it all gets a bit lost. There’s a good book underneath all of this, somewhere.

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No Virgin : Anne Cassidy

No VirginNo Virgin by Anne Cassidy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to review this. Much of my thoughts find themselves settling on the cover, which I love. I do, genuinely, love this brilliant and blunt cover. It is unabashed and unashamed which befits the topic immensely. Language has an immediacy, a wonderfully sharp immediacy, because once you understand it, you understand everything. Our conceptualisation of the word differs as to our own personal circumstances but, say, if you read the word ‘table’ and have an imaginative link to the idea of ‘table’, you understand that word. And we all understand ‘virgin’, really, especially in the young adult market which so often touches on this issue.

And yet, in coming from a library context and as a librarian, I wonder how this cover would fit and work in such a space. It is not that I am asking for this cover to be redacted, nor edited nor hidden, because that stands against all I have ever understood and believed in. Rather, I’m wondering how it fits in that space and whether it would, easily, live and thrive. (Books live in libraries, trust me on that, and some jostle their way to the front and others are hidden behind others and some barely even return to the shelves, and there is a lifeblood and system here that I will write upon some other day, I promise).

As a gatekeeper both virtually and within the real world, I work to make sure that books get read, that they get out there, and they get to the right reader, and I hope this does. I really hope it gets out there and it gets displayed face out, and people are ready to answer the queries of customers with the point that this story, this slim and bare-boned and blunt story, is something very vital indeed. Maybe that’s why this cover startles me and yet I love it; it’s a rare thing, and yet change has to come from somewhere. Something has to begin it.

Cassidy’s prose is direct and bare. It’s simple, at times, and that’s a sign of trust in the story and the way it needs to be told. Stacey Woods, the narrator, was raped. Following her confession to her best friend, she writes it down and retells the story, exactly as it happened. And what follows is a twist on the Cinderella story; a rags to riches to tense, horrible moments and back again. It’s sympathetic, genuine, and very very tautly told. There were a few moments when the prose danced around, but contextually this worked immensely well. It’s not an easy story to tell and Stacey embraces the distraction before slowly, tentatively telling her story. Of finding out what’s left of her. Of finding out where to go next and what to do.

For me, it read a little bit younger than work by Louise O’Neill, though it certainly stands with such books. No Virgin is important, really, because of the still dominant absence of such narratives and it’s one that I’d rather love to be read by all sexes. It’s slender, incisive, painful, and sharp. Unabashedly so.

And here’s the thing, that even amidst all my reflection about the role of that cover and the position of that book within the library system, that’s where I found it. And that cover is why I picked it up. It’s not a reach to suggest that the same thought process might happen in another library, with another reader, and that this book might change everything for them. This is important literature, and even though it’s maybe isolated and different literature, these are the sorts of books that form the bones of why libraries matter. Stand up for these books, stand up.

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The Loneliness of Distant Beings : Kate Ling

The Loneliness of Distant BeingsThe Loneliness of Distant Beings by Kate Ling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Seren is part of a multi-generational intergalactic crew, on a mission destined to last as long as her life several times over. The ship is all that she knows and all she’ll ever know. But then she falls in love; dizzy, drunk, but it’s the guy she can’t love and the rules won’t let it happen and they can’t be together, they can’t. Or can they?

An occasionally messy novel, yet oddly appealing, this is a romance story set against the impossible decision of a life that is not yours. Being part of the crew means that Seren is subject to rules and regulations such as who to marry, when to have children, and what jobs she must do. The system needs to keep running. People need to keep playing their part. Ship gotta fly, people gotta crew. When she falls in love with Dom, everything changes. She can’t do what she should – so it’s time for her to do what she shouldn’t.

I liked this; it’s messy and kind of frantically over-written in parts where not much actually happens, and it is ferociously predictable at points, but despite all of that there’s something deeply appealing about Ling’s chaotic, heartfelt prose. This is intense, vivid, selfish love. It’s about holding on when holding on is the last thing you feel like doing. And the premise is delightful, brilliant; how do you live a free life when all the choices have already been made for you? The Loneliness of Distant Beings is the first of a series, I think, so I’ll be back for the future. I’m intrigued. I suspect it’ll settle down and grow into something quite wonderful, because underneath it all, Ling’s prose is a joy and a love story set in space with echoes of The Tempest is something I’ll always sign up for. Give me chaos, and give me predictability, but if you give me heart, then I’m there. Passionate, stubborn, stupid heart.

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