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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The State of Grace : Rachael Lucas

The State of GraceThe State of Grace by Rachael Lucas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grace, the titular heroine of The State of Grace, has Aspergers. She also has a horse, and a boy that she sort of likes but doesn’t quite know how to act with. Coupled with this her dad is on long work trips overseas, her mother is starting to act weird, and her sister has secrets of her own, there’s a lot going on. Throw in a horse, some nice little nerdy in-jokes, and you’ve got quite a charming story driven by an intense sense of heart. I liked The State Of Grace. It’s a little messy, a little tumbly, a little disjointed, but unerringly driven by a sense of love and a determination to let Grace tell her story.

I really appreciate Lucas for centring Aspergers within this. People look for reflections of themselves within literature, and even more so when it comes to children and young adult. Whether that’s a drive driven by the adults or the young readers themselves is a debate for another time, but it happens. It’s one of the most consistent questions I get asked, irrespective of context. “Do you have a book about…?” Where The State Of Grace shines is both in its frankness of discussing Aspergers but also in the additional material at the back which covers more about the issue.

I also really loved the horse element in this. Grace has an Arab called Mabel, and that’s something we don’t often see in contemporary young adult. Her relationship with Mabel is sensitively told, and gives Grace both a sense of power and responsibility. It comes towards the fore at the end of the book and though I won’t spoil the incident in question, the reaction on Grace’s part is immensely true to life.

Tonally, The State of Grace has a lot to pay back towards the old Pullein-Thompson books but also towards a modern sort of romance vibe. It’s very genuine and somewhat innocent in feel, but really sort of determinedly charming with that. I liked this. Also, on a slightly tangential note, I would definitely welcome more male representation in texts of this nature. I really hope The State Of Grace signifies the start of that movement and of that discussion.

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Wuthering Heights : Emily Brontë

Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s odd, sometimes, how a book holds a consciousness in your brain before you have ever read a single page of it. Wuthering Heights is embedded somewhere in there, somewhere near Kate Bush and somewhere near the moorland that turns to grey and steel on an Autumn morning.

A while back I read my first ever Jane Austen. I have now read my first ever Brontë. These aren’t books that sit comfortably within my world; I am somebody who reads a lot, but I, as everyone does, have my grooves. So I went to Emily and to Wuthering Heights, prompted somewhat by To Walk Invisible in the hope to finally read a Brontë and to step out of those grooves once more. It’s good to do that every now and then.

So.

How long can I put off telling you what I thought about this book?

Everyone is horrible. Everyone is horrible and Northern with a capital By ‘Eck (I am Northern and stuggled substantially with the dialect of the novel), and everyone just gets horribler (forgive me, but it’s the only way I can express it) throughout the novel. It’s not an easy read. It also somewhat baffles me as to how I had grouped Heathcliff in ‘Fictional Attractive Gentlemen Whom Everyone Has A Crush On’ because he too is hideous. And the dog thing! I admit that I got to a point with Wuthering Heights where I grabbed the nearest person to me and said, “Do you know what’s gone on now?” and told them and then we discussed how on earth that sort of thing goes on and then the weather and the buses, for we are British and that is what we do.

I shall take a deep breath now, and restore a semblance of normality to this novel. Emily Brontë can write, undoubtedly. She burns with this sort of wild anger and love, so often the same thing here, and her description of landscape is superb. Ineffably so. These are lived in moors and known spaces; and I think it is in those moments that the novel worked for me. I write about the representation of landscape in my thesis and so it is a topic close to my heart. The setting of a scene can tell you everything before anyone has even opened their mouths.

But Heathcliff is not a hottie. Everyone else is moronic. Everything else is angry.

This isn’t a book about love, not really.

It’s a book about selfishness. It’s a book about locking the door and locking the world far away, and for me, as a reader located within that world, I felt invasive. Wuthering Heights screams to be read and fights, furiously, to hold its story to itself. Perhaps that’s it, right there. Perhaps that’s it.

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