100 Essential Books – The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne (2006)

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Irish author John Boyne has been one of the best finds for me in recent years.  My introduction to his work is my 2017 Reviewsrevues Book of the Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and this year both “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” and his latest “A Ladder To The Sky” have been five star reads.

 This is the book which made his name and although I have had it on my shelves for some years had never got round to reading it, despite my partner telling me it was one of the best books he has ever read.  I have seen the 2008 film adaptation and it’s taken me quite a while to get over it!

 This may very well be one of the saddest books ever.   I knew what was going to happen because of the film and yet I consciously chose to read the ending in the public place of on the bus, thinking I would be less likely to break down in tears but it was a close run thing!

 Boyne adopts an impassive narrative style making his writing reminiscent of a fairy tale or something within the oral tradition with its matter of fact sentences and fair amount of repetition for emphasis (for both the listener and the main character).  This is a book which would read aloud extremely well.  (Philip Ridley also did this very successfully with his much lighter tale “Krindlekrax”- a huge favourite of mine).  This oral feel is powerful and draws the reader in but also provides some emotional distance from the action which may initially protect from some of the horror but it also carefully and cleverly informs the plot making it all very believable.  The narrator sees everything from nine year old Bruno’s point of view but allows us to read between the lines with ever-mounting trepidation. 

 Like Pierrot in “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” Bruno is forced to relocate to a home very different from what he has been used to.  For Bruno this means with his family but away from his beloved grandparents left behind in Berlin.  In this new place which he pieces together is called “Out-With” there is no one to play with and instead of the view of Berlin from his bedroom window he sees groups of men and boys in pyjamas behind a wire fence.  His decision to go exploring to combat his loneliness cannot end well.

 Also like Pierrot in the later novel at times Bruno’s interpretation of events feels insufferable but perhaps more comprehensible because of the lack of communication with his family, which allows such a distorted picture of his environment to be developed.  His view of the world is formed solely through his ignorance, there is not much that he gets right and that is a powerful thing to take from this novel.

 Despite John Boyne’s development as a writer in the 9 years between this and the unofficial companion piece of “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” this eclipses it in terms of power and importance.  It is a book which works well in the Children’s, YA and Adult sections of the bookshop.  Frankly, everyone should read it.  The film version, although good lacks the power of Boyne’s words and style.

 Of those novels I have read which gives a child’s perspective of wartime only “The Book Thief” is better and that is arguably my all-time favourite novel.  John Boyne continues his ascent as one of my all-time favourite authors.

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 The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was first published in 2006.  I read the 2008 Definitions paperback version.

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Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green & David Levithan (2010)

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I’m always fascinated when two people write a novel together.  What is the actual process?  Do they write alternate chapters, like the husband and wife who write as Nicci French, with one writer ending in cliffhangers that the other has to get out of or does one do the bulk of the work and uses the name of the writer with the bigger reputation to help sales, as I suspect some of our more prolific writers who are writing in tandem with others must operate.

 I found out how the writers of this 2010 Young Adult novel worked in a conversation between them printed at the back of the book and this partnership and process makes sense.  The novel is about two American teens with the same name who meet up in complex circumstances befitting a YA novel midway through the proceedings.  The boys have alternate narratives throughout the book helmed by one of the authors.

 John Green’s Will Grayson is overshadowed in every sense by his larger than life gay best friend Tiny Cooper.  They have stuck together since Little League with Will’s strong sense of justice proving him always ready to come to the defence of his friend from those who disapprove of him.  This is in spite of Will’s philosophy for life being to keep quiet wherever possible and to try not to care, which just isn’t working, particularly when he gets interested in Jane, one of Tiny’s entourage and another member of the High School Gay-Straight Alliance.

 David Levithan’s Will Grayson is prone to depression, has a simmering anger, knows he is gay and doesn’t yet feel the need to proclaim it.  He writes entirely in lower case, which I initially really didn’t like as it’s hard to follow but I get why the author has done this for what it says about Will’s self-perception.

 This is a brash, very American book.  Tiny decides to mount a musical production of his life story and he is the link between the two Wills.  It took quite a while for me to see Tiny as anything else but cartoonish and implausible but he did manage to win me over.  There’s such great self-assurance in these characters, if only they can tear themselves away from social media, even from those who claim to feel anything but self-assured.  I think if I were a British teenager reading this such confidence would alarm me.  A whole musical gets staged without seemingly that much effort and their put downs to one another seem so resolutely sharp that I longed for more comradeship between them.  This is, after all, a novel about friendship.  The characters seem ready to rush into relationships without having friendship in a way which made me feel, well, just old and out of touch with modern youth.

 I do know that I’m not the target audience here but I think that even as a teen I might have liked the tone pitched a little subtler and a little less casual and I cannot recall a YA novel where a significant location is a porn shop.  However, if you come across this novel at the right age and with the right frame of mind I’m sure it could become a highly valued book with its own particular bespoke message to tell.  It does have a big heart at its centre and it did make me laugh out loud.

 Since the publication of this novel in 2010 John Green has achieved major bestseller success with “The Fault In Our Stars” and David Levithan’s subsequent work has been praised for its strong young gay characters.  I think they probably have both done better work independently but I did largely enjoy this collaboration and see it as a brave attempt to inject some serious sparkle into the Young Adult genre, which can at time take itself a little too seriously.

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Will Grayson, Will Grayson was published by Speak books in 2010.

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness (2008) – A Running Man Review

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The first book in British author Patrick Ness’ “Chaos Walking” trilogy really does span boundaries.  Aimed at a teen audience it works well for adult readers.  Its Sci-Fi/Fantasy elements are well thought out and do not get in the way of first class storytelling and there’s so much running in it that I’ve classed it amongst my adventure novel/running man thread.

I’ve never read Patrick Ness before but I know he has many fans mainly through this trilogy and “A Monster Calls” which was recently made into a film.  Main character Todd Hewitt is approaching manhood as a settler in a New World.  A battle with aliens living on the planet has wiped out the human female population, made animals talk and all men’s thoughts expressed out loud as “The Noise”.  Todd makes a discovery which challenges all he has been told and the only option open to him is to run.

Patrick Ness has got me eating my words as here he does something I normally gripe about yet here it works.  Much of the novel is written in present tense.  I moaned about this in Andrew Pyper’s “Demonologist” a horror novel made significantly less scary as a lot of the action becomes reported rather than letting us readers experience it.  Ness avoids this largely because of his “The Noise” device.  With all thoughts coming out as a stream Todd’s narrative can be filled with interactions from other characters which enables it to remain in the present.

It makes for action all the way and works here as a narrative style just about as well as it can.  It also makes it quick to read but it can feel a little like it is all on one level.  He maintains a fairly high octane pace throughout which may frustrate readers looking for a little more light and shade.  Being much older than the intended audience I wasn’t sure about the talking animals but I was soon won over by Todd’s dog Manchee who becomes a great character in his own right.  Animals in novels always cause me anxiety in case bad things happen to them.  (I’ve discussed this before on here.  I can read all kinds of things happening to humans without flinching but put an animal in the mix and I become squeamish.  I used to think that odd, but a number of you have agreed with me).  The relationship between Todd and his dog adds much to the novel.

This kind of dystopian future feels right on trend and if this appeals then I’d urge you to seek this book out as it is so well done.  The world in which they live is revealed to us very much as it’s revealed to Todd and that provides a great opening for the trilogy.  We’re left with a cliffhanger and the edition I read had a bonus short story “The New World” (published 2013), which, because I knew by then how it fits into the general narrative proved to be chilling reading.  The whole thing would seem to be of lasting appeal to young adult readers and possesses the qualities to win over a much wider audience.

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The Knife Of Never Letting Go was first published by Walker Books in 2008

Cirque Du Freak- Darren Shan (Harper Collins 2000) – A Kid-Lit Review

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There’s clever things going on here.  This is the first in the series of twelve books under the title “The Saga of Darren Shan” written by Darren Shan and narrated by Darren Shan.  I had to Google to find out just who Darren Shan is.  There’s not that many clues in the book.  I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be set in the UK, Europe or Australia/New Zealand- which would lead all these markets to identify closely with the work.  I discovered that Darren Shan is Irish author Darren O’Shaughnessy who has also written the eight book Demonata series for older children/teens.  There’s also the 13 book “Zom-B”, a number of other series and books written for adults under the name Darren Dash. (You have to enter your date of birth on his website to find this out, not wanting to encourage children to seek out his adult horror).  A prolific writer and this is the book that started everything off.

For the sake of the story the main character Darren is a schoolboy.  I liked the flaws in his character which are evident from the start.  He tells us things are going to get bad for him and they actually get worse than I was expecting in this introductory tale.  He kicks off with a prologue in which he details his fascination with spiders leading to his parents buying him a tarantula for a pet.  Things go bad when, after watching a cartoon character being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner and emerging unscathed he tries it on his spider with predictably grisly results.  Darren also lies and steals in this novel so is certainly not squeaky clean and that is likeable in a novel for older children.

One of Darren’s friends finds a flyer for a secret freak show.  Entry by invitation only.  What Darren discovers at the freak show will change his life for good.

Arachnophobes may not get beyond the  prologue but if they do there are a few more challenges ahead.  In fact, the whole thing is rather creepy and really quite effective.  I could imagine if I was twelve years old I’d be reading the series end to end and perhaps not getting that much adult approval because of it.

Writer Darren sets up character Darren’s predicament well and on completion you can tell that there is significant mileage in this series.  For an author who is undeniably churning them out it doesn’t feel like a tale churned out, although, of course this is the first of the series.  For an adult reader it’s a quick, guilty pleasure type read, recalling the days of staying up late to watch TV horror films and getting the odd frisson from “Scooby Doo”.  For older children it’s a move on from the likes of the “Goosebumps” books but with a stronger  structure and more authentic chills.

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Cirque Du Freak was first published by Harper Collins in 2000.

Only We Know – Simon Packham (Piccadilly 2015)- A Kid-Lit Review

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ssh3 This is a hard review to write because I don’t want to give away any secrets.  In fact, Simon Packham should get readers to sign an agreement whereby they give away as little as possible about this young adult novel.  Sixteen year old Lauren has a secret which has caused her family to relocate and for her to start a new school and that secret is so central to the plot.  Who else knows about it and whether she will be found out is a major preoccupation for her.

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This is placed within a convincing school story with the setting of St Thomas’ Community College, a location which has featured in a number of the author’s previous books.  Lauren needs to settle into the school, find new friends and there may even be romance in the air in her first term.

This book is geared perfectly towards its intended audience.  It all feels contemporary, relevant and authentic and in Lauren, Packham has an involving and fascinating main character.  I cannot remember when I enjoyed a young adult book more and Lauren’s secret kept me guessing throughout.    I wouldn’t want to be a member of a reading group who hadn’t quite finished the book when discussions about it began.  I suggest you look up nothing else about this book in case other reviewers are not as guarded as me.   My message to teenagers is read this book and pass your enthusiasm on, don’t Tweet or Facebook about the plot.  I’m off to discover more of Simon Packham’s books………………….

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fourstars

I have also reviewed this book for nudge-books.com and newbooks magazine.

Only We Know was published by Piccadilly in 2015

 

Sentinel – Joshua Winning (2014) – A Kid-Lit Review

imagesYC433BKVsentinelIn an August which turns from heatwave to winter desperate events are occurring. Fifteen year old Nicholas’ life is torn apart when his parents are killed in a train crash and it becomes apparent he did not know them as well as he thought he did. There is something special about him and he needs protecting from the forces of evil that are beginning to gather around him. This debut Young Adult novel is the first part of a trilogy in what is quite a flooded market. There are elements of a darker Harry Potter and this does separate itself from the glut of American teen series titles by having a strong British feel and a Cambridge area setting. I would have liked to have seen more depth to the main character, his grief at sudden loss is convincingly done but there’s not enough teenager in this characterisation, which seems like a missed opportunity. Some of the supporting cast are more strongly portrayed. Plot-wise, does it achieve a balance between setting up the next two novels and providing a wholly satisfactory read ? I’m not totally convinced. With so many young adult series novels around I fear this title might get lost, unless someone is willing to commit to a TV/film adaptation and then Joshua Winning could be on to the next big thing.

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