13 Minutes -Sarah Pinborough

When I was in my teens I remember going to my local library and feeling very mature because I had progressed to the ‘teen reading’ section. I was also very annoyed because the section was never – never – kept in any kind of order. According to the librarian most teens found the idea of order oppressive (although I don’t think she used those words) which we can add to the list of ‘not quite truths’ that adults persist in telling themselves about teens. You know the stuff, teens don’t speak apart from grunts, teens are self-centred, teens are rude, lazy, and ignorant. In my experience most of this is untrue (most of the time) – teens are as mixed a range of personalities as adults and some of them put adults to shame as carers, volunteers and workers.

These days libraries may be changing the name of their ‘teen’ sections to ‘young adult’ and therein lies a new problem. What’s the difference between teen and YA fiction? I don’t think I know the answer but after reading various opinions I think I’m going to plump for an emphasis on ‘adult‘. We are even thinking of splitting the teen section at work into two – one for younger teens, up to about 14 or so, and the rest for older or more mature young people who can deal emotionally with more content of a sexual or violent nature. It isn’t even purely about age: I know some who can cope, quite maturely, with stories featuring graphic scenes of rape or bullying, at 13 and others who don’t want to deal with that kind of thing even as proper adults. Anyway, I suspect this is a discussion which will go on for a long time – especially now that issues of gender identity, mental health and racism feature so much more obviously and are not so much hidden away.

This is all relevant to the most recent book I have read to review, 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough, as it seems to me to fall quite clearly into the YA category rather than being suitable for younger teens. The story centres on Tasha, beautiful, clever, popular and fighting to remember how she came to fall into a freezing river. She was dead for 13 minutes and can’t work out who would want to kill her, but her best friends (and fellow ‘Barbies’ in the eyes of embittered childhood bff, Becca) are acting suspiciously. 13

This is a great thriller with lots of plot twists. Think of a high school Gone Girl. Or Cluedo where the correct answer is ‘in the 6th Form Common Room with a set of GHDs’. Pinborough is absolutely spot on with the life of teenaged girls (and boys), what is important (status within friendship groups) and what isn’t (parental approval). It is quite chilling and makes me glad I’m not a teenager in today’s world. Part of the plot involves a school production of The Crucible and it is easy to see the parallels to the play’s atmosphere of passion, the protection of reputations and the way a community can turn against a member who is different.

I can’t say much more about the plot without major spoilers so I won’t. Suffice it to say that my final thought were that it was fitting to refer to the girls in this story as ‘Barbies’ – after all they are toys, made to be played with. To be manipulated…

Jane

The Ballroom – Anna Hope

Some authors seem to have a natural home – a place or an era perhaps – which seems to suit them best. Nobody could deny, for example, that Terry Pratchett was a true son of the Discworld, or that J.K. Rowling knows Hogwarts better, perhaps, than she know our humdrum, everyday world. Although maybe these are poor examples – Good Omens is my favourite Pratchett novel (I just loved what they did with the M25…) and I was deeply moved and angered by the realism of Rowlings’ The Casual Vacancy (book more than tv adaptation…). Anyway, what I mean to say is that it shows when an author is writing about a time or place which they really know well. When, for example, they have done such great research into a period that they write about it as if they are living it.

Anna Hope’s first novel, Wake, was one of the very many published in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. I read a few of them, and a couple of the classics of the genre, but I have to say Anna’s book stood out for me. The setting, just after the end of the war, and the main characters, women affected by either the loss or return of the fighting men, made it just that little bit different. The Ballroomanna hope is set just a few years before the war, in 1911, but Anna’s research for the whole period – when stiff Victorian values were giving way to a more modern era – is obviously put to great use once again.

The setting is an asylum near Ilkley Moor – based on the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at Menston. This fascinating building and its past will be familiar to many in the Bradford district from the books of local photographer Mark Davis – in fact these are mentioned in the author’s note at the end of the novel – and this story creates very plausible lives for the inmates and staff. At one level we have a love story: that of Ella and John, who meet each week at dances held in the asylum’s ballroom, held as an experiment in treating the inmates via music. On the other hand we also have an exposure of the lives of the poor in the last days before the war – an era when anger, kicking against the pricks of work in a noisy, dirty and dangerous factory, or depression, brought on by the death of a beloved child and increased by betrayal, poverty and destitution, could lead to incarceration and dehumanisation.

There is, obviously, a darker side to the story. As if the detention of men and women for what would, today, be considered everyday mental health issues is not bleak enough the practice of eugenics rears its ugly head. This was a practice which had many serious followers in the early part of the twentieth century – rather chillingly the main approach as shown in this book is to demonise those among the poor who are considered undeserving, ungrateful or unruly. Charles, the young doctor at the asylum who advocates eugenics is as well drawn as John and Ella. To my view he seems to show less humanity, less sanity, than most of the inmates. Add in some fascinating secondary characters, tragic Clem and the irrepressible Dan, and I was gripped from beginning to end.

I know I am making this sound like a rather depressing story but it really isn’t. Ella and John are so alive, their feelings for each other so tender, that they could redeem any amount of bleakness. Maybe, like the moors themselves, this book has the perfect blend of the bleak and the beautiful.

Jane

 

 

The Tiger & the Wolf – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Way back in the 1980s I, like millions of others, was fascinated by Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series of books. They were meticulously researched and a fascinating, fictionalised, view of early human societies in prehistoric Europe. Oh, and the odd raunchy scene didn’t hurt, obviously. Ask me now though and I’ll say I enjoyed them for their plausible depiction of the rituals and hunting practices of Cro-Magnon man…

One area that Jean Auel explored in this series was that of totem animals – the heroine’s totem animal was the cave bear – and their links to shamanic religion. Which seems to be a much more serious aspect of all those ‘which animal are you really’ quizzes on Buzzfeed and the like – and this is what the basis of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Tiger & the Wolf boils down to. tiger wolfI’ve not previously read any of Adrian’s books but, rather oddly, we do have mutual friends. To be honest, given his background as a Leeds-based author, his law connections and experiences of role-playing (both tabletop and live action) I’m actually more surprised that we haven’t met. (I’d better add him to my wish-list of authors to try and persuade to do events in the bookshop…)

This book, which is firmly in the fantasy camp, seems to be a slight change of pace from his usual sci-fi novels but, to be honest, I personally prefer fantasy as a genre. And I did enjoy the fantasy, shape-shifting aspects of the story – particularly since it seemed to be explained consistently in the book’s own rationalisation of itself. I do love a well thought-out, self-consistent, fictional world.

I liked the character development too, with the heroine Maniye learning not only to deal with the potentially fatal problem of having two totems battling within her but also coming to terms with her bullying father. The two narratives, Maniye’s and that of the southerner Asmander, gradually move closer together until a dramatic final battle scene. I did wonder if we would have some kind of romance developing between these two but luckily this was avoided. I do enjoy a good love story but it would have been rather out of place here. This is, apparantly, the first part of a trilogy so maybe – when the fighting calms down – this will be explored further in a later novel.

Jane

P.S. The jacket of this book is beautiful. I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but I feel I shall be stroking this whenever I pass by a copy.

Nelly Dean – Alison Case

I’m a big advocate for reading books in their correct setting. When I went to Carcassonne I took a copy of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth (and a history of the Cathars) with me. I read Shadow of the Wind in Barcelona and took the Third Man to Vienna. To be fair, I don’t have to read a book in its proper geographical location – I’m not keen on long haul flights so I’d never get to read anything set in Australia or the States. Which would be limiting to say the least (and The Martian would have been right out of the question). But if I am travelling to a place I do like to seek out something appropriate.

Of course, I spend far more of my time closer to home – travelling the world for ten months of the year will have to wait until I win the lottery – which could, in some cases, mean a rather limited range of books. I am, however, lucky enough to live in Yorkshire which means even if I ‘read local’ I have some wonderful parts of the country to focus on. Even better, I live close to Haworth so I get, in my view, the best of all possible worlds when it comes to classics too. (As someone who still can’t get on with Dickens I am eternally glad I don’t live in Kent…) And my latest review is of a book which takes a Brontë classic and looks at it from a new position.

nelly deanI’ll be honest here – Wuthering Heights is not my favourite Brontë novel. It probably doesn’t even make the top three because I just can’t forget the moment when I realised that Heathcliff isn’t a romantic hero but a wife-beating bully but, luckily for me, this book focuses on the character of Nelly Dean, the housekeeper-narrator of Emily’s novel rather than Heathcliff or Cathy. We know from the original that Nelly had been brought up alongside Hindley and Catherine, that she was a servant in the household by the time Heathcliff appears on the scene and that she was an integral part of the whole story of Wuthering Heights. What this book does is fill in some of the blanks, particularly in terms of Nelly’s emotions and motives.

What I particularly enjoyed was the way that the tone and language seemed to me to be very close to that of the Brontës – although, oddly, rather closer to the moderate voice of Charlotte than to Emily’s more dramatic tones.  I also liked the way that this book, while acknowledging that Wuthering Heights is an isolated place, helps to set the house within its surrounding villages, farms and towns. Don’t forget, I live near Haworth – I’ve seen how many buildings would have been around in the mid-1800s…

Jane

 

Sweetgirl – Travis Mulhauser

We’ve been having some funny old weather for the last few months – well, funny if you find rain hilarious – but recent reports from the USA have made me fairly glad that we’ve not been having that amount of snow. I mean, look at the name of this blog – we always get more than our fair share of wintry weather up here in BD13 (but if we flood the water is 1,000 feet deep so everybody is in big trouble….). Anyway, as usual I digress. But mostly because my latest review is for a book which features, among other things, an awful lot of very bad weather.

sweetgirlSweetgirl is a slim book – 250 odd pages – but don’t let that fool you. Like its heroine, Percy James, it packs much more of a punch than you would expect. I really liked Percy – a sixteen year old who has had a hard childhood, mostly looking after her addict mother, and yet is still funny, feisty and flawed – and I was on the edge of my seat for most of the book as she is pitched against a blizzard, a bunch of small-town drug-lords and an apparantly abandoned baby. There is a great deal of tenderness in Percy’s dealings with the child and with her mother’s ex-partner Portis but you are impressed with the grit that enables her to keep going against the odds.

Oddly, the character who fascinated me the most was Shelton Potter – the local drug dealer who has been supplying Percy’s mother and seems to rule the area (so long as his uncle, the real power in the region, is sitting out the winter in Florida). He is violent and thoughtlessly brutal but I can’t help but feel sorry for him. It isn’t that he is self-pitying – what touched me was seeing how he is unable to see how wicked he is. In his eyes he is a good man, who loves his dog and is doing all he can to ‘rescue’ the missing baby, while we watch him bully his henchmen and take every stimulant he can lay his hands on.

This is Travis Mulhauser’s first novel – I look forward to seeing where he goes next as he is undoubtedly talented.

Jane

 

 

Laughing All The Way to the Mosque – Zarqa Nawaz

As I may have mentioned previously (I’d say stop me if I’m becoming a bore but that is a risky thing to say…) I do not have a religious faith. However, I’m a firm believer in understanding the faiths of others – and one of the best parts of living in Bradford is that I have lots of people to discuss these things with. Call me old-fashioned but I’d rather learn about Islam from talking to and reading the works of Muslims than trusting the tabloid press. Actually, to be fair, I’d probably not want to trust the tabloid press on much at all but I guess I’ll let them give me the football results…

MosqueIn Zarqa Nawaz’s Laughing All The Way to the Mosque I think I have found a great introduction to the realities of being a Muslim woman in the twentieth century west. There isn’t a huge amount here about the practice of the Islamic faith – Nawaz is not proselytising and doesn’t expect to convert her readers – but there is a lot about practicalities. About why a wash-basin within reach of the loo is the ideal and whether leg-shaving is un-Islamic. You know, the normal stuff. In fact what a large part of the book is about is cultural rather than religious – and often the younger generation are as concerned about the culture they live in as in the one their parents came from. In Nawaz’s case she is more interested in how to fit into Canadian society than into that of Pakistan.

What really sealed the deal for me, however, was how funny the writing is. We rattle through the author’s childhood and education – she seems to have been like most kids the world over, interested in food, fitting in and feeling she knows better than her parents (especially in her teens) – and, once her future career as a doctor falls through after a nasty case of not passing any of the exams, we approach the subject of marriage. Again there is the clash between a modern girl wanting to fall in love (or at least make her own choice of husband) and parents who have had a happy arranged marriage so don’t see why an alternative is necessary. In all these areas, and into her career as a journalist and writer, we see that Zarqa Nawaz is a fast-talking, well-meaning but slightly accident prone woman.

The main part of this book is about Zarqa’s married life. She obviously loves her husband and adores her children but, like any modern woman, she still wants a career. This eventually develops into her work writing a sit-com called Little Mosque on the Prairie – which sounds as if it was everything Citizen Khan wanted to be (but never quite managed). We can see that some of the more conservative elements of Canadian Islam were not amused but, hopefully, this is the kind of writing which will show us the things which we all have in common no matter what our religious or cultural background. I wonder if I can find any episodes of Little Mosque online – it sounds like a sitcom which would travel well?

Jane

Barbara the Slut & Other People – Lauren Holmes

I was talking the other day about whether I’d like to be young (in my twenties perhaps) again and the general consensus was yes – but not these days. We had our problems in the 80s but youth today seems to be an absolute minefield! With property ownership being a distant dream for many, young people are often reliant on their parents for many years longer than we were and with jobs hard to come by in their chosen field they may end up with all kinds of unusual work-experience.

barbaraThe stories in this collection seem to illustrate this odd kind of existence. They focus on young women (principally, although one story is from a young man’s point of view and one from that of a rescue dog) who are not fully independent of their parents, who are not yet settled into their relationships, or, indeed, their sexuality. They are not stories full of great drama – in fact, to be fair, very little really happens – but that also seems quite true of reality for young people these days. I’m not going to join the ranks of the middle-aged who knock the young for not being dynamic enough – we, frankly, didn’t exactly set the world on fire – and I think I can understand how a mundane and boring life presents its own problems. In these stories, as in life, the answer to boredom appears to be sex. What makes them even more realistic is the almost total lack of eroticism to their sexual experiences.

Don’t read these stories if you need excitement in your literature. But they are an interesting volume to flick through if you want to appreciate some of the more apparently mundane aspects of modern life, and to see how they can be described with a certain amount of dry humour.

Jane