Eve of Man – Giovanna & Tom Fletcher

Nobody wants to be typecast but it is really hard not to get a bit blinkered. Rowan Atkinson, for example, has played so many classic comic characters that it would be very hard to see him play a romantic lead. He could be, indeed probably would be, great but it was take more effort on our part than his to make it work. There are some authors like that – a gritty noir novel by Barbara Cartland or a YA romance from Dan Brown would be equally unlikely. Of course some writers do cross genres – I love Hugh Howey’s thoughtful science fiction but he has also written romance. This hasn’t gone down well with all his readers, however, as some feel he should stick to the dystopias he excels at. Other authors manage to write across genres by using alternative names (even if it is just sticking an extra initial in there, I’m looking at you Iain Banks…): everyone now knows that Robert Galbraith’s crime novels are written by J K Rowling. But how about if two authors, a husband and wife team, write a novel (the first in a series) which is a new departure for both of them? Giovanna Fletcher has made her name writing contemporary women’s fiction and Tom writes for children. How will the authors of Billy and Me and The Dinosaur That Pooped Christmas collaborate to create a dystopian novel suitable for teens (and adults)?

38467635In a dystopian future (where lots of my favourite books are set…) humankind has a big problem. For fifty years only male babies have been born: girls are, occasionally, conceived but are never carried to term. Gradually the population becomes skewed and women of childbearing age are fading fast until, at last, one girl-child, Eve, is born. Despite the care given to her by the best medical teams available the mother dies after delivering her baby and Eve and her father are moved into a vast tower block. After a while Eve’s father is sent away – for her safety, we are told – and Eve is raised by a group of older women, called Mothers, overseen by a rather sinister woman called Vivian and her only friend is a hologram called Holly*. Holly herself is guided by a small group of young men and, although Eve is never told about the different pilots used, she has a favourite. This is Bram, the son of the man who developed the technology behind Holly (who is a downright nasty piece of work too…), and when the two meet, during a set of very unusual circumstances since Eve is meant to be totally isolated from all men, they fall in love. These circumstances revolve around the fact that Eve is now sixteen and the time has come for her to begin the attempt to repopulate the planet with girls with one of three carefully chosen male candidates.

I began to book by trying to work out which passages or ideas were the work of which of the two authors but I was quickly too caught up in the story to care. The world surrounding Eve, which she is never allowed to see, is a bleak place where the remaining population have damaged the environment so badly it is hard to see what kind of world it would be to bring any kind of child into. Although she has always been protected Eve is beginning to question her future – she is a lot feistier than the average princess in an ivory tower – and this is just as well since we soon begin to realise that it would not be a pleasant one. I had one or two quibbles – in particular the way that Eve is dressed up, made up and presented as the epitome of young feminine beauty to meet the first of her prospective mates. Why should it matter – it is not as if they have to choose between her and other, less attractive girls? Some might complain about the fact that the story does develop into a romance of sorts but, given that humans will die out completely if repopulation doesn’t happen, that is fairly forgivable. The science side of the story is fairly standard – cryogenics, holograms and lots of meddling with human biology – but is made nicely sinister in contrast to Eve and Bram’s gently growing romance.

All in all this is an interesting addition to the YA dystopian genre. While the prospect of the way that Eve will be trapped into breeding the new generation – treated as nothing more than a brood mare – means that this is probably not suitable for younger teens it will be of interest to those who are interested in gender politics alongside their post-apocalypse. It isn’t quite The Handmaid’s Tale but would lead a reader there quite easily.

Jane

 

*I did pretty well at suppressing the urge to think of Holly from Red Dwarf when I saw this name. Although the change from female to male made me smile….

 

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Far From The Tree – Robin Benway

Young adult fiction seems to fall into a few distinct groups. There are straight-up romance novels, with or without a fantasy element, the ever-popular dystopian series and the odd zombie novel. Trends develop – vampires, faeries or teen spies – but some things don’t seem to change. There are always a lot of novels which highlight issues which are important to young people (or indeed, just to people) – issues of sexual identity, mental health, gender politics, race, and bullying, among others – in fact there are so many I’d be fairly certain this is proof that the older generation’s insistence that young people have no interest in politics is wrong: they just don’t often agree with the politics of their elders… Sometimes these are issues which are, arguably, of more interest to the young than the more mature reader: one such would be that of the fate of children in the care system.

36512193In Far From the Tree Robin Benway tells the story of three such children. First we meet Grace who, like so many young girls before her, becomes pregnant and decides that the best thing for her daughter is to give her up for adoption. Her parents, her loving, adoptive parents, support her in her decision even though it then leads her to finding about more about her biological family. Her birth parents remain elusive but she does meet up with two siblings she never knew she had – Maya, her younger sister, who is living with adoptive parents and a little sister, loved but sticking out like a sore thumb as the only brunette in a family of flaming redheads, and Joaquin, their older brother who has moved from foster home to foster home (although he is now settled with a couple who seem to want him as a part of their family). All three have their own secrets and fears which they reveal as they get to know each other and learn about the years since they were given up by their mother. The last secret to be told is Grace’s – how can she tell Maya and Joaquin, who are still angry with their mother for abandoning them, that she has given up her own baby?

I have no personal experience of the care system (in the UK let alone the US system this book is set in) so I can’t comment on its accuracy but some of the events ring true to how I think such things work. Girls are more likely to be adopted than boys, babies more likely than older children and white children more likely than those who are Hispanic/mixed race: all factors which work against Joaquin. That said, I really liked Joaquin as a character. He seems to be sensitive and caring – he becomes very protective of his sisters very quickly – as well as, sometimes, angry and unhappy. He pushes away those who try to care for him and the more we learn of his past the more I wanted to fight on his behalf. Although the book starts with Grace’s experiences it was her brother I cared about most. I wanted his ending to be the happiest of all – goodness knows, he’d earned it – even if I know that, statistically, this is unlikely.

In the end this is a book about family. Grace, Maya and Joaquin are bound by blood and by genetics. The families who take them in, or who have rejected them are also important to the story and we learn that there can even be love behind the decision to give up a child to others.

Jane

The Hazel Wood – Melissa Albert

Even when I’m reading a proper physical book rather than an e-galley I try not to read too much about a title before I start it. I might glance at the blurb but I will avoid other people’s reviews and the like – I quite like doing my own discovering. Often the blurb will give you a very accurate idea of what sort of book you are getting – a historical novel of the 14th century, a Regency romance or a children’s adventure story with rabbits – but sometimes it will appear to be one thing when you start reading and then, rather wonderfully, become something else entirely. The Hazel Wood turned out to be just such a story.

35997403At first the story involves Alice – who is seventeen, lives with her mother, step-father and step-sister, and goes to school and works weekends in a coffee shop. She and her mother spent many years moving around before this marriage: bad luck had dogged them all Alice’s life. Her earliest memories are of leaving – midnight flits, long car journeys and being made to feel unwelcome in a series of spare rooms and sofas. At first I thought this would be a novel about a feisty teen learning how to take her place in the more affluent, privileged world she finds herself in but then, well, it all started to go a lot darker.  The cover suggests that we may be about to enter the world of crime fiction or psychological thrillers but no – this is the world of magic, the supernatural and of fairy-tales.

Alice’s grandmother wrote a bestselling book of dark fairy tales set in a world called The Hinterland. But Alice has never met Althea Proserpine, her grandmother, the book is impossible to find (no matter how much money you offer) and after news of her death Alice’s mother vanishes in mysterious circumstances. Although she has spent her whole life being told never to go near The Hazel Wood, Althea’s home, she heads there with Ellery Finch, a school friend and Hinterland superfan. And this is the point where the Hinterland drags Alice in: the point where she discovers the truth about her identity and fights to escape her destiny.

I’ve seen a few reviews for this book (after I’ve written this far in mine) which are quite negative. They find Alice to be an unlikable character, full of anger and privilege, and they don’t like the fact that, although the book is a YA fantasy it is in a very real and contemporary setting for much of the book. They have issues, in particular, with how Alice relates to Ellery Finch – who is mixed race – and feel she considers her early life of poverty and drifting to be worse than the attitude he faces as a person of colour. I’m not denying any of these things occur but, without giving away any major plot twists, they are there on purpose. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, she’s not bad. She’s just written that way…

Jane

 

Love, Hate & Other Filters – Samira Ahmed

Our book group met earlier this week and we spent most of our meeting checking our privilege. We’d been reading Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult and, despite being a group of women, including one lawyer and at least three with connections to nursing and midwifery, we quickly realised that we do really need to spend more time considering how many advantages we have in life simply because we are white and western. I’d like to say that this is something I try to do, consciously, every day but I think I’d be telling an untruth – like most people I think mostly about being me, not about how others live their lives. So, I do what I usually do when I need to learn about something – I read…

36275385In Love, Hate & Other Filters I was learning about the experiences of a young Muslim girl, seventeen year-old Maya Aziz. She is planning for her future, for college, for potential romance, for life. But her parents are also planning and their ideas are subtly different: a nice Indian boy, a safe career choice and staying close to home and family. They will certainly need some persuading to accept Maya’s dream to study film in New York. And when there is a bombing which seems to have involved a young man with the same surname as Maya’s family her parents are even more keen to keep her close at hand.

This was an interesting story, which helped to explain the issues faced by young Muslim women wanting to fit in with the Western way of life without sacrificing their religious principles (or those of their families). Although, to be fair, Maya doesn’t really mention religion other than to be shocked when her potential love-interest Kaleem drinks wine. Any girl feeling a bit over-protected could sympathise with Maya’s position but it is also vital to understand how everyday events can affect various groups. I appreciated the fact that this was a family with no connections to extremism but who were targeted simply for sharing a surname with a suspected terrorist. My only issues really are that this book was more about her families Indian culture than their Muslim faith – and, of course, that it is USA based. I’m still waiting for the YA novels about young people with a Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage set in the UK (and preferably Yorkshire) – these are the girls I meet every day and whose stories I’d like to hear.

Jane

Piglettes – Clémentine Beauvais

Recently I’ve been enjoying some great novels with distinctive French themes and plenty of interesting YA books. So, obviously, given the chance to combine these two interests, I had to give it a try… Throw in some thoughts on body image, attitudes towards Islam and feminism and I think this book was just about perfect for me!

piglettesPiglettes is about a group of girls in a provincial French town who find themselves the winners of a rather nasty little contest run by a boy at their school. They are voted as the winners of the ‘Pig Pageant’ – the ugliest girls in school. This is, obviously, out-and-out bullying but our main heroine, Mireille, isn’t going to give the bully the reaction he wants. She just laughs it off – although her internal monologue seems to show that she is not quite as happy with her life as she professes to be – but somehow, when she meets up with and talks to the two other ‘lucky’ winners, she decides that they will cycle across the country to Paris, selling sausages from a trailer, and gatecrash the President’s Bastille Day garden party. Like you do. The three girls, Mireille, Astrid and Hakima, are accompanied by Hakima’s brother (a disabled ex-soldier) and a wonderful friendship develops between them. Mireille is very much in charge initially – she is certainly the fiestiest of the three – but the others all come into their own as time goes by. There is a hint of love interest as Mireille has an instant crush on Kader (Hakima’s brother) but it is all very innocent – the main story is about the girls, how they learn to love themselves, to realise that they don’t need to change in order to fit in with other people’s ideals, and their refusal to accept that they are worthy of being bullied.

I really loved these girls and Mireille in particular. She is a girl who loves her food and doesn’t see why she shouldn’t – she loves cheese even more than I do (which I didn’t think was possible…) – but she also has her problems. As well as her body-image and developing feminism we are shown the complicated relationship she has with her mother and step-father. In the teenage mind, at least,  the unknown father is preferable to the known mother but, in the end, Mireille is able to understand all the adults in her life a little better as she becomes a little closer to adulthood herself (but while never losing her ‘sass’. Who says you should?).

Jane

 

When Dimple Met Rishi – Sandhya Menon

When I’m as busy as I was during the Bradford Literature Festival I like to read something fairly light. I rather reluctantly left the history book I started at the end of June (Pale Rider by Laura Spinney, a history of the Spanish Flu of 1918 – I’ll have to wait to review it when I finish it…) and decided to go for a bit of romance. But, because I was working through one of the most diverse literature festivals in the country, this was a romance with a South Asian twist. Now I will start out by saying that I always have the same problem with books that look interesting because of their South Asian connections. It just seems to end up that over 90% of them are about people of Indian heritage rather than from anywhere else in the region. I’m not saying that these books are not going to be of interest to my customers in Bradford but far more of them are Pakistani or Bangladeshi than Indian. Far more of them are Muslim than Hindu (although there is still a strong Hindu and Sikh community here) – when I used to see publisher’s reps on a regular basis I did get a bit fed up of being told that novel x was ideal for my largely Muslim customers of Pakistani heritage living in West Yorkshire because it was about a group of Indian Hindus living in New York. Close but no cigar because, surprise, not all brown people are the same….

28458598This is not to say I didn’t enjoy this book, which was a rather sweet love story about a young couple who meet while studying at a summer school. Dimple is a girl who is trying to rebel against her parents sense of tradition. She want to make her mark in the world, be independent and, above all, she doesn’t want to think about finding the IIH (ideal Indian husband). Rishi is rather more traditional – he feels a great respect for his heritage and is happy for his parents to arrange a marriage for him – but he is torn between the need to make his family happy and the desire to follow his heart. Needless to say Dimple is not impressed when she realises that she is expected to marry Rishi and the sparks that fly between them are rather less romantic than he hoped. I rather liked both main characters – Dimple is bright and ambitious and totally aware that she is fighting against years of tradition; Rishi is sweet and a bit serious and far more romantic than Dimple. Their relationship progresses, in fits and starts, and they become good friends as well as team-mates on the key summer school project. Of course it doesn’t go smoothly (well, there’s no book in that, is there?) and they both have to make compromises in their own actions as well as in their interaction with their families.

This was a pleasant romance story and also one which I will feel happy to recommend to my customers. Many of them require that the books they read are compatible with their lifestyle – romantic but chaste, where modesty is maintained even when tradition is questioned. This one should fit the bill quite nicely – there is (slight spoiler alert), eventually, a physical relationship but there is no detailed description of much beyond kissing (really good kissing by the sound of it) and embraces. Both main characters do end up going against their parent’s wishes but they do this by discussing their issues rather than just through defiance. There is also a lot of humour in the book – Dimple in particular I found very amusing – and a fair bit about prejudice, fairness and bullying. I’d happily recommend this book for younger teens and anyone who enjoys good old-fashioned romance.

Jane

Holiday reading June 2017 – a bit of YA

Today has been a bit of a day for making decisions (largely of a political nature) and I got to thinking that a lot of that kind of thing goes on in YA books. The target audience (12-18 or 15-24 year-olds I guess, certainly not me….) are often having to make the first big decisions of their lives – about what subjects to study, what future careers to aim for, about what they stand for politically, about what sort of adults they want to become. They are deciding whether to form relationships, where they fall onto the spectrum of sexuality, politics, religiosity and social tolerance. Some of these decisions will be wrong. From the perspective of 20 or 30 years it is easy to see that a choice made at 17 is not final: at 17 it feels very decisive.

25458747In Non Pratt’s Truth or Dare the main characters, Claire and Sef, need to decide how to make a lot of money in order to finance Sef’s brother’s care after a catastrophic brain injury. They decide to raise cash by filming dares and promoting them on some sort of Youtube-like channel and become Truth Girl and Dare Boy. The story is told in two main sections – one each from Claire and Sef’s points of view – and no final decisions can be made until both are able to see the other’s viewpoint. Pratt really seems to be able to speak in the voice of modern young people – their doubts, fears, joys and passions. She manages to touch on issues of sexuality, race and social privilege without making them the centre of the story (which remains as Claire, Sef, their burgeoning relationship and their fundraising attempts). It is particularly refreshing that Sef is a young British muslim lad but his story is not one of radicalisation or terrorism – his cares and concerns are those of any young man of his age (although he still has to deal with racism and islamophobia, obviously).

9780141375632In One of Us is Lying Karen McManus gives us a 21st century update on that 1980s classic, the Breakfast Club. In a typical American high school five students have detention – there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a bad boy and an outsider who is both feared and feted for his online gossip column – so far, so close to the film but then Simon, the online gossip, dies suddenly while the supervising teacher is out of the room and things start to go a bit C.S.I.

What I enjoyed most about this book is the fact that nobody is quite what they seem. The bad boy shows that he can be both kind and resourceful (although he’d never admit it), the princess is hugely insecure about her looks, the jock may not be the all-American hero he’s touted to be and the brain may not have got all her grades in the accepted way. We see these young people from their own points of view – each chapter moves from one voice to another – and yet we find that they are not as fixed in their cliques as they first appear. They each have to make choices about who they could become (with shades of Grease as the ‘brain’ makes an Olivia Newton-John style choice of boyfriend) while also trying to work out who could have killed gossip-boy.

contagionMy final YA holiday read was Contagion, the first in a new trilogy from Teri Terry. (This one is a slightly more tenuous link to my ‘decision-making’ theme since it is rather firmly in the post-apocalyptic genre but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.) The book opens with a girl called Callie, in a mysterious facility full of doctors and nurses in biohazard suits, being sent for a ‘cure’. We switch to Shay, in a Scottish village, who sees a poster about a missing girl (Callie) and realises she saw her on the day she disappeared a year before. She contacts the number on the poster and meets Kai, Callie’s older brother. Shay and Kai end up trying to investigate Callie’s fate while dodging the effects of both a deadly epidemic and the even deadlier shadowy figures who appear to be behind it.

Again this book comes from two different voices – Callie and Shay.  They have similarities, especially in the way that they both love Kai, but also very many differences. Callie is much younger, more emotional and less rational – Shay is thoughtful, willing to make personal sacrifices but also more inclined to keep her worries to herself. Towards the end of the book we start to discover much more about the nature of the epidemic, its effects on the few who survive and the motives of those who seem to control its development. There are two more books to come – I think I’m hooked enough to need to know how this ends. Shay, and Kai’s, decisions will be important but I have a feeling that Callie will be the lynchpin (or, just possibly, the firing pin from a deadly grenade…)

Jane