Tag Archives: book reviews

#Bookelves16 (Or, the Best Book Recommendations Around)

Christmas, you may have noticed, has been and gone. The turkey has been gobbled (sorry, sorry), the decorations put away for another year (well, in some houses…), and the wrapping paper has well and truly been recycled.

So, why am I blogging, you may ask, about #Bookelves16? Well, because books are for life, not just for Christmas. And it’s always a good time of year for great book recommendations, am I right?

Of course I am.

In case I’m talking utter nonsense to some of you – those who don’t follow me on Twitter, f’rinstance (and if this is you *makes stern face* rectify that situation as soon as possible, please) – I’d best explain what #Bookelves16 is all about. So, during the month of December, a bunch of great people who love children’s books, led by head elf Sarah Webb, took to social media to promote, recommend and prescribe children’s books to those who were looking for gifts, or just for something wondrous to read. All through the month people who know their onions when it comes to kidlit took the time to give personal recommendations to those who needed them, and/or just to talk about their own favourites. I’m proud to say that I was a Bookelf, and that it was huge fun.

Today’s blog, then, will be a quick recap of some of my favourite #Bookelves16 recommendations, and if you want to check out all the recommendations on offer, simply head to Twitter and stick ‘#bookelves16’ into the Search box, and Bob’s your mother’s brother. Simple!

My first recommendation was for Jennifer Bell’s THE UNCOMMONERS: THE CROOKED SIXPENCE.

uncommoners

Cover image for Jennifer Bell’s THE UNCOMMONERS, art by Karl J Mountford (Corgi Children’s Books, 2016)

I reviewed this book last year, and I don’t think I’ve read a book I’ve loved quite so much in… well, in forever. It’s wonderful, and one I will treasure and reread with great joy for years to come. Happily, a sequel, THE SMOKING HOURGLASS, is imminent – I’ll be top of the queue to buy it.

I also recommended, to great interest, a sequence of books by Kevin Crossley-Holland, which reimagine the world of King Arthur through the eyes of a young boy who shares his name and possesses a ‘seeing stone’ which allows him to look into the world of the legendary king. Anyone who needs proof that children’s books can be powerful, meditative, intoxicatingly well-written and an amazing story on top of that need look no further.

crossley-holland

Spines for Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy (plus the fourth book, ‘Gatty’s Tale’), Orion Children’s books

My recommendations also included the work of Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, Norton Juster (whose THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is one of my all-time favourites; I can’t wait to read it to my own child in a few years’ time), Madeleine l’Engle, Terry Pratchett, Allan Boroughs (IRONHEART is a particular favourite round these parts), Peter Bunzl, James E. Nicol, Christopher Edge, Lucy Strange’s THE SECRET OF NIGHTINGALE WOOD, everything by the unstoppable, wonderful Abi Elphinstone and everything by the lyrically perfect Frances Hardinge, the monumental KNIGHTS OF THE BORROWED DARK by the magical Dave Rudden, along with books by Kieran Fanning, Nigel Quinlan, Eva Ibbotson, Horatio Clare, S.F. Said and Andrea Beaty (whose ADA TWIST, SCIENTIST and ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER are major hits in my house). The interested reader might also like to check out this article from a recent edition of The Irish Times, in which yours truly recommended some great reads along with a host of other kidlit-types – there are enough book ideas in that article alone to satisfy anyone’s cravings.

But because a bookelf never really hangs up her pointy hat, no matter whether it’s Christmas or any other time of year, I’d like to say this: I’m on hand, 24/7/365 (or as near to it as I can manage) to recommend, give guidance on, and enthuse wildly about – I’ll warn you now, there will be flappy hands – children’s books, from picture books to upper MG, and I may even set my tremulous toe into the waters of YA. I’m not much of an expert on books for teens, but I do have a fair knowledge, and if I don’t know the answer to your question I will know someone who does.

So, I’ll leave you with this: read often, read well, expose the children in your life to as many books as they can carry (don’t forget the library!) and never deny them reading material if it’s at all possible to provide it. If they enjoy reading, rejoice, for you never know the worlds which will open up before them and the thirst for learning they will develop. And, importantly, let your children read whatever they want to read.  Anything else will induce stress palpitations, frankly, and nobody needs those.

And on that note, I’ll leave you in peace. I’m sure you have reading to be getting on with…

 

 

Just Another Boring Old Week in Writer-Ville…

So, wow.

Did the world spin a little off its axis last week, or what? I’m sure nobody missed the rather unusual goings-on in the world of letters over the past few days, but just in case: we had one hugely influential, massively popular and extremely famous writer making some ill-advised and (to my mind) criminally stupid comments on child pornography, and another who described, without remorse, how she had systematically tracked and stalked a blogger who gave her book a poor review. I can’t comment on the first story for fear I lose my reason completely – anyone who was in my company when I first read about it will testify to my spitting rage – but I watched the latter story unfold with growing incredulity; as a blogger who regularly writes book reviews, and a writer with aspirations to a career in words, the issues raised go to the heart of everything I love.

Photo Credit: isayx3 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: isayx3 via Compfight cc

I have written many book reviews. Some of them have been gushing, and some of them have not. Some have barely found so much as an errant piece of punctuation to criticise, and some have dissected a book’s shortcomings in detail. However, I always try to find something good about every book I review, and if a book is truly terrible I have one simple rule: don’t review it. Whether a review is good or bad, I don’t tend to draw the author’s attention to it – if they happen to see it, then that’s fair enough, but the chances of it happening are small. I don’t think it’s fair or kind to Tweet a link to an author, particularly if the review is less than stellar, or find their (publicly available, I should point out!) email address and copy it to them; it’s like playground taunting. Even if I have loved a book with every shred of my soul and my review makes that perfectly clear, I still won’t directly contact an author to say ‘Look! Look! Here’s how much I loved your work!’ – it’s not professional, or respectful of an author’s time or personal space. They don’t exist merely to write books and talk about them to fans – they are people with lives and families, and it’s important not to forget that.

I don’t know the blogger with whom this particular author had her falling-out; to be quite honest, I had never heard of the author before last Saturday, either, despite the fact that she writes YA books. Her book (to date, she has published one novel, with a follow-up due out in early 2015) has, I’ve since seen, received polarised reviews on Goodreads, with some people absolutely loving it and others most assuredly not. Since this story broke, some people have taken an ideological standpoint and given her poor star-ratings simply because of her behaviour, though, which I also believe is misguided. A star rating should reflect the quality of the book, not the reviewer’s feelings about its author. An author’s work stands apart from the author themselves; disapproval or dislike of one doesn’t mean disapproval or dislike of the other, necessarily. The good reviews for this book are intriguing, but it doesn’t sound like the kind of story I’d enjoy, and so chances are I won’t read it. But I know from some of this author’s journalistic work that she can write with power and fluency, and that she can craft a compelling argument, and it’s beyond doubt that she is a talented and intelligent woman.

So why, I found myself asking, did she feel she had the right to take her dissatisfaction with this particular reviewer to such extremes? Without rehashing the linked article, above, the author – no matter what the blogger is alleged to have done – trampled all over the lines of acceptable behaviour in her quest to find out the ‘truth’ about the person who had disliked her book.  And for what? Acres of headlines, sure, and plenty of traffic in the gossip columns of the internet. But what does it say about the relationship between authors and bloggers, most of whom blog about books and book reviews purely for the love of it and the desire to drive enthusiasm for reading? Nothing good, I’d wager.

I have been contacted on a few occasions by authors after I reviewed one of their books. A lot of the time, these contacts take the form of a mention on Twitter or a quick message of thanks. Once, an author took the time to send me an email (and this was after I reviewed her work in not entirely favourable terms) to thank me for the thoughtful way I had handled her book, not only the bits I enjoyed but also the bits I didn’t. I was charmed, and moved, that such a highly-regarded and talented person had taken the time to write to me personally in such a generous way. I would hate to see that sort of two-way exchange broken, the mutual respect that exists (or should exist) between writers and reviewers, but to keep it healthy, work is needed on both sides of the equation. Reviews shouldn’t be personal, or spiteful, or focused on the author. They should focus solely on the work, on how it can be made better, on what was (objectively) ‘good’ and ‘bad’ about it, highlighting – if possible – the good. They shouldn’t luxuriate in snide remarks or be written in such a way as to make the author feel bad about themselves – and I’ve seen reviews just like that. If you wouldn’t say it to the author’s face, why say it online? At the same time, if an author comes across a bad review, they really should take the advice of everyone and just not engage with the reviewer. Not at all. Not even to say ‘thanks for reading’. If there’s anything constructive in the review, take it; leave the rest, and walk away. Not everyone is going to like your book, particularly if (as seems to be the case with this author’s work) it’s a little on the unusual side. Embrace the fact that you’re writing for a select audience, and hold your head high.

Let’s all try to remember to be nice, right? Let’s put compassion front and centre. Meet hostility with kindness – or, if you can’t manage kindness, then try respectful silence. And let’s not use the great power of the web to stalk and harass one another. Above all, let writers keep writing, and readers keep reading, and maybe we’ll realise eventually that we’re all on the same team, here.

Happy new week, my loves.

 

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’

I’m going to try – really hard – not to give away the ‘twist’ about this book. Even though I’d guessed it long before I picked it up, and even though it did not spoil my enjoyment of the book in any way whatsoever, I am acutely sensitive that other readers might not feel the same way. So, let’s hope for the best.

(Although, if you don’t know what the twist at the heart of this book is, and you don’t want to have it spoiled for you, do not go to Goodreads. The cat’s not only out of the bag over there, but that ol’ bag’s been ripped to shreds, yo. Be warned).

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

The Girl with All the Gifts was a fast-paced, brain-tingling, heart-wrenching read. I thought it was excellent, from its plot to its characterisation to its deft use of language; however, it was (at times) quite gruesome. Bodily injury is described, surgical procedures are an intrinsic part of the plot, as are medical/biological descriptions, and there is a lot – a lot – of death. This doesn’t bother me (not in books, at least, and particularly not when it’s clearly vital to the story being told), but there are readers for whom it might be a problem. I’m not saying there’s blood spatter on every page (far from it), but the bits that are bloody are quite intense.

In any case, it tells the story of Melanie, who is (we suppose) about eleven. She is a pupil in a school for children who are – like herself – special in some undefined way. Every morning she is awoken by armed guards who strap her into a chair and wheel her into her classroom where she receives lessons from a variety of teachers, her favourite being Miss Justineau. Melanie loves Miss Justineau’s classes; the children learn about history and art and literature and the world when their kind and wise teacher is on duty, and over time Melanie begins to love not just the lessons, but Miss Justineau herself, too. The relationship between pupil and teacher is the primary emotional core of the novel, and it is expertly drawn and very moving. However, as we fall more deeply for Melanie (who would much rather be known as Pandora, the titular ‘girl with all the gifts’), the sheer weirdness of her world begins to hit us harder. It’s difficult to understand why she and her classmates are treated as a mix between geniuses and violent criminals; they don’t seem to be insane, or murderous, or in any way different from a normal bunch of kids going to school. Yet there are armed guards on every corner, and the children are dealt with and spoken to as if they were inmates in a high-security prison. Any hint of affection shown to them is severely punished. Any attempt to treat them like human beings is challenged.

As the story progresses, we begin to learn the truth about what’s going on in this world, and why the soldiers don’t laugh when Melanie jokes, one morning as they strap her into her chair, that she doesn’t bite. We figure out why nobody washes, but why they take chemical showers instead. We put together why the children only eat once a week. We start to work it all out while remembering that we are reading about children, and children we come to love very quickly. Melanie and her classmates get right into your heart, and when two of them are chosen and taken away to a laboratory by Dr Caldwell (incidentally, one of the most compelling and complex characters I’ve read), we feel torn and terrible and distraught even while, on some deep level, we understand why it is being done. It’s not that I agreed with Caldwell’s actions, but I understood her motives and objectives, and that scared me.

Which is, of course, brilliant.

And then the compound on which they all live and work is attacked by vigilantes intent on destroying everything they see, and Melanie – along with Dr Caldwell, Miss Justineau, and a couple of soldiers – escape into the unknown. Into a blasted world which has changed beyond anything we could recognise, a future vision of England many years after a massive, world-changing disaster has happened. Into a world where Melanie is feared by all the adults (even, a little, by Miss Justineau, who also loves her deeply), but where they also understand that she may be their only means of survival.

This book is many things – it’s a road novel, a survival story, a horror story, a beautiful story of love in its many forms, and a bildungsroman, if one can use the term of an eleven-year-old girl. Melanie certainly finds out who she is during the course of the story, and she struggles with that reality. She is the beautiful heart of the tale, and her innocent love for Miss Justineau, her desire to learn, her innate goodness and curiosity, are such a spectacular counterpoint to the reality in which she lives that it drives the whole book. The characters are rich and complex (though Miss Justineau reveals a dark secret about herself near the end of the book which I felt was a bit unnecessary; she was nuanced enough, in my opinion), and every one of them is believable and rounded and accomplished. The dialogue and setting are perfect – just close enough to home to be familiar, and just different enough to be horrifying – and the book plays with expectation and convention to excellent effect. It takes a trope with which we’re all familiar and makes something so new, and so fascinating, out of it that it practically reinvents the mythology. (Speaking of mythology, it also utilises Greco-Roman myths beautifully, tying in with the title in a very pleasing way).

And then there’s the ending, which is perfect. It’s not often you come across an ending which is so cleanly done that it squeaks, but this one does. It’s not what I expected, and it’s not what I hoped for, but it’s absolutely the right ending for this story.

So. This isn’t a book for kids, and it’s not a book for people who find it hard to sleep if they’ve read something scary, and it’s not a book for people who are able to put down a story mid-way through because they’ve to go do something silly like make dinner, or whatever. Block out the time you need to read this, and immerse yourself in it. It’s worth it. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this or any year, and if you like your books thoughtful, challenging, moving and just a little bit weird, then this is the one for you.

 

We are Not Alone

Yesterday, I got a wonderful email. It was from the author of a book I reviewed a while ago, one that I had really enjoyed but about which I had a couple of small criticisms; the author wanted to let me know they had read and enjoyed the review. They thanked me also for my ‘wise’ reading of the book and my response to it, and complimented me on my own writing style.

Image: publicdomainarchive.com

Image: publicdomainarchive.com

I was so extraordinarily pleased, and surprised, that I may have clapped my hands in glee. (All right, so I did clap my hands in glee. There’s no shame in it. Right?)

It was extremely kind of this author – who is, I have no doubt, a very busy person indeed – to take the time to write to me, and also to tell me that they had enjoyed reading other posts on my blog. After the joy had faded a bit, however, I did a quick sweep of the posts they’d mentioned, to check for typos and infelicitous phrasing and the like; I also re-read the book review and winced a bit at some of my harsher sentences. I hope, on balance, that the author knew I loved their work. (I did, you know. Just in case you ever come back again and see this, dear author-person). Receiving the email was also a reminder to me that, even though writing a blog can feel a lot like screaming into the void at times, actually it isn’t; you’re making your words and thoughts as public as can be, and they are visible to readers all over the world.

So, yes. Simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. Much like publishing a book would feel, I should imagine.

It also reminded me of the importance of moderating what I say. It’s vital to remember that when you mention an actual, real-life human being on a public forum that they have every chance of finding your words, and of reading them, and if you’ve been cruel or hurtful, they will have every reason to be upset. Of course I try to never be cruel or hurtful to anyone, and unless absolutely necessary I don’t name names on this blog, but still. The principle remains. There are plenty of public events about which I’d love to comment, but about which I maintain silence because I either don’t trust myself to remain reasonable or they’re not relevant to the overall scope of this blog; that doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion, or that I don’t care, but I’m aware there’s a time and place for everything.

Having the freedom to keep a blog, and to live in a country where my thought processes and ability to express myself (within reason) are uncensored, is a luxury I do not take for granted. I have had access to education, and I have always been encouraged to think for myself; I value that more than I can express. I’m also aware that, while putting my words on a blog makes them public, nobody is required to read them; the fact that I have readers at all is a privilege. Because of the fact that, to me, my blog is just me in my office with my computer, it’s easy to forget that there are people out there reading what I say. It’s frighteningly easy to forget that what I say here can affect others.

But what is most terrifying of all is the thought that the concerns which govern my online behaviour – moderated content, careful phrasing, avoidance of personal attack – are not shared by a lot of people who spend their time commenting on the endless stream of information that is the internet.

Image: unsplash.com

Image: unsplash.com

I’ve recently read a book – of which more later in the week – which made mention of cyberbullying; characters in this story are shown leaving vicious messages for someone on a social media site, breaking her down with every word, forcing her to believe that she is worthless. In the news over the past few days there have been stories of mindless vandalism which almost had fatal consequences, and it makes me so angry that people can do these irresponsible things without thinking of how they might affect others – or, more frighteningly, knowing exactly how they might affect others, and not caring. The choices I make about how I maintain my blog will have zero effect on things like this, of course; whether I live my life with empathy, or not, has nothing to do with someone who feels they have the right to throw rocks onto a train track, just for kicks. It makes me feel a little better, though, about the state of the world, to know that this little corner of the web is a place which strives to do no harm.

That, I suppose, is the best that I can do.

 

I’m Ba-aaack!

Image: spinoff.comicbookresources.com

Image: spinoff.comicbookresources.com

Did you miss me?

Probably not, I’m wagering. I should think you’d probably have missed me a lot more if I’d done a better job of going away to begin with. I didn’t blog very much, true, but I wasn’t as absent from Twitter as I’d planned (darn you, smartphone!); and I did a lot of dropping in on Facebook, too. As well as all that, my brain was always ‘on’. It’s something which I’m really going to have to work on, you know, this tendency I have to never stop thinking. It’s almost like my mind goes even more doolally over writing-related stuff when I know I’m not supposed to be thinking about it.

So, long story short: I’m only back from two weeks ‘off’, and I feel as tired as ever. Wahey!

However, one of the reasons I’m tired is that, during the last couple of weeks, several cool things happened. I can’t go into detail about them all yet, but – all in good time, my dears. All in good time.

The first cool thing is: I read a whack-ton of books, some of which I’ve been asked to review for a brilliant kidlit-related publication which will be out later in the year. The books included Witch Light (originally published as Corrag, and read just for pleasure) by Susan Fletcher, which was a beautifully written story of one young woman’s struggle to escape her impending execution and her recounting of the massacre at Glencoe in 17th-century Scotland, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Shockingly, I’d never managed to get around to reading the latter until now, despite it languishing on my TBR-list for years. I also devoured The Wolf in Winter, the new John Connolly novel (again, this was just for me!) and it was as fascinating as any of his previous Charlie Parker books. I love and adore children’s and YA books, of course, but it is nice to step into the realm of adult literature every once in a while (if only to reaffirm your conviction that kidlit is way better).

Speaking of which, did you read this article by Ruth Graham, published in Slate on June 5th, about how adults who read YA literature should be ashamed of themselves? Yeah. Well, you can all probably guess how I feel about that particular viewpoint. Let’s just say it did my heart good to watch the backlash to this article’s publication on Twitter. Author after author after reader after reader took to the airwaves (do people still say ‘airwaves’? Anyway) to promote and share the love for the YA/kidlit books that they adore, and that was wonderful to witness. In the last week alone, I’ve read a YA book about a fourteen-year-old girl tormented with guilt and self-hatred after the death of her younger brother, for which she blames herself. The story takes us through her psychiatric treatment and the depth of anguish she must face in order to deal with her pain. I’ve read books aimed at young readers which deal with death, genocide, totalitarian regimes, slavery, abuse, imprisonment, injustice and every kind of loss imaginable – in other words, nothing less than what you’d find in a literary novel – and Ruth Graham appears to take issue with YA literature because of its tendency to offer ‘neat’ and satisfying endings. To that I say ‘tosh’. Most of the YA books I’ve read show the characters coming through a crucible of some sort, learning to live with it, and then moving on somehow changed, somehow unimaginably different. Not neat. Not trite. Real.

Also, if ‘growing up’ means putting aside the magic of beautiful literature and living on an unceasing diet of Pynchon and Updike and Franzen and Banville and Roth (even though I quite like Roth), then count me out. Give me fairy tale and dreamscape and adventure and the thrill of discovery any day.

'I suspect that, for his escape, he took advantage of the migration of wild birds.' (The Little Prince, Chapter Nine). Text and illustration: Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Image sourced: mtlsd.org

‘I suspect that, for his escape, he took advantage of the migration of wild birds.’ (The Little Prince, Chapter Nine). Text and illustration: Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
Image sourced: mtlsd.org

The second cool thing to happen while I was away was this: I had a story published (it’s called ‘The Monument‘, and there’s a teeny sliver of ‘bad’ language used in it, so be aware of that if you’re planning to read it). I also had another story (‘Hollow’) accepted for publication by a very cool ‘zine called ESC, and a piece I wrote about the Date with an Agent event went live on http://www.writing.ie. So, all that was plenty awesome.

The third cool thing was this: a friend asked me to join him in helping out with editorial duties on a literary journal which investigates the interplay between literature and science. So far my role has included such duties as brainstorming themes, thinking up submission guidelines and trying to write a cool, snappy bio, which I’ve managed with varying degrees of success. I’m sure there’ll be more to say about this in the future, but for now here’s a link to the journal’s website where you can find out more about it.

In non-writing related news: I watched X-Men: Days of Future Past and loved it; my husband had a birthday, which was great; we got to spend some time with family, which was very great, and there was actually some sunshine to enjoy, which was fantastic.

How about all y’all? How have things been over the past couple of weeks? I can’t wait to hear all your news.

Grab one o' these, pull up a chair, and let's have a chat. Image: theguardian.com

Grab one o’ these, pull up a chair, and let’s have a chat.
Image: theguardian.com

 

 

Why Can’t We all be Friends?

I’ve just been reading an interview with an actor whose work I loved when I was younger, and who – as part of a funny six-piece ensemble cast – was one of the most famous and highly paid TV stars in the world at the height of his fame. Since the late 1990s, he’s fallen in and out of ‘favour’ with the press due to his publicised struggles with substance abuse and the consequences this had for his personal appearance (as if it was anyone else’s business, but I digress.) In recent years he’s kept a lower profile, but he’s still extremely well-known.

He is Matthew Perry, who played Chandler Bing (‘Bing! It’s Gaelic for ‘thy turkey’s done!”) on Friends.

Image: nadcp.org

Image: nadcp.org

It was an interesting interview, not least because Perry spoke about the terrible effects that negative reviews of his work had on his mental health. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially he says he doesn’t read reviews now because the good ones are never – to his mind – good enough, and they never last long enough in the psyche to outdo the damage caused by the bad ones.

I was a huge fan of Friends, and Chandler Bing was always my favourite character. He – or, rather, Matthew Perry – was witty, self-deprecating and intelligent, with an instinctive talent for physical comedy that I think has to be in-built; it can’t be taught. He had all the best lines. Even now, if I catch a re-run of the show, it’s Chandler I love to watch (well, and Phoebe. I loved her, too.) So, it’s weird to read about a person you consider extraordinarily talented struggling with bad reviews, and expressing how deep an impression they can make on a person’s peace of mind and self-esteem. I once read Oprah Winfrey’s recollection of an anecdote about Beyoncé, who is – as I’m sure you’re all well aware, a global multi-millionaire megastar – but who still comes off stage after a performance and asks people ‘Was that okay? Was I okay?’ Apparently, she does this even while her audience is still screaming her name.

We have to feel like we’re doing things right, even though we have nothing to prove to anyone. Matthew Perry has nothing to prove; neither, assuredly, does Beyoncé. Despite this, they still need to feel like they’re okay, that they’re enough, that they’re good at what they do; it’s a touchingly vulnerable aspect of the life of a superstar. But none of us are any different.

I’ve often read interviews with writers where they say the same thing – ‘don’t read the reviews.’ Newbie authors often can’t help themselves from reading reviews, steeling themselves against the bad ones, telling themselves they can cope with the excoriation of a person hating their work and spilling that hatred all over the web – but often they can’t. How could anyone?

Image: thezerosbeforetheone.com

Image: thezerosbeforetheone.com

I know I’m writing this post as a person who also writes book reviews, but I try – insofar as that’s possible – always to keep my book reviews positive. Even if I don’t like a book, I always find something to praise about it, and I never – ever – stoop to the point where I attack the author him/herself. I can’t even understand the mentality of a reviewer who would do something like this, but apparently it happens every day. It’s an abhorrent aspect of the print media which bases itself on destroying people – Matthew Perry, in his interview, recalls an incident where he was criticised for dating a particular woman, and then attacked for apparently being gay, on adjacent pages in the same magazine – and which surrounds us at all times. Reviewers, and Facebook commenters, and in fact those who comment on anything, anywhere on the web, are used to this sort of vitriol. It’s already spilling out into their personal interactions with others, to the point where sitting behind a keyboard and writing vile things about another human being is seen as hilarious fun. ‘Don’t read the comments’ is an oft-heard saying for a very good reason.

I abhor this.

I was taught as a child that if I had nothing nice to say, I was to say nothing at all. This doesn’t mean that I can’t respectfully criticise, or say that something’s wrong, or express anger if I need to, but I really don’t see the point of saying hurtful things just because you want to. In recent weeks, a mother posted an absolutely beautiful photograph of her young son, who has Down syndrome, to Instagram with the hashtag #downsyndrome. A commenter – who apparently searches for images of people with Down syndrome – wrote the word ‘ugly’ under this picture. The young boy’s mother replied to this internet troll in the most gracious way, at once spearing the troll’s own viciousness while also extending compassion to them, assuring them that all people – even trolls – deserve respect.

I’m so glad this woman’s post went viral, and that people all over the world have seen it. Such touches of humanity will never outweigh the vileness, but each tiny example counts. Wouldn’t it be great if, one day, we could learn that there are ways to express our dissatisfaction with something – whether it’s actions, or art, or politics, or whatever – without making personal attacks, and that we could start using our intelligence to find ways to build one another up rather than tear one another down? Maybe then nobody would be afraid to read their reviews, not because all reviews would be fawning and false and full of fake praise, but because they’d be respectful and constructive and useful and thoughtful.

Ah, me. It’s good to dream.

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘Rooftoppers’

It might not come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog that I, S.J. O’Hart, am rather a fan of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

I am using this image because it's actually rather apt, and not at all because it's of said actor. Holding a baby.  Image: celebitchy.com

I am using this image because it’s actually quite apt in relation to the plot of the novel under discussion, and not at all because it’s of said actor. Holding a baby. *wibble*
Image: celebitchy.com

Anyone who has seen this erudite gentleman’s work will know three things: he is rather tall; he has a mellifluous voice, and he is – or, at least, he gives the impression of being – quite intelligent. For all these reasons, he is, and shall remain, my mental image of the character of Charles Maxim, one of the central players in Katherine Rundell’s sophomore novel, ‘Rooftoppers.’

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

The aforementioned Maxim is a 6’3″ tall 36-year-old bachelor and scholar described as having “a voice that sounds like moonlight, if moonlight could talk.” He is a passenger on the ‘Queen Mary’, a liner which – as the novel opens – has just finished the process of sinking. He rescues a tiny baby from the water – she is floating in a cello case, which becomes a central image in the novel – and immediately decides to love and care for her as though she were his own. He names her Sophie, because it seems apt, and he holds on to her despite the disapproval of the National Childcare Agency and their continual attempts to remove her from him. Under his gentle, eccentric and utterly loving care, Sophie grows into a tall, confident and intelligent twelve-year-old who only has one thing lacking in her life – her mother, of whom she has distinct and inexplicable memories despite the fact that she was barely a year old when she last laid eyes on her.

Eventually, the National Childcare Agency issues an ultimatum – surrender Sophie to them, or face punishment. So, naturally, Charles and Sophie decide to skip the country. From a clue accidentally discovered, they decide to go to Paris as – they hope – Sophie’s mother may be there. Charles, like most other adults, believes that Sophie’s mother went down with the ‘Queen Mary’, and that Sophie couldn’t possibly remember her, but, as he has taught Sophie throughout her life, ‘never ignore a possible.’ So, he resolves to overcome his own doubt and help Sophie in her search.

They approach the Parisian authorities and get nowhere, but they do manage – through tracing the cello which they know Sophie’s mother owned – to find out her name. Using this information, they attempt to have her traced as a missing person, but they run up against legal and jurisdictional issues all over the place. Eventually, for fear of being sent back to England, Charles asks Sophie to stay in their hotel room, hidden, while he carries on the search – but she meets a young boy called Matteo, who is a Rooftopper, or a homeless child who lives ‘in the sky.’

And thus, Sophie’s career as a rooftopper begins.

Image: theyoungfolks.com

Image: theyoungfolks.com

Now, there was so much about this book that I loved. I can’t say enough about how much I adored Sophie and Charles’ relationship, which was – very clearly – a parent/child relationship, but also one between equals, wherein Sophie’s intelligence, agency and independence were respected. I adored Katherine Rundell’s use of language, which shines with beautiful, polished, exquisitely realised turns of phrase. I loved the use of music, both that played on the cello and that sung by human voices, and I really enjoyed the world she creates on the rooftops of Paris.

But. But. There were things that spoiled the novel for me, too.

Firstly, there’s so little logic in Sophie’s search. She works out, for instance, where the records for the ‘Queen Mary’ are probably being held, but – instead of going straight there, with Matteo’s help – she spends ages learning the life of a rooftopper, eating pigeon and walking on tightropes and so on. In some ways this is amazing; in others, it’s annoying. Sophie is incredibly intelligent, so the fact that it doesn’t occur to her to search for the ship’s records for so long is irritating. Then, there’s the fact that the end happens so suddenly, after such a long and lyrical build-up, and it’s so incredibly unrealistic. Now, I know the whole book is rather like a dream or a fairytale, filled with whimsy and delicate beauty, and I accept all that, but the first half (perhaps even three-quarters) of the book is so beautifully paced (despite Sophie’s slowness in putting the pieces of her puzzle together) that the end feels like a slap across the face.

I just – I really didn’t like the end. Some people think it fits with the fast pace of the novel overall, and feel that it fits with the musical theme of the plot, but I was left frustrated by it.

But, the book is filled with life lessons like ‘Never underestimate children,’ and ‘Do not underestimate girls,’ and ‘Books crowbar the world open for you,’ and ‘there are people who would come out in a rash at the sight of a broken rule.’ It is filled – stuffed – with some of the most gorgeous language I’ve ever read, including some of the most startlingly original metaphors I’ve ever seen, which I delighted in. I loved all the characters, though I really thought some of them were underdeveloped. I’d have read a book about Matteo and his friends, alone – which is, of course, a good thing.

In short, it’s a definite recommendation, but I’ll warn you now that you’ll fall in love with Charles Maxim. It’s impossible not to. In fact, you’ll fall a little in love with all the characters in this book, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Artist: Terry Fan Image: society6.com

Artist: Terry Fan
Image: society6.com

Katherine Rundell is a great talent. ‘Rooftoppers’ is not a perfect book, but it’s not far off.