Tag Archives: books for teenage boys

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Bubble Wrap Boy’

Phil Earle has written four books for young adults, of which only one (Heroic) I had read before I tackled his new story, The Bubble Wrap Boy. I loved Heroic (my review of it is here), and you might remember it’s a hard-hitting story about a young man’s experience of having his soldier brother return from the savagery of a war zone, interspersed with his own hardships which centre on his strained and impoverished home life.

Well, The Bubble Wrap Boy is not like that at all.

Image: fcbg.org.uk

Image: fcbg.org.uk

The Bubble Wrap Boy is the story of Charlie Han, a teenage boy who lives with his mum and dad above their Chinese takeaway. He is short in stature and he struggles with the practical difficulties of this, as well as the bullying of his schoolmates; however, this is nothing compared with the overbearing, overprotective and suffocating presence of his mother. Mrs Han makes her son wear goggles while decorating the Christmas tree (lest a pine needle carry his eyeball away), and she insists on putting a safety gate at the top of the stairs; of course, Charlie keeps forgetting that it’s there, and falling down the stairs as a result – which makes his mother even more unbearable. It’s touching, because the reader knows that all his mum wants to do is keep Charlie safe, but when we read about him doing deliveries on a trike he nicknames ‘the Rhino’ because it’s almost too heavy to move, while wearing layers of protective and reflective clothing and enough lights to distract passing aircraft, it’s not hard to feel sorry for him. Charlie’s dad is a quiet, seemingly downtrodden man who cares for little besides his woks and the family business, and Charlie’s mum – when she’s not being overbearing – is anxious, stressed and overtired from all the ‘evening classes’ she’s attending. Charlie notices that she never seems to gain any certificates or awards from all these classes, though, and wonders what the truth is.

But, because he’s a teenager with a lot on his own plate, he lets a lot of stuff (like his concerns for his mum) slide, and he sometimes comes across as rather self-obsessed. This isn’t a fault of Earle’s writing: I recognised my own teenage self in his words. It’s exactly right for the character.

One day, while making a delivery of his dad’s Chinese food, Charlie sees a kid on a skateboard doing some tricks with a bench, and he’s immediately transfixed. He realises, as he watches, that he’s finally found exactly what it is he wants to do – but how on earth is he going to convince his ultra-careful mother that skidding around on a wheeled board flinging yourself off pieces of street furniture is ‘safe’? He can’t, of course. So, he conspires to do it without her knowledge. With the help of his friend Sinus (who has an overlarge nose and the unfortunate first name of ‘Linus’), he concocts a plan to become a skateboarding superstar.

But his mother, and her secret life – the one that gives her dark circles under her eyes and makes her look more and more ground down as the days go by – get in the way of his dream before too long.

Image: jerasjamboree.com

Image: jerasjamboree.com

There is, of course, a reason why Charlie’s mother is so overprotective of him – and it has nothing to do with his short stature, and everything to do with Mrs Han’s own childhood and a traumatic event which happened during her early teens. Accidentally, Charlie stumbles upon a clue to the fact that his mother is more than she appears, and in the course of his investigation he uncovers a secret at the heart of his family, a secret so huge Charlie can’t believe that his parents have kept it from him all his life.

I enjoyed this book, and a large part of my enjoyment was the fact that parts of it are very funny. The relationship between Charlie and Sinus is filled with hilarious dialogue (even though I feel that Charlie treats Sinus very badly at several points, and Sinus shows great forbearance by putting up with it), and Charlie is a layered, nuanced character – there was plenty about him that I didn’t like, as well as things I thought were great. This made him real and believable. Sinus was a great character, too, though the way he’s described made me think of him as a talking nose, which was unfortunate. I did think that Mr and Mrs Han had fallen into stereotype (typical hardworking, demanding Chinese parents), but there are reasons behind Mr Han’s silence and Mrs Han’s neurotic behaviour, and that lifted them into a new dimension.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the way it dealt with girls. There are plenty of female characters, all adults, who add immeasurable depth to the story, but girls of Charlie’s and Sinus’ own age are nothing but fragrant, delicate ‘things’ which decorate their eyelines and remain as unattainable objects. They are idealised as rewards for being ‘cool’ – Charlie imagines Sinus with armfuls of girls fawning over him when his (Sinus’) own secret is revealed – and none of them are depicted as skateboarders, or even being welcome in the skatepark. Perhaps there were girl board-riders, but we never hear about them. The only girl to come anywhere near Charlie is Carly Stoneham, at the start of the book, who berates him after Charlie’s clumsiness causes an accident. She is shrill and unreasonable, as is the female teacher who makes Charlie clean up the accident without asking if he’s all right, or listening to his side of events. That, I have to admit, annoyed me just a little.

Incidentally, this book is Phil Earle’s fourth published novel, but – as he explains in the notes at the end – it was actually the first story he wrote, though it has changed a lot since its earliest days. That gave me a lot of encouragement, and I think it should do the same for anyone who wants to write. It’s not necessarily your first book which will ‘make’ it, but there will be time for all your ideas to emerge over the course of your career.

The Bubble Wrap Boy was a solid, well-written book with an intriguing set of characters who breathe new life into the old ‘underdog’s struggle to succeed’ story, and an emotional heart beneath it all. I’d recommend it, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Phil Earle does next.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Heroic’

Sometimes, it’s the books you buy on a whim that can turn out to be the most meaningful, and the ones you’ll treasure for years. ‘Heroic’, by Phil Earle, is one of those books for me.

Image: thefemalebookworm.com

Image: thefemalebookworm.com

It wasn’t actually me who chose this one – it was my husband. We were browsing through the children’s and YA shelves in a large bookshop a few weeks ago, and he handed it to me. ‘This looks interesting,’ he said. ‘I might actually read this myself.’

Well. That got my attention. My husband, read fiction? This must be some book!

I added it to my pile of to-be-purchased titles without really looking at it; I checked out the cover image, saw that it was a Penguin title (it’s great to have such trust in a publisher!) and was quite happy to fork over the money for it. Then, when it arrived back home with us, it took me a little while to get around to reading it; when I did, though, I wondered what had taken me so long.

‘Heroic’ is the story of Sonny McGann, primarily, though his brother Jammy is the other main narrative voice in the book. We read three or four chapters in Sonny’s voice, and then three or four in Jammy’s, and so on – the story unfolds through both their perspectives. Sonny and Jammy have grown up on the Ghost, a high-rise housing estate somewhere in London, the focal point (and only un-graffittied part) of which is a large statue of the soldiers at the centre of the housing units. This outsize memorial was raised to commemorate the men of the area who’ve given their lives, down through the years, in the service of the Army, and it’s often mentioned – as a meeting point, as a reference point, as a grounding image, and, finally, as an emotional focus – throughout the story. Life on the Ghost is not easy – fathers are absent or abusive, mothers are worked to exhaustion, unemployment among the young is rife, drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. In order to escape his life, and earn some money to help his mother keep the family together, Jammy enlists in the Army, and is deployed to Afghanistan along with his best friend and neighbour, Tommo.

Sonny is left to face the cauldron that is the Ghost. His sections of the story tell us of his struggles to keep away from crime and drug abuse, his love for Cam (the sister of Tommo), and his everyday life, full to the brim of frustration and rage. He wants to help his mother by trying to get some sort of job, but she wants him to stay at school; they both know, in any case, that being labelled as ‘a kid from the Ghost’ will make him unemployable, so their arguments are, in some ways, moot. His future looks grim, and his life is hard – it’s leavened only by the presence of the beautiful, gentle and compassionate Cam, whom he loves deeply. However, Cam – as a sister of one of ‘the gang’ – is supposed to be out of bounds; her relationship with Sonny must therefore be kept secret, and it is a huge source of stress for them both. Sonny’s friends are struggling as much, or more, than he is, particularly the enigmatic and troubled Hitch, and their efforts to carve out a living for themselves is painfully described.

Interspersed with this brutal vision of life, we read about Jammy’s experiences in Afghanistan. He does his best to take his friend Tommo under his wing, trying to keep him safe and sane amid the dust and terror, and he struggles with the reasoning behind their presence in Afghanistan to begin with. He learns the hard way about the drawbacks of trying to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of local people, the brutality both of the war and of the regime they are, allegedly, there to fight, and how risky it is to become close to the people you’re trying to protect. A scene in the middle of the book involving Jammy and an Afghani child almost literally stole my heart out of my chest and broke it; I had to close the book, put it aside, and weep for a good ten minutes. It is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever read, made even more harrowing by the fact that similar events happen every day in reality. Eventually, Jammy returns from Afghanistan, but what he’s been through, and what he’s seen, mean that the man who comes back to the Ghost is not the same man who left. Jammy’s struggles to reintegrate, to slot back into life with his family and community, are unashamedly examined. The book particularly takes us into the heart of his relationship with Sonny, and how the brothers seem to have lost something precious that once bonded them to one another.

Cam, Sonny’s girlfriend, becomes a pivotal character in trying to heal the brothers’ relationship despite the fact that she is dealing with her own unimaginable loss. The boys’ mother, driven to distraction by the life she is leading and the future that faces her sons, is a strong and loving figure, but it takes her love and Cam’s together to have any impact on Jammy and Sonny. They have to realise how much they share and how deep are the ties that bind them before they can reforge their relationship, but their attempts to do this are almost too much for either of them to take.

‘Heroic’ pulls no punches. It is a visceral novel, full of pain and anger; the characters’ rage spills forth from the pages and their tightly-bounded lives struggle to break free from between the lines of text. I didn’t just read this book – I lived it, I breathed it, I felt the strictures of the Ghost and the front-line both. I willed the characters on, frustrated by Sonny’s immaturity and pigheadedness as much as by Jammy’s inability to admit he needed help, horrified by Hitch’s struggle with heroin and Cam’s experiences at the hands of her father, and deeply moved by the love between them all, and their willingness to do whatever it took to save one another from destruction. Having said all this, I don’t mean to imply that ‘Heroic’ is a bleak book – it isn’t, really. The desperation and pain of the characters’ lives is always counterpointed with their love for, and devotion to, one another. You could almost say this is a book about brotherhood – not just the blood ties that bind Sonny and Jammy, and which end up, in a way, being weaker than the ties between Sonny and his friends, and Jammy and his comrades – but the brotherhood, or the family links, that bind all of us together, wherever we live or whatever we face in life.

In short, this book is a marvel. I’m so pleased my husband spotted it, and that I bought it, because it’s probably not the sort of book I’d have picked up for myself. Now, I know better. I’ll be looking out for the rest of Phil Earle’s books, and recommending them highly to everyone I come across.

Happy Saturday, y’all. Get reading!