Friday, 25 July 2014

My Thoughts On: The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks


This week, my thoughts of 'The Bunker Diary' by Kevin Brooks! 

I can't believe I feel for it. It was still dark when I woke up this morning. As soon as I opened my eyes I knew where she was. A low-ceilinged rectangular box, made entirely of white washed concrete. There are six little rooms along the main corridor. There are no windows, no doors. The lift is the only way in or out. What's he going to do with me? What am I going to do?  

When this burst onto the YA scene, it immediately grabbed my attention for two reasons. One - it's won a huge literary prize - the Carnegie Medal. Two - it's caused a huge amount of controversy. Some have rendered it unsuitable for children, and a writer from the Telegraph dubbed it 'vile and dangerous,' going as far to say it won on shock value rather than merit. 'The Bunker Diary' certainly has got opinions flying all over the place so I thought I'd check it out to see what all the fuss is about. It was a roller coaster ride of a read that definitely got me thinking. 

Links to two articles discussing the book if you want to check them out: - Why wish this book on a child? - Carnegie Medal Under Fire 

Warning: dodgy metaphor coming up - please do stick around.  

The thing that persuaded me to go onto this weird bookish roller coaster in the first place was the concept. The questions thrown out right from the start. Why has Linus been imprisoned, what's the motive? Why these particular people? Who exactly is the 'man upstairs?' Where are they? So many things that had my mind buzzing, leaving me keen to read on. While reading the beginning, I found Brooks' approach simple but effective - give the characters a basic motive - to escape, and watch the chaos unfold. The author seemed confident in his style and genre and whilst I wasn't familiar with any of his previous work, 'The Bunker Diary' definitely hooked me in. I knew it wouldn't be long until I reached the final page.

So, it all seemed to be going well from there. See that as the climb to the top of the roller coaster's hill, if you will. The excitement bubbling, waiting for something huge to happen, or a series of events. There was something ominous about the routine that first Linus and his nine year old companion Jenny fell into and how they almost 'settle' into Bunker life.  When the other characters started filtering from the lift however, that's when all hell broke loose, the sudden plummet towards the bottom of the hill that had me turning pages quicker than a librarian on acid. There were many elements that lead me to this point: the range of, detail, and craft of each character, the unsettling themes such as drug addiction, rape and homelessness, and the natural dialogue. Brooks was threading more mysteries and I couldn't wait to get answers. 

Another element of this was the visual side to Brooks' writing; I felt as though I could see everything and some of the more unsettling images have stayed with me long after finishing. By using an empty, blank canvas of a setting he's made the readers focus wholly on the characters, which is what the book turns out to be about, but still  with the niggling thought of what's going on in the real world. It's 'Big Brother' meets the 'Hunger Games,' which is an interesting and clever mix by anyone's standards. The very visual descriptions, characterization and dialogue made me feel as though I was right inside the bunker. Brooks had me fall hook, line and sinker.

When I'd got through the main bulk of the book - the majority of the roller coaster - I had mixed emotions as it slowed to the end. One the one hand, the steady decline both mentally and physically of the characters was admirably done. When the 'privileges' are stripped (basic things such as food and water) and some turn to any means to keep going, again I could see the greying faces and hear the desperation inside each of their heads. It's a grim downhill struggle; hope fades and I guess you could argue its realism. That was the good bit.

Then there's the other side, which rather than shocked, slightly sick and saddened, just left me disappointed. Before I threw myself into 'The Bunker Diary' I was warned it wasn't for people who liked closure. I thought I could cope with this, but didn't read it as 'this ending will very much annoy you.' Maybe I should have. Again, I understand Brooks trying to give an element of realism and leave the whole thing raw. Maybe I should have seen that from the start when the whole thing written in diary format, but  I still would have liked some of the questions answers. Since I enjoyed most of the book so much, I'm trying to look on it as a positive and clever climax but I really can't. I get that in the real world you wouldn't get answers to all the questions, rather like reading an exaggerated news report, but the majority of the mysteries Brooks had brought up and kept me reading with just were... left.

Some could argue it's a cop out. Some could argue it's realistic. Personally I would've loved a realization - Linus finally coming up with an answer before tragedy strikes - that would make the whole thing more heartbreaking. Or maybe an epilogue, a short passage giving an element of closure. Or even a note from the 'Man Upstairs.' Something. At least a complete sentence.
Maybe then I could've closed 'The Bunker Diary' with a sad smile rather than a sigh. 

So there you have it. A warning if you will. Don't step onto the roller coaster without being prepared for disappointment, if you can stomach the first two thirds that is.

In summary: A shocking, visual and heartbreaking read, which unfortunately left me disappointed. One to form your own opinions of. 3 stars.   


Friday, 18 July 2014

My Thoughts On: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell


Another Rainbow Rowell book - how she exploded onto the YA scene with Eleanor and Park... 

Eleanor is the new girl in town, and with chaotic family life, her mismatched clothes and unruly red hair, she couldn't stick out more if she tried. Park is the boy at the back of the bus. Black T-shirts, headphones, head in book - he thinks he's made himself invisible. But not to Eleanor... never to Eleanor. Slowly, steadily, through late night conversations and an ever-growing stack of mix tapes, Eleanor and Park fall for each other. They fall in love the way you do the first time, when you're young, and when you feel you have nothing and everything to lose. 

I'd been waiting so long to get my hands on a copy of Eleanor and Park. Since reading Fangirl and doing nothing short of obsessing over it, I was eager to check out Rowell's other offerings. This was her YA debut that got people talking, after all; my expectations were high.

On opening the book, I was almost surprised to find split third person narration between Eleanor and Park, something I'd only ever come across in Jenny Downham's 'You Against Me.' However, third person seems to be Rowell's strength, following the two teenagers closely and getting right inside their heads. Similar to Fangirl, if written in first person, Eleanor ran the risk of becoming whiny and unlikable - a real turn off for readers. The style also made this another easy read meaning I was able to race through the story.  However, as with any kind of third person, the author does have a habit of slipping into the classic 'tell not show' trap. It's a difficult one to get out of, as I've found when experimenting with different narratives and I think on this occasion, the reader will have to accept no style is perfect. I think Rowell made the best decision here, this was refreshing and everything flowed well. It just worked.

Having a John Green quote on the cover immediately gave me an idea of the style and genre Eleanor and Park fits into - the kind of American 'realism' that I mentioned in an earlier post. There are so many different sides to this kind of style, some better than others. One of the more positive ones in  this instance were the quotes. It's. So. Quotable. The thing that made Eleanor and Park more realistic and original though, was that it wasn't the author hiding behind their characters. The poetic style of some of the lines didn't make the dialogue cringey, as alot of them didn't feature in the dialogue at all. It was just enjoyable, 'makes your heart fuzzy' kind of writing - beautiful.

A few of my favourites

"She looked like art, and art wasn't supposed to look nice. It was supposed to make you feel something." 

"Holding Eleanor's hand was like holding a heartbeat. Like something complete and completely alive." 

"The first time he'd held her hand, it felt so good that it crowded out all the bad things. It felt better than anything had ever hurt." 

This is clearly the author talking, and for once it works. Having an element of distance from the characters meant the author could manipulate them and the reader to take in every word.
In wasn't in a sense, the characters telling the story - even though it was their story. It was a mature way of relaying the plot and handled some of the darker themes sensitively. Some phrases were worthy of being framed.

This is not to say the characters were a weakness; in no way were they drowned by Rowell's poetic flair. Eleanor's loud, 'thrown together' exterior contrasted well with her sensitive, 'seeking safety' interior. She's clearly vulnerable and I think that's something alot of people can relate to. Park is her perfect match - initially innocent but with a real bite when he wants to. He knows taekwondo and isn't afraid to use it. He's not the typical shy boy, but he is the model '80's kid, who's iPod wouldn't be complete without The Smiths. These two definitely aren't all you see at face value, there's alot more to them and their relationship. The reader deserves to dig deeper and discover their secrets, meaning the element of mystery works especially well. 

Although there were lots of things I enjoyed about Eleanor and Park, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows unfortunately - even though there weren't huge issues. Remember the 'negative' side of 'realism' I mentioned earlier? That being originality that I addressed in an earlier post. The 80's culture running through the veins of this book reminded me very much of Stephen Chbosky's 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower.' Since reading (and loving) that,  I've noticed a number of titles set in this period. Maybe this is why the cliches jumped out at me easily. While I have no issues with this kind of culture there were some common trends to note: anything from the indie mix  tapes or comic books. There was also the wonderful 'there's only one seat left on the bus for the new kid' stereo type we've met so many times before. That one I was able to overlook as it's vital to the plot, and the details did make the story more authentic. Nevertheless, this was an element I just didn't find original. Sorry Ms Rowell. 

Overall, Eleanor and Park gave me a mainly positive but mixed bag of comments. 

In summary: A poetic but not perfect coming of age, Eleanor and Park evokes thoughts of first love, loss and everything in between. Not without cliches, but still  a very enjoyable read for an older audience. 4 stars. 


Friday, 11 July 2014

The John Green Dilemma


This is something I've been pondering over for a while. It an issue of popularity in the book world; the thing that makes someone's heart race when they open an new book and run their finger over the neatly printed text. Or - on a whole new level - the thing that creates mass hysteria when a new film adaptation is announced or released. 

I'm not quite sure what that thing is, it could be a number of factors. Perhaps it's the quotable dialogue, perfect to splash all over various social media *cough* tumblr *cough* or the Hollywood film star esque characters who have stepped right out of a erm... book or teen movie. Or maybe it's the general portrayal of teenage life. I've brushed upon this issue before  here: but that sort of turned into an anti John Green club, about a year ago. While I'm still not a overly huge fan, John Green amongst other similar writers and their writing have become a valuable tool to me. It's a way to see what makes a section of the publishing industry tick and in JG's case, the unfolding of a hugely popular film franchise. 

This is in no way just John Green either; I respect him alot as both a person and a writer. But my issue is this, which I probably haven't articulated very well yet: 

'Is JG's style of YA 'realism' the only way to become popular in the contemporary YA fiction world?' 

If the answer is yes, this raises concern for the unfathomable amount of budding writers across the globe. It's a quick way to drown creativity, originality and individuality. Not the best message to be giving out. Sure, there's a massive variety of both published and undiscovered YA fiction out there - thousands of manuscripts get sent to publishers every day - and I also understand that genre popularity goes through phases. First it was Twilight and all things vampire, then the 'Beautiful Creatures' era, then dystopian trilogies were popping up all over the place. But this is different, it's a portrayal of teenage life being thrown at an impressionable audience and writers alike. 

I guess this issue could be applied to all kinds of pop culture. Artists changing their sound just to bring about chart success  or YouTubers producing generic content they're not comfortable with. It can even go as far as un-originality being mistaken for plagiarism. A fantasy writer, Tim Bowler, recently addressed a question from a fan in his Bolthole Bulletin online, asking if he took inspiration from or 'borrowed' other writer's ideas. He laughed: of course he takes inspiration from other writers but 'borrowing' ideas is plagiarism. He said he wouldn't feel the same satisfaction of reaping rewards from stolen ideas than his own, and that's something that I wholeheartedly agree with.

The thing is, I'll probably continue to guiltily lap up these kind of books. But I guess what I'm trying to say is this - I hope it doesn't affect mine or other's writing. It's okay to like and and take inspiration from a trend (unless you're completely hipster) But I hope that especially young writers don't feel like the only way to become popular is to copy - John Green or otherwise. We have one of him, and everyone has something truly awesome to offer, in the literal sense of the word. Let's get out there and show everyone.

On the other hand, I just really hope this is a typical teenage phase. 


Friday, 4 July 2014

My Thoughts On: Glasshopper by Isabel Ashdown


(That was my attempt at a typical British greeting, not sure if it worked...)

But once again there is a link, and you'll see why as you read on. Today I'm reviewing Glasshopper by Isabel Ashdown! 

Thirteen year-old Jake's world is unravelling as his father leaves home, and his mother Mary plunges into alcoholic freefall. When his parents reconcile, life finally seems to be looking up and before long the family are planning a much-needed holiday to a remote corner of the French Dordogne. But once there, long-unspoken secrets begin to resurface, and for Jake nothing will ever be the same again.

I came across this a while ago in my school's library, started reading but didn't continue, and promptly forgot about it. However, after recently attending a talk featuring a number of authors, I was lucky enough get my hands on another copy - signed too! And what a find it was. I devoured it within a couple of days and was completely entranced by Jake's story. It wasn't a disappointment. 

Set in Portsmouth in both in the 1960's and '80's, Glasshopper tells the stories of Jake - and Mary - his mother, switching between their viewpoints. This was effective, because as readers we were able to see both sides of the story and therefore sympathize and empathize with both sides. Ashdown's also done what many novels tackling alcoholism haven't, and delved deeper into Mary's character. Rather than seeing her as a monster, readers discover she has a much more 'human' side despite initial impressions and introductions by Jake. Mary was very much a 3D character, rather than being overshadowed by her son's voice and this provided a balanced narrative, appealing to all kinds of readers. 

The dysfunctional relationship between the families in Glasshopper was also something to be admired. As part of Mary's narrative, readers unearth that there's much more to her family life that contributes to her alcoholic freefall. This too continues with Jake - interactions between characters such as Aunt Rachel, his father Bill, his younger brother Andy and his cousins, lead to a tangle of mysteries knotted expertly throughout the plot. The one that hit me hardest was Jake’s brother Matthew’s absence. Even though he only briefly appears his absence spoke so many words. My heart went out to Jake as while readers were able to understand his disappearance, he couldn’t. Irony in touches was excellent.

The atmosphere surrounding his mother's 'low,' points were poignantly told by Jake and the dynamics between the family members were realistic and relatable. Points such as the New Year parties or family trips to Brighton I think could be met with a nostalgic pause for many readers.

Setting was a big hit for me too. Recognition of places in a novel always makes me a smile and mentions of areas I know well added to the enjoyment. Being strangely patriotic when it comes to books - preferring British writing a lot more than American for example - the voice and conventions such as going to a 'pub' and things as simple as using British spellings made Glasshopper an easy read.  It was in no way a simple plot however, but still easy enough to follow. Subtlety in Ashdown’s writing and the way she drip fed certain family secrets were cleverly crafted; some were quite a shock to me. While giving the surface impression that everything was going well for the family for a stretch of the novel – the niggling mystery and underlying family feud as it were, gave especially the holiday to France dark undertones. I enjoyed this element immensely. 

I will say that this isn’t exactly a book for people who like closure. Not everything is solved. Initially, this annoyed me slightly. I’d raced through the majority of the book to not get all the answers I wanted. On reflection though, I only have more respect for the author. Not leaving every strand with a definite ending just leaves the reader to question them themselves. It makes the book way more realistic and... like ‘real life,' the ending still remaining with me a week or so after finishing. The twist at the end did leave me satisfied, and while the reactions did jar with me to start with, I think that brought me closer to Jake. His confusion and denial was translated so well I felt it too.

As Glasshopper is I think aimed at adults, I may have missed some strands of story woven in or not fully understood them properly. This could’ve weakened my reading experience, so just a warning for younger readers if you're hopefully considering picking this up. 

In summary: A poignant look into dysfunctional family life, Glasshopper tugged at my heartstrings and made me feel everything the characters did. Accessible to both older and younger readers – 4 stars.