Category Archives: Young Adult Fiction

Wonder – R.J. Palacio

Earlier this week you may have seen I unintentionally ruffled some feathers when I brought up the subject of ‘New Adult’ fiction. I will admit that on the occasion I can be a book snob in some respects, though I also read M.C Beaton quite regularly just to make a slight conundrum of my own reading frame of mind, so maybe that played a part and maybe that will change too as it has done with YA novels. Not that I could now only ever read YA novels, I don’t quite understand the attraction to doing only that, yet I have certainly on occasion seen that as an adult they can make captivating reading for me too. ‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio is one of the best examples of that I have had the pleasure of reading in the last few years.

**** The Bodley Head, hardback, 2012, fiction, 320 pages, borrowed from the library

August Pullman is a young boy who has been born with a facial abnormality. For years he has been as sheltered as possible from the prospective cruel world of people outside his family, neighbours and kids he knew from childhood, yet he is now at an age where home schooling isn’t enough and he needs to think about going to Middle School (what is the UK equivalent of this?) something which his mother and father are initially have opposing views on. It is from his initial visit of a school to his first day that the book starts and we follow August as he meets those who will accept him for who he is and those that won’t.

“For me Halloween is the best holiday in the world. It even beats Christmas. I get to dress up in a costume. I get to wear a mask. I get to go around like every other kid with a mask and nobody thinks I look weird. Nobody takes a second look. Nobody notices me. Nobody knows me.”

I have to say, despite the fact that I have heard lots and lots of people raving about this book whose opinions I trust, I had been concerned that this book would be a rather patronising sugar coated lecture for young readers about acceptance and how tolerant we should all be. Note – I am not against this message. Initially with the oh so accepting school, the use of phrases like ‘lamb to the slaughter’ and discussing what they mean, the ‘welcome committee’ of three children August gets along with a teacher who starts to teach all the kids about precepts, I did think that this book was going to be one such book. Yet the more I read on, initially in August’s narrative and through his perspective though this changes, my opinion of the book completely changed. ‘Wonder’ is a very honest book which looks at August’s situation from all sides, even some rather confronting and unappealing ones without ever feeling like it is done as a ploy to sell books.

The way in which Palacio makes the book hit home, and also seems more unflinchingly real, is the fact that as ‘Wonder’ progresses the narratives change. Initially we see how August feels about his life, then we switch to how his sister Via feels being the elder sibling who knows her life isn’t as hard as August’s but is having a tough enough time herself starting High School, then to some of August’s friends and frenemies which links in their parents and some of the teachers thoughts. This creates a fully formed world around August and all of the opinions he has about the people around him, sometimes correctly sometimes not, and also all those people’s opinions of him. We see the kids who genuinely want to be his friends, the ones who talk about him behind his back and believe if you touch him you get ‘the Plague’ and how some of their parents perpetuate this.

“I never used to see August the way other people saw him. I knew he didn’t look exactly normal, but I didn’t understand why strangers seemed so shocked when they saw him. Horrified. Sickened. Scared. There are so many words I can use to describe the looks on people’s faces. And for a long time I didn’t get it. I’d just get mad. Mad when they stared. Mad when they looked away. “What the heck are you looking at?” I’d say to people – even grownups.”

Palacio may put August through the wringer on occasion but she never makes him ‘the victim’ nor does she make him completely adorable and perfect, sometimes he can be stubborn, opinionated and judge others, or write them off, himself. She also uses a deftly light sense of humour throughout, August is the butt of people’s jokes but there is no humour there, yet when he laughs at himself and encourages those he trusts to do so we read a long. This also creates a certain weight to the novel, highlighting the darker aspects of the book.

I was impressed with ‘Wonder’ it is a tale the like of which we may have read in books, regardless of them being YA or not, before yet with its sense of humour and multiple narratives I think this book exceeds far beyond others of its type as it becomes a multi faceted living breathing world because of its honesty from all view points. I can see why so many people were raving about it last year, though it is a ‘lighter’ read for an adult it would be an exceptional one for the market which it is most aimed at. I myself highly recommend you give it a read.

Who else had read ‘Wonder’ and what did you make of it? What are your thoughts on adults reading YA literature?

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Filed under Bodley Head Books, R.J. Palacio, Review, Young Adult Fiction

Hollow Pike – James Dawson

I have always been a little wary of young adult fiction, well since I was a young adult, and reading it as a grown up. I admit I loved Harry Potter but I did start that series when it came out in my late teens and so of course I carried on with the series, how could I not. I have dabbled in ‘Twilight’ to mixed results (I like the films more) and just didn’t get ‘The Hunger Games’. Odd then that I thought James Dawson’s debut novel ‘Hollow Pike’ was a bit of a corker, yet I think it’s because it is everything I would have liked in a young adult novel when I was one (and my sister, who is fourteen, love it – more on that later) and never got. I will explain…

Indigo Books, paperback, 2012, young adult fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Lis London (brilliant lead name for a YA character) leaves her home in Wales for the small Yorkshire town of Hollow Pike after the bullying that she has endured at school simply becomes too much and hopes for a new start. However new starts are always tricky, will you make any new friends, will you end up in the right crowd, could history repeat itself? Prior to moving Lis has been having nightmares of someone trying to kill her each night, before she arrives at Hollow Pike she believes that this could be due to stress yet why is it when she goes through the local woods (which have a history of witchcraft) everything looks so familiar? Throw in the murder of one of her fellow school mates and soon it looks like Lis is set to be the killer’s next target.

I will admit that on paper the idea of ‘Hollow Pike’ as a story does look slightly like your average supernatural teen thriller fare, yet there is so much more to it when you read it. First of all there is Lis, she literally (cliché alert) walks off the page. The story of how she was bullied at school and then tries so hard to fit in with the right, and then the delightfully wrong, crowd will without a doubt have you looking back at your own school days. I remember having a Laura Rigg (popular, beautiful but ultimately a complete bullying power controlling bitch) or three in my school, I also remember the slightly kooky, or some people might say odd, group which you kind of wanted to be a part of and where also rather scared by and so all these characters came vividly to life. I thought that fact that he made three of the lead characters gay and lesbian was also a very brave thing to do and something I don’t think is really written about for that age group, brilliantly its very much part of who the characters are yet it isn’t the only thing that defines them – like life.

Secondly there is the style and nature of the book. From the outside (cover and blurb) this book looks set to be a witch-fest, it is far more clever than that. I actually think at its heart ‘Hollow Pike’ is a crime novel, with hints of witchcraft thrown in for good measure, where the moral of the story is friendship. The book has the fast paced thrilling nature of a good crime though never at the expense of the writing or the atmosphere, which I really liked. Oh and I couldn’t guess who the killer or killers were and was second guessing all the way to the denouement.

Thirdly, as an adult reading this, I loved the sense of nostalgia it had. I am of the generation (as is James Dawson it would seem) that had the Spice Girls blasting on the radio, watched ‘The Craft’, ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Scream’ at the cinema and devoured Point Horror novels all weekend (I didn’t even care that they regurgitated the same plot over and over). This combines all those things, except switches regurgitated ideas for originality, and creates a book and a world in young adult fiction that is familiar yet new. I was charmed by it.

I did have the odd wobble or two with ‘Hollow Pike’ I will admit. Occasionally bits of it felt overly familiar and I think I was expecting something with more witchcraft. But I am a thirty year old critiquing a book that isn’t for me, and I really enjoyed it overall, so I will leave you with the thoughts of my little sister Miriam (who joined me and Gavin on The Readers Book Club to discuss it – and do listen as she is brilliant on it) who said, to paraphrase, that…

‘Hollow Pike’ was actually all the more clever for what James Dawson does with the witchcraft elements and  that I shouldn’t expect the obvious – which told me frankly. She found it scary (I did a few times but didn’t want to admit it – oops), thrilling, realistic, original and different from other books in its field.. At fourteen she is the idea reader for this book and she LOVED it. I am not its target market and I thoroughly enjoyed it, so rave reviews from both of us really.

Who else had read ‘Hollow Pike’ and what did you think of it? What are your thoughts on adults reading young adult fiction? If you like them yourself then which would you recommend, apart from ‘Twilight’ and ‘The Hunger Games’?

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Filed under James Dawson, Orion Publishing, Review, Young Adult Fiction

To Be A Cat – Matt Haig

I don’t read young adult fiction as a rule, I wouldn’t say I am sneery towards it, I just always worry I will be much harder on a young adult book as an adult reader which would be unfair as I am not its intended market. That is why I used to get The Bookboy and The Girl Who Reads Too Much to review them for me. However a mixture of my Gran being ill, and the visiting and mind consumption that has taken up, along with the arrival of Oscar into the household led me to picking up ‘To Be A Cat’ by Matt Haig, an author whose adult books I have been meaning to read for a while.

Bodley Head Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by Shane at Nottingham Waterstones

I really don’t want to spoil this read by giving too much away about it, or indeed letting the cat out of the bag (sorry couldn’t help it), yet with a title like ‘To Be A Cat’ you might have figured out where the heart of this story might lie. That said Matt Haig does produce a book that has more layers than the initial one that almost hits you around the head, though the actual transmogrification doesn’t happen until 60ish pages in, sorry I have got ahead of myself…

Barney Willow is a rather unhappy boy. His parents have divorced, since which his father has disappeared (literally vanished) and his mother is trying so hard to be busy she has become ‘a blur’, he is bullied at school by both children like Gavin Needle and also teachers including the particularly evil and malicious head teacher Miss Whipmire. Apart from his best friend Rissa he really doesn’t like his life, it would be much easier if he was a dog, like his King Spaniel Guster maybe, or even a cat? Sometimes though you have to be careful what you wish for and the consequences that it might bring don’t you?

I really, really enjoyed this book, and I have to admit that I was initially a little dubious. Haven’t we all read books about a bullied child before? Would this book be original? It really is. I liked Barney as a character from the start he is immediately likeable, I ended up empathising with him as a bullied child (as I was myself for a time) and taking a real dislike to Miss Whipmire (who was my favourite character for being so evil, alongside Guster who when we hear his inner voice is a hilarious character/dog) and Gavin. As the book went on I also fully hoped Barney would get the happy ending he so deserved, without spoiling anything I can say that Haig gives us a very interesting ending you might not expect, I’ll say no more.

For me what really made the book was its sense of fun and the humour. Matt Haig gives the book a narrative from the author and does this in a really wonderful way by interrupting the story now and again, and indeed from the start, in a way that mixes witty asides that will instil the giggles in a child and the possible adult reading the book aloud whilst also having the edge of it being an oral narrative of ‘are you sitting comfortably’ which all children universally, along with most adults (I read ‘Redemption in Indigo’ by Karen Lord before this which does the same for adults, review next week), enjoy as it instantly pulls you in from the start. I was sold…

“Here is a secret I shouldn’t really tell you, but I will because I just can’t help it. It’s too big. Too good. Okay, sit down, get ready, brace yourself, have some emergency chocolate handy. Squeeze a big cushion. Here it is:  
 Cats are magic.”

I really have no criticism of the book to be honest with you, well apart from the cover which isn’t as good as the one on the proof copy I had which is illustrated below with another avid reader, yes fo course cats can read, tut.

Oscar makes it look so hard ‘To Be A Cat’

If you aren’t a big fan of young adult fiction then I would say give ‘To Be A Cat’ a whirl for the humour and that sense of being told a story when you were a child, and the fact that it is just a really good fun read. If you know the joys/terrors etc of reading to kids regularly then read them this, they will love it. It’s also a book that, without being moralistic, is a great book for younger or older people about accepting ones lot in life and the skin that you are in, without ever being patronising or twee. Mind you if you don’t like cats then maybe it’s not for you to be fair. That said I should warn you tomorrow’s post will be a very catty one (in the feline sense, not the vitriol type) though if you don’t like cats then I doubt you will have gotten this far.

I definitely want to get on and read Matt Haig’s adult fiction now. I am hoping it is this much fun, have any of you tried it? I have ‘The Possession of Mr Cave’ and ‘The Radleys’ to read, would you recommend either/both of them?

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Filed under Bodley Head Books, Matt Haig, Review, Young Adult Fiction

War Horse – Michael Morpurgo

I should open today’s post with a disclaimer right from that start that books about WWI or WWII are something I feel over saturate the market. If done well they can be incredibly emotive and powerful but all too often they fall into the ‘man and woman fall in love, he goes off to war, its horrific, she hears he is dead but actually it was a mistaken telegram and they get back together, the end’. I should also mention that I don’t really like horses (much to the dismay of one of my closest friends) be they real or fictional ones. Why on earth read ‘War Horse’ then? Actually not because of the movie, which I was slightly aware was being released soon, but because I saw DogEarDiscs rate it five stars on Good Reads and had been contemplating reading more YA so it seemed like a good idea.

Egmont Books, paperback, 1982, fiction, 182 pages, borrowed from the library

I didn’t think I was going to like ‘War Horse’ when I started it, not because war books are so hit and miss with me or because I don’t like horses, both facts are true yet I knew this was coming from the title so was ready, but because I didn’t expect the novel to be narrated by the horse, Joey, himself. As soon as I realised this I thought something a little ruder than ‘oh no’ because my saccharine alert had been switched on. Like child narrators, animal narration can kill a book with one out of place word or description. Interestingly ‘War Horse’ both excels and in some ways fails because of this device.

Joey is a half bred foal when he is separated from his mother at an auction, ‘little I was worth’, and bought by an alcoholic farmer at a market in Devon who doesn’t actually want him but buys him as he is so cheap. On the farm he meets Albert and the two form an instant bond, slowly but surely Joey becomes one of the finest horses around, something Albert’s father never believed possible, yet when war is declared Albert’s father sees an opportunity of financial gain and the fates of Joey and Albert are changed, especially as Albert is not old enough to fight. Despite the fact I know you can all imagine what happens with the novel I don’t want to give too much more away but we do from this point see the war through the eyes of a horse.

In some ways Joey narrating this is a really interesting idea. It gives a very different spin on the whole war idea, a different angle in many ways. This is also probably much more effective on its intended audience as this book is aimed at a younger market and so in a way makes this more accessible, we all like animals on the whole when we are younger don’t we?  Yet as an adult reading this it added a certain distance, it was emotive and I could imagine as a kid this book hitting home but as an adult it really wasn’t. As the story plays out further characters, it is a war after all, might not be around for all that long and so characters are never quite feel fully developed. Great to illustrate to children the effects of war and quite shocking, as an adult I wanted further character development before I could really feel losses as and when they came, even in the case of Emilie which should have been much more effecting.

This isn’t all negative I promise. There are some very successful moments for example when Joey crosses no man’s, interestingly when it is just Joey describing his surrounding and the atmosphere, was very eerie indeed. I also thought Morpurgo did something that was particularly clever, and that was to not create any major villains. In fact all the ‘baddies’, apart from the war itself, are offstage really. Morpurgo doesn’t make the British soldiers ‘good’ and the German’s ‘bad’ instead he illustrates two sides of a war and how innocent men were brought into it from both sides because they had no choice/felt it was right for their country but didn’t want the war in the first place. That I thought was very powerful.

As you can see it’s a mixed bag of feeling for me with ‘War Horse’. I am glad that I have read it, but it didn’t hit all the buttons I had hoped it would, thankfully though it wasn’t saccharine in the slightest, it moved me, just not as much as I was expecting it was going to. I do think that I should mention that the book was originally published in 1982, it’s as old as me can you believe it, and I think naturally all books, not just children’s, have developed with a society that isn’t as easy to shock so that needs to be taken into account too.

I would be interested to see how it has been adapted though; my uncle and cousin came back from the movies and had clearly had a good cry. Who else has read it? Who has seen the play or the film? What did you think?

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Filed under Egmont Books, Michael Morpurgo, Review, Young Adult Fiction