25 January 2011

Book of the Week (86): "When You Reach Me" by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me landed on my reading pile with proven credentials. This short novel won numerous awards in the US, including the Newbery, and now the brand new UK edition is shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize. Naturally, my expectations were high, and I am relieved to report that the book lived up to its reputation.

If I were to describe Stead’s novel in one word, it would be ‘lovely’. This is not an ‘in your face’ sort of book, it gently and quietly ropes you in and suddenly you realise that you can’t put it down. Most of all it reminded me of Louis Sachar’s Holes with its host of quirky yet completely believable characters and the wonderful depiction of a reality which is just touching on the fantastic.

The story, set in 1979, is told by Miranda, a twelve-year-old girl, and addressed to an elusive ‘you’ whose identity is the one of the many mysteries at the heart of the novel. Another one is who is the kid who punched Sal, Miranda’s best friend, in the face in broad daylight, and why Sal started avoiding Miranda afterwards, and of course the weird notes addressed to Miranda which pop up in the strangest of places. These mysteries intertwine beautifully as the novel progresses and are certainly a factor in its appeal, but this not a mere thriller. Stead introduces us to the people surrounding Miranda – from her single mum training for a TV game-show, to her classmates, among them the stuck-up Julia and her long-suffering friend Annemarie, and the locals she sees on her way home every day – Belle the shopkeeper, the boys hanging outside the garage and the homeless guy who sleeps with his head under a mailbox. These characters, each with his or her little quirks, play a role in the unfolding story like human puzzle pieces, and make it a joy to read. Another important presence is Miranda’s favourite book – A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (also a winner of the Newbery medal) and When You Reach Me is both a love song and homage to this classic children’s fantasy. Quite unexpected, completely human, and simply, well, lovely.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

17 January 2011

Book of the Week (85): "The Girl Savage" by Katherine Rundell

Finding a book you love is always a delightful experience. But there’s something particularly special, I think, when it’s a writer’s debut. There’s a particular thrill of discovery, and of promise. That’s what I felt, certainly, reading The Girl Savage, a first novel by Katherine Rundell. I can’t wait for her second.

The Girl Savage is partly set in Zimbabwe, home to young Will (Wilhelmina), who lives on Two Tree Hill farm with her father, her friends, and the farm’s kindly owner Captain Browne. Unlike the bleak Zimbabwe of Jason Wallace’s recent Costa-winning Out of Shadows, however, Will’s world is one you will long to live in. The place blazes with flavour and colour and touch – and Will’s experiences blaze, too. She lives an intense, unfettered life. Eating fruit off the trees, galloping bareback across the farm, poised in silence watching how beetles move, sitting in her tree-house with her friend Simon, gathering by the fire to bake bananas with brown sugar. Everything is vivid, heightened. Her beloved father calls her Wildcat. She is happy and brave and free.

But then Will is sent to live in grey England, to Leewood, a starchy, horribly clean boarding school. The tricks she’s learned for survival back at Two Tree Hill are no use to her here. There are rules at Leewood, but the ones she knows do not apply. As one of the teachers points out when Will asks to sleep outdoors, “This is England, my dear! This is the land of common sense.”

Will runs away. But surviving in London won’t be easy, as Will could not be more out of place. (Though to be clear, she is not foreign; she’s “just in the wrong country”.) And will she make it back home?

Will is a fine, strong character, and there’s some really beautiful writing here – phrases that make you think afresh about things you thought you knew already, which not many writers can do. It’s life-affirming without being too self-indulgent or too glib. There are flaws, I think, too – about half-way through I had my doubts about the relative balance of the weights of the story’s three parts (the farm in Zimbabwe, Leewood School, and running wild in London to the conclusion), and there are just occasional moments when there is simply too much writing in it (turns of phrase that are well-wrought and bright and impressive, to be sure, but also obtrusive and perhaps over-wrought when something simpler and less distracting would have done better), but these are small cavils only, and nothing to detract from a really impressive debut and a really heartening, enjoyable read. When do I get book two?

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

10 January 2011

Book of the Week (84): "Rivers of London" by Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant was just a cynical probationary constable in London’s Metropolitan Police Service until he was approached by a ghost with important information on a murder investigation. Now everything’s changed. Somehow he’s become an apprentice wizard, the first in fifty years, and has been charged with keeping the Queen’s peace.

Easier said than done when there are nests of vampires in Purley, the God and Goddess of the river Thames have started a turf war, and some supernatural force is twisting the good citizens of the city into violent mindless marionettes, intent on bashing each other’s heads in for its own amusement.

Now PC Grant and his boss have stumbled onto something big. Something’s very wrong at the heart of the city he loves, and it’s up to them to unravel the whole rotten mess before London tears itself apart.

With a laudable level of precision Aaronovitch paints a convincingly accurate depiction of London’s architecture and inhabitants. His use of language is impressive, capturing not only an authentic vernacular for the city, but also presenting a near flawless rendition of the Metropolitan Police Service’s vocabulary. All these elements come together to create an immersive and extremely funny fantasy that is as believable as it is entertaining.

Better known for adaptations like Doctor Who’s Remembrance of the Daleks, this is Ben Aaronovitch’s first step into an urban fantasy of his own creation. A wry witty blend of old folklore, London history, and magic, makes Rivers of London a worthy and unique read. With a distinctive voice and narrative style that is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman or China MiĆ©ville'
s Un Lun Dun this will appeal to fans of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, and Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels.

The first of a series, Rivers of London had me laughing within the first couple of pages, and promises to be the beginning of an entertaining journey for London’s very own Detective Constable Grant, copper-turned-trainee-wizard.

Recommended by Matthew Humpage

03 January 2011

Book of the Week (83): "Half Brother" by Kenneth Oppel

Ben has just turned thirteen, and he’s trying to build himself a new life. His parents have just moved the family away from Toronto, out west to Victoria, he’s starting in a new school, trying to make new friends, and to attract the attention of the gorgeous Jennifer. Everything is new and difficult. His grades at the posh private school where he’s been sent aren’t shining, and he isn’t naturally the class alpha-male, either.

So it doesn’t help matters that his university professor father has just decided to adopt a new baby for the family, and that the baby – Ben’s sort-of-brother – is a chimp. His name is Zan. Ben’s parents hope to be the first to raise a chimp as though he were a human and teach him to communicate in sign language. Not surprisingly, many people are excited at the idea of this experiment – some (scientists, the media) are very enthusiastic, some (animal rights protesters) are very critical; and everyone is watching closely to see how the experiment goes…

But for Ben it’s more than just an experiment. At a time when he is learning about life, trying to learn his own way in the world, he’s faced with a situation where he and his family and friends are forced to question what it means to be human, and what’s really best for the little chimp he has come to love almost like a real brother. Is this strange set-up of theirs giving Zan a real home and a real family, or would he be happier if he were to be sent away somewhere to live with other chimps – or has Project Zan made him too human for that now?

It’s a really good premise for a book, but in the execution so much more than just that. It’s gripping storytelling by a really good writer at the top of his game – sometimes deeply touching (Ben and Zan’s relationship is extraordinary and extraordinarily drawn) and always thoughtful and thought-provoking – this is one I’m sure I won’t forget in a hurry.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn