Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Fortunately, the Milk... by Neil Gaiman

Kurt Vonnegut (author of Slaughterhouse Five) once set a list of eight rules for creative writing. I won’t bother with them all here (you can easily find them in a Google search if you’re so intrigued), but there was always one that stood out to me. And this is the one rule that Neil Gaiman has taken to a new level in Fortunately, the Milk...:
Kurt Vonnegut’s rule of writing #3 – Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
In the case of this story, it’s two children who want milk for their cereal, and their dad is sent out to get some. But the shop is only just down the road, and he is gone for seemingly forever. What has held him up? On his return his answer includes no less than aliens, dinosaurs, vampires, pirates and a volcano god. Not to forget the ponies as well. Every good story needs some ponies.

Of course it’s a seemingly simple task that then becomes pure fantastic silliness. The children don’t seem to be buying their father’s story, and why would they? A time-travelling stegosaurus could not possibly be real…

But Chris Riddell’s illustrations are what make the silly story become amazing and real. There are illustrations on practically every page, giving life to the seeming absurdities, cleverly adding even more elements to the tale. This is the sort of story that doesn't just deserve to be illustrated, but needs to be when you have someone as talented and creative as Riddell to do the job.

The book itself is a very quick read. It can be done in one sitting. In fact, I’d recommend it to be. Just leave it for a day when you have the time to properly enjoy it. 

Fortunately, the Milk... is published by Bloomsbury Books and available from most book retailers. 

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Wonder by RJ Palacio

Many times when I see a book heavily publicised I become critical. It's not that I suddenly assume a book will be bad, because I want it to be good. I want all books to be good. I've just had a few bad experiences that have made me skeptical (namely Twilight; I didn't even bother with Fifty Shades). But I couldn't help being intrigued by the cover of Wonder. For what it's worth: I always judge a book by its cover. I work in publishing, and I know how important a cover is to the success of a book. If it's not done properly on the outside, I can only fear how good it can be on the inside. So, I picked up Wonder on a whim. It was heavily publicised in my local Waterstones, but I really liked the cover design and thought it worth a read.

Our protagonist, August (Auggie), has severe facial deformity, and at the age of 10 is about to go to school for the very first time. He is anything but oblivious to his condition - the way people look at him on the street, the way people treat him differently - he knows why, but is still able to sometimes see the funny side of his situation.

Once Auggie starts school, the inevitable happens: bullying. Not just your standard name-calling bullying, but more complex forms that are not outright classified as bullying, but still result in emotional damage.There are the kids who pretend to be helpful just to make themselves look better, and those who are friendly, but give into the peer pressure of making fun of Auggie when he's not around.

The beauty of this book, though, is not just how Auggie is affected by his condition and situation, but how everyone in his life is affected and how they see him. Along with Auggie's point of view, we hear from his sister, his friends, his sister's boyfriend, his sister's friend. Put together they show the complexity that surrounds someone who has a difficult life merely because he looks different to everyone else.

Not making a pun on the title, this book has a real It's a Wonderful Life feel to it, when coming to the end you realise how one person's life can touch so many others. It is also the ideal book dealing with the problem of bullying. There are many people who believe that because Auggie is different that it is okay to make fun of him, or okay to assume he has been given special treatment. But there are so many others who choose to be kind, choose to try to understand what he is going through. And in the end, even some of the bullies have a change to change their ways.

My sister is a children's librarian who believes this book should be taught in every school. I would agree, but I also wouldn't hold back from recommending it to people of any age. I told my mother to read it, who in turn told my grandmother to read it. Wonder is a touching story, funny, well-written and above all with an important message. That is, while it is perfectly okay to judge a book by its cover (because there is control over what a book looks like):

It's a lesson that sadly keeps needing to be taught, but RJ Palacio has done a magnificent job in showing how important it is to be kind.

Wonder is published by Bodley Head Childrens Books, part of Penguin Random House. You can buy the book here.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt

When I did my degree in Literature, most books I read were written by what we came to call the DWM. That is, Dead White Men. My classes were 90% American and English literature, and the books probably 90% DWM authors. At the time, I didn't question it. We were reading what was considered to be classics, and I enjoyed most of the books.

But a few years ago a friend confessed that his girlfriend was annoyed with him for constantly reading DWM. Why wasn't he bothering with female authors? So he spent an entire year trying to read nothing but female authors. I can't say I ever went as far as that, but I did become more aware of not just what, but who I was reading. I am certain there are many people who might agree more women writers need to be taught at schools. On the plus side, I think they are very well represented in modern publishing. Glancing at my bookshelves now, I'd say I've a pretty good male-female balance.

My real concern with reading, though, is that very few people read books in translation. Possibly worse, UK and US publishers seem more keen to export their own authors rather than finding great works of world literature. So many people will say that reading offers an expanded view of the world, but I find it hard to agree with that when most of us only read from a select geographical region.

That's not to say great works of foreign literature don't make it into English. There has recently been a surge of interest around Scandinavian stories thanks to Steig Larsson. Many classics come from outside the English-speaking world as well. But I still feel most English-speaking publishers are interested in selling, rather than buying, foreign rights.

And this is when I discovered Pushkin Press, who only publish books in translation. There was a book in Waterstones that kept catching my eye. The cover was gorgeous, and it was so much fatter than all the other books on the children's shelves surrounding it. A story about a knight on a quest isn't usually the first thing I go for, but I found I couldn't resist any longer.

The Letter for the King was originally written in Dutch by Tonke Dragt in 1962. She's considered to be one of the greatest Dutch writers for children, yet I would guess most of us outside the Dutch-speaking world wouldn't have heard of her. A shame, really.

The Letter for the King is fantastic. It is written in an older, more simple language than is used in most books today, but has so much charm. Tiuri, our would-be knight had he not been charged with an urgent task of delivering a letter, is a wonderful protagonist for children. His thoughts are simple, easy to understand, yet he is intelligent, brave and incredibly loyal to his task. Throughout his quest to deliver a letter to a king of a neighbouring kingdom, he encounters many people who offer to help him, and many times his trust in others becomes a misfortune in his tale. There are enemies lurking, willing to kill the young man in order to steal the letter.

Despite its hefty length for a children's book (460 pages), The Letter for the King is an exhilarating read with some lovely illustrations by the author. Each step of Tiuri's journey brings another adventure, another danger, and another friend who shows that often there is more good than evil in the world.

I commend Pushkin Press for finding books to translate and publish in English, and I can't wait to see more of what Pushkin bring into the English market. They've done a fantastic job with The Letter for the King, and I would highly recommend this title to anyone wanting a bit of old-fashioned chivalry and adventure.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I was introduced to Patrick Ness's work through World Book Night, when a friend gave me The Knife of Never Letting Go (part 1 in the Chaos Walking trilogy). I loved it, and the whole trilogy, which led me on to read more of Ness. The title I was most looking forward to was A Monster Calls, and for good reason.

There are a few editions you can find of this title. I ended up getting the illustrated edition, because if there is an illustrated edition of anything, that tends to be what I go for. Illustrated by the incredibly talented Jim Kay (who has just been commissioned to illustrate the Harry Potter series), this is a title where you absolutely must get the illustrated edition to fully appreciate the beauty of the story.

As clearly detailed in the forward of the book, Ness was given an original idea by the late Sibohan Dowd, who unfortunately died before she was able to write the story. Simply put, the story is about a teenage boy, Conor, struggling with everyday life while his mother battles terminal cancer. He awakens one night from a recurring nightmare, only to find a monster outside his bedroom window. The monster continues to visit Conor, pushing the boy to come to terms with his mother's situation.

The book itself is short, but Ness is masterful with his writing, putting so much into each scene, each character, you feel he accomplishes so much in 200 pages. It's funny, tender and heartbreaking, with Kay's ink illustrations setting a perfect mood for the text. There is far more I could say about this amazing book, but I don't want to spoil it for anyone. Just do yourself a favour and make sure you get the illustrated edition.

You can purchase the illustrated paperback from publisher Walker Books here: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness