YA

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris


This week, out of curiosity, and stemmed from my admiration of a heartfelt and well-crafted newspaper article on the attempt to reconnect children with words to describe nature, I ordered one of the largest, most beautiful books I’ve ever seen from my local bookshop. The publishers are at pains to point out that it’s not just for children, but for all, and I would concur. This week’s book of the week is for you as much as for your child.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is an oversize book of ‘incantations’ or poems, highly illustrated in full-colour, laid out as an ABC of nature, featuring such words as fern, heron, kingfisher, newt and willow. Publishers often talk about whether a pairing of author and illustrator works – Dahl and Blake, Simon and Ross. Here, the force of the words matches the force of the illustrations in the most exquisite way.

Perhaps Morris set out to create a work of paintings to rival the beauty of nature itself – a paean at least. And indeed the artwork is literally breath-taking – I gasped at the first spread on which I opened the book – the branches and leaves stood out as if in 3D. The capture of light on a glowing conker is mesmerising. The layering of the artwork, the exquisite capturing of nature in flux and flight is simply stunning. And there is a thread of gold running through the book – gold foil on the cover – and gold within that marks the book as a ‘treasure’, as something more than mundane. Macfarlane points out that it is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and indeed it implies that what is contained within is to be held in reverence – as with nature itself.

The book runs through an ABC (although some letters are used more than once) of acrostic poems, ‘incantations’, all related to nature. Each subject is attributed three spreads – an illustrated word lost, the poem and illustration, and then a spread depicting the subject within a landscape. Or, in more poetic language – the word slipping away, the summoning poem, and the word being spelled back.

When Macfarlane speaks, (having heard him on the radio), it’s like a tumbling bubbling river running over rocks; he speaks fast as if the words are so numerous he is desperate to give them voice. This is one way of reading the ‘incantations’ held within the book, just hearing the sounds the words make, like a playful witch’s spell, an inner prayer to nature, a chanting even. Indeed, it is anticipated that these ‘incantations’ are to be spoken aloud. Yet another way of reading these acrostic poems is to savour every chosen word – for chosen they most certainly are. The individual vocabulary, the way the words meet each other in phrases, the space around the words on the page.

The poems reflect diversity in their literary artistry. The incantation to the bluebell uses the metaphor of water when thinking about the blue of bluebells. On the next page the picture shows the woodland floor awashed in blue, looking almost like the sea – only the fox prowling through and an owl in flight keep the image grounded among the trees.

The fern breathes with alliteration on the ‘f’ sounds, and Macfarlane uses consonance with the ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. The heron incantation explores the relationship between urbanity and nature with its steel metaphor.

There is a duality to the given title of the book. Partly, Morris’s and Macfarlane’s inspiration came following the news in 2015 that around 50 words connected with nature were being cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary because they had fallen out of use. Almond, blackberry and crocus made way for analogue, block graph and celebrity as long ago as 2007. Naming, as Macfarlane points out, is essential: “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name.” This naming returns the lost words to our vernacular. But, the words of the landscape speak not only to knowledge, but also to the history of the land, the cultural and rural identity of the words we use to describe things.

I would argue that the title also speaks to the reader who will get lost within the book, because the words and artworks are so powerful, so intoxicating. It has the power both to immerse the reader but also to enthrall the reader and entice them to look around them at the outside world.

It’s a big and heavy book, quite difficult to shelve, but that’s probably because it’s not meant to be shelved. It’s meant to lie around the house or garden or field, open and inhaled. At this size and potency, it certainly won’t be lost. You can buy it here.

 

The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy


I’m a big fan of the television programme The Leftovers. Initially based on the Tom Perotta novel, it addresses the issue of what happens to those left behind when two per cent of the population simply disappears. Perotta apparently came up with the idea as a reaction to 9/11, ie the exploration of our emotions when people we love simply vanish. One day they’re there, and the next day they’re gone. Bain Murphy’s book doesn’t disappear people; even more startling in a way, is that abstract things disappear, and no one knows what’s going to be next. At first it’s sense of smell, then reflections, then colours and so on.

In The Disappearances, the absences are limited to a few towns, and only occur every seven years. When Aila and her younger brother, Miles, return to live in one of these towns after the death of their mother, they must come to terms with the absences, but also seek to discover their mother’s possible involvement with them, and a series of clues she inadvertently left behind.

There’s another story within the whole, that of a diary written by a separate character, as yet unknown to the reader, which crops up every few chapters. It’s another mystery for the reader to attempt to solve, and is written with a spooky turn of phrase. This mystery is perpetuated for a long way into the novel, and all the time the reader is still grappling with the clues Aila keeps dropping about her own mystery. Add to that a sort of fantastical historical setting – rural Connecticut in 1942, a love story, and am intriguing set up of teen friends and jealousies, and this is one dense novel.

Aila’s main key to solving the mystery is a collection of Shakespeare plays, annotated by her mother, from which she draws links to the ongoing disappearances. Herein, sadly, lies the flaw in the story, for although she does pull out quotations that somewhat link to the mystery, generally the quotations are tenuous, and one can’t help thinking that there must be a Shakespeare quote to fit almost any situation. What’s more intriguing are the references to different bird behaviours dropped into the text by the mystery diarist, which add another element to the whole.

Bain Murphy also feeds into the story a current trend among many young teens, that of creating ‘potions’, in this case ‘variants’, which add an extra level of curiosity, and she is adept at her ‘other world’ creation of introducing certain traditions and small character ticks, such as inscribing skin with quotations or illustrations, taking part in moonlit dreamlike competitions and so forth. All of which adds to the general romance of the text, and gives it extra layers of character and place.

So despite the slight tenuousness of the mishmash of clues and hints, this is a gripping and highly enjoyable novel with believable characters and flowing prose. In fact, the reader goes along with the clues happily because the plot and pace are so intense and riveting. Aila is flawed but believable, as is the family with whom she stays, and the other characters who punctuate this small-town America. The disappearances are well-developed and described, and there’s a great balance of reality/fantasy. Thoroughly memorable, and highly original, although marketed as ‘teen’, this could be read happily from 12+ years. You might even pick up the odd Shakespeare quote. It’s certainly one of the most inventive and lovingly crafted novels I’ve read recently. You can buy it here.

The Ethan I was Before by Ali Standish and Truth or Dare by Non Pratt

It’s funny how books bucket together. In the past two months I’ve read three books with ‘dares’ as their theme – I Dare You by Reece Wykes, a picture book for the young at heart with a wry sense of humour, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt, a most excellent YA novel with some hard truths at heart, and The Ethan I was Before, a middle grade novel with a dare at its core.

In The Ethan I Was Before, twelve-year-old Ethan is moved with his family to live with his grandfather in Georgia, a far cry from the Boston he is used to. Allegedly the move is to help his grandfather, although it soon becomes apparent that his grandfather is an independent soul, and the move is to remove Ethan from an uncomfortable incident in his past.

Ethan’s relationship with his angry older brother, his new relationship with Coralee (an enigmatic girl he meets at school), and the exploration of his new town make up the bulk of the novel, but all the time the reader is aware of a past secret that Ethan is hiding.

Standish’s prose pulls in the reader from the beginning. There are some key phrases that show flashes of great writing, her similies are excellent and create an authentic sense of place: she describes the air at one point with “humidity like a wet fleece blanket”. Her characterisations too are neat and winning, from her portrayal of forthright and keenly intelligent Mack, who runs the local store, to Ethan’s Mum, who tends to burn food because she forgets having put it in the oven in an endearingly absentminded preoccupation. Standish also has a handle on the unsophisticated twelve-year-old way of trying to describe in words the complex emotions of guilt and anxiety. She also focuses on what Ethan’s therapist has told him to do, extrapolating the way Ethan is feeling without laying it too bare for the readership:

“It’s almost funny, that everything that would make a normal person happy is what makes me feel the most sad.”

And yet, it’s the not laying it bare that holds this book back from being as good as it should be. The ‘secret’ in the past is too often alluded to by Ethan’s family, and himself, and yet doesn’t feel real. Because they are all holding back so much, the constant nudges that there is something else going on, or something big that happened in the past, feel too contrived. Although in real life, we all do keep back parts of ourselves, even in some cases from ourselves, one feels that Ethan’s family would talk more frankly – particularly his brother – or that Ethan, who narrates the story in first person, would be slightly more honest with himself and with the readership. It doesn’t sit well that he hides the past from himself, because it doesn’t fit with his character.

On the whole this was a really enjoyable book; I just felt that it could have been bigger. With slightly more depth and more subtlety, the past could have been explored in more detail and led to a weightier novel. So the denouement, when it comes, feels half-hearted, and I wanted the ‘dare’ to be more dramatic. But for glimpses of what Standish can do, and with the possibility that there is better to come, this is an intriguing debut. It will fit the bill nicely for a summertime coming-of-age novel, and gives a great sense of small town America. You can buy it here.

For meatiness I’d go to the YA coming-of-age title, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt. Although the production at first seems gimmicky, in that the first part is narrated by main character Claire Casey, leaving the story on a cliffhanger, with the second part physically flipped over so that the reader has to turn the book upside down and start from the other end to read the other main character, Sef’s narration continuing the plot, the story itself is far from contrived. In fact, it becomes swiftly apparent reading part two that this consecutive narration adds depth and substance.

Kam Malik suffers a life-changing injury after a stupid stunt goes wrong. Claire, shy and unobtrusive, volunteers at his rehabilitation clinic. When she gets to know Kam’s brother, Sef, together they come up with a scheme to raise much-needed funds to maintain his rehabilitation. It’s a Truth or Dare YouTube campaign, but before long their truths collide and their dares take things too far.

Non Pratt has a magnificent turn of phrase that enables description without the reader feeling they’re reading any. The plot is deft and agile – the book skips along punctuated with accurate and authentic dialogue, and a look into the innermost thoughts of her narrators, which is, at times, devastating.

What shines through is the depth of characterisation, as at first the reader, through Claire’s eyes, really likes Sef Malik, but what soon becomes apparent through his point of view in part two, is that no one shows their true self to everyone, and that people aren’t kind or unkind throughout. Everyone has their motivations, demons, and selfishness. Pratt wheels through a host of issues including prejudice, fame, guilt, and love without once making this an issue novel. It’s a gripping read, as tumultuous as Claire’s relationship with Sef, and deeply satisfying. You can buy it here.

 

Q&A with Catherine Barter, author of Troublemakers


I had the recent good fortune to not only review Catherine’s debut novel, Troublemakers, but also to chair a panel conversation between Catherine and Keren David, author of The Liar’s Handbook, among others. For those of you unable to attend, I also sneaked in a cheeky Q&A with Catherine so that I could share it with you here. Troublemakers is an unusual YA novel – it’s contemporary, about politics, and very apt in the current political climate. Set in London, it’s a coming-of-age novel that speaks of activism, terrorism, and family relationships.

I understand that you worked for an organisation campaigning for the rights of garment workers. Have you always been involved in political activism of some kind?

That’s right, I used to work for a brilliant organisation called Labour Behind the Label. I mostly did office admin – answering emails, stuffing envelopes, that kind of thing. I’m much too shy to be any good at direct action or street protest, so where I’ve been involved in activism it’s mainly been doing boring, behind-the-scenes things.

I’ve always been quite political, and my family talked politics a lot, but I think I got particularly switched on to it in my teens. When I was about sixteen I had that Naomi Klein book, No Logo, which a lot of people were reading at the time, and I got quite caught up in the idea of fighting back against global capitalism. Not that I exactly knew what that meant (I’m not sure I actually got to the end of No Logo), but I could tell it was important!

And then the Iraq War began the year that I started university, and I went on one of the marches against it, as did a lot of young people that year. So that was my first introduction to that kind of mass movement activism. You care very passionately about things when you’re a teenager, so I think it’s a good time to get interested in politics and activism.

You co-manage a radical bookshop (Housmans). What’s the most rewarding part of the job?

I love when young people come in to the shop looking for copies of old radical classics, things like bell hooks’ Ain’t I A Woman or Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. You get the feeling they’re just getting started on their political journeys and they’re putting in the groundwork by reading all these big, difficult, important books. And they’re really excited about it. I love seeing that.

Did the attacks on Housmans in the past in some way inspire what happens to Nick’s coffee shop in Troublemakers?

Hmm! I actually never thought about that link, but maybe on some level it was inspired by that. There’s definitely a bit of Housmans in Nick’s coffee shop, and working in the shop has made me aware that any business which has its politics up-front makes itself vulnerable to some extent. We do still get far-right people coming in to shout at us sometimes, and I can imagine Nick’s coffee shop with all its activist posters in the window would get the same.

When did you start writing Troublemakers?

I can be very specific! It was March 2011, when I took a six-week course at Writers’ Centre Norwich. I was feeling very liberated after finishing a PhD and wanted to start doing something completely different from academic writing.

Did you always want to write YA?

No. I didn’t know a lot about YA until I started writing Troublemakers. Then I sort of fell in love with writing from the perspective of a teenager and realised that YA was the right home for the kind of story I wanted to tell. Which was really exciting.

How did you feel to be shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award?

I was so happy. I can remember that whole day really vividly. It was gratifying because after I was longlisted, and before I submitted the full manuscript for the next stage, I’d worked really hard to fix all the problems that I knew the book had. I was still rewriting until the last possible moment, because I knew I could make it better. So I was thrilled when all that work paid off.

This is your debut novel. Tell me your route to publication.

After the shortlist was announced, the organiser of the Bath Novel Award, Caroline Ambrose, contacted literary agents to let them know about the books and authors on the list. As a result of that, a few agents requested to see my complete manuscript. Two of those offered to represent me–but one of them wanted me to write a different book, and one of them wanted to work on Troublemakers. So that was an easy decision! I did quite a lot of editing with my agent, who then sent the book out into the world, where it found a home with Andersen Press.

You wrote a PhD on Sherman Alexie. What attracted you to him?

I’d never heard of Sherman Alexie until I read one of his short story collections for a class on ‘multi-ethnic American literatures’. Then I got completely hooked. His writing is very funny and very sad, very immediate and sometimes flawed and all the more alive and interesting because of that. It’s very layered and political, too, and writing about his fiction was also a way to write and think about American history and politics and storytelling traditions. So all of that was very appealing. And he’s also written one of my favourite YA novels ever, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

What are you working on next?

It’s still in a bit of a fragile, embryonic stage, but I’m working on a story about four friends in a desolate Norfolk seaside town in winter. So it’s a completely different setting from Troublemakers, which has been fun to write.

Thank you so much to Catherine for agreeing to answer yet more questions. I encourage you all to read Troublemakers, it’s one of the best YA published this year. You can purchase it here.  

 

Troublemakers by Catherine Barter

Astute, intelligent, gripping, and thoroughly enjoyable, this is the best YA novel I’ve read this year.

Fifteen year old Alena has been happily brought up by her older brother, Danny, and his boyfriend, Nick, since her mother died when Alena was a baby. But nerves are now on edge as London is threatened with a bombing campaign. Danny starts work for a controversial politician who promises to protect London, at the same time that Alena discovers that her mother was a political activist, and that her history may not be all that it seems.

When she attends Danny’s place of work, and sees something not meant for her eyes, Alena faces a small dilemma, with seemingly huge consequences.

I can’t work out if I loved this book for the fact that it was like no other YA I’ve read, whether the depth of the characterisation is so perfect, or whether the book whips along with clear succinct prose at a lively pace, or possibly just all three.

Alena’s voice is likable, sympathetic, startlingly real and full of emotion without once resorting to melodrama, but it is the fully-fleshed out surrounding cast that blew me away. Danny and Nick are both lovable despite their flaws, both intriguing characters, written with understanding, depth and a clear view of their motivations and desires, so that although the reader only hears Alena’s voice telling the story, we fully understand everyone around her too. This takes some skill.

What’s more, published at the most relevant time – did Andersen Press know about the election before Theresa May? – this is a political novel for our times. It manages to capture a mood of a resilient yet frightened city, constantly threatened by terrorism, as well as delving into the world of politics and journalists – exploring theirs and our sense of morality, and finally looking into the world of activism – questioning the strength of ordinary people – what change can the public effect, what issues matter, and what can one person do about it?

Of course there are insightful touches about Danny and Nick’s relationship – seeing how a parenting partnership works from the teen’s point of view, as well as the prejudices Nick and Danny come across as gay men in contemporary London.

Added to this is Barter’s emotionally intelligent writing of Alena’s investigation into her past. The poignancy of her grief for her mother, and her questioning of whether you can miss something you didn’t have in the first place.

And what Barter does with aplomb is to develop the idea of a mass crumbling of everything that you’ve held dear from one tiny split-second decision. By having Alena’s dilemma buried right in the heart of the novel, the reader already has a bucketful of feelings about the characters, so not only does it explode the text, but also subtly makes the reader wonder what they would do if put into the same situation.

The book made me nod in agreement, sigh with exasperation at some of Alena’s actions, laugh, cry and desperately want the characters as my friends. We all need a Nick in our lives for sure. This is an excellent pertinent coming-of-age book for our times, written with masses of empathy and pathos and, to my delight, sprinkled with a few Bob Dylan references.

Buy it, read it, then give it to everyone you know. This is what reading is for. You can buy it here.