Review: “Notes On My Family” by Emily Critchley

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Paperback: 263 pages

Publisher: Everything With Words

Release Date: 20th November 2017

5 STARS

 

“Notes On My Family” is a wonderful, funny, heart breaking YA novel published at the end of last year by the very talented Emily Critchley. Portraying an autistic narrator has a very specific set of challenges for an author, not only do you need to tread the line between being candid and being sensitive, but you also need to avoid the massive pot hole of ‘basically Curious Incident’.

The Blurb: Enter the world of Louise Coulson through her notes on her family, school and friends. Lou is thirteen years old, a perceptive and observant outsider, somewhere on the autism spectrum. She takes notes as if she were holding a film camera silently fixed on a world that tends to ignore her. Meet her dad who is in a relationship with a sixth former, Sarah her moody sister, Mikey her gay brother, her mum who has a ‘brief psychotic episode’, her nan who goes to séances, her friend Faith who has six ‘parents’ (all gay) and Lou’s family (and dog) in her alternative universe. Told in the present tense so that you feel that you are right there and sprinkled with Lou’s inimitable asides.

Lou is taking notes as everything happens, interweaving comments and dialogue to create a narrative that’s fast, subtle and convincing.

This novel tackles a wide range of issues that are relevant to the target readers – younger teens. The fact that Lou is autistic is never explicitly stated, nor does it need to be. Her autism is not the issue at hand for the majority of the book and its portrayal never gets in the way of you understanding the delightfully funny and caring person that Lou is. What it does give us is a hilariously upfront and unsweetened view of Lou’s world and the chaos that often seems like it’ll engulf her.

There is nothing like fresh pyjamas to cheer one up and to help one face the world.

There are moments that are truly awful – the incident in the girls’ changing room for one, and Critchley does a fabulous job of pulling every one of your heart strings, but ultimately the story is an uplifting one. The characters are wonderfully drawn, flaws and all, but it is Lou that you just want to scoop up and protect (although she’d hate that, so probably just a fist bump instead…)

This is exactly the sort of book young readers should be accessing. It has a strong sense of embracing difference, without ever being worthy or patronising and it never ‘tries to be cool’ – the death knell of adult written teen dialogue…

Overall, this is a compassionate and witty look at family life through the eyes of a very unique and observant narrator. Definitely one for your kids’ bookshelves.

As a side note, Emily is also a wonderful photographer… check out her Instagram – emily.critchley

@EmilyMCritchley

www.emilycritchley.com

YA Review: “Gilded Cage” by Vic James

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Hardback: 368 pages

Publisher: Del Rey Books

Release Date: 14th February 2017

4.5 STARS

SET IN DYSTOPIAN ENGLAND

If Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games had a baby – this would be it…

The Blurb: Not all are free. Not all are equal. Not all will be saved.

Our world belongs to the Equals — aristocrats with magical gifts — and all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England’s grandest estate lies a power that could break the world.

A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.

Abi is a servant to England’s most powerful family, but her spirit is free. So when she falls for one of the noble-born sons, Abi faces a terrible choice. Uncovering the family’s secrets might win her liberty, but will her heart pay the price?

A boy dreams of revolution.

Abi’s brother, Luke, is enslaved in a brutal factory town. Far from his family and cruelly oppressed, he makes friends whose ideals could cost him everything. Now Luke has discovered there may be a power even greater than magic: revolution.

And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.

He is a shadow in the glittering world of the Equals, with mysterious powers no one else understands. But will he liberate—or destroy?

All the hallmarks for brilliant dystopian teen fantasy are here: ruling elite vs quasi-industrial oppressed proletariat – check; technology used to control characters but also change the game – check; love across the magical divide – check.

It always takes me a little while to settle into fantasy fiction; I think I find the unusual names everyone has a bit of a stretch at first, but this novel gripped me right from the start, a few pages in and I knew I wanted to want to plow on through. I actually read this in two sittings which is unusual for me as I tend to pick things up and put them down again over several days.

The multiple perspectives approach that the book is written in is interesting and gives a rounded narrative that you don’t often get. On the downside, there are so many storylines that it can be a struggle to really invest at this early stage in all of them and whilst James does a great job of cutting between these, the love story, for example, needs a bit more development. I suspect though that this will be rectified over the course of the next two books as we get to know the characters in more depth. Got to love a series!

The characters themselves are very well drawn and there’s plenty of variety. I love the fact that the villains are unpredictable and not the solely cruel and pitiless cardboard cutouts you can get in this genre. James balances it so that just as you think they’re irredeemably awful they give you just a glimpse of something better and reel you back in. The two main ‘good’ characters, Abi and Luke, go through some pretty big changes and I’m really looking forward to seeing how this will develop later. They are also a good foil for each other; James has them challenge each other and they are both strong in their own ways.

I’m not going to spoil the ending but it ends on a great cliffhanger and sets up for a really interesting sequel.

I would definitely urge you read this book if you’ve got even a slight interest in YA or fantasy writing – it’s got pace, great writing and promises even more to come.

www.vicjames.co.uk

@drvictoriajames

YA Review: “Fever 1793” by Laurie Halse Anderson

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Paperback: 272 pages

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Release Date: March 1, 2002

3 STARS

SET IN PHILADELPHIA

This is a classic coming-of-age story in a historical setting and whilst the narrative itself is rather formulaic, it is very well researched and would give younger readers plenty of historical perspective.

It follows Mattie Cook, a 14 year old girl who gets caught up in the Philadelphia yellow fever outbreak of 1793 and learns to survive despite the odds. There’s action, a bit of highly sanitized teenage romance and a healthy dollop of familial relationships.

The aspects that are most appealing in this YA novel mean that it will probably hit home more with girls than boys. It explores what it means to be a ‘good girl,’ expectations of behaviour and mother daughter relationships in a manner that clearly links the past and present. The change in Mattie as she learns to take care of herself and grows up is dealt with well and doesn’t bash you over the head with obvious metaphor. It is also somewhat convenient that by telling the story of the plague through the eyes of a child, Anderson is able to side skip much of the political implications of the time – everyone is stripped back to common humanity despite class and race.

Overall this is a sound read but I can see how some readers might become frustrated with the fact that the main events – people falling sick and everyone else turning into either nurses or looters, could become repetitive.

Top 5: Women Writers

Where to start…..

When I sat down to think about how I would choose my five favourite female authors, in honour of International Women’s Day, I felt completely overwhelmed. Most of my books seem to be written by women… It’s like my hands instinctively reach for female writers in the bookstore; perhaps it’s because the genres of novels I particularly like, historical fiction for example, seem to also attract a higher proportion of writers of the female persuasion? Maybe I feel a deeper connection to characters written from the female gaze? Perhaps I just like the covers more…

What I realised though was moving over the Atlantic forced me to dramatically scale down the size and scope of my bookshelves. I had already subconsciously done my editing – what had I chosen to take with me in the one box of books I had agreed with my husband I would ship?

 

  1. JK Rowling – who doesn’t love this woman?! She’s smart, empathetic and whip crack funny in that slightly brutal way that makes you wince and laugh at the same time. I adore her writing, not just Harry Potter (obviously), but also the Robert Galbraith crime books. You don’t even notice that you’re reading half the time, you’re just swept along. Plus she’s an Exeter University alumni (same as moi) and lived in Edinburgh near where I grew up – so I’m basically half a step away from being her…. right…?!
  2. Emily Brontë – I have always been obsessed with “Wuthering Heights”. I love how wonderful and awful Heathcliff and Cathy are. The characters and settings are harsh and complex, nothing here is glossed over or sugarcoated and it’s marvellous. The copy I brought wth me is a gorgeous leather bound edition bought for me by my husband for my birthday when we first started dating – the boy knows me well!
  3. Philippa Gregory – This woman is prolific and it’s a good job because I tend to whizz through her books in one sitting. The Queen of Historical Fiction, she brings far off settings and time periods to life with great description and really well drawn characters. There’s always plenty of action, mystery and romance to keep you entertained and she nearly always has a strong female protagonist you can get behind.
  4. Nora Ephron – It’s like talking to your best friend – but wiser and funnier. She’s so impressive partly because she’s also so multi-talented: writer, journalist, screenwriter and film director rolled into one. I adore the way she writes about so many things that are pertinent to women’s lives in a way that is both devastatingly, heartbreakingly astute and also so lightly worn that you can find humour in even the darkest of topics.
  5. Lian Hearn aka Gillian Rubinstein – I blame my sister for getting me into the “Tales of the Otori” YA fiction series; I was obsessed. Set in feudal Japan, these books are choc full of heroes, villains, escapes, magic and slightly dubious morality… which adds up to a pretty potent mixture. In fact, this and the Harry Potter books are the only ones I have actually set out to purposefully buy, first day out, in hardback. Just brilliant.

 

Who are your favourite female writers??

More Dark Materials…

I was very excited to hear on the bookish grapevine yesterday that Philip Pullman is revisiting His Dark Materials in October this year with a new ‘equel’ series – another trilogy of books set both before and after the original.

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For those of you who might not have come across these books, perhaps you were so obsessed with Harry Potter that they passed you by in the late 90s / early 00s, this clever, magical narrative explores the adventures of Lyra Belacqua and her daemon companion Pantalaimon as they get sucked into a world of Dust and realm jumping that takes her far beyond her home at Jordan College, Oxford.

I have long been a fan of Pullman’s work – it’s complex and has real depth that takes it farther than most YA fiction dares to tread. Not only is it full of the magical fantasy elements that you might expect, but it deals with interesting concepts of family, loyalty and friendship in a manner that doesn’t simplify or patronise. The relationships displayed are real, flawed and unexpected – keeping you hooked throughout.

Pullman explained that the draw to return to His Dark Materials was built not only on a desire to explore the world of Dust in more depth, but that he has been influenced by recent political events: “at the centre of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organisation, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free”.

These books have never shied away from controversy – they have been roundly condemned by Christian organisations as promoting a world without God. Pullman is a well known supporter of the British Humanist Association and describes himself  as a Church of England Atheist. It will be interesting to see how these ideas are developed further in the new trilogy.

If you haven’t yet got stuck into this brilliant series – do it. The first book in the new series is being released on October 19th.

http://www.philip-pullman.com

@PhilipPullman