Book Review: The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

landof

“Miracles don’t have to be big, and they can happen in the unlikeliest places”

Judith McPherson is ten years old. Her Mother has died and she lives with her Christian fundamentalist father in a town beside a mountain. Judith’s life is not a happy one: her father is distant, she doesn’t have any friends and she is bullied at school. As a result, she creates a rich fantasy world in her bedroom and waits for Judgement Day when she will be reunited with her mother. The Land of Decoration (named after a paradise land promised to the Israelites by God in the book of Ezekiel called “the decoration of all the lands”) is made out of second-hand and unwanted items. McCleen writes beautifully and this is illustrated by the descriptions of The Land of Decoration. For example:

“Circles of paper from a hole punch become saucers for tea parties when you press the end of a pen into them. Glue that has hardened into bubbles becomes a bowl of soapsuds for a pair of aching feet. An acorn cup becomes a bowl, toothpaste caps funnels for ocean liners, twigs knees for an ostrich, an eyelet a small pair of scissors.”

One Friday, a boy in Judith’s class named Neil Lewis says he is going to flush her head down the toilet on Monday. Terrified, Judith spends the weekend panicking. After hearing a preacher at her church on Sunday, Judith decides she will try and make a miracle happen. She covers The Land of Decoration in snow (shaving foam, polystyrene and sugar). Even though it is only October, she hopes that a miracle will happen and that it will snow in the real world too, meaning that she will not have to go to school.

When Judith wakes up on Monday and looks out of the window, she is amazed to see that there is a thick layer of snow. Her father cannot go to work in the factory and Judith cannot go to school. Judith realises that it has snowed because she made it snow in The Land of Decoration: she made a miracle happen. To be sure that it is not just a coincidence, Judith needs more evidence. If she can make one miracle happen, maybe she can make more. This is when the troubles really begin.

Judith’s father is a deeply flawed, troubled character, but he never crosses the line into a religious fundamentalist caricature. I felt that his behaviour all came from clear roots/events and made psychological sense; this meant that it was not difficult to feel sympathy for him whilst also feeling frustrated with his behaviour towards his daughter. There is no sneering at faith, but its problems are not ignored either.  I like this approach and perhaps it is down to McCleen’s upbringing (she was brought up in a fundamentalist religious community herself).

The metaphor of a snowball is used to describe Judith’s journey: something starting small and getting bigger, and the bigger it gets the less control one has over it. This is very effective and not overdone. However, the real strength of McCleen’s novel is the descriptive writing regarding Judith’s imagined world and her thoughts and questions about the nature of existence itself. One of my favourite chapters is entitled “Dust and Stars”:

“I tell myself that small things are big and big things are small, that veins run like rivers and hairs grow like grass and a hummock of moss to a beetle looks like a forest, and the shapes of the countries and clouds of the earth look like the colours in marbles from space.

[…]

And then I know that I am enormous and that I am tiny, I go on forever and am gone in a moment, I am as young as a baby mouse and as old as the Himalayas, I am still and I am spinning. And if I am dust, then I am also the dust of the stars.”

The world that McCleen creates is often a bleak one, full of grief, violence and poverty. At times, the novel takes sinister and disturbing turns which make uncomfortable reading. Overall, however, I felt that the novel told a complex, redemptive story about family life in difficult circumstances, existential wonder at the unexplained, whether any real solace can be found in religion, and the relationship between grief and faith, imagination and religion.

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The Eternal Problem of my To-Read List

I have great trouble with my to-read list. If my to-read list was a friend, we would definitely have a love-hate relationship. I thought that working in a Library would be a good thing for my reading, which it is. But also, it is a source of major frustration to learn, more and more each day, how few books I have actually read and, indeed, will be able to read in my lifetime.

I am very lucky to have access to books. But also, I can’t help it, I feel a minor sense of dread rise every time I think about the never-diminishing, ever-growing pile I call my “to-read” list. Pictured is about a fifth of the tangible section; there are so many more that I have stored away on wishlists online and scrawled in notebooks.

toread

Do you have a system for dealing with the books you want to read? Are you organised? I am most definitely not! (I know I ought to be. I’m a Librarian. But I’m not. At all).

NB – Tea and scone, pictured, are fine Rainy Monday Evening Reading companions.

Book Review: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Green (UK)/ Matthew Dicks (USA)

memoirs

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is a charming but slightly unsatisfying book that is self-described as similar to “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon and “Room” by Emma Donaghue.  Whilst I can see the reasons for these comparisons and I did enjoy Green’s book, I don’t think it quite compares to either of the other titles, especially Haddon’s, which seems to have become a classic, ergo reference-point/inspiration for any book narrated by child-like characters and/or characters on the autistic spectrum.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend appealed to me both for its subject matter (I work with children, I am interested in SEN; such books, however structured, always hold an appeal for me) but also its particular angle, which I thought particularly inventive (it is narrated by an 8-year old boy’s imaginary friend).

Budo is the imaginary friend of Max, an 8 year-old boy who has difficulties never explicitly defined, but that we are led to believe are probably to do with a mild form of undiagnosed autism/Asperger’s syndrome. Budo has been alive for much longer than most imaginary friends due to the part he plays in helping Max, who has great difficultly in understanding the world around him.

Imaginary Friends, Budo tells us, can only be seen by other imaginary friends and the human who imagined them. They only have the abilities that their imaginer imagined. Budo, for example, can pass through doors because Max imagined he could; other imaginary friends cannot, because their imaginers did not imagine they could. I found this imaginary friend world interesting in its construction and entertaining in its execution. For example, Budo encounters an imaginary friend shaped like a spoon. I know there are other readers who found this alternative world construction overdone, but I liked it a lot. However, quite a lot of the book is taken up with learning about Budo and Max’s world, which can get a little repetitive. The narrative voice does not allow much in terms of language/tone variation. It almost seems that the writing style is written for children as well as being from the perspective of a child, whilst the themes are more adult.  

One of the more interesting plot threads deals with Max’s parents’ feelings about their son and their confusion and frustration about his behaviour. This is not explored in a huge amount of depth; however I think that it is appropriately and sensitively done.

The “main event” of the novel is the only thing that I had a difficult time believing – the way it happens and the ending seemed very derivative and predictable. I won’t say too much more for fear of spoilers, but I thought that it was all a bit too tidy, and a bit too similar at times to other books I’ve read. Everyone kind of behaves how they ought to behave (even the “baddies”) and things are tied up a little too nicely at the end.

It is, however, a nice story, and well told. I read it as a little bit of light relief after The Glass Room, and it was an enjoyable quick read and just what I needed.

Book Review: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

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The Glass Room begins in 1928 with a honeymoon and the building of a house. The Landauer House is an architecturally ambitious, forward-thinking, modern marvel of a house designed by an architect named Rainer Von Abt for Leisel and Viktor Landauer, built on a Czechoslovak hill. They live there extravagantly with their two children, surrounded by their friends and admirers, until WW2 arrives and their lives and, of course, the life of the house itself, are changed forever.

The house is, interestingly, based on a real house, the Villa Tugendhat in Brno. I felt that this framed the story particularly well and I deliberately avoided looking at pictures of the real “Glass Room” until after I read the book; in the event, I was surprised to find that it looked pretty much identical to my imaginings. This, I think, is testament to Mawer’s beautiful prose and lovingly-crafted architectural descriptions.

In this book, the house takes centre stage: lives pass through it, WW2 gathers like “storm clouds” and experiences good, bad and horrendous are framed in the expanses of glass and chrome and onyx that Mawer so vividly describes. It is an interesting and unconventional way of telling a story, and the angle of war seen through wealthy, Czech eyes is a refreshing take on the WW2 novel.

Mawer’s use of language is stunning and the atmosphere and setting are incredibly vivid. You can imagine the 1920s decadence and wealth leading to the creation of such a building. You can picture its inhabitants feeling like they had it all, not least the opportunity to spend their money in such a way – on the future that looked so bright; on an expensive onyx wall that shimmered in and reflected the light; on completely impractical glass walls – with no expense spared. The Glass Room, at the beginning, reflects the hope of the epoch and its owners.

In these ways, The Glass Room is refreshing. It is, however, not without its flaws. The characters are, for the most part, difficult to understand and not particularly likable. There is a lot of infidelity and sex, but not an awful lot of meaningful relationships. I found it quite troubling that most of the adult character relationships were almost entirely defined by sex. The central relationships – between Viktor and Liesel, Liesel and Hana, and Viktor and Katalin – are reasonably well drawn and realistic in their development and portrayal. I especially like the way that Liesel and Hana’s relationship is developed. It is, however, difficult to believe that the vast majority of adult relationships outside of this would be defined completely and utterly by sex. This made it seem as though there was almost a gratuitous nature to some of the sex scenes.

The use of the house as the main character in the book is effective in some ways, but in others it makes it difficult to identify with the human goings-on, including the true human impact of the war. To be fair to Mawer, there are plenty of fantastic human-centred WW2 novels; it did, however, make me feel slightly detached from the story and true horror of the era. The only fully developed character is, in my view, Hana, who is truly tragic, flawed and complicated. Her story is therefore, unsurprisingly, the one that affected me the most.

Viktor says at the beginning of the book “In our wonderful glass house you can see everything”. It becomes apparent through the course of the book that he couldn’t be further from the truth. People are people, no matter their surroundings. Terrible things happen. It is Hana who eloquently says, towards the end of the book, “Don’t be fooled by the Glass Room. It is only as rational as the people who inhabit it”.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Alsberg

harris burdick

At our last stock pick, the owner of the bookshop we use (Simply Books in Bramhall, Stockport) recommended a book to us: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Alsberg. Despite being published in 1984, I had never heard of the title before. I instantly loved both the concept and the execution. Since then, by sheer coincidence, our English department has started using the book for creative writing activities.

The book introduces the reader to the mysterious tale of Harris Burdick, who, we are told, turns up at a book publisher’s office saying he has written fourteen stories with many drawings. With him, he brings one picture from each story, accompanied by a small caption, to see if the publisher likes the work. Burdick agrees to bring the stories the next morning, but never shows up and is never seen or heard from again. What were the rest of the stories about? Who is Harris Burdick, and where did he go?

The aim of this book is to present the drawings and captions in order to spark childrens’ (and, indeed, adults’ – it is difficult not to think of stories when looking at these drawings!)  imagination and serve as a starting point for storytelling and creative writing. The drawings are intriguing, beautiful, eerie and, frequently, very funny.

My favourite (click to enlarge):

The Seven Chairs

I discovered, whilst on my travels around the internet, that you can submit your own stories on Van Alsberg’s website. I am looking forward to using this with children and seeing the results. I may even try writing my own story!

On a slightly unrelated note, Van Alsberg has also designed some amazing library/book-related posters (I live with a poster designer, hence have a tendency to geek out about stuff like poster design and fonts. Sorry).

chris van alsberg 3chris van alsberg

Book Review: Slated by Teri Terry

slated

Kyla has been in hospital for a long time. She been slated: her mind wiped. She is a new person, with a family she has never seen before and brand new life in the countryside. Kyla has been told by the government that she was a terrorist and slating is her second chance at life, but between strange, disturbing dreams and a few odd events, things don’t quite add up.

I really enjoyed this book. Terry’s use of language is really interesting and the storytelling vivid. I also found that the English countryside was a really good contrast to the futuristic setting of a lot of similar books.

Kyla is a believable character and her defiance and sense of herself in spite of everything is really well-handled. There is also an interesting thread in there about the nature of creativity. I found Ben extremely compelling, although his motivations were possibly not explored in as much detail as I would have liked. Kyla’s mother is brilliantly nuanced and emotionally complex, adding to Kyla’s character development whilst also adding some political/social background to events.  

There is a sense of foreboding and things only partially revealed throughout the novel, which adds to the feeling, never quite appeased, that nobody is as they seem.

The dream sequences are great and are sufficiently ambigious to create intrigue whilst still managing to connect to the story in a clear way.

The themes of nature vs nuture and rehabilitation vs punishment in relation to the slating process were very interesting. What if we could wipe the minds of criminals? Are you a sum of your memories, or is there something else that makes you “you”? The control of emotions after the slating process using a Levo is an interesting plot device, and made me think about the link between emotion, memory and behaviour.

My only criticism of this book is that I think it tailed off slightly towards the end. Although the first in a series, I felt frustrated by the myriad unanswered questions/loose ends and thought that perhaps something was slightly lacking in the ending. That said, my frustration proves that I am sufficiently intrigued to want to read the second book; indeed, perhaps that is the point!

Review of the Year: 2012

First of all: Happy New Year! I hope everyone has enjoyed the holidays and the first five days of 2013. 

January has already brought some exciting news for me: as of September 2013, I will be training to be a primary school teacher. I will probably write more about why I have decided to make this career change another time, but suffice it to say, I am super excited (as well as being massively relieved that I managed to pass the numeracy skills test required after almost eleven years of doing any sort of education-based maths).

Anyway, I thought I would put together a sort-of belated review of 2012 in the form of a top ten books list (in no particular order). I read so many good books last year that this was very tricky indeed, but I have given it a go.

1. Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman.

I have been a huge Malorie Blackman fan since I was a teenager and this book didn’t disappoint. It’s about a boy who suddenly has to face up to his responsibilities after finding out he has become a father. Blackman has a way of dealing with serious situations in a witty, original, thought-provoking way; this book was fantastic in that it looked into the issue of teenage/single parenthood without seeming preachy, judgmental or cliched.  And, I will admit, it did make me cry.

2. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

What can I say? I was a little late to the Wimpy Kid party, but I thankfully got there eventually. Greg Heffley’s adventures are hilarious and, in the words of a kid at school, “the humour isn’t like boring adult humour, it’s like actual kid humour, that real kids think is funny”.

3. Divergent by Veronica Roth

I read so many dystopian young adult books in 2012 that I did get a little bit difficult to please by the end! Divergent is one that really impressed me. The main character, Tris, has to make some difficult decisions about her future in this book, and the character growth arc is really interesting. However, the main reason I liked this book? It’s a really exciting story. Old fashioned, I know, but true.

4. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

This had been on my “to read” list for so long; in the end I was spurred on by the fact that we read it for our staff and 6th form book group. There’s probably not a lot I can say about this book that hasn’t been said before. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, the characters are so vividly drawn and it stays with you long after you’ve finished. Another book that made me cry.

NB-I don’t cry a lot at books, I promise.

5. Wonder by R.J. Palacio

This is a relatively simply told, incredibly effective story about a boy named Auggie who lives with a facial deformity. The book is mostly narrated by Auggie himself as he starts a new school, but there are chapters written by other characters interspersed throughout. When I first heard about the subject of this book, I wondered whether it would end up being a bit too saccharine, but the humour is quite dry and things are painted to be just the right amount of complex for a childrens’ book. 

6. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

I read this after reading “Delirium”, which I also thought was fantastic. I have, however, decided to pick this one, simply because I sort of feel that Delirium gets a bit lost in the sea of dystopian books, whereas this is unlike anything I have ever read. I won’t say too much about it, other than to say that Oliver has not taken an easy route by writing this particular protagonist, handles challenging characters incredibly well, and writes some of the most beautiful sentences I have read to date in young adult fiction.

7. Mortal Chaos by Matt Dickinson

Short chaptered, action-packed story about chaos theory, ergo lots of interconnected story threads that come together in complicated, mind-blowing ways. I stayed up until 2am reading this.

8. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

I finally got around to reading this! It’s a dense, difficult book due to its subject matter and it took me absolutely ages to read. I am so glad I persisted with it, because it’s such an interesting study of crime and the justice system and why people end up the way they end up and why they do the things they do. It’s dark and horrible and terribly sad, but so vivid and Capote’s journalistic voice is fantastic. Although I already knew about the background and Capote’s personal involvement in the case, the writing comes across as fact-based and unemotional without being cold. 

9. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. I expected a light, enjoyable, escapist-type romance. I got something completely different, in a good way. It’s easy to read, the characters are easy to like, but, goodness me, Moyes managed to make this book much, much more than that. I don’t want to spoil it by saying too much more, but if you read one commercial book this year, make it this one.

10. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

A heartbreaking, but ultimately life-affirming story about a girl dealing with a terrible event whilst starting high school. One of the best teen/young adult books about “serious issues” I read in 2013.