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Across Worlds

On the Other Side

Steady lights flickered across her closed eyelids, and in her ears she could hear the rhythmic hum and rattle of a train on its tracks.

They say you should never meet your heroes and as a huge admirer of Carrie Hope Fletcher, the quintessential role model for tweens, teens and this 20-something, I had been putting off reading her first foray into fiction for this very reason. And yet I bought a copy, a gorgeous purple-edged copy, and I eventually dared to read beyond the blurb in the hope that I would love On the Other Side as much as I love the author. There are some spoilers in this review so please be warned.

Evie Snow has lived a long and complicated life. At the age of 82, she passes away surrounded by her loving family but when she reaches the other side, she realises that in order to move forward, she has to look back and face what she has been desperately trying to forget…

Now this is a difficult review for me to write because whilst I did enjoy the unique magical realism of the story and the immersive feel of Carrie’s writing, I was immediately distracted by the choice of the author to write herself as the lead Evie Snow and her boyfriend-at-the-time, Pete Bucknall, as the romantic lead Vincent Winters. I know you should write what you know and that art imitates life but this obvious mirroring seemed unimaginative and a little narcissistic – two qualities I would never associate with Carrie Hope Fletcher, I hasten to add. I loved the little nod to her fan base that she includes within the story and didn’t even mind the obvious declaration of love to Pete in the lift graffiti (“CB luvs PF”) but having the two leads directly correlate to real life – from personality to physical characteristics – was just too much, even for this fangirl.

The lack of setting or time period is also where this book feels very confused. Fletcher creates a 1940s-style world where parents control their children with the threat of disinheritance and male bosses can freely sexually harass female employees without consequence and yet it is also a world modern enough to have skinny jeans, mobile phones and to openly accept all sexual preferences within society. There is the feeling that if On the Other Side is progressive enough to have openly bi-, pan- or homosexual characters, why is it still a world where parents can dictate who you marry and why isn’t Evie Snow strong enough to stand up for her own rights as much as she stands up for her brothers?

On the Other Side is riddled with wholesomeness and a continued feel of good-bad, right-wrong throughout, with characters being placed deliberately on one side of this stringent fence. This not only felt a little unrealistic but it also meant that by the end, I just couldn’t champion or support Evie. As someone who initially appears to be making choices to support a strong and independent woman, I couldn’t understand some of her later decisions and the fact she was making all these amends to her family by travelling back to the other side before raising the ultimate two fingers up at Jim was heart-breaking – I loved Jim!

To end on a positive, there are promising hints of authorship within On the Other Side. Fletcher’s style and tone of writing is engaging and she creates some really interesting ideas, balancing the fantastical with the ordinary with ease. It just needed a bit more time to develop and a historical context, along with a stronger editorial direction, would have lifted this book considerably. Even just a little more research would have given On the Other Side more authority and provided the well-written magical realism a springboard from which to jump. As it stands, it falls a little flat.

3 star

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Reading Carnegie – The Bunker Diary

The Bunker Diary


This is what I know.

The intensity of Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary is astounding as he unveils a dark, claustrophobic world seen through the eyes of one lone voice. This is a gripping novel that becomes something to endure, not necessarily enjoy, as you witness the nightmare-inducing situation of Brooks’ characters and discover what it means to survive in a hopeless situation. In a competition not unfamiliar to crowning the controversial, this unique novel stands a good chance in claiming the prize as it pushes the boundaries of the acceptable within children’s literature.

This is the diary of the sixteen year-old runaway Linus Weems who finds himself inexplicably trapped in a disused nuclear bunker, kidnapped by an unknown man for an unknown purpose. As time passes he is joined by five other stolen souls that fill the six-cell cage as they are all forced into the role of observed lab-rats with no tangible means of escape.

Dealing with issues of control, torture, helplessness and survival the characters of The Bunker Diary are stripped bare when taken away from their social surroundings and statuses and placed within a controlled environment where primitive instinct is their only hope. Brooks lists Lord of the Flies and The Collector among his influences, detailing an interest in fictional attempts to understand human nature outside of a recognised world and The Bunker Diary plays with this concept effortlessly.

The unbelievable intensity of the novel is grounded in the creation of a claustrophobic narrative. The environment in which the events occur and the format in which those events are described are limited, thereby restricting audience understanding. None of the direct plot happens outside of the four walls of the bunker, we are only reminded of an outside world through character reflections or memories, and the only direct voice we ever hear is Linus’. The choice of diarised narrative is exceptional in creating an immediate connection to a lost boy who was looking for a purpose and instead found a predicament and through him the audience is able to experience just how out of control his controlled environment becomes.

I really admire what Brooks is doing with this novel and I think he is incredibly successful in creating a controversial and unsettling story about the power of the human survival instinct. It is has the chilling quality that is key to a successful psychological thriller and makes it absolutely unputdownable. The lack of reason or answers is what I found the most unnerving, graphic content aside, with the unresolved ending being particularly harrowing and unsatisfying to a reader clamouring for understanding. If a picture is worth a thousand words, I therefore wonder how many words the blank pages at the end of The Bunker Diary are worth.

4 star

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Reading Carnegie – The Child’s Elephant

The Child's Elephant


The sound of the rifle shot rang through the air.

With a title not dissimilar to a Kipling classic and an endorsement on the cover from the one and only Michael Morpurgo, a certain preconception of this title as a ‘soft’ child/animal relationship story is set long before the cover is opened. Written by a journalist and a charity campaigner however, this novel is far from forgettable. Exploring both the relationship man has with nature as well as the haunting reality of child soldiers in Africa, The Child’s Elephant is told with careful precision and obvious passion – a tale of two stories that begins with the death of an elephant.

Bat lived a relatively mundane life in his close-knit African village until the day he discovered how poachers make their money. Walking away from the body of a de-tusked elephant, Bat soon learns that these horrors have consequences as he finds the newly-orphaned calf and brings her home. An amazing, intuitive relationship develops as elephant and boy grow up side by side. However, the rural idyll is soon threatened as the call of the wild begins to draw Meya home and the village is soon threatened by the brutality of guerrilla warfare.

Mixing the heart-warming love of man and beast with a perceptive portrayal of unimaginable inhumanity is a difficult coupling to manage, to say the least! Campbell-Johnston’s ability to write sensitively and subtly means that this balance is expertly managed. Her journalistic background clearly cements the story within the factual yet the very real horrors related to child soldiers is masked and there to be read into rather than deliberately shown – a technique that works very well for this target audience.

There is something very traditional about the feel of The Child’s Elephant. Divided into three parts (a beginning, middle and end), the story is told in a third person narrative and the ending is satisfactorily conclusive, if not a little implausible. It is an evocative piece of fiction; the descriptions of the African geography are particularly atmospheric as Campbell-Johnston personifies the power of nature in relation to the human world.

Due to the nature of the writing and subject matter, there is a clear ideology within this novel that makes the reading of it quite serious. I really enjoyed reading about Bat, Muka and Meya and felt every step of their journey as keenly as if I were alongside them but at times the message, particularly in relation to the elephants, was delivered with a bit too much of a heavy hand but this is merely a little niggle in an otherwise affecting and effective novel.

3 star

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Reading Carnegie – Rooftoppers

Rooftoppers


On the morning of its first birthday, a baby was found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel.

A book with a quote to live by on almost every page, this majestic novel by Katherine Rundell has already won awards and been nominated for several more, making it a very strong contender for the Carnegie. And it is no wonder really as Rundell delivers a sumptuous story with Rooftoppers!

A one year-old is discovered floating on the ocean waves, a lonely survivor after a shipping accident. Adopted by her rescuer – a British eccentric and true gentleman, Charles Maxim – Sophie is raised to find the possible in even the most desperate situation. Though life is as happy as can be and despite being loved desperately by her guardian, Sophie still feels that something is missing. Convinced that her mother did not drown in the shipwreck that separated them, Sophie travels to Paris with hope in her heart. She enlists the help of the Rooftoppers, a group of Parisian ragamuffins who live in the sky, as she searches for the woman who could make her feel whole again.

There is something unbelievably charming about this book. It whisks you into world of Sophie and the Rooftoppers so perfectly that you never want to leave and feel deep sadness once the pages run out and you have to. The lyrical language is, by far, the strength of this story – Rundell is a magician! Distinctive in its delivery, the narrative voice sings alongside the classics of children’s literature (Streatfeild, Smith and King) yet has a modern humour synonymous with British cinema (namely one Mr Richard Curtis!).

Set in a historical period where girls who wear trousers are considered indecent, the sense of time and place ebbs and flows as the story unfolds and is almost lost as soon as Sophie and Charles get to Paris. Much like other magical lands of fiction, the roofs of France’s capital (an unbelievably romantic setting in and of itself) seem to defy the laws of historical accuracy and yet, instead of enraging, you find yourself melting into the world brought to life on the page.

There is a distance between the reader and the characters, and some may find themselves a little disengaged with the story because of it. Sophie doesn’t really go on an emotional journey but by the end has reinforced the characteristics she had all along. Charles, nevertheless, is my new favourite character – I love him! Any man who can spout phrases like “I am an Englishman. I always have an umbrella. I would no more go out without my umbrella than I would leave the house without my small intestine.” is fine by me!

An abrupt ending may lead you to shed a tear or two (or even have you writing to Rundell to find out what happens!) but I think it was a very fitting end in order to do justice to the characters – if the story was taken any further the fairytale-like quality would become grounded in unnecessary reality, and, when the writing is this strong, nobody could ever want that!

4 star

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Reading Carnegie – All the Truth That’s in Me

Last Thursday the Roehampton Readers assembled for the first time. No, I have not joined the latest hero outfit set to clean up the Surrey streets, but instead have become a member of the Carnegie Shortlist reading group as arranged by my department at university – much cooler…!

Having never been part of a judging panel for anything, I jumped at the chance to read the entire 2014 shortlist and pass judgement. Every week I will review a new Carnegie title (although with the Easter break I shall be playing catch-up and posting two this week) to let you know if there are any crème de la crème’s within the top titles this year.
Julie Berry’s All the Truth That’s in Me was the first on the list.

All the Truth That's In Me


We came here by ship, you and I.

The UK cover is fairly inoffensive but hardly memorable – I would imagine it would be quite easy to overlook if not for the Carnegie recognition. But as I was always taught not to judge a book by appearance alone, I happily delved into this historic novel filled with guarded secrets, unrequited love and careful silences.

Four years ago two girls disappeared from the town of Roswell Station, only one was lucky enough to come back. Judith Fisher has been haunted by her history ever since and, due to the injury sustained during her imprisonment, has been turned into a pariah by the town she once longed to come home to. Now that her voice can no longer be heard, all Judy can do is watch and silently explore her feelings for the life, wonder at what the future holds, and yearn for the boy she so desires.

I absolutely devoured this book! It is a wonderfully written story about unveiling the darkest secrets of our hearts and having the courage to do so. With similarities to The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, the world of All the Truth That’s in Me is both historic and modern, relevant and fresh.

I will admit that the story did take a while to get into as Berry’s narrative voice is fairly unique. All the Truth That’s in Me uses the uncommon narrative style of the second person to create an often unseen intimacy between reader and protagonist, one that does need time to develop. But trust me, if you give it that time, it is worth it! To be transported into the inner thoughts of Judith means that the reader experiences the plethora of her emotions almost first-hand due to the vividness of Berry’s writing. The use of incredibly short chapters adds to this sensation as it creates a fluidity throughout, a natural train of thought that jumps from past to present as ideas flash through Judith’s mind.

Though the content in Barry’s novel is quite dark, it is incredibly well-balanced as a mixed novel of romance, historicism, mystery and crime. It deals with issues sensitively and honestly, for through the observing status of the protagonist ideas related to religion, society and marriage are opened up. Societal expectation within Roswell Station creates an environmental pressure cooker that appears to overrule even a mother’s love and the ability to listen to those most vulnerable. Judith, as an outcast, is therefore a brilliantly complex character to view the world through as she fights for a voice in a world of ignorance.

Set in an ambiguous time and location, though alluding to 16th century Puritan America, Judith’s story could be anyone’s. Anyone feeling abandoned, misunderstood or mistreated could use this story as one of hope, a way to find their voice. The world Berry offers through Judith’s eyes gives the novel variety and a freedom as each reader can place the story in a time or location as they see fit. It deals with topics that transcend the need for historical placing – love, loyalty, judgement, courage and prejudice – and I think it is the universality of All the Truth That’s in Me that is one of its most powerful traits.

4 star

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Love In Many Forms

Midwinterblood


The sun does not go down.

Midwinterblood was set as one of the primary texts for a module on my MA course and also my first foray into the mind of Marcus Sedgwick. And now, having completed it, it definitely won’t be my last!

Layered like a Russian nesting doll, the structure of Midwinterblood is the most striking aspect of this intricate story. Centred on the premise of eternal love reincarnated throughout the ages, Sedgwick’s novel is a hauntingly beautiful gothic masterpiece. Set on the mysterious Blessed Island, a remote place steeped in myth and history, each of the seven ‘moon’ chapters contains a demi-story depicting the love of Eric and Merle in its many forms.

The novel is detailed, beautifully balanced and powerful. Love, sacrifice and death transcend the laws of time as we follow a changing cast of ages, characters and actions – all telling the same story and yet individual in themselves. The phrase “so it is” is repeated throughout, playing with the big issues of pre-determination and freewill and I really loved how Sedgwick weaves each story together to explore the boundaries of fate and how much man is in control of their own destiny. Amazingly clever!

For a novel broken up into seven separate yet similar stories, whose beginning is the end and end the beginning, one may feel assume this is a convoluted difficult-to-follow story but, trust me, it really isn’t! It’s a gift that keeps on giving – with each read more tricks come to light and expose just how fantastic Midwinterblood and Marcus Sedgwick is.

4 star