Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

The first time I came across Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, was as a teenager in the early 90s. I stumbled upon the channel 4 tv adaptation, which Winterson also wrote the screen play for. It was totally out of my comfort zone, totally beyond anything I had ever experienced, and I was absolutely fascinated by it.

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It was also certainly the first time I had come across a tv series with a lesbian relationship – this was back when same sex relationships were just beginning to enter mainstream entertainment. Fast forward a good 26 years and I’ve finally gotten around to reading the book itself, thanks to it being the July/August read for the Feminist Orchestra book club that I am part of on Goodreads (I can’t believe how long it has actually taken me to write a review and I’m really not sure how we’ve got to October already!)

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Winterson used her own life as a base for this novel, later returning to this time in her life to write her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? In the introduction of my copy (the one pictured) Winterson writes,

“The trick is to turn your own life into something that has meaning for people whose experience is nothing like your own.”

The story is of Jeanette, as a child and then as a young woman, who is adopted by a zealous Pentacostal, deeply complex mother and a father, who pretty much fades into the background and is most noticeable for his absence. Against a Northern, working class setting, a bright and incredibly resilient Jeanette finds her way through her childhood and is relatively happy to settle into the role her controlling mother has shaped for her with the end goal of becoming a missionary. Then everything changes as she falls in love with a girl and in doing so she fundamentally challenges her relationship with her mother and the church.

I absolutely LOVED this book in so many ways…

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The northern setting and memories of my own childhood: I grew up in The Midlands of the 80s and so Jeanette’s world felt like home to me; be it a description of her street or a reference to this larger than life period of time. Having grown up in what was a very poor part of Nottingham,  I also really appreciated Winterson’s very genuine, honest and identifiable portrayal of the working class.clipart47719038

Jeanette’s observations of the world around her: Winterson’s writing style is an absorbing combination of humour, a really dry matter of factness  and really dark moments, all intertwined with such skill. It felt like Jeanette of the book was talking to me, that the book was a conversation taking place and I really like this informal connection with the reader.clipart47719038

The incredibly complex character of her adopted mother and the often very difficult relationship she has with Jeanette. Love is probably not the right term to use for this but I certainly thought it was extremely well portrayed. Though some of the mother’s actions are described in a very matter of fact way, there is no doubt to the sadness and sheer neglect going on. Not only does her mother have no idea how to raise a child or how to connect with Jeannette, her own needs are always put first. This was difficult to read and also made me really appreciate Winterson’s honesty. Towards the end she describes her mother as enlightened and reactionary at the same time and this is it in a nutshell. On the one hand, she is very much in charge of her own life, following what she believes in, making the things she wants to happen a reality. On the other hand, she is incredibly prejudiced, sticks to the rules of the church without question and has an intense adverse reaction to Jeanette’s  same sex relationship. There is so much more I could write about this relationship – I would love to have had this as a set text for A-Level English literature!clipart47719038

I love how little Jeanette is so fierce in what she believes and what she feels. She only goes to school once the education department forces her mother to send her, by which time she has experienced a very alternative, certainly not age appropriate version of homeschooling and is consequently incredibly isolated in the school environment, which is such a stark contrast.  She seems alien to the children and the teachers don’t know how to handle this unique girl. Yet she put her point of view regardless: when she submits her needlework for a prize and is frowned upon by her teacher, Jeannette fiercely says, “Just because you can’t tell what it is , doesn’t mean it’s not what it is.”  Her imagination is equally awesome; her re-imagination of  Noah and the Whale at Sunday School is hilarious.clipart47719038

The running theme of what makes a relationship and what is expected of a girl in society. There is much talk of settling and making do. Whilst there are certain opportunities as a woman in the community, as I will mention later, everything is strictly confined, anything out of the “normal” faces a harsh backlash. There is also very little genuine love of any kind in the world Jeanette grows up in. When Jeannette fall in love with Melanie, the treatment of this relationship is horrendous and utterly heart-breaking. Having confided in her mother, she is physically locked up in the house so that the pastor can drive the demon out and her unnoticed glandular fever means much of that time is spent hallucinating.  Her mother also arranges for Jeannette to be ‘held to account’ (read publicly shamed) for her sexual orientation at their church, where she is forced to stand up and repent or face being ostracised. A further attempt to destroy Jeanette’s identity is when her mother  burns all her letters, cards and jottings, taking away any form of expression.clipart47719038

This is a book of fierce, resilient females. They are not always likeable, a lot of what they do is hard to get behind, but it is a book of women, who run their local church, run their families, their shops, their social circles. Men are few and far between, either absent in character or portrayed almost comically even when they try and assert their dominance (though often, their actions are not in themselves comical). There is such strength there to create a world they can navigate in challenging economic and political circumstances. Life was hard, their resilience strong.clipart47719038

Stories to make sense of the world: Jeanette tells fictional tales within the main narrative and these stories are a way to make sense of her world; it is a way for her to find her voice and the only way for her to break free of the many constraints she faces.  These stories take a lot of thinking about and I still need to return and analyse a bit deeper – that is how rich they are. Some readers have questioned the need for these stories in the narrative, I think they add a whole other layer.clipart47719038

In one of the last stories, the protagonist Winnet  knows she must find a boat to navigate a river, much like Jeanette needs to find her way out in the world regardless of the many challenges she faces. Winterson writes,

“No guarantee of a shore. Only a conviction that what she wanted could exist, if she dared to find it.”

I think this is what I will take away from Oranges more than anything else; that energy and need to write your own story, even if you are frightened and alone, even when the path is not linear and there is still darkness ahead, even if you have absolutely no idea what will happen next.

 

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Tin Man by Sarah Winman

Tin Man by Sarah Winman was all over booktube last year and was loved by so many of the wonderful people that I subscribe to. Of course, I bought it there and then and couldn’t wait to immerse myself in a book promising stunning writing, deeply engaging characters and emotions that left some reviewers with a tear in their eye.  However, when it came to opening the book, I felt an odd sense of resistance – it somehow didn’t feel right. This may sound strange, but I felt like I had heard too much about it; I needed to almost forget some of what I had heard in order to have my own reading experience.  So, a year on, I finally read Tin Man and oh my goodness, it lived up to my expectations and went far beyond; what an intensely emotional, personal read!

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Tin Man is the story of two friends, Ellis and Michael. It is the story of their intense friendship and their first emotional and sexual feelings for each other. It is also the story of how complicated things become when we become adults. How loss, insecurities and how we deal with society’s expectations can consume us. How vital it is to truly know ourselves, and how true human connection is what matters most in the end.

Tin Man is just under 200 pages and I really don’t want to give any of the storyline away, so I’ll try and talk as generally as I can!

I loved…

Van Gough’s Sunflowers: I’ve always loved Van Gough for his story as well as his work and his sunflowers are a beautiful leitmotif throughout this book, weaving in and out of the narratives and bringing them all together. I now understand why the book is yellow too😉It all begins when Ellis’ mum Dora falls in love with a print of the sunflowers, having won it in a raffle. I love it when she tells a young Ellis and Michael,

“I like to imagine how it would have been for him, stepping out of the train station at Arles into such an intense yellow light. It changed him. How could it not? How could it not change anyone?!”

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Ellis and Michael: The vulnerability and tenderness of these characters, the contrast of their personalities, who, in the end, just want to belong. How I loved their quirks, their inner worlds, their passions and their dreams but also their darker edges and their failures.

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The beauty and tenderness of Winman’s writing style: I loved how Winman catches moods and scenes in so few words. Here is just one example where I was instantly drawn in:

“We mapped out a future away from everything we knew. When the walls of the map were breached, we gave one another courage to build them again. And we imagined our home an old stone barn filled with junk and wine and paintings, surrounded by fields of wildflowers and bees.”

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The sensitive, spot on portrayal of grief, lost opportunities and loneliness.

That sense of holding on to the past, of living there because it means so much that you can’t live in the present, whilst everyone else seems to be moving on. This spoke directly to my heart.

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Dead Poets Society references: It is my favourite film of all time and the fact that there are references to it in Tin Man is the icing on the cake for me. If you haven’t seen it – YOU NEED THIS FILM IN YOUR LIFE. O captain my captain. Sigh.

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The impact that small acts of kindness have: I am becoming more and more partial to books that are life affirming in their own way. Why? I need to believe in human connection, to believe that good is out there in everyday life – this world we live in often overwhelms me.

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The ending: get the tissues ready for the beauty, hope, sadness and truth (just thinking about this has me on the verge of tears- all the feels. In the margins ( I love to annotate the books I read) I wrote:

This is love.

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Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay: the book and recent TV adaptation

I was inspired to read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay when the BBC scheduled a new series adaptation back in June (produced by Fremantle Media and Foxtel). I have a thing about needing to read the book before I can watch a screen adaptation and the previews just looked so good!

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Picnic at Hanging Rock is often described as a modern Australian classic. Written in the sixties, the book is actually set at the turn of the 20th century and is the story of a group of teenage girls attending an Australian boarding school, who go missing along with a school mistress during a picnic at the ancient Hanging Rock and the impact this vanishing has on those at the school and in the local community.

I will be honest and say that it was a slow starter for me, it took me a while to get into the writing style and connect with both the plot and the characters. But once I was in I was in! It is only a slim novel yet there was so much packed into those pages. In many ways, I felt it needed to be longer to explore the themes and characters in more satisfying depth; I’m all for making the reader do some work but there was so much more potential there!

I loved:

The themes of mysticism and nature: The Hanging Rock felt like a character in itself, linked to the ancient traditions of its Indigenous People and not understood by a white society trying to enforce its customs on the land. Its energy is mysterious, foreboding, timeless and tantalisingly just out of reach. I can see why so many people are frustrated with this book as there isn’t a clear, logical narrative and it is really difficult to pinpoint the nature of the rock’s role in events. One interpretation is that the girls use the picnic to escape from their lives, that there is a silent pact that the reader is not privy to. I really like the idea of the girls’ search for freedom being intertwined with the rock’s energy and being a portal for a life beyond the restrictions forced upon them as young women. Whether they do in fact commit group suicide, find a secret path through the rocks and build new lives elsewhere or, more fantastically, are swallowed by this energy portal, their lives are changed forever, and this has a profound ripple effect on all those connected with it as well. I was very much left with the impression that nature cannot be tamed, it holds the true power in the narrative.

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The Head Mistress Mrs Appleyard: again, the character details were few and far between but there was just enough there to make me wonder what darkness lay beneath her rigid, harsh facade. It is deliciously dark how she represses herself, only escaping by means of a secret stash of alcohol in her desk drawer, and all the time constructing a cage for herself and the girls in her care. I got the impression that there was torment in her past back in England and felt incredibly sad that having managed to  escape the country, she then becomes a repressor herself. The inevitable unravelling of Mrs Appleyard was so interesting, so intriguing and I think there is a whole other book waiting to be written about her.

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The delicious web of secrets that everyone carries below the surface whilst trying to be part of a “civilised” society: I’m not going to go into detail here but let’s just say that the enticing contrast within Victorian society between what was being presented on the surface and what was in fact going on below the surface is present in abundance.

The theme of time: I’ve read that Lindsay was obsessed by time, believing it was a destructive force destroying creativity, restricting freedom and expression. The clocks stop when they get to Hanging Rock. I loved the symbolism of this. I also got the slightest hint of time travel every now and again, adding a further layer to the mystery of the girls’ disappearance.

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The girls: Irma with an intense love of all things beautiful and almost narcissistic in nature; Marion with her deep thirst for knowledge and, above all, strong willed, sparky, provocative Miranda.

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What I thought about the adaptation…

I absolutely loved it! It is very much made for a modern audience and is interpreted accordingly yet this isn’t a negative for me- it brings a fresh perspective and creates a new audience.

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The production is stunning. The sumptuousness and piousness of Victorian Society is so well captured, the flashbacks and inner thought sequences totally captured my imagination. I adored the steam punk/Gothic element to Mrs Appleyard and her darkness is deliciously tangible. I thought the girl’s back stories were really well developed using the book as a starting point; they became so much more rounded than on paper – Miranda is a passionate feminist in the making, Marion explores her attraction to her teacher Ms. McCraw, and is given an Indigenous heritage background; Irma’s sensuality crackles with electricity. The purists among Lindsay’s readers were generally not impressed (according to the reviews that I read)  but as far as my own experience is concerned, it captured the essence of the book brilliantly and, after all, isn’t a book interpreted differently by each reader anyway?

 

Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias; dystopian fiction or a very possible future?

Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias is set in a future Britain where Brexit has indeed happened; the country is governed by The Party, a deeply conservative, right wing, authoritarian government. The Party’s prime focus is on the creation and implementation of the Immigration and Residency Act: anyone not born in the UK, who has been resident for fewer than twenty-five years, does not have an automatic right to remain. There is a points assessment system as well as forced deportation and it is law to report anyone you believe not to be BB (British Born). As you may gather, this book packs quite a punch and takes its YA target audience incredibly seriously. It is equally a wonderfully written love story between two teenagers, Ash and Zara, who are forced to navigate their lives together within this extreme, political context.1413431402

The main reason I picked up Night of the Party is the political element, which is actually so frighteningly close to the present reality that it feels more real than futuristic. I am an immigrant and all the fears I have for my future, should a hard Brexit go ahead, are all explored in this story. Sometimes it even got to the point where I had to stop reading for a little while as the storyline felt so very immediate, so very personal. Powerful stuff indeed.

flag peopleThe concept of nationalism and how this is used by politicians to manipulate thinking is brilliantly interwoven throughout the book. There are so many echoes of fascist governments of the past as well as the prevailing idea present today that all was better in the “good old days of Britain”. World War 2 films are produced en masse and are highly popular, the National Anthem is played at the end of each film. Churchill is once again an icon and his image displayed in cafes and restaurants. A strong emphasis is placed on all things traditional and the word itself crops up over and over again – how subtle the manipulation of language can be and how effective when it is part of everyday life! Pubs have signs that say that non-British Born are not welcome; the segregation is blatant and ordinary practice. There is talk of “duty” to report “Illegals”. There are also Neighbourhood Watch volunteers patrolling the streets and the presence of The Agency, which runs surveillance- everyone is watching or being watched. And all of this is wrapped up as a “necessary defence of national resources, security and culture” by the prime minister. Frightening.

flag peopleWithin this context, I loved the exploration of what “home” means as part of nationalism and the persecution of immigrants. Zara has lived in the UK for most of her life, for her, Romania can never be home even though she was born there. She wants to study English Literature at university; everything she knows and loves is here. Her roots are here. Home is about so much more than where you are born.

flag peopleI also think Mathias’ writing is exceptional in the way she threads current political viewpoints clearly throughout the story in a very genuine, accessible way, inviting readers to challenge their own perceptions.  An example of this is a very well written conservation that takes place between two of Ash’s friends, each on the opposite side of the political divide; whilst The Party supporter Lewis talks about the UK being a small island with limited space and resources and how non-BB are placing too much demand on the NHS, on housing etc, Chris talks of the deportation being an infringement of basic human rights.

flag peopleIn connection with this, one of the most powerful sections of the book focus on the scenes in a detention centre, where non-BBs are awaiting deportation. I don’t want to give the plot away but do want to mention how perceptively and sensitively written these scenes are. Dignity is stripped away, basic needs are not met, human rights are abused and for all intents and purposes it is a prison for those that have not committed a crime other than not being born in the UK. However, within this dark, soulless world there are kind individuals, other detainees who provide hope and solidarity; Mathias shows how things can happen for the good when women unite – this highlights a defying, resilient humanity, which can prevail regardless of the odds and that hope is so very important for our future.

flag peopleIt is of course much more than a political comment, at the heart there is an intense, genuine and beautifully written love story. Ash has experienced a terrible loss in his recent past and then he meets Zara. Though the two have not met before, their history is interlinked. Ash is BB, Zara is Romanian. I realise this sounds very vague, but it is hard to say more without giving away the mystery that unravels throughout the book! The story is told by both Ash and Zara’s perspectives in alternating chapters – this works brilliantly because we not only get to see into the hearts and minds of both characters – and I was emotionally engaged with both characters as if I personally knew them, but we also see in great detail how different their experiences of living in the UK are and how different their futures look. Ash and Zara’s belief in each other, the depth and sheer resilience of their relationship was so very lovely and also reminded me what teenagers are indeed capable of even though they are often portrayed otherwise.

flag peopleAsh and Zara are forced to deal with fundamental life questions as part of their relationship, questions that everyone needs to ask themselves in the world we live in. For instance, Ash’s dad tells him it is best to avoid friends who aren’t BB as soon as the law takes affect and his mum adds, “You don’t want to have to choose between reporting someone or breaking the law.” What would you do if it came to the crunch – do what you know to be right and follow your heart or adhere to the rules? And it is this humanity that absolutely shines through in the book, the message that each life matters because each one of us is a human being with emotions, needs and dreams.

This book needs to be read. It needs to be shouted about from the rooftops. It needs to be promoted in schools. It needs to be read by those adults in our world who are either unaware by choice or circumstance of our current political situation.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

I came across Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik when the Walter Scott Prize longlist for 2018 was announced (it made the shortlist too). Without even opening the book, I knew it would be just my cup of tea – it has so many elements that I love: a World War II backdrop and the British countryside; intriguing female lead characters; a character driven story line as well as an exploration of friendship and hidden lives.

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The story is of Rene Hargreaves, who, one day in 1940, walks out on her husband and children to join the Land Army and is billeted to the remote Starlight Farm where she then meets its owner, Elsie Boston. The two are strangers from totally different worlds and weary of one another but they soon come to depend on and care for each other immensely. They are forced to leave Starlight and become itinerant farm workers, travelling the country together, always sticking to isolated farms where questions won’t be asked. After the war, they then settle in a Cornish cottage where their life together is shaken to its foundations when someone from Rene’s past intrudes. Everything is threatened, and the resulting choices and actions have far reaching consequences.

My thoughts…

The wonderfully crafted characters:

Elsie. Oh, how I identified with this socially awkward soul with an exceptional ability to care for animals and plants, who likes nothing better than being settled in a place she knows and loves with her radio to keep her company and routines to guide her days. Though she is the gentler of the two characters, there is a core strength within in her, a fierce determination to live her own life and not be constrained by others.

Rene. Based on Malik’s research of her own grandmother’s past, Rene challenges society head on and is a character of many layers (there is a wonderful article on Malik’s discoveries on the Penguin website). She breaches gender rules; walks away from being a wife and mother even though the consequences for her family and for herself are heart-breaking. But she knows herself well enough to know how her life needs to evolve and she makes it happen. Even in the hardest times. However, whilst Elsie craves isolation, Rene also enjoys the company of other people and being a part of the outside world and is often torn between these two worlds – I loved this contrast.text dividers-12 2The development of the relationship between Rene and Elsie is intricately and incredibly beautifully written in all its depth, complexity and human connection. I loved that their relationship as a same sex couple was not once explicitly mentioned yet all the nuances and small details spoke volumes. I especially enjoyed the way the characters spoke to each other, which gave a real sense of what they were like as people at the same time: Elsie’s more formal, slightly awkward constructions with such an underlying need for belonging; Rene’s more extrovert, direct and warmer ways, a voice that protects and nurtures on its own terms. This is not to say that life is perfect, unspoken words and underlying tensions run alongside; it is a hard existence for them and their contrasting personalities cause some heart-wrenching moments of distance between them too.text dividers-12 2I absolutely loved all the tiny details of home life for Elsie and Rene: playing patience, reading to each other, listening to the radio of an evening. I was transported back in time, picturing everything so clearly. The way Malik describes how every new dwelling is made into a home, despite an immense lack of financial resources, is also beautiful in its detail: every piece of furniture is hard won, every dark corner made the best of, hours and hours of hard graft to turn dismal surroundings into somewhere that they can belong.text dividers-12 2The descriptions of the landscape and how the two women are bonded with the land are gorgeous; starting at Elsie’s Starlight Farm then moving on to the places they travel as itinerant workers during the war and beyond. There is a wonderful description of them riding their bikes on a whim one evening to celebrate Rene’s birthday, their destination being an ancient white horse carved into the hillside, the outline of which has been covered with turf to prevent German planes using it for orientation purposes. Tipsy on a found half bottle of brandy and the exhilaration of spending time with each other, they uncover the horse just long enough for Rene to see it as a whole.text dividers-12 2There is a darker side to the story, which involves a trial in the last section of the book, when a visitor from Rene’s past intrudes and turns the women’s secluded life into a living nightmare. It is based on the newspaper article Malik found during her research. Elsie and Rene’s life, always so carefully kept out of the spotlight, is now under public scrutiny and, without giving more away, the way it was written really broke my heart. A brilliant contrast.text dividers-12 2In a Walter Scott Prize interview, Malik considers what history means to us today and talks of how perceptions of history are ever evolving as different aspects become important to us as a society. It is this kind of history that I love; the stories that haven’t yet been told, an emerging focus on women’s history and female perspectives, social history that allows you to have a real sense of connection with the past. Malik’s book does all this and much much more.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is one of the most beautiful, gentle, uplifting yet also tragic books I’ve read in quite some time. An amazing character piece of two women who refuse to fit neatly into the pigeonholes society has for them.

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash was a Pride Month read for me and another adventure into the land of graphic novels. Slowly but surely, I feel I am finding a connection with this genre as I look beyond the words to the artwork and what an amazing skill it to be able to tell your story in words AND images.

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This is Maggie Thrash’s debut, a graphic memoir of her teenage years away at an American summer camp where she experiences love for the first time in the shape of Erin, one of the camp’s counselors.  To be given the Honor Girl award of the title, the chosen girl must represent the traditional, very conservative, “female ideals” that the camp fosters. So, the scene is set for the exploration of values, identity, same sex relationships and what being a girl means in this summer camp context of the early 2000s.

My thoughts…

Starting on a light note, the period details really appealed to me as I remember that particular time very well, so Maggie’s love of the Backstreet Boys felt very nostalgic indeed and the scene where the girls are taking it in turns to read the latest Harry Potter book brought back fond memories too. This is not to say that it would only appeal to a certain age group though, as the story itself and the themes it develops are absolutely timeless.img_camping-tent-silhouette-25The portrayal of Maggie’s thoughts and actions as she falls in love for the first time are so believable, so accessible and I was totally transported back in time to my experiences. I especially liked how Thrash shows how monumentally important the smallest moments felt; arms brushing against each other, a caught look, treasured conversations that were perhaps quite average on the surface but that you spent hours trying to read in between the lines of. The novel really evokes those familiar feelings of adolescence; the insecurities, the awkwardness and the sheer, exhilarating intensity of it all.img_camping-tent-silhouette-25The contrast between this gentle love story and the values held by the camp leaders is powerful. Though coming out is not easy for Maggie by any means, the grown ups cause far more problems than her fellow campers. Towards the end, one of the leaders tells Maggie she must stop all this nonsense as camp is a space for girls to be free and innocent and her behaviour is therefore unfair on the other girls. Maggie is made to feel that she is a bad person, that her feelings are wrong and must be suppressed. Erin is then seen as a predator, though she is only a couple of years older than Maggie, who has turned Maggie into something undesirable. I felt so angry on Maggie’s behalf and so angry that such ways of thinking still very much exist eighteen years on.img_camping-tent-silhouette-25In terms of the artwork, I believe Thrash has a style that matches the narrative and the characters brilliantly. It is the art of a 15-year-old Maggie with clean, sparing illustrations and a dreamy palette of colours. They are raw rather than refined, direct rather than focused on subtly.img_camping-tent-silhouette-25Though they may at first appear to be simple, the panels are cleverly thought out to interact with what the words don’t say. And by not over complicating the artwork I feel that Thrash allows the reader enough room to interpret what is happening for themselves – the images are starting points, guidelines.

Thrash’s story is incredibly bitter sweet, this is not a story of happy ever afters but a genuine story of a vulnerable, fragile relationship, full of hope and missed opportunities. You may need tissues.

Two magical reads: The Disappearances and The Memory Trees

I came across both The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy and The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace through my monthly Book Box Club subscription. These boxes full of bookish loveliness are imaginative and incredibly well thought out. If you want to find out more, have a look at their website here and their blog is a great place to have a look at past unboxings.

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I read the books one after another as I’m really enjoying a themed reading approach this summer. And here the theme is magic -but not in terms of witches, wizards and spells – more of a subtle magic embedded into our world and an element of mystery thrown in for good measure.

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I adored The Disappearances in so many ways. It is the story of Aila and her younger brother Miles, who go to stay in the rather mysterious, remote town of Sterling. As their mother has recently died, and their father is called up to serve in the second world war, they go to live with their mother’s best friend and her family. Every seven years something disappears in Stirling such as people’s reflections, the stars and the ability to dream.  Aila realises that this is all somehow connected to her mother’s past and sets out to find the truth and stop any further disappearances from happening. There is a rather lovely romance too.

I loved…zinc-wire-star-garland-nkuku

…the gorgeous characters, especially Aila. Each character is individual, there isn’t a trope in sight and there is also a complexity to the characters that makes them feel very real and easy to engage with.

…the World War II setting. The period fitted into the narrative beautifully, the subtle details adding to the richness.

…the theme of searching for belonging and how it feels to be an outsider. Each of the characters searches for their place in the world in their own way; they are united in their longing for human connection. This theme was beautifully explored and really invited the reader to see events and characters from different perspectives.

…the interweaving of Shakespeare and his texts as clues for the mystery. I thought this was brilliant, using snippets from his works to guide the mystery of the disappearances. What a great way to entice young adults into reading Shakespeare!

…the exploration of how much we take for granted in the world we live in. This wasn’t done in a preachy and obvious way, more like gentle nudges to notice the world around you. Imagine not being able to see the stars at night, use colours to create or hear music.

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I had more of a mixed reading experience with The Memory Trees, absolutely loving parts of it but also feeling rather confused at times. This is the story of Sorrow Lovegood set against the background of her strong female line of ancestors, who settled in a rather unusual apple orchard many years ago. Sorrow’s mum leads a very alternative lifestyle and struggles severely with her mental health, but Sorrow has her older sister Patience to look out for her until one day Patience dies in a fire. Returning to the mysterious orchard when she is 16, having lived the intervening years with her father, Sorrow is determined to rebuild a relationship with her mother and unlock her memories to find out the truth about Patience’s death.

I loved…zinc-wire-star-garland-nkuku

…the premise of a mysterious family legacy with strong female ancestors. This really intrigued me. There is a beautiful family tree image at beginning of the book to refer to as the ancestors emerge in the book and linked with this is the presence of the orchard, almost a character in itself,  which leaves mysterious trinkets for Sorrow to find.

…the exploration of what home is. Sorrow searches for belonging, a theme I always identify with. She feels compelled to return to the orchard and her past, to the memories of her sister, yet this home is also an incredibly difficult place, full of challenges. Sorrow is also very much an outsider, looking in and this aspect was written with great insight.

…the mother/daughter relationship. This is very much influenced by her mother’s mental health and Sorrow’s response to it. The portrayal of Sorrow’s mother is incredibly well developed, she really comes across as a complex character. A character who you can see is ill and who is constantly dealing with her mental health, whose thought processes and emotions you want to understand and empathise with, yet, at the same time also feeling such anger for some of the choices she makes in her role as a mother. It is Sorrow who takes it upon herself/is forced to be the calm and rational one, she is in many ways the parent in the relationship and loses a part of herself in the process. Fantastic character dynamics!

My problem with this book was…zinc-wire-star-garland-nkuku

…that I think the author included too many themes so that many were not developed in the detail I craved. There were parts that I didn’t feel connected or that didn’t have enough information for the reader to reach her own conclusions. The stories of the ancestors for example seemed like separate inserts instead of being interwoven in the story with the contemporary characters, meaning I couldn’t quite see what their purpose was. Another example is the hint of a lesbian relationship – this fades out and almost feels like an afterthought, yet it could have added so much to both narrative and character development.