Wallflowers and Alaska

I didn’t expect to enjoy reading the perks of being a wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I thought, “oh-oh, another book with a self-absorbed teenage protagonist”. But in less than 20 pages I fell in love with the story and the main character. The book is a series of letters from sixteen year old Charlie to an anonymous friend and documents his first year in (senior) high school. I can see why this novel has a cult following. For all his problems, Charlie is a lovely kid – caring, quirky and forgiving. It’s been compared to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye but in many ways it reminded me of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. It seemed to me that part of Charlie’s problem and, inversely, his peculiar appeal, is that he suffers a type of empathy disorder which isn’t helped by the various problems that life throws at him. The novel hasn’t been published in Australia and is an import from the USA, possibly because of its dark and grungy side that deals with drugs and teenage sex. But it’s definitely a classic for older teenagers.

In contrast to the shy and eccentric Charlie, Miles Halter from Looking for Alaska is a clever and unpleasant young man who is deeply self-absorbed until he meets Alaska and the Colonel at an elite boarding school in Alabama. Looking for Alaska by John Green won the Printz Award for Young Adult fiction in the USA and the Silver Inky prize here in Australia. The book is pacy and well written and cleverly presents a range of philosophical questions so I can see why it’s popular yet I can’t say I grew to like Miles one little bit. He made me feel tired and a little despairing about the way the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Like Perks of being a wallflower, Looking for Alaska is for older teenagers, largely due to the relentless alcohol and cigarette consumption and a dash of sexual experimentation. Not one of my top reads for 2007, but it was obviously a major hit with a lot of readers.

Bollywood Beauties and Smudgy Lines

I just finished reading Shalini Akhil‘s very fun novel The Bollywood BeautyIt made me deeply nostalgic for India, even though it is set here in Melbourne and in Fiji. I loved all the references to jalebi’s (yum), bhangra dancing and Bollywood movies. It’s a feast of a book in terms of Indian culture and a nice take on the dilemmas faced by young people who bridge multiple cultures (Indian, Fijian and Australian). There aren’t enough Aussie books like this around.
‘The Bollywood Beauty’ was published as an adult book but apart from a few fairly irrelevant (and irreverent) references to drugs and alcohol, it’s got a very YA feel to it. I know a number of youth librarians that are recommending it to older teenagers. It’s one of those books that sits on the smudgy line between adult fiction and youth literature. Sometimes I wonder who draws these lines and what exactly makes a book sit on one side or the other. I suspect books like ‘The Bollywood Beauty’ have a foot firmly in both camps but to prevent too much outrage from the gatekeepers of youth literature some books are best left on the adult shelf, waiting for a teenager to stumble across them.

Reading India

The boxes of books that I bought in India arrived by sea mail more than a month ago but it took awhile to sort them into some sort of order. So many of them had been bought in a frantic, last minute attempt to get hold of books that would be hard to find in Australia. They smelt very faintly of the docks – a vaguely chemical smell rather than the rich, spicy smell of India. I hadn’t had a chance to read many of the books that I bought in those last few days in Chennai so last night I pulled ‘Victory Song’ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni off the shelf and lost myself in Bengal in 1939. ‘Victory Song’ is the story of eleven-year-old Neela who runs away from her village in search of her father who has gone to Calcutta to join the freedom fighters marching to protest against Britain’s occupation of India. It gives a good taste of that era in Indian history and Neela is a great, spunky protagonist. Unfortunately, you can’t buy ‘Victory Song’ in Australia. As with the Phillipines, getting hold of authentic Asian literature, especially children’s literature, is depressingly problematic.

Ruskin Bond is an author that I only discovered this year, while in India. He is one of India’s most famous children’s authors writing in English and I loved reading my way through his collected works. I think my favourite story was ‘Binya’s Blue Umbrella’. Bond has written so many stories for adults and children that it’s difficult to decide which is the strongest of his huge body of work. His stories are poignant and true and full of human strengths and frailties. Thanks to the fact he is published so widely, you can buy his books through Amazon in the UK but, yet again, the complex mess of international distribution keeps his books largely unknown in Australia.

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Books are windows into other ways of being.”

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