Catching my breath

I found a book that swallowed me whole. It was fantastic – just like free-falling. Penni Russon‘s ‘Drift’ was a breath-taking finale to her Undine trilogy. I couldn’t put it down which was exactly the sort of tonic I was looking for after a heavy week of reading reference materials.

I also had a lot of fun with Catherine Bateson’s book ‘Being Bee’. It’s on this year’s CBCA Award shortlist with good reason. It was sharp and funny and touching without being sentimental. I liked Bee, the main character. Bee has to come to terms with her father introducing a ‘step-mother’ into her life. It’s a difficult time in any kid (or adult’s) life and a tough subject to write about without characters becoming cliched.

I almost can’t be bothered mentioning that I read Elizabeth Buchan’s ‘The Second Wife’ which is an adult book but it confirms that adult literature has no monopoly on good prose. It was clunky and unbelievable and I was cross I’d wasted my time. As a modern tale of second families, it wasn’t a patch on the charming ‘Being Bee’. There’s no question that Bateson is the better writer.

‘Layla, Queen of Hearts’ is also on the shortlist and was a sweet sequel to Glenda Millard’s earlier book ‘The Naming of Tishkin Silk’. I don’t usually go for this style of warm and fuzzy feel-good story but Millard does it so well and her prose is lovely.

Books from the shadow-lands

If a book has a child as the hero of the story, is it a children’s book? It’s pretty much a given that children’s books have child protagonists. But these days, an awful lot of successful adult novels feature child heroes.

Maybe all adults are really big kids trapped inside grown-up bodies. Or maybe, as life in the 21st century becomes more complex, the child hero has started to represent how small we all feel when faced by the big, messy modern world. This month I’ve read a bunch of novels written for adults that have child protagonists. One or two of them have left me wondering about where we draw the line between Adult and Young Adult novels. It’s a blurry, grey shadow-land between adolescent and adult fiction.

David Mitchell’s ‘Black Swan Green’ was short-listed for the Man-Booker Prize and has been marketed as an adult book but I would have loved this book when I was thirteen and I love it now. It felt true, which is always the hallmark of a good read, as well as being funny, poignant and vivid. What more can you ask from a book, whether you are 16 or 60? Jason Taylor is the thirteen-year-old hero of the story who suffers a tough year in school and at home but comes through it with integrity.

Another great teenage protagonist is Alma from Nicole Krauss’ ‘A History of Love’. It may sound like a soppy title but it’s a beautifully written book. Alma is fifteen years old but there is something about her spunkiness and compassion for other people that reminds me of Scout from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. There’s also a character in his eighties, Leo, whose story runs parallel to Alma’s. It’s a complicated structure but it makes sense in the end.
Jonathon Safran Foer has a slightly annoying nine-year-old protagonist, Oskar, as the hero of his book ‘Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud’. I haven’t made my mind up about this kid. I know the reader is meant to feel sorry for him but he is pretty aggravating and, for me, not 100% believable. But the book itself is intriguing, and I’m sure there’s a lot of people who found Oskar convincing.

The structure of each of these books is unconventional so they could prove challenging for reader’s who prefer a traditional narrative. But for the daring (older?) teenager, they could provide an engaging pathway to adult literature.

Tomorrow never comes

I’ve had a run on reading futuristic novels this week. I’ve been reading so much non-fiction and history as background for my new book, that I started feeling drawn to fiction in the opposite spectrum. ‘Oryx and Crake’ is a very adult book about a future world where genetic engineering has made a mess of the gene pool and the future of humanity. Atwood is such a brilliant writer that she can do anything with words and future worlds and when you’re inside the book, you can almost believe that it’s true. (Though I hope all that splicing of people and animals that she describes never, ever happens). I love her historical fiction too.

Oryx and Crake inspired me to take another look at M.T. Anderson’s young adult novel ‘Feed’. I found it too depressing the first time I read it a couple of years ago but the story stayed with me as well as the idea of everyone having a sort of ‘cyber-port’ in the side of their skulls where information can be ‘fed’ into your brain. It’s got some interesting visions between the pages, but I still don’t go for Titus, the teenage protagonist. You couldn’t call him a hero because he’s so bloody selfish. But it’s a futuristic novel that’s definitely worth reading.

The more I write, the more I feel like the past, the present, and the future are all jumbled up together. I read Victor Kelleher’s ‘Dog Boy’ last night. It’s not really futuristic nor is it historical or even fantasy. But it could be the future as easily as the past. It’s a parable about human beings and their connection to the world and to each other. Kelleher does this sort of stuff so well. The dog boy is abandoned at the foot of a mountain and rescued by a dog that raises it on the edge of society. Feral kids have always had a grip on tmy imagination. I did a lot of research on feral kids in history for my non-fiction book, ‘Tough Stuff’, so I’m usually pretty critical of how they are portrayed but Kelleher’s dog-boy was absolutely convincing.

I hope the future isn’t as bleak as some of these futuristic reads portray. I wonder if there are any futuristic novels where the world is a better place, rather than a total mess. Just as well tomorrow never comes….

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

“Books are windows into other ways of being.”

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