Book Review – Vanishing Girls

I’m back!!! I highly doubt anyone noticed my absence but just in case you wondered what I’ve been doing for the past seven months…I wrote my dissertation, graduated, moved to London, started working and have been gradually wrapping my head around the fact I’m now meant to be a grown-up. Rest assured, I’ve been reading and watching things voraciously during my hiatus and I have a lot to write about. So withblogout further ado, I’ll get right down to it.

Lauren Oliver’s ‘Vanishing Girls’ got under my skin from almost the very first page and I read the whole book in just one afternoon. I bought a copy from the amazing Strand Bookstore in the West Village (which, incidentally, is now home to the famous bench from ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ – go see!) on a whim during a recent trip to NYC, and hadn’t previously heard anything about this book. I believe, as luck would have it, ‘Vanishing Girls’ was released just a few days ago. I’d previously really enjoyed Oliver’s writing (see my glowing review of Delirium here), so was hoping to read something equally compelling and involving. I wasn’t disappointed. At its bare bones, ‘Vanishing Girls’ explores the complex relationship between two sisters – Nick and Dara – following a traumatic car accident. The obligatory YA love triangle, drama and angst are all present and accounted for, but that’s certainly not to say this novel is a cliché. In fact, Oliver seablog3mlessly blends multiple genres while convincingly building the intriguing relationship between the two sisters, and simultaneously portraying their complicated friendship with childhood friend, Parker. It initially appears the presentation of sisterhood is going to be a little reductive with the two girls lazily represented as polar opposites (the prim sister and the wild sister trope à la Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield in Sweet Valley High comes to mind). Yet Oliver gradually allows her characters to shed their archetypal skins and reveal multiple dimensions. To put it very simply, the characters all just feel real. I don’t have a sister, but I was pleased to see this relationship being examined artistically; friendships between females, as I’ve mentioned before, are regrettably highly underrepresented in text and film.

blog2  original2 tumblr_lctjovYzss1qa48wxo1_500

“That’s what life is, pretty much: full of holes and tangles and ways to get stuck. Uncomfortable and itchy. A present you never asked for, never wanted, never chose. A present you’re supposed to be excited to wear, day after day, even when you’d rather stay in bed and do nothing.”

Having previously identified my personal distaste for frustrating dripping tap narratives, here it’s pulled off really successfully. The book is full of secrets, twists and turns that kept me flipping the pages, but questions are answered fairly frequently and strings tied up while new ones are tantalizingly created. This means the reader is voluntarily gripped and engaged, too immersed in the world to put the book down, rather than being left furiously tearing through pages, held hostage by a promised revelation that keeps irritatingly being alluded to. Part epistolary, non-linear, and with competing dual narratives, the novel is intricate and its various interlocking strands and flashbacks all lead up to a hugely satisfying conclusion. You won’t realise just how skilful the narrative is until you read back over the book (which I had the good fortune to do on my plane journey back to London the very next day). It’s extremely smart in terms of its structure and, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to see that conversations and scenes throughout the book have a multitude of layers, meanings and interpretations. I was astounded to find that ‘Vanishing Girls’ can be read in two completely different ways. Not knowing the reason for this, and reading the book blind the first time, is so fundamental to enjoying the story that for once I won’t spoil it. Just go read it. Then read it again and you’ll see what I mean.

“Sometimes people stop loving you. And that’s the kind of darkness that never gets fixed, no matter how many moons rise again, filling the sky with a weak approximation of light.”

My one criticism would be that the missing sister B-plot (the disappearance of nine year old girl Madeline Snow) felt a little shoehorned in. I understand that Oliver was probably trying to draw parallels between different sisterly relationships, add some extra thematic depth or even just increase the level of suspense but, for me, that story never really went anywhere and didn’t naturally coalesce with rest of the novel. Indeed, the thriller/mystery aspect was less interesting to me than the character studies at play. Personal preference, maybe, but I felt emotional bonds were really giphythe crux of the novel and, judging by the time spent by the author on developing and fleshing out those relationships in comparison to time spent on the Madeline Snow storyline, that was also where Oliver’s interest was really located when writing the book. In this balance between emotions and mystery, the tone of Oliver’s ‘Vanishing Girls’ is comparable to E. Lockhart’s ‘We Were Liars’, and if you enjoyed this I’d recommend that – and vice versa. However, while the title alone evokes ‘Gone Girl’, and the missing person subplot certainly is superficially comparable, that’s where the similarities end.

‘Vanishing Girls’ isn’t the fantastic thriller some might be looking for, and if Oliver intended to write a teen version of ‘Gone Girl’ (which I don’t think she did, though that’s what some reviewers seem to imply), then she failed. What it is, instead, is a nuanced and moving portrait of sisterhood, guilt, and the scars you can’t see.

tumblr_ni4jv15T5z1qdlytco1_500

Advertisements

Book Review – Wonder

blogwo“My name is August, by the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

I had to wait a few days before writing this review, yet I still don’t really know how to articulate what this book means to me or how powerfully it affected me. The protagonist of R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder” is August Pullman, a fifth-grade boy with an unspecified severe craniofacial deformity. The novel follows Auggie as he leaves behind the fairly protective bubble he has grown up in and navigates school for the very first time. “Wonder” is one of those children’s books that can be appreciated by both adults and children alike. In that sense it’s comparable to John Boyne’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” or Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. While children will read the book on one level, fall in love with the protagonist and hopefully learn a moral lesson about kindness, adults will read the book on another level, fall in love with the protagonist, question their own behaviour as a child and investigate the way humans treat each other through the prism of Auggie’s specific experience.

“It’s like people you see sometimes, and you can’t imagine what it would be like to be that person, whether it’s somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who can’t talk. Only, I know that I’m that person to other people, maybe to every single person in that whole auditorium. To me, though, I’m just me. An ordinary kid.”

No book has ever had such a powerful emotional impact on me: it made me so angry, made me cry and made me want to go back and relive every childhood situation where I made a small offhand comment or threw someone a look that might have hurt their feelings. That’s not to say “Wonder” is a pity party for its protagonist. It wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if that was the case. Auggie is witty, intelligent, charming and sweet. He loves “Star Wars” and hanging out with friends and is gifted at Mathematics and Science and is basically just like any other kid – save the way other people look at him. Auggie loves Halloween because it’s the one day of the year he can wear a mask and experience being treated with normality. When Auggie wears a mask someone in the school highway gives him a high five; Auggie wonders without self-pity whether they would have done so had they known who was behind the mask.  He loves his dog and the way she licks him all over his face, unable to see the difference between Auggie’s face and the face of any other human being. Auggie is hyperware of his facial deformity and how others react to it; he notices the split second of surprise on people’s faces before they break into a smile; he notices that other children avoid touching him; it is implied that he realizes that most of his classmates have lied to get out of attending his birthday party. The fact that he faces this treatment with such maturity and calm acceptance makes it even more upsetting – if that’s possible.

blogwo1Some scenes will break your heart. I won’t spoil them. I was so invested in Auggie’s life by the conclusion of the novel that I didn’t want it to end, yet was extraordinarily happy that it ended at the point it did: on a rare note of triumph for the protagonist and with the long overdue attainment of acceptance from his peers. Palacio also explores the story from the viewpoints of Auggie’s friends and sister, deepening the narrative, explaining their responses to the protagonist, and illustrating how Auggie’s condition has shaped and changed each of them. Yet Palacio has stated that she chose not to tell any of the story from Auggie’s parents’ perspective. She made this choice because she thought the alternative would be too depressing. Adult readers, and Auggie’s parents, know how many struggles and challenges Auggie still has ahead of him, this consciousness slightly tainting even the hugely life-affirming ending point of the novel.

“Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.”

I haven’t done enough justice to this book. It’s a coming-of-age tale with a protagonist whose bravery might help inspire others. It’s a treatise on the importance of compassion. It’s a reminder that the smallest action might make the biggest difference to someone else. It’s a story that will uplift you and encourage you to be the best version of yourself.
blogwo2

“It’s what you’ve done with your time, how you’ve chosen to spend your days, and whom you’ve touched this year. That, to me, is the greatest measure of success.”

 

Book Review – If I Stay (major spoilers ahoy)

blogif

blogif92

I stayed up reading ‘If I Stay’ by Gayle Forman until the early hours of the morning, unable to emotionally disengage from the novel until I knew how it ended. ‘If I Stay’ fundamentally revolves around a choice: after a horrific car accident, a comatose teenage girl (Mia) must decide whether to die, or whether to wake up and live a life in which her mother, father and younger brother all died in the crash. My mother said something interesting when she heard what I was reading – “teens find it much easier to read about death”. Critics (and there are plenty of them) often say YA literature is mushy, easy to read and full of the sort of wish-fulfillment adults supposedly ought to give up as a sign of their maturity. There are, of course, books like this in the YA canon, just as there are in the literature marketed at any other age group. Yet I’ve found that YA literature often focuses unabashedly and apologetically on the ‘big’ concepts – love, death, life, loss. Their relative lack of subtlety in theme doesn’t make them less worthy of admiration. Just the opposite, in my opinion. Most adults wouldn’t want to think about the devastating concept at the heart of ‘If I Stay’. Yet, as my mother astutely pointed out, teens seem to enjoy stretching their feelings to the limit. This passion isn’t something that should be criticized.

“Sometimes you make choices in life and sometimes choices make you.”

“I just wanted to tell you that I understand if you go. It’s okay if you have to leave us. It’s okay if you want to stop fighting.”

blogif1 blogif6Despite its harrowing central premise, ‘If I Stay’ somehow actually doesn’t veer into the maudlin or the mawkish, a testament to the author’s skill. It would have been all too easy for Forman to twist the knife throughout the novel, but she resists. Of course, some moments are unavoidably traumatic. Having initially believed that her little brother (Teddy) had survived the crash, Mia discovers that he has in fact died in a nearby hospital. This horrendous realisation sends her body crashing, signalling the shift in her decision towards giving up and dying too. Yet she clings on.blogif3 The point is that the novel isn’t about death but about life. Mia hovers between the two states, ruminating often on how easy it would be for her to die rather than face the anguish of living having suffered through such a tragic accident and the sudden death of her entire immediate family. The novel is full of flashbacks, attempting to highlight to the reader what this loss would actually entail for the protagonist. Yet these flashbacks also illustrate another point: that life should be celebrated. Mia’s relationship with her best friend (Kim), her love story with her musician boyfriend (Adam), and her interactions with her parents, brother and grandparents are all given extra weight because of the predicament she finds herself in. Small moments are raised from the mundane to the sublime.

Given even more precedence than her friendships and relationships is Mia’s love of classical music, blogif2specifically the cello. Music in this book seems to be a metaphor for life itself, or some sort of powerful force; it is almost a character in itself throughout the novel. Music brought Mia’s parents together; it was the catalyst for Mia and Adam’s love story; and it almost tore them apart. Mia sings a song her father composed to her baby brother, and characters discuss the songs they dream will be played at their funeral. Mia notices that the song playing on the car radio before the crash continues playing afterwards. Life, and music, go on even after tragedy and death.

blogif5 blogif7 blogif9

As you can probably tell from the abundance of gifs, ‘If I Stay’ has been adapted into a movie starring Chloë Grace Moretz. Get ahead of the game and read the book now! Tissues advised, yet despite a multitude of deaths – it’s surprisingly uplifting.

Film Review – The Fault in Our Stars

fblog  fblog2 fblog7fblog4fblog3  fblog6

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, I can say that “The Fault in Our Stars” is truly a great adaptation of its source material, as well as a great film in its own right. I went to see the film with my sceptical mother, who became even more sceptical once she realised the demographic was comprised (other than us) of 13 year-old girls. I’m sadistically happy to report that she ended the film crying her eyes out in the bathroom.

fblog96

What makes this film so good, and consequently so upsetting, is how authentic and familiar the teenage characters feel – especially the manner in which they face their predicaments. The protagonist, Hazel (Shailene Woodley), states in her introductory narration that this isn’t a film about beautiful people learning beautiful life lessons. Her unfortunate life circumstances and her tragic story aren’t treated as precursors to a moment of epiphany. People in Hazel’s world don’t die because God needs another angel. Her diagnosis, and the diagnoses of her friends, are unfair and random mistakes with no greater philosophical meaning. The absence of a silver lining or a life lesson is what makes the film so hard to swallow, but ultimately so refreshing.

fblog97Woodley is just perfect as Hazel, combining her cynical wit with vulnerability. Her relationship with her parents is, if it’s possible, even more heartbreaking in the film than in the book. The flashbacks to Hazel receiving treatment as a child deepen the later moments with her parents. Her mum (Laura Dern) expresses so much without words; the look on her face when she tells Hazel she can’t afford to take her to Amsterdam, the panic every time Hazel calls her name, and the cheery grin failing to mask so much anxiety, are all tough to watch.fblog93

As in the book, the male lead Augustus (Ansel Elgort) starts off as something of a wish-fulfillment figure or a male version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl prototype, the initial courtship between Hazel and Augustus a little forced. Yet he soon evolves into a fully-developed character in his own right. His role as the confident, charismatic hero helping the more sombre heroine to live a little makes his own story arc all the more affecting, his evolution all the more shocking.

Like the book it remains so faithful to, the film upends the so-called ‘cancer genre’ cliches. “The Fault in Our Stars” replaces sentimentality with realism and ironically produces something that’s even more emotionally moving as a result. Tissues advised.

fblog94

For my  full review of the book have a gander at https://madwomaninanattic.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/book-review-the-fault-in-our-stars/

Book Review – Ketchup Clouds

blogk2“Ketchup Clouds” is Annabel Pitcher’s follow-up novel to her lauded debut “My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece”, and it just this month won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Young Adult novel. Indeed, as the best young adult novels do, “Ketchup Clouds” explores universal teenage feelings through one teen’s specific experience. In “Ketchup Clouds”, Annabel Pitcher employs an epistolary structure for an intriguing spin on the coming-of-age tale so predominant in young adult fiction. The protagonist, using the pseudonym “Zoe”, writes letters to a “Dear Mr Harris”, a death row inmate. Zoe’s own confession of guilt is teased out through her correspondence with this convicted murderer. While this epistolary framework is commonplace in literature (see Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and Lionel Shriver’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin”), the use of a criminal as the recipient of the narrator’s messages seems innovative. Yet at times, unfortunately, this structure feels more like a gimmick. The parallels between the two characters – the man who killed his wife (whom Zoe refers to as “dear Stu” as the two gradually ostensibly become familiarized), and the guilt-ridden teenager – could have been expanded upon for a much more profound rumination on redemption and the loss of innocence. Unfortunately, we never hear from Mr Harris: his character remains a device, a mere addressee at the top of Zoe’s letters. While the fact that Mr Harris is the only person to whom Zoe feels she can express her dark secret demonstrates to the reader the protagonist’s intense feelings of guilt, it seems a shame not to explore the bond between the killer and the kid further. Does he reply? What does he think of her predicament? Is Zoe’s level of trust in her dear Stu reciprocated? Perhaps curiosity killed the cat, but I couldn’t help but feel this element of the novel would have proved a little more interesting than the actual narrative.

blogk4blogk5
On a superficial level “Ketchup Clouds” shares similarities with books like Anne Cassidy’s “Looking for JJ” and Jonathan Trigell’s “Boy A”, both of which also deal with young adults searching for identity following mistakes made at a young age. The epistolary nature of the novel also led me to draw comparisons with Shriver’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin”. Through Zoe’s stream of consciousness-style narration (which actually seems a little too child-like for a fifteen year old – “FYI”) and her romantic entanglements, we are reminded countless times that Zoe is very young. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that “Ketchup Clouds” at times becomes bogged down in its soap opera-esque love triangle. Perhaps this is a bias on account of personal taste: I could have done with more about Zoe’s guilt and the aftermath of her crime, and far less of her hmming and ahhhing about which boy she fancies more. Zoe is certainly far less complex than Kevin, or even his mother, and the book suffers for it. Pitcher is, nevertheless, a master of suspense and of the dripping tap narrative. Although the reader doesn’t discover the truth behind the death Zoe is implicated in until almost the very close of the novel, the story doesn’t drag on. The author expertly tantalizes the reader by revealing details about the nature of Zoe’s crime excruciatingly slowly, keeping the reader in the dark until almost the last possible moment. While one might imagine this method might invite anti-climactic feelings, the final revelation is satisfying enough to avoid being characterized as a cop-out.

blogk1

Ultimately I welcome any attempt to break free of genre constraints and to revitalize well-tread literary territory (in this case: the pits and falls of growing up). Pitcher’s take on the trials of adolescence is refreshingly inventive. To explore teenage life through the eyes of a teenage killer is to explore a very narrow teenage experience; yet the feelings of isolation, guilt, disassociation, and confusion are still experiences any adolescent can relate to. Doesn’t everyone feel at times that they’re hiding their real self from the world, afraid of what might happen if someone discovers who they really are?

Rewinding Roald Dahl Adaptations

THAMES TV ARCHIVEIt’s recently been announced that Steven Spielberg will direct a new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The BFG” (scheduled for release in 2016). Spielberg is due to team up once again with Melissa Mathison:  he previously collaborated with Mathison in 1982 when she penned the screenplay for Spielberg’s film “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”. Like “E.T.”, a famously heartwarming film following the unlikely friendship between a young boy and a friendly alien, “The BFG” follows an unlikely friendship between a young girl and a friendly giant. With Spielberg’s direction, Mathison’s screenplay, and advancements in film technology, it seems certain that Roald Dahl’s novel is in safe hands. Indeed, “E.T.” even surpassed “Star Wars” to become the highest-grossing film of all time (only to be beaten by “Jurassic Park” ten years later, another Spielberg flick).  First published in 1982, “The BFG” has been adapted once before as an animated feature film (by Cosgrove Hall Films in 1989). That version is apparently Dahl’s favourite adaptation of his own work, and received a standing ovation from the author after his first viewing. There have to date been nine films based on Dahl’s books, and now seems as good a time as any to look back at a few of them.

blogroa98First things first, some trivia: it’s a little known fact that Roald Dahl actually wrote the scripts for several notable films. He wrote the screenplay for the Bond film “You Only Live Twice” (1967), and also co-wrote the screenplay for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968) , with the iconic Child Catcher (who possesses all the trademarks of a classic Dahl villain) and the name ‘Truly Scrumptious’ credited solely as Dahl’s inventions. In 1971 “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was adapted to film as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”; the focus upon Willy Wonka rather than Charlie Bucket (reflected in the name change) was not appreciated by Dahl, who was also unimpressed with the casting of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. He subsequently disowned the film. Nevertheless, this musical adaptation remains highly popular and has reached cult status, and even received an Academy Award for its hilariously eccentric score. It has been aired frequently on television since its release and I’m pretty sure it was a staple of most of my friends’ childhoods. I can still remember being shown an old VHS of this film in school during lunch every single time it was raining.

blogroa99 blogroa95blogroa92“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was re-adapted in 2005 by Tim Burton, with Freddie Highmore of “Finding Neverland” fame starring in the eponymous role and Johnny Depp stepping into Gene Wilder’s shoes as the idiosyncratic  inventor. The director and source material seemed a perfect marriage on paper. Burton is renowned for his penchant for the dark fairytale-esque and his array of oddball but lovable characters (more often than not played by Depp). Indeed, I can hardly believe that Dahl, with his dark sense of humour, predilection for satire, and offbeat imagination, didn’t have a hand in penning Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands”; the playful but bleak depiction of suburbia particularly resembles Dahl’s work. Yet despite the ostensible compatibility of Burton and Dahl, I found Burton’s take on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” a little contrived in  iblogroa94ts efforts to be as quirky as humanly possible. In addition, Depp’s interpretation of Willy Wonka as a child-like innocent with a severe case of arrested development doesn’t really work, and the inclusion of a back-story involving a controlling dentist father and some painful orthodontic procedures is simply unnecessary. Burton’s mistake is, simply, to go over the top: he doesn’t seem to recognise that the book he was adapting was plenty crazy enough. More successful at reflecting the tone of its source material was the 1990 adaptation of “The Witches”. Frequently appearing on lists of the scariest children’s movies of all time, “Thblogroa9e Witches” haunts me even to this day. I can still remember my older brother leaving the room when I was watching “The Witches” because it freaked him out so much. The film doesn’t shy away from its unremittingly terrifying source material, and deals with hideous witches who plot to rid the world of children in a variety of ghastly ways. Three standout terrifying moments include a witch attempting to push a baby in a stroller off a cliff, a young girl forced to grow up inside a painting, and the novel’s hero (a young book named Luke) being turned into a mouse in front of an audience of jeering witches. Casting Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch was a masterstroke: Huston’s talent at conveying the grotesque and frightening was clearly recognised (she went on to be cast as Morticia Addams in “The Addams Family”).

blogroa6 blogroa7The only place this adaptation falls down is in its decision to reverse Dahl’s bittersweet ending. In the original novel, Luke remains stuck in his mouse form, which means he’ll have the short life span of a mouse. The ‘sweet’ part of this ending comes only in the orphan Luke’s consolation that he won’t have to go on living any longer than his elderly grandmother. It’s horrendously depressing. In the film adaptation, conversely, Luke is transformed back into a boy by a ‘good’ witch. While I can understand the reasons behind the filmmakers’ decision to gift the film with a happy ending, Dahl’s novel is far more poignant and in keeping with the perpetually disturbing atmosphere of the book.
blogroa97 Stop-motion animation has been used for two adaptations – the 1996  “James and the Giant Peach” (which uses a mixture of stop-motion and live action) and the 2009 “Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Directed by the notoriously whimsical Wes Anderson and starring the voice talents of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is predictably witty and charming, yet is missing some of the darker undertones Dahl is known for. “James and the Giant Peach” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, though, both utilize the stop-motion animation to full effect, and consequently manage to adapt those books which would otherwise be un-adaptable (due to their focus on foxes and, well, a giant peach full of bugs). Indisputably the greatest Dahl adaptation, however, is Danny DeVito’s 1996 version of “Matilda”.

blogroa1

DeVito transfers the action to suburban America, a move which provides the perfect arena for exploring the book’s latent themes (such as consumerism and parental neglect). DeVito and Rhea Perlmblogroa4an are perfectly cast as Matilda’s parents, pretty much evil but just stupid enough that they remain on the funny side. Pam Ferris’ representation of Miss Trunchball, meanwhile, constitutes the perfect villain and probably had children quaking in their boots at the thought of being sent to the headmistress’ office for years after seeing the film. “Matilda” includes moments which have gone on to become iconic: Bruce Bogtrotter and the chocolate cake, Amanda Thripp being hurled around by her pigtails, and pretty much any scene with Miss Trunchball. One of my particular favourite scenes includes a classroom of children spelling the word ‘difficulty’ using a poem (“Mrs D, Mrs I, Mrs FFI, Mrs C etc”) and Miss Trunchball’s furious response (“Why are all these women MARRIED?”). Even moments in which  Matilda jubilantly makes pancakes to the sound of Rusted Root’s “Send Me On My Way” and jams out to Thurston Harris’ “Little Bitty Pretty One” after discovering her telekinetic powers, remain entrenched in numerous children’s imaginations. In fact, I think I can say with absolute assurance that Mara Wilson’s portrayal of Matilda blogroa25was formative for pretty much any bookworm who grew up in the 90s (myself being one of them). “Matilda” has since gone on to become a successful stage musical, winning seven Olivier awards in 2012. I found the musical impressive, but missed the subtle emotional core at the heart of the original novel and the film adaptation.

I’m a fan of anything that introduces new readers to Dahl’s inventive world. I can’t imagine a childhood without Roald Dahl’s stories and, thanks to those who continue to adapt these books in order to bring them to new audiences, more and more children will grow up realising it’s okay to be different (because you might just develop magic powers). While we’re waiting for Spielberg’s newest addition to this list of adaptations, we can all relive Dahl’s novels and follow Matilda’s example…

blogroa

Book Review – Half Bad

bloghaWitches and magic are popular motifs in fiction, rivaled only by the recently revived penchant for vampires. It’s seemingly impossible to review a book about witches without mentioning the “Harry Potter” juggernaut, which has defined the witch/wizard genre for almost two decades. Yet witches are also the basis of more recent fictional endeavors, including the YA fantasy “Caster Chronicles” series, the 2013 mini-series “American Horror Story: Coven”, and the “All Souls” trilogy. The rich mythological basis for witches means that “Harry Potter” does not have a creative monopoly on this sub-group of fiction, and there’s plenty more material still to be mined from the backlog of witch folklore. Indeed Sally Green’s “Half Bad”, which revolves around witches living in modern England, doesn’t feel like a mere rehashing of the fiction that’s come before it. While its concept isn’t strikingly original (a primordial battle between “Black” and “White” Witches, and a protagonist who bridges the gap between the two sides), its innovation is derived from its brave decision not to shy away from the macabre. blogha4Children and teenagers have demonstrated innumerable times that they’re not afraid to handle some pretty dark stuff in their literature (just off the top of my head: children massacring each other in a televised gladiator-style contest). Even so, “Half Bad” is particularly gruesome and disturbing, its narrative encompassing scenes of physical torture, mutilation, murder, self-harm, and even cannibalism. In one exceptionally chilling scene the fourteen-year-old protagonist is held down while three White Witches (the supposed ‘good guys’) brutally carve “BW” (for ‘Black Witch’) into his back. The scene is described in the first person as Nathan drifts in and out of consciousness, the reader experiencing and sharing his pain. Nathan is also kept in a cage, viciously persecuted, and burnt with acid, all due to his identity as a Half Code (half White Witch and half Black Witch). “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” this is certainly not.

blogha6 blogha7

The premise of “Half Bad” itself is nightmare-inducing. An orphaned boy, Nathan, son of both the most evil Black Witch that’s ever existed and a White Witch (who died in mysterious circumstances), lives in fear that at any moment his Black Witch attributes might manifest and cause him to be executed by the ruthless Council and their cut-throat Hunters. Imagine Harry Potter is the son of Lord Voldemort and Lily, is chained up in the cupboard under the stairs, never gets that nice little letter from Hogwarts, and has to escape the Death Eaters all on his own. That’s the sort of predicament Nathan finds himself in. Yet the fact that the stakes are so high adds a certain realism to the fantasy novel. Despite Nathan’s magical healing ability, he constantly gets hurt. The danger is palpable and keeps the pace breathless.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of “Half Bad” is the moral ambiguity it explores. blogha3The White Witches and Black Witches are established as polar opposites – the former good and the latter bad. This antithetical set-up is common, seen most vividly in Glinda the Good Witch  and the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”, and to a lesser extent by the Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix in “Harry Potter”. Yet in “Half Bad” both the good and bad witches are almost immediately revealed to be neither wholly good nor bad. There are no genuine villains and heroes in this book; the reader roots for Nathan, but at times Green throws things into the narrative that confuse even this basic line of thinking. Nathan occasionally acts in such a manner that the reader is forced to question whether he might indeed grow up to become evil after all. In some ways I hope Green goes down this bold route; to identify and sympathize with a young adult narrator, and to then witness their growth from persecuted child to cold-blood killer over the course of the trilogy would be pioneering. Pardon yet another Harry Potter comparison, but it would be like thinking you’re rooting for a Harry and watching him, aghast, evolve before your eyes into a Voldemort. blogha95The dichotomy between good and bad witches is also the basis of “Beautiful Creatures”, in which the protagonist’s magical powers will be claimed for either Light or Dark on her sixteenth birthday. Yet in “Half Bad”, this transformation isn’t just a matter of self-identification but a matter of life and death. In other points of interest, Nathan’s relationships with his half-brother, Arran, and the White Whet, Annalise, add further dimensions to his character. The obligatory YA love triangle is vaguely set in place by the novel’s conclusion, though with a refreshing new spin which I’d rather not spoil. I also enjoyed the fact that the protagonist was a male witch, in a move away from the traditional depiction of witches as female.

blogha2 blogha1

If you’re looking for something saccharine or easy to digest, don’t read “Half Bad”. It’s pretty unsettling. It’s also, however, totally absorbing. Green’s protagonist has barely begun his journey when the first part of the trilogy ends and we’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of answers and revelations. Nathan is no Harry Potter. Something tells me he won’t be the sort of character that responds to Avada Kedavra (the killing curse) with Expelliarmus (the disarming charm). Something else tells me this series won’t end with the sentence “All was well”. The next book is due out in Spring 2015 so if you like your YA fiction dark and depressing you’ve got a whole year to get reading this one. No excuses.

blogha94