Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel – A hard act to follow.

Half BrotherHalf Brother by Kenneth Oppel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cormac’s review (aged 10)

This book is about a family who adopt a baby chimp as part of an experiment to see whether he can be taught to communicate using sign language. The mother and father are both scientists and their son, Ben, is 13 when Zan comes to live with them. This is why the book is called Half Brother, because Ben has to accept this animal not as a pet, but as a brother. At first Ben has a hard time with this but eventually he comes to his senses and realises that Zan means more to him than a science experiment.

However his Dad ends up shutting down the project – he says it’s because Zan is getting too strong and dangerous but Ben knows it’s because he’s lost faith in the project and doesn’t believe Zan is learning language or ever will. So the whole book is about one boy’s fight to save his little chimp brother.
Along the way he meets many characters, some who play a key part in Zan’s life, such as the Godwin family and Tim Borden and especially Peter, a student who works with Zan and becomes his best friend. This book made me feel sad sometimes, and also excited – there were some intense bits in there. I also learnt about biomedical labs and how cruel they are to animals. It’s funny, sad and tragic all at the same time.

Mum’s 2 cents.

Cormac laid out the plot so well there should be little for me to add. WRONG! There is in fact so much more to be said about Half Brother – that I’m actually going to need to resort to bullet points:

– First up, most importantly, it’s superbly well written. I don’t know exactly what it is that distinguishes YA fiction from adult fiction, because at no point did I feel that this book was beneath my reading level, yet nor did it seem to be above Cormac’s either. It was simply easy and welcoming to read, like settling into a (faux, of course) fur-covered beanbag.

– The story is gripping. It achieves the perfect balance of plot/pace to studied introspection, and the ethical issues, while paramount, somehow never dominate. In fact, I happen to know that a person can read this book and not become overly bogged down by the ethical dilemmas it throws up – Cormac being a case in point. Although we discussed the thorny issues as they cropped up, I don’t think Cormac, left to his own devices, would have beaten himself up about them. The dilemmas range from what does it mean to be human? to should scientists maintain emotional distance from their subjects? to is animal testing is ever justified, even if it helps to save human lives?. Although these issues are present all the way through the book, Oppel somehow escapes the tendency to slip into overt preaching – the story speaks for itself and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

– The characters are authentic. From the long-haired hippy Peter, Zan’s handler, to Ben’s Mum and Dad, to the prissy private school kids and eager-to-please university students. They are developed primarily through dialogue, which helps keeps the narrator’s voice in the background and adds to their authenticity. This is particularly the case for Ben’s parents, who carry a lot of baggage in their relationship (that is to say, as much as anyone else!) leaving Ben to sift through the left-overs and make sense of his own place in the family. And all throughout there are alliances and trade-offs, politics, pride and finances at stake, ensuring the reader is well invested in Zan’s future by the final few pages.

– Authenticity of the period. This book is like the literary equivalent of Mad Men. Set in the 1970s, kids ride bikes and shoot BB guns, they’re “necking” at discos, listening to Abba and washing dishes by hand, they consider colour tv’s and digital clocks the height of technology, and experiments involving chimps are all the rage. The attention to detail is subtle but fantastic.

– The surprises. And there are a few – one or two outrageous scenes in particular left us laughing/gawping in a mixture of horror/hilarity. These scenes passed as briefly as they appeared with no explanation or comment, and I loved that. It reminded us, just as any good fiction should, that anything can happen.

– It made me cry – and in case you didn’t know, it’s hard to read out loud through tears.

I was worried Zan was getting upset, so I talked to him as I groomed him. I started telling him the story of his day, and flying on an aeroplane, but he wouldn’t remember any of that, and anyway, it was such a sad story I couldn’t keep going.

But if I had to dispense with all the bullet points, what would I say about Half Brother? I’d say it’s going to be a hard act to follow.

* Should also note that this book is likely based on true events (must look into it, no info is given in the book) – a movie I saw last year, Project Nim follows a very similar trajectory to that of Project Zan. Interestingly, I wanted to take the kids to see that film but it was rated R15 which I couldn’t quite understand, being as it was a documentary. It wasn’t until afterwards that I appreciated why… Boy, the 70s were a weird time…. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1814836/

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Book Review: A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

A Winter's Day in 1939A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cormac’s Review – 10yrs
“This was a good book all about the second world war and being moved around places to different concentration camps. It is about one family from Poland who is experiencing all of this, starvation, cold, work, sickness and death. So many tragic things happened to them. They lost their farm and were moved all around Russia on trains and by horse and cart and even walking in the snow. It was written from a boy’s point of view and how he felt about everything that was happening and it was so realistic because I could imagine being there. Especially on the train with the pipe for the toilet. But I wish it didn’t end with the [spoiler removed] because that was really sad. I wanted to know what happened to her, and I wanted them to keep searching for her. 4 stars, I really liked it.”

Mum’s Review: 
One of the interesting things about reading aloud is that you have three different experiences – first is your own personal experience of the book, the second is observing how the book is received by your listener, and the third is the shared experience; what you both gain from discussing particular events as they occur.

And what I learnt as a result of reading “A Winter’s Day in 1939” is that these three different experiences can be quite distinct; what impacts me, is not necessarily what impacts the one listening (in this case, a 10 year old). I think there is wisdom in this somewhere – it’s not about writing “down” to children, it’s about being able to get inside their world and share it as they experience it.

It was interesting to observe, for example, how quickly Cormac responded to the “and then” nature of the book (“and then” being a completely adult take on it). In truth, it is written with far more sophistication than this, but the fact remains it is a chronologically-told tale. Where I might have wanted some deeper enlightenment, or reflection from above or from the future looking back, or an objective narrator to lay out out the historical and political factors influencing the events taking place, the kid just wanted to know: What happened next? The simplicity was what drew him in – from Page 1 until the very end, he was hooked.

There is no doubt that the story is a powerful one. It illuminates a side of the war which I myself knew very little about – that of the Polish refugees caught between warring nations locked in an arm wrestle over territory and power. Adam is a 12 year old boy whose family is forced off their land and into a succession of labour camps around Russia. While Poland’s fate hangs in the balance, Adam and his brother and sister and mother cling to one another to survive the most brutal, punishing conditions – watching helplessly as others do not. The family suffer their own heartbreaking losses too.

What I most appreciated in “A Winter’s Day in 1939” was the beauty and simplicity of the writing, and in particular the way a child’s eye-view was captured in the descriptions of place and people:

Buildings had tumbled down into the street. Some were roofless, like soft-boiled eggs with their lids off. Here and there I saw signs of repair: fresh wooden weatherboards like raw scars, and tarpaulins keeping out the winter weather. But some places were beyond fixing and had been abandoned to the elements, their insides exposed, frozen with an icing of snow.

and

As the temperatures warmed everyone relaxed, thinking the worst was over. We were wrong. Diseases thrived in the warm, sticky air and weren’t fussy about who they infected. Now even fit people got sick. Death waltzed into camp every day.

Despite the fact that I say I would have liked to have been able to delve deeper into the motivating political issues of the time, in actual fact, through small details and minor clues, Szymanik does a very good job of highlighting the push and pull of external forces dictating the reality of the Adam’s life. And the interesting thing (going back to how an adult perceives a book versus a child) Cormac wasn’t particularly interested in the why’s and the why-not’s anyway. He understood that it wasn’t fair that Adam’s family was kicked out of their house and he pitied all the things they had to go through, but he actually didn’t need a history lesson on all the detailed reasons why. He just wanted to know: Will they survive?

And that is what kept him haranguing me “Read, Mama, Lets Read!”
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Too Small to Fail by Morris Gleitzman

Too Small to FailToo Small to Fail by Morris Gleitzman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Review by Cormac, aged 10) “This was a good book. It had loads of words in it that I didn’t exactly understand, to do with finance, but it still was a good book. I liked how they crashed in the desert and Nancy sprained her ankle, and just how weird it was that the whole book was based on a dog and a camel. I think the moral of the story is you should appreciate what you’ve got while you’ve got it. I don’t think his parents were mean they were just working hard for his future”

.

Mum’s note: We got half way through this book (reading aloud) before Cormac made off with it to read late into the night on his own. So the ploy works, obviously. It’s about a wealthy kid whose parents are in the investment banking trade at the time of the financial crisis and how he deals with the morality of his situation. The Guardian summed it up perfectly: “Morris Gleitzman has a rare gift for writing very funny stories and an even rarer gift of wrapping very serious stories inside them.” Highly recommended.

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

CoralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Equal parts terrifying and wonderful. Read this aloud to the kids (aged 10, 7 and 6) round the camp fire over a series of nights on our Christmas camping holidays. As soon as it got dark the book came out, the fire crackling beside us only heightening our fear. As we neared the end of the book we continued by headlamp inside the tent… then, on the final day when we couldn’t wait any longer, we read first thing in the morning before getting out of our sleeping bags, before even eating breakfast – such was our need to know whether Coraline would triumph!

Neil Gaiman, take a bow.(interesting side note, I listened to a podcast in which Gaiman said his publisher initially said the book wouldn’t work “too scary” he said. Gaiman said “look, read the first four chapters to your kids and let them decide.” And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

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The Ghost Behind the Wall by Melvin Burgess

The Ghost Behind the WallThe Ghost Behind the Wall by Melvin Burgess

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is incredibly well done. It subtly presents the reader with two images of David; one of a naughty mischievous and slightly vindictive character and another of a misunderstood, sometimes neglected young boy. The issues it deals with (sole parenting, poverty and ageing) are very raw and I don’t get the sense the Melvin Burgess wanted to cushion any impressionable readers from the realities at hand.

Far from it in fact. At one point in the story kids are confronted with some very uncomfortable moral situations in which they are left to evaluate the meanness of David’s behaviour towards the elderly man upstairs. It’s interesting – you can judge your kids in lots of different ways; how good they are at maths, how well they do in sports, what kind of things their teacher’s say about them. But at the end of the day, when they feel sorry the old man in the book they’re reading, to the extent that you can see deep empathy and real concern on their faces, then you know they’re doing alright.

Melvin Burgess, in case you didn’t know (I didn’t!) is a multi-prize winning children’s author; one of his more well known books was made into the film “Billy Elliot.” I’ll definitely be looking that and other up in the future.

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My Wolf, My Friend – The book that started it all

My Wolf My FriendMy Wolf My Friend by Barbara Corcoran
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I could pinpoint the book that started it all, this is the one. In a nutshell, it is the story of city girl who moves to a remote farm in the Montana wilderness with her father, after the sudden death of her mother. Left largely to her own devices, Hallie befriends a wolfcub with tragic consequences.

I read and re-read this book at a kid, seizing every time on the heartbreaking passage at the end that left me sobbing time and time again. The wonder of the almost magical power this book had over me is what ignited my passion for reading in general.

So it was very strange to re-read this book last week, some twenty odd years later, out loud to my three kids aged 10, 7 and 6. What struck me is just how (wait for it) BORRRING it is for long, long stretches!

I mean, I had to work so hard at my accents and expressions just to keep the kids from falling asleep, that I think their enjoyment was based entirely on the comic observations of their over-exuberant mother flipping the pages dramatically and saying “I wonder whatever might happen next!”

I don’t know what this says about me, let alone the book. I like to think it’s a reflection of what a diligent little reader when I was 9, but more likely, I think, it’s a telling sign that books for young people nowadays have become SO much more relevant and accessible than they used to be. Kids expect to be entertained; stories should have pace and plot and action and not be overly indulgent when it comes to quiet reflection and observation (of which there is plenty in My Wolf My Friend).

This apparent lazyness?/impatience? on behalf of young readers today is not always a good thing, because of course, sometimes you have to invest a little (time, faith) in order to get something back with books. I think of the number of times I start a novel these days, and MOST of them don’t have those catchy openers that haul you in from page 1. More often than not, you’re well into a third of the way through before you feel yourself coming under the spell.

So books that teach us to invest and persevere when we’re young are great, and should be applauded. I’m just not sure that My Wolf My Friend is one of those… the “good time” my kids took away from it, for example, was all about the hilarity of MY read-aloud performance (complete with tears and blubbering at the end, right on cue) and little to do with the book itself.

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Wonder by R.J. Palacio

WonderWonder by R.J. Palacio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cormac’s Review (aged 10):
“This book is about a kid who was born with a cleft palate and a badly disfigured face. His parents make him go to a normal school for the first time when he’s in Middle School. At first he doesn’t want to go because he’s scared of what people will say about his face. But he does make some friends, Jack Will, Summer. He also makes some enemies, like Juian and his friends. What I liked the most is that it wasn’t just from August’s point of view. It was also from the point of view of his friends. You should read it.”

Mum’s 2 cents:

Great book to read-aloud; really takes you inside the mind of a child who is “different”, a concept which will likely appeal to all kids. Really highlights the issue of empathy, by giving kids the chance to “see what it feels like”. And when the going gets tough with the inevitable bullying that comes when August starts school, it has the desired effect on the reader – we felt bad, really bad, for August. The first part of the novel has great pace (and chapters are extraordinarily short which gives the impression you’re zipping through it), but I felt it lost its way a bit after the first half. Having said that, I don’t think it was the intent for the book to have a climax at the end, as with a traditional novel, rather there were a series of ups and downs throughout, perfectly mimicking how an actual school year goes. Highly recommended.

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Will Grayson by Levithan and Green

Will Grayson, Will GraysonWill Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“When I was little, my dad used to tell me, “Will, you can pick your friend, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.”

I bought this book on the strength of that line alone, the opening sentence in Will Grayson. Go on, you would have too! But sadly, It just didn’t have the kick it needed in the end. Or perhaps it had only kick, and no substance? Or perhaps the collaborative novel doesn’t really work after all (John Green, I love you, David Levithan, I love you – but guys, the duet just isn’t doing it for me).

In a way, this novel made me feel like an old person, like a creepy guy hanging out by the shops asking kids in a faux-cool voice if they wanna have a fag with me. The distance between me and the characters was vast. I had no idea who they were, they made no sense to me, they didn’t even seem like real people. They felt like empty shells or caricatures. Especially that rampant sexually over-charged fat guy called Tiny who, for all his “largeness”, physically and figuratively, never seemed to have any trouble getting a boyfriend. Really? Is it so easy to be an overweight gay teenager these days?

so all this bummed me out cos, i like, so so thought this genre was opening up to me, y’know?

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Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver

Before I FallBefore I Fall by Lauren Oliver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my first official foray into YA fiction, that is, since I WAS a young adult. I ended up here after reading (and enjoying far too much) “The Fault in Ours Stars” by John Green. Turns out the YA genre can be quite addictive – certainly far more entertaining from the periphery than it ever was when I was 16 and in the thick of it. It’s kind of like going to the observatory deck of the Bungee to watch people launch themselves head-first into the air. The uncertainty of not knowing if the rope is secure, mixed with the adrenaline of not caring anyway, because F&£* You, this is my life! is a cocktail as attractive as it ever was. As an adult, immersing yourself in YA fiction can give you the opportunity to appreciate the fear and exhilaration of free-falling all over again, from the safety of the cafe with a double shot soy latte and a fudge brownie on the side, thank you very much.

“Before I Fall” begins with (17 year old?) Samantha, who lives out an ordinary day in ground-hog fashion after her life (as she knows it, at least) ends in a fatal car accident. The day after the crash she wakes and experiences what can only be described as Dejavu on speed. Right from the alarm sounding in the morning through the to car crashing around midnight. Is she in heaven? Is she in a coma? Is she just dreaming the whole thing? These are the questions that float around as Sam relives the day, each time learning something not just about the people around her, but more importantly about herself.

Eventually, she comes to see herself as others no doubt see her – as a fairly shallow excuse for a human being. How did she get here? What can she do to change? Is there still time? If she could live the day again, what choices would she make? What would she do differently?

I could have been Drew Barrymore in the film Never Been Kissed (minus the nauseating fluttering lashes and I’m-sucking-on-a-lemon grimace that is), wandering around the school corridors listening in and watching on in ever-sickening wonder. Oliver captures everything from the cliques of bitchy girls to the rapture they feel for boys who are deep down very ugly, and on the surface also rather smelly; Oliver pinpoints the peer pressure, the senseless bullying, the in-group vs the out-group, the tensions at home, the drugs, the low self-esteem, eating disorders, the flow-on effects of divorce, etc, etc. In actual fact, now that I think about it, there’s not a whole lot to get nostalgic about in this book – unless your fondness for shopping, wagging and cheech & chong esque laugh-fests is more profound than is altogether healthy.

Despite the fact that the big themes are likely universal for most teens, culturally and socio-economically at least, I can imagine “Before I Fall” resonating far more with an American audience than it did with me. Having said that, it did make me pause to reflect on more than one occasion on the poor choices I made when I was Sam’s age. And no, I’m not referring to that infamous party I had on the roof. But hey that’s another story…..

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The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Me and 36,700 other people enjoyed the dust-cover off this book. I haven’t got it in me to write a full review, because I’m feeling a little sheepish. Here’s why:

1 – It’s a love story between two terminally-ill cancer patients, and I laughed quite a lot
2 – It’s meant to be for Young Adults, but I’m 34. Does that make the book really good, or me really immature?
3 – It’s only been in bookstores for 6 months, which means I paid the full hard-back price for this book, and I never, ever buy hardbacks. They are expensive. They are heavy. They ruin the visually-pleasing height thing I have going in my paperback dominated bookcase.
4 – I was affected by the declarations of love on these pages enough to write down the quotes for future reference. Such as:

“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”

I must admit, I’m a bit of a snob. Liking a book on the NY Time Bestseller list irks me. I would have preferred to be in the company of the 5 people that gave this book less than 3 stars (look them up, their reviews are solid).

But books are like lovers. You can’t always help who you’re attracted to.

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