Brother, who art thou?: “Lullaby” by Bernard Beckett

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Lullaby is a finalist for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adult Fiction. And it’s easy to see why. It opens with Theo, sitting in a hospital room with a therapist. His twin brother, Rene, has just been involved in an accident that has left him on the brink of death, with his brain severely damaged. Theo has been proposed with the choice of saving his brother. All he needs to do, in order to ensure that his brother will have a functioning brain, is allow the doctors to transfer a copy of his memories into that of his brother’s.

Without delving too deeply into the scientific realism of this premise (I am no neurologist), this book centers around questions of memory as individual identity, as well as memory as a collective constructed reality. These are intriguing questions and kept me hooked for the duration of the book. Memory is a fascinating, and frequently unreliable, thing. We rely on it so absolutely for our daily lives, and yet there are so many ways in which it fails us – sometimes even without our being aware of it. How many times, for example, have you revisited an event in the past only to find that you remember things differently to how your friends or family remember it? And how much value does our memory of a person’s behavior or personality influence our perception of them? And what happens when that memory s flawed?

As a young girl, one of the lobby security guards in the apartment building we lived in used to scare me. I don’t know what it was, but there was something about him that intimidated me. He picked up on this, and for his own amusement, used to try and scare me every time I had to pass him. I remember how he would laugh gleefully whenever I jumped or startled. I would dread having to come across him. In fact, I despised him so much I used to fantasize about him getting into all sort of mishaps. One that stands out the most is thinking, with relish, how he might have to fix a drain pipe, and imagining its contents raining down on him in a filthy deluge. It was immensely satisfying to the younger me. I remember mentioning this to my brother years later, only to have my brother remark that he had a similar “fantasy” as well. It struck me, then, how much our joint hatred of this man had culminated, from different processes, into a shared thought.It also strikes me that it could easily be the other way around – that my brother and I had discussed the best (worst) possible revenge to take the guard, and over time convinced ourselves that we’d thought of it on our own.

We believe our memories are our own, and our perceptions of the self is built on them. What happens then when those memories are inaccurate? And what happens when memories overlap, in all their inaccuracy? These are the questions Theo is forced to ask himself as he tries to decide on his brother’s fate. As Theo sits in a hospital room with a psychiatrist, talking of his past, we get to see how he and his twin brother played the usual twin pranks, spending entire days switching identities, convincing everyone else, and at times, even convincing themselves.

The frustrating thing, perhaps, about this book is that, while it asks a lot of questions, it doesn’t really answer many of them. Bernard Beckett is apparently known for his open-ended narratives. It’s not something that detracts from the whole but, personally, I would’ve liked a few answers sprinkled in there. Having said that, however, I will say this is an excellent and thought-provoking read, and I’d recommend it to everyone and their dog.

Almost Everything, Everything Was On Point

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Maddy is sick. Really sick. Like can’t-leave-the-house-or-her-body-will-shut-down kind of sick. As far as she can remember of her eighteen years, she has been confined to her home with her mother and her nurse, Carla, for company. She has been home-schooled, and her only visitor is her architect teacher. Maddy is happy. She is happy reading all the books she can, building mini architecture models, and having game nights with her mom.

But when the new boy next door, Olly, walks into her life everything changes. Suddenly Maddy wants more. She wants to see the world and experience everything it has to offer.

I have to admire the dexterous balance that Nicola Yoon strikes with her simple, easy to gobble up writing style that simultaneously manages to be quite beautiful at the same time. She really does make it seem effortless. Reading the novel feels like slipping into a sundae.

Maddy is a likeable character. She is intelligent, mature, with a sense of humour, and good nature that’s allowed her to face her unique life without wallowing deeply in bitterness.Olly is equally well-characterized. He comes with his own set of problems. His home life is tainted by his dad’s violent outbursts. Maddy and Olly’s easy interaction was enjoyable to read.

Despite these good points, however, this novel did leave me feeling a bit non-plussed. First off, as enjoyable as the banter between Maddy and Olly was, their immediate adoration for each other was not. It was easy to see that they were going to fall in love, and I was all for them falling in love but the journey to the destination was far too short to be believable. Or at least for me to believe that their love had weight. I think the initial stages of their relationship could have been fleshed out a whole lot more.

Secondly, there is a twist at the end of the novel which renders the entire preceding character development that Maddy undergoes completely irrelevant. It was far too easy a solution and it was actually quite disappointing to read. I was eager to see how Yoon might portray the harder choices in life, and the consequences of sticking to them, and while she does to an extent, she doesn’t fully deliver on her message. The relationship between Maddy and her mother could also have been fleshed out, especially near the end. When the novel ends, it does not feel satisfying at all. Yoon tries to tie everything up with a neat little bow, and considering what she was trying to offer the payoff felt very insufficient.

“Sometimes I felt crazy too.”

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Sylvie feels invisible. Her sister, “Calamity” Cate, is suffering from mental illness. It’s wreaking havoc on the family.Cate is lost in her nightmarish world, and her parents are both drained by this situation. Sylvie’s swept up into the eye of the storm, feeling far too much like a negligible speck. School isn’t much better, either, where she feels out of place and visible for all the wrong reasons. So, Sylvie decides to undergo a makeover. The new Sylvie will be bold and throw caution to the wind. More importantly, she’ll be noticeable. This, of course, doesn’t come without its own set of consequences.

I love how Kaeli Baker has created a flawed, but endearing character in Sylvie. She is absolutely in a difficult position; she is going through things that no one at her age should be going through alone. At the same time, she reacts in quite selfish ways, and is often oblivious to the goings-on around her. Her decisions are impulsive and misguided. There were times when I just wanted to reach in, grab her face, and command her to take care of herself. It’s heartbreaking to think about how many youngsters are out there, isolated in their experiences, and unable to vocalize their pain, or trying to externalize it in ineffective ways.

Living with mental illness is difficult, but this novel shows that this can also be true for those living with someone suffering from a mental illness. Cate’s mental illness is not at the center of the novel; it’s the effects of it that Baker focuses on, and it’s a good exploration. Watching Sylvie’s family struggle to keep it together is hard, but from the outsider perspective I had as a reader, at times it seemed almost inevitable. Their suppressed emotions break out in loud and explosive actions, or in quiet, insidious ways that eat away at each of them. It’s an honest exploration, and Baker does not try to cover anything up in pretty paper.

The interactions between the younger characters were a little less real for me, however. There were times when the dialogue felt a little unnatural and jilted. Some of the development also feels slightly rushed. I can appreciate that this is a shorter novel, however, and as such there’s only so much space to work with.

I think a lot of young readers will benefit from reading this. Not only does it highlight the importance of reaching out for help, it also encourages reaching out to help others. There isn’t much discussion about mental illness and adolescents, especially in the New Zealand school setting. This book takes step to change that.

Breathing Life into Drawings

Sierra Santiago loves art. She has a knack for creating images, and is currently working on a giant community mural. Strangely though she suddenly notices that the images  around her are starting to move. Images are fading, facial expressions are changing. Strangers and strange creatures alike are suddenly chasing her. Sierra soon discovers that her family heritage is not as straightforward, or as ordinary, as she once thought, and she becomes embroiled in her most difficult project yet.

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Isn’t the cover beautiful?

There is a lot to like in Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper. Sierra, a young Afro-Latina highschooler is a strong and intelligent heroine, with  insecurities and self-doubts that make her a multi-dimensional character. Her relationships with friends and family are warm and entertaining to read about, though interspersed with the inevitable difficulties. Her newfound ability – being powerful enough to render illustrations and infuse them with a magic that brings them to life – were, to be nerdy about it, totally cool. I think the young child in me was especially gleeful about that because one of my daydreams used to be having the power to do exactly that  – imagine drawing the exact thing you wanted or needed and simply willing it into life. (You’d never want for anything! Of course you’d have to be a pretty good artist for it work…) Shadowshaping, however, can also singing and telling stories. The power itself seems an ode to the act of creation, and it’s an inspired touch.

Older creates a world that is very vivid and imaginative. The paranormal aspect is smoothly woven into the narrative. It’s thrilling to see the fantasy dimension buzzing behind the facade of Sierra’s urban life. The characters within it are numerous and beautifully diverse. High-school me would probably have cried tears of joy at this novel. The novel did, however,  feel like it was lacking in character development when it came to some of the secondary characters. They weren’t as fleshed out as Sierra herself, and also made for some confusion in some of the scenes as I couldn’t immediately place who was who. I hope we get to see more of the other characters in the coming books.

Sierra’s coming into her own is beautiful to watch, especially as she discovers her own family’s deep involvement in this supernatural community. Her bravery when it comes to embracing a part of her family that her own mother shunned was touching.  My favourite scene involves a very important conversation with a female family relative that quite suddenly and unexpectedly moved me to tears. It was perhaps the most inspiring and heartening scene in the book for me. It seemed to encapsulate everything the book was about.

There is a strong theme running throughout it of oneness of community. The shadowshapers’ power stems from the strength of their relationship with their ancestors. Their entire system of power is structured around togetherness and community, and I loved that.It ties in with Sierra’s insecurities regarding her own skin colour, her African heritage, and watching her overcome her doubts, and even the doubts and jibes of those close to her made my heart swell. The novel is quite slim, so these scenes felt like they could have used a little more development as well. It was great to see Sierra take that first step but I wanted a something more surrounding that first step to make it more substantial. In any case Older has kicked off an entertaining series and I can’t wait to see where it takes us.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

This novel follows Sunny Nwazue, an albino American born Nigerian girl. With her family having moved back to Nigeria, Sunny is finding it hard to fit in. Her looks and smarts are both fodder for the school bullies. Add to that her outsider status of being “akata”, an African American, life for Sunny is not exactly sunshine and rainbows.

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As if these daily pressures aren’t enough, Sunny also has special powers. The kind that are also a curse, as she is now privy to how the end of the world will unfold.

Thankfully, with the help of newly acquired friends Sunny learns she is actually part of a larger magical community.

Sunny’s is a very engaging character to read about. I think young readers will take to her – she’s an intelligent and resourceful child. She is curious and extraordinarily brave, yet at the same she feels very familiar, as if she could be any child you meet. I think this aspect will really endear her to young readers. She is just like any kid trying their best to fit in, worrying about balancing friends and family, while trying to establish her individuality.

The new world Sunny discovers is riotous with magic. There’s something new at every turn. There is a lot to take in, in that regard, but one of the positive side effects is that the story is never put on pause in order to make way for excessive word building. The reader is swept along into this magical terrain with Sunny. I can see how that could be a bit of a downside, as it’s a lot to take in, but then, you don’t get bogged down in overwhelming details about setting and foliage etc., either.

If there was one thing I wanted more of, it was to see more interaction between Sunny and her parents. Her mother obviously knows a lot more about this new world Sunny’s discovering than she’s letting on. Plus, Sunny’s relationship with her father is very rocky and fragile. I would love to see more positivity in that relationship in future novels but I can appreciate that Okorafor might be trying to convey that some relationship in life just don’t evolve past a certain point in life.

I think young readers have a hero to discover in Sunny. She is a newbie, thrown into deep waters, but she’s a conscientious kid who ultimately tries to do the right thing. I’m eager to see where this series will go.

The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind

I read The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind awhile back but the story’s poetic power and tones of magical realism have had the story simmering in my mind since then. Meg Medina does a good job of crafting a profound young adult story with motifs reminiscent of the magical realism that Latin American literature is famous for.

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“The tempest – like the birth – raged on for hours. But when at last Sonia Ocampo slipped into the world, blue and shivering, the wind miraculously ceased and the river calmed, leaving behind a peaceful and starry night.”

Sonia Ocampo, born into the world with the end of a destructive storm, is hailed by the villagers as a Godsend. She is the idealistic image on which they pin all their hopes – quite literally, too: Sonia is cloaked in a shawl on which are pinned all the gold metal tokens that the villagers have given to her in exchange for her prayers on their behalf. Sonia feels burdened by their beliefs, and her inability to fulfil everyone’s expectations.

The YA themes of identity, freedom and familial obligations can all be found in this novel. Teenagers will especially be able to relate to the constant tug of war between doing what’s right for you, and doing what others think is right for you.

“She only knew what she did not want to be. Not magic. Not lonely. Not trapped. Never once had she thought of what she did want, never imagined a future the way Lara did.”

Sonia’s quiet strength is the shining beacon in this novel. She feels the need to break free, but she doesn’t try to do so at the expense of raging against her parents, or by belittling their hopes and beliefs. She has a respect for their reasoning which I could appreciate. Too many stories pit adolescents against their parents in coming of age stories; it’s refreshing to read YA novels where the protagonist can appreciate their parents for the individuals they are.

Top Secret YA Formula

Itching to write a YA novel? Want your name to be tacked onto the list of authors who have risen to YA novel stardom? Do you, too, want to join the legions of others who have become a New York No. 1 Bestselling author?

I’m hearing a resounding yes. Here, my YA inclined friend, are some sure-fire ways to achieve the fame and glory for which you yearn.

  • Make Sure Your Character is Unique (But Not Too Unique)

Your YA protagonist should grab the reader’s attention from page one. They should be different, unique, special. Like a snowflake! But not too different! You want them to be relatable, of course. An average, middle-class kid that everyone will love. After all, all your readers will be average middle-class kids, too. But remember to add that unique touch, too! Give them a quirky edge. Make them a reader. Reading’s totally unique. Oh, and make their favourite band The Smiths. It’ll show they’re deep. If your protagonist is a girl, make sure to mention she’s not like other girls. Other girls are never YA protagonists.

  • Parental Involvement Should Be Minimal (Or Nil. Even Better.)

Ok, so in reality teens can’t get up to much without their parents or guardians wanting to know about it, or somehow getting wind of it. But we can all agree that’s pretty boring right? Parents? Pfft! What kind of influence would they have on kids? That’s right, zero. And your book should reflect that. Reality is so not the priority here, people. Why would the parental figures show any interest in whatever paranormal/extraterrestrial/fantastical/bestial adventures your protagonist is getting involved in? Relegate them to the background as much as possible.

  • Love Triangles Are EVERYTHING

Does your protagonist have a love interest yet? If not, why not? Inject your story with that extra oomph! Oh sure, most newly fledged adolescents are unlikely to have beamed in on their Significant Other, and are more involved with the Twitter accounts of their celeb cruses, but we aren’t going to let small things like realism get in the way. No, sir! In fact, to make your love story even more memorable, add another potential love interest in there. Go on, do it! You will not regret it, and neither will your readers. They might be expecting one love interest, but two will really bowl them over. The YA soup could definitely use a dolloping more of love triangles. Why bother thinking outside the box when it’s so much easier to stay put in the cosy love triangle?

  • Diversity is Tres Chic

It’s totally the PC thing now to have all the POC, or PoC. Whatever, the acronym’s not important. What’s important is that you get. In. On! This! Trend! Does your protagonist have a Black/Chinese/Indian/Another Race That’ll Show You’re Inclusive friend? If not, just give them a make-over! Internationalize it up! Give them overly strict parents, relatives with accents stronger than Hercules, and a name that sounds convincing enough to be from whatever exciting, exotic ethnicity you’ve chosen to go with. Don’t bother with research! Remember, realism is not what we’re going for here. There’s already so much information to go on – after all, stereotypes stem from truth, right?

And now, dear budding YA author, you are set! Four sure-fire ways to get your work of art depicting the adolescent experience get that ISBN number it deserves. Publishers will be clamouring at your Twitter handle! Don’t say we didn’t warn you.