We were first introduced to the child spy, Ruby Redfort in Lauren Child’s ‘Clarice Bean’ novels as the lead character in Clarice’s favourite book and TV series. Now, with five novels under her own name, this spin-off has become incredibly successful in its own right – something that most spin-off series cannot boast about.
Ruby Redfort is 13 years old, ‘every smart kid’s smart kid’, top secret agency, Spectrum’s, youngest code-breaker, and self-appointed spy. Along with her family’s butler, well that’s who most people think he is, and her best friend, Clancy Crew, Ruby gets herself in and out of trouble and solves the mysteries that adults fail to see until it is too late.
The latest novel, released in November last year, is set to be the penultimate installation in the series. Pick Your Poison sees Spectrum face a new threat, from the inside. Despite being the youngest and bravest of Spectrum’s agents, and coming off the back of four high-profile and (mostly) solved cases, Ruby herself comes under suspicion.
Ruby Redfort is a far more fantastical character than Clarice Bean, who always surprised me with her authenticity, ever was. It is certainly convenient that Ruby’s parents are rich, well-connected and, most importantly, completely oblivious to what their only daughter gets up to. But when the series as viewed as the adventure novels that Clarice Bean herself adored, the result is a very successful and enjoyable read, and one that could be easily translated to the screen. That is not to say that Ruby has no depth. She is a very well-constructed and humanly flawed character. In addition to this, the codes and puzzles littered throughout the series are complex and authentic (co-constructed by professional mathematicians) and invite the reader to learn more by solving them for themselves to unlock parts of the Ruby Redfort official website. It is Ruby’s intelligence and ability to solve these codes that affords her believability, less so her miraculous survival of impossible feats.
This is a spy come adventure series at it’s best. I would highly recommend starting at the beginning and working your way through these books to fully appreciate the web of mystery that Lauren Child has created. Their size and imposing hard-back covers are daunting at first, but they are an easy read!
Some scenes may frighten younger children, and some mysteries are more chilling than others, but I think these novels would be enjoyed by adventure-lovers aged 11-16.
Elisa Black is a health journalist from the Adelaide Hills, who has lived with anxiety her whole life. Recently, she has published The Anxiety Book, which is part memoir, part pop psychology – with Elisa herself as the guinea pig. It is honest, searching and well-researched and contains surprising (and necessary) moments of humour.
She chronicles the course of her anxiety alongside the course of her life, as the one has dictated the other in so many crucial instances. She includes stories from multiple other sufferers, showing that there is no one anxious ‘type’ – one in ten Australians experience it every year. Throughout the book, Black pits her anxiety against hope, and it is this hope of living a life without the effects of anxiety that has led her to share her story.
The book arose from an article in the Advertiser that went viral, in which Elisa wrote about her recent success with a simple vitamin regime, after years of trying to find a solution for her crushing illness. By taking folinic acid alongside some other naturally occurring vitamins, Black has been able to correct an abnormality in the expression of her MTHFR gene. While this treatment does not yet have the research to back it up, for Elisa it has worked when so many other methods have not, and she is not alone.
As in the best memoirs, I came away feeling I had a whole picture of a person; what’s more, the kind of person with whom you can drink a pot of tea and have a good laugh (or cry, as necessary).
Come along to Mostly Books at 7 pm on Wednesday the 8th of June to hear Elisa speak about her experiences. Please RSVP via phone or email – tea, coffee and wine provided on the night.
If you’ve read my review of Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, you’ll know that I enjoyed reading it but thought it lacked substance (especially given how long it is).
This brought me to thinking about something that has been in my head for a while now: the idea of ‘liking’ versus that of ‘appreciation’. What I mean by this is that there can be a difference between liking something and appreciating its literary merits. Studying texts in a school environment for the past few years has made me more aware of this and now I think that I can form and articulate some cohesive thoughts on the subject.
What is ‘liking’ and what is ‘appreciation’?
In my mind, these two terms have distinct meanings and ideas associated with them.
‘Liking’ is when I enjoy something, regardless of whether it has (in my opinion or in anyone else’s) literary merit.
‘Appreciation’ is when I can understand why something is respected or liked by other people, regardless of whether or not I enjoyed reading it.
And on the topic of definitions, I used the term ‘literary merit’ above. To me, this means that a text has inherent value that can be seen by reading critically
Is there a difference between ‘liking’ and ‘appreciation’?
In terms of dictionary definitions, there most certainly is a difference between ‘liking’ and ‘appreciating’ something, but dictionary definitions aren’t the point of me thinking about this question. I am more interested in asking whether a distinction can be made, and, perhaps more importantly, if one needs to be made between these two terms. The latter question is very much subjective, but I think one that is still useful to ask.
Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a change in my bookshelf. I rearranged it recently and saw that the stocks of YA books I was reading about a year ago were outnumbered by multiple orange spines. Of course, anyone who’s ever been into a bookshop will know what I mean by ‘orange spines’: Penguin Classics. Lately, I’ve been on a mission to become as well-read in these as possible, and so far this has been shaping up pretty well. I finished the first of these Penguins a few weeks ago: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
First published in 1957, On the Road follows aspiring writer Sal Paradise through several years of his life as he travels across America, becomes invested in beat culture (which dominated underground America at the time) and interacts with his fascinatingly eccentric cast of friends, most notably the infamous Dean Moriarty. Alongside Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and William S. Burroughs’ Junky, Kerouac’s novel is among the most enduring portraits of the beginnings of alternative culture, and is often regarded as one of the great books of our time. I’ve wanted to read it for years, so I had fairly high expectations.
Before I go on, I should mention that On the Road is a book you’ll either hate so much that you’ll want to entirely destroy its existence, or that you’ll love so much that you’ll reread it until every last page has fallen out. There is little ‘in between’. When it was originally released it garnered mass praise but was also (unsurprisingly) heavily criticised by many major reviewers, too. More shockingly, though, is that a quick glance through the book’s Goodreads page still shows this as well: there are numerous 1-star reviews expressing thoughts of its ‘UNBELIEVABLE TERRIBLENESS’ and of how it’s nothing but ‘a half-hearted justification of stupid, self-destructive, irresponsible and juvenile attitudes’. Yet these sentiments are juxtaposed with ones of the 4- and 5-star kind, reviewers commenting on how the book’s beauty changed their lives. I find it fascinating that a book published almost sixty years ago can still divide us so much today.
It took me a long time to read the book – nearly four or five months, mainly because I was reading about three others at the time – yet I find myself in the latter group. One reason for this is its unique style of writing, which must be among the greatest and most beautiful things I’ve ever read. Kerouac may not have been a technically accomplished writer, but his work exerts emotion and passion that is beyond many more polished novelists. On the Road rambles and stumbles from one paragraph to another with the incredible energy and intensity of the characters, their surrounds and their story, yet Kerouac casts a glowing sense of almost romantic nostalgia over it all. It’s not exactly subtle, and it is certainly an acquired taste, but it is easily among the most incredible things a person can read: spontaneous, fearless, full of fiery vigour. It just flows so beautifully, and Kerouac uses the prettiest words and most beautiful phrases throughout – the best parts are akin to poured molasses. Take, for example, this famous passage:
I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.
And, of course, the story itself is just as captivating. On The Road follows Sal as he drives, buses, and hitchhikes across America four times with his partner-in-crime Dean, meanwhile giving a captivating firsthand account of the time’s counterculture. Kerouac paints such an enticing picture of the US, one of incredible beauty. We see the vibrant reds and oranges of the West, the endearingly dangerous seediness of Chicago, the lively excitement of New York, the heady hangouts and experiences of the Beats, and the compelling images of all the fascinating people that Sal meets across the country. All of this is written about in the greatest prose, painting wonderful pictures in the mind of the reader. It is the kind of thing that makes you want to immediately buy a one-way ticket to America and travel across the country just like Sal and Dean…
On top of this, On the Road‘s characters are equally as fascinating. They are developed to an incredible degree, and perhaps this is due to the fact that they were based on real people (the book was originally a memoir until Kerouac’s publishers forced him to change the names). And yeah, most of the protagonists contain major flaws, ones that in many other cases would cause the reader to feel nothing but blind hatred towards them. The frenzied, ‘could care less’ charisma of Dean endears us to him at first, yet as the story progresses we witness the lack of regard he has for anyone around him – the way he thinks it’s perfectly okay to leave the latest of his wives at any given moment with no intention of returning, the way he deserts a lethally ill Sal in Mexico. We see that he is, in fact, not an overly nice person. Yet we don’t hate Dean, because we find him – the way he interacts with the country, the beat world – so interesting. Of course, the same goes for all the other characters – we wonder how Sal’s world will turn out, about the strikingly different lives of everyone they come across. They are so interesting, so intense, so human. And that’s what makes them so infinitely engaging – we can sometimes relate to them, as well as follow their adventures with both anticipation and dread.
On the Road‘s continued relevance could be debated, I guess. America is an entirely different land, now – the Beats, the beautiful landscapes, the fun painted in the book are now replaced by mass gentrification, disturbing levels of gun violence, questionable amounts of equality, the likely appointment of a nutty billionaire as a presidential candidate. The characters would no longer be able to get away with many of their antics, and their social attitudes – though progressive at the time – are now somewhat outdated. Even the scenes of drugs and sex are no longer that shocking. Yet, as with all classics, On the Road is still able to hold a major place in the 21st century world: the passionate ferocity of Sal and Dean’s friendship is massively relatable to anyone with best friends (though hopefully our relationships are a little more healthy!), and anyone who associates themselves with worlds outside the mainstream can also relate to many of the book’s major themes; we can see its influence on other alternative literature, cinema, music, fashion, on the way the world in general lives its many lives; and its message – of how we see our heroes – is still massively important to remember, especially in a world that worships the mass celebrity. In my eyes, there is little wonder as to why it is still enjoyed by millions today!
And so I found On the Road to be among the greatest books I’ve ever read – a powerful tale of friendship and counterculture; the most gorgeous frenzied flow of words shrouded in a hazy, nostalgic romanticism; such an influence on the music, the cinema, the fashion, the culture that I love. Looks like my little Penguin paperback might need a hardier replacement sometime soon…
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell follows Cath, a socially awkward and introverted writer of fan fiction, as she begins her first year of college. When they were in high school, Cath and her twin sister Wren were inseparable, but recently they’ve grown apart; Wren has decided she wants to experience more of the world, whereas Cath would still rather avoid people and live in her fan fiction (which she does try and do throughout the novel).
But then then she meets a boy.
Anyone who reads and/or writes fan fiction (and really anyone who writes anything) will probably find this book enjoyable because they would relate to Cath. She is also the reason why people keep reading – because they are invested in Cath and her story.
This brings me nicely to my opinion on the plot. Or, rather, the lack thereof. While I really enjoyed reading this book, its plot has almost no substance. Fangirl is just over 460 pages long. It could have been a third of that length, given how little actually happens. This is a coming-of-age-cross-romance novel, and those five words describe everything that happens: the protagonist (Cath) develops as a character and part of that may or may not involve falling in love. (The lack of specificity is due to me not wanting to spoil the ending.) Add to this the ending being very obvious from page 220 (and the fact that I predicted it from page 103), and you have one enjoyable but, ultimately, very shallow book.
Something that surprised me was that this book is written in the 3rd person. While I haven’t read a plethora of young adult contemporary/romance novels, The Fault in Our Stars isn’t written in 3rd person. And neither are most young adult books, in general. The reason I think that I didn’t find this irritating is because the excerpts of fan fiction that Cath writes (as well as the novels it is based on) is also written in 3rd person limited.
Despite my complaints, I would still recommend this book to people who are:
above 13 (I hate age restrictions/guides on books, but this one is my way of saying this is,at its core, a romance novel about people who are in college. There is also quite a bit of swearing, most of which is unnecessary)
interested/invested in fan fiction, reading or writing.
4/5 stars for enjoyment but my final rating for this book is 2.5/5 stars.
This time, a book named The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten was the exception – and just like Songs, I enjoyed it too!
13B follows the story of Adam Ross, a 15-year-old who suffers from severe OCD and who has a complicated family life (to say the least!). He reluctantly begins to attend a support group at the suggestion of his therapist, but it is here that he falls instantly in love with the ‘new girl’, Robyn. Throughout the book, Adam learns of family, first love, how to cope with life’s difficulties, and a lot about growing up.
I’m not going to lie – the romance aspect of the book was, for the most part, really cliched. The story makes use of the ever-annoying ‘love at first sight’ trope. And though many readers will be able to relate to the obsessive, painful crush that Adam nurses for Robyn, their relationship feels unrealistically perfect. Also, much of the dialogue that Adam and Robyn share feels implausibly dramatic and ‘grown-up’, particularly as they are both (presumably) experiencing their first relationship. This disappointed me, as the novel seems like a missed opportunity for Toten to break away from familiar romance tropes; instead, she reproduces what has been written many times before. Despite this, though, it was actually kind of cute, and Adam and Robyn’s relationship was resolved in a surprisingly original way (which you’ll have to read to find out for yourself!) – so there’s that!
For all its faults, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B is a good book. Among its best attributes is that it will bring a greater awareness of mental illness to its readers. While this is obviously not its sole purpose, it appears that the story aims to educate its readers on what OCD is like. Though I cannot verify the book’s accuracy on this subject, a glance at the acknowledgements shows that Toten has certainly done her research. Her portrayal of OCD should be especially applauded – she never de-humanises the characters (a practice all too common when discussing mental illness in fiction) and believably shows – without romanticising or ‘vilifying’ their OCD – how their lives are affected. It saddens me that mental illness remains somewhat taboo, well into the 21st Century – yet awareness is certainly increasing, and perhaps this book will help the cause.
Despite my complaints, I really enjoyed The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B! While it may not become a YA classic, it’s a polished book that would be enjoyed by most of the genre’s demographic.
I am a sucker for a series. Once I’ve started reading a novel or a series, I find it very hard to stop. I feel compelled to reach the end even if I don’t particularly enjoy it, or if it’s completely disturbing. Some part of me wants to know what happens and feels obligated to the author. When I saw that Morris Gleitzman had released a fifth book in his ‘Once’ series (aka The Felix and Zelda series), I felt that same compulsion to pick it up and read it.
Set just after the official end of World War II, Soon sees Felix struggling with the ongoing effects of the war and the ruins of social order and relationships, the devastation of the ongoing violence and chaos. In a world where any kind of morality is forgotten when faced with a loaf of bread, Felix shows relentless selflessness as he furthers his training as a doctor and continues to care for Gabriek. However, he begins to question what is right and wrong when charged with the protection of human life.
I was convinced before reading that I was too old for the series – I had begun to read it in primary school – but as I read Soon, I found myself feeling captivated by the story rather than compelled by my long commitment to the series. Reading the author’s note at the back of the novel, I was able to appreciate the author’s efforts to create novels that can be read in isolation, out of order, and that provide complete stories by themselves. Maybe it’s Gleitzman’s attempts to remove the interdependence and cliffhanger endings that often occur in series in order to keep the reader interested that makes his novels so enjoyable.
I noticed and appreciated different elements of this novel than I would have done if I had read it at the age I was when I read Once, the original book. For the first time in the series, the possibility of romance was apparent, and I realised that Felix had grown as I had (though he has passed through time at a much different rate than his readers). Soon is unexpectedly beautiful in its balance of hope and despair. Its very real and honest characters, faced with tragic circumstances, inhabit yet another well-crafted story from Gleitzman. I would recommend it to any fan of the series, anyone interested in WWII, and readers aged 11-18 looking for a great way to spend a summer afternoon.
Traditionally, I don’t read romance books. This could be due to reading too many of those boy-meets-girl-in-clichéd-American-middle-school stories when I was ten. Then there are the substandard writing and overworked plot lines so often associated with the genre. However, I recently glimpsed a book named You’re The Kind Of Girl I Write Songs About (Daniel Herborn, HarperCollins) in my school library. The title and blurb intrigued me, so I decided to disregard my rule and give it a chance…
You’re The Kind of Girl I Write Songs About follows the story of two teenagers who share a passion for rock music. There’s Mandy, who’s taking a gap year and whose plans for the future are as yet undecided, and there’s Tim, a budding singer/songwriter who has suffered a traumatic family situation and is repeating year 12. The pair meet at a gig at which Tim is playing, and are instantly attracted to one another. At first, neither party is confident enough to approach the other, but gradually a relationship forms between the pair. The book tracks the progression of their lives and dreams, their friendships and family relationships, but most importantly their romance.
I was a little unsure of the book at first, but soon enough came to truly love it. The romance was well-written, and didn’t succumb to the common clichés often used by authors of the genre. The book is written in first person from the perspectives of both Mandy and Tim, and Herborn uses this concept very well. I felt that the characters’ differing personalities were handled skilfully, with contrasting character voices mirroring each protagonist’s thoughts and mannerisms perfectly. These multiple perspectives are to the book’s advantage, giving the reader a more balanced and almost omnipresent view of the tale.
The book’s originality, too, is very refreshing. Modern young adult fiction is often based on the same narrative, which has been rehashed more times than anyone would care to count. To read something that diverges from this concept is an enjoyable (and welcome) change! Perhaps my only gripe with the book is that the dialogue feels quite forced on a few occasions. Otherwise, it is excellently written.
I particularly enjoyed the book’s many music references. Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of these – the book’s title, after all, mentions music, and the two protagonists’ lives virtually revolve around it. As a passionate music fan myself, I especially appreciated this. Both characters are shown listening to bands like Vampire Weekend, The Go Betweens, Joy Division, The Smiths, Elliott Smith and The xx, and they are also often depicted wearing t-shirts displaying artists ranging from David Bowie to The Clash.
One of the elements of the plot is a mixtape, involving songs such as ‘About A Girl’ by Nirvana (my favourite of their songs, from which this post takes its name), and ‘You’re No Rock’n’ Roll Fun’ by Sleater-Kinney. Tim, at one point, even attends a Flaming Lips gig! The book also accurately shows some of the most essential experiences of any music fan: flipping through the music magazine section at the local newsagent, watching hours of rage and so on. While the reader needs a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of alternative music for the book to entirely make sense on first read, the plot line is enough to keep less fanatic readers interested, and it will hopefully introduce them to plenty of artists they wouldn’t have listened to otherwise!
In my opinion, You’re The Kind of Girl I Write Songs About is one of the best young adult novels around at the moment, and is most definitely worth a read!
The silly season is creeping up on us again – and what better gift for the loved ones on your list than a wonderful, well-chosen book!
Over the next few weeks we will be perusing our collection in-store, and posting some of our top picks here to help you choose. New releases, old favorites, food for thought and fuel for laughter, there’s something for everyone!
Here is our first list of five, to get you started:
1. For Foodies:
Inspire your aspring chef with NOPI by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramuel Scully
“In collaboration with NOPI’s head chef Ramuel Scully, Yotam’s journey from the Middle East to the Far East is one of big and bold flavours, with surprising twists along the way.” Suggested by Kate
2. For the young and young-at-heart:
Enchant their imaginations with Finding Winnie, by Lindsay Mattick and Sophie Blackall – a true story filled with wonder!
Truth is every bit as delightful as fiction in this fascinating, adventurous and sweet story of the real-life bear who inspired A.A. Milne to create Winnie-the-Pooh. Warmly told by the great-great grandaughter of the war veterinarian who adopted ‘Winnie’, and beautifully illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Suggested by Robin
3. For the creatives in your life: Get their stitchin’ fingers itchin’ with The Craft Companion, by Ramona Barry and Rebecca Jobson
Craft has transcended the domestic and is now thriving in every creative sphere – food, fashion, fine art, architecture and more! The craft revival shows an increasing appreciation of community and DIY approaches to life. From embroidery and felting to collage and macrame, The Craft Companion features over 30 new and old crafting techniques. Each chapter looks at the evolution of a craft, contemporary artists working with the medium, as well as tools and techniques to get you started – plus a project you can do at home. Suggested by Kate and Robin
4. For the wanderlusty: Dazzle their senses with Lonely Planet’s Beautiful World
The breath-taking photography in Beautiful World will take you to the planet’s most magnificent places. Thought-provoking insights into these incredible scenes will leave you in awe and with itchy feet. Suggested by Kate
5. For the story lover: An extraordinary re-imagining of King David’s rise to power and fall from grace in Geraldine Brooks’ The Secret Chord
Part legend, part history, all drama and richly drawn detail; with stunning originality, acclaimed author Geraldine Brooks offers us a compelling portrait of a morally complex hero from this strange and wonderful age. Suggested by Ben
And now we’ll stick our noses back into the fabulous range of books in-store to put together our second Festive Five gift book list! Happy reading until then!
I’ve been meaning to read The Outsiders for ages. It sat on my list of books to read for months, written messily in black biro, sandwiched between Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and Kim Gordon’s memoirs. But a few weeks ago, I found my dad’s paperback edition from the ’80s in the family bookshelf, and I finally got around to reading it! If you’re not familiar with the book, you can read more about it here.
One of the first things that struck me about the book was the way it was written: in first person, from the perspective of 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis. Ponyboy is a part of the ‘Greasers’, the less privileged of two teenage gangs which inhabit his hometown. (The other gang are known as the ‘Socs’, and think of themselves as better than the Greasers simply because they have more money. In reality, they’re not that different.) The voice that the author, S.E. Hinton, uses is not technically good, with slang and (intentional) bad grammar rife throughout the book. Nor is the way that she introduces the characters – ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’, which goes completely against what any English student is taught. However, the technicalities don’t really matter with The Outsiders. The voice is completely how I would imagine a teenager like Ponyboy to speak/think/write, and I thought it was perfect for the book. The Outsiders is a great example of learning the rules, and then promptly breaking them, in the best possible way!
Another thing I soon realised was why The Outsiders has become an esteemed staple of young adult literature since its publication in 1967. Perhaps one of the biggest factors in its success is that Hinton herself was fifteen when she began writing the book, truly making it a book written by a teenager for teenagers. Hinton probably took inspiration from her life for parts of the book, making it all the more authentic. Her age and experiences also help the plausibility of the characters.
Another factor in The Outsiders‘ success is its relatability. Whilst the story is not overly relatable to 21st-century teenagers, the characters are a different story. Ponyboy is intelligent and loyal; a teenager gradually undergoing the transformation from child to adult; someone who sees the injustice of life, and dreams of a world where such misfortune doesn’t exist; an adolescent who has lost, and strives to win; a person learning to look beneath the labels and prejudices of society. His oldest brother, Darry, is portrayed as a sullen character who has been forced to grow up, yet as someone who has a good heart underneath all the frost he has created to be seen as ‘tough’; their other brother, Sodapop, is seen as less studious than Ponyboy, yet understanding and kind. The members of the Greasers – Ponyboy’s surrogate family – range from a timid, sensitive young boy to a tougher, older criminal, and everything in between. The reader is likely to identify with a character created within the pages of the novel, giving it even more appeal. And though, as mentioned above, the narrative itself is not particularly relatable, the ideals portrayed by the text are. The book is a story of belonging, finding your identity, coming of age. Every adolescent, no matter what the year, can identify with those.
Another thing that intrigues me about The Outsiders is the controversy that has shrouded it since its release. Even by today’s standards, the book’s portrayal of themes such as underage drinking, violence, crime and death is uncommonly unabashed, especially for young adult fiction. There’s considerable usage of low-level profanities as well, and none of the characters stem from nuclear families – such themes would have been uncommon in teenage literature at the time of the book’s publication. All the characters smoke, too, which is a topic commonly shied away from in this era, though not necessarily controversial in 1967. The book is even banned in a number of schools across the USA because of the topics Hinton writes about. However, many high-school students study the book and its messages across the world, which helps it to reach a larger audience than it perhaps would have otherwise.
Before reading the book, I had high expectations of The Outsiders. These were well exceeded! I really enjoyed it. If you haven’t read the book, I would highly recommend getting hold of a copy and taking a look.