Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker

Story about a boy and his fox, with a serious look at war and its costs.

Publication date: 25th February 2016
Publisher: HarperCollins

Pax is a truly inspiring book, focusing on loss both personal and universal. It is especially topical at the moment when victims of war are in the news, presented through so many different lenses. The novel carefully avoids commenting on the positives and negatives of war, but highlights its implications.

Although arguably not much ‘happens’ in the book, I’m having a hard time reviewing it without feeling like I would be spoiling it for future readers with everything I reveal. Everything about this book was so well-written and intriguing, that I can only urge you to pick it up for yourselves.

I really enjoyed Pennypacker’s writing. Looking through the eyes of the fox was written eloquently; as far from a gimmick as possible. Her interest in the animal – as noted in the epilogue – is evident. The characters are beautifully constructed, and Pax’s is a fascinating portrayal, which avoids anthropomorphism whilst simultaneously exploring his personality.

I recommend Pax unconditionally. It’s wonderfully written and a captivating story for all ages. This is a masterful novel from Pennypacker, which touches on identity, regret and family. I look forward to reading her next book.

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Review: The Search for the Homestead Treasure by Ann Treacy

Excellent historical fiction about a little-known Minnesota community.

Publication date: 19th May 2016
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

The Search for the Homestead Treasure spans two generations of Swedish immigrants to the US. Combining the carefully researched history of this community with that of the Romani Gypsies in the area – all under the auspices of a mystery story, the novel is ambitious and it pays off.

Treacy is evidently psychologically astute, tuned in to the actions and fears of a young girl from centuries ago. The extensive explanatory epilogue is a perfect conclusion to the book, as the reader is able to delve deeper into the reality of the characters. Treacy admits to autobiographical elements – which arguably give the work its distinct air of authenticity – as well as the extent of her poetic licence.

The Gunnarsson family are also sensitively presented, as they deal with the grief of losing a son and brother. The theme which underpins the reader’s growing relationship with the protagonist, Martin, is subtly expounded and fascinating to follow. It blends beautifully with the discoveries he makes about the family’s past, and its intertwined destiny with the eponymous Homestead.

I recommend this novel as a first foray into historical fiction. Especially interesting as a glimpse into rural life in the early 20th century, as well as as a mystery. The social issues raised by the depiction of family are also worth taking into consideration.

Review: Mystery and Mayhem – a short story collection

What it says on the tin – fantastic murder mysteries by contemporary children’s authors.

Publication date: 5th May 2016
Publisher: Egmont

I am partial to a good short story collection, and Mystery and Mayhem really delivers that bite-sized intrigue every short story should have. There is not a dull moment, and every story is on point.

Each writer has a unique voice, with a fascinating way of murdering their literary creations. Some play with your head, some play with your emotion – some do both in wonderful combination. Peppered with that special brand of British humour, with elements which range Gorey-esque to Blackadder and everything in between, the stories are separated into Impossible Mysteries, Canine Capers, Poison Plots or Closed-system Crimes.

It’s also interesting to note that the majority of these stories are set in the past – anything from Sherlock Holmes’ time to Hercule Poirot’s. This allows for a glamorous feel to the collection, with exotic fruit hidden in hoop skirts and horse-drawn carriages alongside online research and dog-walking services.

I recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys fun, well-written literature (so… anyone). The stories are fantastic and, as I realised after I’d read it, they are all written by women. As it should be, no attention is drawn to this fact, they are simply described as “twelve of the best children’s crime writers writing today.” Yet it is hardly surprising, in retrospect, as the female characters are well-rounded and interesting, and there is a strong portrayal of male-female friendships with no need for romance, which is refreshing to read.

Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Welcome to Night Vale meets teenage reality.

Publication Date: 25th February 2016
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s

Radio Silence is one of the best books I’ve read this year, simply by virtue of how liberating it is. Every fear I think I ever had as an eighteen-year-old is voiced beautifully, and softly, honestly, laid to rest. The characters are complete, the perfect balance of simple concerns and life-changing ones. The surprising and improbable is blended with the real to recreate a brilliant portrait of the final two years of school.

The writing is fluent and comfortable, treating the reader as an equal with no need of overexplanation and simplification. The narration is conversational, with interspersed ‘transcripts’ from the Universe City podcast, a central feature of the novel, from which the character of Radio Silence comes. As a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, I could definitely see how Oseman had been inspired by it, as she notes in the acknowledgements. Dark and queer – in all the senses – Universe City acts as a ‘gothic double’ to the characters’ lives, the playground for unvoiced fears.

Oseman deals with a lot of heavy issues which are preoccupying young adults more and more: sexuality, gender, race and the influence of privilege. However, she achieves what many other writers have conspicuously failed to. None of these issues are shoehorned in to prove a point about teenagers, or to fashionably throw a minority into the mix. Oseman recreates the confused experience of actually determining identity, and by writing it so fluently she does these causes the best service. Her characters are not defined by these characteristics alone, they are fully rounded people for whom the above are just part – if significant – of their persons.

Radio Silence is an incredible novel and I recommend it is forced upon every young person you know, especially if they’re a bit nerdy and a bit scared of their future. It’s the kind of book I wish I’d read, and that I read now well into the early hours, just constantly agreeing with the story. Trying to explain what this book is “about” I cannot do it justice. It’s about podcasting, studying, being yourself, coping with abuse, dealing with friendship, fear of affection and fear of rejection. Just read it, and you’ll understand what I mean.