Between Shades of Gray

Next stop on my Carnegie Medal Award trip was Ruta Sepetys Between Shades of Gray.  This was the novel I was looking forward to the most, and it didn’t disappoint.  From the moment I read the opening line ‘they took me in my nightgown’, I was hooked.

It follows the war-time experiences of 15-year-old Lina, her mother and her younger brother.  It begins in 1941 when the family are taken in the night from their home in Lithuania by Soviet Union soldiers and are escorted across various occupied countries, living in appalling conditions and becoming increasingly more exhausted, malnourished and maltreated.

I knew I would love this novel from the moment I read the blurb and admittedly there is a part of me that wonders how much this instinctive awareness of my love of a certain type of novel affects my reading and enjoyment.  I’m not completely sure if that last sentence makes sense, but I know what I mean, and I think there is always a slight bias towards your own personal interests.  This does not necessarily mean that I am narrow-minded in my choice of reading, or that I am not prepared to fall in love with a novel or genre I would never have considered in the past, but I do believe readers lean towards a certain type of literature.  Yeah, that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but I am sure when I read back I will know what I am harping on about.

Throughout the novel I was shocked, saddened and completely absorbed by the plight of Lina and her family, especially as it was a plight I had very little prior knowledge of.  Perhaps the most scary/anxious part for me centred on the sections of the novel where the family were given an opportunity to wash/shower.  For my MA I studied a unit on the Holocaust and has lectures on the Nazis methods of mass murder and the sheer horror of the communal showers, so I was prepared for the worst outcome.  I was even more prepared than I should have been as when I read John Boyne’sThe Boy in the Striped PyjamasI did not expect the ending, but that is a whole different post.  Each bathing/shower section was met with bated breath and a huge amount of tension…followed by relief.

I am beginning to notice a common theme in the Carnegie Medal Award books I have read so far – a preoccupation with harrowing and upsetting subjects and issues.  I don’t know if I am happy with the seriousness of all the novels I have read so far, yes it is important that these type of issues are discussed and explored in children’s literature, but I think some light relief is needed as well.  Arguably some of the novels have humourous sections, but I still think these have been overshadowed by the more serious themes and I am not sure if, as a reader, I am completely happy with this, but that is just a personal preference.

On that note, I think I am going to take a mini break from the Carnegie shortlist and read something a bit different…choosing the next read is always a huge and difficult decision for any reader, however I think I am going to reread Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Not quite suitable to counter balance my little moan about serious and depressing literature, but I need to read it to help my year 9 teaching.  Besides I am quite interested to see how I feel after a reread as I seem to remember I wasn’t a huge fan when I originally read it many moons ago.



Everybody Jam

Continuing on my Carnegie Medal Award journey, I picked up Ali Lewis’ Everybody Jam.  As is evident from earlier posts on the shortlisted books, I am enjoying shadowing the awards and developing my knowledge of YA literature.  The great thing about being part of a school book group is hearing about the pupils’ experience of reading these books and their personal opinions and recommendations.  Bearing this in mind, I had high hopes for Everybody Jam as pupils and teachers alike were raving about it.  Unfortunately I was left somewhat disappointed.

Everybody Jam is told from the perspective of 13-year-old Danny, who lives on a cattle farm in the Australian outback with his family.  They are a family facing many difficulties, from the death of a child to teenage pregnancy to drought and hire a ‘Pommie’ housegirl to help them get things back on track.

To begin with I enjoyed the novel, probably because I wanted to know what had happened to Danny’s older brother, but once this mystery was solved I felt it was a bit of a chore to finish the book.  I enjoyed the Australian lingo, but or me personally the constant reference to Liz as a ‘Pommie’ was annoying…I have worked in an Australian bar, know Australians and have even dated one, and yes they do refer to the English as ‘Pommies’ but I do not feel it is vital to mention it every single time the character appears; for me it makes her slightly unrealistic and just winds me up.

The narrative and the plot were just too slow and dragged for me.; I was wishing the end would hurry up and counting down the pages, something I haven’t done with the other books I have read for this award so far.  I also found Danny irritating, and for a protagonist this is not a good sign.  I don’t mind if I can’t relate to the protagonist or if they are ridiculously self obsessed or anything like that, I just need to feel some sort of emotion other than irritation.

But perhaps I am being unfair.  I have had a hugely crazy week, what with teaching and a (successful) job interview yay, so I have probably been half here and half on another planet worrying about various things.  In Lewis’ defence it is clear that she has written a hugely popular book, as all the pupils shadowing the awards have been singing its praises, it just hit the same chord with me.  This just further reinforces the subjective nature of reading and the beauty of it; not everyone enjoys the same thing and that is what makes it amazing in my eyes.

Next step Between Shades of Grey. Once again I have heard lots of amazing things about this book (lots of pupils have been telling me how good it is when they see me carrying it) and I am praying this one doesn’t disappoint….I am sure it won’t! 

My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece

The school I am currently placed at are shadowing the Carnegie Medal Award and I have joined them not only because I love book clubs in general and chatting about everyone’s latest read, but because my knowledge of current/popular YA literature desperately needs updating.  My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is the first book from this year’s shortlist that I have picked up and if the rest of the books are as good as this, I will be one happy reader.

The novel is told from the perspective of ten-year old Jamie and focuses on how his family is coping (or should that be failing to cope) with the death of one of his older twin sisters in a terrorist attack five years ago.  Rose is a constant present throughout the book, and as the title suggests her urn is placed on the mantelpiece in their father’s house, however Jamie doesn’t really remember her, so although he realises her death is tragic, he does not appear to understand why his parents are having such difficulty coping with her death years later.  Pitcher is brilliant at creating role reversals between the parents and Jamie and his sister Jasmine; the children are able to cope and carry on with their lives, whereas the parents, especially their father is inconsolable with grief, which is completely understandable given the circumstances of Rose’s death.

The novel deals with several serious issues, from terrorism to racism, to grief, affairs and death and, having quickly got over my initial shock at the variety of challenging topics discussed, I do feel that Pitcher approaches these in a believable and interesting way.  However, I feel let down on one particular subject: that of eating disorders in teenage girls.  It is hinted at throughout the novel that Jasmine (Rose’s twin) is incredibly skinny and doesn’t eat, but our ten-year old narrator does not quite understand the seriousness of this.  At the end of the copy of the novel I was reading there was a short extract from a sequel entitled Jasmine so I am hoping that Pitcher will explore this issue in more depth in this novel.  In hindsight this is probably a better idea, as I can think of many novels where the author has attempted to cram too much in and therefore hasn’t done certain issues the justice they deserve.

Overall I enjoyed this novel.  I cried my eyes out at the end when Jamie begins to understand death and grief – it must be something about animals in books, although poor animals on telly have a similar effect.  I hope the rest of the shortlisted Carnegie books are as good as this one, but hopefully not as sad, although I have just started Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd’s A Monster Calls and I have a feeling it will be just as serious and upsetting…maybe I’ll invest in a large box of tissues ready for the tears!