There seems to be a trend at the moment for contemporary real-life issues-based YA carrying meaningful messages. Which sounds a little cynical, but if the story is handled as skillfully and sensitively as this one, then it’s all good. Novels like The Benefits Of Being An Octopus open eyes to other people’s lives, develop empathy and understanding, and change the world one small step at a time.
Zoe is one of the invisible, marginalized by poverty. She’s a seventh grader living with her mum, two younger sibs and mum’s boyfriend Lenny in Lenny’s nice clean trailer, much better than their previous place. The writing is very clever and subtle. It gradually becomes clear to the reader, though not at once to Zoe, that Lenny is domineering and a bully. It’s an unusual but important depiction of the ways in which one person can abuse another: because the abuse is emotional, not physical, it’s insidious, not obvious and yet deeply destructive. Zoe’s mum has lost all confidence or clear sense of herself. Even Zoe, at the start, is ashamed of what a mess her mum has become.
Zoe and her friend Fuschia fly under the radar at school, invisible to the jocks, the cool and rich kids, which is the way Zoe likes it; until one day a teacher starts taking an interest in her and forces her to join the debating club.
One of Zoe’s assignments, which for once she manages to complete amidst the chaos of childminding and no personal space, is on the octopus; she is fascinated by its many defence and survival strategies, and imagines herself as an octopus finding ways to navigate the chaos that is her life. The metaphor is sustained quite imaginatively and beautifully throughout.
The story develops around Zoe’s problematic association with the debating club, and her growing awareness that her mum is being abused. She is a great character, shy yet strong, human, dignified, engaging and totally believable.
The resolution is not perfect, but plausibly open-ended. There are no easy solutions for the very poor. But, Zoe has found a way to steer her family to a kind of safety, where they can be emotionally whole again, and that demands our respect.
A great book that needs to be read. Five stars.
This is basically a survival story. Jess Cooper ends up in the Canadian wilderness with her survivalist dad after her mum dies in a car accident, and then SOMETHING VERY BAD happens to dad, their cabin burns down, and Jess has to find a way to get through many many months, including the winter, before she can have any hope of rescue. Add to that she is disabled due to her car accident injuries, and she is up against it. But she does have a very good dog.
The novel starts slowly: for a considerable portion I struggled to engage with Jess. She’s whiny, inconsiderate, not very interesting and basically quite annoying at first. The constant referencing to her pain and agony – sorry, because pain is after all subjective – but as someone with first hand experience of these kinds of injuries, I was just thinking, oh for God’s sake get on with it. Glass cuts clean for the most part; I lost part of my scalp, and still had windscreen glass working out of my head six weeks after a car accident – but you just get on with it. Glass wounds hurt at the time, but they heal pretty clean. And as for walking with foot drop, damaged tendons etc –my son had a serious spinal injury, all those symptoms and more. It’s hard to explain, but Jess seems so fussy and absorbed in her constant agony as not to be quite real. People in real ongoing pain don’t talk about it or even think about it that much, because that makes it worse. Real life pain is very boring. You learn to focus on other things. I feel vaguely resentful, that some authors believe foisting pain on their protagonists makes them more interesting. It somehow feels like an affectation.
Plus, later in the story Jess is sprinting around like a spring lamb. So the exercise did help: Dad was right. And her “disability” evaporates, or at least gets very much better.
Anyway – starting with the bad, moving on.
Some critics moaned about cruelty to animals: if you’re stuck in an icy wilderness, you hunt or die. And if you’re hunting for the first time, you’re not very good at it. So, it might be unpleasant, but it’s real.
The revenge aspect, which both blurb and early reviews indicate is a major driver, is scarcely mentioned, thankfully. Jess needs a plane to get out of there: bad men come with a plane; she can wait till spring with fingers crossed – or take the initiative and try to get away. She didn’t even go after the bad guys, actually, only the plane. Personally, I found that aspect refreshing and plausible. A sixteen year old taking on three gangsters would have been slightly far-fetched, and also unsatisfying in terms of natural justice. She barely knew her dad, as she keeps saying (although the little we do see is very engaging; one of the reasons Jess seems such a pill at first). But in the end it isn’t about revenge, it’s about survival, and that is far more realistic and satisfying.
I am a sucker for survival stories, and enjoyed that part of the story very much – though Jess does make a bit of a meal of everything at first, whinging about her incredible pain all the time. But it gets much better about halfway though, when she finally starts stepping up and getting on with it.
The writing is often poetic, and can strike the right emotional cord, but would do so more consistently if it didn’t spell out every nuance. It’s not that the writing is bad, it’s actually very good, but the reflection and introspection sometimes felt over-written. Possibly a younger reader would appreciate that uber-detail, however.
The best thing about the story, of course, was Bo the dog. So, spoiler-free, the ending was not at all satisfactory. In a thriller way, it was well-worked out and resolved. In a human and emotional way, Jess is a sixteen year old alone in the world, in foster care with no family. But she is a different person to the whiner who started this journey: she is now self-reliant, strong, and determined: ultimately a solid if slightly bitter-sweet resolution.
I’d heard good things about Colin Bateman, and decided to start with his first, a 1998 thriller set during the troubles in Northern Ireland.
Bateman’s wit carries this: as thrillers go, Divorcing Jack is laugh-out-loud funny – in a dark and violent way. The main protagonist, Dan Starkey, is a decidedly beta male (or maybe even omega of there is such a thing). He’s not strong, brave, fair, loyal, tough, or honest. He betrays his wife with little remorse. He spends a fair bit of the story far too drunk (which increasingly appeals very little to me as a reader: drunks tend to be out-of-control bores in fiction as well as real life). He has some moral core – he can’t kill a gangster in cold blood when given the chance – but it’s wafer thin. And he is moderately clever. But basically his main redeeming feature is that he’s funny. Otherwise, he’s not very likeable – and for a reader, that’s a major flaw. I wasn’t that bothered by the outcome, so far as he was concerned. There were other characters I would far rather have survived.
For me, Bateman immediately invites comparisons with Adrian McKinty, another Irish novelist setting his stories during the troubles, and the Bateman does not hold up well. McKinty also has a mineshaft seam of black humour, and his character Sean Duffy drinks more than seems humanly possible at times, but the Duffy novels have greater depth and reality. The setting and background are explored with real understanding; you feel that you know what it was like to have lived in Ulster at that time, that you have got inside a very bad place in history, and under its skin. The Bateman is more plot-driven and yet at the same time the plot is more predictable. Which I hate that word, when there are basically only so many plots out there – but the handling of the blackmail elements just doesn’t feel fresh. I think Sean Duffy’s first involved a homosexual element in the IRA, and a rent boy: now that was unexpected – and the characters felt more complex, and real. As a Catholic cop in the RUC, Duffy’s character is constantly ambivalent, conflicted, pulled all ways and mistrusted on all sides. He has a strong moral core, but is frequently faced with impossible choices, and the insanity of it all is sometimes too much to bear. But, Duffy is tough: he stands up when it matters. The women all falling over themselves for this wee shite Starkey seems rather wishful thinking.
Which line of reasoning, by the way, raises the question: does a novel have to have an underlying morality, or truth to it? Or can it just be entertainment? Arguably the answer to the latter is yes, but such a novel is maybe a less satisfying read. Ultimately, according to Christopher Booker of Booker Prize fame, we read stories to believe wrongs can be righted and that there is some purpose and justice in the world. On that count, Divorcing Jack isn’t entirely lacking, but it feels shallow.
That being said and done, this was a first novel, and it was more than good enough. I would hope that with time, the author has achieved more depth and complexity. Even he if he hasn’t – it’s still very very funny.
I have read Harlan Coben before, and though I’ve enjoyed a couple of his stand alones I’ve never quite got into his serial character, Myron Bolitar. Clearly I’m in a tiny minority, however, as his last seven consecutive novels have debuted at #1 in the New York Times bestseller list, he has over 60 million books in print, and is one of the most successful novelists on earth.