The Smell of Other People’s Houses – Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

This book is on the shortlist for the Carnegie this year, and my first one on the list! It’s quite a small one so a good introduction to the shortlist.

The  book is set in Alaska in 1970 and has four main narrators: Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank. Ruth lives with her grandmother and her sister. Her father was killed in a plane crash when she was five and her mother has disappeared. Her sister, Lily was a few days old when their mother went AWOL and her grandmother has brought them both up. In 1970, Ruth is 16, as are all the main characters.

Dora lives with her mum who is an alcoholic. Her father is in prison for smashing up a bar when he was drunk. There is some kind of abuse going on here which is alluded to but not talked about openly. It gets so bad that she moves in with her neighbour, who for some reason is called Dumpling. Her family is much is nicer but Dora feels that she won’t be allowed to stay with them.

Alyce’s parents are divorced. She lives in Fairbanks with her mum but goes salmon fishing with her dad every summer for a few months. The trouble is that she wants to be a ballerina and the trials for her to get a scholarship at university are also in the summer. She hasn’t told her dad that that’s her dream so she sacrifices her place and goes with him.

Hank has two brothers. His dad is also a fisherman but has disappeared, presumed dead. His mum has met someone else that they don’t get on with him so they decide to run away. They stow away on the local ferry which will take them to the mainland when disaster strikes.

All four main characters are connected, or will be by the end of the book but Ruth is the more dominant narrator and her story is implied rather then spelt out.

The connections in this book, although clever, felt a bit too coincidental for me. I really enjoyed the storyline though, I learnt something about what it was like to live in Alaska in the 1970s and how hard it must have been. The different local communities are battling against the weather and the government and Alaska was officially made a US state in 1959. Ruth’s father was fighting against this when he was killed. There is some friendship stuff in  there and Ruth’s situation felt a little bit archaic to me  but….

All in all a good book to start off with. The characters fitted together nicely and the end was good. It left me with a warm fuzzy feeling, but that may have been the tea!

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Beautiful Broken Things – Sara Barnard

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I read this just after reading WAAMOM and that was quite light. This one is not! In fact, it was so intense I read it quickly just to get it over with. If you are feeling in a dark mood try not to read this book, pick something a little more fluffy instead.

Caddy and Rosie are best friends. Best friends who have known each other for 10 years and speak every day. The kind of best friend that you can have when you’re a kid because nothing else gets in the way. They go to different schools, Caddy goes to a posh private school called Esthers while Rosie attends the local comp. They have friends at school but they see each other every weekend and know each other inside out. They are just entering their final year at school and both are working hard. Rosie mentions a new girl who has started at her school, Suzanne, and they quickly become friends. Caddy is a bit bothered by this but once she meets Suzanne they become friends too.

Caddy and Rosie live in Brighton and this is where the book is set. There is a lot of scenes on the beach and cold, pebbly conversations. Suzanne has grown up in Reading and moved to Brighton to live with her aunt, Sarah. Caddy is intensely curious about this and eventually pieces some stuff together to find out why she doesn’t live with her family. It’s quite serious stuff and Suzanne is one seriously damaged person. She seems to be on a bit of a destructive path and Caddy feels that she needs something to happen in her life.  Her three goals for the year are: to lose her virginity, get a boyfriend (not necessarily connected) and have a big life event happen to her.

As their friendship develops things start to make more sense. Suzanne has been through a few terrible things and her aunt has saved her and brought her home with her. Suzanne, although grateful, doesn’t really want to tow  the line though. She is constantly getting in to trouble at school and through Rosie, Caddy discovers that she is seeing a boy called Dylan, and sleeping with him. Caddy is a kind hearted, naïve girl and thinks that she can save Suzanne. Suzanne needs professional help and leads Caddy on a path of destruction. Rosie sees the truth of what’s going on and tries to warn Caddy but, Caddy is hell bent on fixing Suzanne.

The dynamic between the three girls was a bit off to me. Rosie and Caddy were best friends but both seemed content to let the other one spend loads of time with Suzanne. Rosie must have known that things were not good with Suzanne but doesn’t really discuss it with Caddy, who goes off on this path with Suzanne which ultimately leads to disaster.

I met the author of this book the other day and she said that Suzanne is her favourite fictional character. I can see why because she could write some crazy stuff about her but, I was a  teenage girl once and know how intense friendships can be. I was in a friendship group where another girl was introduced and it wasn’t good. I just felt that Rosie and Caddy may not have been as close as they should have been and that  coloured the other characters for me. I liked Rosie  but Caddy was a total wet weekend to me….. In Brighton! Her friendships with her school mates wasn’t really explored either, which made me feel a bit sad for her because she poured all her efforts into her friendship with Rosie and then didn’t feel very comfortable about socializing with Rosie’s other friends. Even though she eventually was the reason that Suzanne  got the help she needed, she didn’t get the support that she needed to have a better life. I wanted her to enjoy life a bit more, but she didn’t seem to.

A good book, really thought provoking and made me remember how intense those friendships and feelings were. I just felt it needed something more. I am looking forward to reading her next book  though, A Quiet Kind of Thunder which has just been published.

Lies We Tell Ourselves – Robin Talley

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I thought that this book had won the Carnegie so I told all the students that it had. Then I saw Sarah Crossan on BBC Breakfast and realised that I had made a serious error! Anyway, IMHO this had the potential to win – I really enjoyed it. Well, enjoyed it is perhaps the wrong word. It made me feel angry and ashamed that white people, not very long ago, could treat black people so badly, all for the sake of the colour of their skin.

Lies We Tell Ourselves in the story of Sarah – a black 17 year old girl who lives in America in the 1950s. the book begins with Sarah’s first day at a new school. Her parents wanted Sarah and her sister to be one of the first black students in America to go to a white High School. I had to do a bit research here (as ever) and found out that some schools in the Deep South had closed because the Governor of the State didn’t want the schools to be integrated. Eventually, Congress overruled them and the schools had to be opened. Sarah is in a group of nine black students who are attempting to integrate. I have recently read a book about JFK and Martin Luther King and the work that they did to push integration through Congress so it was interesting to see it from a teenagers POV. What came across was that their parents were fighting for this right for their children but the children themselves really struggled. I have never read a book were the hatred comes across so strongly. The first few chapters where the students are just trying to get into the building and then find their classes were amazing. These kids were spat at, racially and physically abused and derided wherever they went. It is a sad time in American History and, I think, goes some way to explain why they are in the situation they are in today. Remember, this was only 60 years ago.

The added complication is that Sarah has to work on a school project with two girls who are white. One of them is friendly enough (if a little confused) but the other one is Linda, daughter of the town’s most ardent segregationist. She hates Sarah and Sarah hates her – at first. The book is written from both their view points and is an interesting tale of people being told to think something without actually knowing the reason behind it. Linda’s father sounds horrible and she has been brought up to believe that black people are second class citizens who don’t deserve the same education or rights as white people. Sarah is about to blow that all out of the water. As the girls spend more time together they both get more and more confused. Sarah has feelings about girls that she knows are wrong and Linda, well Linda realises that she is attracted to Sarah in a way she cannot explain. This is not a spoiler as it describes it quite accurately on the front of the book!

This book is mesmerising. It is so evocative of the time, and the awful things that black people had to go through just to get the same fair, basic treatment as white people – in their own country. It is another book that should make you feel grateful that you are alive at a time when we have never had more freedom of choice. It should also remind everyone that we have a lot to be thankful for, our battles pale in to insignificance against the wall of hatred and abuse that these kids must have suffered. A powerful book that will make you think.

Further reading – Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett – This is a trilogy starting with Fall of Giants. Well worth a read if you have some time as they are big books but they are really informative and easy to read and will give you  lot of information about 20th Century history.

Also, 11.22.63 by Stephen King.