School for Skylarks - Sam Angus
I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It started out rather boring, then gradually became a little more interesting...but by the time we reached the last quarter of the book, it really got pretty good. I'm glad I continued reading to the end.
To start off, this book is about our 11-year old protagonist Lyla. It's the Second World War and she's been evacuated to the countryside to live with her Aunt Ada - an aunt who is rather loopy and does all sorts of zany things. She's quite eccentric, in fact - talks in a very unique fashion, summons her horse indoors to dinner, gives her niece a ferret to cheer her up (the ferret is called Bucket, btw).
Hang on a sec. Lyla? This sounds familiar. Remember Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, with a very similar female protagonist called...Lyra. Her personality is pretty much the same.
...except that Lyra is a lot more awesome, and Lyla mopes about her aunt's house and complains that her dad cheated on her mum, and that she wants to go home. Yeah. But she's like 11, so she's probably going to be like that for a while.
The first third of the book is bloody boring.
Seriously. She's just moping around in this giant mansion by herself and complaining about her parents. I almost fell asleep reading it.
A little later, one of Lyla's "Escape Plans" to get out of here and return to London where her mother will presumably help her, involves writing a letter to the Ministry of Defence and trying to persuade them to send their soldiers up to this mansion.
What do they get? An army of schoolgirls. An entire school of them moves into the mansion, and strangely enough Aunt Ada is FINE with that, and Lyla has to enroll in this school and take classes with everyone else.
Honestly, I'm amazed anyone at the Ministry of Defence actually believed this letter written by an 11-year old girl. But I digress.
The next part of the book is a bit interesting...but not that much, because I'm just relieved that our protagonist gets to INTERACT with someone. A few characters are introduced, but seriously only one of them matters. Maybe two. One of them is written to be some kind of bully...except not really, because all she does is say slightly unpleasant things sometimes. That's about it.
The last part of the book, however, makes it almost worth the wait. Lyla has been writing to her mother during the war. She's been writing everyday and has received no reply at all, not even on her birthday. Her father, however, has been writing to her pretty frequently.
Unfortunately, she's of the opinion that her dad cheated on her mum and left her (due to her mum's words) and refuses to read any of her dad's letters. She continues to wait every day for any reply from her mum.
Except for one day when she DOES start getting letters from her mum...but at this point, you can tell that something's wrong, because she should be over the moon about it, and instead she's just fairly happy about it. I've read enough teenage fiction at this point to know that it's not going to end happily.
I could go on about this book further, but I will say that all that boring stuff in the beginning makes it worthwhile when you reach the climax at the end.
There are, however, some parts of the book which bothered me. Namely...this book takes place over five years.
Are you shitting me? FIVE YEARS?
She acts exactly the same as when she's 11, as she does when she's 16! For goodness' sake! Put in some character progression or something! I mean, sure, she matures a bit, but people change quite a bit between those two ages. It felt like barely one year had passed! I get that the author was trying to maintain continuity about how long the war lasted...but still.
Another thing was that the chapters were ridiculously short.
I found several chapters which were less than two pages long. I blinked and the chapter was over. It was like one scene. I finished 50 pages within 10 minutes, and that barely covers any of the book at all. I mean, come on! i felt like it was for much younger readers because of this (especially with the larger font), but the chapters could be a little bit longer than that.
The writing style, too...You know how the first Harry Potter book has this kind of quirky humour about it? Something about it which just makes you smile? Sassy, even. I felt like the author was TRYING to do that here. He wasn't doing a very good job, though. I didn't really smile at how hard he was trying to do humour. It just fell flat, in my opinion.
There's also a scene right near the end of the book where one of the characters starts dying and it comes out of nowhere.
Lyla leaves for three days. When she comes back, the character has suffered multiple strokes and is on her deathbed. The next several chapters (did I mention they're so goddamn short?) go on about how she dies and stuff. Which is a bit sad, since I care a little about the character, but I'm still recovering from reading about Lyla's parents.
in short, the emotional and evocative part of the book was about the protagonist's relationships with her parents. The war setting felt like it was just in the background. Sure, Lyla's dad is off fighting in the war, and he writes letters to her every day which she just turns into paper aeroplanes and chucks in the rose bush, but...I don't know, it's more about relationships here. There's a few nods to the war effort, I guess.
And then there's a point where her auntie starts smuggling Monopoly boards to the prisoners captured by the Germans.
I don't even know how that could possibly work out.
Anyway, I've rambled on too long about this book now. It starts off rather slow, but it picks up towards the middle and ultimately has a satisfactory conclusion. A character gets killed off, but it made virtually no difference to me, except that the author seemed to fill several chapters with everyone mourning for her.
Also, Lyla's mum is a piece of shit, and her dad is cool, and her aunt is loopy, and I still don't believe 5 years passed through the entire book. Initially I would have given it 2.5/5, but I'll raise that to a 3.5/5.