Thanks to Net Galley and to Bloomsbury Childrens for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
This novel, that although classified in the category of teen and young adult literature can be read by anyone, is the story of the Stone family whom we meet when they are at a moment of crisis. When the father, Jared, is diagnosed with a brain tumour, aware that he’ll lose his faculties and his family are going to be left without his support, he decides drastic measures are necessary. What follows is the story of how his decisions affect all around him and how we can achieve incredible things if we never give up and have the support of our friends.
The novel is told, in the third person, from a variety of characters’ point of view, including Jared (although he becomes progressively confused), Jackie, his oldest daughter, and the central point of the story, Deirdre, the mother, Megan, the younger sister, and a number of characters extraneous to the family, including a young girl whose main contact with the outside world is Warcraft, a millionaire who’d do anything to keep himself entertained, a ruthless TV executive, a hard and unforgiving nun, and even Glio, the tumour that takes over Jared’s brain.
When Jared’s plan of offering himself for sale in e-Bay doesn’t work out and he ends up signing a contract to become the star of a reality TV following the last days of his life on the screen, everybody’s lives end up in turmoil. Shy Jackie, whose only refuge is social media and her friendship with a Russian schoolboy (fantastic Max), can’t think of anything worse than having cameras at home. The way the television crew manipulates the images and creates a distorted version of her family and her reality makes her want to resist, and by the end of the novel she’s discovered that she’s strong and resourceful and she’s strengthened the link with her sister (who is seen as cruel and superficial at the start).
Most of the adults in the novel (other than one of the teachers and the members of the Stone family) are depicted as egotistical and self-serving, and they don’t truly care about others. Although some of the reviews comment that the description is not accurate as it states that the novel is Jackie’s story whilst the action is split between many characters, for me, Jackie is the heroine, the main protagonist of the book and the heart of the story. Some of the characters that occupy quite a few pages at the beginning disappear when they’ve served their purpose and others are there to either aid or mostly hinder Jackie’s attempts at helping her father end up his life with dignity.
There is a strong element of criticism of the invasion of privacy by media, in this case, a reality TV programme that, like the cancer, feeds on what it likes and leaves destruction around it. Their commercialism, manipulation and money grabbing tactics are resisted by Jackie and her friends, in a David versus Goliath situation. On the other hand, the novel also shows that social media and platforms like YouTube aren’t good or bad in themselves and they can be used to great effect to subvert the established order.
For me, the younger characters are rendered more realistically and are easier to empathise with (as is to be expected from the genre and its intended audience). The novel is particularly focused on less popular and more introverted characters, who aren’t happy in standard social situations and suffer the unwanted attention of their peers when they are not openly bullied. They get to shine through and are shown as talented, imaginative and loyal friends, in contrast with both the adults and the popular but superficial kid.
I am intrigued by the use of the tumour as one of the narrators. It allows us to share in some of Jared’s memories (and due to his rapidly progressive illness that’s one of the only ways we have of getting some sense of who this man was before his diagnosis) but most importantly perhaps, the destruction it creates (and the way it takes over his host) parallels what the TV programme do, progressively limiting the freedom of the occupants, eventually leaving them nothing. At least the tumour is not aware of it and has no will of its own. The amount of anatomical and functional detail is impressive without slowing the action or interfering with the development of the story.
An inspiring novel that deals with a difficult subject (several difficult subjects) and ultimately emphasises the importance of friends, family and of standing up for what we think is right.
Snow Globes: Reads
I intend to also read a book for the Kwanzaa square and try to get as many of my as-yet missing activities done (Holiday Down Under, Movie Ticket, and Holiday Party), but since completing either activities or reads qualifies for completing a square, as far as the game itself is concerned here's hooray for blacking out my card!
Thanks to Moonlight Reader and Obsidian Blue for hosting yet another great game -- I had great fun with this one, never mind the hosting site's performance issues. (I only wish those woes were over once and for all.) As with the bingo, I enjoyed following everybody else' updates and comparing notes at least as much as completing my own card.
So, here's for the grand finale:
Task the Second: The Silent Nights:
- Read a book set in one of the Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and/or Denmark), where winter nights are long!
Inspired by Lillelara's advice to Olga Godim, I changed plans on this one and revisited Babette's Feast, Tania (Karen) Blixen's love letter to the culinary arts, set against the bleak background of (mostly) midwinter in a Pietist religious community in a remote Norwegian fjord. It's an apt read not only for this square but also for the season, as the feast is Babette's selfless gift to the two women who, suspicion against "papists" notwithstanding, have taken her into their home after she had lost her own. I'd read it for the first time after having seen the movie, with the sumptuous visuals of the feast (as contrasted by the dour setting of the protagonists' lives) still freshly in my mind, and I loved it even better then; but I'm still happy I decided to reread it ... and few can hold a candle to Blixen's gift of setting the atmosphere of a story.
Task the Fourth: The Gift Card:
- Read a book that you either received as a gift or have given as a gift.
This task truly came in handy, as my birthday fell smack into the Halloween Bingo and I therefore haven't made particularly great inroads with the many treasures I'd accumulated back in October.
So, always eager to find out what's going on in the life of one DI (has-been) John Rebus of Police Scotland, I picked Ian Rankin's Even Dogs in the Wild, which I absolutely loved ... until it dawned on me that
the back story of (and solution to) this entry in the series is VERY similar to that of Dead Souls, which happens to be one of my favorite Rebus books and which I therefore know inside and out. (And Rankin has also used the method of disposing of a dead body referenced at the beginning of this book before ... not to mention bent cops, who more often than not seem to hail from Glasgow instead of Edinburgh.)
Bit of a bummer, that, and it knocked the book straight down from a five- to a four star read. Still, I loved the fact that part of the book was told from the perspective of "Big Ger" Cafferty, Rebus is as crotchety and unyielding a lonely wolf as ever, and I'm glad to see that Siobhan finally seems to be coming into her own well and truly, without finding it necessary to cling to anybody's coat tails (particularly not those of her boss, DCI James Page). What with Darryll Christie resurfacing in a prominent role and the Glasgow underworld in play big time as well, I wonder if we're headed for another gangland showdown along the likes of The Hanging Garden in one of the next books ...? Now wouldn't that be a treat. Also, is Rankin unsure where next to take Malcolm Fox -- or why is Fox virtually surplus to requirements at the beginning of the book and wondering whether he should throw in his towel?
- Give a book to a friend and post a picture of the wrapped present.
My best friend's birthday is on December 16, as a result of which I only get to go gift shopping for her in a major way once every year, and I typically only decide later, when I'm back home, which items she's getting for Christmas and which ones for her birthday. This year, I decided it would be the books and a few assorted other items for her birthday ... it'll be a bath tub caddy and a set of goodies from one of our favorite local food (or more specifically spice, condiments and sauces) stores for Christmas. -- The books are Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk and a cookbook based on the Harry Potter novels, which I hope she'll love (and doesn't own yet), being both an HP fan and a stellar and enthusiastic cook.
Task the Fifth: The Kwanzaa:
- Make a small donation to a charitable organization that operates in Africa.
I made a donation to a charity that my mom and I have been supporting for a long time -- in fact, I remember my mom donating to them even when I was a small child: SOS Kinderdörfer (literally, "SOS Children's Villages"), an organization that takes in and provides housing, schooling and, most importantly, a loving and supportive community, to orphans and children whose parents are too poor or otherwise unable to properly care for them, in different parts of the world. If you make your donation online you can specify the project you want your money to go to, and I picked their project in South Sudan, which has been particularly beleagured of late: as a result of the war, they were forced to abandon their facilities, casting the future of the project, and the children and their carers themselves, into great peril. They've only recently begun to slowly build towards a new home for their village and community.
(I've included links to their website, which however doesn't seem to have an English version, unfortunately, so if you want to learn more you'll have to copy and paste the contents into Google translator, I'm afraid.)
Task the Eighth: The Movie Ticket
- Read a book that has been adapted to a holiday movie.
It took me about three seconds to make up my mind about this one, and I never stopped to think twice -- this just had to be one of my all-time favorite stories, which also happens to have been adapted into one of my all-time favorite holiday movies, never mind that the final scene actually isn't even set at Christmas in the book: Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy, whose screen adaptation starring Ricky Schroder and Alec Guinness has been an annual Christmas ritual on German TV for over 35 years now. So call me a sop -- and I admit I've never actually tried revisiting this story at length outside the Christmas season (I might well find it a bit too tug-at-your-heartstrings-sentimental then -- but as a feel good story about love, redemption, and the meaning (and effect) of unselfish generosity, this one is hard to beat ... golden-haired cherub, saintly mother and friends to steal horses with all included.
And here's my tally of completed reads and activities:
Task the First: The Winter Wonderland:
- Read: A book that is set in a snowy place.
=> Dylan Thomas - A Child's Christmas in Wales (audio version, read by the author himself)
- Activity: Take a walk outside and post a picture of something pretty you encountered on your way.
Task the Second: The Silent Nights:
- Read: A book set in one of the Nordic countries.
=> Tania (Karen) Blixen: Babette's Feast (see above)
- Activity: Hygge: Put on your fuzziest socks, light a candle, and spend some time (reading) in front of the fireplace or your coziest nook.
Task the Third: The Holiday Party:
- Read: A book where a celebration is a big part of the action.
- Activity: Make something that is considered party food where you are from, and post a picture of it on Booklikes.
Task the Fourth: The Gift Card:
- Read: A book that you either received as a gift or have given as a gift.
=> Ian Rankin: Even Dogs in the Wild (see above).
- Activity: Give a book to a friend and post a picture of the wrapped present.
=> Book gift, see above.
Task the Fifth: The Kwanzaa:
- Read: A book written by an African-American author or set in an African country.
- Activity: Make a donation to a charitable organization that operates in Africa.
=> SOS Kinderdörfer, South Sudan project (see above).
Task the Sixth: The Hanukkah:
- Read: Let the dreidel choose a book for you
- Activity: Make a traditional Hanukkah food like doughnuts or potato latkes.
Task the Seventh: The Christmas:
- Read: A book set during the Christmas holiday season.
- Activity: Set up a
Task the Eighth: The Movie Ticket:
- Reading: A book that has been adapted to a holiday movie:
=> Frances Hodgson Burnett - Little Lord Fauntleroy (see above)
- Activity: Go see a new theater release this holiday season (this does not have to be a holiday movie).
Task the Ninth: The Happy New Year:
- Read: (A coming of age novel or) any old favorite comfort read:
- Activity: Post a holiday picture of yourself from your childhood or youth.
=> Task the Ninth, Part 2
Task the Tenth: The Holiday Down Under:
- Read: A book set in Australia or by an Australian author.
- Activity: Buy some Christmas crackers (or make your own) to add to your festivities and share some pictures.
Task the Eleventh: The Polar Express:
- Read: A book that involves train travel.
=> Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express
- Activity: Read a classic holiday book from your childhood, or tell a story about a childhood Christmas you'd like to share.
=> Hans Christian Andersen: The Snow Queen
Task the Twelfth: The Wassail Bowl:
- Reading: A book set in the UK, preferably during the medieval or Victorian periods.
- Activity: Drink a festive, holiday beverage; take a picture of your drink, and post it to share - make it as festive as possible.
=> Mulled wine (Glühwein), courtesy of Cologne Cathedral Christmas Market
Most of us have grown up with Scrooge’s Christmas Eve escapades. We know the plot, the catch phrases, the every “bah, humbugs!” like the back of our hands. The names Ebenezer, Jacob Marley and Bob Cratchit are now as deeply familiar to us as Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty. We know it all. Or do we? What is it about those Victorian names that haunt our yuletide imagination? What are they hiding about the characters we re-invite into our homes every year? And what, moreover, do they say about Dickens’ supposedly simple tale that may not be so simple after all?