Friday, 18 November 2016

Dystopian Fiction or Scary Reality?

Did you know that the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2016 is post-truth?  The OED gives this definition:
Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief
Yep, it seems that we’ve arrived in an era where subjective feelings have more clout than actual facts and where anyone can make whatever fanciful claims they like so long as they garner enough public support to stifle debate.*
That’s pretty depressing.
So, like I’ve often done when truth is freakier than fiction, I switched off the TV and the internet and buried my nose in a couple of novels.  One of them was the dystopian thriller Cell 7 by Kerry Drewery, and the other was Morton Rhue’s international bestseller The Wave.  Both of them are teen fiction and both of them prove that “teen reads” can be as memorable, compelling, and capable of provoking thought as any other novel.  
So first let me tell you about Cell 7.  It is set in a UK which seems a lot like the one we are all familiar with - except that this UK has taken a different direction following the abolition of the death penalty in 1965.  Drewery tells us that some years later - by popular demand - the death penalty is reinstated.  But this time, there is no criminal justice system and there are no judges - there are only daily episodes of a reality TV show called Death is Justice.  The decision of who is guilty and who is innocent is placed directly into the hands of the viewing audience.  Death Row is available to paying subscribers as a 24-hour live feed and the dull formality of sifting through facts in order to present a fair trial has been replaced by emotional manipulation, glitzy TV presenters and voyeuristic audiences.
To use a new word, it’s all very post-truth.  Sixteen year old Martha, the book’s central character and death row inmate, says of those who will decide her fate, ‘They don’t want to know the truth, they just believe what’s fed to them.’
This novel is also so entirely plausible that it’s terrifying.
And what a tremendous read!  I really like the way Drewery chops the text up with different voices and different viewpoints.  It’s like we’re watching Martha through multiple camera angles; which, of course, we are - just like the audience of Death is Justice.  The sequel Day 7 is out in June.  I’ll be tuning in.
And then I read The Wave. 
Crikey.  This was not a relaxing experience either. 
I first read The Wave when I was about 13.  I remember borrowing it from Felixstowe library and thinking ‘Oh my God – this book is brilliant.’  Unlike Cell 7, the scenario is not a parallel or future dystopia, it’s one based very much on real life.  In 1969, a history teacher in a California school attempted to demonstrate to his class how Nazi ideology was able to infect an entire country.  His teaching was too effective.  Within days, this teacher had turned the entire school into one collective movement of chanting, flag-waving followers - and anyone who questioned the majority or dared to be different was treated with suspicion, victimized and intimidated.  This is Morton Rhue’s fictionalised account of that real event.  It’s a very short read and simply told but it packs some powerful messages.  At one point, a worried parent tells her daughter, ‘… just remember, that the popular thing is not always the right thing.’
Wise words. 
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.  And post-truth is so illogical that it defies basic commonsense.  Michael Gove recently scrapped a load of A levels including Creative Writing and History of Art because he thought they were useless.  He should have read Cell 7 and The Wave.  If ever there were a couple of novels that might prove that art helps make sense of the world, then these two would be them.

 *Um... 350 million pounds a week to the NHS anyone?

The giveaway from my last blog was won by Sally in Worcestershire and Caroline in Westchester, NY.  



Friday, 7 October 2016

'Being a Girl' in America

On the 25th October, an American edition of BEING A GIRL will hit the shelves in bookstores in the USA.  It’s pretty much like the British edition except that:
·        - The spelling and vocab is like... totally American.
·        - It’s full of references to some awesome women I hadn’t actually heard of until I found myself writing about them - women like Mary Edwards Walker who was a surgeon in the American Civil War and then later got arrested for wearing men’s clothes!  And Carli Lloyd who is A-MAZING at playing football.  I mean soccer.
·         It’s got a seriously lovely rhubarb n’ custard cover.  Complete with Gemma Correll's distinctive doodlings.
In fact, Gemma’s lovely doodlings are in place throughout and there’s even a couple of new American ones to sit alongside my new American words.  This is not bad going for a couple of women from Ipswich, England, don’t you think?
Anyway, to celebrate this lovely American object, I’m going to give a couple of copies away.  I’ll send one copy to someone in America and one copy to someone in the UK who fancies learning a bit more about some American sheroes.  If you want the chance to win one, you just have to email hayleylong@hayleylong.org with the magic words:  Hey, H!  Your sneakers are looking fresh to def and I’m loving your shell-toes.*
And do it before midnight of October 14th.  Sorted.
Anyway, because I’ve got/gotten so rotten at writing my blog, I thought I’d seize this opportunity to list 10 of my Favourite/Favorite American Things.  Here they are in reverse order:
10.  Nirvana.
       Oh Kurt Cobain.  I STILL LOVE YOU.  If only you’d married me and not Courtney Love EVERYTHING WOULD HAVE BEEN OK.  Maybe.  Ok, perhaps I’ve over-simplified a very difficult set of circumstances.  For anyone, who has three minutes to spare, here is sad, beautiful Kurt singing About a Girl.  The grimace at the end is particularly heart-breaking.  Sob.

9.   Thelma and Louise
       Oh how I LOVE this film/movie - even though the first time I ever watched it, it was on a VHS video that had been dubbed into French and I could only understand one word in sixty.  It was still clear to me that this was a highly entertaining film.  The beginning is harrowing and necessarily so because there has to be a believable reason why Thelma and Louise go so ape-sh*t.  But really... who doesn’t want to punch the air when they blow up that dodgy trucker’s juggernaut?

8.  Coney Island
      You’d think the seaside in New York City would be all gee-whizz and flashy, wouldn’t you?  But nope – it’s like a sandier and sunnier version of Felixstowe.  There are rickety rollercoasters, ancient Big Wheels, hot dogs and candy floss and endless kiosks of tat.  I felt right at home there.

7.  Simon Rich
      You may not know him but if you like reading stuff that makes you laugh, you SHOULD know him.  This man is PROPER FUNNY.  He also contributed to the film script for Inside Out which is the only cartoon film that has ever made me cry.  Recently, I wrote 20,000 words about Simon Rich for an MA in American Literature.  In spite of this, I still like him.  If you don’t know him, a good place to start is the novel, Elliot Allagash.
This man is funny.  Also, he looks like a child.
6.  The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
    Another film set in the American West.  I’m a little bit obsessed with the American West even though guns make me scream.  But this film!  It’s epic!  And the soundtrack is epic too.  In fact, these opening titles are probably the best opening titles in the history of film.

5.  Spoonbill and Sugartown Bookstore 
  This is a fantastic little bookshop/store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Now, everyone likes The Strand bookshop in Manhattan and they are right to do so because it is enormous and fabulous but Spoonbill and Sugartown is fabulous too!  I like it because it isn’t enormous.  It’s just a couple of rooms of very carefully chosen books.  It was in here that I first discovered Simon Rich and went on to read everything he has ever written.  I also like this shop/store because it has cats in it.  Sometimes they are sitting on the book that you want to look at and so are actually in the way.  Except that cats in bookstores are never in the way.
      This photo is by amieok.  I got took it from Spoonbill and Sugartown's tumblr thing.
4.  The Grand Canyon
     Did I mention that I have a thing about the American West?  Well, you can’t get more yee-hah than this place.  It’s nuts.  I was twenty when I visited the Grand Canyon and I’ll never forget the weird, discombobulating effect that it had on my head.  Basically, my brain couldn’t process what my eyes were seeing.  Red mountains.  In a big crack in the ground.  Weird.  Brilliant.
20-year-old me pondering the enormity of The Grand Canyon.  This photo is so old it's fading away.

3.  Red Velvet Cake
      Seriously though – do I need to explain myself?
2.  Louis Sachar
     He’s the bloke that wrote Holes.  If you know me at all, you’ll know I love this book.  It’s a work of actual genius.  There is not a single unnecessary sentence in the whole book.  And it’s set in the American West.  I really like Louis’ book The Cardturner as well.
 1.    Girls with Guitars
Ohhhhh.  For me, nothing will ever beat the American Indie bands of the 80s and 90s and the feisty girls who played in them.  I’m talking about bands like Belly and The Breeders and The Throwing Muses and Mazzy Star.  This stuff all sounds as great to me today as it did when I was nineteen.  I’ll sign off with indie pop music’s greatest ever twins.  Kim and Kelley Deal, I salute you.


*I may have stolen these words from Estelle.