25 November 2010

3 Teenage Books

I read teenage books for work. I read them for my own enjoyment too, but I read them more regularly than I might otherwise because of work.

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
This book, published in the early 70s, claims to be the diary of a teenage girl who got into drugs and ran away from home. The unnamed narrator starts out fairly naive then, after unintentionally taking LSD at a party, gets into harder drugs incredibly quickly. There follows various phases of getting stoned, dealing drugs, running away from home and trying to get clean.

I doubted the veracity of the diary fairly early on. The vocabulary and tone didn't ring true. While a narrative character was firmly established, there were times when the writing was strangely emotionless. My first feeling was that the story of the narrator -and some of the other troubled kids she encounters- was a little over the top. I suspected someone was making a point. As I said in my previous post I don't know much about 70s America, but even so some parts of it just seemed unlikely. It occurred to me that this wasn't the actual diary of a real girl, but it could be based on a true story, or else a mixture of things that happened to various people. The book was clearly published to condemn/warn about youthful drug culture. However I find it hard to feel positive about that when it's claims are misleading.

Cuckoo in the Nest by Michele Magorian
Set in 1946 as England recovers from World War Two. It's about Ralph Hollis who was evacuated to a middle class family, went to Grammar school and loves the theatre, none of which sits well with his working class father. But Ralph is as stubborn as his dad and he won't abandon his dream of becoming an actor.

I first read this book about 10 years ago when I was a teenager. I was attended a Youth Theatre group and the theatre-based bits stuck in my mind. Rereading I found the whole thing excellent. Michelle Magorian is most famous for Goodnight Mister Tom and this book has the same high-standard of writing. The best part is the characters. It's wonderful that they all have their own views and perspectives, each of which is valid and understandable, even as they come into conflict. As Ralph is the main character the reader generally sympathises with him, even though he can be short-sighted (in an emotional sense -though there's also a minor plot-point involving specs). The subject matter is not as serious as Magorian's most famous book, making it a happier read, but there is plenty of emotion to get stuck into. There are also some wonderful comedic moments, some of which involved the transportation of a large stuffed bear - intrigued now, aren't you?

Magorian is very skilled at showing how the Second World War pulled families apart, and how the subsequent reunions, far from being joyful, could be complicated and difficult for all involved. Her book Back Home is another excellent example of this theme. Cuckoo in the Nest is full of different family relationships; Ralph's crowded family, his wealthy employer's bereaved family and the non-related family of actors and backstage workers that Ralph gradually becomes a part of. I could go on at greater length about the virtues of this book -and why the cover isn't good enough- but I shall restrain myself

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
This recently published book is set in 1940s US and shows a time when America was getting back to normal after WWII. Evie, her mother and her step-father, Joe, go on a spontaneous holiday to Florida. While there they meet Peter, who served with Joe in the army, and Evie falls in love for the first time. However there are secrets and passions bubbling under the surface. Emotions run high and Evie's desire for independence conflicts with her parents' desire to keep her safe.

Told in the first person by Evie, we are initially presented with the viewpoint of a girl who isn't yet an adult. Evie's grows up in stages: at first she's attracted to an older man and wishes to be seen as grown up. She starts to buy into the suddenly-accessible world of adult glamour as exemplified by her mother. Then Evie -and the reader- starts to notice tension and unpleasant undercurrents between the other characters. It's clear that each adult is hiding something, but we are left to speculate until Evie figures things out. By the end of the book Evie must decide what to believe -the whole truth being unknown -and acts way that suggests an adult level of cynicism and practicality. In a way she triumphs, but it's also a shame as the innocent girl we met at the start of the book has gone. The tension build subtly but palpably throughout the book. By skillfully giving small events significance, and twisting character perceptions Judy Blundell has created a gripping read and a solid, low-key thriller that will appeal to young women.

I know it seems very well-timed, but I didn't mean to read 2 postwar books in November, it was a coincidence. I didn't even realise What I Saw and How I Lied was set in the 40s until I started reading, I just liked the title. It was interesting to read two books set in the same period on different sides of the Atlantic. Cuckoo in the Nest was full of rationing, power cuts, awful weather and families of seven crammed in small houses in bombed out streets. Whereas Blundell's book shows the US more or less recovered as businesses flourish, investments are made, and people buy houses, cars and long dresses again. Much of the book takes place in a hotel which is occupied by only a dozen people. There's a sense of space and renewal and aspiration. It's not hard to see why the US was so appealing and why people on both sides of the pond bought into Hollywood's glamour.

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