#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “What not to do if you turn invisible” by Ross Welford

This is my third Ross Welford novel. I loved the two others that I have read – Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy – and have recommended them widely. What not to do if you turn invisible explores some similar themes to the other books – a child who has lost a parent and who feels slightly set apart from their peers, childhood fears and worries, dealing with bullies, and choosing to be brave. It is also set in the same north east England neighbourhoods of Whitley Bay and Tynemouth (an area I know well as I lived there for a few years) and the made-up town on Culvercot (sounds rather like real-life Cullercoats to me!).

What not to do if you turn invisible imgThe main character in the book is a girl this time – 12 year-old Ethel Leatherhead; yes, it is an unusually old-fashioned name, but that is significant. Ethel lives with her ‘Gram’, a very conservative, very proper lady who has strong views about things that are ‘common’ or undesirable. We learn that Ethel’s mother died when she was young, and that she is not aware of her father. Ethel also has a great-grandmother, who turns 100 in the course of the novel. Great-gram lives in a nursing home and speaks very little until one day, after Ethel visits her, she grabs her by the arm and says to Ethel, rather mysteriously, “Tiger. Pussycat.”

Something else we learn about Ethel from the outset is that she suffers from severe acne. That fact is key to the story as it is her search for a cure that leads her to try a mysterious Chinese medicine she buys from the internet and an old sunbed. It is the combination of these two potent remedies that causes her to experience bouts of temporary invisibility. Once she discovers this, and comes to terms with it, she and her friend Elliot Boyd (another school outsider, who is teased because he is from the South and because he is overweight) seek to use the invisibility, firstly, to help Elliot in the school talent competition and, secondly, as a means of exposing the bad behaviour of school bullies Jarrow and Jesmond Knight, boy and girl twins who have been kidnapping local dogs and demanding ransoms for their return.

The scene is set for a number of interwoven plot threads – how will Ethel cope with her invisibility and will it have any long term physical effects? Will Ethel and Elliot succeed in getting the incriminating video evidence back from the Knight twins, who become aware of Ethel’s ‘power’? What did Great-gram mean when she said “Tiger. Pussycat.” to Ethel? And who is Great-gram’s mysterious visitor? Finally, what has the late pop-singer Felina, who apparently died from the pressures of fame, the paparazzi and alcohol problems, to do with Ethel?

There is a great deal going on in this novel, and some of it does not seem relevant at the beginning, but things start to come together towards the end, so it rewards patience. There are some brilliantly tense moments of adventure and peril, for example, when invisible Ethel breaks into the home of the Knight twins while they and their father are there, in order to wipe their computer hard drives and mobile phones (to destroy the video), but I found this book a much slower burn than the other two I have read. For that reason, I would recommend it more for the older end of the target age group (11-12 years) rather than say 9-10 year-olds. Also, the themes are quite mature – the problems of growing up, the loss of a parent (there is no miraculous ‘happy ending’ like in Hamster, but there is acceptance and reconciliation, and discovery of her Dad), the nature of true friendship and possible romance.

This is quite a long book, but a relatively quick read, thanks to the shortish chapters. A nice one for travelling with, I would say.

Recommended for 11-12 year olds.

I love having an excuse to read kids’ books – what about you?

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Book review: “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges are not the only fruitThis was February’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was a feminist novel, in part to mark the 100th anniversary of the extension of the vote to a section of the female population in Britain. This book is normally considered a classic of the LGBT genre rather than feminist fiction, but, for me, Winterson is one of the most eloquent and interesting feminist authors around today, so I definitely felt this book was a worthy choice for the theme.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was Winterson’s first published work and proved a stellar launch to what has become a brilliant writing career. It was published in 1985 and won the Whitbread Prize (now known as the Costa book Awards) for a first novel that same year. I was a teenager at the time and can’t say for sure that I was particularly aware of it. I remember more vividly the 1990 television adaptation (written by Winterson herself) starring the late Charlotte Coleman (Marmalade Atkins, Four Weddings and a Funeral) which also won a BAFTA. This is a book with quite a pedigree.

Although Winterson insists this is a novel, it has strong autobiographical elements: the central character is adopted and called Jeanette, it is set in a northern industrial town, (the author grew up in Accrington), and it concerns a young woman’s discovery of her sexuality against a backdrop of religious zealotry. Winterson makes no apologies for this and writes in the Introduction to the 2014 Vintage edition that she “wanted to use myself as a fictional character – an expanded ‘I’.” She points to her 2011 memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? as being more authentically autobiograpical.

I had not read this book before but my memories of the television series were of something bleak and dark (and Charlotte Coleman’s brilliant orange hair!). I was expecting a sombre book with an overriding feeling of cruelty and oppression. In fact, it was lighter than I expected (Jeanette escapes, of course) with a great deal of humour, particularly in the characters, or rather caricatures, the author creates.

I’ll outline the story briefly. Jeanette is an only child, adopted as a baby. Her mother is a maniacal Pentecostal Christian “Old Testament through and through”, and her father, who has only a vague presence in the book, goes along with it, for a quiet life you suspect. In bringing up Jeanette, the mother attempts to instil in her daughter her own extreme religious views, keeping her as far away as possible from all other influences, including school. Every aspect of daily life is dominated by the church and all values and principles are predicated on the Bible teachings.

“The Heathen were a daily household preoccupation. My Mother found them everywhere, particularly Next Door.”

It is assumed that Jeanette will become a missionary when she grows up, like the charismatic Pastor Spratt, for whose work Jeanette’s mother raises substantial amounts of money, and for whom she harbours strong feelings which she would not describe as sexual, but which undoubtedly are.

There is cruelty in Jeanette’s childhood, in the way she is initially prevented from going to school, in the way her mother controls all aspects of her daily life, and attempts to control her mind, and in the way she denies her normal social interactions. This is tempered by the pithy and humorous observations the author makes about the church community, the hypocrisy, the characters she creates, and the naivety of some Jeanette’s observations. The following is an example – not long after Jeanette has started school, she reads out an essay in front of the class about what she did during the summer holidays:

‘”This holiday I went to Colwyn Bay with our church camp.”‘ The teacher nodded and smiled. ‘”It was very hot and Aunty Betty whose leg was loose anyway, got sunstroke and we thought she might die.”‘ The teacher began to look a bit worried but the class perked up. ‘”But she got better, thanks to my mother who stayed up all night struggling mightily.”‘ ‘Is your mother a nurse?’ asked the teacher with quiet sympathy. ‘No, she just heals the sick.’

There are passages in this book which are truly hilarious and it’s hard to pick out the best ones.

The level of cruelty, however, intensifies in Jeanette’s teenage years. This is the stage that her mother sees the greatest threat to the control she exercises over her daughter, and when the measures she adopts to keep her become the most extreme. Jeanette discovers she has feelings for a girl who has a Saturday job at the fish stall in the market. She contrives to spend time with her (in Bible study) but they become intimate. When this is discovered, Jeanette is forced to undergo a degrading ‘cleansing’ process, a kind of exorcism. At this stage the book becomes much darker.

Jeanette’s mother, although a frightening and unforgiveable bully, is of course a victim herself, driven to religious fanaticism, as the outlet for the frustration she has endured in her own life. Her bitterness and her need to oppress others, stems from her own anger and feelings of repression, and the author knows this. That is where I think a more feminist reading of the book can be taken. The men here are weak, pathetic, complacent, or downright creepy. The women are unfulfilled, frustrated or resigned. And it is this which has created the environment in which the promise of something more interesting and more empowering, albeit in the most dysfunctional of ways, through blind religious fervour, can thrive.

This is such a clever book, incredibly well-written, but complex. There are elements which are vaguely unsatisfying – the author tells a great story, but to some degree it is left unfinished. I found myself wanting more, wanting some answers. For me, it did fizzle out a bit at the end, but I can forgive this because the first half of the book is just glorious.

Highly recommended, but whatever preconceptions you might have about this book, set them to one side.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this book, if you have read it.

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