Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What We're Reading: Realistic Fiction

I just read an ARC (advance reader copy) that I picked up when we went to the American Library Association (ALA) convention in June. It's called My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, and it's a debut novel by British writer Annabel Pitcher. Here is the opening paragraph:
My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and her kneecap are buried in a graveyard in London. Mum and Dad had a big argument when the police found ten bits of her body. Mum wanted a grave that she could visit. Dad wanted a cremation and to sprinkle the ashes in the sea. That’s what Jasmine told me anyway. She remembers more than I do. I was only five when it happened. Jasmine was ten. She was Rose’s twin. Still is, according to Mum and Dad. They dressed Jas the same for years after the funeral – flowery dresses, cardigans, those flat shoes with buckles that Rose used to love. I reckon that’s why Mum ran off with the man from the support group seventy-one days ago. When Jas cut off all her hair, dyed it pink and got her nose pierced on her fifteenth birthday, she didn’t look like Rose any more and my parents couldn’t hack it.
This book is kind of an odd one, as young adult fiction goes, because the narrator, Jamie (for James), is 10 years old. But the sister in the title would have been 15, if she had lived, and the remaining sister, Jasmine, represents for teens in the book. The story is all Jamie's, however, told in first person from his naive but observant grammar school perspective.

This is not a happy story, but it is a hopeful story. I'm not talking about all the things Jamie hopes for, which are the typical things a 10-year-old in this situation would want--that his mother come back, that his father quit drinking, that both his parents quit dwelling on the sister who is gone and pay attention to himself and his sister, who are left feeling invisible while the parents mourn, fight, leave, act out, and wallow in their grief after "it" happens to Rose. Those are Jamie's big hopes. His smaller hope is that he can find a friend and maybe fit into his new school in his new neighborhood in the Lake District, where his father has moved the family for a new beginning. This may be a more manageable hope, but Jamie isn't holding his breath. He has found one person who wants to be his friend--but if his father knew who it was, Jamie would be in big trouble. The hopefulness to which I refer is that people, if confronted with their shortcomings, can sometimes rally and get things right, and that is the hope that runs throughout this novel, unlikely though it sometimes seems.

The author has gotten the voice of a 10-year-old boy down, and she makes you feel what he feels and live in his head as he tries to make sense out of his situation. I really like how she unfolds the story from the sometimes self-obsessed, slightly weird mindset of this kid. I also liked the cover of the ARC (above)--it is quirky, like the title--but I'm not sure it's the one that will actually be released. The cover in Britain (left), where the book came out almost a year ago, was slightly different, and there is also this cover (above right), which seems to be the final, judging by what I see online. It works too, but I think the ARC cover (the top one) would have been more appealing to teens (if that was the goal). Also, Jamie's secret (about which he is presumably doing the shushing pictured on the cover) is a big part of the book but not the central theme, so this cover feels misleading to me.

The author's website includes some advice for aspiring writers, plus a trailer for the book. She used to be a school teacher, which probably explains how she knows how a 10-year-old boy thinks.

The book released here in the States in August, and is currently on order for the Central library collection. Put it on your "to-read" list and look for it this month!

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