14 January 2011

2. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Whilst my journey through Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety is ongoing, I have read this book. It has just been announced on the Waterstones Childrens Book Prize shortlist. (This may be a theme in my reading over the next week or so as I need to read them for work!) It won the Newbery Medal and the New York Times Notable Book award last year but I hadn't heard of the book or of the author.

To being with: I read it in one day which says a lot. Whilst it is not a long book, or a challenging read, it is gripping and wonderfully written. The twelve year old protagonist, Miranda, lives with her Mum in New York and one day starts receiving notes which reveal things that no-one should know. Miranda explains at the start of the book that she is writing a letter which the notes have asked her to write and that is all we know to begin with. Miranda describes her family, her friends, her school and the strange homeless man that lives on the corner near their apartment in an appealing, sympathetic voice and in very short chapters. Her Mum is preparing for an appearance on a TV gameshow, her friend Sal gets punched in the stomach by an older boy, she makes friends with an epileptic girl, she gets a job in her school lunch hour and other seemingly unrelated elements of a 12 year old girls life.

The difficulty in writing a good book review is trying to express what you liked or disliked about a novel without revealing too much about the plot. Blurbs on the back of books often fail because they either give away too much or don't really talk about the actual plot of the book in an effort not to spoil it. I am wary of giving away too much but the ending and the twist send literal shivers down my arm. Clever, unexpected, internally consistent (i.e. you could go back and read the novel again and it would make sense - I hate it when you reread a book and knowing the ending the book doesn't gel properly) and basically just beautifully conceived - the best kind of twist.

My only criticism is that the book is set in 1979 and there seems to be no real reason for this. I kept picturing it in the modern day and then getting confused when it referenced the year (which it does only infrequently). The setting doesn't really seem to factor into anything that happens except perhaps a small incident where a classmate is not allowed in a shop because she is black - but this incident equally does not really factor into the plot and doesn't really add anything to the story in my eyes. It doesn't detract from the novel though, rather just seems an unnecessary element.

It's a great novel and a massively successful young adult novel which is it's target audience, after all. I am looking forward to recommending it to students at school. Clever but not too complicated, easy to read but not patronising - it's pitched perfectly for it's audience.

When You Reach Me is a magical, engrossing book that will be enjoyed by young adults and older adults alike - engaging characters, a bit of mystery and a clever and satisfying ending.

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