4 September 2012

Review 49: The Kissing Game by Aidan Chambers

"From the master storyteller, Aidan Chambers, comes a collection of Stories of Defiance - moments in life, realisations, insights and sudden revelations. Mixed with longer stories are some 'Flash Fictions' - very short but complete stories that reveal, as in a flash of light, a moment of awkward truth in the life of their characters. Prepare to be amazed, enchanted and to gasp with shock. In 'Kangaroo', a girl loses her humanity when she takes an unusual summer job. In 'The Tower', a boy rescues a girl from a fiery death, only to have her disappear. And in the unforgettable title story, a seemingly innocent game between a boy and a girl takes a horrific turn. Once again Chambers treats his readers to his intelligent prose, playfulness of form and incisive understanding of the wonderings of young people on the verge of adulthood."

It's difficult to review a book of short stories as they are obviously varied and different, these particularly so. Chambers tries a variety of different style, ideas and tones throughout the book so it is pretty much impossible to characterise the whole book in a few words. I found many of these very effective, especially the modern retellings of fairy tales and the titular The Kissing Game is particularly powerful. Some of them fell a bit short for me though and elements didn't quite feel authentic. Nonetheless, I enjoy it when authors play with language and form and I also like it when teenage authors don't patronise their readers so all in all, this is definitely a success in my book. Also, I love Aidan Chambers - I've heard him speak at several library conferences and the man is inspiring!

First Line: "Enough! She said to herself."

Why I read it/Full Disclosure: The author bought a copy of this book for me.

Who I would recommend it to: If you enjoy authors playing with what fiction is, trying new versions of old stories or just trying new things.

I don't intend to review all of the stories, I am going to pick out a few that I particularly enjoyed, or didn't rather than writing a brief overview of all 16 stories. I mentioned the modern retellings of fairy tales, and these were probably my favourites on the whole. Partly because I found some of them clever and intriguing and partly because I'm currently researching fairy tales for my MSc dissertation (and am fact discussing this book). These are not fairy tales simply set in the modern day, they are subtle stories that follow the themes of well know fairy tales, some of which took me a while even register that it was Chambers' playing with a fairy tale. My favourite was definitely The Kissing Game itself, which is a skilful and chilling perspective on Little Red Riding Hood. Now, I began to doubt that Little Red Riding Hood was what Chambers was thinking about here as I haven't found any other references to it in any reviews or articles, but I really am pretty convinced that that is the story Chambers is using as inspiration. I would love to hear from other people who had read it, if they saw the same things. I don't want to give anything away as it is such an incredibly powerful and shocking story which I thought was a really clever play on the fairy story.

I also really liked Kangaroo, a play on the less well known fairy story, Donkeyskin where a teenager gets a summer job working at a theme park in an animal costume. Again, I don't want to give it away but I would highly recommend reading the original fairy tale and then giving this a go and enjoy noticing all the little symbols and mentalities that Chambers plays around with. I like Cindy's Day Out (Cinderella) as well although I thought it lacked the subtlety of the above two - things like naming the girl Cindy just meant that it reduced the glorious moments that you experience in some of the others as you realise what fairy story is being reworked. The Tower (Rapunzel) wasn't as successful either as I felt it was a little predictably, but Chambers creates a wonderful unsettling, close atmosphere around the story that I enjoyed.

I also experienced varying degrees of enjoyment with the non-fairy tale stories which varied from mere pages to longer stories and from witty to contemplative, and sometimes being both at the same time. We have a teenager writing a letter to his headteacher explaining why he shouldn't have to take part in compulsory PE, two boys contemplating God, a teenage couple discussing a pregnant friend,  and also a final story about why Chambers wanted to be a writer. I was particularly moved by You Can Be Anything where a disabled child contemplates the message he is constantly told about being able to do anything - but all he wants is to be a tennis player, "They wouldn't lie about something as big as that?"

I found it refreshing to read a collection of short stories that is so different from so much of what is written for young adults and whilst I didn't feel that all of the stories were effective, enough of them were so powerful that I count the collection as a whole as a success.

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