How Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper made me have all sorts of Important Thoughts

I’ve already written about how Unfollow convinced me to start blogging again after a long hiatus. It’s funny how sometimes the right book hits you at the right time and sparks something in your mind. It made me Think Big Thinky Thoughts about Life, Hate, Family and Twitter. It might not press that button for for everyone but Unfollow is still a fascinating insight into what it’s like growing up in a loving family which was full of hate for the outside world.

The cover of Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper showing the Westboro Baptist Church with a god hates America banner on the front of it

For her whole life, Megan Phelps-Roper was a member of the Westboro Baptist Church – the fanatics who rejoiced after 9/11 claiming it was God’s way of punishing sinful America; the ones who picketed military funerals with signs saying Thank God for Dead Soldiers. Megan grew up with a God Hates Fags banner in her hand and later, on Twitter, became the church’s mouthpiece and online provocateur. But in 2012 she left, turning her back on the church’s message, despite knowing her family would cut her off.

When I first picked the book up I was afraid to trust Megan. Could you really grow up in a community of hate and simply let all those prejudices go? Had she really rejected all Westboro’s teachings or just chosen to leave the church after it turned on her family? There’s no doubt the latter was a factor, but as I read Megan’s slow unpicking of her belief system I was totally convinced by it.

You can raise your children to hate but it doesn’t necessarily stick

I learned quite a few surprising things from this book. Firstly that Twitter can be a kind place. We’re used to thinking of it as a shrill echo chamber or a troll’s paradise, and it’s people like Megan – or old Megan at least – who make us think that. For years she tweeted her church’s hate-filled message, dressing it up in clever banter and emojis (You’re going to hell 😀), raising hysteria and public awareness of her obscure little church in the process.

But while most people reacted with (understandable) outrage others, including Jews and members of the LGBT community, engaged patiently and kindly, gradually breaking down the rigid thinking imposed by her family until it finally fell away.

That’s the other thing I learned from the book – you can raise your children to hate, but it doesn’t necessarily stick. It’s human nature to think, to question. These days everyone seems so polarised it seems impossible that civilised debate and questioning could change someone’s mind – but in this case it did. That’s something that’s good to know.

For slow readers, the part at the beginning, where she’s still signed up to the church’s thinking might be an uncomfortable read, especially if you’re a member of one of the groups she was taught to revile or a victim of one of the church’s pickets. But I do think it’s worth reading on.

a picture of unfollow by megan phelps roper on a train table with a blue portable tea cup next to it

There are definitely still secrets at Westboro – Megan alludes to the violence of her grandfather and the temper of her mother but won’t go any further – her loyalty to her family is still tangible throughout the book even as she rejects their ‘values’. They might condemn her as a fallen woman on her path to hell but she will never let go of them.

I found the Bible verses hard going – long thee-and-thou quotes lovingly drawn from the King James Bible, which the Westboro members used to justify their hardline stance. I found myself grumpily skimming over lots of those but as I read on I came to understand why they were there. They’re not for me, or for 98 per cent of the people reading this book – they’re for her family. Because I get the feeling that the real reason Megan has written Unfollow is as an escape manual for her siblings who are still trapped in the Church’s thinking, and an explanation to her still-beloved and now estranged parents. That fact alone makes it a heartbreaking read.

Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope by Megan Phelps-Roper is out now

Why I’ve decided to keep blogging

Let’s be honest, this book blog has never really got off the ground. I make a start, do a few regular posts, then life takes over. I get a few urgent commissions, my poor neglected novel-in-progress needs attention, my entire family descends from different parts of the world wanting to catch up, my kids get ill. Of all the things in my head clamouring for attention, this blog has the smallest voice.

But the main reason I struggle to post anything is that I’ve never been sure why I’m doing it. I trained as a journalist in the 1990s and was taught in no uncertain terms to keep myself out of the story. You are not interesting, the tutors would say. Nobody needs to know what you have to say.

I was thinking of giving up, then two things happened…

And I still partly agree with that. Who needs this particular straight, white, middle-aged, middlish-class print media person yammering on about what books she likes? What’s so bloody special about my perspective?

And then there were the books themselves. Most people devote themselves to a single genre: they’re commercial fiction bloggers, sci-fi, horror, fantasy etc. I write YA fiction, but I never met a genre I didn’t like. I read pretty much everything so I’m never going to find a niche of loyal followers anywhere.

Another problem is that I’m chronically agnostic. I’m all about the shades of grey. I can see good things in the books I hate, and all the flaws in the books I love. “Ooh, nothing’s more entertaining than equivocation…” said no-one ever. I’m hardly about to set the world on fire, so why bother?

Last of all is the amount of hard work it takes to build a following. People post and post and shout and shout about their blogs which leads me back to my original point about not wanting to foist my opinions on other people.*

So recently I’ve been thinking of quietly winding the whole thing up. Then two things happened.

cover image of Unfollow a journey from hatred to h ope, leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by megan Phelps-Roper

First, I read Unfollow, by Megan Phelps-Roper – the story of how a girl was raised in the fanatical Westboro Baptist Church, had been holding horrible God Hates Fags signs since she could walk, but somehow got up the courage to leave the church, her family and the life she’d known because she realised what she was doing was wrong. (Review to come later once I’ve got this post out of my system.)

At the end of her book, she speaks about how often she sees the symptoms of Westboro mindset in the wider world – polarisation, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias. I completely understood what she meant – we might not all be holding offensive signs but many of us stubbornly cling to our beliefs in the face of opposition. And books are a great way of unlocking a closed mind, getting you to see things from another perspective. As a sheltered suburban teen Tales of The City gave me an insight into LGBT life I wouldn’t have otherwise had. More recently The Hate U Give put me in the centre of #BlackLivesMatter in the way a news report never could.

About an hour after I finished reading Unfollow, an author friend on social media made a throwaway comment which went something like: because of the Internet people expect to get words for free now. Soon nobody will buy books which means nobody will be able to write them.

Having just finished reading a book which had made me think a LOT, I suddenly had this desire to champion books, to never let them die. And that if I am a privileged white middleish class media person (most of the time I look at my overdraft and don’t feel privileged at all, but that’s another post…) then I should add whatever privilege I have to speak up for life changing books, biographies that open your eyes, stories that keep you up all night, novels that take you to new worlds or make you feel like you’re not alone in yours.

There’s a brilliant, vibrant community of book bloggers out there championing the books they care about. Why shouldn’t I join in?

meme stating I don't believe in much, but I do believe in books

As I write this the editor in me is already saying that none of this is news, all this has been written before. I think there was even an episode of Doctor Who about it. But clearly it needs to be said again and again and again. More and more loudly, by more and more people.

So here’s the deal. I’m not going to post several times a week, I’m not going to blog about every single book that I read but if I read something that I love, or that sweeps me away or made me think, I’m going to talk about it on here. Three or four people might even read it. One of you might even leave a comment (thanks Mum!)

So, for now, and until lame excuses take over again, I’m in. I really hope I can write something that helps make a difference.

*NB: I cringed the whole time I wrote this. Still cringing now.

Book review: The Girl Who Came Out of the Woods by Emily Barr

the girl who came out of the woods postcardFor the first sixteen years of her life, Arty lives in paradise. She, her parents and a group of idealists have built a small community in a clearing in the middle of the Indian forest. It’s not an easy life but it’s a happy one – a matriarchal society where every community member is a god or goddess, decisions are made by consensus and her biggest worry is whether the monkeys are going to steal their food.

However one night everything goes horrifically wrong and Arty finds herself stumbling out of the trees into the 21st Century, to a world she has been taught to fear. Her old life is gone forever – but can she make a new one in this crazy place of money, Bollywood, ice cream and Instagram?

Can she make a new life in this crazy place of money, Bollywood, ice cream and Instagram?

Lonely and traumatised, faced with a family she’s never met – some of whom have secrets of their own – Arty needs to figure out who she can trust and who to fear – not an easy task when her mother’s last advice to her was “don’t go into the basement.”

Not everybody in the outside world has Arty’s best interests at heart.

I’m already a fan of Emily Barr’s, but I grabbed this one with extra enthusiasm because I love a cult – any story about a group of people trying to break away from society and think differently always fascinates me. This one’s a bit different though – in most books the cult becomes twisted, dominated by poisonous groupthink and manipulation. But in this story it’s the outside world which is a dark and terrifying place and the “cult” could teach us a thing or two about getting along.

There’s so many elements to this book it’s difficult to classify. It’s a thriller, full of thrillery tricks and twists and darkness. It’s a novel about travel and adventure. It’s also a coming-of-age story with a vein of wry humour running throughout, along with a sense of wonder and hope for the future. Each of Emily Barr’s books is stronger than the last and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

The Girl Who Came Out Of The Woods is out now

Cover of the girl who came out of the woods

Two other books about cults or isolated religious communities…

Laurie and Martha are a power couple with the world at their feet – but Laurie is still traumatised by the years she spent in the clutches of a controlling religious sect and when it gets too much she holes up in a tiny, secret room in their house. Then a man from her past appears and begins manipulating her teenage daughter. The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy uses the minutiae of everyday life and the horrors of the cult to create a tense, atmospheric story.

Educated is Tara Westover’s gorgeously written memoir of her strict, religious upbringing in the remote countryside and it’s absolutely fascinating. School was banned, traditional medicine was forbidden, the End of Days was always around the corner and violence was an everyday occurrence. As she grows up Tara faces a choice – remain loyal to her father despite growing doubts about his views or educate herself and alienate the family she loves.

And two I can’t wait to read…

The Rapture by Claire McGlasson is a debut novel about a “terribly English cult” called The Panacea Society – devoted member Dilys strikes up a friendship with new recruit Grace, but as their leader’s zealotry increases their faith, and the community, begins to fall apart… Out 6 June 2019

Crime writer Alex Marwood has long been fascinated by cults, narcissistic leaders and groupthink and her book The Poison Garden tells the story of Romy who escaped a toxic cult and, like Emily Barr’s Arty, doesn’t know who to trust in the outside world. Although if I know my Marwood, this story is going to get very, very dark… Out 25 July 2019

Book review: Haunted by Ghost Wall

cover of Ghost Wall by Sarah MossOver a thousand years ago out in the Northumberland countryside a girl was sacrificed: kicked, beaten, tortured and finally buried in the bog by her family, her friends and the people she had grown up with. How could a community turn on someone like that, and why?

This eerie scene leads us into Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – and the presence of the Bog Girl haunts every page, even as we jump forward into the 1990s.

Why anyone would voluntarily live an Iron Age life is a mystery but a small group of enthusiasts is spending the summer doing just that, camped out on the moors hunting and gathering. The Professor and his students are doing it in the name of research, Silvie’s amateur history-buff father Bill does it to fuel his obsession with the Iron Age and Silvie and her mother are doing it because they do whatever Bill tells them or they’ll pay the price.

Bill dominates his family, just as he believes a prehistoric patriarch would and as the little community divides and violent undercurrents emerge, Silvie is torn between loyalty to him and the growing need to break free.

Every word has been carefully chosen

The unnerving link between Silvie and the Bog Girl adds a darkness and sense of anticipation which pulls the reader deep into the story. Sarah Moss’ lyrical writing is silky smooth – the novel is short and every word has been carefully chosen. The lack of quotation marks can make the dialogue a bit difficult to follow, though.

Despite the blurb this isn’t a twisty thriller or a horror novel. Instead it’s punching at bigger themes: domestic abuse, teenage identity and even class issues (part of Bill’s rage springs from resentment – as a working class man he’s patronised and has never been free to pursue his passion for history.)

But at the centre of this book is a bigger question. How many steps away are we from the kind of savagery and superstition which killed Bog Girl? And will Silvie follow in her muddy footsteps, thousands of years after? A disturbing, offbeat and haunting story.

Ghost Wall is out now.

Twisted fairy tales: The Hazel Wood and beyond

If you’ve ever read real fairy tales, you’ll know the concept of a fairytale ending is far from perfect. Before Disney got his sugar-coated hands on them, they were dark, stark teaching tales – some of them with an obvious moral, others simply twisted stories that people passed around at night to scare the petticoats off each other.

page from a fairy tale book illustrating rapunzel including a picture of a witch and tangled treesBluebeard’s chamber was full of the corpses of his former wives, characters are blinded, torn apart by wild animals. It’s worse of course if you’re the stepmother. You could be tricked into eating the minced-up body of your own daughter, rolled down a hill in a barrel lined with nails or, if you were foolish enough to be cruel to Snow White, you could end up with your feet being forced into red-hot iron shoes and dancing yourself to death.

Nope, real fairy tales – not so nice.pages from a fairytale book pictures of two giants on the rampage

Over the years many authors have drawn inspiration from this fairytale darkness, but Melissa Albert takes it to a new level. Her novel, The Hazel Wood, manages to out-grim the Brothers Grimm.

Seventeen-year-old Alice spent her life on the run across America with her wonderful but erratic mother, who was always bundling her into the car and hitting the road at the first sign of trouble. It’s no wonder that she becomes obsessed with her rich, eccentric grandmother, Althea Prosperine.

The Hazel Wood manages to out-grim the Brothers Grimm

Althea’s book of fairytales became a cult hit in the postwar years, enabling her to buy a huge estate north of New York, called The Hazel Wood. She since became a recluse, and her book mysteriously vanished from shelves which only feeds Alice’s fascination.

Then Alice’s mother is kidnapped and Alice herself begins to realise that the frighteningimage of a fairytale book open at an illustration of the wild swans creatures from her grandmother’s tales might not be fictitious after all.

The Hazel Wood’s strength is that Melissa Albert has weaved a whole host of new tales rather than relying on the ones we grew up with, so they feel oddly familiar but warped and twisted. Some of the stories are woven into the book, but others are just alluded to, with horrific names such as Twice Killed Katherine.

I’d like to have read more of the actual fairytales themselves, although it could be the author decided to keep us in the dark to add to that sense of the unknown. Perhaps there’ll be a spin-off volume later, JK Rowling style.

Cover of The Hazel Wood by Melissa AlbertIt’s a hugely accomplished book for a debut author, beautifully written and atmospheric. The heroine is tough, scrappy and flawed – although her anger issues are more talked-about than experienced, it would have been fun to explore them more. I had a bit of a crush on her sidekick, Ellery Finch. I’m not at all surprised that the film rights have been sold already.

After finishing The Hazel Wood I immediately went to my fairy tale shelf (yes, I have one) and dipped into The Annotated Brothers Grimm, edited by the incredibly knowledgeable Maria Tatar. Re-reading Tatar’s matter-of-fact tone and footnotes, plus ominous titles such as The Hand With The Knife, the link with The Hazel Wood is clear to see. Pick up a copy of both and dive in… Just don’t read them to your children.

The Hazel Wood is out now

The images are from my 1970s volume of Classic Fairy Tales, which is what started this whole thing for me in the first place.

Book review: The Truth And Lies of Ella Black

the truth and lies of ella black by emily barrElla Black is a good girl, to the point of boring. She studies hard, she keeps her head down and the craziest thing she’s ever done is dye her hair purple. But the reason she’s so good is that she has an alter-ego – the violent, destructive Bella. The first time Bella makes an appearance she does something so shocking I almost dropped the book and it’s clear why Ella needs to keep on the straight and narrow and keep Bella under control.

But then one day her parents collect her from school early and, without explaining why, fly her to Rio de Janeiro. There Ella learns the truth about herself – a truth which unleashes Bella in all her crazed glory and that means her safe, comfortable life has gone forever…

That’s the setup for The Truth And Lies of Ella Black, by Emily Barr – who specialises in weaving travel and exotic locations into gripping plots. This is her second novel for young adults (I also loved The One Memory Of Flora Banks last year) and I know fans are going to love it.

Teenage me loves Ella’s longing for adventure… adult me loves the dark suspense

Whenever I read a YA novel there are actually two people reading. There’s me – the not-so-young adult writer and book fanatic, and then there’s teenage me holed up in my pretentious looking bedroom waiting for the day when something will happen to change my life forever too.

teenage me sitting at my desk with lots of books in the background and my pet dog jack photobombing me

Teen me in my bookish bedroom being photobombed by my collie, Jack.

Most of the time the books I love now aren’t the same as the books I loved then. I never wanted to read about girls like me, going to school and worrying about friendships and boys – I had enough of that in my day to day life. I wanted fairytale romance and pure escapism. These days I like my stories grittier, my characters more flawed. But Ella Black appeals to both versions of me.

What Emily Barr does so well is create a sense of escapism – for teens desperate to explore the world her description of the beaches, streets and favelas of Rio is compelling and addictive – like Ella you want to find out what’s around the corner. Teenage me loves Ella and identifies with her longing for adventure – adult me loves the dark suspense over what Bella will do next and the slow creeping realisation of what her secret really is. All of me wants to book a ticket to Brazil, like, RIGHT NOW.

It’s a thriller, a coming of age novel with a splash of South American colour a slice of romance and added zombie parades. Teenagers of all ages will long to dive in.

The Truth And Lies of Ella Black by Emily Barr is out now

Book review: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober

Around three years ago, my former colleague and friend Catherine Gray told me that she was a recovering alcoholic. For about two seconds I couldn’t have been more surprised – and then our whole history suddenly fell into place and I went ohhhh…

It explained why, after working like mad to build a career she clearly loved, she started Cover image of the unexpected joy of being sober by Catherine Grayrolling in late and taking Mondays off sick. It explained all the mysterious bumps and bruises and injuries. It explained why the features team used the words “totally Cathed” as a euphemism for steaming drunk. And now I understood why, on our way out of a work Christmas party, I’d had to stop Cath jumping into a limo full of men on a stag.

It also showed me something else – how easy it is to ignore something that’s going on right under your nose, and how ill-equipped the modern working world is to deal with it. And if I’d known, what could I have done? “Nothing,” Cath told me – and of course she was right. When someone wants to drink it takes more than a concerned boss to stop them.

What eventually did stop Cath was her own decision and the sheer strength of mind to follow it through – after a lot of false starts and endless soul searching she found her own personal way to get sober and did it. I’m in awe of her for this achievement – but even more so because she’s shared it in a book: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober.

The adventures don’t stop after she quits – they just change

I’m not usually a big fan of sober-lit – so many rehab memoirs focus on fabulous drinking stories until we’re actually a bit disappointed when they quit. But this one is different: Yes, there’s a fair few celebrity snogs and drinking den adventures but she also shares the process she went through. The times she tried and failed, the things which worked for her, the things which didn’t. Like a good magazine journalist she pulls in statistics and facts to support her argument. And she does a great sales job on the sheer joy of sobriety that waits on the other side.

Because Cath’s argument is that life just gets better and better after you stop drinking. That it’s worth going to bed at 1am if you’re up in time for a hangover-free sunrise. The adventures don’t stop after she quits – they just change. She travels, she makes friends and discovers new things about herself. The sheer joy of her life shines through in her writing, in an honest and totally non-preachy way. It’s also entertaining – even when she’s describing her lowest ebb she does it with wit and humour and without any anger or frustration.

When someone you know writes a memoir, the first thing you do is check out any references to yourself*. The second thing you do is agonise over whether that ambiguous statement in chapter 42 was actually about you and whether, if that is the case, you should apologise. The third thing is to feel an odd sense of pride that a person you know has clawed into the depths of their own experience and created something wonderful and life affirming out of it. And, even though you’re not their mother, and nor did you actually help with the book in any way, you still feel curiously proud to know them.

The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober is out now

Follow Cath on Twitter @cathgraywrites

*My wedding was in it! Luckily it’s the one she enjoys. She and her friend were pretty much the life and soul of the party.

Tales of a book reviewer

I’ve just finished a nine month stint reviewing books for Good Housekeeping. Their Huge bookshelf stuffed with booksBookshelf page is one of the most densely populated ones in monthly magazines – around 15 slots to fill each month and, because obviously not every book makes the cut, you have to dip into considerably more than that.

Some months it was a struggle – I was speed-reading into the night, getting to the end of yet another wannabe Gone Girl and groaning when I realised that the twist at the end was just too stupid. Finishing a review only to find the publication date had changed and I had five hours to find a replacement for the page. Or realising that a novel didn’t live up to the hype surrounding it.

But most of the time it was brilliant. Receiving a pile of review copies in the post never got old – although my postman may have aged prematurely. Attending book launches and chatting with fellow book buffs online made me feel part of a wonderful community.

The process of sorting through a week's #bookpost

The process of sorting through a week’s #bookpost

But the best thing about the job was being surprised. There are plenty of books I expected to love and did love, but nothing beats the feeling of picking something up without any particular expectations and then suddenly feeling a deep connection with it. Here are some which really took me aback:

 

 

In Shock by Dr Rana Awdish We’ve had medic-turned-patient memoirs before, like the amazing When Breath Becomes Air, but the urgency and pace of this really grabbed me. And she has such fascinating thoughts on the doctor-patient relationship and where communication goes wrong.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson – I generally avoid anything which feels a bit hypey. All those books about how great French women are, others urging me to get hygge or live lagom… But the author is so wise and charming. She’s aged “somewhere between the age of eighty and a hundred” and I fell in love with her warm, wry and understated tone.

When will I learn never to rule out entire authors or genres?

The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain – she’s a big best-seller but I had her down firmly in my head as “not my thing.” Silly me, when will I learn never to rule out entire authors or genres? I had a really good time reading this one and the direction of the story surprised me.

And that’s the best thing about my time reviewing for GH – stretching my reading boundaries. When you have small children days and weeks pass without reading anything at all, but this forced me to read – without procrastinating or rejecting a book because I wasn’t in the mood for a particular genre. I tore through romantic fiction, speculative fiction, literary fiction, sagas, bestsellers, poetry, bonkbusters… anything. My brain has been jump-started, my writing has improved (honest!) and now my reviewing time is up (their wonderful books ed is back from maternity leave) I’m planning to keep going and going. Watch this space.

Book review: The Diabolic by SJ Kincaid

I got to a point over the summer when I had complete thriller fatigue. Heavily pregnant, unable to move and beset by life’s realities (Ohgodogodohgod how was I going to cope with TWO CHILDREN?) The last thing I wanted was a dark twisted domestic drama. I wanted total escapism. And that’s how I ended up reading Diabolic in the delivery suite.

It’s set in space, a fantastical future in which the stars have been colonised using great leaps forward in technology – but the ruling class has since turned away from innovation towards religion, locking themselves away from danger in ancient, luxurious space stations.

Nemesis is a diabolic, a sub human, genetically engineered and bonded to a little rich girl named Sidonia, designed to defend her with as much savagery as necessary.

Good sci-fi should be entertaining escapism but still say something about the world we live in

And she is pretty savage – one minor character gets dispatched without so much as a shrug. She is strong, sharp and completely unapologetic – killing is in her nature. As diabolics have been banned by the Emperor who rules over their part of space, she shouldn’t even be alive at all but she finds herself at the heart of imperial politics, a world even more casually vicious than she is.

As the blunt instrument that is Nemesis learns to fit into a far more subtle world, the character’s growth is convincing and enjoyable, and the author has great world-building skills – a must for any sci-fi writer. The book also benefits from being a standalone rather than the first of a trilogy – the plotting is tight, the action beautifully timed and there’s no padding – although it would have been nice to have more detail about the world outside the imperial upper-class bubble.

Diabolic packshot NAVYGood sci-fi should be entertaining escapism but still say something about the world we live in now, and the message here is a warning about equality, fundamentalism and not burying our heads in the sand and avoiding reality (which, ahem, was exactly what I was trying to do.) So while I was looking for a complete break from reality I actually ended up with food for thought, which is just as it should be.

And the baby? Just under 8lb of non-diabolical cuteness. A whole new plot to be written.

The Diabolic by SJ Kincaid is out now
Diabolic packshot white

Book review: Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend

I would defy anyone to get a copy of Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend through the post and not think: this has to be some kind of joke.

After all, the world of YA semi-mythical romantic fiction has been aching for a good parody for some time. What started with sexy vampires went onto encompass fairies, gods and strangely attractive trolls until pretty much any mythical beast you can think of started turning up at high schools across America, trying to blend in and falling for clumsy innocents along the way.

Add to that the sub genre of cross-species erotica which had a little moment last year – Taken by the T-Rex, Ravished by the Raptor, and the many, many works of Chuck Tingle – and you’ve got the recipe for a pretty funny send-up.

The problem with books like that is that the joke wears thin by page 35 and starts to feel like a waste of your valuable reading time. But something about the blurb on this one made me want to pick it up, and after the first few chapters I started wondering, where the hell is he going with this?

Because HPtB isn’t a joke book – author Alan Cumyn (his actual name) is perfectly serious.

Well, semi-serious.

Well, he keeps a straight face.

So the plot: Sheils Krane is a control freak, the student body president at her high school who has everything under control – the

Author Alan Cumyn is serious. Well, semi serious.

Principal, her grades and her obedient but not-very-exciting boyfriend Sheldon. Then Pyke, the world’s first Pterodactyl high school student lands on the school running track and suddenly everything changes.

This is HUGE, right? A freaking pterodactyl! Where does he come from? How is it that he has the torso of a human being? Why the hell does he need a high school education? And why does Shiels’ nose turn purple after dancing with him? Don’t think you’re going to get an answer to these questions, Cumyn doesn’t bother. You just have to go with it.

hptbAnd that is what Shiels learns she has to do too as her attraction to Pyke pulls apart everything she thinks she knows about herself and forces her to ask herself what she really wants out of life.

And that’s the thing about this story. Rampant dino aside, it reflects many of the pressures on teens today: that tightrope walk between staying focused on your future – grades, college – and letting go and enjoying the crazy, intense, hormone-raging high of being young.

What isn’t there – thankfully – is the appearance-obsession you see in so many High School YA books. Sheils takes up running (initially) to compete with her love rival but she doesn’t measure the circumference of her thighs or bemoan her freckles/untameble hair/tendency to blush. It actually doesn’t matter what Shiels looks like – although there are many lyrical descriptions of Pyke’s ripped (and mysteriously furry) abs. And the scene where Pyke is in bed and there may or may not be an extra lump sticking up under the blanket made me laugh out loud.

I found it tough going sometimes – some of the sentence construction made it a bit of a tricky read and the style is a bit repetitive. Still. I stuck with it out of sheer fascination – I just wanted to know where the hell he was going with this story, and the result was pretty intriguing.dino1

So, as an offbeat YA treat Cumyn pulls it off – after a fashion. I see this one being a cult hit – I don’t see a movie starring Vanessa Hudgens as Shiels, but frankly that’s a bit of a relief.

Are we seeing the spawning of a new hot-dino-romance genre? Maybe not, but there’s definitely room for this kind of weirdness on my bookshelf.

Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend by Alan Cumyn is out now.