Sunday, 30 September 2012

Catching Fire

Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins
London, Scholastic, 2009, 472p

So, book two had to be read. I barely put down the first one before I picked up Catching Fire. And it didn't take me long to plough through this one.

I am starting to notice some themes and elements of repetition as I read more of Collins' work. For example, all the sci-fi scenes with the hovercrafts and the Training Centre are very reminiscent of Resident Evil, when Alice wakes up at the end of the first movie in the Umbrella labs. Also, although I haven't seen / read Twilight, I feel like the Katniss - Peeta - Gale love triangle is very similar to the romantic elements in Stephanie Meyer's novels. 

There were some areas of this novel that I was expecting more from - overall, it felt a little rushed. The opening scenes with the Victory Tour seemed to be written into just a few pages, whereas I felt the build up implied that the Tour would take up a considerable amount of the plot. Also, the training scenes seemed a wee bit short, though Collins did well to develop the tributes in the arena instead. Whilst reading it, even the ending seemed to happen too fast, but with hindsight, that was incredibly effective, making me want to get on to the next book as soon as possible.

I'm starting to find Katniss a bit grating. I find her to be a bit slow on the uptake - which was a interesting character trait to begin with, as Collins used her lack of trust of others to make the reader doubt everyone. But in the second of this series, I feel like Katniss should be more intelligent and be able to work out who to trust through Haymitch's hints. 

Time to see what the final book has to offer...

    Saturday, 29 September 2012

    Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

    Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
    J K Rowling
    London, Bloomsbury, 1999, 251p

    So you might think that I should start with the Philosophers Stone if I am going to write a post about Harry Potter. Well you were wrong. Chamber of Secrets is better. 

    This maybe be partly due to the regular visits Hermione makes to the library through this book. As Ron says,
    "That's what Hermione does. When in doubt, go to the library."
     The characters start in a book shop, where Gilderoy Lockhart is signing books, and proceed to make excessive use of the library in order to find out more about the Chamber. My only issue with Rowling's writing is that she doesn't seem capable of imagining a friendly, welcoming librarian. 

    What I loved most about this book is Tom Riddle. It's equally fascinating and terrifying to meet the childhood version of You Know Who. This character is someone who Rowling comes back to in the later novels, but I prefer him in Chamber of Secrets before you know who he is. Riddle seems like a fairly normal boy, making it all the more incredible that he becomes Harry's greatest enemy. 

    I also adore Gilderoy Lockhart. He is hilarious. Completely deluded and self-centred, but utterly charming. We all know someone like this. 

    I don't think anyone can doubt that Chamber of Secrets is the best of the Harry Potter series. It has everything: the introduction of Dobby, the Weasley's home at the Burrow, Diagon Alley, the Whomping Willow, ghosts, quidditch, potions, giant spiders and angry snakes, and most importantly of all, a showdown against Voldemort in an underground lair. 

    Friday, 28 September 2012

    Horrible Histories: Oxford

    Horrible Histories Oxford
    Terry Deary, ill. Martin Brown
    London, Scholastic, 2007, 96p

    I felt it was time to review some non-fiction. Although not my usual choice of leisure reading, Horrible Histories have always been entertaining, and I hoped I might learn something new about my new home town.

    I knew bits and bobs about the city's history already - particular elements about the Danish settlers and the development of the university. What I didn't realise was how many times the university students had conflicted with the townspeople. I guess it still happens today - when a university pops up, the locals hold a grudge against the incoming students. But today, it doesn't usually end in deaths. 

    And there is a lot of death in this book. There is information about Catholics burned at the stake, all sorts of animals turned into meals, and ghost stories.

    Right in the middle of the book is a map of the city, with a little guide to where to visit. Most of it I know by now, as people tend to offer me the same city highlights over and over again. 

    But I think it's perfect for the kids. This guide to Oxford gives them the chance to learn about where this city has come from and to claim their home town as their own.

    Thursday, 27 September 2012

    The Hunger Games

    The Hunger Games
    Suzanne Collins
    London, Scholastic, 2009, 454p

    Wow. That is all. Wow.

    Of course, I had heard all the hype about The Hunger Games books. Children, parents, and friends of mine in their twenties swooned over the writing, the plot, the characterisation. I had let it wash over me, vowing to read it "one day". 

    Yesterday, that day came. It took me less than one day to read. It has been a really long time since I have stayed up through most of the night to read a book, but this book... I held my breath in suspense, I cried in despair, and I couldn't stop. It was clever, challenging, and drew me right in to the futuristic dictatorship in which Katniss and Peeta live. 

    Collin's language is irresistible. She writes smoothly and convincingly, making the book hard to put down. She doesn't explain everything straight away, but drops hints and leaves you asking for more. At the end, for example, I had no choice but to immediately pick up the next book.

    The world of District 12, the Capitol and the arena are eerily close to contemporary reality, but Collins distances the reader from it by telling us it's the future of America. It's a sort of warning about modern society, and where we could end up - repressed, poverty stricken, and forced to offer one girl and one boy every year as part of a murderous form of reality TV.

    The level of violence was pretty excessive - I'm intrigued to see how that has played out in the film adaptation. But it also felt necessary, in order to explicitly demonstrate the dangers of Capitol rule. 

    At the end of this edition is a short interview in which Collins explains her inspiration and motivation behind The Hunger Games. She says
    "it wasn't enough to visit a battlefield; we needed to know why the battle occurred, how it played out, and the consequences."
    The first in this trilogy portrays how the battle played out. From reading the blurb of book two, Catching Fire is about the consequences. There have been hints about why the battle occurred, but I can only pray the rest of the trilogy explains all.

    Tuesday, 25 September 2012

    How to Train your Dragon

    How to Train your Dragon
    Cressida Cowell
    London, Hodder, 2003, 224p

    If a book contains dragons, vikings and ridiculous character names (Snotlout and Fishlegs being my personal favourites), you are pretty much on to a winner.

    I am ashamed to say that I only found out about How to Train your Dragon following the release of the film. But I have stuck by my rule - I do not allow myself to see the film until I have read the book. 

    But I was very impressed by the detail of Cowell's story. Things like the profiles of viking dragons, including their colours, hunting ability and fear factor - just like top trumps. The illustrations looked like they had been drawn by Hiccup himself, and there were little blobs of ink marking the pages. But most of all, I loved the fact that, when angry, the characters would yell, "In Thor's name!". 

    Hiccup's story is a great zero to hero tale. The poor little viking has a big heart and is incredibly intelligent (he can speak Dragonese), but is down on his luck when it comes to more traditional viking traits, such as strength. Fortunately, Hiccup's internal strength shone through - his kindness and hard-work allowing him to come to the rescue and become Hiccup the Hero. 

    Cowell has created a really wonderful tale of morality. She disguises it under a plot full of magic and action - there is really something special about the way in which she writes. But beneath layers of heroism lies the truth - it's what is inside that counts.

    Sunday, 23 September 2012

    Lark Rise to Candleford

    Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, Candleford Green
    Flora Thompson
    Bungay, Suffolk, Richard Clay & Co, 1948, 512p

    In moving from South Yorkshire to Oxford, I felt I needed something to ease me through the transition. And what better than a fin de siecle classic set in rural Oxforshire?!

    The Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy is the semi-autobiographical tale of Laura, describing her journey from her childhood in a rural hamlet to her teenage years in a nearby village. Thompson goes into minute detail about all aspects of life - the novel begins as a broader exploration of the people, but slowly focuses in upon Laura's family. 

    The beginning of the novel is very general, as Thompson talks about everyday life in Lark Rise. She dedicates chapters to the school system, the work of the village men, and local gossip. Her descriptions of the countryside were incredible, making me want to get right out there and enjoy my new surroundings. The way in which the reader is drawn right into the lives of the characters  is incredible. First, Thompson talks generally about a certain village tradition, like rules regarding callers - when to expect visitors, whom to expect, and when to reciprocate. In this way, the story is not very plot based, nor does it focus upon character development. Yet the intricacy of the anecdotes makes it difficult to put down.

    Occasionally, Thompson takes you right into a specific example, usually one in Laura's experience; documenting a particular episode of entertainment. This is how we get to know Laura - her experiences are often drawn upon to demonstrate certain village rules and expectations. Throughout the book, there is a more dedicated focus upon Laura's life, so that when she moves to the nearby village of Candleford, we go with her. She becomes assistant to the post mistress, and learns about life outside the comfort of the parental home. 

    A particular aspect of Thompson's novel that I thoroughly enjoyed was her exploration of the new century. She seems very preoccupied with change - villages are getting bigger, democracy is developing, and social rules are no longer so stiff. Thompson seems open minded, but it is clear that not everyone felt the same way. As such, Lark Rise is almost a social history novel - a documentation of life at the turn of the century in rural Oxfordshire. And as someone who is currently living through a lot of changes, it was comforting to know that I'm not alone.

    Thursday, 20 September 2012

    The Messenger Bird

    The Messenger Bird
    Ruth Eastman
    London, Scholastic, 2012, 245p

    This was another of my Book Buzz books, sent by the Book Trust for the new Year 7s. The Book Buzz collection offers a variety of texts, from short reads to challenging novels. This book was somewhere in the middle, but the plot was incredible.

    The Messenger Bird is full of secrets and codes and drama. Nathan and his friends race against time to save his dad from being prosecuted as a terrorist. They must follow a 70 year old trail around Bletchley Park in order to find the evidence to exonerate Nat's father. They are told to trust no one. They can't even comfort his mother and sister, by telling them about the trail. 

    Nat's story is mirrored by the story of Lily Kenley, who was a code-breaker at Bletchley Park. Eastman draws on the conspiracy theory around the 1940 bombing of Coventry - some suspect that Churchill knew in advance about the bombing, but did not warn the people of Coventry in order to protect the Enigma code-breaking mission. 

    In The Messenger Bird, Lily's father lived in Coventry, and she wanted solid evidence to convince him to evacuate. Just as Nat must save his father, Lily needs to save hers. 

    Nat follows the trail left by Lily whilst trying to save her father. Lily leaves codes for Nat to break - Nat and his friends must think literally and laterally, and so must the reader. The book is written incredibly well, so that the reader feels involved in the secret, and wants to break the codes just as much as Nat does. I found myself competing with Nat to see if I could work out where the clues led before he did. 

    I found this story a easy read, and incredibly gripping. I already had a little knowledge of Bletchley Park and the history of Coventry, but this story intrigued me to try and learn more. I hope it has the same effect upon its target audience, pushing them to become engaged in history through fact-based drama.

    Tuesday, 18 September 2012

    The Graveyard Book

    The Graveyard Book
    Neil Gaiman
    London, Bloomsbury, 2008, 289p

    So it had to be done. I had to write a entry about The Graveyard Book.

    Full disclosure: I am a little bit in love with Neil Gaiman. Not only does he write great fiction, but he's a lover of libraries! Double win.

    The Graveyard Book is about the life of Nobody Owens (aka Bod, a name that a friend of mine is hoping to use for her children, somehow), who is adopted by ghosts and raised in a graveyard. He learns about life through his interactions with the dead - they teach him history and maths, as well as survival lessons and the difference between right and wrong.

    I wasn't sure what to expect with this book. As I have already confessed, I do love Gothic fiction; but when I was a teen, I never read stuff like this. I'm more into Gothic fiction set in the past - the Victorian era, the Enlightenment - with the context of change and upheaval. 

    Yet, Gaiman pulls it off. I was terrified of The Man Jack, and I had nightmares about the Ghouls.
    I loved all the little details, like the Freedom of the Graveyard. I also enjoyed the little morality lessons that were in there, like when Bod comes up against some bullies at school. 

    But most of all, I felt that Gaiman's characters were incredible. I enjoy the comic relief provided by the inhabitants of the graveyard, and the companionship that comes from Scarlett and Elizabeth. He hit the nail on the head with Bod, creating a normal growing boy, but within the most unusual of settings. It's said of Bod that, "He looks like nobody but himself", but I'd argue he is like everybody - he is so easy to relate to. My favourite, of course, was Silas. Who doesn't want someone like Silas to watch over them. He reminded me of Sirius Black - reserved, cautious, but full of love. 

    So, if I haven't already made it clear - I recommend The Graveyard Book.

    Sunday, 16 September 2012

    Twelve Minutes to Midnight

    Twelve Minutes to Midnight
    Christopher Edge
    London, Nosy Crow, 2012, 254p

    Twelve Minutes to Midnight, set in 1899, is a story about a madness that sweeps through London, seeping into the lives of literary greats (Arthur Conan Doyle and H G Wells are referred to more than once). Penelope Treadwell is the author and editor of a penny journal, but hides behind the name of Montgomery Flinch. 

    Penelope is an inspiring hero. What I like about a lot of teen fiction is that the reader is regularly reminded that the hero is in fact only a child, or a teenager. In Penny's case, her youth and her gender prevent her from being able to independently investigate the recent phenomenon. Instead, she has to be escorted by her uncle or other unsuspecting gentlemen, who she drags along to Bedlam and into imminent danger. She, of course, is fearless. 

    I'm a bit of a sucker for Gothic literature, and I go weak at the knees when stories are set in the Victorian era, so this was an all-round winner.  There are deadly spiders, ghostly noblewomen, and futuristic prophecies, all in a race against time. 

    I don't want to give too much away, because something I really enjoyed about this book was the twists and turns. I thought it was never going to end. At one point, Edge seemed to be tying all the strings together, but I still had 60 pages to read - and what a treat those pages were!

    The aforementioned madness characterises itself in the scrawlings of its victims. Hence the repeated references to contemporary authors. When an individual falls under the spell of madness, they wake at twelve minutes to midnight and write on anything they can find. And what do they write? Prophecies of the coming century - increasing industrialisation, the invention of the airplane, wars, terrorist plots, and more. The reader may have to remind themselves that this novel is set in 1899, otherwise they may not understand the importance of the twentieth century events.

    I had a lot of fun reading Twelve Minutes to Midnight - and that is something that can't really be said about a lot of books. It indulged my personal interests, but it was also well-written and addictive - I think it has something for everyone.

    Saturday, 15 September 2012


    Gabrielle Zevin
    London, Bloomsbury, 2005, 269p

    A book that begins with a death is always a tear-jerker. This was no exception. But maybe I am just an emotional wreck.

    The first chapter of this book, entitled "In the End", documents Liz waking up on a ship. She doesn't know how she got there or where she is going. Of course, those who may have skim-read the blurb will guess that this is Liz's afterlife.

    I have read many different concepts of the afterlife, from the ghosts in The Graveyard Book to the self-made world of Susie in The Lovely Bones. But this was different. Zevin's concept of the afterlife is that you live life backwards, from the day of your death until your birth, at which point you float back to Earth to be born again. This means that fifteen year old Liz meets her grandmother in Elsewhere, who has aged backwards since her death and is little older than Liz herself.

    This aging backwards concept can cause some drama. For example, is it appropriate for a relationship to develop between fifteen year old Liz and twenty-six year old Owen - even if Owen has aged backwards to his teen years? Somehow, Zevin made it acceptable, suggesting Liz and Owen had their own doubts, which they overcame through open discussion about their feelings.

    I feel like this book would really help me through a bereavement. The thought that our loved ones can use Observation Telescopes, like the ones at the beach, to see us and be near us. I like the idea that life carries on after death, and, as the blurb states, "new relationships are formed and old ones, which had been sadly interrupted, are renewed". The concept of Elsewhere provides a calming effect to the disruptive nature of death.

    Thursday, 13 September 2012

    Esio Trot

    Esio Trot
    Roald Dahl
    Puffin, 2004, 56p

    Seeing as it's Roald Dahl Day on September 13th, I thought I'd celebrate in style. Whilst creating an incredible display with my wonderful library assistant, I felt like I was on a trip down memory lane. I had a collection of Roald Dahl books when I was little (which I think still reside in my parent's attic), and I read and reread those stories over and over again.

    Esio Trot was the one I chose to reread this time. It's the story of a man who finds the confidence to woo the woman he loves by fulfilling her wish of seeing her tortoise grow. He buys 140 tortoises and swaps her light weight pet for a slightly larger counterpart, then another one, slightly larger, then another, until her tortoise has doubled in size. Of course, it's not her original tortoise that grows, but Mrs Silver seems satisfied. And at the end, Dahl satisfied our curiosity by telling us that the original pet, Alfie, was adopted by a young girl, alongside whom he eventually grew into a bigger tortoise.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this read - the style is simple and witty and light-hearted. There is no evil or drama (though upon careful consideration, Mr Hoppy's lies do seem rather deceitful and unnecessary); just a lovely story with a happy ending. Reading Dahl makes me feel all warm and comfortable. 

    Happy Roald Dahl Day!

    Wednesday, 12 September 2012


    Joe Craig
    Franklin Watts, 2011, 55p

    Lifters is classed as a short read in my library - part of the Rivets series of books. The text is larger and there is less writing on each page, to avoid intimidating the reluctant reader.

    Yet the content isn't patronising - the plot jumps from the point of view of Adaq, a street jumper who works with his sister to pickpocket, and Special Agent Tenzer, who is on the case of a mysterious package. Their paths cross when Adaq steals the package, unaware of its contents or value, and drama unfolds.

    Despite the unsavoury nature of Adaq's passtime, you sympathise with him, as Adaq feels guilty about his actions. Craig implies that Adaq has no choice - that his older sister makes him steal for a living.

    Short and sweet. This book is a complete page-turner. The plot is fast paced, and very addictive - I constantly wanted to know more and find out what happened next, even when I'd finished it.

    Tuesday, 11 September 2012

    Lost Riders

    Lost Riders
    Elizabeth Laird
    Macmillan, 2008, 284p

    I wish I could start this blog with celebration and praise, but I have mixed feelings about the ending of this book. Let me explain...

    Lost Riders is the story of an eight-year-old boy from Pakistan, who gets sold into a strange sort of slavery in Dubai. Rashid becomes a camel jockey - he is fed poorly to keep light weight, he is woken in the early hours of the morning to exercise the camels, and every time he races, he risks losing his life.

    Laird prefaces the book with a short account of the reality of life for camel jockeys. In her travels around Pakistan, she met parents who had had their children taken from them, and she talked to people who were working hard to bring families back together. With that short extract of her own experience, I was hooked. I love a book grounded in reality.

    The book was well written, and easy to read. It has a sense of danger and excitement, but the reader also comes to understand how scared and confused Rashid is. This book came as part of the BookBuzz scheme, and I have no qualms about recommending it to students.

    However, like I said, the ending got to me. It continues to play on my mind. I won't spoil it, don't worry. But I will say that I felt that Laird attempted to simultaneously provide a happy ending alongside one of doubt about the future of these children. I feel she should have chosen one or the other.

    But I still would like to read other Elizabeth Laird fiction. So it's not all bad!