Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Noughts and Crosses

Noughts and Crosses
Malorie Blackman
London, Doubleday, 2001, 445p

Noughts and Crosses was one of the most talked about books of my teenage years, and somehow it managed to pass me by - I hadn't gotten around to reading it until now. 

And, if I am honest, I was a little disappointed. It really did not meet my expectations. I had heard and read so many great reviews, complimenting Blackman's engagement with discrimination and her alternative approach to race; but I thought the novel would be more political and challenging.

I am sure it does not need to be said, but Noughts and Crosses is about a society in which black people rule over and oppress whites. White people are not slaves any more, but they suffer stereotypes and segregation  they do not have the same rights to education; and consequently, the Liberation Militia exist in order to protest for white equality. Callum is a nought, a white boy who is ambitious in the face of racism; and Sephy is a Cross, a black girl who also happens to be the daughter of an incredibly powerful man. Of course, their friendship is not acceptable. 

I was hoping for something that would make me think - a novel that would make me evaluate myself and the society around me. I was hoping for something that would stay with me for a long time, perhaps would even haunt me for several years. 

Unfortunately, I found myself faced with a modern day Romeo and Juliet. The characters were too preoccupied with their teenage angst. I have to wonder if I was a few years younger if I would appreciate the youth of the characters - perhaps I would better be able to relate to their teenage dramas. But I found myself frustrated with the fact the novel centred so significantly around Sephy and Callum, when I wanted to know more about the political aspects of this fictional society. 

Also, I really don't like Romeo and Juliet. Why didn't they just talk it over, instead of suffering from miscommunication. And why kill yourself? There is always someone else out there! 

I was expecting political drama and I got romance. And not even the format of romance that I like. I had hoped for so much more!

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Beast of Whixall Moss

The Beast of Whixall Moss
Pauline Fisk
London, Faber, 1997, 120p

This book is really something - but I think I'm going to struggle to describe it. It is a true mystery, and it may be some time before I truly come to a conclusion on it.

The Beast of Whixall Moss is about Jack and his family. They live in a isolated cottage far from anything, except a creek. Living in a boat on the creek is a young girl, an old grey haired man, and a beast. Jack becomes fascinated with the beast, and with its owners. The beast is beautiful and incredible. It's six headed. And it draws people towards it.

Pauline Fisk writes incredibly well - part of her charm is that she never actually gives anything away. She never fully describes the beast - she just tells the reader how beautiful it is. The beast isn't named. She never really pinpoints the effect it has on those who see it; but through her incredible writing, she draws the reader into her story, in the same way that the beast draws people in. 

I feel like this book has had a rather odd effect over me. Jack found the beast to be mesmerising, beautiful, and distracting - he couldn't think about anything else. I think Fisk's story has had the same effect on me... something I find incredible!

Friday, 26 October 2012

Saving Finnegan

Saving Finnegan
Sally Grindley
London, Bloomsbury, 2007, 245p

I struggle to find junior fiction texts that I like. I don't really like stories about animals or "funny" books, as my students call them. And I know I am trying to engage with what my students want to read, but if I can't get through it, there isn't much point in trying.

Saving Finnegan is different, though. It is more confidently written than many books for kids about animals, and it has an actual plot, whereas many animal stories are predictable and boring. 

Grindley's book is the story of Holly, who finds a fin whale washed up on the beach of her island one day. The fin whale, named Finnegan, is ill, and  Holly protests for her community to help save the poor animal. 

The main theme here is death. Grindley hints at it all the way through - first Finnegan's arrival, then the threat of foxes to the hens, as well as Holly's aged grandmother. But those around Holly support her through the trial of acceptance; and I feel the novel would help a young reader in the same way.

This is an enjoyable, optimistic story. Holly represents hope - she is always fighting to help those around her, especially the fin whale.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Jane's Fame

Jane's Fame
Claire Harman
New York, Picador, 2011, 277p

Claire Harman write cleverly and confidently about the history of the celebrity of Jane Austen - her rise to becoming a well-known household name in the 21st century. She brings together and analyses various biographical accounts of Austen's life, offering new information as well as critiquing existing publications.

I found out some rather interesting facts whilst reading this; one of which was that Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson didn't rate Jane Austen. It upset me to think that my favourite writers didn't respect each other. I also found it interesting that Austen's novels were a popular subject of study when English Literature was first introduced into universities - her works were considered soft materials for a soft subject, which was predominantly studied by women. And yet, some of her most vocal admirers are / were men.

When reading her novels, I have always found Austen's lack of detail about places, dates and individual's features quite enticing - this has allowed me to imagine my own Captain Wentworth and Mr Tilney. However, Harman argues that this was Austen's attempt to avoid being trapped within a certain era. Many of her novels were published significantly later than written, and therefore could have easily become outdated and old fashioned. In avoiding specifics, Austen allows her stories to fall easily into any time period, so that readers of today can relate to her stories just as easily as her contemporary audience.

In this way, Austen has been adopted as the symbol for many causes. We still don't know much about her life - everything is speculation. Consequently, people can make assumptions, draw links, and use Austen as a figurehead for any cause. She can be paraded as a feminist role model, challenging patriarchal rules, as well as representing the stoicism and peace that the Tory party have used her for. 

But that's what I like about Austen. She is different things to different people. 

Monday, 22 October 2012


Rachel Ward
Frome, Chicken House, 2009, 285p

Whilst avidly searching for an appropriate author to visit my school for World Book Day 2013, I came across Rachel Ward's Numbers trilogy. Fast paced drama and teen angst combine in this tragic story, at the centre of which is death.

When Jem looks into someone's eyes, she can see the date of their death. A series of numbers that spell out a date. She cannot escape these numbers, but she can escape contact with other people, so she protects herself and others by avoiding friendship and companionship.

Unfortunately, however hard one tries to avoid people, sometimes people attach themselves to us. In Jem's case, it's Spider, a fidgety boy from school who insists on being Jem's friend. Unfortunately, Jem knows the date that Spider is going to die.

This novel made me intrigued to know more about Rachel Ward - a typical product of being an English student. Throughout the novel, she debates, whether our lives are planned out for us - are the dates that Jem sees predestined, or is there any way to control them? Jem has very little religious or spiritual faith, and I wonder if this is a reflection of Ward's own ideas. 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Guantanamo Boy

Guantanamo Boy
Anna Perera
London, Penguin, 2009, 339p

At first, I really struggled to get into Guantanamo Boy - the novel is written in present tense, which makes for difficult reading. However, as I got caught up in the story, the use of present tense became more effective, and it was like reading poetry, and seeing right into the world of Khalid.

The key theme of this story is Khalid's identity. He is a second generation immigrant, with Muslim parents, living in Manchester. But he is mistaken for a terrorist, whilst visiting aunts in Pakistan. He is fifteen, but no one believes him. And this identity crisis seeps into his unconscious, influencing the way he sees the world and driving him mad. 

I particularly enjoyed the educational elements of this novel. As Khalid learns about the history of the Muslim religion, and about the context of this conflict, the reader learns, too. The text is very political - I feel that Perera is using the text to voice her own concerns about war, power structures, and methods of torture. 

As a librarian, my favourite scene is when Khalid is offered the opportunity to borrow some books. He thrives in reading - it stabilises him and gives him a sense of normality and peace. It's a librarian's dream!

I have already mentioned my problem with this book - it being written in present tense. But the power of Perera's opinions and knowledge penetrate through that challenge, and so I found the novel really engaging. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2012


An Anthology by the First Story Group at Oxford Spires Academy
ed. Kate Clanchy
London, First Story, 2012, p64

In getting to know the students at my school, I found this little anthology invaluable. Sometimes it is really challenging to understand what goes on inside the mind of a teenage girl or boy, but reading their words opens up their world like you couldn't imagine.

These poems focus more around loss. The school population suffered from some terrible losses during the last academic year, and writing was a medicine that appears to have helped this small group. This anthology is much darker than Differentiation, as more tragic themes dominate; but the words are just as beautiful and incredibly meaningful.

Again, congratulations to Kate Clanchy for wonderful editorial work. She makes the anthology flow perfectly, so that the collection ends with a hint of hope in this world of melancholy. 

But the most delightful thing is the talent of these young people. There is so much feeling and emotion in such a short collection. Their experiences are unimaginable for a group so young, but they are so strong and brave. They are completely inspiring.  

Friday, 12 October 2012

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror
Chris Priestley
London, Bloomsbury, 2007, 239p

I love good old-fashioned Gothic stories that keep you up at night. And Uncle Montague's Tales kept me up not only because I was too terrified to turn out the lights and close my eyes, but also because they were incredibly addictive; I just wanted to read on! 

Priestley's novel is seen through the eyes of Edgar, who visits his Uncle Montague to hear terrifying stories. Uncle Montague is one of those ageless Gothic characters - Edgar's father claims Uncle Montague used to tell him stories, as well as Edgar's father's father. He has a room full of bits and bobs, and each item has a story. As Uncle Montague tells the stories, Priestley builds the suspense, leaving hints and clues about a foreboding danger facing Edgar.

I really enjoyed the old-fashioned nature of the stories. The storyteller, Uncle Montague, is typically Gothic - tall and thin, with creepy long fingers and a high backed chair from which he tells his tales. All his stories are set in the past, like Victorian ghost stories. And they all contain children as their victims, which is ideal for the child audience. 

And these stories are genuinely scary. All contain strange happenings or dark evils. They creep into your subconscious, making you scared of unexpected sounds and the dark corners of every room. 

I can't quite pinpoint what is so scary, but I think Priestley has an incredible way with words and language. Even in stories that are only ten page long, he brings the characters to life and makes you, as the reader, live all the events. I found myself scared to fall asleep, in case the stories haunted my dreams. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


An Anthology by the First Story Group at Oxford Spires Academy
ed. Kate Clanchy
London, First Story Ltd, 2011, 58p

This is an anthology of work by some of the students at the school I work at. I have never been prouder of them than when reading this short collection of poems.

Differentiation is about the experiences of these wonderful students. Love. Loss. Life. Death. They are emotive, intelligent and inspiring. I found myself becoming incredibly emotional over every single poem, for numerous reasons. 

Some of these girls and boys have experienced incredible hardship. I already know the stories of some - those who have moved to England from Brazil, Pakistan, China. Others who have lost  loved ones, or who have an unsettled home life. Life has not been easy on some of these students. It breaks my heart to read of the abuse and neglect they have suffered. And these are not words I use lightly.

And yet, despite the highly personal nature of these experiences, the words and rhymes created by these young people help the reader see the same things, feel the same feelings, and truly understand. There are words and phrases in there that we have all felt at some point.

Kate Clanchy did an incredible job of editing the anthology - the poems are ordered perfectly, so they easily flow from one to the other. You can also see the influence of the First Story group over the poems. Kate plans the sessions so the students all write in a similar style or with the same title for the first few weeks, building their confidence until they can come up with their own inspiration. Thus, some of these poems have similar themes, but this adds to the flow of the anthology.

For me, the best way to understand poetry is to know the poet. My favourite poems are not fantasy stories, or descriptions of people and places, but accounts of experiences and feelings. And in knowing where these words have come from, and in knowing who wrote them ... that is where the value lies in poetry.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Hetty Feather

Hetty Feather
Jacqueline Wilson
London, Random House, 2009, 335p

I had always thought my sister was (and is) possibly the biggest fan of Jacqueline Wilson alive. When we were little, she got ill, and was sick on one of her books - I think it was The Suitcase Kid - and she has never since fully recovered. It is for her that I chose to read Hetty Feather.

I haven't read anything by Wilson in a long time. I outgrew her books pretty fast, but I find it a challenge to help our young school girls outgrow her, too. And although the girls at my school insist she is still their heroine, I struggle to understand why. 

I didn't particularly like Hetty as a character, as I found her to be too self-centred, but I can understand why teenage girls do. For a teenage girl, Hetty is wonderful, as she is strong, self-willed, and gets into all sorts of adventures. She stands up for her friends, just like every girls should. She defies authority, which every girls wants to have the guts to do. And she gets to live out her own fairy tale. Who doesn't want that?

I do enjoy Jacqueline Wilson's writing - she is detailed and uses challenging words, so hopefully most readers learn as they read. 

But I found the plot to be quite similar to many of her other books - as usual, it contains an orphan who wants to find her mother, and is also an aspiring author. 

Nevertheless, Wilson is incredible at her cliffhangers, and since this is part of a trilogy, I am incredibly inclined towards reading more...

Friday, 5 October 2012


Suzanne Collins
London, Scholastic, 2010, 455p

It is not every day that I enter a state of mourning when I complete a book. 

Mockingjay was everything I wanted it to be and more. The action and drama was intense and exciting, but the underlying political commentary was also fascinating. Collins is constantly questioning society, right through to the end. She asks if the Hunger Games will ever end. Not the literal Games, but the day to day suffering we cause each other and we create for future generations. 

Also, I found myself becoming increasingly hesitant to trust any of the characters in this book. Everyone seemed to be corrupt, or corruptible. And people changed. Mental illness was a massive theme throughout this book. It had been hinted at in previous books, especially in relation to Katniss' mother, but here it hit Katniss straight on, in her own experience and in the suffering of those she loves. The circumstances are extreme - Johanna and Peeta's experiences come to mind - but Collins' language and detail make it imaginable and almost real. By the end of this trilogy, Peeta is not the same Peeta, Prim is not the same Prim, and even Katniss is not the same Katniss. They have come on a long journey, and they have changed.

I even started to question if I actually like any of the characters. No one is pure, or innocent by the end of the story. Katniss is particularly difficult to like. But, on reflection, that might be because she is just so real.  She has doubts, she questions herself, she questions others. She lies, she runs away, she hides. She has weaknesses and she loves powerfully. She isn't perfect. She is human. And that is what is incredible about her characterisation. 

So now I have to find something else to read. Unfortunately, I know whatever it is just won't be as good. 

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Oxford Treasury of Classic Poems

The Oxford Treasury of Classic Poems
ed. Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, 158p

It's National Poetry Day, but I feel I have failed in my role as a librarian. I have not had enough time or energy to organise any events. I have even failed to make an adequate display, although I do have a table full of poetry books as recommended reading for the students. 

I have, however, been working hard to prepare a permanent display of the work of the students at my school. We have a First Story club, and many of the students are aspiring novelists and poets. Alongside the students work, I want to display some classics of poetry, as inspiration and comparison. Therefore, I have been reading, amongst other anthologies, The Oxford Treasury of Classic Poems.

It's a beautiful book with an incredibly diverse collection, from Rossetti to Betjeman. It's targeted at children ages from 9-12, but I think it could appeal to all ages. It definitely had some of my favourites included, like William Blake's London and Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. There are also modest illustrations, almost sketch-like drawings throughout the book. 

There doesn't appear to be any specific order to the poems - they are not chronological, alphabetical or thematic. But I feel like they have included every classic poem I can think of, both old and new. 

This anthology is a great resource for my display, and a lovely book for young and old to enjoy.