Thursday, 29 November 2012

Judy Moody

Judy Moody
Megan McDonald, ill. Peter H Reynolds
London, Walker, 2001, 160p

Judy Moody is an easy to read little novel. In this little episode in her life, she faces the challenge of making a collage about herself. She must include her favourite pet, the funniest thing that has happened to her, and something about where she lives. 

In this novel, Judy is transitioning into third grade (it's an American book), which is why I chose it. I am trying to find books to recommend to the new Y7s, who are beginning to find their feet at a new school.

I quite like Judy. She's ambitious - she wants to be a doctor and knows all about Elizabeth Blackwell, the First Woman Doctor. She can be difficult, as she is unwilling to show enthusiasm, preferring to be moody than to admit to her teacher that she enjoys a task. But she is prepared to change her mind, as demonstrated when she welcomes another person into her small circle of friends. 

A pleasant little story for a junior reader.

Monday, 26 November 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky
London, Simon and Schuster, 2012, 231p

I purchased this book for my school library at a student's recommendation, and read it due to the same student's feedback. It is an beautifully touching novel, but equally, it is challenging and tragic.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about Charlie, who is starting high school, full of the concerns of every teenager on their first day. Charlie is different - he is quiet and cautious - he is a wallflower. He also suffers from bouts of depression. He is highly emotional, often breaking down into tears. But he is adopted by Sam and Patrick, who offer him friendship and belonging. 

Charlie is a brilliant character. He is socially awkward, but full of love for those around him - for his family and his friends. He reads a lot, which, of course, I adore. Like me, and so many other book lovers, Charlie thinks every book is his favourite book, until he reads another. Chbosky describes each novels Charlie reads, telling us his thoughts and feelings. 

The story tackles the challenging subject of mental health. It begins with Charlie describing the death of a school friend; and throughout, Charlie encounters people with low self-esteem, struggling to find happiness. Charlie himself suffers loss and sadness, experiments with drugs, and questions himself - but not in the stereotypical angsty teenage sense. 

Stephen Chbosky is a brilliant writer. The book is in the first-person, presented through Charlie's letters; and the student who recommended this book to me pointed out that Charlie's writing improves throughout the story - as he reads and experiences more, his vocabulary and structure develop and his confidence grows. In this way, Chbosky brings Charlie to life, like a real teenage boy, changing and blossoming. 

I read this book incredibly fast, and, even whilst writing this, feel a little shaken by its beauty and sadness. But it's the kind of novel that makes me feel like everything is going to be okay. 

At the end of the novel, Charlie writes,
"if I ever have kids, and they are upset, I won't tell them that people are starving in China... Even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn't really change the fact that you have what you have. ... It's just different."
Sometimes, it can be incredibly hard to remember that. I feel this novel might stay with me for a while.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Numbers 3 Infinity

Numbers 3 Infinity
Rachel Ward
Frome, Chicken House, 2011, 247p

Finally, the third novel in the Numbers trilogy arrived at my school library this week. It's not often that a trilogy gets better as it goes along, but Infinity may be one of the exceptions.

Numbers 3 carries on from where The Chaos left off - with Adam, Sarah, and the young Mia taking refuge in a camp site in post-apocalyptic England. Since he predicted The Chaos, Adam struggles with the fact that everyone knows who he is, and seems to want something from him; and it's not long before some unsavoury characters turn up.This story is high-drama and action packed. The young family are kidnapped and suffer extensive tests, as the so-called government try to extract the skills that Adam posses. 

Furthermore, two year old Mia is a subject of interest, since she was able to change her destiny - she was meant to die in The Chaos, but managed to swap numbers and survive. Mia is described as beautiful and angelic, and she is almost old before her time - she is deep and thoughtful and kind. 

I've become very attached to this young family over the course of this series. As Adam repeatedly insists, he did not ask for this 'gift', and sees is more as a curse. Throughout this novel, Ward returns to the idea of destiny - are the numbers set, or can they be swapped? Adam is haunted by death - he sees it in the eyes of everyone he sees. But towards the end of this brilliant series, Ward suggests that people shouldn't focus on the end, but on what is happening now. We should enjoy each day we are lucky enough to live. 

I very look forward to reading more of Rachel Ward's work in the future. She is an inspired writer.

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Night Sky in my Head

The Night Sky in my Head
Sarah Hammond
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012, 293p

The Night Sky in my Head is a tragic tale, yet full of optimism and hope. Sarah Hammond is an incredible writer, bringing to life her characters and situations with ease.

This is the story of Mikey, who has the ability to see Backwards, to see past events even if he wasn't present. In some ways, this is a gift, such as his ability to help a farmer find his lost calf. But it also reveals to Mikey dark secrets that he wishes would stay buried - most significantly, that of the disappearance of his father.

I struggled through the first few pages of this novel - I felt there was quite a lot going on all at once; though this all got explained as the novel progressed. Slowly, both the reader and Mikey piece together the mystery surrounding his dad, as well as how he came to be able to go Backwards.

Like Mark Haddon's infamous novel, the main character of The Night Sky has special needs, due to a head injury. In the Backwards, Mikey sees his old self, Little Mikey, prior to the accident, and notes that Little Mikey speaks faster than new Mikey. Hammond's writing is in the present tense, revealing Mikey's thoughts and feelings as they happen - a perfect use of the present tense.

The more I read, the more I enjoyed this novel. Although the plot is sad, Mikey sees the best in people, and people are drawn to him and love him. By presenting the tale through his eyes, Hammond creates delight for the reader.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

A Medal for Leroy

A Medal for Leroy
Michael Morpurgo, ill. Michael Foreman
London, Harper Collins, 2012, 223p

I had a bit of a sob in the staff room over this book. Morpurgo is incredible - I should have known better than to read one of his books without a box of tissues by my side. 

I first found out about his new novel in the Telegraph, where he explained his inspiration behind this story (follow the link above - I highly recommending reading it). A Medal for Leroy is a tale that spans many generations, from a World War One romance, to finding peace in the present day. Michael is a young boy growing up in 1950s London, slowly learning about his family history through his Aunts revelations. 

In the postscript, Morpurgo writes that everyone has some interest in the history of their families, and I think that is why this novel is so appealing - not only do people want to learn about their own family history, they also want to know about others' (the ongoing success of Who Do You Think You Are is a prime example). In this novel, Morpurgo takes inspiration from his own family's past, which he claims is full of secrets, and from the story of Walter Tull, the only black soldier to have fought in World War One.

What could have been a complex plot is instead beautiful and emotive in Morpurgo hands. He writes so fluently and clearly, that there is no confusion over who's who, when they lived, etc. The story is written from several points of view at different times - Michael's monologue is written both in the present, and in the 1950s, whilst his tale is also divided by an extract from his Aunt Martha. 

Michael Morpurgo is the perfect children's author. He is simultaneously educational, challenging, and interesting. He doesn't patronise or stereotype. Every word he writes is purposefully and carefully chosen. And, as a bonus, he is outspoken in support of libraries!!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy
J K Rowling
London, Little Brown, 2012, 503p

Just yesterday, I read that J K Rowling's new novel, The Casual Vacancy, had managed to avoid the shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Only just, it seems. Rowling is clearly trying to break away from the Harry Potter enterprise, just like the poor children cast in those films. But with this adult novel, I felt J K went a little too far the other way - she has tried to be challenging and controversial, but left me confused and feeling slightly ill.

The Casual Vacancy is set following the death of a member of the parish council in the small West Country town of Pagford. The town is torn over a small area, known as the Fields, which accommodates a rather poor community - drug-addled and dangerous. Some want to help those in this deprived area, whilst others want responsibility for these low-lives to be given to the larger council of Yarvil. Amidst the bickering, Rowling tells the stories of several families and individuals, documenting their boredom, anger and resentment.

I found this novel somewhat challenging to read. The plot is littered with swear words, embarrassing internal monologues, and awkward sex scenes. Few of her characters come close to being likeable, and not one person in this novel is happy. Rowling's narrative here is very similar to her Harry Potter style (of course), but the vast difference in subject make me uncomfortable - I kept wanting some light comic relief from Ron. 

I feel like Rowling is trying too hard to escape the trap of being typecast. The novel is too long, and the plot too complicated - there are simply too many characters. It's also rather unrealistic. Each character is a blatant stereotype, each with different problems, each problem being very extreme. For example, all here teenagers are either sex-crazed or self-harming. Just one happy person in this novel would have been a relief.

And yet, in the final chapters, I found myself with a lump in my throat - I was shocked to feel emotional about the lives of these unfortunate characters. Perhaps, somewhere within the 500 pages of complex story-telling, Rowling must have done some character development. The ending almost makes the rest of it worth it - but then I recollect of the challenge of wading through the first 300 pages. Maybe not, J K.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Life of Pi

Life of Pi
Yann Martel
London, Walker, 2010, 319p

I feel like I am cheating slightly. I have been ill for the last few days, so I am drawing on my past reading experience to write this review. My apologies, but a review of this excellent novel had to be written eventually.

I love reading because I love discovering new things. I love to be able to escape the everyday and indulge in a different world or another life. I am a dreamer. And this novel allowed me to dream. 

The Life of Pi is the story of a boy who loses his family in a shipwreck, and ends up drifting across the ocean on a small life boat. The twist? His only companion is a Bengal tiger. It is a really unusual story that sucks you right in. I found myself completely suspending my disbelief and allowing this tale to drown me. 

It is visually incredible - Martel takes you into a world you never knew existed. The first section of the novel, in which the protagonist, Piscine, describes his home and upbringing in India, is beautiful and engaging. Martel is detailed and thorough, and you learn more about zoology than you ever thought you would be interested in. 

Then, Martel takes you on the voyage over the seas, with the Bengal tiger and the teenage boy. I don't believe any author has created such an unique and invigorating world. You never question the reality of Pi's story - not until he makes you question it at the end. But I won't ruin it for you.

I have a slight problem with the fact that this book has been so strongly associated with religion - in fact, I heard about it through my parent's church book club, and initially dismissed it for this reason. The authors note states that this story "will make me believe in God", but I feel differently. This novel made me believe in the power of the written word. Language, description, imagination - they are the forces at work here. 

I am torn over the upcoming film adaptation of The Life of Pi, as I am with most film adaptations. This novel spoke volumes to me - it inspired my imagination to flourish. I am not convinced that a film can do this in the same way a novel can... but equally, I am open to see what the directors have done with Martel's story.  

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Ostrich Boys

Ostrich Boys
Keith Gray
London, Random House, 2008, 353p

The title of this book intrigued me. Ostrich Boys. I read the whole book, and was still confused about the title. And then I reread the blurb. And right down the bottom of the cover, it says:

Ostrich n. 1. flightless, fast-running African bird; 2. creature known for burying its head in the sand

Gray's novel is the story of three friends who steal the ashes of their recently dead friend, Ross, with the plan to take him to his namesake in Scotland. They want to give him a fitting memorial, as back at home, they feel that their friend has not received the respect he is due.

Of course, being teenage boys, they have no consideration for the feelings of others, including Ross' parents. Unfortunately, Gray didn't go into much detail over this issue, or not as much detail as I would like. 

Fortunately, he does intricately detail the thoughts and feelings of the three boys. The reader goes right into the mind of the teenagers, which meant it was easy to connect to them - to understand their motivations and fears. Of which there are many. These boys struggle with the guilt they feel over their friend's death, especially after rumours begin to circulate that Ross committed suicide. First the boys lash out and blame others - the school bully, the less-than-sympathetic school teacher, Ross' parents. But through the journey, the boys begin to reflect on what they could have done better. Should they have listened to Ross? Should they have helped him? Was he crying out for help?

Teenage life is always difficult. Many feel that the whole world is against them, or that they should be the centre of the universe. Teen years are like a journey, like this story, through which young people grow and change. Gray uses death to contextualise this journey - sometimes it takes something as big as a death to show young people the way. But hopefully this book will help. Gray brings the reader right inside the mind of the boys; so I hope that the reader will learn something about life through the eyes of the fictional friends. And it's great to finally find a writer who truly appeals to boys, though I also think a young, open-minded girl might enjoy this, too.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda
Tom Angleberger
London, Abrams, 2010, 145p

Origami Yoda is psychic. He can answer any question you ask him. He can offer advise. He warns you what might come up in the science test. And yet, he is merely paper.

Dwight is clearly incredible at origami, and his latest product is Yoda. However, Tommy is unsure whether to trust Origami Yoda, so does not know whether or not to ask Sara to dance with him. This novel is a compilation of case studies that Tommy brings together - evidence about whether or not Yoda's predictions have been accurate - in order to help him make his decision.

This is one of the most original interpretations of Star Wars yet. The idea of a group of school boys adopting a paper model as their guide is brilliant. The story is light-hearted and funny - for children and adults alike. There is even a little step-by-step guide to making your own Origami Yoda at the back! Delicious.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Numbers 2 The Chaos

Numbers 2: The Chaos
Rachel Ward
Frome, Chicken House, 2010, 345p

Rachel Ward has become more confident in Numbers 2. The plot feels like it is well formulated, better planned. In the same way that the Chamber of Secrets is the best Harry Potter book, I feel that writing a second novel gives an author a certain level of pizzazz.

The character development is stronger here. Perhaps this is because Ward has chosen to write from the point of view of both of her main characters, Sarah and Adam, alternating chapters between them. In the first of the Numbers trilogy, we only hear Jem's narrative, meaning we do not really know what happens to Spider when the two are separated. In The Chaos, we learn so much more.

Furthermore, the first book seemed far too spiritual for my liking - Jem spent a lot of the plot hauled up in Bath Cathederal, whereas in the second novel, Adam faces the apocalypse. The reader must suspend their disbelief, but Ward is less caught up with philosophising about the existence of God  - a theme which I felt damaged the first novel.

The importance of destiny is an important subject that runs through both these novels. Is one's destiny determined, or can it be changed? In the first novel, Ward did not explain this concept very well. In The Chaos, the forboding apocalypse means that Adam is forced to act, to try to change the Numbers, to try and save lives. 

Ward's alternative future is terrifyingly realistic, almost within reach of the present. People are tagged and must carry an ID. Freedom of speech is repressed, and terrorism is the greatest concern. It's an over-exaggerated version of reality, and yet it seems very possible. 

It is very rare that a sequel is better than the original. I can only hope that Rachel Ward continues this winning streak!

Monday, 12 November 2012

Tom Gates: Everything's Amazing (sort of)

Tom Gates: Everything's Amazing (sort of)
Liz Pichon
London, Scholastic, 2012, 409p

Tom Gates was recommended to me by a student who likes the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and other similar titles. Though not something I would personally choose, I can see why my students might like this story.

Tom's story is fun and filled with illustrations. Although the book is 409 pages long, there are very few words on each page, so it's low-pressure and high-reward. It looks almost like a note book - it has wider dimensions than a normal printed paperback, and has loads going on between the covers.

The story is entertaining and light-hearted. Tom takes us through his daily life at school, and tells us about his birthday party plans. The plot is not complicated by drama, but is a very normal story of everyday boyhood. 

I would not hesitate in recommending this to any of my students: from the reluctant reader looking for an easy time, to a more advanced reader who wants a laugh. What more could a school librarian ask for?

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Artichoke Hearts

Artichoke Hearts
Sita Brahmachari
London, Macmillan, 2011, 321p

Artichoke Hearts is a beautiful novel. It is the story of Mira Levenson, who starts a diary after joining a writing club at school. Over the course of a month, she encounters romance, loss, and her first period. 

But I found this to be more than the typical teenager bildingsroman. Brahmachari made me laugh and cry - and crying is something that does not come from every novel of this vein. Mira is a perceptive and intelligent character - she does not get caught up in her own world, but cares for those around her, and strives to make them happy. 

Much teen fiction is written to help young people deal with the things that may be happening to them. As this blog shows, there are certain themes that run through many stories, such as love, loss and teenage mood swings. Many of these novels end up looking like repetitions of each other, with little substance to offer. But Artichoke Hearts is different.

Here, the main challenge facing Mira is the death of her grandmother. They are incredibly close, and Mira is struggling to come to terms with the fact that every journey must eventually come to an end. Some of Brahmachari's readers may be in a similar situation, and I feel Mira's story will help them through this experience. It has definitely been of some solace to me.

Brahmachari's writing is incredible. She writes with clear direction, and her characters are likable, if not lovable. The plot has the right level of complexity, with overlapping events and concerns in Mira's life. It has that delicate offering of hope, too - Mira's grandmother says she has shed the layers that she has built up to protect her heart, and she can move on in perfect peace. Mira's grandmother is wise and offers plenty of anecdotes to help Mira (and thus the reader) through the trauma of loss. 

This is a touching novel. It is delicately spiritual and strangely realistic - Mira's story could happen to anyone. And I think that is why it is so emotive. Be prepared to cry. 

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Name of this Book is Secret

The Name of this Book is Secret
Pseudonymous Bosch
London, Usbourne, 2007, 390p

People say that you never really grow up. The Name of this Book is Secret is confirmation of this.

The first page of this book advises the reader to turn away - the cover is splattered with warnings not to read on, that you are in danger, and to tell no one about this book. In the first few pages, Pseudonymous Bosch claims, "you can't hold me responsible for the consequences". Such words were all I needed for the child inside me to rise up and make me read on.

The Name of this Book is Secret is the story of Cass and Max-Ernest (fake names, of course - Bosch insists that we must not know the real names or places of these events, as it would place the reader in iminent danger), who stumble upon a mystery following the death of a magician. The plot is littered with kipnapping, near-death experiences, and code-breaking, as well as intermissions in which Bosch speaks directly to the reader to offer warnings or opportunities to escape.

There are wonderful additional details, such as footnotes in which Bosch veers of at right angles on explanatory rants, and an appendix at the end full of recipes, definitions and card tricks. Also, the intensity of the drama is broken up by comic relief in the form of Max-Ernest's desperate attempts to find the perfect joke.

This book made me feel like a child again. Being told not to read the book made me desperate to plough through it. And there are more! Bosch has written a whole series. In The Name of this Book is Secret, Bosch ties all the loose ends together, but can't help but offer the suggestion that this story continues. I feel my only choice is to read on.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Flying for Frankie

Flying for Frankie
Pauline Fisk
London, Faber, 2009, 230p

Reading this has proved to me that Pauline Fisk is a skilled novelist. Just a few days ago, I praised The Beast of Whixall Moss for its mystery and complexity. Flying for Frankie is completely different, and yet equally brilliant.

Charis and Frankie are very different girls - Frankie is loud and determined, and lives in a house that many of her neighbours call a castle; Charis, on the other hand, is quiet and modest. But somehow they become the best of friends. Unfortunately, Frankie is diagnosed with cancer, and the girls must face their worst fears.

The novel is written in the perspective of Charis, looking back on how they met. Fisk gets right under the skin of Charis, bringing her to life. Of course, she has other issues to deal with, alongside her friend's illness, including a challenging family life. But she comes across as strong and level-headed, in contrast to many other heroines in teenage fiction, who are stubborn and moody. 

I'm not sure boys would find much to relate to in this particular story. They are male characters, like Charis' and Frankie's brothers, but they are always in the background - the emotional journey that Charis undertakes is the main element of the plot. 

Fisk writes confidently, considering the delicacy of her subject. She sprinkles the novel with religion and spirituality, but does not drown the story with preaching. Charis' journey is not easy, but Fisk offers optimism and hope to both her characters and the reader.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Adventures of a Wimpy Werewolf

Adventures of a Wimpy Werewolf
Tim Collins
London, Michael O'Mara Books, 2011, 224p

This book is a really fun, easy read. Luke Thorpe is a tragic character - he is school prefect, the victim of being intelligent and hard working. Until he wakes up one morning to find his room ransacked.

He starts developing strange tendencies, like wanting to chase squirrels. He starts craving raw meat. And his body starts changing, getting more hairy. At first he thinks it's rabies, since he was bitten by a dog not long ago; but it turns out he's a werewolf, of course.

It's easy to like Luke, and to feel sorry for him. He wants to do well with his GCSEs, but he also needs to learn to control his changes. Collins is funny and intelligent, just like his character. The element of the supernatural is a great twist on the conventional coming-of-age story. 

Thursday, 1 November 2012


Michael Frayn
London, Faber, 2002, 234p

This novel is part of my sixth form students' A-level study for English Literature, so I read it in order to support them with their revision. 

Spies is the story of Stephen Wheatley, who goes back to the street he grew up on after the smell of a plant drags up old memories of his childhood. He tells the reader about his childhood during the war - his suspicions that his friend's mother might be a German spy, and the consequences of his meddling with her actions. His memories are blurry and inconsistent - some of the events merge into one, or overlap, and it is never clear what was the truth and what was childhood fantasy.

I must admit, I found it a rather challenging book - the story is confused and disorganised, though that is a significant element of the plot. Stephen talks in the third person about his younger self, as if he is watching young Stephen rather than remembering what it was like. It's also all written in the present tense, even Stephen's recollections about his youth. I tend to find this a rather confusing style, but at the same time, I appreciate the effect.

I think the line between adulthood and childhood is an interesting theme in this novel. Children have secrets from adults, either because they are scared of being told of, or because they do not think the adults will believe them. Adults have secrets from children, because it is assumed they will not understand. But all these secrets cause suspicion, which lead to trouble. 

Additionally, gossip overlaps with these secrets. The adults in the street talk amongst each other, and when the children overhear, the secrets get mixed with rumour and imagination. The truth gets lost. 

I don't envy the students who have to read this for their examinations - it's pretty heavy going. But the themes are clear and interlink easily, so I think revision of the story should be relatively simple.