Saturday, 28 December 2013



Varmints (pt. 1)
Helen Ward and Marc Craste
Docking, Templar, 2007

I haven't blogged about a picture book before! I stumbled across this one because my sister is reading it for her PGCE, so I thank her for letting me borrow this. 

Varmints is a dystopian tale of the world without life and light. It begins with large, beautiful images of bright blue skies and wide fields, with moles living throughout, tending their bees. But then a darker world is developed, tall buildings blocking the light and heavy noises stopping people from being able to think properly. The pages go from light and inviting to dark and terrifying - you can hardly read the words on the page. So one of the moles thinks it is time for a change, and sets out to bring back the life. 

The images in this picture book are engrossing and mesmerising, like artwork you'd be proud to hang around your home. I'm afraid that copyright law does not allow me to copy the pictures here, so you'll have to find it and read it. And here's a lovely video to demonstrate some of the visuals:

The story is tragicly beautiful, with a pace so slow and measured it entices you. It is powerfully visual, with few words on each page but so much bold and deep art to keep your eyes from wandering. And the tale has a moral, reminding the reader of the importance of nature and life.

Perhaps for young readers, the font is rather difficult to read. The language is not very complicated, but the words are written in thin, scratchy type, and is especially hard to read on the darker pages. It is almost like this is a picture book for adults, with dark pictures, a thought-provoking story and a dystopian setting. But maybe this is the sort of book we need in order to make picture books popular amongst older readers, and to help a shift in attitudes towards acceptance of all varieties of reading formats. 

This blog post is for my little sister x

Friday, 27 December 2013

Death Comes to Pemberly

Death Comes to Pemberly
P.D. James
London, Faber, 2011, 324p

My second piece of meta fiction in as many book reviews, but unfortunately is one was somewhat less satisfactory than the last. Eager to stick to my rule about reading the original before watching the adaptation, I wanted to read Death Comes to Pemberly before the BBC version reached my screen this Christmas, aired over three consecutive evenings. 

We are reunited with Janes Austen's infamous Bennett family, six years after the marriages of Darcy and Lizzie, and Jane and Bingley. The Darcys are planning the annual ball, supported by their abundant staff at Pemberly, when Lydia draws up in a carriage, declaring her husband has been murdered in the woods. Darcy sets off to find out what really happened, embroiling himself in a scandal that will dig up hidden secrets and and well-repressed feelings. 

As I have noted before, some meta fiction simply makes you want to repeat the original. Unfortunately, this was not one of those sequels,: although I love the concept of a murder mystery containing all my old favourites, I felt James was unable to write the see characters as well as Jane Austen once did. 

And now, seeing the adaptation on screen, it is clear that the concept it pure genius, mixing classic romance and drama with contemporary demand for crime fiction. In the BBC version, we are one again shown those characters we so greatly loved. Darcy is stubborn but noble, sometimes misguided in his actions but always acting with the best intentions. Lizzie is intelligent and observant, and proving to be a brilliant mother and wife. Lydia and Mrs Bennett (although not in the book) return, as hysterical and ridiculous as ever. Jane and Georgiana add a touch of feminine sensibility to the whole party, and Georgiana's suitors vie respectfully for her attention.  And, to top it all off, Wickham brings drama and controversy to the peaceful existence of the Darcy home. 

But the book didn't bring any of this delight for me. I found the plot confusing and convoluted, unnecessarily jumping between characters, time and settings. Often, James' use of unclear pronoun was frustrating; for example she'd start a paragraph talking about two male characters, and continue the paragraph using just "he", leaving the reader confused about who was being discussed. As such, the revelation towards the end gave me no thrill, feeling instead like a necessary process I had to go through just to make it to the end. 

I found myself ploughing on, hoping for more, which I eventually found in the television adaptation. I think this might be the first time I've preferred the screen to the book! Hopefully, this novel will not put me off reading any P.D. James in the future.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Mister Creecher


Mister Creecher
Chris Priestley
London, Bloomsbury, 2011, 384p

I'm a little uncertain of meta fiction, especially if I'm a fan of the original. But I do love the Gothic, and love taking a trip down memory lane, reminding me of my A-level days studying Dracula and Frankenstein. 

It's the start of the nineteenth century and life is not easy for young Billy. He is a street boy, a petty thief, when he meets Mister Creecher. This mysterious, terrifying giant helps Billy out of a sticky situation, and each become embroiled in their new friends life. Creecher is Frankenstein's famous creation - this novel tells of the time Frankenstein spends in England working on a mate for his "monster". Creecher asks Billy for help: he supports Billy in his thievery, and Billy follows around Frankenstein to ensure that the creation can keep tabs on the scientists progress. 

The two companions begin their journey in London, haunting the streets of the city. Billy's life is greatly improved by his new friend: he is well fed, properly clothed and lives in warm accommodation for the first time in his life. And yet, he knows very little about Creecher and his peculiar qualms with the mysterious scientist. 

This is a brilliant Gothic tale - dark, gorey and tragic. Priestley is brilliant at this, as I found when I read his Tales of Terror, which caused many a sleepless night. He draws on some traditional tropes, dating back to the original story of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; but he adds some modern twists and more accessible language for his young contemporary audience. 

Part of my love for the original Frankenstein novel comes from Mary Shelley's exploration of the concept of the noble savage: is the creation moulded most by nature or nurture? In the 1818 novel, the creation is given the chance to tell his own story, explaining how his initial innocence was corrupted by the judgements and unkindness of mankind. In Mister Creecher, Priestley expands on this concept, taking the reader on a journey that allows us to understand how his anger and aggression grows through constant rejection and lack of love. 

In this story, Creecher's relationship with Billy seems like an opportunity for redemption, but we all know where the story ends. Well, I assume many readers do, but of course it is not guaranteed that Priestley's audience would have read Shelley's original. I found myself musing on what a young reader might think of Mister Creecher without the contextual knowledge of the original story, the Romantics Movement and early nineteenth century London. Luckily, this novel is being read as part of my school book club, and I cannot wait to hear what my students think!

Thursday, 19 December 2013


Claire Keegan
London, Faber, 2010, 88p

The emotion and drama in this story crept up on from out of nowhere, taking me completely by surprise. What began as a seemingly simple but beautiful novella about family left me in tears.

In Foster, a young girl is left by her father with her aunt and uncle. With no explanation and no idea when she might go home, she quietly settles into life on her relatives' expansive farm. Mr and Mrs Kinsella love her dearly, raising her up, teaching her to read and keeping her clean.

Back home, it is implied that the girl is one of a large family and her parents were unable to take proper care of her - they are a rather typical Irish family. But her aunt and uncle have no one but themselves to care for, except a tragic secret they try to hide about a little boy they once had.

The story is told through the eyes of the little girl, who struggles to become attached to these alternative parents, calling them "the woman" and "Kinsella". Over time, she begins to let them into her heart, learning to feel comfortable in a loving embrace or simply holding hands. This is not a dark mystery novella, as the blurb suggests. Rather modestly, it is a sad tale about loss and love.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

An Abundance of Katherines


An Abundance of Katherines
John Green
London, Penguin, 2013, 227p

I adored The Fault in our Stars. I thought it was one of the best books of this year, recommended to me by my teenage brother and adored by every students I suggested should read it. An Abundance of Katherines has been met with praise by many John Green fans - and, in reading it, you can see why - but I am not as awestruck by this novel.

Colin has dated and been dumped by nineteen Katherines. He is a child prodigy, scared that he might not fulfil his expected potential, so sets to work to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, in which he will demonstrate the inevitability of his being dumped. With his best friend, Hasan, the comically overweight sidekick, Colin sets off on a road trip on the day of his graduation from high school in the hope that maths can solve all his problems.

Oddly, I actually enjoyed the mathematical structure Colin attempted to assign to romance. I think there is some beauty in maths, especially when it is used to help someone get a better understanding on something their are struggling to process. Not only is Colin trying to get over a break up, but he is worried that he might not ever experience that eureka moment that all child prodigies dream of / are expected to have. The maths helps him process the turmoil of being an oddball teen.

The reason John Green's fiction is so popular is that it appeals to the awkward geek inside us all. Colin is an unconventional protagonist, outside the mainstream, claiming to not really understand or like other people. And yet, he overcomes social adversity to win friendships and hearts. Green's audience attach themselves to these unconventional protagonists, clinging to meaningful quotes and inspirational moments. One of these that has stuck with me is:
" don't remember what happened. What you remember becomes what happened"
This is something noted by Colin when he realises that he has misremembered one of his relationships, finally allowing him to get a better grip on his theorem.

The weirdest thing about reading this novel was that my name is Katherine, and with nineteen ex-girlfriends with the same name, Colin's story is slightly biased against them. Admittedly, none of them were particulary malicious break ups, but I couldn't help but feel a little bad about being a Katherine.

I did not feel as attached to The Abundance of Katherines as I did to The Fault in Our Stars, and I think this is because I started to notice the repeated tropes of John Green's writing. What makes him so appealing to some also makes him seem rather predictable to others. But there is some undoubtedly brilliant writing in this novel, particularly in a scene in which Colin finds himself in a cave with Lindsey, a girl he meets on his road trip. Here, everything is pitch black, and the scene is carried by the dialogue, which is shaped by the fact that Lindsey and Colin can't even see each other. Because of the lack of scenic description, it feels claustrophobic and tense, jumping back and forth between the two characters. And as the reader, you feel like you are right there with them, which is exactly what every reader dreams of.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

And When Did You See Her Last?

When Did You See Her Last?
Lemony Snicket
London, Egmont, 2013, 277p

I love a good mystery, and no author keeps you guessing quiet as much as Lemony Snickett - even the author's real identity was a mystery for some time. This new series, subtly linked to The Series of Unfortunate Events, tells of the adolescence of Snickett himself as part of the V.F.D.

In the second book of All the Wrong Questions, Snickett asks "When Did You Last See Her?", as he investigates a missing persons case. However, as is typical of Snickett's adventures, nothing is as simple as it seems, and he soon suspects he is up against his old nemesis, Hangfire. With the help of his trusted friends, Pip and Squeek, the taxi drivers, and Moxie Mallahan, local journalist, he searches for answers to the many unanswered questions haunting Stain'd-by-the-Sea.

I have huge respect for the way Daniel Handler writes. It is so intelligent and witty, full of the most unexpected images. My favourite similie in this novel is when Snickett predicts, "Moxie will be as mad as a paper cut". And Handler continues to use that high level vocabulary, using Snickett's patronising associate, S. Theodora Markson to explain any complicated language.

The library is a recurring setting in this series of novels. Managed by Dashiell Qwerty, it seems to be a constant mess of information chaos. But there is a brilliant scene I intend to use in my library lessons to teach about research. Here, Snickett goes to the library to investigate the chemistry that was engrossing the missing person, in the hope it might reveal something about where she has gone. He finds himself in the science section, but he finds the task very time-consuming and laborious:
"There wasn't a book called Laudanum or a book called Invisible Ink or a book called The Case of Cleo Knight's Disappearance Solved in a Book So Lemony Snickett Doesn't Have to Do It Himself."
Snickett finds some information on chemistry, but concludes, "Cleo Knight would die peacefully in her sleep at age 102, surrounded by her great-grandchildren, before this book would help him with the case."

Navigating a library is an important skill to have but a difficult skill to teach. As Snickett notes, there is never a perfect book containing all the information you need. But, with enough thinking and investigating, Snickett starts to ask the right questions and, through some rather inconventional means, solves this unusual mystery.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Cruel Summer

Cruel Summer
James Dawson
London, Orion, 2013, 321p

I have been looking forward to reading this book for months, and perhaps have waited until the wrong time of year to read about murder under the summer sun. But even whilst curled up with a wintery cold, I was transported to a Spanish villa to watch the unfurling secrets of a gang of old school friends.  

One summer ago, Janey Bradshaw died on the night of her prom. Was it suicide, or did something darker happen that night? After a year apart, her friends reunite, hoping to put the past behind them and get their friendship back on track. But their secrets follow them and it soon becomes clear that some lies cannot remain buried. 

Cruel Summer is a thrilling, clever novel. You are kept guessing throughout - every time you think you might have pinpointed the truth, you are made to question everything you thought you knew. The book is very easy to read, with relatable characters, light comic relief and gripping drama. 

What I love most about this novel is it's self-consciousness. Writing a crime mystery has become incredibly difficult, with every reader thinking they know it all already. There are certain established tropes that often mean no story is original, and the audience knows the culprit long before the characters do. But here, Dawson employ a genius technique that keeps you unsure of yourself, questioning even the most traditional Gothic devices.

Ryan, one of the protagonists in Cruel Summer, is a drama student who adores scary films. He is a self-confessed fantasist, preferring to believe his life is part of some great television series. Much of the story is seen from his perspective, so when the criminal action begins to unfold, the reader's investigation is led by Ryan who categorises the events according to the traditions of every existing murder mystery. This explicit self-awareness lures you into a false sense of security, and so whilst Ryan distracts you with his seemingly clever and sensible deductions, James Dawson is able to create the most genius twists and turns. 

Thursday, 5 December 2013


Jane Austen
London, Penguin, 2007, 272p

My book hangover is cured!

If anyone was going to fix me, it had to be Jane Austen. Persuasion is my all time favourite book. It is like comfort food to me - warm, relaxing, like spending an evening with an old friend. I have read it a million times, and every time I have laughed and cried and gotten heart burn from forgetting to breathe.

When the lives of Anne Eliot and Frederick Wentworth cross again, eight years after she was persuaded to break off their engagement, neither can be sure what the other now feels. Anne is a gentle, intelligent and practical young woman; modest and quiet unlike her humoursly self-centered family. And Wentworth is noble and agreeable, bursting with emotions but terrible at revealing them.
So like every other perfect couple in history, they convince themselves that the other no longer loves them. Frederick's friendly attention to Anne's nieces convince her that he must love another; and her determined modesty makes him believe she could never return his affections. Oh, why don't they just tell each other!?
  And this is exactly why I get heart burn. Austen writes so well - building the suspence, carrying the novel through stolen glances and mistaken actions. I find myself drawn right into the room with Anne and Wentworth, watching their every move, trying to be patient, knowing they will come together eventually.

I have oodles of respect and love for Jane Austen. She is so clever and timeless. Her characters are vivid and true - we all know someone like the people in this story. And the locations remain alive today, places like Bath and Lyme Regis, still classically regent. This book mocks the foolish ignorance of the upper classes, challenges the percieved differences between the sexes, and celebrates the sensibility of educated women.

But the most incredible element in this novel is that letter - Captain Wentworth's confession. I can say no more; you must read Persuasion to understand.

Sunday, 1 December 2013


Lauren Oliver
London, Hodder, 2011, 393p

I feel like I know way too much about Oregon, having read this and If I Stay - both set in areas a short distance from each other.

And yet neither novels really brought the area to life, making limited use of visual imagery and vivid descriptions.

I am disappointed to have not been able to finish this novel. I gave it 100 pages, but found it to be moving too slowly. Perhaps I am still recovering from my William Boyd hangover, but I suspect it is more to do with the style and story of Delirium.

In this dystopia, love has been diagnosed as an illness, and teenagers await their eighteenth birthday when they can be cured. On the day of Lena's evaluation, when her future following the proceedure will be decided, she meets a boy who causes the symptoms of love.

I love the concept of this novel, and embarked upon it with enthusiasm and ardour. But within the first 50 pages, so little happened that I found myself jumping ahead, looking for some plot development. Even the characters didn't grow that much - it is implied that Lena has some subconscious concerns about the cure from the beginning, when we are informed that her mother died following unsuccessful proceedures and sometimes the illness can be genetic.

And to be honest, it is pretty clear where it is going. There are so many dystopian trilogies available to young adult readers at the moment, making it hard to find something original. Yet with such an unusual concept - with love being a disease -  I'd hoped this might be something different.

Friday, 29 November 2013

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles: The Story of Enaiatollah Akbari
Fabio Geda
Trans. Howard Curtis
London, Vintage, 2012, 211p

I am a little apprehensive about reviewing novels about characters from the middle east due to my lack of knowledge about the subject. Today, it is written about increasingly, with authors having varying levels of experience or understanding - so although some of the novels are fact-based and informative, others romanticise or orientalise.

Regardless, I enjoyed reading In the Sea There Are Crocodiles. Enaiat is an asylum seeker from Afghanistan, left to fend for himself at the age of ten, when his mother decides he will be safer away from his family and his home. He travels across the middle east into Europe, placing his trust in strangers and stowing away in the back of lorries and buses and boats.

The story is told through Enaiat's conversation with Fabio, but we are told it is as close to Enaiat's true voice as possible. Tthe language tends to be childlike and beautiful, but Enaiat does not go into much detail, prefering to just tell us the key facts rather than explain what everything landscape looked like. Occassionally, the story is broken up with snippets of conversation between Fabio and Enaiat, as Fabio asks for clarification or detail and Enaiat tries to keep the story on track.

I cannot claim to know if this is an honest depiction of the journey taken by an asylum seeker - especially as there must be thousands of different experiences - but I feel enlightened having read this novel. It challenged me to further question some of those subconscious assumptions we carry in the West and made me feel incredibly grateful for everything I am blessed to have. It is scary to think Enaiat is the same age as me.

For the young reader, Enaiat's story is an accessible way to develop a better understanding of other cultures and experiences. Enaiat is one of the few lucky ones.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Making of Us

The Making of Us
Lisa Jewell
London, Random, 2011, 390p

I think I am still a little hungover from reading William Boyd's Any Human Heart, meaning I have been unable to settle into any other novel since I finished his masterpiece. So I went in search of something a little more simple, to get my mind back in the game, and was recommended a bit of Lisa Jewell.

In various places across London, Dean, Robyn and Lydia know something is missing from their lives. Young Dean has just become a father, but has lost his girlfriend in childbirth, and he does not feel strong enough to give his daughter all the love and attention she needs. Robyn has just moved in with her boyfriend, but isn't feeling as awesome as she usually does. Lydia never had any family, and is now struggling to be happy with the fact her best friend is starting one of her own. The Making of Us is about these relationships between parents and children, brothers and sisters. And, in classic popular literature fashion, the three protagonists are all brought together by a mysterious and handsome French man.

I read and loved Lisa Jewell when I was a teenager - I remember recommending Ralph's Party to everyone I knew, though now I cannot even recall what it was about! With The Making of Us, I found myself wanting to edit it - making cuts to long unnecessary paragraphs. But still, I like her style and tone - the plots are not too challenging, but the stories and characters are likeable, so you find yourself wanting things to end well.

Fingers crossed this has cured my William Boyd hangover.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Drawing a Veil

Drawing a Veil
Lari Don
London, Bloomsbury, 2012, 61p

Amina and Ellie are best friends. But when Amina turns up at school wearing a head scarf, Ellie is confused. Is Amina different now? Does this change their friendship?

Drawing a Veil is a brilliant short read - appropriate in content for teenage readers, but adequately accessible for students with limited vocabulary. It does not patronise, but discusses serious issues faced by teenagers every day.

Amina is a confident, self-assured protagonist; but her friend Ellie questions her motives for choosing to wear a hajib. Amina breaks down her reasoning, offering the reader a simplified understanding of the choices available to young Mulsim women.

This is the sort of story that would appeal to students at my school due to the diversity of our intake. And as well as being a great story, it is educational and moral.

Friday, 22 November 2013


David Walliams
London, HarperCollins, 2012, 317p

It is always an unusual sensation to finish a grotesque novel and be feeling slightly peckish.

Zoe has a pretty miserable existence. Her father is always at the pub feeling sorry for himself; her stepmother is mean and greedy; and her pet hamster had just died. So when she finds a baby rat in her room, she is quick to adopt him as her new friend, even though he will land her in a lot of trouble.

Ratburger is classic Walliams: cheeky and zany. The story is ridiculous, with Zoe coming up against a chef who makes burgers out of rats. And the characters are disgusting, particularly Zoe's stepmother, who chain-eats prawn cracker crisps. She is overweight and dirty, and Walliams' language made me want to gag.

The book is brilliantly illustrated by Tony Ross, who brightens up the pages with his characerisation. The whole book seems to have been thoroughly composed, with fonts manufactured to reflect the onomatopoeic dialogue.

For me, Walliams' stories are not incredibly original, but bring classic children's stories into the modern age. Much like Roald Dahl, I imagine these will be forever loved.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

If I Stay

If I Stay
Gayle Forman
London, Black Swan, 2009, 250p

The concept behind this novel is unbelievably tragic. From the wreck of her parent's car, Mia can see her broken body being held together by the paramedics. She knows she is hurt, but cannot feel it; instead, she watches from the outside as her life falls apart and her friends and family pray for her recovery.

Based on true events, this novel is a spiritual exploration of the thin line between life and death. It asks difficult questions about what it means to lose everyone you love and how you are meant to live when life alters irrevocably.

If I Stay is also a novel about music - it has it's own soundtrack. Mia is a cellist and her family and boyfriend are ardent rock fans. Music runs throughout the novel, from the moment the accident occurs, drawing out memories and emotions, sometimes long forgotten.

Memory is an important theme in this novel. As her body tries to recuperate, Mia's spiritual other dreams of the past - of meeting her boyfriend, of laughter shared with her family. The use of different tenses is brilliantly emotive - sometimes, the memories are written in present tense, as if Mia is experiencing things that happened long ago for the first time. And particuylarly poignant is when Mia refers to her mother in the past tense, slowly coming to terms with what has happened.

I have mixed feelings on finishing this novel. I loved reading it - so poetic and musical, intricately composed. But it was the kind of book that should have made me cry and, strangely, I shed not one tear.

Monday, 18 November 2013

How to Breathe Underwater

How to Breathe Underwater
Julie Orringer
London, Penguin

Over half term, I loaned copies of How to Breathe Underwater to a student and a colleague. When they returned, both were full of praise for this collection of short stories. 

I have been reading Orringer's tales over the course of several weeks, dipping in and out of them, savouring the poetry and tragedy. They are real life stories about girlhood and family and religion. They speak of universal truths, everyday emotions: love, anger, jealousy, hope. They are not bold or particularly dramatic, but the stories open your eyes and settle in your mind, staying with you long after you have finished reading.  

Two stories in particular stood out to me. One is called 'Note to my Sixth Grade Self', in which the author recalls a childhood memory through a series of command sentences, such as, "On Wednesdays wear a skirt. A skirt is better for dancing." This language perfectly encapsulates the uncertainty and apprehension of childhood, as the protagonist negotiates her way through the drama of love and want. Characteristic of these stories is the feeling of not belonging - they are all stories about girls' need to fit in, always watching from the outside.

The other story that has stayed with me is 'When She is Old And I am Famous'. Here, Mira battles with jealousy and anger at her beautiful, popular cousin. Orringer's women are not flawless females, but realistic humans, full of the emotions experiences by so many young girls. This honesty is what makes these stories so enticing and universal.

How to Breathe Underwater offers young women the acknowledgement that growing up is not easy. Her stories deal with real experiences and emotions. They are a pleasure to read, gifting the reader with the feeling that everything is going to be ok.

Friday, 15 November 2013

The Shadow out of Time

The Shadow out of Time
H. P. Lovecraft & I. N. J. Culbard
London, SelfMadeHero, 2013

There are an increasing number of classics being adapted to graphic novels recently. In my library, I have graphic versions of Dickens and Shakespeare. For reluctant readers, graphic novels are a more accessible route into stories, through use of illustrations and short pockets of text.

The Shadow out of Time is a rather complicated novel, and this graphic adaptation continues to use the complex terminology of the original. When Professor Peaslee loses five years of his life, he struggles to piece together the facts amidst terrifying nightmares. He learns of a mysterious race older than man, who draw from human experience to create a library full of the secrets of the universe. 

It is a dark, mysterious story. I found it confusing in places - I couldn't make sense of the strange fantastical beings Peaslee uncovers. Lovecraft is a master of the weird, and this story spans great passages of time and space. Peaslee is a engaging protagonist, suffering through horrendous nightmares, determined to understand what has happened to him, travelling across the world to gain the knowledge he so desires. But he remains surprisingly lucid, eager to do what is best for his son, in spite of his overwhelming psychological trauma.

The art work in this graphic novel are incredible, particularly the scenes towards the finale that take place at night. It is incredible that Culbard is able to illustrate the drama of the situation using dark blues and blacks. On some pages, I had to look incredibly closely to see the detail. 

This is not the sort of graphic novel you might give to a reluctant reader, as the language and story are so complicated. But for a lover of fantasy, regardless of age, this is a beautiful piece of art and literature.  

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Rules
Maxine Linnell
London, Bloomsbury, 2012, 79p

Mo moves house and starts a new school, faced with all the usual challenges of being a teenager and more. She feels like she doesn't fit in. All her attempts to make friends seem to end in embarrassment, nothing she does is 'right'. She creates some rules by which to live, pushing herself to meet new people and forcing herself to say yes to any opportunity that arises.

Until a boy adds her on a social networking site, claiming to also be new to the area. They support each other - he helps her feel more comfortable in this small new town. When he suggests they meet up, Mo knows she has to live by her new rules, so plans a trip to the city. But in doing so, she is placing herself in unknown danger.

Breaking the Rules is part of the short read collection in the Book Trust School Library Pack. This particular book is a great example of a high interest level with less complex language. It is targeted at lower ability teenagers, who want to read about kids they can relate to and worlds they recognise. As well as being a gripping and dramatic book, it contains a lesson about talking to strangers.

Monday, 11 November 2013


Neil Gaiman
London, Bloomsbury, 2009, 185p

This is a dark, sinister novel that I have been putting off reading for a while due to concerns about having nightmares...

Coraline is a bored, lonely girl. She likes exploring - out in the woods, up in her neighbours' flat, all around her new old house. Her parents are very busy so she is left to entertain herself. Then one day, she unlocks a door into another house, where the other mother and father give her lots of love and attention. They want her to stay there with her, promising to give her everything she could ever want. But Coraline just wants her real parents back.

Coraline is a clever and curious protagonist. She loves to learn new things, always asking questions about the worlds around her. Unfortunately, the adults around her are pretty useless, too caught up in their own lives to engage with and entertain her. Her little adventure is full of strange people and places, like the man who is trying to teach rats to play musical instruments and the women who reminisce extensively about their past lives as famous actresses on stage.

The world Coraline finds herself in is dark and dangerous. It looks just like her parents house, but the more she investigates the more she realises that things are not as they initially seem. Her room is brightly decorated and contains strange, living toys; and outside, the woods are incomplete, slowly becoming misty and vague the further she wanders in. And her other parents, though kind and caring in appearance, are greedy and evil, desperate to possess her soul.

As a child, I was scared about my parents forgetting about me or losing me. Here, Gaiman plays on that universal fear, creating a nightmare that no child ever wishes to live.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Stick Dog

Stick Dog
Tom Watson
London, HarperCollins, 2013, 189p

It's lovely to be back reading children's fiction after my half term of heavy and historical drama.

Stick Dog is a funny, adorable junior fiction book, similar in style to the Wimpy Kid books. Here, the protagonist is a strag dog, who teams up with his canine friends to gatecrash a barbeque at the local park. Together, they plot to get past the human family to the sizzling hamburgers. The novel is full of misguided planning, distracting squirrels and pretty substandard illustrations.

Watson professes from the first page that he cannot draw. His characters are all stick people / animals and the other pictures are pretty basic, but I felt this added to the book - it's not always about the details, but about getting the story across, which Watson perfects. And anyway, as long as you can differentiate between the characters, drawings don't matter too much.

Stick Dog is the sensible one in his gang - each of his friends are uniquely quirky,  occassionally foolish and always hungry. Actually, this book really made me crave a hamburger!

This is a great crossover between aniamal stories and comedy - a perfect way to ease myself back into teenage literature.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013


Michael Frayn

I have to admit - I am still a little baffled by this play, just as I was when I read Spies

Copenhagen is a fact-based play about a meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941. It is non-linear, jumping between the first time the men worked together in the 1920, their meeting in 1941 and an unspecified later date. The men discuss the creation of atomic weapons, trying to piece together the sequence of events of their historic meeting in Copenhagen in 1941. 

Heisenberg and Bohr conflict over what they remember from that fateful meeting in 1941. Neither recalls exactly what was said or what was intended - as explored in Spies, memory is never perfect. 

The play is incredibly complex, both in terms of it's style and content. There are minimal stage directions and only three characters - Heisenberg, Bohr, and his wife Margrethe. All three remain on stage throughout, though sometimes the dialogue implies that the character talking might not be aware of the presence of others. This lack of formal structure means that the script has a lot of room in which the actors can play, presumably producing incredible theatrical shows. I think that seeing this on stage would definitely clear up some of my confusion.

Because the story is about science behind the atomic bomb, some of the language is incredibly jargonised. Much of the terminology was too difficult for me to understand, but beneath the physics was an exploration of memory and morality.

Undoubtedly, Michael Frayn is an incredibly well-educated writer, repeatedly exploring the flawed nature of memory and the significance of history. But this play was difficult to visualise - a stark contrast from other plays I have read recently in which stage directions bring to life the author's vision.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Any Human Heart

Any Human Heart
William Boyd 
London, Penguin, 2009, 490p

It's quite nice to read a 'grown-up' novel for once. Any Human Heart contains the diaries of the fictional Logan Mountstuart, detailing his life across the twentieth century, incorporating real events and people. At different times, Logan is a writer, a spy or an art dealer; he lives in London, Paris, New York and Africa; he experiences the hardship of the Second World War, the swing of the sixties, and the simple peace of family life. I was utterly engrossed.

The diaries begin during Logan's school years, boarding in Norfolk, and travel with him all over the world. They are sporadic and often undated, with gaps filled by an omniscient, anonymous narrator. In places, there will be a gap of many years, but then they pick up again for no apparent reason. His entries vary in detail and tone, sometimes philosophical, sometimes bluntly matter of fact, but always honest. Being a well-educated writer, Logan's vocabulary is sophisticated and complex, with many words that I had to look up, but I loved the challenging nature of the novel. 

It is a magnificent account of life, true in it's everyday occurrences and extraordinary moments. As Logan states:
"Isn't this how life turns out, more often than not? It refuses to conform to your needs - the narrative needs that you feel are essential to give rough shape to your time on this earth."
Logan's life is not without drama, but it also has great sections in which nothing much happens. And yet you get drawn into the details, from the days spent hobnobbing with literary greats to the end of year reviews in which he always declares he must cut down on alcohol. 

What I admire most about this novel is the historical accuracy. There were episodes I read that seemed to be great works of literary fiction, but turned out to have actually occurred. Logan mixes with Hemingway and Virginia Woolf in the 1930's London - his fictional adventures pass cross their real lives. Later, he works for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, becoming embroiled in a murder scandal that later sees him imprisoned in Switzerland under mysterious circumstances. I was so in awe of Boyd's detailed knowledge of the twentieth century, to the point where I started to believe the fictional characters in the novel must also be real. 

Any Human Heart was a pleasure to read. It is a gift to history and literature. 

Monday, 28 October 2013

How I Live Now

How I Live Now
Meg Rosoff
London, Penguin, 2004, 211p

Somehow, miraculously, I managed to avoid seeing the trailer for the adaptation for this novel before I read the book. But as such, I had no idea what I was about to read - whatever I had expected, this was not it.

Daisy is shipped by her father from New York to rural England in the hope that it will help her get better. She is an angry, lonely teenager suffering from anorexia. For the first few months, she finally starts to feel like she can be at peace here with her cousins; until war breaks out and the teenagers are separated, left to fight for survival in a world gone mad. 

I thought How I Live Now was going to be a teen romance - the blurb on my version is very ambiguous, with no mention of devastating war. Whilst in England, Daisy falls for her mysterious cousin, Edmond. She admits it might be incestuous, but when war breaks out, you forget all about the romance plot as the characters are suddenly thrust into your worst nightmare.

The cause of the war is never fully clear - it is the perfect dystopia. As such, you are not preoccupied with the 'why' but focused upon the 'what'. The war is unpredictable and unexplained - no one ever seems sure of what is happening. For most of the novel, Daisy and Piper, separated from the boys, are left to fend for themselves, traipsing across the English countryside. It is picturesque and terrifying in equal measure - even if you do not live in England, you have some idea of what the countryside would be like, and here Rosoff transforms it into a vast, empty space with no refuge. 

Food is a significant trope throughout the novel. At first, Daisy is distracted by her need to control what she eats, venting her frustration through her eating disorder. But when faced with the possibility of being unable to find food, the war forces her to eat all she can. Whole chapters of the novel are dedicated to Daisy describing the food she finds and cooks, whilst she craves toast and butter. This is very effective - food is something we can all relate to, and by focusing Daisy's suffering on such a universal concept, the war becomes real.
Even under the protection of adults, Daisy and her cousins are never safe. Throughout the novel, there is a massive disconnect between adults and children, but not in a Lord of the Flies sort of way. Instead, adults in How I Live now are completely null and void. These teenagers seem to survive better without adult supervision. Adults cannot provide answers or safety - if anything, they are the cause of all that is bad, being responsible for the war, for death and for the teenagers' separation and loss. Refreshingly, Rosoff does not patronise her protagonists - adults are not brought in to save the day - but instead shows the teenagers as the real heroes, with their love for each other overcoming all. In this way, this novel is a rare gem in which young people are truly of the greatest value.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Jessica Ennis-Hill

Jessica Ennis-Hill
Roy App
London, Franklin Watts, 2013, 47p

My Book Trust school library pack arrived in the post this week, and I have been plotting great things to do with the sets of six books after half term.

As well as the book club packs, this year's box included a selection of short read titles and several short story collections. Amongst them was this - the biography of Jessica Ennis-Hill.

 Written in the style of a piece of fiction, this book outlines Ennis' rise to success from her first introduction to competitive athletics as a young teenager in Sheffield to her victory at the London 2013 Olympic Games.

Because of the nature of Ennis' story, some of the language in this text is a little complicated for less able readers, including the athletics related terminology. The book could have benefited from a glossary, though it does contain pictures to illustrate some of the content.

This biography is part of the Dream to Win series - tales of success from comtemporary heroes ti inspire young readers. In terms of style, Franklin Watts have hit the nail on the head. The font is adequately large and the sentences are short and well spread out. It is a formula you see in every one of their short reads, which make them ideal for our reluctant readers.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Shock of the Fall

The Shock of the Fall
Nathan Filer
London, HarperCollins, 2013, 307p

The Shock of the Fall is the debut novel of Nathan Filer, a registered mental health nurse turned creative writing genius.

When Matt's brother dies, everything changes. Matt idolised his older brother and blames himself, and a decade later we meet Matt at a day centre where he is in a therapy program. With access to a computer, Matt has decided to start writing about what happened at the caravan park in Dorset.

Matt is an incredibly honest narrator, detailing with vivid descriptions the tiniest of details: such as the way one of the care nurses clicks and winks at him, or the excitement of the morning routine of his childhood. But there are hints of secrets untold, to be revealed as you edge deeper and deeper into his story.

Mental health is a complex and sensitive subject to novelise. Here, Filer is informed and open, demonstrating the full range of emotions experienced by his young protagonists, from numbness to raging anger, from confusion to desperation. The plot jumps back and forth, from present day as Matt taps away at the computer to memories of his childhood, shared with his brother and later without. It's repetitive, too - Matt openly states that he sometimes feels like a broken record, unable to move on or escape.

I like to think of myself as a fairly educated reader, but even with this novel I learnt a lot. Matt talks about how people react to mental health patients - the tone, the terminology, the body language - and I found myself reflecting on my behaviour. Undoubtedly, this is the kind of novel that stays with you.

Filer wrote this novel whilst studying for an MA in creative writing, and it shows. He is a very contentious novelist, demonstrating a wide range of skills and styles - dialogue, description, soliloquised rants, and abstract dream sequences. But this variety is perfect for a protagonist with schizophrenia, allowing the reader to delve deep into Matt's mind.

This is a devastatingly emotional novel - simply beautiful. The complex style is powerfully effective, enticing the reader into a world few of us can fully comprehend.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Noble Conflict

Noble Conflict
Malorie Blackman
London, Random House, 2013, 357p

Words fail me when I try to describe how much I adore this novel. Malorie Blackman is best known for her Noughts and Crosses series, but this novel is what truly shows how talented and engaging she is.

Kaspar is a Guardian of the Alliance. His job is to defend civilians from Insurgents, the dangerous enemy intent on disrupting the peace of his society. Years ago, the Insurgents damaged the earth through experimentation, forcing the Alliance to segregate them. Now, the Insurgents are a constant threat, and the Alliance must fight defend, but aim to avoid causing any death. 

But Kaspar starts to question what he has always believed to be true. With the aid of Mac, a kick-ass librarian, he delves deeper into the history of the Alliance and the integrity of some of the recent attacks, revealing some disturbing information.

Noble Conflict is an intelligent, thrilling read. Blackman does not patronise her reader, but challenges you to keep up with her. Her dystopia is complicated and thought-provoking - like Kaspar, I found myself stating to question what I knew about the society in which I live.

The action throughout this novel is brilliantly controlled and executed. From page one, you are gripped, as the Insurgents attack an Alliance ceremony. Each moment reveals a little more of the mystery to you, and you cannot help but read on! I can't pretend that I didn't guess the ending before it happened (I tend to do that a lot), but it made no dent in my enjoyment of the story.

Most of all, I love the characters in this novel. Kaspar is a dream protagonist - loyal, handsome, clever and a brilliant fighter. He has great friends, each of whom seem incredibly real and wonderful despite not being a significant element in the novel. But best of all are the female leads - Rhea and Mac. You barely get to know Rhea - she is doused in mystery, temptingly dangled in front of you and never fully revealing herself - but she is brave and feisty and passionate, providing Kaspar with the motivation to discover the truth. Meanwhile, Mac provides him with the resources to learn more. As a librarian, she is a credit to our trade. She never falters, she's smart, confident and driven; she is a perfect counterpart to balance Kaspar's fiery masculinity. And the tools she has to carry out research are genius - I wish I had little bots I could program to trawl cyberspace for information. 

Plus, she gets the best line of the whole novel:
"Books and knowledge don't make for a safe world. Just the opposite. Books and knowledge are facets of truth and the truth can be very dangerous."
It is not completely clear if Blackman has a sequel in mind for this one, but I would love to read more about this world!