Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire
Stieg Larsson, trans. Reg Keeland
London, MacLehose, 2009, 569p

*Spoiler alert*

I want more. No, I need more. I need to know what happens next. Why is the final part of this series not within arms reach? I am angry that I have to wait until tomorrow to be able to take it from the shelves of my library and start to devour every word Larsson has written. I hate cliffhangers. 

The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second in the Millennium series. We rejoin Lisbeth Salander, now rather rich due to some nifty hacking and a bit of dress-up. She has spent a year traveling, having cut all ties with her friends in Sweden, especially Mikael Blomkvist. She is angry with herself for having fallen for Blomkvist, and angry with Blomkvist, as many women find themselves when attracted to someone. When she returns to Stockholm, she manages to land herself in the position of being the prime suspect in a triple murder investigation.

Blomkvist, meanwhile, is working hard at his magazine, continuing his role as a moral force of journalism, when an expose into sex trafficking and drug smuggling lands in his lap. Dag Svensson and Mia Johanssen have unveiled a number of high-ranking policemen, politicians, journalist, etc. who are involved in the abuse of underaged girls. Through the Millennium magazine, they will expose these individuals. And I really can't reveal much else without giving away the whole plot.

But needless to say, it is incredible. Larssen delves deeper into the past of Salander, revealing some of her darkest moments and best kept secrets. I became a little frustrated with the first part of this novel, as Lisbeth seemed to have lost some of her "angry woman" charm from the first book. She was preoccupied with her feelings about Blomkvist (well, preoccupied with suppressing her feelings), and she'd had plastic surgery. I felt like she was losing the things that identified her, and made her a woman to be admired.

But her return to Sweden sees her return to her former self. Within hours, she is using her fighting skills to escape the grasp of a heavy-set blonde thug. She tries to redeem herself, by visiting old friends such as Mimmi, Dragan Armansky and Holger Palmgren (note: she is still avoiding Blomkvist). When she becomes a suspect in the murder trial, she has some brilliant characters around to defend her.

Blomkvist remains loyal, despite Salander's absence. He hangs around by her apartment in the hope of seeing her. When her name becomes entangled in the murder investigation, and her name is smeared through the mud by the press, he stands his ground, insistent upon her innocence. He is almost too moral, but it's impossible to forget the mistakes he made in the first book, proving he is as human as any of us.

As with the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson presents the reader with a load of new characters and plot lines, but is incredibly skilled at keeping the story on track. Despite so many new faces, I found each one was successfully brought to life. The mystery unfolded on a number of fronts, with several teams running parallel investigations - the police, of course, ran the official investigation, whilst Armansky lead a team at Milton Security, and Blomkvist had all hands on deck at Millennium. Each team brought new evidence to the story - every conversation created as many new questions as it did answers. And yet, Larsson clearly knew the direction he was taking - everything was incredibly well planned, and I was impressed that he managed to avoid giving too much away. Every new revelation made me gasp; I was completely engrossed.

I just know the final book in this series will be as incredible as what I have read so far. It's a bittersweet moment to be this close to finishing the novels - I don't want it to end!

Friday, 25 January 2013

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Jeff Kinney
London, Puffin, 2007, 217p

It has gotten to the point where I cannot avoid reading the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books any longer. All the students at my school are talking about it. Every day, someone asks me if there are any copies available. They are swept from the shelves within moment of being returned. It is the most popular series in my school.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is the diary of Greg Heffley. He is starting middle school in America, and recounts the details of his youth. The story isn't complex or dramatic, but it's easy to relate to. Greg is awkward and unpopular. He isn't particularly attractive or incredibly smart. He's the middle child - his older brother bullies him, whilst his younger brother is revered by his parents. His best friend, Rowley, is a bit embarrassing, but he's loyal. 

There isn't any romance or any great confrontation with the school bully. Greg just drifts through his school days, aimlessly getting by. He's ambitious - part of the reason he writes his diary is so that people can read it when he becomes famous. But at school, he's a bit of a nobody.

I think that's part of the reason it appeals so much to young readers. Even the most reluctant students will give it a go. I love seeing young people talk about the characters and events, like they might talk about their favourite celebrities lives. Girls and boys love the stories equally, defying the rule that girls want books about female characters. Greg is normal and real - he makes mistakes, but he's never so naughty it's unbelievable. 

I don't imagine many parents read the same books their children are reading, but I do recommend this one. There are brilliant moral lessons about friendship and honesty, and Kinney emphases the values that any parents would want to see shine through in their children. This series shows that there is nothing wrong with being a nobody.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Robot Goalie

Robot Goalie
Roger Hurn
Stevenage, Badger, 2011, 32p

Badger Learning recently sent me a small box of short, low level books, which are part of their First Flight series. They are also part of the Accelerated Reader reading scheme, which our library has just implemented. Whilst setting up AR, I found our library lacked books at the lower levels of the reading program, so have been ardently searching for something my students might be interested in.

Robot Goalie is a tale in which two siblings find plans for their Great Uncle's inventions, and bring his design to life to create a robot goalie, in the hope of winning a penalty shoot-out competition. The book is short, but the story is well paced, maintaining the reader's interest. 

Throughout the First Flight series, the books seem to have a similar structure. They contain a list of a few key words at the beginning, giving the reader the opportunity to look up a definition before embarking on the story. This is particularly helpful for readers with limited vocabulary, and works well alongside AR, which aims to expand students' comprehension. At the end of the book, there is a page of facts - in this case, facts about inventions. There are also some questions about the plot, so teachers and parents can test the children's understanding. 

The words and paragraphs are well spaced throughout the book, and the pages are broken up with illustrations. These factors, I feel, help the reader follow the story by setting the pace. 

According to the AR Book Levels, this story is at the lower end of the scale, but should be of interest to "middle years" students, typically aged between 9 to 13. I feel that this is an accurate estimate of the interest level.

Unfortunately, the concern in my library is that there are very few books at a low reading level with high interest level. Many of the 11-year-old students I know would prefer to read more racy, exciting books, even if they have a low reading level. I am concerned that there is a gap in the market caused by an assumption that less able students like to read less interesting books. 

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

"Who Could That Be at This Hour?"

"Who Could That Be at This Hour?"
Lemony Snicket
London, Egmont, 2012, 258p

When reading or watching something that is part of a series, I am incredibly impatient. I hate cliffhangers. Often, I wait until the whole series is available, so I can enjoy it without suffering from regular breaks. Unfortunately, I read this new Snicket novel without considering the fact that it is the first in his new series, All the Wrong Questions.

"Who Could That Be at This Hour?" is a first person narrative from the voice of Lemony Snicket (who, we must note, is the pseudonym of Daniel Handler, the genius who brought us The Series of Unfortunate Events). Having completed an unusual education, Snicket is apprenticed to an incompetent detective, and sent to Stain'd-by-the-Sea to help return a stolen statue to it's owner. But Snicket is certain that things are not as they seem.

This novel is such a clever book, it almost seems to be showing off. Snicket clearly loves language - he uses words that even I could not define. Fortunately, throughout the text, he defines any complex terminology, creating both clarity for the reader, and light entertainment in the tone:
"Your penchant for asking too many questions and for general rudeness makes me reluctant to keep you. 'Penchant' is a word which here means habit."
Handler's creative imagination has no bounds - he places our protagonist in a fabulous world full of literary references. The characters are equally peculiar and marvelous - my favourite of whom is sub-librarian Dashiell Qwerty - what a brilliant name! You have to suspend your disbelief, but it's totally worth it. Mystery seeps through every page, causing both the characters and reader to question what is happening; but the novel is also full of comedy, the combination of which makes for delightful literature. 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia
Katherine Paterson
New York, Harper Collins, 2006, 163p

One of my favourite pieces of American literature is Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. I like the historical setting and the development of an unexpected friendship. I like the young boy who becomes a hero, through his honesty and bravery. Katherine Paterson's award-winning novel is similarly uplifting.

Bridge to Terabithia is about the friendship that develops between Jess and Leslie, and the world they create using their imaginations. Jess is a sensitive and creative boy - he loves to draw, but he still strives to maintain a manly persona. Leslie is clever and passionate. On her first day at school, she beats Jess in a race, becoming the fastest kid in the fifth grade. He is embarrassed, but admires her. 

Together, they imagine Terabithia. It is a world where they are King and Queen, located on the edge of the woods by a river. They create rituals, and swear each other to secrecy. Leslie tells Jess great stories, like Moby Dick and Hamlet, and he dreams the worlds she describes.

The plot isn't complicated or overly dramatic - Paterson focuses upon character development more than the story, but she offers an unexpected ending. For younger readers, I am worried this may be off-putting - the pace is rather slow. Instead, morality seeps through the pages, in the form of lessons against judging other people. The novel promotes friendship and love. It highlights the magic of story-telling and imagination. In this way, perhaps it is a story for the more mature junior reader - someone looking for friendship and escape.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Mortal Chaos 2 Deep Oblivion

Mortal Chaos 2 Deep Oblivion
Matt Dickinson
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012, 299p

Another thrilling, roller-coaster ride of a story from Matt Dickinson. Like it's predecessor, Deep Oblivion is fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping stuff.

Dickinson's work draws upon chaos theory, arguing that variations in events could lead to incredibly different consequences. Even the fluttering of a butterfly's wings could cause disaster.

This novel brings together many different events, all overlapping, many with serious consequences. There is a homeless teenager who steals a motorbike; a young man setting up the New Years fireworks display on Sydney harbour; and a large cruise ship docking at port. Set predominantly in Australia, with other characters in South America and South-East Asia, the events in themselves are interesting but not substantial enough for a good plot. But together, chaos reigns.

I love Dickinson's descriptive style - he brings the story to life; you can see it before your eyes. I have recommended it to young reluctant readers, mainly boys, and they thoroughly enjoy the drama and intensity. The chapters are short, most are about a page long, so the plot moves quickly, jumping between characters, locations and events. Sometimes, the use of many events can confuse a plot, causing the reader distress; but Dickinson has complete control over the plot, and guides the reader through the drama.

You start to think that anything could happen; anyone could die. Dickinson laces the plot with recurring themes and imagery - in this novel, I specifically noted his repeated use of fire and water, repeatedly threatening his characters. And, as the novel's tag line states, some will die. Expect to be thrilled.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Stieg Larsson, trans. Reg Keeland
London, MacLehose, 2008, 533p

It's not often a book has me sat up late at night, unable to put it down. I usually sucumb to the temptations of sleep. But The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo defied all my expectations - it was incredible.

I am a self-confessed fan of anything Scandinavian, and I have always loved of crime fiction (thanks to my mother's relentless viewing of detective dramas). And of course, I had heard how wonderful and gripping Larsson's writing is, but he just managed to slip under my radar ... until now.

It is a difficult plot to explain without giving too much away. But at it's core, Mikael Blomkvist is a financial journalist whose reputation is ruined when he commits libel against a wealthy businessman, Wennerström. He is offered the chance to escape the media in Stockholm, so travels to Hedeby to ghost-write the biography of another business tycoon, Henrik Vanger. Vanger promises to provide Blomkvist with information with which to ruin Wennerström, if Blomkvist helps Vanger uncover the mystery of the death of his niece, Harriet. 

I think part of the challenge was the length of the novel. I knew it would be time consuming, and in the first few pages, the language was challenging and the direction was unclear. The lives of the two main characters do not collide until page 293, meaning the first 292 pages consist of two different plots. In my opinion, Larsson was a genuis to do this - it allowed for incredible character development. Many detective partners are defined in terms of their partnership - from the start of their story, they play off one another, acting as opposites. But in the Millennium series, the characters are given lives and histories outside their partnership. 

Thus, for the first part of the novel, Lisbeth Salander lives her everyday life. I would not call it a normal life - she is a highly-skilled computer hacker, working at a security firm. Her job is to run information checks for clients - she is an incredible researcher (I really want her job). She is also the victim of sexual abuse - a theme that is rife throughout the Millennium trilogy.

The plot is intricate and complicated, full of many players and events (Larsson is kind enough to provide the reader with a family tree, as there are many characters connected to the disappearance of Harriet Vanger). The story is full of red herrings and more literal pickled herrings - oh, how the Swedes love their fish. Many crimes are uncovered, some more obvious than others. What I love most is that no one is perfect - there is no unquestionable moral force, as every character is shown as capable of wrong-doing. As such, you love the character, and they become incredibly real. 

And you may be interested to know the Swedish title for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is "Män som hatar kvinnor", which literally translated to "men who hate women". 

Wednesday, 16 January 2013


London, Vintage, 1998, 140+p

Push is a novel that is both disturbing and inspiring. It deals with delicate and challenging issues, but also portrays love and friendship as central and inescapable forces for good.

The story is written from the point of view of Precious, a sixteen year old African American who is pregnant for the second time by her father. She has been failed by her family, the education system, and social services; but finds friendship with her classmates on an adult learning course. 

Sapphire, a.k.a. Romona Lofton, draws on her own experience in this semi-autobiographical novel. The events are harrowing - not only does Precious' father molest her, but her mother blames her for the rape. Precious' classmates are also victims of violence and sexual abuse, but are shown love by their teacher, Blue Rain. 

It is a brilliantly written first person narrative. The text is littered with spelling mistakes, as Precious writes phonetically; but Sapphire demonstrates her increased confidence and progress through improves spelling and sentence structure. Through Precious' eyes, we learn how she sees the world, and how she feels the world sees her. She carries the weight of terrible trauma on her heavy shoulders, and asks, "Why me?" She hates who she is - she hates her skin colour, her weight, everything. She dreams of being a skinny white virgin, believing this is the only way she could ever find love.

At first, the classmates are reluctant to get to know one another, having previously experienced nothing but betrayal and pain. But Miss Rain is an inspiring teacher, demonstrating that the girls can achieve anything they want. She provides them with a safe space in which to share and learn, without the threat of mockery, embarrassment, or abuse. This environment allows the girls to blossom - at one point, Precious asks, "Why no one never taught me these things before" [sic]. Miss Rain is the one who tells Precious to "push", to try, to be the best she can be.

I saw the film adaptation of this novel last year, but I honestly prefer the book. It is fascinating to be right inside Precious' head, to see the things that couldn't be portrayed on film. It explains her desires and ambitions within the context of her world view. It's hard to imagine experiencing what Precious has experienced, but Sapphire does a brilliant job of bringing this character to life. After reading this tragic novel, I feel I have a far greater perspective on the world, and I see how lucky I am. All of us have the potential to learn and do good things; all of us deserved to be loved. And I think that hope is what will stay with me. 

Monday, 14 January 2013

How to be a Pirate

How to be a Pirate
Cressida Cowell
London, Hodder, 2010, 225p

I just get more and more in love with this series of stories. They are clever, funny, and heroic. Hiccup demonstrates that the qualities that make up a good leader are not always to do with strength and sword-fighting. He is smart and thoughtful, and brilliant.

In How to Be a Pirate, we return to find Hiccup continuing in his training to become a viking, which includes pirate training. There are a range of lessons to be learned, from sword-fighting at sea to spitting. During another difficult lesson, Hiccup is saved from confrontation with one of his greatest rivals, Dogsbreath the Duhbrain, by a wayward coffin. On further investigation, it appears to be the coffin of Grimbeard the Ghastly, with instructions as to how to find his treasure. 

I adore Hiccup. Over Christmas, I saw the film adaptation of How to Train Your Dragon, and it was excellent viewing, if a little far from the original plot. As with many books targetted at this age group, the protagonist is not your typical hero - he is not brave or strong, but unlucky and cautious. Hiccup is in a league of his own - he is supposed to be the future Chief of the Isle of Berk, but couldn't be further from the average viking - and he is facing some tough competition.

But the moral to this story is that heroism comes from within. Hiccup is deserving, because he is kind and careful. He isn't dominated by greed or animalistic instinct. He may be pretty easy to relate to, for many young boys and girls. And despite all the odds, he is clearly a hero in the making.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents
Terry Pratchett
London, Corgi, 2002, 270p

Maurice is an amazing name for a cat. It suits Pratchett's creation perfectly - he is clever, confident, and a little bit conniving, but he has a big heart buried beneath all that bravado.

I haven't read Pratchett in a while (he is my dad's favourite, so I indulged in Discworld in my teens), but a dose of The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents was just what I needed. Pratchett is well-informed and funny, and his characters are simply a work of genius. In this novel, Pratchett plays with the world of fairy tales, using the Pied Piper as inspiration. 

Having eaten some peculiar substance discarded outside a wizarding school, Maurice and his friends (the educated rodents) are suddenly able to talk and think. They have dreams and they write things down. Maurice is shocked to find he feels guilt. But they can also plot and plan. 

They talk a boy into helping them, they creep into towns, causing chaos. They scare people, eat food, and widdle everywhere. The townsfolk decide to call on a rat piper - enter the young boy who is working alongside the rats. He whistles a tune, and the rats follow him, pretending to be led away. The boy collects his reward, and they split their winnings.

One day, they stumble into a rather odd towns. Rat catchers are already at work, but the educated rodents find no other rats. Either the rat catchers are doing a really good job, or something odd is at play.

I really enjoyed the world Pratchett has created. It's traditionally fairy-tale-esque, with a clever modern twist conveyed through Pratchett's dry, intelligent humour. What I like about Pratchett's teenage fiction is that he does not patronise, but talks to his reader as he would an adult reader. The story is accessible and fun, and Maurice is marvelous.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen
London, Everyman's Library, 1991, 368p

Cozy Classics: Pride and Prejudice
This month marks the bicentenary of the publication Pride and Prejudice, arguably the definition of the classic novel. Everyone knows the title, the characters and the plot. Everyone seems to have an opinion on it - whether you think it's the best literature ever written, or the origin of the trashy girly novel. And I think it deserves celebrating.

The Guardian kicked off the party with the 10 best Jane Austen characters (see also their other article about the bicentennial here). My own personal party began with rereading Pride and Prejudice - a novel I have read so often that I can't remember life before it. I first read it in my early teens. It was the kind of thing my mum was in to (she continues to watch period dramas almost every weekend); so, in wanting to emulate her, I embarked on a journey into fin de siecle England, and the mind of Miss Jane Austen. 

I found myself in a world full of gowns and dancing, money and wealth, and where family dynamics were central to the plot. Social expectations were mocked or put on trial. Beauty came from within, and girls who exhibited sillyness were just ... silly. But, most quintessentially, it was a world where women were funny and intelligent, and men repeatedly made fools of themselves due to their inability to look beyond their own experience. 

For a modern reader, the language may be a little challenging at first. But with a little effort, I found it fairly easy to get past the structure and form, to uncover the wonderful story beneath. And due to the complexity of some of the terminology, as I grow up and learn more, I find something new each time I reread. 

Pride and Prejudice is not my favourite Jane Austen novel (see my previous rant about Persuasion), but it has such an incredibly strong cult following, from movies to modern interpretations to the insertion of zombies into the plot. Surely you should read it just so you know what everyone else is talking about!

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Eats, Shoots and Leaves
Lynne Truss
London, Profile Books, 2003, 209p

Yesterday morning, I woke to find an angry Facebook post from friend and fellow blogger, The Red Headed Woman, about an example of abuse of the English language on the radio:
Man on radio claiming he went to Oxford so knows about the "most brightest"... most bright/brightest. Not that smart are you?
Just hours later, another blogger and my marvellous librarian friend, @Lady_PGD tweeted:
'pilkunnussija' (noun): Finnish: A person with exceptional and unnecessary attention to detail. Translates literally as 'comma-fucker'
I rather enjoyed finding these glorious examples of how the Internet can be put to good use, as I have just read Lynne Truss' famous attack on poor grammar and punctuation - Eats, Shoots and Leaves. A witty, well-researched rant against all those signs you have seen advertising "book's for sale". Chapter by chapter, Truss outlines the history of our favourite punctuation symbols, and informs the reader of the rules and regulations by which we must abide. 

I found the historical information particularly interesting - apparently, the earliest known use of punctuation is credited to a librarian in around 200 BC (yay us!). On reflection, I think I tend to abide by Victorian grammatical rules (in particular, overuse of the comma), as most of what I read is Victorian. 

Punctuation, despite changing throughout history, has a significant influence on how we interpret what we read; for example, extracts from the Bible can be read many different ways, if one looks at where the commas and full stops could be placed. Truss expresses concern over the impact of the Internet on punctuation and grammar, as we see these symbols used more often as emoticons than sentence breaks.

Whilst reading this book, I found myself searching for mistakes in Truss' text. I now find myself reading and re-reading this post, in fear of looking like a fool. I highly recommend Eats, Shoots and Leaves; whether you are a confident grammatician looking to confirm what you already know, or a novice in search of clear definitions and examples. Let's end with my favourite:
A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Friday, 4 January 2013

The Cornerstone

The Cornerstone
Nick Spalding
London, Racket, 2011, 266p

After the Christmas break, I fell back into teen fiction with a bang. The Cornerstone is an original and clever adventure, taking you to an alternative world where books hold the ultimate power.

Spalding's novel begins on a rainy Thursday afternoon, when Max Bloom walks into his local public library in search of a cure to his boredom. He wouldn't usually opt for the library, but something beyond his control has drawn him here - something that takes him into the Chapter Lands.

As aforementioned in my entry about The Eyre Affair, I adore stories about world where literature and language are loved and worshipped. In the Chapter Lands, words are powerful. People are trained as Wordsmiths, so they can draw power from books and knowledge. Libraries are protected by armed guards; and education is highly valued, yet only available to a select few, due to fears over giving such power to the people. 

Nick Spalding is an entertaining writer, mixing comedy into the action throughout the story. He writes like an omniscient narrator, but is light-hearted and friendly. You get the impression that this story took over him - he did not create it, but was led by it. He has a great appreciation for literature, and clearly loves an adventure. 

However, I feel Spalding and his publishers missed a trick with this book.  The title refers to the Cornerstone, a book that literally opens up into another world. Using the Cornerstone, Max can step from our world into the Chapter Lands. It is described as old, heavy, and a rich dark green colour. If only the published version of Spalding's story had the same appearance. 

Where The Cornerstone succeeds in creating excitement and adventure around literature and language, it fails to deviate from the stereotypes of the librarian. The Head Custodian of the Carvallen library in the Chapter Lands is nicknamed Gandalf, whilst the head of the public library is a middle-aged woman who wears trouser suits and has a bun. She also reads romances. Spalding defines her main duty as chasing overdues. 

Fortunately, this public librarian proves to be a powerful woman (secretly, we all are - be warned); but I would love to have seen a fictional librarian who doesn't tie her hear up in a bun. Nevertheless, any book that places literature in such high esteem - donning it with such power - is a winner for me.