Sunday, 29 September 2013

My Best Friends and Other Enemies

My Best Friends and Other Enemies
Catherine Wilkins
London, Nosy Crow, 2012, 202p

I found myself pleasantly surprised by this novel. I haven't picked up a book about everyday teenage girls in a while, mainly because I read so many when I was young and assumed they were all the same. I also thought it would probably completely bore me now I have grown up a little bit. 

In My Best Friend and Other Enemies, Jessica is trying to deal with the fact that her oldest friend Natalie is hanging out with someone new. Amelia is the new girl at school, but she is mean to Jessica, making snide comments on her appearance and excluding her from meet ups. 

Luckily for the reader, Jessica is not a bitter depressive, nor a vengeful aggressive, but somewhere in between. When Amelia and Natalie start a a gang, Jessica creates her own, but has little success in getting all the members to ever get together. She toys with various plots to get her own back, but is smart and conscientious enough to know that she needs to be the bigger person - though this doesn't completely prevent her from occasionally conflicting with Amelia. 

I found the most endearing thing about this story was Jessica's family. They are on "economy drive", striving to save pennies and consume all that is stored in their freezer. This family are funny and sweet, with Jessica's little brother, Ryan, gallivanting around the house pretending to be a spaceman for most of the book. And unlike so many other teenage novels, Jessica does not moan about her strange relatives, but is able to laugh and love. 

Jessica is not a perfect protagonist, nor is she the typical teenage girl you get in so many of these sorts of books, and that is why I actually enjoyed this particular one. She is flawed, human, and her actions leave somewhere between good and bad. But her heart is in the right place and her hurt is understandable. I think I just appreciated that this isn't book that was overwhelmed with drama!

Friday, 27 September 2013

Ghouls in School

Ghouls in School
(Spook Squad)
Roger Hurn
Winchester, Ransom, 2013, 46p

I have had a large box of short reads sat on my desk for almost three months now, as they are waiting to be covered in protective plastic. As they are just within reach, I am working my way through them, grabbing for one any time I need a quick read during a quiet break. 

The Spook Squad is a brilliant series, all of which are on Accelerated Reader. They are targeted at young female readers who like scary stories, claiming to be "adventures too scary for boys". The protagonists are a group of intelligent, fun girls - all with slightly different personalities, perfect for girls to find one to relate to.

You can probably guess what Ghouls in School is about. Roxy, Emma, Leena and Nita arrive at their lockers to find them glued together. It looks like a practical joke, but soon they find themselves getting the blame. Throughout the school, strange things are happening, and no one is sure of who is responsible.

I am constantly impressed by the ability of some writers to get a whole story into less than 50 pages, with illustrations taking up a lot of the space. Such books are a hugely supportive of the more challenged reader, with the words in large fonts spaced out across the page, and images to help with the visual side of reading.

This series also has little biographies of the characters at the beginning, detailing elements of their personalities. The word counts are so limited that this really helps with character development, and the female readership of this series will benefit from having a character to relate to. There is also a pages of spooky jokes and a map of Otherworld, where some of the stories are set.

Now, I really should get on with actually preparing these books so the students can read them, too!

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

After Tomorrow

After Tomorrow
Gillian Cross
Oxford, OUP, 2013, 296p

England is in recession. The banks have collapsed and money is tight. Some families are managing, with careful planning and vigilant forethought; but some are suffering, driven to drastic measures by desperation. 

Does this sound familiar?

How about late-night attacks from the poor, venting their anger through theft - trying to level the playing field by stealing from those who have more? How about being forced to emigrate to France as England becomes increasingly dangerous and impossible to live in?

This is After Tomorrow - a "what if" story. What if the recession got worse? Matt and his brother, Taco, have to leave the home they know and love in a final rush before the border into France closes. They have already lost their father and their grandfather, victims to the violence that has erupted as a result of the poverty that has swept through England. But things are not much better over the channel: holed up in a tent, they live off food rations, shivering through the cold nights. Plus, neither of them speak French. 

I breezed through this book - it felt effortless and confident, brilliantly composed. Although it is not an action packed novel, the pace was controlled perfectly, which meant I never got bored (even in the early pages as the character and plot was developed). 

And the concept is simply genius, especially considering the target audience. Gillian Cross does not preach about class divide or make suggestions about the world economy, but presents a world that no child would want to experience. Without wanting to spoil the ending, I will just say that there is no conclusion to such a situation; but Cross does not patronise her reader or her characters: simply, After Tomorrow is thought provoking, intelligent and relevant, subtly guiding young readers to think about the world in which they live.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Outsiders

The Outsiders
Michelle Paver
London, Penguin, 2012, 291p

Stuck on a train, this might not be the first book I would have chosen to have with me. But as fate would have it, The Outsiders was the only novel I remembered to pack. Fortunately, it did not disappoint.

Michelle Paver's novel is set in Greece in the Bronze Age. It's pages seep with mythology and legend. Gods watch over the land and the people, superstition and magic are everywhere, and society is structured by ancient rules and traditions. 

Hylas and his sister are separated when they are attacked by the Crows - a deadly group of warriors seemingly pent on killing Outsiders, or those who are not part of the villages. Searching for his sister, Hylas finds himself in ever growing danger, always stalked by the Crows. But he is intelligent, brave and patient, better equipped than anyone to survive in the wilderness.

Meanwhile, Pirra is trying to escape her mother and the fate that awaits her when they reach land: marriage. She is stubborn and ruthless, determined to run but unsure where to go. Stranded together on a desolate island, Pirra and Hylas must work together to avoid capture and find their way to safety. 

This novel is the first in a new series by Michelle Paver. What I find so frustrating about such a series is that you feel incomplete when you reach the end of the first part - I prefer stories to begin and end within the confines of one book. Of course the cliffhanger is designed to keep you wanting more, but this novel in particular left me feeling like the story was barely started. So much happened, but you know there is so much more to come.

Within this novel, I went on an incredible journey - back to ancient Greece, down to the depth of the ocean, into the darkest caves. The land is a character, beautifully vast and powerfully enticing. For me, I think feeling like I was there with Hylas and Pirra is what made this novel something special.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Candle Lights, Snow Fights and Star Lights

Candle Lights, Snow Fights and Star Lights
An Anthology from the First Story / Arvon Week at The Hurst
Ed. Peter Hobbs
London, First Story, 2013, 55p


That is really all I need to say. But I don't think I'm going to get away with that. 

If you are reading this blog and you haven't heard of First Story, where have you been?!? Last February, I was lucky enough to be put on a train and sent to Shropshire for an Arvon creative writing course. Stranded in the middle of a forest in a foot of snowfall with no signal and no escape, fifteen talented young writers shared laughter, experiences and poetry. 

We were blessed with Salena Godden and Peter Hobbs as our guides, who braved cold winter nights and long fraught workshops to produce the most inspired and inspirational writing I have ever witnessed. 

This was one of my earliest encounters with First Story. I had nothing to hide behind, forced to write and read out, even though my rough scribbles paled in comparison to what came out of the pens of the teenagers present. These young people lit up the rooms with their imaginations, bringing to life unicorns, Buddhist monks and Marilyn Monroe.

This anthology is a culmination of that week's work. With contributions from all the students from the three schools, it is just a taste of what myself and the other adults present got to enjoy. Those hesitant early drafts have turned into masterpieces of poetry and prose, some merry, some melancholy, some macabre, all marvellous.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Dear Scarlett

Dear Scarlett
Fleur Hitchcock
London, Nosy Crow, 2013, 268p

The reason I include an image of the cover of each book I read on this blog is partly so you know what you are looking for when you are shopping or browsing the library shelves, but also because some covers are artistic masterpieces. 

Scarlett's story begins when a stranger delivers a package to her front door, just a week after her eleventh birthday. It is from her father, now deceased, once a thief. Enclosed are some tools of his trade, and Scarlett is not sure what she is meant to do. She toys with the idea of being a criminal like her father, but finds herself wracked with guilt. When she finds out her father may not have been as bad as she thought, she tries to use the tools for good, but still seems to end up in a penguin orientated pickle. 

Dear Scarlett is a heart-warming, funny, uplifting story, and has made me re-think my order of favourites on the Bookbuzz list. Scarlett is a likeable, honest character who takes the reader on a fascinating adventure involving nasty school teachers, code breaking and comic baddies. 

It is written in a simple yet inviting manner, hooking you from the first page with intrigue about this peculiar package, enticing you with clues and red herrings, and inviting you on a journey. The narrative is friendly, with short, bite-size chapters, which is always a form I appreciate. You have the option to take regular breaks, but you hardly want to since the story is so brilliant!

And on top of all that, it looks great. Having read the story, I am still a little confused about how the cover relates (mainly the cat), but I love that images run throughout the text and there is attention to detail on every page.

You can tell Dear Scarlett has been put together with care, from the initial concept of the captivating protagonist through to the formation of the book in physical form. And that care is what I love.

Monday, 16 September 2013


Patrick Marber
London, Methuen, 2004, 123p

I needed a short break from reading teenage fiction - I think it was making my brain go a little mushy. Somehow, I ended up right at the other end of the scale, reading a play about love and adult relationships. 

I have been meaning to read the play of Closer since I first saw the film (and I would love to see the stage production!). I remember being completely enticed by the character, although such a small cast, and the language, which seemed simultaneously so simple and yet so complex. 

The play opens with Dan and Alice waiting in a hospital. Alice, a young, seemingly-confident drifter has been knocked down by a car, and Dan - stifled by etiquette but enchanted by Alice - has come to get her checked out. Over the course of the play, these two are joined by Anna, a negative woman who seems unable to work out what she wants, and Larry, a dermatologist full of anger and desire. Their interwoven love lives and losses are plotted over months and years. It is a story about human existence and relationships - about the need to be loved and the inability to find fulfillment. 

Central are the four characters, each rather unlikeable but fascinating. In their lives, there is a marvelously thin line between love and betrayal - they seem incapable of not hurting each other, mainly because they are so self-centred (with arguably the exception of Alice). But they are all carnal, desperate for affection and later for revenge. Most importantly, they are human, fallible, and increasingly aware of their own mortality.

Closer is an powerfully sensual play, as indicated by the title. Each of the characters professional lives revolved around the body, from the photographer to the stripper, the dermatologist to the obiturist. But part of that sensuality also comes from the dialogue, which is fast and sharp, angry and honest.

In the commentary that accompanies this particular version, Patrick Marber is quoted saying many people feel like this is their story. I think that is how I felt at first, before realising it is everyone's story. The feelings they experience and heartache they suffer has been experienced by everyone at sometime. I think that universality is why I love Closer.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Soldier Dog

Soldier Dog
Sam Angus
London, Macmillan, 2012, 275p

I have found this to be one of the most popular novels on this years Bookbuzz list - across the year 7s, both boys and girls love it. 

Soldier Dog, on a most simple level, is War Horse with a dog. Our year 7s are currently involved in a cross-curricular project based around War Horse, with a trip to see the stage show later in the term, and many of the students have seen this similarity in reading the blurb and the first couple of pages of the novel.

However, unlike Morpurgo's acclaimed novel, this is not written from the point of view of the animal involved. Stanley is a fourteen year old boy who loves animals, particularly dogs. His brother is in France, so when his angry, neglectful father turns on him, Stanley decides to run away. He is underage, but the nation is desperate, letting young and old enlist. Stanley is lucky to become a dog handler, and is matched with a loyal, enthusiastic giant of a dog. 

Based on the real experiences of dog handlers during World War One, this novel tells of the challenge faced by man and dog as they work together to get messages across no man's land. Soldier Dog is a tragic novel about the horrors of war and the loyalty of man's best friend. 

Somehow, whilst filled with vivid descriptions of conflict and heart-wrenching moments of separation and loneliness, the story wearied me as I read. It did pick up towards the end and I found myself quite attached to Stanley and his canine friends, willing them to survive and be reuinited. I pitied Stanley - his brother physically absent whilst his father is emotionally distant - only able to find companionship with his dogs; and I adored the dogs - loyal in the face of the deadliest danger. But it is not my favourite in the 2013 selection. 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Butterfly Summer

Butterfly Summer
Anne-Marie Conway
Londo, Usbourne, 2012, 251p

I am still crying as I try to compose this review. What a masterpiece of teenage fiction. I not even halfway through the 2013 Bookbuzz list, but I think I have found a favourite. 

Butterfly Summer came to my attention a few months ago when it won the Oxfordshire Book Awards. Becky and her mum have moved to Oakbridge, where Becky's mum lived before she was born. Becky has the whole of the summer to find her way around before she starts a new school, and her adventures lead her to the Butterfly Garden where she meets Rosa May. Together, they are determined to seek out the infamously evasive Silver-studded Blue, a butterfly that is incredibly rare and full of mysterious hope. 

But as they spend more and more time together, the friendship between Becky and Rosa May gets increasingly complex, as the latter becomes clingy and aggressive. At home, Becky's relationship with her mother becomes strained as Becky starts to feel like she is keeping secrets. All around her, people seem to be hiding things and acting weird, but revealing the truth is never as easy as it should be. 

This is such a brilliantly engaging, intelligent and exciting novel. It is so accessible, with language that lights up the pages. The Butterfly Garden is a beautiful space in which Conway explores the young girls' friendship; but even the most idyllic spaces can have a dark side. 

It is here that Conway really excels. She gently lays the foundations for a thrilling, emotional story about how one can never really hide or forget the past. As you read, the story reveals itself to you, just as the secrets slowly reveal themselves to Becky. 

Butterfly Summer is the perfect novel: the right length and pace; the right mix of drama, descriptive language, mystery and horror; and a brilliantly composed plot. I am in awe of Anne-Marie Conway.

Monday, 9 September 2013


Graham Marks
London, Franklin Watts, 2012, 53p

It's always a delight to stumble across a short read for teenage or young adult readers.

Payback is about Greg who finds his rather boring Saturday taking a turn for a worse when he picks up a mobile-shaped item from a park bench. The oblong talks to him, telling him he is a Watcher for the Reapers, helping them see who is ready to move on from this world into the next. 

It is a rather strange concept for a short story - and one that is very hard to develop in such a limited space. But it is written in such a way that it pulls you in: no words are wasted, meaning it is perfect for reluctant readers who might get lost in the waffle of many longer pieces of fiction. 

What I love about the Rivets / Edge series from Franklin Watts is their accessibility. These books are printed with large font, but within a frame that looks like any other, meaning students do not appear to be reading anything different or special from their more able classmates. And the content is brilliant - fast-paced fantasies or thrillers about normal teenage kids in unusual situations, taking the reader on an imaginative adventure. 

Furthermore, the language is perfect for the target audience - a great mix of simple, colloquial phrases with some more challenging words, explained so that the reader is learning new vocabulary without realising. 

I imagine it is fairly tough to get the balance right when writing short novels like this, especially in terms of successfully creating a whole story in such a constrained word count. Payback is a slightly peculiar concept, but a perfect example of a short story for older students.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Space: The Whole Whizz-Bang Story

Space: The Whole Whizz-Bang Story
Glenn Murphy
Ill. by Mike Phillips
London, Macmillan, 2013, 188p

In the years since I took my GCSEs, my knowledge of science has gotten a bit rusty, and I sometimes find it is a good idea to refresh every now and again. 

Space: The Whole Whizz-Bang Story is the non-fiction element of the 2013 BookBuzz collection from Glenn Murphy, the author of Why is Snot Green, a book full of answers to some of the most peculiar questions ever asked. Instead, this book has a much clearer focus: space.

Murphy details loads of information about space into just a small illustrated text. He explains the history of discoveries and the development of knowledge about space, dating back to research done by the Babylonians 5000 years ago. Then he provides facts and images to explain what we currently know about each of the planets and many other elements in the solar system. There are even some quizzes included!

This book is an accessible, fast-paced tour of all things extra-terrestrial. It is written in a conversational tone, like a scientist explaining space to a child. Murphy is clearly incredibly intelligent, but is also gifted with the ability to be an excellent teacher, offering clear demonstrations and comprehensible examples.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Big Book of Bad Things

Michael Rosen's Big Book of Bad Things
Michael Rosen
London, Penguin, 2010, 200p

Michael Rosen is a genius of the written word, but everybody knows that. The concept of this novel arose from Rosen's childhood, during which he noticed his parents' incredible ability to remember all the tiny mistakes he had ever made and to recall them at a moments notice whenever he made a new one. 

The Big Book of Bad Things starts with a poem about a young Michael breaking his toothbrush, having bent it a little too far. Rosen tells universally experienced tales of childhood, from misbehaviours at home to failures at school. This collection is full of observational humour about the comedy and tragedy of life, and questions pondered by young minds, and the peculiarities of things parents say and do. 

Naturally, I have a few favourites. 'They Don't Love You' starts off as a profound, thought-provoking exploration of that feeling some children experience of being the least loved: you expect it to end with some great, eye-opening revelation, but instead, Rosen suggestion makes you laugh out loud.

Then there are wonderful poems about language, such as Words Are Ours, which demonstrates the power and variety of English vocabulary. Sometimes, he also brings in Yiddish words spoken by his parents, which he uses to explore the diversity of languages and also to show some of the strange things his parents say. 

Elsewhere, 'The Rhythm of Life' is a pacy, bouncy poem full of repetition - the sort of poem Rosen is talking about when he suggests all children are able to memorise some poetry. 

Michael Rosen is the sort of writer who inspires children because his poems are so realistic and true. They are not the sort that take weeks to decipher or interpret - they are funny, everyday and uplifting. Rosen shows his young audience that poetry is what you want it to be, it is what you make of it, and everyone is capable of creation. 

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Oliver Twisted

Oliver Twisted
JD Sharpe
London, Electric Monkey, 2012, 274p

It has been a couple of years since I last read Oliver Twist, but I do remember feeling that it lacked gore.

If you felt the same way, JD Sharpe's re-imagining of Dickens' classic is just what you need. Oliver Twisted takes the rags-to-riches tale of an orphaned boy and adds vampyres, magic and demons.

We begin with a birth in a workhouse. When Oliver Twisted comes into this world, his mother dies. No one seems to know where she came from, so the young orphan is thrown in with a bunch of other boys to be 'farmed'. The blood of these poor children is fed to the vampyre gentry of the parish, who love the sweetness of a young food source. 

Oliver is a pale, frail boy when he is apprenticed to the undertaker; a man who has been charged with bringing out the bad in the apparently innocent orphan. It is prophesied that Oliver is a powerful warlock, and the Brotherhood of Fenris want him for their evil deeds. But as we learn, Oliver is an overwhelmingly good boy, and his purity cannot be turned to darkness. 

On multiple occasions, I found myself squirming at Sharpe's vivid descriptions of gore - I never knew there were so many ways to visualise blood!The story remains surprisingly loyal to the original, as if Dickens himself had secretly prepared his novel for a Gothic re-writing. It was incredibly well-written and researched, keeping the reader simultaneously engrossed and grossed out. 

My only tiny disappointment was that Nancy's character remained somewhat the same. All the other characters had been recreated with dark alter-egos, from werewolves to soul-eaters, but Nancy remained ultimately human. Dickens has been criticised by some for lacking imagination when it came to women, merely creating caricatures of angels and whores. Here, Sharpe had a brilliant opportunity to empower the main female character in Oliver Twist, but failed to deter from the helpless victim of Dickens' Nancy. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013



Henrik Ibsen
Trans. James McFarlane
Four Major Plays
Oxford, OUP, 2008, p89-164

Now I am back to school, it is a real challenge to keep up with reading for pleasure, as there is just so much to do! As such, I thought I would ease myself back in with a play - and what better way to start than some Norwegian family drama (which was apparently originally written in Danish).

Ghosts is a domsetic play about a mother trying to exorcise the presence of her deceased husband from her life and the life of her son, Oswald. It is the eve before the Captain Alving Foundation Oprhanage is due to be opened - a project Mrs Alving has dedicated her life to. She is discussing finalities with Pastor Manders, when she reveals to him her husband's philandering misdeeds. She explains that the oprhanage is not a shrine to his greatness, but her way of spending all the money left upon the death of her husband, so Oswald avoids inheriting anything from his father.

But Mrs Alving soon discovers that, despite her most ardent attempts to protect her son, he has been cursed with the same traits of his father; and she is ashamed that he has fallen in love with Regine, the housemaid and Oswald's half-sister.

Although written in 1881, this play feels timeless and contemporary. This may, in part, be a result of James McFarlane's greatly-praised translation. But the themes of family pride and social status still run through many more recent works of fiction.

I am an admirer of all things Scandinavian: theatre, art and design are all dowsed in this powerful, dark, emotional tone. When it was first performed, Ghosts caused outrage and was slated by many reviewers. Moral decay, represented through Oswald's inheritance of his fathers sins, distressed Ibsen's contemporary audience.

Today, I find it thought provoking. Mrs Alving has dedicated her life to protecting her son, only to find he has caused his own ruin. All around her, men are creating chaos - her husband was a drunk who fathered an illegitimate child; the Pastor fails to take responsibility for convincing her to return to her wasted husband when she tries to run away; and despite being given the best opportunities, her son returns to her home full of love for the maid. Standing alone in the centre of this madness, Mrs Alving remains incredibly strong and sober - it is for her that I feel distress.