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!

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Savages

The Savages
Matt Whyman
London, Hot Key, 2013, 280p

This is a deliciously disturbing treat of a novel. It is unconventional in it's subject and it's style, but I found myself strangely enticed.

The Savages are a close knit and private family, spanning three generations. Grandpa is getting pretty aged, starting to forget things like where the bathroom is located. Angelica and Titus are caring parents, cautious about protecting their children. Sasha is a typical teenager, with all the worries that come with boys and friends; Ivan is a mischievous boy whose pranks never turn out how he wants them to; and baby Kat is learning her first words.

Titus' business transactions catch the attention of a private investigator, who becomes instantly enthralled by the family when a model goes missing after a film shoot at the Savage's house. Vernon eavesdrops on the family, installing a bug in the house and following the children around. He has no idea what he has gotten himself in for - the Savages are not as they initially appear.

This is not an action-packed thrill of a novel, but a slow meander through a strange little house. The family are charming, their relationship is heart-warming. Rarely does a novel with so little story keep me reading on, but the language and form of Whyman's writing was irresistible. I love black comedy, and this is the most sardonic novel I have read recently.
Food is an essential element to this novel, but I would not recommend eating whilst you read - dark, gorey sceens come out of nowhere and ruin your appetite. The descriptions of the meals are incredibly vivid, making me wonder how experiemental Whyman is with his cooking.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

After Dark

After Dark
Haruki Murakami
Trans. by Jay Rubin
London, Vintage, 2008, 201p

Whenever I read Murakami, it takes a lot of time. His words and language deserve a special sort of attention, so I read slowly, re-reading select passages, absorbing every detail. I love the way he writes, like each word has been carefully thought out, selected with care and affection. And in translation from Japanese to English, Jay Rubin is an artist, recreating Murakami's original beauty for the Western reader.

After Dark is a uniquely mysterious novel. It draws you in with intrigue, but leaves all your questions unanswered. Set in Tokyo across one night, between the hours of sunrise and sunset, it tells the story of a number of people scattered across the city. 

In a quiet diner, Mari's peace is interrupted by a boy she once knew. At home, her sister, Eri, sleeps - undisturbed for a long time, until the television screen flickers into life. And at a love hotel across town, a woman has been abused, left naked and alone. We, the reader, observe everything through a omniscient camera lense, neutral and unable to interfere, zooming in and out of details across the city. 

The opening line of the novel is, "Eyes mark the shape of the city". From here, you are drawn into a vivid, dense description of Toyko from above. We are told it looks like "a single gigantic creature", all "arteries" and "blood cells". It is bright and beautiful and enticing. We are caught.

Murakami has complete control over the events in his novel, leaving the reader helplessly following along. The drama quietly creeps up on you. At first, nothing seems to be going on and you revel in the detail. Slowly, people are introduced, and strange happenings begin.

Some pages of this novel I read again and again - I wish it never had to end. Sitting on my shelf, I have two more of his books, but I am reluctant to start simply because I will not want them to end!


Monday, 14 October 2013

The Things We Did For Love

The Things We Did For Love
Natasha Farrant
London, Faber, 2012, 224p

The climax of this book was one of the most heart-breaking pieces of literature I have ever had to read. Based on true events during the Second World War, The Things We Did For Love unexpectedly transformed from a sweet love story to a tragic tale of brute violence. 

Ari and Luc are sweethearts living in a small village in France during the Nazi occupation. Luc is unsettled, angry at what is going on around him, as minorities and rebels are being turned over to the Germans. He thinks he might be able to help if he joins the Resistance. But Ari fears he will only get hurt, and is convinced that their love can overcome his desire to leave.

The romance was not my favourite part of this novel - I am not a fan of the 'love overcomes all' plot where people sacrifice their beliefs for their lover. Luc was a passionate hero, guided by his morals and willing to give up his life for the cause. But Ari was a draining heroine - I felt like she was holding him back.

But it was not these two characters who make this novel great; instead it was the supporting cast. Ari's cousin, Solange, and her brother, Paul; Romy, the boy who has loved Ari for as long as he can remember, trying to do right by her; and the German officers, sent to commit the worst of atrocities and always carrying the weight of self-doubt and guilt.

Most powerful of all was the ending of this novel. Farrant writes in her afterword that this story is based on true events: on 10th june 1944, the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich entered the village of Oradour-sur-Glane and massacred it's occupants. Innocent men, women and children were slaughtered in the most horrifying of circumstances. Today, the town remains empty, haunted by it's tragic past.

Whether you like historical fiction or teenage romance, this novel has a beautifully dark story to tell, one that will make you ponder long after you have finished the final page.


Friday, 11 October 2013


Darren Shan
London, Simon & Schuster, 2012, 218p

I decided his blog was going to be difficult to write without giving anything away, so:


I am not a huge fan of zombie stories. Shortly before I was recommended this book, I had just given up on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because all it did was made me want to read the original again. But I had a lot more success with Zom-B.

B is a rather unlikeable protagonist. Rude and aggressive, B takes after dad, who is also overtly racist. They sit at home in London together, watching zombies attack a small town in Ireland, speculating whether it is a hoax. Everyone at school seems to have an opinion, from scientific experiment gone wrong to big-budget movie publicity stunt.

And the twist? About three quarters of your way through this novel, you discover the young, angry thug you thought was a boy is in fact a girl!

Unfortunately, this was spoiled for me by a students as I was reading the novel. I was struggling a bit with how little I sympathised with B, so my year 7 informed me B was short for Becky. Suddenly, a whole new reading of this book opened up, and I devoured it (like a zombie on human flesh).

The pace was perfectly executed, the drama was constant - from kidnappings at the museums to beatings from B's horrible father to zombies attacking the school. I still found it hard to relate to B, simply because I was never the bad kid at school. But when I learned of B's real identity, even the meanest of characters grew on me. 

This novel is the first in a long, well-planned new series from Darren Shan. It is dark and graphic and gorey, making me gag more than once; sprinkled with equally disturbing moments of racism and bigotry from B's father. B struggles to juggle her conscience with her love for her father, sometimes taking his side and sometimes finding herself wracked with guilt when she acts like him.

Racism is an incredibly sensitive subject to tackle in teenage fiction, as the author must avoid the possible outcome of implanting bigoted ideas in the readers' heads, but I felt Shan handled it superbly. Due to the paralleling of the racism with the zombies, the fascists became just as disgusting and terrifying as the supernatural undead.

And to top it all off, there was the most enticing cliff hanger at the end. I am ready to forget my previous apathy to zombie literature and read on.

This blog is dedicated to Finn, even though he ruined the ending.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Forward Book of Poetry 2014

The Forward Book of Poetry 2014
Fd. Jeanette Winterson
London, Forward, 2013, 144p

There are so many themes covered in an anthology of this size and quality that every time you open it you find something new - a new form, style or subject. 

The Forward Poetry competition celebrates new poetry published each year, producing this incredible collection. Within this book, you have finalists from a number of categories and I enjoyed the variety that afforded.

In terms of some specifics, there were some individual poems that made this anthology something special for me. I am only human, and therefore cannot claim to love every poem I read.

One, called 'The International Poem of the Year' by Emily Berry, described a strange dystopia in which poems are political weapons. Nations banned them, fought over them, and launched them into space. Elsewhere, poems played a "role in pioneering eye operations, contribut[ing] to democracies and charitable works". This poem was excatly what Winterson discusses in her foreward when she describes poems as bombs, giving "us back the words we need so that we can say how we feel".

I was also impressed by the presence of two poems about Sheffield in this collection: 'In Sheffield' by Adam White and Stainless Stephen by  Helen Mort. In praise of Sheffield, these poems explored the steel industry through two very different routes, with Mort personifying the industry and White engaging with the history of the city. It felt like home to read these.

Another I wanted to comment upon was Michael Symmons Robert and the two poems from him that are a brilliant addition to this collection. He has an incredible way with words, looking at universal themes of family and love with language that reaches right into your heart and plucks at your deepest dreams and fears.

Poetry is at the forefront of my life at the moment, as we celebrate the wonderful students who have won international competitions. I have high hopes for the young writers at Oxford Spires Academy, who's names will one day fill the pages of anthologies such as this.

Monday, 7 October 2013

War Horse

War Horse
Adapted by Nick Stafford
(Michael Morpurgo)
Oxford Playscripts
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, 127p

Last Thursday, I went with 100 year seven students to see War Horse in London. It was chaos, but that is another story - this blog is for reviews; and on my return from the theatre, I read the play.

I have already reviewed the Michael Morpurgo original here, so will not repeat the story - anyway, it is pretty well known by now. However, it was very interesting to read the play just after seeing it performed, as it shed light on some of the concepts for the creation of the story on the stage. 

The play differs slightly from the novel - mainly in terms of the fact that the story is not told from the point of view of Joey, but from an omniscient perspective where multiple characters' stories are told. Nevertheless, Joeys feelings are expressed through his actions. For example, his early fear of people is shown through Joey's unwillingness to approach Arthur and through Arthur's one-sided conversations with the horse. In scenes where the animals are without humans, the action is described through stage directions, specifically designed to give the horses a emotive and quasi-human quality.

On stage, Joey's character is performed by three expert puppeteers, who manipulate the movements of the animal to the point where you forget it isn't real. The story is full of drama and action, with much of it taking place on battlefields. Joey becomes a symbol for all that was fought for during World War One, when parents were separated from their children, lovers were separated from their sweethearts. Arthur's search for his horse becomes a symbol for humanity and love, and Joey brings all sorts of people together - Germans, French and British. 

The play is beautifully written, with incredibly evocative language. There was also brilliant use of other dialects (with translations) where the French and German characters were in scene. In particular, I love the monologues where Arthur talks to his horse, making promises to be together forever - this friendship is at the heart of the story and is what stays with most people long after they have finished reading.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Dark Lord: The Teenage Years

Dark Lord: The Teenage Years
Jamie Thomson
London, Orchard, 2011, 341p

It is not often I cannot finish a book, but I have given this one a few days and multiple attempts and still failed to get engaged. 

The story is about Dirk Lloyd / the Dark Lord, who has fallen through into our human universe and finds himself caged in the body of a teenage boy. Powerless and angry, he must negotiate this new existence and seek a way to dominate these strange people and find his way back home. 

When I embarked on the journey to read all the Bookbuzz selection, I actually started with this one, but got confused by the beginning so decided to read it later. But reading it now, my difficulty with it hasn't changed. The concept sounded great, but I expected it to be far more funny. And I felt the pace was too slow - I read almost half the novel but found myself waiting for something to happen whilst Dirk got to know the people and places around him.

To be honest, this is not a book I would have chosen to read as a teenager or now. Sometimes, I pick a book that I might not usually enjoy and find myself engrossed. This was not the case for the Dark Lord. I will be interested to chat to my students and see what they think of it.

Nevertheless, I have loved this years Bookbuzz selection: there was war and loss, love and friendship, hawks and dogs; there were adventures and romances, laughs and tears, drama and excitement. I am sorry that my mission to read them all has come to an end.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Be Awesome

Be Awesome
Hadley Freeman
London, HarperCollins, 2013, 266p

I have been reluctant to finish this book - I wanted it to go on forever. But even the best things must eventually come to an end. I just wish Hadley Freeman was my friend.

Be Awesome is a bold, bright guide to life for intelligent, modern women. Freeman discusses fashion, culture and society, listing her ten favourite books and offering answers to all your dating woes. Her message is to be true to yourself and she gently coaxes you, the reader, to realise you are awesome. 

This book is unashamedly feminist. Today, feminism seems to be getting a bad reputation and few women want to associate themselves with this label. As Hadley notes, this is madness. Feminism is about equality: it is about variety and identity. For both men and women, it is about being brave enough to be who you want to be and/or who you are: it is no more about hiding behind gender stereotypes or being ashamed of success than it is about bra burning or acting 'masculine'.  

I have often found myself frustrated by some of the issues explored in this book and unable to explain why. If everyone read Be Awesome, they might have a better understanding of some of the things in my head. Like why do women over-analyse dates and relationships, trying to decipher the meanings of their companions every word and action? Why does it matter so much? The important thing is whether you like him, surely? And why do some newspapers simultaneously chastise one celebrity for being too thin whilst another is too fat. And why do so many movies contain nameless, personality-free female characters who only ever chat about men; unless the female is the protagonist, in which case she will only find "happiness" when she settles down to marry and have children in suburbia. Because of course we could never have it all!

There is so much to admire about this book and it's author: from the witty tone to the intelligent approach to every tiny detail. It is honest and observant, and I found it perfectly expresses so many of issues I struggle to articulate, including why Persuasion is one of the best novels ever written.  

Also, there are references to The Princess Bride throughout - who doesn't love the Dread Pirate Roberts?

This blog post is preemptively dedicated to all the people to whom I will recommend this book for the rest of my life, starting with award-winning Esme.