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.