Sunday, 31 March 2013

In Darkness



In Darkness
Nick Lake
London, Bloomsbury, 2012, 333p

My Carnegie journey has come to an end with this brilliant story of tragedy and death. It has been a brilliant experience, but I am so glad I am not responsible for choosing a winner.

Simultaneously telling the story of a young boy trapped under the the rubble of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the battle for liberation of the Haitian slaves under Toussaint L'Ouverture in the 18th century, In Darkness is a heart-breaking novel. I knew very little about the history of Haiti before reading this story, but now desire to know more. The story is about struggle against oppression, the fight for freedom and the desperation caused by imprisonment, both for black slaves under French rule, and young gangsters in the slums of Port-au-Prince. 

Also, perhaps because I just read it, I saw some parallels between this story and Midwinterblood. Both authors explore the possibility of souls being able to survive throughout time, living through different bodies, seeing the world through different eyes. In Lake's story, both Toussaint and Shorty share the same soul, and in their dreams, they see the lives of others who have lived before and will live after them. 

The story of the slave uprising is incredible, though Nick Lake admits he may have sugar-coated some of the events. Toussaint is an inspiring leader, preferring to maintain the land and spare the lives of the masters where possible. He doesn't want revenge, he just wants freedom; but death is a price that sometimes must be paid. 

The young modern protagonist is an endearing character - misunderstood, scared, and desperately missing his twin sister, he joins the Route 9 gang in order to get revenge on the men who killed his father. He helps deal drugs and punish those who don't pay up. He admits he felt that rush when killing people, but you understand why - he has no money, no family, and little hope of escape from the slum. His best hope is to find a place within the street gangs. They respect him, and fear him; they believe he is blessed by the gods. 

Vodou is a significant theme in this novel - both stories massively revolve around the belief in symbols, idols and magic. Men follow Toussaint because they believe he is possessed by the spirit of the lwa (deity) of war, and the gangstas trust Shorty because he is a twin and carries a pwen, a small stone containing the spirit of the lwa. 

This novel is dark both metaphorically and literally, and the theme of imprisonment is recurrent. Trapped under the rubble after the Haitian earthquake, most of the story is told by a young boy trying to stay sane. He is imprisoned in his underground cave, like Toussaint is imprisoned by the laws of slavery and the racist assumptions of the white. The parallels between the lives of the two character, living over two hundred years apart, are full of darkness, sadness, and death. And yet, it is incredible how you forgive them both their wrong-doings, as you hear the story from their perspectives. Nick Lake makes you think about heroicism - he makes you question yourself and what you would do if you were them. Unfortunately, I fear many of us could never be so brave. 

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Midwinterblood




Midwinterblood
Marcus Sedgwick
London, Indigo, 2012, 263p

This is an incredibly dark, brilliantly Gothic novel. I have not read something so scary in some time, and I loved the feeling it gave me. Sedgwick defines the Gothic genre in it's modern form, and Midwinterblood is a fabulous example of his skill

Written in reverse chronological order, this is a story of life, death, and love. It is set on Blessed Island, so far north the sun rarely sets. Mystery envelopes the island, as folk lore suggests that the people here never grow old, fueled by a unique healing plant, the Blessed Dragon Orchid. In 2073, journalist Eric Seven arrives there to learn more, but gets the feeling he has been there before.

It's really hard to write about this book without giving too much away, but let me just say that this novel contains several interlinked stories with recurring characters. It looks at the journey of two souls across many centuries, constantly searching for each other, wanting to be together. 

That's the romantic aspect, but the part I loved the most was the Gothic themes. So far from the real world, Blessed Island is eery and mysterious - all is not as it seems. Characters keep popping up, they feel like they recognise each other, even though they cannot possibly have lived that long. Sedgwick plays with the idea of life eternal, both in the literal sense, with those characters who consume the Dragon Orchid, and in terms of eternal souls, with the souls of Eric and Merle finding each other throughout the centuries, despite the odds against them. 

This novel took me back to the Gothic literature I studied at university - Poe, Hawthorne, Henry James. The suspense and drama are perfectly choreographed, taking the reader back in time, developing completely realistic worlds in each setting. Sometimes, I had to flick back through the pages to remember who was who, but I loved the slow revelation of the truth through the darkness of the story. At the end, everything came together, and all I want to do is read it again - I know it will reveal more to me with each re-reading.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Maggot Moon



Maggot Moon
Sally Gardner
London, Hot Key Books, 2012, 279p

What an unusual, original novel. Whereas The Weight of Water was unique in it's approach to story telling, Sally Gardner clearly has a brilliant imagination and had created a plot like no other.

Maggot Moon does not give much away until you are deep within it's pages - the cover and blurb say little about the plot, and the first few pages make it seem like a normal story of boyhood. Instead, it is about a strange dystopia in which people go missing without warning and the Motherland rules an oppressive regime. 

Despite appearances, this is a very dark novel - it is like a world in which the Nazis won the Second World War. Power is held by a minority, and the weak struggle to rise up. Differences are eliminated, and conspiracy is ripe. The Motherland are attempting to launch a rocket to the moon, but the young protagonist Standish Treadwell is sure it it all lies. 

The novel jumps about rather a lot, and as such, little is given away in the first few pages. Luckily, Gardner offers enough to make you want to keep on reading. In time, all is revealed. The pages are illustrated with gruesome images of rats and flies, adding to the sense of danger and decay that pervade through Standish's adventure. He is an unlikely hero, finding bravery in comradery. Against the power of the Motherland, Standish has companionship in the form of his subtly rebellious grandfather and the Lush family. Hector Lush becomes Standish's friend, his brother, and their relationship empowers Standish to be strong.

Sally Gardner has created a troubled, horrible world, but in it, she has given her reader hope and offered us faith in humanity. As in many novels about teenage characters, friendship can overcome adversity. 

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Weight of Water



The Weight of Water
Sarah Crossan
London, Bloomsbury, 2013, 

If the Carnegie prize is looking for originality, this book is a winner. Written in the form of a collection of poems, The Weight of Water tells the story of Kasienka, a school girl who moves from Poland with her mother to search for her absent father.

I was not expecting this collection to tell such a brilliant story. When I flicked through, I thought it was an anthology, but instead, it is almost like a novel in it's detail and care. The structure of the poems adds meaning to the plot, as the way the words fall on the page reflect the narrator's feelings.

Kasienka has a hard time of it at school. She is instantly recognised as different - she has the wrong rucksack and her hair is too short. When one of the boys tries to be nice to her, rumours start to spread. Meanwhile, Kasienka's mother searches ardently for her husband, unable or unwilling to move on. Mother and daughter start to drift apart, as Kasienka longs for home, and her mother longs for love.

Recently, I have been reading poetry written by the students at my school, many of whom have lived a life like Kasienka - displaced, fatherless, outside. The poems in The Weight of Water are beautifully written - so convincing that I had to check Sarah Crossan's biography because I was convinced these were written from experience. I'm learning to appreciate poetry as a method of story-telling, and Crossan's book is a brilliant example of this technique on a grand scale. This is such an incredibly unique way to tell a story, and I now want more of the same!

Monday, 25 March 2013

A Greyhound of a Girl



A Greyhound of a Girl
Roddy Doyle
London, Scholastic, 2012, 168p

I regret attempting to read this novel on a train. Public spaces are the worst places to cry. This beautiful story left me with emotionally wrought but strangely comforted.

A Greyhound of a Girl is about four generations of women dealing with death. Mary hates visiting the hospital, where her grandmother, Emer, is staying; until one day a ghostly stranger tells her to tell her grandmother that it is going to be okay. Together, the women help Emer deal with what is to come, as they look back on childhood memories and the challenges of motherhood.

Mary is a sweet little girl, full of sarcasm and intelligence. She a self-conscious ten-year-old, in that place between innocence and maturity, full of hope for the future and fear of losing her youth. 

It is set on the east coat of Ireland, just south of Dublin, with a typically Irish family set up, as you would expect from Roddy Doyle. Having visited the area just last summer, I was disappointed that the novel lacked detailed descriptions of the surrounding scenery. Maybe it is too brilliant to put into words.

The novel would be a brilliant book to offer a young girl facing the challenges of a death in the family, as it dispels that fear of the unknown. It is slow-paced and gently emotional, written in fairly childlike language. The themes are heavy, but are presented with care and sensitivity - a brilliant Carnegie nominee. 

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Code Name Verity



Code Name Verity
Elizabeth Wein
London, Egmont, 2012, 441p

It's not often that you find a book about such heroic young women. Most World War fiction focuses upon men at war and women at home, but Code Name Verity drops two incredible young women into Nazi-occupied France, into situations so challenging I can hardly imagine how they managed.

In her epilogue, Elizabeth Wein is overt in stating her intentions for this novel. As a female pilot herself, she wanted to explore the possibilities for what she might have done during the Second World War. As you may imagine, female pilots were not common during the 1940s, but there were exceptions. 

This is the story of two friends in a desperate situation. The novel opens with the diary of Verity, written in Nazi prison in France. She has been tortured, forced to reveal details about Allied aircraft and codes. She is bruised, emotionally damaged, and weak. She tells the story of how she came to be captured, having crash landed in France on a flight with her friend, Maddie. The second part of the novel is written by Maddie, separated from her friend and trying to find out where she is. 

The characters are brilliant, their friendship is inspiring. In a world before technology, their friendship develops over several months, and under the challenge of being unable to talk about the secrets of their jobs. 

At first, I was unsure about the intended audience for this novel, as the characters are grown up women. So many young adult and teenage novels are written about young characters that I was thrown off. But the author clearly avoids being too explicit about life in a Gestapo prison, hardly even hinting at sexual abuse or torture - the story is not to cause distress. The focus of the novel is about female friendship, and the bravery of young women who suppress their fears in order to help with the war effort.

This is another novel on the Carnegie shortlist for teenage readers. It is a fabulous read, inspiring young women and highlighting the possibilities available to them. However, I am concerned about it's chances to win, as the female-focus might not be of interest to boys.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat



A Boy and a Bear in a Boat
Dave Shelton
Oxford, David Fickling, 2012, 294p

Another Carnegie book, following on from Wonder. This one is of a slightly different style, being slightly less thought-provoking and emotional.

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat - the title kind of speaks for itself. A boy and a bear set off in a boat for a nondescript journey. When the bear asks, "Where to?", the boy replies, "Just over to the other side, please." Sounds simple enough, but the journey is wrought with anomalies in the tides and strange weather, so the least of my concern was why the bear could talk.

The novel was not full of twists and turns, but was a slow-paced, gentle sort of ride across the sea. Of course, things happened - sea creatures sneak up on them, they run out of food - but the story does not carry itself on the back of adventure. Even the characters are not greatly developed; we learn that the bear likes tea and the boy can be brave and can act the leader when needed, but we do not learn their names. 

I kind of liked the pace and story-telling style of this book, but I am not sure that many kids would engage with it. The language was delightfully childish, and the novel was full of brilliant illustrations, awakening the reader's imagination with pictures of the stormy sea. In an ideal world, this kind of gentle romp would be all that a young reader would want or need; but I fear that, with the increasing demand for drama and instant gratification, this novel might not be what many young people want. 

Monday, 18 March 2013

Wonder



Wonder
R. J. Palacio
London, Random House, 2012, 313p

Some stories are told so well that you want them to be true. Over the next few weeks, I am embarking on a mission to get through the CILIP Carnegie Children's Book Award short list. I was in no doubt as to which I wanted to start with, having heard such incredible things about R. J. Palacio's novel, but I was still impressed. 

Wonder is about a young boy with a facial deformity. August Pullman was born different but has always seen himself as ordinary. Yet his first day at school, having been educated at home, is full of apprehension. The novel is touching and heart-warming - the kind of book that makes you feel incredibly lucky to be you, whoever you are. 

I read this novel in about six hours, on and off. It has been a while since I read something that fast! But August is a beautiful character. He does not look like the other kids at school, but Palacio has not made him some sort of angel child. He is normal. He wants to fit in. He struggles, because people carry many misconceptions about him, and some people are mean. But he doesn't hate those who point and stare; he just wants them to understand that he is just like them. 

And that is what this novel allows. Written from the point of view of several narrators, the novel is not preoccupied with a boy who feels sorry for himself, but with explaining what life is like for August and those around him. First, it delves into the mind of August, a surprisingly understanding and brave young man. Then, his older sister recounts growing up in second place, always having to make sacrifices, but knowing that they are worth it, because she loves her brother. From the point of view of his friends, we learn what it feels like when you first see August; the moment of shock quickly followed by a feeling of guilt. But soon they know August for who he is, not what he looks like.

This novel tells us it is okay when you don't understand something. Palacio gives the reader the opportunity to see the world through another's eyes - through several sets of eyes. It shows us that no one is perfect; everyone feels angry or jealous or lonely. But within us is the ability to be kind:

"...always try to be a little kinder than is necessary." - J. M. Barrie

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Book Thief



The Book Thief
Markus Zusak
London, Black Swan, 2007, 552p

Words can be incredibly powerful, but often they are wasted. It is a rare thing when a book really draws on the power of words, and creates something wonderful. 

In The Book Thief, Death narrates the story of Liesel, a young girl with a habit of stealing books. It all begins on the day of her brother's death, as Death collects the young boy's soul, and Liesel steals a handbook dropped by a gravedigger. In Nazi Germany, Death is kept busy by the product of war, whilst Liesel learns the power of words. 

Few books are as beautifully written as this. Zusak is like a poet, offering language in a way it is never used. He has such a unique way of looking at the world. Colour and meaning is everywhere; one of my favourite lines describes
"Rain like grey pencil shavings."
It is incredible how such a tragic setting lends itself to such awe-inspiring imagery. Zusak does not sugar-coat the Second World War. Sometimes, the darkest subjects produce the brightest inspiration. As narrator, Death details the pain and suffering, the loss and anger; but he parallels it with the kindness of humanity. People come together to do great things, from the smallest acts of good will to the bravest of self-sacrifices. In this novel, Death is not dark or evil. He does not carry a scythe. He recognises the light within mankind. He admires it. 

Words are an important motif throughout this novel. Zusak uses language in the most original way to articulate this story. But also, words are a source of power for the characters. The F├╝hrer uses words to gain power over the German people; Liesel uses words to overcome her nightmares, reading books through the night; and Max uses words to share his story. Death offers meaning to the reader, by translating German phrases, giving definitions of difficult words, and using metaphors and similes to bring to life a little street in the poor part of Munich. 

Liesel's love of words is infections. For me, the benefits of reading are obvious - so much so, I sometimes find it difficult to articulate. This book perfectly demonstrates the importance of words - we too easily and too often take them for granted, but we must remember that words give us power.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Horrid Henry's Guide to Perfect Parents



Horrid Henry's Guide to Perfect Parents
Francesca Simon
London, Orion, 2013, 56p

One of the few series my younger brother enjoyed when he was little was Horrid Henry. But they weren't really ever my cup of tea. This new short story is published for World Book Day, but I find myself struggling to find it as funny as I think it's trying to be.

The Guide to Perfect Parents is an advice book written by Horrid Henry. He finds his parents have an advice book about raising children, so decides to use this against him and show other kids how to trick their parents and get everything they want.

Unfortunately, the tactics Horrid Henry suggests are completely ridiculous. Most of his arguments are based on the theory of parents being competitive with other parents, so he suggests kids tell their parents that their friends parents are so much better - "Susan's parents let her play on the computer for as long as she likes". This would NEVER work. 

I am unsure if Horrid Henry has practiced any of these techniques, but I don't suggest listening to his guidance. The result will be very angry parents. 

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Hunt



The Hunt
Andrew Fukuda
London, Simon and Schuster, 2012, 293p

New supernatural series are coming out every week at the moment - both in book and film form.  They are inescapable, and I am trying to keep on top of the latest trends, to satisfy my needy teenage readers. Fukuda's novel is another of this genre, bringing together elements of the Hunger Games with aspects of vampire legend. 

The Hunt is about a world in which vampires have taken over. They live pretty boring lives, with school, families, and dawn curfews. Fukuda draws on some pretty old school vampire conventions, like horse drawn carts and the inability to withstand daylight - there are no sparkling vampires here, thankfully. They have consumed all humans, who they call 'hepers', but live in perpetual hope that somewhere, there might be more. 

Their wishes come true when the Ruler announces there will be a Heper Hunt (very Hunger Games), the first in ten years. A lucky few will be selected to hunt a small number of hepers who have survived in captivity, being raised in a research centre. 

Gene is one of the lucky selected. Or maybe he's not so lucky, as actually he is a heper who has been strong and clever enough to hide himself in vampire school for 17 years. The story follows his short stay in a training camp, preparing for the Hunt. He struggles to hide his heper scent from the hungry vampires. He also finds himself falling for Ashley June, one of his fellow hunters (very Warm Bodies). 

The novel is fast paced and dramatic, but not something I would usually chose to read. It felt too familiar, with so many elements essentially plagiarised from current popular culture. It is likely to sell well, as it pleases that audience, but it is not original or clever. Unfortunately, Fukuda has created a series out of this concept, leaving his reader with a frustratingly tantalising cliffhanger.  Can I be bothered to read on?

Friday, 8 March 2013

Lost in a Good Book



Lost in a Good Book
Jasper Fforde
London, Hodder and Stoughton, 2002, 372p

What an appropriate title. I felt the need for something really literary and clever, and found just the thing in Jasper Fforde's novel, the second of the Thursday Next series.

Following on from The Eyre Affair, Thursday Next finds herself having to deal with being a celebrity, trying to represent the truth of what happened inside Jane Eyre, whilst being censored by Goliath Industries, SpecOps and the Bronte Society. Things go from bad to worse when Goliath eradicate her husband, handsome war hero Landen Parke-Laine. In Lost in a Good Book, Next must quickly learn how to jump in and out of books, in the hope of rescuing her lovely man. 

I love the way Fforde writes. He is clever and well-read, with literary references seeping through every page. For instance, Miss Havisham features significantly in this novel, as Next's guide in jumping through books. This world has created is a strange sideways version of our world - where the Crimea war is only coming to an end in 1985, where mammoths migrate across England annually, and where fiction is the most popular form of culture. It is a dream. 

Fforde plays with the idea that a good book can be an escape from the everyday - but, for his lucky characters, the escape is literal, as they drop right into the world they are reading about. In his world, novels are policed by Jurisfiction Agents, who stop deviant plot changers and rebellious characters. 

Characters can also play with coincidences, as Thursday discovers. Strange things keep happening to her, leading her into near-death situations. She is lucky to have a time-travelling father watching over her, always stepping in at the last possible moment. 

I'm a bit in love with Jasper Fforde; but mostly I am in love with his romantic lead, Landen Park-Laine, who is unfortunately absent from most of this novel. Thursday Next is a brilliant hero - clever, quick witted and brave, and as she becomes increasingly smitten with Landen, so do I. 

As it's International Women's Day, I'd like to add Thursday Next to the list of fictional women I admire and wish were real.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Tom Gates Best Book Day Ever (so far)



Tom Gates Best Book Day Ever (so far)
L Pichon
London, Scholastic, 2013, 83p


Happy World Book Day! Mostly Books have been kind enough to help us with our celebrations, and provided us with some samples of the books published especially for today, so I thought I'd try a sample; starting with Tom Gates

Tom's latest adventure takes us with him through his World Book Day celebrations, and his mission to make a prize-winning costume, a subject of much discussion today. 

What I love about these books is how normal Tom is. He is very easy to relate to, just a normal school boy with normal 'adventures'. The books are far from intimidating for the reluctant reader - there are lots of pictures a d few words, but it does not look childish. I appreciate this new trend of boyhood diaries, like the Wimpy Kid books. With this short novel, the language is simple and funny, and the characters are like real people. He has a moody big sister and embarrassing parents, just like we all did at that age.

I've always loved the World Book Day books - when I was younger, it was because they are free; but now, it's because they are fun, simple and accessible. And free. There is nothing stopping young people taking advantage of this opportunity to read.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

A Dreadful Murder


 

A Dreadful Murder: The Mysterious Death of Caroline Luard
Minette Walters
Oxford, Pan, 2013, 125p




I love the ease and fluidity of some of this years Galaxy Quick Reads. They are gripping and well written, and A Dreadful Murder is no exception.

Based on a true story, Walters short novel is about Caroline Luard, who is found with two bullet wounds in her head at her summerhouse in Kent. The last person who saw her was her husband, with whom she was taking a walk, and the first person to find her, several house later, is the same man. Naturally, suspicion falls to him, as the local working class vent their anger at this rich couple by creating rumours about affairs and marital disputes. There are few leads and many lies to unravel, as detectives from Scotland Yard attempt to solve this unusual case.

In reality, as Walters explains in her prologue, no murderer was actually found. It would appear that time was wasted by the police, mainly in validating Caroline's husbands whereabouts. Walters adaptation is well researched, with a good deal of poetic license - something to which she openly admits. She even encourages the reader to do their own research and draw their own conclusions.

But the crime story is still wonderful - full of suspicion and mystery with no clear solution. The novel is also partly political, with Walters creating a setting of class divide and social unrest. Set in 1908, very few of the characters are happy with their lot. The working class resent relying upon the rich for their charity. Crime is rife amongst many families. And women are given no freedom, they cannot work, and are trapped in loveless marriages. A Dreaful Murder is historical and political fiction, as much as a crime drama, which adds to the story, helping build drama. 

Friday, 1 March 2013

In the Trees



In the Trees
Pauline Fisk
London, Faber & Faber, 2010, 337p

It's less than a week until World Book Day and therefore less than a week until Pauline Fisk comes to visit my school. I've been saving this book for a while, as Pauline spoke so enthusiastically about it; and I have to agree it is wonderful.

In the Trees is about a young boy's search for somewhere to call home. Kid grew up in South London, his mother passed away when he was young, and he does not know anything about his father except he is from Belize. Dropping out of school, Kid flies to Belize to search for his father, following strange trails through the rain forest in his quest. He encounters dangerous people, supernatural myths, and makes amazing friends. 

Poverty is a theme that pervades throughout the novel - both in terms of financial poverty and emotional poverty. Kid is the sort of young man who has slipped through the social services net, and is outside the attention of those institutions that should be there to help him. He feels that growing up in South London has prepared him well for the threats that await him in South America; but he finds the culture is so different, and he discovers a poverty like nothing he has experienced. 

And yet the people he meets are full of love and hope. There is change in the air, as a new government is elected, full of promise. People only use what they need, and only have very little. But they appreciate it. 

When Kid starts out, he seems to be completely lost. He doesn't have a home in South London; he has no family and few friends. He is half Belizean, but still feels slightly put of place when he travels there. He wants to learn about his heritage and his father, in the hope he will better understand himself and where he belongs. 

The novel is very enlightening. Fisk's descriptions of the rain forest are vivid and beautiful, taking you right into the jungle with the young characters. It makes me want to go out there. The story is long but gripping, full of twist and turns and new adventures. Kid is a brilliant character, and particularly appealing for those with little sense of self. He grows and develops, becoming self-aware enough to recognise that, even as the novel ends, his journey is not yet complete.