Tuesday, 30 April 2013

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece
Annabel Pitcher
London, Indigo, 2011, 221p

Some characters are just too wonderful for words. The first person narrative becomes incredibly powerful, inviting the reader into a vivid world full of love and curiosity and doubt. This is Jamie. 

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is a story about a family coming to terms with loss. Five years ago, Rose died in a terrorist attack. Her father turns to alcohol, whilst her mother leaves for another man. Her twin sister has to step up, always living under the shadow of the ashes that sit on the mantelpiece. But Jamie can't really remember his lost sister. And when he becomes friends from Sunya, he feels like he is betraying his father by spending time with a Muslim.

Written from Jamie's point of view, the narrative is full of naivety and uncertainty. The language is simplistic and emotional, with long child-like sentences. This style really lends itself to creativity, as the imagery is beautifully poetic - particularly memorable is his descriptions of the few strands of hair that escape Sunya's hijab, billowing in the wind.

The relationships that are developed in this book were my highlight. The broken family with their lack of understanding for each other was full of sadness. Even though you want to hate the parents, Pitcher has made them so terribly human, full of flaws, that you can't help but sympathise. Jas and Jamie are incredibly patient as they struggle to keep their heads up, despite their parents being absent from their day-to-day lives. 

But best of all is the friendship between Jamie and Sunya - their secretive codes and superhero tendencies make them adorable. Where so many young characters strive to fit in, Sunya and Jamie are more than happy being the misfits. 

This is a heart-breaking story - the tragedy of this family conflicts with the optimism of young Jamie, which is slowly worn away by repeated betrayal and abandonment. The children are the hero of this story, with the bravery to show their parents and teachers what is important, and how to deal with life. 

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The King's Speech

The King's Speech: Based on the Recently Discovered Diaries of Lionel Logue
Mark Logue and Peter Conradi
London, Quercus, 2011, 229p

This biography is a fascinating account of the relationship between King George VI and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Written by his grandson, it recounts Logue's methods and the King's determined hard work, as together they overcame the King's lack of confidence, allowing him to lead Great Britain through the Second World War.

Logue and Conradi present a thoroughly researched account. Mark Logue admits he knew little of his grandfather until he found his memoirs, stashed by his father, Lionel's son. In The King's Speech, they recount the life of Lionel, who emigrated from Australia to England with his young family, and was fortunate enough to be given a chance to practice his skill on royalty. The book also details the historical context of the 1930s and 40s, as building tension across Europe made the role of the King ever more essential to the Empire. 

For me, it was particularly interesting to understand the increased importance of radio, and I would like to have known more about the rise of this media in relation to national events. The reign of King George VI would have been one of the first opportunities for the people to hear their monarch address them directly, and hence began the tradition of the Christmas speech. Inevitably, the King's lack of confidence needed to be addressed, so the people could remain sure of the leadership of their country during times of war and poverty.

This is a beautifully written account of the life of Lionel Logue. Often, with the repeated names of royalty and the complexities of this last century's history, such texts can become convoluted; but Logue and Conradi kept focus, provided ample contextualisation, and maintained my interested. The King his humanised by Logue - made to be someone we can all relate to, especially with his lack of confidence in public speaking. But George VI's hard work shines through, with Logue crediting much of their success to his commitment to overcoming his stammer. 

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Some Kids

Some Kids
An Anthology by the First Story Group at Oxford Spires Academy
ed. Kate Clanchy
London, First Story, 2010, 64p

At last, I got my mitts on a copy of the first anthology created by Kate Clanchy and the students of Oxford Spires Academy. Some Kids is the product of an Inclusion Project run by some incredibly members of staff, and with the support of the charity First Story.

The students behind this anthology are those who, for a variety of reasons, are excluded from everyday schooling. They share experiences that, for some, are completely unimaginable. Perhaps we would rather not hear what these young people have to say, but in these pages, their voices scream out with frustration, anger and sadness.

Of course, there are glimmers of hope that seem through. They share their love for their friends and their appreciation for these teachers who have taken the time to help them. The language and formulation of some of these pieces of work are incredible, especially considering many of these kids do not do very well in conventional classes. Reading them, you might think the students were top of their class.

Oxford Spires is about to launch it's fourth anthology in June. We have seen great success from these students recently, including prestigious prizes and coffee & cake with the Duchess of Cornwall. It is wonderful to see where it all started, with Some Kids, and it is clear that, thanks to the hard work of Kate Clanchy and the talent of our students, we still have a bright future ahead. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby
F Scott Fitzgerald
London, Everyman's, 1991, 148p

As an English graduate, I am ashamed that I have not read this novel in the past. The Great Gatsby is emblematic of it's time, portraying 1920s New York as the centre of materialism and wealth.

Narrated by Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald's novel tells the tale of Jay Gatsby, party host, socialite, and subject of many rumours. Those in Gatsby's circle are living the American dream - wearing expensive gowns, drinking champagne through the night, exploiting the possibilities of wealth and privilege. Underlying this descriptive element is a tale of romance, as Gatsby embarks on a conspiracy to be reunited with his past love, Daisy.

Carraway's tale is one of few characters and little drama, excepting the rather unexpected fall from grace at the end, which I shall not spoil. Through his narrative tone, Carraway is quietly critical of all that Gatsby's guests represent - many are uninvited, few actually know the host, and all speculate on the truth of gossip suggesting he's a German spy, or perhaps he's killed a man. Few of these wealthy elites seem happy with their lot, though by appearance they have achieved the American dream. It reminds me of American Psycho (just with slightly less sex and murder), with Patrick Bateman's tireless hatred of the life that he leads, and the ideology of consumerism that overwhelms society. 

You float through this novel on a bed of Fitzgerald's words - he uses the most romantic language to describe the parties and people. He perfectly captures the Jazz Age, contrasting it's beauty and excitement with horror and dissatisfaction. 

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Blood Red Road

Blood Red Road
Moira Young
London, Scholastic, 2011, 417p

Hailed as the new Hunger Games, Moira Young's Dustland trilogy is a journey across a desert as Saba searches for her stolen brother, Lugh.

Blood Red Road is set in a dystopian world where Saba and her family live in the middle of a vast desert, miles from any other people. Lugh wants to get out, to see what is out in the world, but their father insists it is unsafe, reading danger in the stars. Then one day, Lugh is stolen by dark-robed men on horses, and Saba, lost without her twin, sets out to find him.

Saba's journey is a fast paced action story, full of obstacles and drama. She is a brave and stubborn protagonist - she will stop at nothing to be reunited with her brother. However, she is incredibly inexperienced, and thus unprepared for the evil out in the wider world. I love the way she grows and matures along the journey, becoming more willing to allow others to help her and join her. There is also an element of romance in the novel, though Saba strives to resist it. 

The book is written in an unusual dialect - at first, it is somewhat difficult to read. The accent reflects Saba's lack of formal education, as her spelling is phonetic. Thus, the tag line for this book is
"I ain't afeared of nuthin"
As such, it is not a great novel in terms of teaching new words or phrases. Of course, it makes the plot more convincing, and adds context to this post-apocalyptic world, but it will not teach young people to improve their spelling or expand their vocabulary.

I wish I had found Blood Red Road to be a more gripping read. I loved the pretense for it, and the world Moira Young has created is enthralling and terrifying; but I wanted a more fast-paced, less predictable story. And yet, I have very high hopes for the rest of the trilogy.

Friday, 19 April 2013

The Details

The Details
Judged by Bernard O'Donoghue, Carrie Etter, and Peter McDonald
Oxford, Tower Poetry, 2013

Yesterday, Azfa Ali won the first prize in the Christopher Tower Poetry Competition of 2013. She is an Oxford Spires Academy student, a First Story apprentice, and a talented young lady.

The Tower Poetry Prize, in it's thirteenth year, attracted over six hundred entries this year, which were whittled down by three brave judges to just six. The competition is designed to inspire creative writing and reading in young people, and has produced some incredible poets in the past. 

In a small room at Christ Church College in Oxford, the six prizewinners gathered with Oxford academics, relatives of Christopher Tower, and their friends and families. The theme was "The Details" and the resulting work was beautiful. Azfa won with her poem, Origins, which includes one of my favourite of her passages, describing the journey of a refugee on a motorway. 

Second and third place went to Sarah Fletcher and Erin Tunney respectively. Both are incredible in their ability to embody the spirit of characters they have no experience of. Miss Fletcher writes from the viewpoint of a young Dutch girl and her relationship with a German officer during World War One - a beautiful and evocative piece of writing. Also commended for their poetry were Kathryn Cussons, Luke van den Barselaar, and Eva Wallace. As the only male shorlisted, van den Barselaar should be credited for writing an incredible poem, Research, which conflicts the love and adoration of a woman's body with a voice that is dark and sinister. 

I am incredibly proud of Azfa - she is a deserving winner amongst such difficult competition. 

Tuesday, 16 April 2013


Yesterday (Teenage Memoirs)
Adele Geras
London, Walker, 1992, 85p

Oxford is a city that inspires imagination and creativity. I have been living here for six months now, and am still yet to fall in love with it, though I really, really want to. 

Yesterday is Adele Geras' account of her university years in Oxford, where she studied French and Spanish at St Hilda's in the early sixties. She is a warm, inviting writer, drawing you right into her Oxford. The story is reminiscent and full of love for the city, where, having spent most of her life in boarding schools or moving from country to country, she finally found a place to call home.

Geras directly addresses the fantasy of Oxford - she grew up dreaming about it, drawing on her father's stories and a map he owned. It's the place you read about in history books; the place that caused the creation of so many wonderful classics, like Alice in Wonderland. It is the centre of culture and learning; a place beautiful come rain or shine. The way Geras writes makes you want to visit, to eat at the cafes she ate in, to explore the streets she walked. Most of all, I want to meet the people she met. It's always the people that really make a place special.

I want Geras' to experience Oxford, but even she admits it has changed. I'm getting there.

Friday, 12 April 2013

The House of Silk

The House of Silk
Anthony Horowitz
London, Orion, 2012, 389p

How is it possible for a new Sherlock Holmes adventure to appear, I hear you ask, when Arthur Conan Doyle has been dead some 80 years? Well, that is what I asked myself when embarking on this novel. It seems Dr John Watson had one last story to tell, and has used Anthony Horowitz as his medium. 

The House of Silk is a grand novel of a crime adventure. Holmes and Watson reuinte whilst Watson's wife is away in order to investigate a mystery of international scale. Edmund Carstairs appeals to the detective to protect him from a killer who has travelled from America to track down his victim. The investigation leads Watson and Holmes deep into the dark street of London, where young boys are killed, opium-use is ripe, and Holmes is framed for murder. The House of Silk seems impossible to find, but the daring duo are sure it holds the solutions to their questions.

Reading Holmes in novel form was a struggle, as what I have always liked about these detective stories is the concise nature of Watson's narrative. In this book, he is an elderly man writing about a story he has been previously unable to tell. His narrative is reminiscent and full of regret, as he clearly misses the adventures of his youth. 

Horowitz is clearly a great lover of Sherlock Holmes - he keeps to ten strict rules when writing, in order to avoid over-indulging himself. He keeps fairly loyal to the original, other than a few anomalies  and the aforementioned extended length of this adventure. The old favourites are included - Mrs Hudson, Mycroft and Lestrande. The drama is tense, with moments of comic relief, and the story is unpredictable enough to satisfy. Holmes is typically eccentric, seeming to have solved the mystery long before anyone else - Watson and the reader can hardly keep up.

And yet, I felt a little like I was betraying Conan Doyle. The thing I have always loved about Holmes is how much Conan Doyle hated him - determined to kill him off, convinced the character was haunting him. In his attempt to bring the detective back to life, Horowitz has too much love for Holmes; his passion seeps through the pages. This is no bad trait in normal circumstances, but I miss the resentment that his original creator had for that brilliant detective. 

Friday, 5 April 2013


My Sister the Vampire: Switched
Sienna Mercer
London, Edgmont, 2009, 247p

 Considering my initial expectations, I rather enjoyed this novel. Taking advantage of the current trend of vampire stories, Sienna Mercer has merged the supernatural with a sort-of Parent Trap story to make something cute and fun.

Switched is the first in the My Sister The Vampire series. At it's core, it is a rather normal high school tale of friendship. Ivy and Olivia are long-lost sisters, one of whom is a Goth, whilst the other wants to join the cheerleading squad. They decide to play a prank of captain cheerleader, Charlotte,  by switching clothes so Gothic Ivy can pretend to be Olivia at lunch. When they realise that no one had noticed the switch, they continue to use their new found sisterhood for dates and party-planning.

The story is not complex or clever - it is rather obvious, and if anything, I kept expecting a twist. But nothing really goes wrong for these girls. This series is just a new approach to girly junior fiction.

I guess the twist, if you can call it that, is that Ivy is a vampire. In this story, vampires are merged into normal society, able to survive daylight with a little sun lotion. At this point in the series, this element of the plot is not particularly significant, but I suspect that it might become more so.

An easy read and completely harmless, I found this novel to be better than I had anticipated, which can't be a bad thing.   

Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Fault in our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars
John Green (future husband?)
London, Penguin, 2012, 313p

My little brother has made me cry twice this week. On Monday, he threw the remote control at my knee; then, he recommended The Fault in Our Stars, which resulted me crying uncontrollably into my pillow, leaving it drenched. 

Context: my brother doesn't read much. The last book I remember him choosing to read was a Skulduggery Pleasant novel when he was about nine years old. I could not resist reading the book that caused my brother to be able to talk to me about literature.

I am completely in love with Hazel. She is the most brilliant teenage female character I have met in a while. She is smart, quoting poetry from memory; she is loving, scared of hurting those around her; and she is hilarious. More than once, I laughed out loud. I haven't read wit like this since Jane Austen. My favourite bit was when she was explaining how she had been diagnosed with cancer just days after her period started: 
"Like: Congratulations! You're a woman. Now die."
Which brings me to my earlier reference to crying. Hazel has cancer. She is terminal. She is surprisingly well-adjusted, considering she is only seventeen. She resents those who pity her, but she is not bitter or angry. She is sad, but does not dwell on her future.

The story is about Hazel's relationship with Augustus Waters, a boy she meets at a Support Group. He understands what she is going through, having lost his leg due to cancer eighteen months before. He is handsome and quick-witted. He is kind-hearted and gentle. He is perfect. (I might have fallen in love with him a wee bit.) Their dialogue is full of clever remarks and included words that even I had to look up. I loved it every time they spoke.

Hazel is reluctant to hurt him. She wants to hurt as few people as possible when she dies, so tries to keep boundaries with Augustus. But he is always there, as a friend, wanting more, but never pushing (perfect, right?). 

John Green has rewritten the tragic romance novel. In The Fault in our Stars, you laugh more than you cry, you learn about living and loving, and you grow to appreciate how lucky you really are. You don't feel sorry for Hazel - she is impossible not to love and admire for her intelligence and nobility. Stories like this are rare treasures. Stories like this change their readers. And that's what stories are for.

For Nick x

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

A Million Angels

A Million Angels is out today!

A Million Angels
Kate Maryon
London, HarperCollin, 2011, 266p

This is a sweet story about the effects of way, particularly the effects on children who are separated from their parents. It spans across generations, with young Jemima's tale paralleling that of her grandmother, who lost her family and childhood sweetheart during the Blitz.

The title, A Million Angels, refers to the biro scribbles that Jemima draws in her arms. She draws angels, which she imagines fly out to protect her father in Afghanistan. Jemima really struggles to deal with her father being away, with the risk of death in his face every day. She acts out at school and at home, setting off fire alarms, pretending to be sick, etc., in the hope that it might bring her dad back to England. Meanwhile, her heavily pregnant mother finds it hard to connect with her daughter, despite the fact they are both battling the same worries.

Jemima is a somewhat difficult character. She refuses to speak out about her feelings, so bottles everything up inside. People think she is different, even weird. At school, she is teased and doesn't understand what it takes to fit in. At home, she feels like her mum hates her, always pushing her to spend time with girls she doesn't like. Her strange behaviour is not discussed by her and her mother, but ignored, so it builds and festers until it explodes. I do not particularly sympathise with Jemima's situation, as her refusal to speak out frustrated me, but I think her journey through loneliness is one felt by many young girls.

Maryon is a beautiful writer - some of her metaphors and similes made me stop to appreciate the childlike simplicity of language. She has really engaged with her twelve year old protagonist, and brought a world to life through her eyes. 

Monday, 1 April 2013

Hello Mum

Hello Mum
Bernardine Evaristo
London, Penguin, 2010, 81p

I enjoy a good short read - it's a welcome break from teenage fiction of a ridiculously high standard. However, sometimes the lack of length has a detrimental effect upon the quality of the book. This story has a brilliant ending, but I could see it coming.

Hello Mum is a letter written to a mother by her son. JJ, the protagonist, is a gentlemanly young man, but is unlucky to be lacking in opportunities. He is the kind of lad trapped in the cycle of poverty, unable to move up or move out. He is a good kid, though somewhat disillusioned. He wants to fit in and belong; he wants protection. The story is about a day in which he finally gets the chance to be part of something, and finds himself wishing he wasn't there.

I was once told in a creative writing workshop that writing allows us to be whoever we want to be. We should explore writing about experiences or people we do not know about. I tend to disagree, as such books are often lacking in credibility. Research is at the heart of a brilliant story. Understanding and experience are tools for inspiration.

Which brings me to my problem with this book. I wasn't completely convinced. I couldn't forget the fact that Bernadine Evaristo is an older woman, writing about a 14-year-old inner city boy; though she clearly went to a lot of effort to make her story realistic. Admittedly, I am no more experience in the life of a young gang member; but I fear that if a kid like JJ read this book, he would laugh at the slang, the clothes, and the outsider's perspective on such life.