Friday, 28 June 2013

Eleven Eleven

Eleven Eleven
Paul Dowswell
London, Bloomsbury, 2012, 202p

Sometimes, I struggle to find fiction to recommend to young boys. There is so much out there for girls, and often girls are more willing to engage with a male protagonist. You rarely find a boy interested in a female novel.

Eleven Eleven is an exciting, dangerous book about boys (for boys and girls). It tells the story of three young men on the front line during the last day of World War One. Axel is a German soldier in his first day in action; Eddie is an American pilot, well-decorated and ambitious; and Will is a young Brit, fighting alongside his older brother, who has lied his way into the army to impress his sweetheart. 

On 11th November 1918 at 11am, it was declared that the war had ended. However, in the hours leading up to this time, lives were still being lost, battles were still being fought. This novel, based in fact, is about the challenges faced by young men during this time. Dowswell comments that this story only demonstrates a small sample of the tragedy of this conflict, but it is a gripping and emotive introduction for a young reader.

The three men are equally brave and terrified. They are a personification of the feelings and experiences of a great many recruits. As their stories diverge, we realise the similarities between the different nations - each struggling with the responsibility of serving their country and the guilt of hurting another man. Dowswell highlights that great legend of war: the sympathy one man feels towards another, despite their differences and the all-enveloping war. It leaves you with hope, and some semblance of peace.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Pigeon English

Pigeon English
Stephen Kelman
London, Bloomsbury, 2011, 263p

I had high expectations for this book, hoping for something political and daring, exploring the life of a young boy living in inner-city London. I had hoped to be completely engaged from page one, but found my interest wavering - the only thing keeping me going being the sweet, kind-hearted protagonist.

Pigeon English is Harri's story. He is a immigrant from Ghana, living with his mother and sister on the ninth floor of a tower block. He is a good child, keeping on the right side of the tracks, avoiding involvement in the local gangs. One day, a boy from the area is killed, and Harri is hypnotised by the blood, determined to help the cops solve the crime and find the killer. He uses techniques he has seen, such as finger-printing and interrogation. But by asking questions, he starts to draw too much attention to himself, creeping closer and closer to danger.

Harri is a really endearing narrator: he is so innocent, learning about this new country with it's strange customs and language. He talks about the language he picks up at school, explaining the slang, often misunderstanding it's meaning. In a environment of crime and immorality, he is pure and inquisitive, not realising the danger he is getting himself in to. He has a very positive outlook on the world around him, and his narrative voice is uplifting and optimistic, even at the darkest of times.

The novel is also intersected by the narrative of Harri's favourite pigeon. It is unclear if this pigeon is truly Harri's guardian angel, or if that is just how Harri percieves him. Harri imagines the pigeon talking to him, watching over him and his family. The pigeon's world view conflicts with Harri's - it is more realistic, noting the danger, warning him about the harsh world he explores.

So, in terms of the narrative, Pigeon English is original and evocative - I found myself drawn to Harri, sharing his innocence and optimism. But the plot was slow and boring. Kelman was clearly going for a political commentary, exploring the issues surrounding crime in urban areas, but he did not successfully manage that balance between social criticism and plot. Perhaps it was too subtle for me, but I felt that one of these elements was lacking, and the excellent narrative was not an adequate substitute. 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Tulip Touch

The Tulip Touch
Anne Fine
London, Penguin, 1997, 168p

The Year 7s are currently reading this in their English lessons, and although I am pretty sure I read it when I was at school, I cannot remember it at all - a little like Room 13

The Tulip Touch is a Gothic horror about a troublesome friendship between Natalie and Tulip. Written from the viewpoint of Natalie, the story tells of how a innocent friendship turns dark, as Tulip reveals her naughty side as the girls became closer. Tulip lies, controls and deceives. She leads Natalie into trouble - first it is just little things - the girls giggling behind their hands - but it develops into acts of theft and arson. 

The novel is distinctly Gothic, with death pervading through the story. Tulip is described as witch-like, enchanting Natalie against her will. Eventually, Natalie pushes away from Tulip, taking back control over her life, getting back on track at school; but, there are dark consequences of abandoning her old friend.

You sympathise initially with Natalie because you read about her experience of the friendship. But you also grow to understand Tulip. Her behaviour is linked to her upbringing - she lives with an abusive father and a mother unwilling or unable to protect her. Although Natalie is relieved to be free of her, she does not regret the time they had together. 

Many young people have had good relationships turn bad, and Anne Fine has accurately portrayed the difficulty of such a situation. She explores the fear felt by young girls who are trapped by that desire to be included. Natalie is constantly asking herself why she didn't back out sooner. This is a timeless story, a rite of passage for teenage girls, portrayed through a sinister friendship.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Music Room

The Music Room
William Fiennes
London, Picador, 2009, 211p

Although not a fantasy novel, The Music Room read like a dream. William Fiennes had the most unusual childhood, growing up in a castle, owned by his family for many centuries. It is a true story, detailing his childhood - adventures around the vast estate, day-to-day interruptions from the visiting public, and the difficulty of understanding his older brother's epilepsy.

This novel can be broken down into three elements: Fiennes' vivid descriptions of the castle and countryside, exploring the beauty of the Oxfordshire countryside; memories of Richard's behaviour, a result of brain damage caused by an epileptic fit; and a documentation of the history of scientific discovery with regards to epilepsy, from early speculations to more recent attempts at solutions. 

It is incredible how Fiennes brings you into his memories, placing you at the scene - be it a walk through the forest, or witnessing a fight between Richard and his parents. He does this by switching between tenses: first reminiscing about his memories of a particular event, then changing to present tense, taking you right into the depths of the memory, like it is happening right now. It has a powerful effect on your imagination, hypnotising you into this dreamy world. 

I knew very little about epilepsy or brain damage before reading this novel, but now I feel far more informed, open-minded, sympathetic. As Fiennes grow up, he realises that his childhood will be temporary, whilst Richard's is not something he will grow out of. Richard is short-tempered, finds it difficult to rationalise, and his moods are often dictated by the Leeds United score. 

Reflecting on his childhood, Fiennes comments on how little he questioned. He never thought to ask why visitors toured his house through the day, or why people were so accepting of Richard's unusual behaviour. It is not until we grow up, leave home, meet others that we realise that our experiences are often unique. As in When God Was a Rabbit, we see here how we are moulded and defined by our family and childhood. 

Saturday, 22 June 2013

When God Was a Rabbit

When God Was a Rabbit
Sarah Winman
London, Headline, 2011, 324p

Family has always been important to me. They have been the one constant throughout the good and the bad. I've always thought of us as pretty conventional and incredibly lucky, but perhaps not interesting enough to be a subject of literature (though my mother might disagree). I think that is why I loved this novel so much. It is just a pretty normal family, doing mostly normal things, but they are always there for each other. 

When God Was a Rabbit is a fictional biography of a young girl, Elly Portman. She introduces her family with all the love of a doting daughter, describing their flaws, habits and secrets in intimate detail. Her parents are open-minded and liberal, allowing her the opportunity to develop in her own time. She is particularly attached to her older brother, who looks out for her like a good brother always should. 

The novel is split into two parts, the first being her childhood and the second being her adulthood, with little discussion of her adolescence. However, I didn't feel this left the novel lacking. There are some brilliant comic scenes in her childhood, including a moment in which she is cast as the innkeeper in the school nativity. When Mary and Joesph arrive at the door, she cannot bring herself to turn them away, and rewrites the history of the Christian religion by inviting them in. 

In many ways, this novel is very closely tied to the time in which it is set. Winman sporadically refers to significant cultural and historic events of the time, with a focus on random acts of violence, such as IRA bombings and presidential assassinations. These events have an impact on the world and on the family, conflicting with the love shared in their small unit. The contrast is dark and unsettling. It reminds you of the frailty of life and how lucky we are when we get through another day.

It was lovely to be amongst my family as I read this book. (I'm at home for the weekend.) Every family has stories to tell, and even these fictional accounts prompt memories of holidays spent together, laughter shared, arguments fought. Family has a profound affect on who we are and what we do. For Elly, family is everything. 

Friday, 21 June 2013

Daddy Darwin's Dovecot

Daddy Darwin's Dovecot
Juliana Horatio Ewing
London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1884(?), 52p

Sometimes, I find that my love of nostalgia conflicts with my liberal views. I idealise the nineteenth century, dreaming of the changes taking place with regards to families, industry and women. Also, I have romanticised the simpler times, when technology did not intercept relationships and modesty was the norm.

Daddy Darwin's Dovecot brought out that conflict. Ewing's novel is about a young workhouse boy adopted by a lonely old man, who owns a vast dovecot. The young boy is hard-working and moral, reminding his elderly master what it is to love. It is a Christian publication, written to promote religious values. Through his dedication, Jack March becomes deserving, and it all ends happily ever after.

It is a sweet book, idealising childhood through Christian rose-tinted glasses. I love the illustrations, and the fact you can feel the imprint of the words on the page, where the engraved tiles have been pressed down. A colleague let me look at her copy, and I adore the texture of this little book. 

However, I cannot escape the way in which the hardships of life are brushed over. Jack March is incredibly lucky to be able to escape the workhouse - few children would have had such an opportunity. In addition, there are ignorant misogynist references to the weaker sex, which made me cringe, despite the age of the text. After all, it is written by a woman!

I was startled by how complex some of the language is. I find it hard to believe a young child would have been able to read this independently - perhaps it was created for families to read together. But, with my contemporary awareness of the difficulties some students have with reading, either due to limited language range or dyslexia, I can imagine some children felt abandoned when trying to learn.

Today, we still have a number of moralistic or religious tales out there, but they are far more subtle. With such a short book, everything becomes very simple, and Jack is a caricature of morality. And although it is a rather old book, things were changing by 1884, and I can imagine many liberal readers became far more angry than I find myself. 

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Night Circus

The Night Circus
Erin Morgenstern
London, Harvill Secker, 2011, 387p

I was so engrossed in this world that I didn't want the novel to end. I felt like I was part of something brilliant and magical. The circus haunted me through my days; I could not escape the desire to pick it up and continue on it's journey.

The Night Circus is a celebration of magic, friendship and love. Marco and Celia are bound together by a competition between two old friends. Both are powerful young illusionists, and neither are sure of the rules of the game, but one must be declared the victor. Against the wishes of their masters, they fall in love, and must find a way to escape the world that they have created. 

It is the intricate details that I love most about this story - the settings, the supporting cast, the magic. Despite being a subject of fantasy and dreams, the Night Circus seems so real, coming to life like one of the characters. It travels, it creates, and it breathes. With the use of the second person narrative, you can picture yourself there, amongst the black and white tents, following the pathways through this strange and invigorating environment. Even the physical book is designed to reflect the symbolism within the story - a heavy hardback with black edges and a red ribbon to mark your page. 

It would have been so easy for Morgenstern to let the love story guide the journey of this story, but I found the lives of the other characters to be far more fascinating and significant. Of course, Marco and Celia are vibrant, passionate characters (Celia, in particular, I adore - she is no damsel in distress, but a brave, noble young woman), but the story is carried by others. There is Bailey, a young boy outside the circus, who is captivated when he sees it appear one morning across the field. Poppet and Widget are twins, born on the opening night, who grow up within the maze of tents, seeing and hearing everything - past, present and future. And Friedrick Thiessen, a German clock maker who follows the circus wherever it goes: watching, admiring, recording it's every detail.

At it's core, this is a story about stories. Many of the characters are avid readers, hoarding books like gold dust. Many are also story-tellers, from Thiessen's writing about the circus, to Widget's ability to tell stories aloud. It is said, towards the end of the novel, that story-telling is a sort of magic:
"It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict."

Monday, 17 June 2013

The Drowning

The Drowning
Rachel Ward
Frome, Chicken House, 2013, 273p

When Rachel Ward visited my school for World Book Day, I was excited to learn that she had a new novel on the way. I had loved Numbers, the series about a girl who could see the dates of people's death when she looked into their eyes. It was dark, brave and dramatic, and The Drowning is more of the same excellent teenage literature.

Carl Adams is fished out of  lake, with little memory regarding how he got there. He is told that his brother died, it was an accident, but Rob's ghost still seems to follow him around. There was a girl there, too - Carl struggles to remember who she was. But slowly, he starts to piece together the events of that day, with the ghost of his dead brother watching over his shoulder.

This novel is a lot more than a ghost story. At it's core, it is about grief, about how "sometimes the dead don't go quietly". Everyone deals with grief differently: his mother turns to alcohol, whilst Carl seems to be going mad. Carl is haunted by the unknown - he cannot work out what happened on the day his brother died, and doesn't know who is responsible. Did he kill his own brother? 

It makes for an incredibly dark Gothic novel. Water becomes a symbol of fear - it caused the death of Rob, and it's presence produces terror in Carl. It's a psychological thriller, playing on the uncertainty that Carl and the reader share. The first few chapters are confusing and disorientating, creating a feeling of horror that haunts the reader. It is fast-pace and addictive - Rachel Ward is confidently controlling where this story is going, and you cannot help but follow. My expectations were high, and she has impressed. 

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass
Philip Pullman
London, Scholastic, 2000, 548p

This is the final novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy. It has taken me longer to read than the previous two for a number of reasons, but not least because it is the most complex and philosophical of the series. 

The Amber Spyglass is the climax of a conflict that have been building throughout the trilogy. We rejoin Will, seeking to be reunited with Lyra after their separation at the end of The Subtle Knife. Together, they are a great power, a team built on friendship and understanding. Together, they are confident they can do what they have to do, even if they are not yet sure what that is.

As readers, the journey we go on with Will and Lyra is dangerous and fascinating. We explore unimaginable worlds, where strange creatures roam and dark forces overwhelm good. We see the world of the dead, where the ghosts of many species wait in misery for who knows what. Lyra and Will bring light to these worlds, striving to do good. For the ghosts, they open up a window to allow them to escape out to nature, becoming one with the world:
"All the atoms that were them, they've gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They'll never vanish. They're just part of everything."
Suddenly, for the characters and the reader, death seems less scary, more hopeful. This is the sort of hope that I can relate to. 

Pullman has been challenged by some religious groups for the atheist themes in his novel. As a piece of teenage fiction, some of the subjects explored are difficult for young people to understand - even I struggled in places. He is an intellect and proud of it, littering his pages with references to literary greats, from John Milton to William Blake (causing me to dig out my old Blake anthology - what beautiful poetry!). But beneath his anger against organised religion, Pullman creates a beautiful world, where hope and humanity are victorious over greed and power.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Blood Brothers

Blood Brothers
Willy Russell
London, Bloomsbury, 2005, 112p

I am a little ashamed that I have not read Blood Brothers before now. However, I am going to see it in Oxford in September, so thought I should probably stick by my rules and read the book before I see the play.

Blood Brothers is the story of twin boys who are separated at birth because their mother cannot afford to look after them both. Mickey Johnstone is brought up by their mother, whilst Edward becomes Mrs Lyons' son. Edward is showered in opportunities - better housing, better education, a better life - whilst Mickey struggles to make ends meet. Despite their mothers' best efforts to keep them apart, the boys' paths keep crossing, with friendship turning into resentment as their class difference becomes more established.

I was surprised to learn that Blood Brothers is a musical, though not in the conventional sense. It has the repetition of lyrics and building crescendo of tension through song, which supports the drama of the plot and highlights the feeling of anger and frustration. 

This play is a social commentary about class difference. The parallel lives of the boys reflects the nature / nurture debate - born identical, their lives fork in different directions, leading to conflict. Russell highlights the issues of class difference, questioning the consequent imbalance felt in many people's lives. It is disconcerting that a thirty year old play continues to have a strong resonance with modern society. 

Friday, 7 June 2013


An Anthology by the First Story Groups at Oxford Spires Academy
Ed. Kate Clanchy
London, First Story, 2013, 65p

Today, we are launching the fourth anthology of student writing from Oxford Spires Academy, in collaboration with First Story. I am thrilled by this publication, because I have been honoured to be involved in the organisation of this event, alongside with my beautiful friend and wonderful colleague, Emma Bate.

Room is an incredible anthology, full of variety and inspiration; from the fully formed creations of our older and more confident students, to the fledgling ideas of our younger contributors. It has been inspired and moulded by our writer-in-residence, Kate Clanchy, who has offered support and guidance to the students. Room has given these young writers the chance to express themselves: as Kate says in her Introduction, there is room for them all in this little book.

This year, some of the First Story meetings have taken place in the Library, giving me the opportunity to get to know the student writers. As you might expect from a group of literary students, they are mostly quiet and reserved - that is until they put pen to paper, and suddenly they are screaming and shouting through the page. These young people are a diverse and talented group, full of ideas and feelings, anger and hope. They write about what they know, and also what they dream. Some write about politics or religion, others about relationships and family; all have something to say.

It is a privileged that we can celebrate the talent of these students through the publication of this anthology - these young writers are destined for greatness.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Children of Winter

Children of Winter
Berlie Doherty
London, Catnip, 1995, 128p

Berlie Doherty writes beautiful, family-orientated novels for young, intelligent readers. She is very knowledgeable, basing her stories in historical fact, set in the Derbyshire countryside.

Children of Winter is a novel about the impact of the plague on a family in Derbyshire, in 1665. It begins in the modern day, as a family venture across the peaks to visit their grandmother. They are halted by a storm, and the children shelter together in a barn, where imagination takes over. Catherine feels like she has been here before, so the siblings play-act as children sent away from their family to protect them from the plague.

Doherty's characters are innocent, loving children. They hark back to a more simple time, presenting an ideal image of childhood and family as friendship and communion. They do not bicker or fight, but keep strength through their unity. As such, I see these as the kind of books that family share together, reading as a group. 

This idealisation of childhood is something for which Doherty may come under criticism; but I find her novels to be realistic and optimistic, offering children a reminder of the importance of family. They contain a spoonful of morality - a rare thing in a genre currently preoccupied by melodrama and fantasy.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brockett

The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brockett
John Boyne
London, Random House, 2012, 278p

An undoubtedly brilliant and strange novel, exploring the value of otherness. John Boyne is a beautiful writer, creating an unusual young boy in Barnaby Brockett, and taking us on an adventure all over the world and out into middle space

The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brockett is a tale about a young boy who does not fit into his perfectly normal family. His parents pride themselves on fitting in, having obedient, intelligent children and a dog of "indeterminate breed and parentage". That is, until Barnaby comes along - a boy who defies the rules of gravity. Barnaby floats. 

Barnaby's parents are incredibly preoccupied with the fact that their son is not normal. They are convinced that he needs different schooling, that he will scare people in the street, that he will bring shame on the family. As a result, they neglect to notice that very few people are bothered, and most people who meet Barnaby like him regardless of his inability to keep his feet on the ground.

One disastrous afternoon, Barnaby finds himself floating off into the sky - his bag full of sand, usually able to keep him on the ground, is fast emptying. He drifts up and up, unsure where he is going, until he bumps his head on the basket of a hot air balloon. He is helped aboard, and meets two old women bound for Brazil, unable to turn back. Barnaby goes with them, beginning a journey that takes him all over the world, introducing him to wonderful people and great cities. 

Many of the people Barnaby meets are just like him - they are not normal. The two old ladies did not fit in at home, so ran away from their parents. Others have been disowned, deemed failures or abnormal. He even meets a band of people trapped in a circus, kidnapped because they are different, put on display for entertainment. But each of these people seem happy to be "not normal". They make Barnaby feel at home, and he starts to wonder what normal really is.

This novel is all about acceptance. Happiness is more important than being normal, whatever that is. It is a great adventure story, which, despite being about a boy who floats, feels strangely realistic. If reading is about escaping the everyday and broadening the mind, this is the perfect story. 

Saturday, 1 June 2013

One Day

One Day
David Nicholls
London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2009, 435p

I have been meaning to read this book for ages - a so-called romance of our time. To me, it seemed a little like Persuasion, full of secret desires, longing glances, and characters with the inability to express their emotions. But whilst I love Persuasion (have I mentioned it is my all-time favorite book), I found David Nicholls' novel lacking. 

One Day is about two young graduates who hook up at the end of their degrees. A friendship develops, and their story is told through extracts of their lives, taken from the same day every year. (It is not, as I had expected, about them reuniting every year on the same day). 

Emma is the intelligent, creative type; Dexter is brash and seems to rarely think of the consequences of his actions. Yet they love each other deeply, and their friendship remains strong despite arguments and sexual tension. Emma takes a while to peak - struggling through waitressing jobs in London, trying to write the great novel she has always dreamed of; whilst Dexter lands a job hosting youth television shows, and falls in with the celebrity crowd. As you might expect, Dexter finds himself getting less and less work just as Emma starts to find success - it is a rather predictable plot, but is an easy and entertaining read. 

I love the structure of the narrative, seeing their worlds through the same day every year. Some years they meet up on that day; others they aren't even talking. In spanning twenty years, you see how things change - friends and lovers come and go, careers peak and trough, and the things you cared about in your twenties seem less important in your late thirties. It feels very realistic and therefore reassuring, portraying the kind of things that normal people experience whilst growing up.

Of course, as much as they deny it, Emma and Dexter are completely perfect for each other. I wanted to feel an elation when they finally got together, but just felt frustration that they had wasted so much time. I guess that is the point. But One Day will never compare to Persuasion - perhaps it is about context, as in the early 19th century, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth wouldn't have found themselves in situations where they could talk about their feelings, whereas Emma and Dexter definitely should have admitted their love for each other much sooner! Honesty is always the best policy.