Saturday, 28 December 2013



Varmints (pt. 1)
Helen Ward and Marc Craste
Docking, Templar, 2007

I haven't blogged about a picture book before! I stumbled across this one because my sister is reading it for her PGCE, so I thank her for letting me borrow this. 

Varmints is a dystopian tale of the world without life and light. It begins with large, beautiful images of bright blue skies and wide fields, with moles living throughout, tending their bees. But then a darker world is developed, tall buildings blocking the light and heavy noises stopping people from being able to think properly. The pages go from light and inviting to dark and terrifying - you can hardly read the words on the page. So one of the moles thinks it is time for a change, and sets out to bring back the life. 

The images in this picture book are engrossing and mesmerising, like artwork you'd be proud to hang around your home. I'm afraid that copyright law does not allow me to copy the pictures here, so you'll have to find it and read it. And here's a lovely video to demonstrate some of the visuals:

The story is tragicly beautiful, with a pace so slow and measured it entices you. It is powerfully visual, with few words on each page but so much bold and deep art to keep your eyes from wandering. And the tale has a moral, reminding the reader of the importance of nature and life.

Perhaps for young readers, the font is rather difficult to read. The language is not very complicated, but the words are written in thin, scratchy type, and is especially hard to read on the darker pages. It is almost like this is a picture book for adults, with dark pictures, a thought-provoking story and a dystopian setting. But maybe this is the sort of book we need in order to make picture books popular amongst older readers, and to help a shift in attitudes towards acceptance of all varieties of reading formats. 

This blog post is for my little sister x

Friday, 27 December 2013

Death Comes to Pemberly

Death Comes to Pemberly
P.D. James
London, Faber, 2011, 324p

My second piece of meta fiction in as many book reviews, but unfortunately is one was somewhat less satisfactory than the last. Eager to stick to my rule about reading the original before watching the adaptation, I wanted to read Death Comes to Pemberly before the BBC version reached my screen this Christmas, aired over three consecutive evenings. 

We are reunited with Janes Austen's infamous Bennett family, six years after the marriages of Darcy and Lizzie, and Jane and Bingley. The Darcys are planning the annual ball, supported by their abundant staff at Pemberly, when Lydia draws up in a carriage, declaring her husband has been murdered in the woods. Darcy sets off to find out what really happened, embroiling himself in a scandal that will dig up hidden secrets and and well-repressed feelings. 

As I have noted before, some meta fiction simply makes you want to repeat the original. Unfortunately, this was not one of those sequels,: although I love the concept of a murder mystery containing all my old favourites, I felt James was unable to write the see characters as well as Jane Austen once did. 

And now, seeing the adaptation on screen, it is clear that the concept it pure genius, mixing classic romance and drama with contemporary demand for crime fiction. In the BBC version, we are one again shown those characters we so greatly loved. Darcy is stubborn but noble, sometimes misguided in his actions but always acting with the best intentions. Lizzie is intelligent and observant, and proving to be a brilliant mother and wife. Lydia and Mrs Bennett (although not in the book) return, as hysterical and ridiculous as ever. Jane and Georgiana add a touch of feminine sensibility to the whole party, and Georgiana's suitors vie respectfully for her attention.  And, to top it all off, Wickham brings drama and controversy to the peaceful existence of the Darcy home. 

But the book didn't bring any of this delight for me. I found the plot confusing and convoluted, unnecessarily jumping between characters, time and settings. Often, James' use of unclear pronoun was frustrating; for example she'd start a paragraph talking about two male characters, and continue the paragraph using just "he", leaving the reader confused about who was being discussed. As such, the revelation towards the end gave me no thrill, feeling instead like a necessary process I had to go through just to make it to the end. 

I found myself ploughing on, hoping for more, which I eventually found in the television adaptation. I think this might be the first time I've preferred the screen to the book! Hopefully, this novel will not put me off reading any P.D. James in the future.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Mister Creecher


Mister Creecher
Chris Priestley
London, Bloomsbury, 2011, 384p

I'm a little uncertain of meta fiction, especially if I'm a fan of the original. But I do love the Gothic, and love taking a trip down memory lane, reminding me of my A-level days studying Dracula and Frankenstein. 

It's the start of the nineteenth century and life is not easy for young Billy. He is a street boy, a petty thief, when he meets Mister Creecher. This mysterious, terrifying giant helps Billy out of a sticky situation, and each become embroiled in their new friends life. Creecher is Frankenstein's famous creation - this novel tells of the time Frankenstein spends in England working on a mate for his "monster". Creecher asks Billy for help: he supports Billy in his thievery, and Billy follows around Frankenstein to ensure that the creation can keep tabs on the scientists progress. 

The two companions begin their journey in London, haunting the streets of the city. Billy's life is greatly improved by his new friend: he is well fed, properly clothed and lives in warm accommodation for the first time in his life. And yet, he knows very little about Creecher and his peculiar qualms with the mysterious scientist. 

This is a brilliant Gothic tale - dark, gorey and tragic. Priestley is brilliant at this, as I found when I read his Tales of Terror, which caused many a sleepless night. He draws on some traditional tropes, dating back to the original story of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; but he adds some modern twists and more accessible language for his young contemporary audience. 

Part of my love for the original Frankenstein novel comes from Mary Shelley's exploration of the concept of the noble savage: is the creation moulded most by nature or nurture? In the 1818 novel, the creation is given the chance to tell his own story, explaining how his initial innocence was corrupted by the judgements and unkindness of mankind. In Mister Creecher, Priestley expands on this concept, taking the reader on a journey that allows us to understand how his anger and aggression grows through constant rejection and lack of love. 

In this story, Creecher's relationship with Billy seems like an opportunity for redemption, but we all know where the story ends. Well, I assume many readers do, but of course it is not guaranteed that Priestley's audience would have read Shelley's original. I found myself musing on what a young reader might think of Mister Creecher without the contextual knowledge of the original story, the Romantics Movement and early nineteenth century London. Luckily, this novel is being read as part of my school book club, and I cannot wait to hear what my students think!

Thursday, 19 December 2013


Claire Keegan
London, Faber, 2010, 88p

The emotion and drama in this story crept up on from out of nowhere, taking me completely by surprise. What began as a seemingly simple but beautiful novella about family left me in tears.

In Foster, a young girl is left by her father with her aunt and uncle. With no explanation and no idea when she might go home, she quietly settles into life on her relatives' expansive farm. Mr and Mrs Kinsella love her dearly, raising her up, teaching her to read and keeping her clean.

Back home, it is implied that the girl is one of a large family and her parents were unable to take proper care of her - they are a rather typical Irish family. But her aunt and uncle have no one but themselves to care for, except a tragic secret they try to hide about a little boy they once had.

The story is told through the eyes of the little girl, who struggles to become attached to these alternative parents, calling them "the woman" and "Kinsella". Over time, she begins to let them into her heart, learning to feel comfortable in a loving embrace or simply holding hands. This is not a dark mystery novella, as the blurb suggests. Rather modestly, it is a sad tale about loss and love.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

An Abundance of Katherines


An Abundance of Katherines
John Green
London, Penguin, 2013, 227p

I adored The Fault in our Stars. I thought it was one of the best books of this year, recommended to me by my teenage brother and adored by every students I suggested should read it. An Abundance of Katherines has been met with praise by many John Green fans - and, in reading it, you can see why - but I am not as awestruck by this novel.

Colin has dated and been dumped by nineteen Katherines. He is a child prodigy, scared that he might not fulfil his expected potential, so sets to work to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, in which he will demonstrate the inevitability of his being dumped. With his best friend, Hasan, the comically overweight sidekick, Colin sets off on a road trip on the day of his graduation from high school in the hope that maths can solve all his problems.

Oddly, I actually enjoyed the mathematical structure Colin attempted to assign to romance. I think there is some beauty in maths, especially when it is used to help someone get a better understanding on something their are struggling to process. Not only is Colin trying to get over a break up, but he is worried that he might not ever experience that eureka moment that all child prodigies dream of / are expected to have. The maths helps him process the turmoil of being an oddball teen.

The reason John Green's fiction is so popular is that it appeals to the awkward geek inside us all. Colin is an unconventional protagonist, outside the mainstream, claiming to not really understand or like other people. And yet, he overcomes social adversity to win friendships and hearts. Green's audience attach themselves to these unconventional protagonists, clinging to meaningful quotes and inspirational moments. One of these that has stuck with me is:
" don't remember what happened. What you remember becomes what happened"
This is something noted by Colin when he realises that he has misremembered one of his relationships, finally allowing him to get a better grip on his theorem.

The weirdest thing about reading this novel was that my name is Katherine, and with nineteen ex-girlfriends with the same name, Colin's story is slightly biased against them. Admittedly, none of them were particulary malicious break ups, but I couldn't help but feel a little bad about being a Katherine.

I did not feel as attached to The Abundance of Katherines as I did to The Fault in Our Stars, and I think this is because I started to notice the repeated tropes of John Green's writing. What makes him so appealing to some also makes him seem rather predictable to others. But there is some undoubtedly brilliant writing in this novel, particularly in a scene in which Colin finds himself in a cave with Lindsey, a girl he meets on his road trip. Here, everything is pitch black, and the scene is carried by the dialogue, which is shaped by the fact that Lindsey and Colin can't even see each other. Because of the lack of scenic description, it feels claustrophobic and tense, jumping back and forth between the two characters. And as the reader, you feel like you are right there with them, which is exactly what every reader dreams of.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

And When Did You See Her Last?

When Did You See Her Last?
Lemony Snicket
London, Egmont, 2013, 277p

I love a good mystery, and no author keeps you guessing quiet as much as Lemony Snickett - even the author's real identity was a mystery for some time. This new series, subtly linked to The Series of Unfortunate Events, tells of the adolescence of Snickett himself as part of the V.F.D.

In the second book of All the Wrong Questions, Snickett asks "When Did You Last See Her?", as he investigates a missing persons case. However, as is typical of Snickett's adventures, nothing is as simple as it seems, and he soon suspects he is up against his old nemesis, Hangfire. With the help of his trusted friends, Pip and Squeek, the taxi drivers, and Moxie Mallahan, local journalist, he searches for answers to the many unanswered questions haunting Stain'd-by-the-Sea.

I have huge respect for the way Daniel Handler writes. It is so intelligent and witty, full of the most unexpected images. My favourite similie in this novel is when Snickett predicts, "Moxie will be as mad as a paper cut". And Handler continues to use that high level vocabulary, using Snickett's patronising associate, S. Theodora Markson to explain any complicated language.

The library is a recurring setting in this series of novels. Managed by Dashiell Qwerty, it seems to be a constant mess of information chaos. But there is a brilliant scene I intend to use in my library lessons to teach about research. Here, Snickett goes to the library to investigate the chemistry that was engrossing the missing person, in the hope it might reveal something about where she has gone. He finds himself in the science section, but he finds the task very time-consuming and laborious:
"There wasn't a book called Laudanum or a book called Invisible Ink or a book called The Case of Cleo Knight's Disappearance Solved in a Book So Lemony Snickett Doesn't Have to Do It Himself."
Snickett finds some information on chemistry, but concludes, "Cleo Knight would die peacefully in her sleep at age 102, surrounded by her great-grandchildren, before this book would help him with the case."

Navigating a library is an important skill to have but a difficult skill to teach. As Snickett notes, there is never a perfect book containing all the information you need. But, with enough thinking and investigating, Snickett starts to ask the right questions and, through some rather inconventional means, solves this unusual mystery.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Cruel Summer

Cruel Summer
James Dawson
London, Orion, 2013, 321p

I have been looking forward to reading this book for months, and perhaps have waited until the wrong time of year to read about murder under the summer sun. But even whilst curled up with a wintery cold, I was transported to a Spanish villa to watch the unfurling secrets of a gang of old school friends.  

One summer ago, Janey Bradshaw died on the night of her prom. Was it suicide, or did something darker happen that night? After a year apart, her friends reunite, hoping to put the past behind them and get their friendship back on track. But their secrets follow them and it soon becomes clear that some lies cannot remain buried. 

Cruel Summer is a thrilling, clever novel. You are kept guessing throughout - every time you think you might have pinpointed the truth, you are made to question everything you thought you knew. The book is very easy to read, with relatable characters, light comic relief and gripping drama. 

What I love most about this novel is it's self-consciousness. Writing a crime mystery has become incredibly difficult, with every reader thinking they know it all already. There are certain established tropes that often mean no story is original, and the audience knows the culprit long before the characters do. But here, Dawson employ a genius technique that keeps you unsure of yourself, questioning even the most traditional Gothic devices.

Ryan, one of the protagonists in Cruel Summer, is a drama student who adores scary films. He is a self-confessed fantasist, preferring to believe his life is part of some great television series. Much of the story is seen from his perspective, so when the criminal action begins to unfold, the reader's investigation is led by Ryan who categorises the events according to the traditions of every existing murder mystery. This explicit self-awareness lures you into a false sense of security, and so whilst Ryan distracts you with his seemingly clever and sensible deductions, James Dawson is able to create the most genius twists and turns. 

Thursday, 5 December 2013


Jane Austen
London, Penguin, 2007, 272p

My book hangover is cured!

If anyone was going to fix me, it had to be Jane Austen. Persuasion is my all time favourite book. It is like comfort food to me - warm, relaxing, like spending an evening with an old friend. I have read it a million times, and every time I have laughed and cried and gotten heart burn from forgetting to breathe.

When the lives of Anne Eliot and Frederick Wentworth cross again, eight years after she was persuaded to break off their engagement, neither can be sure what the other now feels. Anne is a gentle, intelligent and practical young woman; modest and quiet unlike her humoursly self-centered family. And Wentworth is noble and agreeable, bursting with emotions but terrible at revealing them.
So like every other perfect couple in history, they convince themselves that the other no longer loves them. Frederick's friendly attention to Anne's nieces convince her that he must love another; and her determined modesty makes him believe she could never return his affections. Oh, why don't they just tell each other!?
  And this is exactly why I get heart burn. Austen writes so well - building the suspence, carrying the novel through stolen glances and mistaken actions. I find myself drawn right into the room with Anne and Wentworth, watching their every move, trying to be patient, knowing they will come together eventually.

I have oodles of respect and love for Jane Austen. She is so clever and timeless. Her characters are vivid and true - we all know someone like the people in this story. And the locations remain alive today, places like Bath and Lyme Regis, still classically regent. This book mocks the foolish ignorance of the upper classes, challenges the percieved differences between the sexes, and celebrates the sensibility of educated women.

But the most incredible element in this novel is that letter - Captain Wentworth's confession. I can say no more; you must read Persuasion to understand.

Sunday, 1 December 2013


Lauren Oliver
London, Hodder, 2011, 393p

I feel like I know way too much about Oregon, having read this and If I Stay - both set in areas a short distance from each other.

And yet neither novels really brought the area to life, making limited use of visual imagery and vivid descriptions.

I am disappointed to have not been able to finish this novel. I gave it 100 pages, but found it to be moving too slowly. Perhaps I am still recovering from my William Boyd hangover, but I suspect it is more to do with the style and story of Delirium.

In this dystopia, love has been diagnosed as an illness, and teenagers await their eighteenth birthday when they can be cured. On the day of Lena's evaluation, when her future following the proceedure will be decided, she meets a boy who causes the symptoms of love.

I love the concept of this novel, and embarked upon it with enthusiasm and ardour. But within the first 50 pages, so little happened that I found myself jumping ahead, looking for some plot development. Even the characters didn't grow that much - it is implied that Lena has some subconscious concerns about the cure from the beginning, when we are informed that her mother died following unsuccessful proceedures and sometimes the illness can be genetic.

And to be honest, it is pretty clear where it is going. There are so many dystopian trilogies available to young adult readers at the moment, making it hard to find something original. Yet with such an unusual concept - with love being a disease -  I'd hoped this might be something different.