Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Forward Book of Poetry 2010

The Forward Book of Poetry 2010
London, Forward, 2010

The 2010 collection is larger than any other Forward Book of Poetry - it contains some of the longest poems I have read in all the anthologies. But it also consists of a wide variety of subjects and forms, and every poems has memorable images and lines. 

I am starting to see familiar names recurring in the collections I have been reading - the more you read, the more you know. I was delighted to see Hugo Williams in the 2010 collection - his 'Poems to My Mother' are warm and honest, consistent with his work I have read elsewhere. 

Family is a theme that repeatedly comes up in poetry, but none more so than in this collection. It was presented in so many forms - from admiration to anger, tragedy to humour. Many seemed to be saying good bye, such as Christopher James' heart-breaking thoughts on his father. The words portray the individual poet's battles with their relationships; in particular, the darkness of Brian Henry's 'Quarantine' still haunts me. 

War and terror seemed to frequently be explored - even ten years after 9/11, the images of this tragedy remain on the minds of the writers. Clive James' ability to find a dark sort of humour in this subject demonstrates the zanity with which terrorism is thought. 

Alongside these are reflections on opportunities missed and lives not fulfilled. Roger McGough, a writer I normally associate with humour, declares, "We didn't make our beds, but we lie in them." And Kevin Hart muses over what life could have been like had he taken a different path. 

Many different styles were on show in this collection - from structure, rhyming poems to those without punctuation and correct grammar. In places, words seemed to be thrown at random upon the page, until closer reading revealed love or hope or longing. 

The ones I loved the most, as per usual, were those written by women, typically about relationships. The 2010 collection gave me a great selection to choose from, including Lorraine Mariner and Selima Hill, aforementioned favourites. But this collection iintroduced me to Tamsin Kendrick, whose weighing up of 'Peter Pan vs Captain Hook' forces you to reflect on your ideal man; especially when paired with Katy Evans-Bush's 'To My Next Lover', which immediately made me go away and write.

What more can you ask of a collection of poetry?

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Catch Your Death

Ruby Redfort: Catch Your Death
Lauren Child
London, Harper Collins, 2013, 525p

I have been searching for a suitable book for the OSA Y7 Girls Book Club, due to start after Christmas, and I really wish this book was shorter - it is perfect in every other way!

Ruby's third mission takes her completely outside her comfort zone. Ruby is undergoing field training; despite the fact she has already been involved in many dangerous missions, she needs to complete this to become a fully-fledged Spectrum agent. But the wilderness test baffles her practical approach to danger; she cannot escape the unpredictable nature of the outdoors. 

Catch Your Death is the smelliest mission yet, in the sense, alongside all strange animal attacks happening throughout Twinford, a perfume-obsessed foe is haunting the town. And following an difficult night in the woods, Ruby has the flu, is unable to smell anything, and is struggling to keep on top of her school work and her Spectrum duties. 

I am a self-confessed fan of Ruby Redfort - I would have devoured Lauren Child's words when I was a kid, even more so than I devour them as an adult. I get completely lost in Ruby's adventures. In this third mission, her best friend, Clancy, seems to get a much bigger role - he is finally being recognised as a hero like Ruby. And he is fiercely loyal to her. 

In places, the physical book; something I noticed with the previous novels, also. There are pages where a new scene begins, but there is no distinction from the last page, meaning you have to stay on your toes to work out who you are reading about. (And I do not see this as an intentional ploy to get readers to practice their observations skills, simply an editorial mistake.)

Nevertheless, the story is action packed and the book does not feel as long as it looks. You are completely drawn into the action, following Ruby and Clancy every step of the way. 

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Fortunately, the Milk

Fortunately, the Milk
Neil Gaiman
Ill. by Chris Riddell

After reading something as mature as The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting, I needed something a little more fantastical and extraordinary, in every sense of the words. 

When Dad pops to the shops to get some more milk, his children are surprised at how long it takes. They speculate that he may have bumped into someone they know and got caught chatting; but when Dad comes home, he has an epic tale to tell full of pirates, vampires (wumpires), and a time-travelling dinosaur. 

Fortunately, the Milk survives each element of the unbelievable adventure. This book is hilarious and ridiculous, but with illustrations from Chris Riddell, you cannot help but get caught up in the action. Each scene is so visual you barely have to suspend your disbelief. 

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting

The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting
Holly Bourne
London, Usborne, 2014, 448p

It has taken me a little time to come to terms with my thoughts on this book due to the sensitivity of the content. The Manifesto on How to be Interesting is a novel I want to recommend, but it is loaded with issues that should be approached with caution. 

Bree is an academic, creative student. She is a writer. But when she presents her manuscript to her favourite teacher, his reaction disappoints. So Bree decides to embark on a mission to become popular, in the hope that a more interesting life will produce more interesting literature. 

The process is relatively easy for Bree - her parents are wealthy, and her father works with a make up manufacturer, meaning she has instant access to treats to share with her new, popular friends. All it takes is some more fashionable clothes to make everyone realise Bree is fairly attractive, and she has the personality to match. Along the way, her relationship with her best friend suffers; but soon, her crush is taking more of an interest and people around school talk about her in a different way. 

Bourne's novel is a little bit Mean Girls, but with added complexity. For one, Bree's crush is directed towards her English teacher; and secondly, Bree self-harms. Such issues are not easy to tackle in young adult literature - the fantasy element of fiction means many characters who self-harm are blessed with a moment of epiphany when they turn their lives around; many real girls are not so lucky. 

The underlying message of the book is to encourage the reader to be happy in who they are, and to acknowledge that we all suffer from lapses in confidence, even the most popular kids in school. But the challenge that I am left with is how to talk about these matters with my students - not every life has such a happy ending. 

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Forward Book of Poetry 1995

The Forward Book of Poetry 1995
London, Forward, 1995

I love the idea of an impromptu poetry reading from Carol Ann Duffy, Jean Binta Breeze and William Sieghart. Apparently, this is what happened during the meeting of the judging panel for the 1995 Forward Prizes. 

As Cressida Connely notes in her foreword, this collection consists of such an incredible variety of poetry, though much of it is rather longer than my usual preference. There are poems about music, from Marvin Gaye to Joe Meek; poems about love and family and loss; and even poems about poems. 

Peter Sansom's 'Today We Are Shooting Poets' is a funny, clever piece of writing, in contrast to Ann Sansom's celebration of variety in voices. 

There are also brilliantly strong women in this collection, possibly a reflection of Carol Ann Duffy's presence on the selection panel. Helen Dunmore's 'Three Ways of Recovering a Body' is simultaneously tragic and uplifting, but packs a punch alongside the words of Jackie Kay and Louise Hudson. 

And there are poems in here I want to read again and again, and that I think might lead me to writing my own response; particularly Peter Didsbury's 'A Malediction', which just oozes inspiration in it's structure, form and subject. Time to get writing, I guess...

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Not That Kind of Girl

Not That Kind of Girl
Lena Dunham
London, Fourth Estate, 2014, 265p

When I found myself painfully jealous of a friend who was reading this book that I realised I had to get a copy. Lena Dunham's biography has caused some controversy already, and although I am not a religious watcher of 'Girls', I must confess I am intrigued by her. 

Not That Kind of Girl is a funny, intelligent and sometimes disturbing account of Dunham's life so far. She talks about health, family and romance, and everything in between. She tells the reader she is a girl with a "keen interest in having it all", and this book is her story from "the front line of that struggle".

Dunham's youth is uniquely peculiar to me. She was born to artistic, liberal parents in New York, and her eccentricity and individuality have always been encouraged. In places, it sounds like she has low self-esteem (for example, when she discusses the common plight of the young woman who settles for a non-relationship with a guy who is clearly not good enough); and at other points, she explodes with self-assurance and good advice. 

I had been warned that this biography is far from uplifting, but it was darker than I had expected, with confessions about her reliance on her therapist and descriptions of rubbish relationships. But within those moments that make your heart break, there are episodes that make you laugh out loud. Mostly, I simply admire her honesty. 

I am conscious I am going through a phase of reading biographies of this kind - those of young, successful, strong women in comedy (see my recent review of Mindy Kaling's book). And I cannot wait to read Amy Poehler's recent release! With each of these women, I find some things to relate to and some things with which I disagree, but what my readings are demonstrating is that the female experience is varied and unique to each person - how can anyone stereotype about women when we are all so different?

Thanks to Jay for inspiration.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Apple and Rain

Apple and Rain
Sarah Crossan
London, Bloomsbury, 2014, 329p

This is such an incredibly and irresistibly heart-warming book, it was a joy to read.

Apple has vague memories of her mother leaving, late one night around Christmas, leaving her with her Nana. And every year, Apple dreams that her mother will come back and claim her again. Nana is loving and well-meaning, and Dad is distantly present, popping up at important holidays; but it is her mother that Apple wants back. 

But when her mother eventually does come home, things aren't quite like Apple expected. She moves away from her Nana, but her mother isn't around much anyway, and Apple has unexpected company in her mother's flat. Apple tries to find comfort at school - she loves her new poetry teacher, but is scared about opening up with the truth; and meanwhile, her best friend is moving on. 

As her mum's absence increasingly becomes a social welfare issue, Apple does all she can to protect her mother from a potential visit from the police. Apple is forced to grow up far quicker than any young girl should have to, and as you read you long for her to be returned to her Nana's guardianship. 

Despite all the badness happening around her, Apple is a patient, contentious young lady. She doesn't get mad at her mother when she is away for days; she is far from the typical teenager. 

Throughout the Apple and Rain, Crossan treats the reader to snippets of Apple's creativity, inspired by great poets and universal themes. At points, it seems like poetry is the only good and true thing in Apple's life. I love the infectiousness of her love for the written word, and I am sure many young readers (and writers) share Apple's fear of sharing her most honest feelings with her teachers and classmates. 

It is amazing that a novel that explores a young girl's confused feelings about her absent mother can be so uplifting and enlightening. 

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Roy Kane TV Detective

Roy Kane TV Detective
Steve Bowkett
London, A&C Black, 2008, 80p

The Colour Graphix series has had a recent reprint and now they look great! Originally published in 1998, the books in this collection are brightly illustrated, full of drama, and ideal for reluctant readers.

When a diamond is stolen from the city museum, Roy Kane TV Detective is on the case.  The diamond belongs to Magnus Carmody, a billionaire. CCTV footage shows a mysterious dark shape entering and leaving the room, so Kane and his partner, Vicki Stand, turn to local celebrity magician for ideas. But Doctor Praetorius is unable (or unwilling) to help. He seems like the obvious suspect, but nothing is ever what it seems. 

The story is accessible and not overly complicated, but engaging enough for younger readers to want to keep reading. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Forward Book of Poetry 2007

The Forward Book of Poetry 2007
London, Forward, 2006

2007 appears to have been the year of the incredibly long poem, and yet this collection is surprisingly short. As John Burnside notes in his foreword, the judges of 2007 selected six finalists for each category, instead of the usual five. But the selection of Highly Commended Poems is shorter than usual, and this is where I found the real gems. 

This collection covers as wide a range of themes as any of the Forward Arts Foundation books, but there seems to be a heavier leaning towards poems about the labouring classes than usual, from forestry to mining and beyond. 

Then, there are brilliant accounts of fantasy like Tim Wells' 'On Being Expelled from Eton for Shagging Tallulah Bankhead', which imagines a world in which a working class boy could go to an establishment school. 

Although many of these poems are rather longer than I typically prefer, there are some excellent examples of experimentation with form, including Allan Crosbie's 'Manifesto', the power of which is so difficult to articulate - you will simply have to read it yourself to believe it. 

But I think my favourite is 'Bird' by Clare Shaw - somewhat unexpectedly, as I am not the kind of person who likes stories about animals; I have always responded better to human pain and success. But 'Bird' is so beautifully written, so delicate and innocent, that I could not help but love it. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)
Mindy Kaling
New York, Ebury, 2013, 223p

I hugely enjoyed my time with Mindy Kaling. Part of me wants to call her my guilty pleasure, but I have nothing to be ashamed of - I love her writing and acting; if I was a girly girl, I would want to be like her: self assured, embarrassed by nothing, beautiful. 

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is Kaling's hilarious biography. She recounts her school days, her wild ambition coupled with boring jobs, and her eventual success when she joined the writers of The Office. Her book combines extended lists with long prose accounts, and carries the air of someone trying not to give advice (and sort of failing). 

Kaling possesses a ridiculous amount of passion and knowledge about comedy, listing her favourite comedy moments and recounting friendships that just didn't work out because the other person wasn't as in to it as she is. Since writing this book, Kaling has created her own sitcom, The Mindy Project, and I would have loved this book to contain more of her crazy confessions about this.

A few days after having finished this book, I am still laughing as I recall little snippets of her humour. In particular, I have adopted Kaling's approach to jogging, which is to fantastise about imaginary revenge scenarios. Despite initially finding this idea hilarious, in practice it has proven to really occupy the mind and distract from the pain of running. 

Kaling is open and honest with her reader, telling her most awkward moments and biggest celebrity crushes. But throughout, she is explicitly happy with who she is - she is unapologetic and doesn't really care what anyone thinks, despite confessing to a fascinating with fashion and dieting, interests conventionally possessed by those who care too much what other people thinks. In this way, she has even challenged some of the subconscious presumptions I had about women. She doesn't try and claim that her experiences are the same as any other woman's experiences, and that is what I love most. 

Friday, 28 November 2014


Water Born
Rachel Ward
Frome, Chicken House, 2014, 275p

I have been saving this book, knowing that I would love it. It is the sequel to The Drowning and comes from the author of Numbers, all of which I have devoured. 

Nic is a passionate swimmer, but her overprotective father drives her a little mad. She can't understand his fear about water, especially when she starts to become more successful in the pool. Somehow, she finds the inner strength and focus needed to beat the best of the girls in her club; but as time goes on, the voice in her head starts to scare her. 

This disembodied voice is not hers, and when she turns to her father, she finds more questions than answers. Amongst other things, she finds a list on her dad's computer of girls who look just like her who have drowned. 

It has been some time since I read The Drowning, meaning I had forgotten some of the detail. What I love about Water Born is that it is a brilliant stand alone book, as well as a dramatic continuation of Ward's most recent series. 

The story is haunting and modern, a perfect contemporary horror story. I can see similarities with the Numbers trilogy, but the genius Rachel Ward has found clever new ways of throwing the reader off the scent and allowing the mystery to unfold very gradually. All the action seems to happen within a few final pages, and you are gripped throughout. 

I am definitely not patient enough to wait for the next one!

Monday, 24 November 2014

Assassin City / Switch Face

Assassin City / Switch Face
Jonny Zucker & Pedro J Colombo / Jonny Zucker & Kev Hopgood
London, Franklin Watts, 2013

There is nothing like a good short read to get me back into younger fiction, albeit slowly. Luckily, I read two!

In Assassin City, Milo is given a task and he has no choice but to follow through. He does not want to be an assassin, so plots with Kira to try and find a way out. 

Switch Face is the story of a boy who can change his face to look like another person, providing he has an image from which to take inspiration. At school, he borrows a mate's passport to get him into trouble, and adopts the Headmaster's face to boss people around. But his antics place him in danger when he finds himself on the wrong side of the law.

Best of all, Switch Face is a cliffhanger - it is so short, with so much packed in, that it leaves you begging for more.

Franklin Watts are legendary for their short read fiction and non-fiction, and with these new graphics, they have really hit the mark. They are brightly illustrated, action-packed and ideally low on the Accelerated Reader scale at just 1.7 / 1.8. 

It is really hard to find books at the lower scale of the Accelerated Reader program - my stock in that area is pretty thin, though most of the books in that section are exceptional. But I am so glad I have this new (at least, new for my library) selection of Franklin Watts to entertain those reluctant boys who are so easily distracted in lesson. 

Friday, 21 November 2014

This Book is Gay

This Book is Gay
James Dawson
London, Hot Keys, 2014, 269p

James Dawson is incredibly easy to talk to (hence his success as a writer-in-residence with First Story), and this comes across in his non-fiction writing. He is funny, informed and honest, sometimes explicitly so, but such veracity is needed in a book on this subject. 

This Book is Gay is not gay, or straight, or bi for that matter, as the blurb will inform you. It is about people, challenging prejudices about sexuality and misconceptions about gender identity. It is broken down into sections about homosexuality, bisexuality and transexuality, with informative notes detailing the specific differences by which he sees people get confused. Dawson repeatedly uses the phrase, "And that's fine", because there really is no such thing as normal. 

The book begins by noting that different people will read this guide for different reasons - some will be questioning who they are, others might have identified their sexuality, and some might just be curious about the title. Either way, Dawson's easy manner reminds the reader about the importance of choice and variety - you can choose to come out, you can choose the stereotypes to which you conform, and that we all have the right to chance our mind as time goes by. 

Dawson has tried to be as universal as possible with his message, though I imagine there will be some readers who disagree with his experiences and research; extensive surveys and interviews were carried out in the creation of this book, and it is pretty hard to argue with the facts, but there are always some! Regardless of your opinion about sexuality and gender identity, This Book is Gay covers a lot of ground, from gay rights to religion, sex to stereotypes. Any questions you might have are answered right here in these pages. 

As a fellow school librarian and blogger, Leanne, recently noted, there is so much to digest in this book that I have found it hard to articulate everything in this review. I suggest you give it a read yourself!

Wednesday, 19 November 2014


Teri Terry
London, Orchard, 2012, 439p

I am concerned that I am going through a reluctant reader phase. By this, I mean that I am struggling to engage with many books - I only seem to be satisfied reading poetry and a little adult fiction - so I apologise that my blog has not had much variety recently.

In an attempt to get out of this funk, I started Slated before the weekend. Kyla's memory has been wiped. She lives in a society where individuals who conflict with the law have their memories removed, and are given a second chance. Kyla is only sixteen, but the government claims she was a terrorist. She struggles to relearn the basics, like tying shoe laces and crossing the road. But she loves art, and through her drawing, she can put her nightmares on paper and hopefully find some answers. 

This book has sat on my dresser for several days, and I have made little progress. It takes a lot to make me give up on a book, but the pace of Slated was too slow for my liking, especially as there are two sequels. Like many dystopian novels, I like the concept - the idea that nothing is what as it seems, and Kyla must struggle to uncover the truth. Unfortunately, I think there have been so many novels of this vein recently that I can probably predict exactly what is going to happen - the lack of intrigue meant I eventually had to concede defeat and try something new, in the hope of moving on from this rut of being unable to read any teen or YA fiction. 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Forward Book of Poetry 1994

The Forward Book of Poetry
London, Forward, 1993

My new life rule is that I will always take a collection of poetry with me when I go travelling / holidaying. 

I was lucky enough to get away over half term and have a copy of the Forward Book of Poetry 1994 in my small bag of luggage. On quiet nights when I couldn't sleep, I escaped to one of the minute stories in these poems. 

1994 was the second year of the Forward Prizes for Poetry, and it feels like quite a different selection from the current winners. Some of the issues explored are the same now as then - relationships, family and happiness are universal - but some are specifically contemporary, a reflection of the politics and technologies of the time. 

There are some absolute gems in this collection. Carol Ann Duffy was the winner of the best collection, with her sharp, angry wit; and Vicki Feaver's 'Judith' features, a poem I came across last year when dramatically recited by Poetry by Heart competitors. 

Then there is Sylvia Kantaris, one of my earliest poetic loves. During my final year in Exeter, I volunteered at the Heritage Collections, and was responsible for box listing a selection of drafts and notes donated by Kantaris. Reading through her early concepts, I think I first understood how poetry is constructed and crafted, so I was delighted to see 'Animals' in this book. 

This collection contains lots of brilliant poetry - humourous, political, romantic - but there were several that were assertive and uplifting that I found myself returning to again and again. Like the sonnet by Sophie Hannah, or Sylvia Dann's little unpunctuated masterpiece, both of which felt like the words could have been mine.

Poetry is powerful in that way - words, written by someone else, can speak to you or reassure you, and it makes you feel safe and whole.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Oh Dear Silvia

Oh Dear Silvia
Dawn French
London, Penguin, 2013, 432p

Whilst on holiday for half term, having finished Gone Girl far more quickly than I had anticipated, panic began to set in that I would not have enough books to last me the week. Luckily, the wonderful hostel I was in - Ani & Haakien in Rotterdam - had a book swap, so after skimming through a few, I swapped Gillian Flynn for Dawn French, and found a story that had an uncanny number of similarities to it's predecessor. 

Silvia is in a coma. It appears she fell from her balcony, and she is visited regularly by her friend, sister, ex-husband and nurse. Each visit brings with it a one sided conversation - Ed talks about their separation, his resulting depression, and his eventual recovery through his love of nature. Jo, the eccentric older sister, causes mayhem through the ward with her non-traditional methods to try and bring Silvia back to consciousness. And Winnie watches over Silvia every day, trying to offer comfort and nurse her back to health. 

It would appear that Silvia has changed greatly in recent years, and there is some resentment held by her family towards her new friend, Cat. Silvia has aggressively distanced herself from her family, leaving her son, daughter and granddaughter feeling angry and confused. Cassie struggles to find the confidence to visit her mother, whilst Jamie remains in Afghanistan, refusing to come home. 

But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this change was the result of a minor, regrettable incident, in which Silvia irreparably ruined her chances of a normal family life. 

This makes the novel sound far darker than it actually is. Oh Dear Silvia is an easy read, and has an optimistic tone. And yet it explores some complex ideas about family and relationships, especially around forgiveness. I was impressed by Dawn French's accessibility and the fullness of her story - what a great transformation from comedian to novelist. 

Monday, 10 November 2014

Brand New Ancients

Brand New Ancients
Kate Tempest
London, Picador, 2013, 47p

I had the privilege of seeing Kate Tempest at the O2 in Oxford last Friday - apparently her first headline tour as a rapper. She was incredibly appreciative towards her audience, and her excitement was infectious. 

She is not just a rapper and a performance poet; she is a writer. Brand New Ancients won the Ted Hughes Prize for innovation in poetry - it is a modern, honest story about characters that Tempest says live and breathe in her mind. 

Tempest's narrative poem argues that we are all heroes of our own lives. She draws on traditional ideas about gods from classic mythology - heroes who were human, flawed, real. Then she creates her own contemporary heroes: men and women struggling with relationships; young people feeling disenfranchised; artists looking for their big break and barmaids seeking fulfillment. 

Within just a few pages, these characters become fully rounded beings. They feel anger, regret and love; lines between good and bad are blurred. 

Brand New Ancients is so clever and relevant. It tells the story of the kinds of individuals that young people can relate to; it is solid and grounded, avoiding all the abstract ideas and images we are spoon fed in the curriculum. 

And if this doesn't convince you to find out more about Kate Tempest, watch this video - how can you not want to read the genius that comes from this mind?!

Friday, 7 November 2014

Gone Girl

Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn
London, Phoenix, 2013, 496p

Another one of those contemporary novels I have been meaning to read for a while, I finally found a few days on my half term holiday to be drawn into the dark, haunting world of Nick and Amy Dunne. 

And all I needed was a few days (my flight was delayed, I was stuck in an airport for three hours longer than expected), despite this being a 500 page novel. Gone Girl is the story of a missing woman and her husband, who suddenly finds himself accused of her abduction and possible murder. Their relationship was on the rocks, and the police find significant evidence that places Nick at the scene of various unsavoury disturbances. And despite having the support of his sister and Amy's parents, Nick finds himself hurled into a media storm determined to drag his name through the mud. 

The novel is narrated through both Nick and Amy - Nick's narrative explains what happens following the disappearance, whilst Amy's diary recounts their past: how they met, their marriage, their move to the suburbs, and their slow deterioration. Nick is clearly not the perfect husband, and Amy's diaries increasingly cast light on a growing fear she felt around him. 

But the narrative is not as honest as it may seem, and in the second half of the novel, a whole new level of psychotic drama unfolds. 

It is so difficult to write about this novel without ruining the plot, though I am sure most people have a vague idea of what happens (especially since the movie adaptation was recently released). 

But I will say that it is a haunting novel about the darker side of relationships. As the story unfolds, it is not just Nick who is revealed to be a dishonest character, but Amy's true colours begin to show. These are not individuals that you root for or support - neither are 'in the right' - but you are gripped as you watch them destroy themselves and the world they have built together. 

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?
Jeanette Winterson
London, Vintage, 2011, 230p

I have been rationing words on these last few days of my half term holiday. That is because I didn't want to rely on book swaps in hostels, since my luck with them proved to be limited. So over the last weekend of my adventure, I read and reread the Forward Book of Poetry 1994 (review coming soon), and I took my time enjoying Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Jeanette Winterson, author of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, is a clever and sharp writer, both of fiction and non fiction. I always find myself seeking out her commentaries in The Guardian and elsewhere, and everything I read leaves me feeling reassured that I am not alone, that life is a mad experience for all of us. 

Why Be Happy? is the sister book of the semi-autobiographical Oranges: Winterson confesses that her 1985 novel brushed over some of the harsher realities of her upbringing, including the creation of Elsie, the saviour of Oranges who makes Jeanette's harsh upbringing slightly softer. In reality, there was no Elsie. Winterson's childhood was full of explicitly repressive religious doctrine and nights locked out of the house, camped on the doorstep, as punishment for some odd crime, like reading. 

Despite only having six books in her house growing up, Winterson could not help but fall in love with words. She hid books under her mattress and learned stories by rote, just so she could indulge in the magic of literature and poetry. Her love for language is infectious, and by the end of the memoir I had a long list of things I wanted to read or return to. 

She also explores the challenges of suffering from depression, and explains the reality of finding her birth mother - a muddle of difficult administrative procedures resulting in a reunion she feels is rather less dramatic than typical reunion stories. 

What touched me most was Winterson's process of coming to understand her approach to love and relationships. Her feelings towards her adopted mother are impressively positive; she finds herself coming to the defense of Mrs Winterson whilst it is clear that her child-raising techniques were somewhat unconventional. And this has had an interesting effect on Winterson's adult life - in particular, the feeling that she is not wanted and does not deserve to be loved in the way many others think of being loved. 

This is the first book I have read more than once in years (other than Persuasion), and definitely the first book I have ever read when I started from the beginning again as soon as I had finished. It added something to the reading process that I have never experienced before - a feeling of familiarity, as I read words and scenes I had already stored in my memory, but some scenes shifted and altered as I read them a second time. 

And I think this made me love Jeanette Winterson's writing even more - she could make me laugh when I already knew the punch line; she made me put the book down and think about what I had just read; and when I knew what was coming later, I could see elements of her future being shaped in her youth. 

There was so much going on in this memoir, I do not have the space to explore it all in this blog, but it goes without saying that I think everyone should read this. Winterson's story makes it okay to be who you are, and I think we all need to be reminded of that every now and then. 

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Future of Us

The Future of Us
Jay Asher & Carolyn Mackler
London, Simon & Schuster, 2012, 356p

I didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I did! I thought it would be yet another young adult romance, but it is so well written and clever that I breezed through it over a busy week. 

Josh and Emma have lived next door to each other for years, and have always been best friends. But recently, their relationship changed, when Josh misread the signals and Emma rejected him. 

It's 1996 and when Emma installs AOL on her new computer, she gets more than she had bargained for. She finds a website that she assumes is a prank, full of information about what seems to be her future self. But maybe it's not just  a prank, and maybe Emma has stumbled upon a way to see her future. 

Josh and Emma have very different approaches to dealing with the power they gain from being able to see what is happening in fifteen years time. Josh doesn't want to meddle with things too much, but online he learns that his future involves one of the most beautiful girls in school, and he finds the bravery to make a move. Emma, however, seems unsatisfied with every possible future she creates for herself, and finds fooling around with the tiniest present detail can have a huge impact in years to come. 

The novel unfolds over the course of just a few days, with Emma and Josh learning a lot about themselves in a short space of time. I love the concept of this novel - I remember life before Facebook, but many young readers might not; and in spanning the generations, The Future of Us appeals to a wide range of readers. 

And with having two protagonists, cleverly written by Asher and Mackler, both with different approaches to this new-found information, the reader can speculate on how they might react if they could see what was going to come of their lives in fifteen years. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Ours Are the Streets

Ours Are the Streets
Sunjeev Sahota
London, Macmillan, 2011, 313p

Ours Are the Streets is the story of a young man's journey to extremism. Imtiaz begins writing his story so that his daughter and wife will remember him, and tells the reader about how he met his wife, Bekah. At university in Sheffield, they become lovers, and an unexpected pregnancy results in marriage. Bekah agrees to convert to Islam for Imtiaz, and despite the challenges of their youth, they are happy. 

When Imtiaz' father passes away, he travels to Lahore with his mother to bury him. At first, it feels odd to adjust to this place where everyone seems to know him, even though he has never given them a moments thought. But he remains an outsider, a foreigner, his light skin and accent giving away his British-ness. 

As he starts to make friends, he settles into this place as 'home', but their travels deep into Afghanistan change the man who left England not so long ago. 

Ours Are the Streets is a dark, tragic novel. From the earliest pages, you are aware something has gone wrong - Imtiaz shouldn't be writing letters for his daughter to remember him, and it soon becomes clear where he is going. 

I found Imtiaz' transformation to be somewhat oversimplified. He doesn't seems dissatisfied with England; not even when he finds himself having to justify the West to his new friends in Pakistan. He comes to enjoy the feeling of being part of something in Afghanistan, though it was unclear that he felt disengaged when he was in Sheffield. And his 'decline' into extremism is articulated through paranoid rantings, which I felt belittled his decision to become a fighter. 

I am not convinced that this novel is the most reliable and straightforward exploration of a young man's transition into a potential terrorist, but Sahota's novel is a bold, gripping story that I would definitely recommend. 

Friday, 24 October 2014

Oliver Fibbs: Attack of the Alien Brain

Oliver Fibbs and the Attack of the Alien Brain
Steve Hartley
ill. Bernice Lum
London, Macmillan, 2013, 181p

Oliver feels pretty average compared to his family. His mum is a brain surgeon and his dad is a brilliant architect. His sisters are great at dance and his younger brother is a maths genius. However much they try to work out what Oliver is brilliant at, he still finds himself escaping into the world of his comic books, dreaming of aliens and mysteries. 

At school, he tells epic tales of fantasy adventures, but the other kids just laugh and his teacher simply commends his imagination or tells him off. Unfortunately, being grounded isn't helping Oliver's mission for something real to show and tell. 

Oliver Fibbs is one of those books that is great for the younger or reluctant reader. As we wait for the next Wimpy Kid and Tom Gates books to come out, the boys in my school are occupying themselves with Hartley and Lum's mix of illustrations and comedy storytelling. 

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Jay Fowler
London, Serpents Tale, 2013, 308p

Last week, just before the winner of the Man Booker Prize was announced, the OSA staff book club met for ice cream and a discussion about one of the shortlisted books. 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a very unusual novel. Before reading it, I knew there was a twist, but not what that twist was (I love that avid readers do not share plot spoilers with each other, and will strive to continue that here). 

The narrator is Rosemary, who commences her story at the midpoint. Having been a talkative child, she has learnt to start in the middle; but her story jumps back and forth so that it slowly reveals itself over time. As an adult, she confesses to being a lot more thoughtful and quiet than she was as a child, and that may be because she has not seen her brother or her sister for many years. Instead, she has carried the burden of her parent's loss (the details of said "loss" not being immediately explained), and has become an introverted young woman. 

Rosemary admits to being a biased and potentially unreliable narrator. She notes that,

 "An off-told story is like a photograph in a family album. Eventually it replaces the moment it was meant to capture."

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that her childhood memories are not the same as her parent's maturer adult experiences. But the profound effect of her upbringing is clear in her adult life. 

Parts of this novel reminded me of William Fiennes, who writes autobiographical accounts with extracts of scientific information, about birds or epilepsy. Towards the end of We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Jay Fowler talks increasingly about animal rights; though in our book club, we felt there were a few too many inconsistencies between Rosemary's account of her experiences and her examples of cruelty to animals. 

One of our book club members managed to read the book twice, and said it revealed much more on a second reading. I enjoyed the experience of reading We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, but I am not sure if there were too many coincidences for my liking. 

Friday, 17 October 2014

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park
Rainbow Rowell
London, Orion, 2012, 325p

Eleanor & Park has been in high demand amongst many of my students - of a similar vein as John Green's novels, it tells the tale of two misfits trying to go unnoticed, who can't help but notice each other. 

Park is a quiet, comic-book reading boy. He isn't bullied, but you couldn't say he is particularly popular. Eleanor is new, and on her first day, finds herself sat next to Park on the bus. They travel to and from school together every day in silence, until Park notices that Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder. They start to share some of the loves and hates, until they realise they love each other. 

It is clear why Rainbow Rowell has become incredibly popular - she appeals to that part of every one of us that feels uncomfortable in social situations. I would have loved this as a teenager, but experience has made me a cynic. 

Romeo and Juliet is referenced as the kids' English books, and the themes of that classic are reflected in Eleanor & Park. They quickly fall deeply for each other, and like first love, cannot imagine life without each other. Park's parents are mostly supportive, but Eleanor has a difficult home situation, with an aggressive and drunk stepfather. 

Unfortunately, just like I couldn't get around Romeo and Juliet killing themselves, I struggled to engage with the idea that Eleanor and Park's first loves would possibly be their last and only. 

Nevertheless, Eleanor & Park is an easy and engaging read, and it feels very contemporary, reflecting the current trend towards a reminiscent adoration of past popular culture (the story is set in 1986 so bands like The Smiths are prominent!). 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Forward Book of Poetry 2015

The Forward Book of Poetry
 London, Forward, 2014, 175p

It has been a pleasure to read this anthology. Over the few years, my understanding and appreciation of poetry has grown, and I have found some real gems in this anthology.

The Forward Prizes for Poetry are given for success in the publication of a collection, a first collection, and for recognised single poems. Kei Miller was celebrated as the winner of the Best Collection last month, and there is no doubt his writing is original and thought-provoking. 

I found old loves and new favourites throughout this collection, some of which I cannot stop myself returning to again and again. 

For example, 'Rissotto' by Mary Woodward is right at the back of the collection, and I stumbled upon it one evening when impatiently flicking through the pages. It is delicious, tempting and inviting, and made me immediately hungry. Hugo Williams' conversational style of story telling struck a chord with the common fears we all experience in love and life. And Graham Clifford's 'Best Poem Ever Written' reminded me of one of my favourites from last year, Emily Berry's 'International Poem of the Year'. 

But more than any other poet, I love the work of Kevin Powers. The collection has a useful biography section at the back, that informed me Powers was an American serviceman in Iraq; but I could identify that from the emotive and dark realism of his poetry. He writes with anger and guilt, and his words brought tears to my eyes. This is a poet from whom I want to read more.

I am currently working with my creative writing students on responses to current and past commended Forward poets, either in the form of poetry, essays or performance. I have found some great sources for inspiration in this collection - some visual, some historical, some literary. There is a great variety of writing, which I think may be partly due to a great selection of judges. Poems from different cultures and forms are celebrated, and no two pages tell the same story. 

Click here to read my other blog and follow what is going on with regards to students' responses to the Forward collections. 

Friday, 10 October 2014

Charlie Merrick's Misfits

Charlie Merrick's Misfits
Dave Cousins
Oxford, OUP, 2014, 201p

With a new cohort of eager year 7s, I have been trying hard to keep up with the latest publications for boys of this age (girls typically find it much easier to find a book they enjoy). I saw Dave Cousins talk about his new books at the SLA Conference back in June, so when they were delivered last week, I got reading!

Charlie Merrick's football team is made up of those who stayed behind when all the good players moved to the rival team, Goldbridge Colts. When Jack starts at school, fresh from an academy club, North Star are eager to snap him up, so Charlie tells Jack he will put in a good word with his sister, Emily. Unfortunately, things do not go according to plan, and as Charlie struggles to convince Jack to stay, it seems the rest of his squad are falling apart. 

Charlie isn't a flawless protagonist - in fact, as the novel goes on he realises that he has been responsible for the low morale in his team. He will put it before everything, even his friendships. 

Cousins has created an elaborate and original format within this book, which included written passages, illustrations, scenes in comic book form, snippets of fantasy commentary, and match player cards detailing strengths and weaknesses of each character. Personally, I struggled to take everything in, with so much going on, but I can definitely see the value in the variety for the more reluctant readers. 

I wish I had had this book during the World Cup, but I am glad there is still momentum in school for students to read in this area. And regardless, with humour and relatable characters, I know many junior boys who will love this.

Monday, 6 October 2014


Non Pratt
London, Walker, 2014, 381p

Trouble has been celebrated as one of the best contemporary novels about teen pregnancy, but I felt like it was about so much more than that. With drama between friends, romance through school, and the moments of tragedy, you could almost forget that the book centred around a growing baby. 

Hannah is fifteen and pregnant. She has a bit of a reputation around school, and rumours immediately spread. She expects her best friend, Katie, to stand by her, but when Katie starts dating Rex, she becomes part of the most popular group in school and drops Hannah.

Aaron is new to the area, with a mysterious past and a determination to move on. Somehow, he ends up friends with Hannah, and soon finds himself offering to be her fake baby daddy. He's convinced there is more to her than the popular kids see, and his faith in her allows the development of a beautiful and strong friendship. 

The novel plays out over the course of Hannah's pregnancy, with elements of the truth being revealed as the story unfolds. For the first half of the book, you can only speculate about who the father is, allowing your mind to play through every scenario, even the worst cases. Meanwhile, although it is clear Aaron is haunted by his past, you can only guess at what happened to bring him into Hannah's life. 

Their friendship is all about compromise, which is what the best real life friendships are about. Hannah and Aaron are similar in many ways, but also incredibly different, and in situations where all she wants to do is talk, he sometimes finds himself bottling up. But their trust is inspiring, and, with the support of family and other friends, they make it through the trials of the pregnancy. 

Trouble is about so many of the challenges facing young people today - peer pressure, sexuality, bullying (especially cyber bullying), conflict with parents, the expectations of school and society - that the pregnancy plot almost a subplot. But that is what I liked about this book - that it was about so much more than what you see on the cover. 

Thursday, 2 October 2014


Hannah Lowe
Tarset, Bloodaxe, 2013, 71p

For National Poetry Day, I thought I would do a write up about some poetry! 

I have been dipping in and out of Chick for a few weeks, sneaking poems in coffee breaks and quiet moments. Last year, she was commended in the Forward Book of Poetry, and now I am honoured to be working with the Forward Foundation this year, so thought I would do some extracurricular research.

Hannah Lowe's first collection is an autobiographical exploration of her childhood, with a focus upon her relationship with her father. A mysterious and secretive figure of her memories, he was a Chinese-black Jamaican migrant, who only seems to have become part of her life towards his death. 

The poems are emotive and innocent, drawing from Lowe's memories of her youth. There are gaps and moments of hyperbole, where reality has blurred at the edges with time. But the poems are incredibly visual, creating a picture through her concrete language and intricate detail. 

One of the projects I am running at OSA with the Forward Foundation is the Forward Young Responses project (see more here), through which we are encouraging students to read the poetry of past Forward winners in the hope that it will inspire their writing. I found that, reading through Hannah Lowe's full collection, I couldn't help but recall my own childhood memories. For example, the poem, Self Portrait, Before Me is so perfectly visual that it brought to mind photographs I have seen of my childhood and my parents, and flicking back through old photos, I was minded to write. 

I am glad I got around to reading this collection; I have been meaning to read this for some time, having been recommended by one of my sixth form students. Oh, how the tables have turned!

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

My Swordhand is Singing

My Swordhand is Singing
Marcus Sedgwick
London, Orion, 2006, 194p

I have finally been able to return to the realms of the Gothic - horrah! 

Peter lives in the a small village, on the edge of the woods, with his father. Both are woodcutters, though with his old age setting in and his reliance on alcohol, Peter's father does not contribute much. 

Chust is the first village Peter and his father have settled in for some time, having previously preferred to be on the move. Peter is glad of the respite, happy to be falling for the prettiest girl in the village; but he is conscious that everything is not as it seems. There is talk of dead husbands returning to their wives, and as winter draws nearer, the superstitious townsfolk take to decorating their homes against the Shadow Queen. 

My Swordhand is Singing is packed full of drama and drowning in Gothic horror. The whole of my English department love him, asking every year if I can get him to visit for World Book Day (no luck yet! - he's a busy man). This novel is part of the year nine curriculum at OSA, and I am always impressed by the number of students who come looking for further Sedgwick reads. 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

After the First Death

After the First Death
Robert Cormier
London, Puffin, 2006, 275p

After the First Death begins with a narration from Ben, a young boy haunted by an incident we do not yet know much about, except that it has left him with a scar from a bullet wound and it has shattered the already fragile relationship he has with his father. With time, his monologue is augmented with the voices of two others involved in this fateful day - Kate, a girl held hostage on a bus full of children, willing herself to be brave enough to act; and Miro, following the commands of a man he reveres, recounting how it came to be that he 

The novel is emotive and tense - all of the action unfolds over a relatively short space of time, as we are drip fed details, unraveling the truth. The story focuses upon the thoughts and feelings of these three characters. Kate and Miro are battling to stay alive in the moment of the action, and Ben, place between the military and the terrorists, tells of the aftermath of the kidnapping. 

Particularly interesting is Miro's story. He seems strangely innocent, even though he is involved with the 'terrorist' group of the story. Even Kate feels pity for him, as he tells his story, though her feelings are conflicted with the anger she feels towards her captor.

It wasn't until I was halfway through the book that I realised this novel had been first published in 1979. This new knowledge added an incredibly dark slant to my reading of it - the realisation that a book written twenty five years ago could still feel so timely and current. Although the development of the character's internal identities are detailed and vivid, their physical appearances are left unspecified. As such, Miro and Artkin, with their made up names, are not linked to a specific race or nation or conflict. The fictional events of this story could be seen as a telling of many real situations, and a reader today, in the context of the current political climate, can relate as easily as a reader from twenty five years ago. 

It is terrifying that this book felt so plausible, and has felt this real for so long. But Cormier's exploration of the three sides to this story packs a powerful punch, illustrating how victimization and innocence subjective. 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Clockwork, or All Wound Up

Clockwork, or All Wound Up
Philip Pullman
London, Corgi, 1996, 92p

Clockwork is one of the novels the year seven read towards the end of the academic year. I am pretty sure I have read it before, but as I reread, I was delighted that I couldn't remember it, so got to enjoy it all over again. 

In a small German town, everyone is buzzing with excitement about the new figure that will appear in the clock tomorrow. An apprentice clock maker is coming to the end of his training, and tradition dictates he must add his own touch to the town timepiece. But Karl is not ready - he has not managed to create anything, so he sits in the Tavern listening to the dark and terrible tales of the local storyteller. 

And when one of the so-called characters of the story arrives in the Tavern, a man who some say is the devil, it becomes clear that the wind up figures might be more than they first appear. 

Pullman's short story explores some complex ideas about good and evil, and about the power of pure love. It draws on tropes from traditional fairy tales, with murder and death contrasted against the innocence of a child, wrapped in a moral about having a good soul. 

But it is also surprisingly haunting - I haven't read a gothic tale like this in some time, and expect to find myself having some weird dreams tonight...