Thursday, 31 July 2014


Veronica Roth
London, HarperCollins, 2013, 526p

It has taken me a little longer to read this final book in the Divergent series than the previous two. When I started it, I jumped right in, eager to find out what happens to Tris and Tobias, but I found this book slower paced and less gripping than Divergent and Insurgent

It's hard to write about this novel without giving anything away. Let's just say this: Tris, Tobias and their friends learn that the world they have known is not what it seems. As the city divides - people choosing whether to defend the system of factions or battle for factionless society, it becomes clear that the city is only a small part of a greater plan, and the young characters begin to see themselves as tiny elements of a much greater world. 

Here, everything becomes a little science fiction, which is where I lost my connection with the series. Where I had previously loved the dystopian action - pages filled with fights and Tris' inner turmoil - the final book in this series felt like it got too big for itself. It felt a little like the Resident Evil books, where each new story reveals a darker and larger conspiracy. Veronica Roth clearly had a big plan for her series, but this novel did not seem to fulfil her ambitions. 

Allegiant is written from the points of view of both Tobias and Tris, switching between the two narrators chapter by chapter and revealing Tobias' inner most thoughts and fears, particularly as their romance developed. Unfortunately, although Veronica Roth has created a clear and complex character in Tobias, I did not find his narrative all that distinct from Tris' and sometimes had to flick back to the start of a chapter to work out who was talking. Apparently, Roth has written some mini-chapters from Tobias' viewpoint previously, and I would be interested to read these and see if they are any better. 

When I spoke to the students at school about this book, those who hadn't read it were excited by the final novel in their nre favourite series, and those who had read it convinced me it got better at the end. Admittedly, as the revelations unfolded and the action built up, I rediscovered my love and respect for Tris and her companions (increasingly, the other female characters became intriguing, particularly Christina). But I cannot ignore my disappointment at the turn this series took towards science fiction and that it just felt a little too much like dragging myself through tar. 

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Land of Decoration

The Land of Decoration
Grace McCleen
London, Vintage, 2012, 291p

I intend for this summer to be the summer I read all those books that have been sat on the shelf behind my desk waiting to be read. This last weekend I have spent in Somerset with First Story, and although I didn't get much time to read (because I was doing other awesome things), I did find the time to indulge in The Land of Decoration

Judith is a Jehovah's Witness. Like her father, she believes the end of the world is imminent, and soon she will be reunited with her lost mother. Within the confines of her room, she dreams of this new and beautiful land, playing with the world she has created out of cardboard and string. But when one of her playtime dreams comes true, Judith learns that such power comes with terrible responsibility. 

You cannot help but sympathise with Judith. Her father still mourns the loss of her mother; her classmates pick on her and exclude her; and society calls names at her for her beliefs. She finds refuge in her religion, talking to the voice of God; and her experiences prove there are good people in the world - her teacher, for example, is a diamond in an otherwise tragic story. 

Although I found this novel took some time to develop, it turned into something of a psychological thriller. It reminded me of The Icarus Girl - in The Land of Decoration, Judith finds companionship with her Godlike voice, and slowly their conversations turn dark. 

I love the way this novel is written, drawing from a Biblical style that parallels Judith's imaginary world creation. I am not sure what Grace McCleen is trying to say about religion in this novel, and I am hesitant to speculate, but what I found fascinatingly thought-provoking was the sway between Judith's psychological distress and her ability to find peace in her faith in God. 

But what was most poignant was the relationship between Judith and her father, a man who stands weak beneath the loss of his wife, the pressures of his faith and his distance with the society around him. You never doubt he loves his daughter, but you spend the whole novel wishing he could fully share his love and his life with her.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Lady Windermere's Fan

Lady Windermere's Fan
Oscar Wilde
Diderot, 2012, 80p

My love for Oscar Wilde is now several years old, stemming from a trip to Dublin where I got to spend a little too much time around his jade statue. Though, in reality, my affection is probably older than that. 

Lady Windermere's Fan is one of Wilde's plays that I haven't read before, somewhat surprisingly. It is a comedy of errors, in which a happily married couple become suspicious of each other when a new and mysterious woman enters their lives. Talk around town is that Lord Windermere is keeping this woman, and Lady Windermere is shocked to find that all the evidence confirms this.

Simply, it is a matter of miscommunication, or lack of communication on Lord Windermere's part, as he tries and fails to protect the woman he loves.

Wilde's writing is full of humour and wit; a sort of comedy commentary about manners and status in late nineteenth century England. This mysterious woman, Mrs Erlynne, is initially condemned by society, gossiped about and speculated upon by the established members of highest social order. But when she is introduced in person, many are wooed by her charm and sweetness - suddenly their harsh words are forgotten and everyone wants to sing her praises. I imagine this was rather commonplace in Wilde's social circles.

One of my favourite Oscar Wilde quotes comes from this novel - and reading it in context made it all the more emotive:
"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight
Jennifer E. Smith
London, Headline, 2012, 215p

As simple as it may seem, the title of this book is what attracted me to it. The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight - what could be more intriguing?

Hadley is flying from New York to London to attend her father's wedding. He left her and her mother for a job in Oxford several years ago, and has since met someone new, someone Hadley has never met and is more than reluctant to get to know. Hadley doesn't want to go to London, but she is frustrated when she misses her flight by just four minutes, leaving her to wait in the airport for a later flight. She will arrive in London less than two hours before the wedding, and is unsure she will even make it on time.

In a strange twist of fate, she ends up sitting next to a handsome young Brit on her flight, who chats away and distracts her from her claustrophobia. He is charming and clever, and Hadley finds herself wishing this moment could last longer than just the flight.

The novel is written in the present tense, with the chapter headings demonstrating the time difference between New York and London. By the end of the book, it is hardly surprising that Hadley and Oliver are completely exhausted, having been awake for more than twenty four hours. But the present tense keeps you in the situation, sharing their tiredness and emotional instability as they try to navigate their feelings and their families.

Despite the synopsis seeming soppy and romantic, I rather enjoyed indulging in this novel. The relationship between Oliver and Hadley is whirlwind and optimistic, despite the obvious barriers, but the novel is also filled with complex familial relationships, adding depth to the characters and their love.

Hadley is angry at her father for leaving her, but surprisingly open minded once she arrives in London, and mature enough to let her Dad and his new wife into her life. Oliver, whilst a happy and warm character, seems to carry some sadness with him, hinting at resentment towards his father. But Hadley is so preoccupied with her own concerns that she does not take the time to really understand Oliver until it is perhaps too late...

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Tinder, 2014, 410p

I received this book some months ago as a free proof via Twitter from the wonderful people at Tinder publishing. I love Sue Monk Kidd, having read The Secret Life of Bees in my teens whilst studying the slave trade - it added a personal, emotional element to my understanding of the suffering and desperation of those who were victims of slavery.

The Invention of Wings is a story told by Sarah Grimke, the daughter of an aristocratic landowner, and Hetty Handful, a slave of the Grimke household. When Hetty is given to Sarah as a present, Sarah tries to give her back, uncomfortable with the idea of owning another person. She is a forward thinking and ambitious young girl, determined to follow her father into the legal profession. But her parents refuse to accept her liberal ways, and bestow Hetty upon Sarah anyway. Sarah tries to be kind to Hetty, but sometimes finds slavery too ingrained in her way of life.

Hetty, meanwhile, tells us the story of her mother and her grandmother - how their talents as seamstresses have helped them become house slaves, rather than those who work the fields. Yet, Hetty's mother has a streak of danger running through her blood, and her attempts to defy their masters and liberate themselves from slavery end in the harshest of punishments.

As the two girls grow older, their paths diverge, but their stories remain intertwined. Sarah becomes an advocate for the abolition cause, talking at meetings and writing pamphlets with her sister, Nina, eventually stumbling upon the suffragette cause when their public speaking becomes suppressed by their gender. And Hetty continues to work for the Grimke family, but continues to dream of freedom.

In her closing note, Sue Monk Kidd informs her reader that the story is based on a true story - that of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, sisters who fought for abolition and suffrage, tending against their Southern upbringing. Much poetic license has been used, including Hetty's life, adding an element of contrast to the story of the wealthy white woman. The author brings in much historical information, adding volume and texture to her account of life in nineteenth century America.

And the writing is simply beautiful - within the first few pages you have been transported back two hundred years, and you can see every detail, every stitch that Hetty sews. One line that particularly stood out for me was towards the end of the book, where Hetty describes her aged mistress: "She has lines around her eyes like dart seams and silver thread in her hair, but she was the same."

Their stories are of hardship and tragedy, but their hope is uplifting. Sue Monk Kidd notes that the records show that Sarah was more reluctant about some of her actions than this novel suggests, but in a time when it must have felt like the whole world was against them, I consider Sarah's bravery and Hetty's determination to be inspiring.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Clarice Bean, Utterly Me

Clarice Bean, Utterly Me
Lauren Child
London, Orchard Books, 2012, 188p

What's not to love about Clarice Bean? She's cheeky, clever and confident. Admittedly, she has been around for quite a while now, but I have failed thus far to jump on the bandwagon, so thought I would indulge in something I knew I would love.

Clarice Bean is an avid reader of the Ruby Redfort books (which Lauren Child has since published as another series). When their teacher sets them a project to make a book exhibit, Clarice Bean and her friend, Betty Moody, decide they can demonstrate what they have learned from the great child spy. And when Betty Moody mysteriously disappears without a trace, Clarice Bean is able to put her spy skills into action in an attempt to find out what has happened to Betty and the Moodys.

Lauren Child's novels are artistic masterpieces. Each page is meticulously planned and executed, filled with illustrations and text swirling around the page. Sometimes you have to spin the book around just to read a sentence. 

There is some great junior fiction available these days (despite the plethora of books about fairies and puppies), and this republished issue of Clarice Bean demonstrates the popularity of the genre. But what I love most of all is that this book made me really want to read more Ruby Redfort!

Sunday, 13 July 2014


Veronica Roth
London, HarperCollins, 2012, 525p

Good and evil are never as clearly defined as they first seem. Divergent convinced me that the Dauntless were the best of the factions - the brave and noble warrior types - but Insurgent shows that their aggression comes at a cost, and perhaps we all need a little of every faction to be balanced individuals.

Following the devastation inflicted by the Erudite at the end of the last novel, Tris and the Dauntless find themselves lost and divided - some have allied with the information-hungry Erudite whilst others have gone into hiding, taking refuge with the kind Amity faction. The Amity are reluctant to take sides, but are put in a difficult situation when threatened by the Erudite, knowing full well they are in a dependent situation. 

The Dauntless traitors continue to spread the Erudite simulation serum through the other factions, preparing an army of mindless drones. Tris suspects there might be more to the Erudite mission than power - old Abnegation leaders have implied that the Erudite are keeping a secret and that all the factions deserve to know the truth. 

Throughout Insurgent, Tris battles with depression - she feels like she has lost everyone she loves and is haunted by guilt over what she did during the heat of battle. Try as he might, Tobias cannot seem to do the right thing, and Tris finds herself building up walls and keeping secrets. Tris could have easily become an annoying, moany character in this novel, but Veronica Roth is a talented and engaging writer who maintains the reader's sympathy during the hardest of times. 

I absolutely devoured this book - I was impressed to find that it can be added to that short list of brilliant sequels along with Toy Story 2 and the second Godfather movie. Now the characters are well developed and the direction seems clear, the novel flows at a fast pace, with drama at every turn, and with a complete disregard for conventional the good vs evil dichotomy. Nothing is as it seems. 

Thursday, 10 July 2014


Sarah Mussi
London, Hachette, 2013, 307p

I encountered Sarah Mussi last week at the SLA Conference in Manchester, where she discussed with a panel of writers the concept of the dystopian novel. It was an enlightening 'author meet' for two reasons: partly because it introduced me to some new YA novels; but mainly due to the exploration of the definition of dystopian fiction - how does it differ from science fiction?; does the ending need to leave the reader with hope?; how close to our contemporary reality are some of these dystopian worlds?

Siege has been sat on my To Read shelf at work for months - it is a big shelf, and I with brilliant new novels arriving every day, sometimes books sit there for rather too long. Finally, meeting Mussi prompted me to pick up this novel and explore what had intrigued me in the first place.

A group of teenagers, calling themselves the Eternal Knights, have taken the YOU OP 78 Academy hostage. Fighting for her life, Leah has taken refuge in the ceilings, but she knows she cannot survive up there for long. The school is on Lock Down - no one can get in or out - and the battery of her comm (phone) is running low, leaving any attempts to make contact with the world outside futile. 

Siege is a gripping, dangerous novel, and Leah is a strong, independent protagonist. Even though a male counterpart is introduced, leaving potential for a romance, most of the novel consists of Leah alone, trying to survive and striving to save her peers. 

Much of her battle comes from her guilt - she is scared her brother, Connor, might be involved, and wonders if she could have done more to prevent this. But as time goes on, Leah realises that there is more to this siege than the failed relationship between herself and her brother - there are bigger factors at play. 

Sarah Mussi's dystopian world (if I can call it that) is not far from the world in which we live. Leah and the students at her school are considered to be a drain on society - they are rushed through their education and forced into Volunteer Programs, in the hope that they can give something back and reduce their detrimental impact upon the country's resources. There is no social mobility - the lives of the students at these academies are set in stone. 

No wonder this siege has come about, Leah thinks. The youth are disillusioned and angry, so they take up weapons to fight for their rights. But it seems weird to Leah that these Eternal Knights are made up of some of the most stupid kids in school - kids who couldn't track down weapons or organise themselves this efficiently. So there must be some bigger power involved...

Monday, 7 July 2014


An Anthology from the First Story Groups at Oxford Spires Academy
ed. Kate Clanchy
London, First Story, 2014, 86p

I am endlessly impressed by the work carried out by the charity, First Story, and by the writing produced by the young individuals who are fortunate enough to experience their program.

Today, we launched the Oxford Spires Academy anthology, named Wings because of the array of fantastical poetry written around the theme of flying. The book opens with a poem about a young boy's dream of being a super hero, rescuing a school boy from his bullies; followed by an account of a student's childhood dream of building her own set of wings.

But there is so much more than that - poems about childhood memories and school day fantasies; letters to fathers, no longer with us; pleas to future lovers and old friends.

The anthology is artistically put together by Kate Clanchy, our amazing Writer-in-Residence, who has created rhythm and flow to the book as a whole. Throughout the collection, some styles recur, demonstrating the impact of Kate's workshops upon the students' writing. But this year's book is incredibly diverse, including poetry, prose and plays, writing about Oxford, Bangladesh and Nepal, poems about students' dreams and some that are completely fictional.

The poems are  mature, emotional and sensitive, exploring what it means to be a young person today. 

Tonight, we welcomed esteemed guests from Oxford Spires and First Story to experience the words spoken from the students' mouths. They were absolutely breathtaking - I am so incredibly proud of all they have achieved in a short space of time. 

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Snow Geese

The Snow Geese
William Fiennes
London, Picador, 2003, 243p

I don't get much time to read adult fiction, and I have even less time to read adult non-fiction. But I love travel writing, and at the moment I have a real desire to see the world. So whilst I am confined to my home with the flu, I took upon the opportunity to let my reading take me on holiday.

Following an illness that resulted in long term leave from university, a young William Fiennes finds himself interested in the birds that flock and migrate through his parent's garden. He reads his childhood favourite, The Snow Goose, and longs to track the birds as they migrate across North America.

Starting out in Texas, Fiennes travels up through South Dakota into Canada, and finally to Foxe Land on Baffin Island, where the nights are short and snow holds out well into spring. He meets fascinating individuals along the way, some bird watchers, some hunters, some who couldn't care less but are kind enough to offer shelter, company or guidance.

Like The Music Room, this novel flits between story-telling and providing factual information about it's subject matter. Fiennes offers his readers interesting facts about the migratory patterns of birds, including historical references to research. He also discusses the medical history of nostalgia and homesickness, which I had never really considered as a legitimate subject of medical study until I realised how much focus there has been upon this area in the past.

As Fiennes travels further north, you start to notice a change in his tone - more emphasis upon the medical understanding of nostalgia reflecting a longing to go back home and a mild dissatisfaction with his trip, suggesting it is not what he expected it to be. I almost wish he wrote a follow up, exploring his readjustment to reality, but The Snow Geese is perfect as it is.

I love Fiennes' writing, which I may not have come across if it hadn't been for my work with the creative writing charity, First Story. From the first line of The Snow Geese, you are gripped by curiosity, the vivid descriptions of female golfers coming to life on the page before you. I relish his prose, which draws you in and frees you from the everyday.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014


Mark Haddon
London, Red Fox, 2009, 195p

At Oxford Spires, we will shortly be launching our 2013-2014 First Story anthology, and this year our special guest is Oxford local author, Mark Haddon. I adore his writing, but it has been some time since I have read anything from his repertoire, so thought I would rectify that by reading Boom!

Jimbo and Charlie are adventurous, mischievous boys, often up to no good. So when they land themselves in intergalactic trouble, they know no one will believe them, a little like the boy who cried wolf. It all starts when they use a walkie-talkie to listen in on their teachers' conversations, which leads them to discovering that some unusual staff members talk in a strange language. When Jimbo wants to back off, Charlie pushes full steam ahead, determined to find out what is going on. But Charlie disappears, and Jimbo knows he has to go and rescue his best friend.

'Strange' doesn't even begin to describe this book. It is the weirdest adventure story I have ever read, but so brilliantly crafted that I could not help but become engrossed. Haddon has created a weird and wonderful alternative universe - a planet recruiting human sci-fi fans to keep it going.

As Haddon notes in his introduction, this is not his first attempt at this story, but an intricately edited version. But he got it perfectly right with this peculiar adventure, mixing comedy, the supernatural, and