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!