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.