Thursday, 27 February 2014

Call Down Thunder

Call Down Thunder
Daniel Finn
London, Macmillan, 2013, 306p

I didn't expect to enjoy this novel as much as I did. For some reason, the blurb set me up for a fantasy, though re-reading that now I cannot recall why. And yet, although initially challenge to engage with, I found myself enthralled as the plot developed.

Reve works the boats in the docks, bringing in fish and selling them to make a living. The town is impoverished, run by a dangerous and aggressive seƱor. And Reve's sister, Mi, wants to track down their mother, who abandoned them eight years ago. When they start asking questions about where she is, some of the answers probably aren't what the two teenagers wanted to hear.

My initial problem with this novel was the language - specifically the dialogue. Whilst the descriptive passages are vivid and detailed, the conversation was dialectic, and I struggled to grasp it. Some of the descriptive passages are also colloquial, with sentences running on from line to line, but I felt this added to the tension and drama. And as the story went on, I became accustomed to the language and gripped by the characters and their adventures.

The story is carried by violence, drug dealing and gun crime, and the two young protagonists get caught up in the drama whilst innocently trying to find answers about their mother. It is unclear where Call Down Thunder is set, but I assume it is South America due to some cultural  and geographical references. I am not sure if it is good or bad that the location is not specified, because, regardless, the setting was incredibly real to me. The small fishing village in which Reve lives is brought to life amongst the violence and drama; and later, the characters venture to the city, which is buzzing and thriving with life and terror.

Reve is a great lead character - he is loyal and sensitive, but also wise and brave. But I was disappointed by the females in this book. The adult women fell into stereotypical categories of wife and lover, whilst Mi, Reve's teenage sister, was labelled a witch within the story. She is thought to have magical powers, which are revered and feared by the villagers in equal measure. In fact, a rational explanation would suggest that she suffered from fits and was mildly autistic. I wavered between seeing her as a brave, independent young woman to being frustrated that she was so dependent upon the men around her, and was trapped by the burden of her epilepsy. And I am unwilling to ruin the ending, but that didn't do her many favours, either.

Yet, overall, I would recommend Call Down Thunder. It is original and feisty, keeping you intrugied with mystery and drama.

Monday, 24 February 2014


Terry Pratchett
Corgi, 2013, 

I blame my father for my love of Terry Pratchett. 

Dodger, however, is no typical Pratchett. It is about a street boy with a big heart, who knows the sewers like the back of his hand. When he rescues a young girl from being beaten, he becomes involved with the hoi polloi of London, with whom he sets out to understand how this girl has ended up in this situation 

It isn't Discworld, and it is written for a younger audience. This story is historical, very thoroughly well-researched, and explicitly Dickensian. The novel reads very much like a Dickens novel, with summaries at the start of each chapter, lots of old Victorian slang, and the exploration of social issues such as poverty and children's education. And on top of that, Charles Dickens himself is a main character, eager to turn Dodger's life into one of his best sellers. 

The novel is funny and light-hearted, even with it's moral message about social inequality and related injustices. Dodger is a brilliant protagonist, impressing everyone with his fast thinking and integrity. He's the kind of guy anyone would be lucky to know. 

But I feel unsure about the target audience for this novel - without a good knowledge of the context, it might be lost on the younger reader, whilst many adult readers adore it! 

Last year, I saw Dodger adapted for the stage by the Studio Theatre Club in Abingdon, and both my dad and I loved it. It had been long enough since then that the story felt somewhere between returning to an old friend and reading something new. Dodger is a fairly niche novel, but I imagine lovers of Dickens and lovers of Pratchett will find something to enjoy here. And I am a lover of both. 

Thursday, 20 February 2014


William Shakespeare
c. 1604

My sixth formers are currently studying Othello, and I am ashamed to say that it is one of the few plays of Shakespeare I have not read. I barely even knew anything about the plot, so I set out to rectify this.

The play begins with a conversation between Iago and Rodrigo, two courtiers who are discussing the Moor, Othello. During the first scene, they do not state who they are talking about, instead referring to the soldier in racial slurs such as "an old black ram". The two men are outraged that Othello has secretly married Desdemona, jealous and angry at the rising social status of their colleague and rival.

Iago is driven by viscious resentment, and sets out to destroy the Moor. He plots behind the backs of his fellow courtiers, whispering false secrets in their ears, tricking them into believing the worst in others. He convinces Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with Cassio, and drives Othello to committing the most evil of crimes against his once beloved wife. 

It's classic Shakespearean tragedy - a dangerous romance that transforms social barriers and parental expectations; a jealous subordinate, unhappy with his own lot and pent on revenge; proud men who are fooled by their inferiors and seem unable to talk rationally with their wives; and a drunken fight scene. 

But best of all, the students at my school love it! With many of them being from Muslim families, they fully understand the challenge of racial differences and the value of chastity and virginity. Othello is a surprisingly modern text, remaining relevant with students for whom an honour killing can be a reality. Once they have gotten a grasp of the language of the fifteenth century, the tragedy and drama grips them - I don't think I have met a group of teenagers so excited by Shakespeare. 

Monday, 17 February 2014

What Are We Fighting For?

What Are We Fighting For?
Brian Moses and Roger Stevens
London, Macmillan, 2014, 112p

Seeing as this year marks the centenary of The Great War, I am anticipating many publications to deal with this subject. What Are We Fighting For is the first I have come across: a varied, original collection of poems written and collated by Brian Moses and Roger Stevens.

At first, I thought this collection would be an anthology of existing poems, and was disappointed to find that it was in fact some new poems written by contemporary poets. I felt a little concerned that they had no authority on the subject and that the writing would be idealised or exaggerated.

But I was pleasantly surprised to find poetry that covered a variety of subjects in a factual and informative way. The collection felt a little like a history book, giving information about life in the trenches, the causes of conflict, and what things were like for those people left at home. Some of the poems are supported with snippets of factual information, explaining what realities the stories relate to. And each poem is just that - a little story about a person or a place or an event, taken from history and embelleshed in a more accessible manner.

This book contains poems about all conflict - from the First and Second World War, right through to modern day conflicts. The final section seems more childlike and innocent, exploring the world through the eyes of young characters who do not see war in their back garden, but are sometimes vaguely aware of world news and battles fought overseas. There is even a poem about a playground fight, as Moses and Stevens cast doubt on conflict at all levels.

So despite not meeting my initial expectations, I found this collection of new poems to be touching, leaving the reader with food for thought; though I expect there to be a lot more high quality writing on this subject to be revealed over the next few years. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Under the Skin

Under the Skin
Catherine McPhail
Edinburgh, Barrington Stoke, 2012, 53p

Omar's family have never had it easy, but now they have a home in England. Omar can't wait for his cousin to come and join them, and writes to tell him so. But Omar isn't completely honest in his letters. He writes about his friend, Sam, when in fact Omar and Sam are enemies.

Despite his school preaching tolerance, Sam is not accepting of Omar. They fight often, with Omar being fast to lash out and attack. Neither are exactly in the right. And Omar's mother isn't exactly setting a great example, bickering and squabbling with their neighbour, Mrs Brown.

This is another of the brilliant dyslexia friendly books from Barrington Stoke, where they work hard to ensure that their texts are accessible for all. The story is ideal for junior or teenage readers, it's content perfectly directed at any reluctant reader. Omar's story is gripping and engaging, with a strong moral undercurrent, and yet you do not feel like you are being preached at.

Under the Skin is a story that demonstrates how we are all pretty similar people beneath our externalities. The relationship between Omar and Sam shows how easy it is to judge people; it takes the boys a lot to get to know each other truly.

Monday, 10 February 2014

A Bridge to the Stars

A Bridge to the Stars
Henning Mankell
London, Andersen Press, 2011, 171p

Despite being a huge fan of all things Scandinavian, I have not yet read any Henning Mankell, nor have I watched the television adaptations of his Wallander stories. So I thought I'd try to start somewhere accessible, where teenage fiction met Swedish crime.

Joel is a reserved, pensive young boy, living in the forests of Sweden with his father, an ex-seaman. Joel and his father are quite content together, telling stories of far-away exotic lands his father once travelled to. His mother is no longer around, and Joel is curious, but occupies himself by establishing a Secret Society. One night, he sees a dog running through the streets of his town, and decides the society of one must set out to identify the dog. But when a new boy arrives in town and joins Joel's club, the society loses track of the original aims, becomming embroiled in naughty and dangerous activities.

A Bridge to the Stars is quite a slow paced novel, possibly in part because it is written in the present tense, which kept me on my toes whilst reading. I found I couldn't quite settle into it, as it never settled on being first or third person, always jumping between an omniscient narrator and Joel's internal monologue. It wasn't until right near the end when the action started to pick up, at which point I found myself oddly attached the the young protagonist.

I expected more from Mankell, if I am honest. Perhaps I should have started with some of his more established fiction from his adult collection, because although this book was relatively short, it was not accessible to a younger reader. The language was complicated and the pace was too measured, and I suspect many teenage readers would get bored quite quickly. And while the structure may have been more suitable for a young adult or more mature reader, the story and characters were too childlike for such an audience to engage with. It takes a very patient sort of reader to enjoy a book with so much detail and such delicate substance.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Operation Ouch

Operation Ouch: Your Brilliant Body
Dr Chris van Tulleken & Dr Xand van Tulleken
London, Little, Brown, 2013, 216p

I thought I'd dabble in some non-fiction for a bit of a change. I am no scientist, and it never did anyone any harm to do a little revision on the biology of the body.

Dr Chris and Dr Xand are twin brothers who present CBBC's Operation Ouch. This book is the culmination of all their bodily knowledge, containing lots of information about the human body, from ears to skin to toes. Each chapter is full of interesting facts broken down into easy nuggets of information. There are also little multiple-choice quizzes, challenging your general knowledge, and "Did You Know?" sections to tell you about the weird and wonderful.

I really like the tone of this book - it is upbeat, bouncing back and forth between the brothers, it is informative, and it is witty. I am no expert, but it all seems very accurate. It helps that Xand and Chris are instantly likeable, even for someone who has never seen their show.

And I learned something new! Apparently, "umani" refers to the sorts of foods that have a strong savoury flavour, like cheese and meat. Interesting....

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Screaming Staircase

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase
Jonathan Stroud
London, Doubleday, 2013, 440p

I am not a huge fan of ghost stories - either I find it too hard to suspend my disbelief or I get too creeped out - and I abhor hard back novels - they are much too hard to read in comfort. And yet, I found The Screaming Staircase to be a clever, gripping horror story with witty and complete characters.

The story begins with Lockwood and Co on a case. Lucy and Lockwood have been left alone in a haunted house, where the owners suspect evil is hidden somewhere. Armed with iron filings and rapiers, the two young detectives set out to find the Source. Lucy can hear the whispers of the ghost, whilst Lockwood is able to see them in the dark. Children are more sensitive to the elements, and across England, bands of young ghost hunters are employed to find and suppress ghosts. 

I loved that this novel jumped right into the action - in the second part of the novel, Lucy takes us back to contextualise the situation, explaining all about the Problem. Some fifty years ago, sightings and hauntings increased dramatically, giving rise to a number of government policies to protect people from ghosts. The most popular solution tended to be the use of agencies such as Lockwood & Co., though this company is somewhat smaller of staff and reputation than some of it's competitors. Throughout the novel, Lockwood, his business partner George, and their new employee, Lucy, plot to get the company to the top of it's game. 

The Screaming Staircase is a rather long novel, but I did not feel that way. I quickly engaged with Lucy, a feisty, self-assured young girl, though often others fail to see her value. Lockwood and George are an entertaining double act, one being always eager to jump into danger whilst the other would prefer to spend hours researching before approaching any new case. 

The ghostly element of the novel is suspenseful and memorable. The fear creeps up on you, so that the early pages lure you into a false sense of security and by the end you are unable to stop reading. Jonathan Stroud is a measured guide through the story, taking you on highs and lows of drama and horror. The combination of mystery and thriller was more than enough to keep me completely enthralled into the early hours of the morning.