Friday, 28 March 2014

The Adoption Papers

The Adoption Papers
Jackie Kay
Tarsat, Bloodaxe, 2013, 64p

I don't think I have enjoyed a collection of poetry as much as this in some time. It has such depth and details, and is of an incredibly consistent high standard. 

Jackie Kay's collection of poem explores families, romantic love and issues of society. The collection begins with the autobiographical story of Kay's adoption through the eyes of her biological mother, her adopted mother and herself. It discusses her feelings of abandonment and her confusion about her identity, though, as life often works out, comes to no solid conclusions. She also describes the issue of race as a black child raised by white parents in Scotland in the 1960s and 70s. The story is told through poems, pinpointing significant moments along the journey. It is incredible how she engages with the inner thoughts of both her mothers. 

Following this engaging story are a series of other poems that look at a whole range of themes and subjects. One that stood out to me was 'I try my absolute best', a poem about the difficulty of doing right by your child. She talks about feeding her baby healthy food and avoiding things full of chemicals, just to find out that everything you thought was okay is in fact ridden with potential hazards.

Her ability to articulate political issues and social discontent is profoundly powerful. 'Severe Gale 8' looks at elements of society (the NHS, the economy, etc.) in a series of chapter-like poems, using repetition to reinforce the stagnation of social change.

I love Jackie Kay's style: she is approachable and accessible, even if you have not lived the life she has. Her subjects become universal through the way she writes as she makes it alright for you to have experienced self-doubt or to have questioned who you are. The Adoption Papers is a poignant, modern and engaging. 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Island of Thieves

Island of Thieves
Josh Lacey
Andersen, 2011, 237p

Never have I read a novel that so quickly leapt into action. Within the first chapter, Josh Lacey sets us up for a thrilling, dangerous adventure that takes our protagonists from New York to Peru.

With his parents going on their first holiday without the kids, there is no one to look after Tom (mainly because no one is brave enough to take him on - he has just accidentally set fire to the garden shed). Tom ends up with his Uncle Harvey, a man about whom little is known. But Uncle Harvey is headed to Peru, and Tom talks him into taking his nephew along. Unfortunately, Harvey neglects to tell Tom why they are headed to Lima until it is too late, and they both find themselves under the thumb of one of the most dangerous men in South America. 

By the end of the adventure, I was convinced that Harvey and Tom are the luckiest men alive. There isn't a moment when their lives aren't in danger, as they follow an ancient trail to uncover buried treasure. You have to suspend your disbelief a little, as they encounter situations that I am convinced no one could survive, but you are in for an gripping ride.

The Island of Thieves is a cross-over of many genres, from mystery to thriller to adventure. It lacks female characters a little too much for my taste, but Tom is such a rounded character that I think any young reader would relate to him. He isn't exceptional, he's ordinary, and so we can feel part of his journey.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Ruby Redfort: Look Into My Eyes

Ruby Redford: Look Into My Eyes
Lauren Child
London, HarperCollins, 2011, 390p

I want to be Ruby Redfort.

That is all.

Okay, that is not all, but I cannot emphasise how much I loved this book. I am ashamed that I haven't read Lauren Child before, because this is exactly the kind of novel I would have devoured as a teenager. 

She's a spy! Well, she's a code breaker. Shortly after everything in her home is stolen in rather suspicious and unexplained circumstances, Ruby receives a mysterious call, which eventually leads her to a secret agency who want to recruit her. She is a young puzzle champion, and they need her help in finding some answers. A 'butler', Hitch, is assigned to watch over her as she trawls her way through pages of information, trying to decipher the grand plot.

Ruby is a highly intelligent, intuitive and observant young lady. She is too smart for school and she knows it - she has already rejected an early submission to Harvard by thirteen. She occupies herself watching detective programs, taking notes on the seemingly mundane, and creating codes with her friend, Clancy. But my description cannot credit how awesome she is. I would love to hang out with her, or to spend a day in her shoes.

The book is fast-paced and action-packed, with short, punchy chapters and hugely entertaining characters. In particular, Ruby's parents are brilliant - a strangely dull and unintelligent couple considering what a genius their daughter is. You can't help but read on and on. There are even codes in there for you to break, making you feel like part of Ruby's world. 

I found myself completely engrossed, almost like I was there living it with Ruby. It is incredibly hard to create a character as exceptional and yet as rounded as this girl - Lauren Child has amazed me. The excitement and drama stayed with me after I had finished reading, and I cannot wait to read more!

Friday, 21 March 2014


Simon Mayo
London, Corgi, 2012, 407p

Over the years, my knowledge of the period table of elements has deteriorated somewhat due to lack of revision. But in Itch, the elements come to life, being grounded in everyday objects like toothpaste and earings, and demonstrating unimaginably cool uses.

Itchingham Lofte is not an academic genius or hipster-esque geek. He is not popular or the teacher's pet. He is normal. He gets bored at school and gets into trouble at home. But he is an element collector - gathering materials that contain each of the elements in the periodic table. And sometimes, his experimentations end up causing quite a lot of mess, and sometimes minor fires.

Then, his dealer, Cake, has something new for him - a material that doesn't match the atomic make up of anything Itch has seen before. He's curious, and takes the rock into school to show his teacher in the hope they might shed some light on this strange object. But the rock soon makes it's way into the wrong hands and attracts the attention of some shifty businesses, convinced that this rock is a new element - and a highly radioactive one, at that! Along with his cousin Jack and his sister, Itch has to end what he started, and embarks on an adventure to keep this dangerous material away from anyone who might use it for evil.

Simon Mayo (yes, that Simon Mayo) is an incredible writing talent. He has made science accessible and exciting for someone who had no more than a GCSE-level interest in the subject. I really cannot recommend this enough, and will be forcing it upon my science department as soon as possible!

And in addition to the book itself (which, it is worth noting, is part of a new series), Mayo has made great use of social media and has gone online to link Itch up to the modern world of readers.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Whale Boy

Whale Boy
Nicola Davies
London, Corgi, 2013, 260p

Michael dreams of seeing a whale. He has heard stories of times gone by when whales roamed freely around his little island, but now they have all been scared away by hunters. Every day, he works hard to save up for a boat of his own, in the hope he can one day take tours out into the waters and find some of the beautiful mammals. So when the opportunity to have his very own boat comes sooner than expected, he jumps at the chance, but remains suspicious that this might be too good to be true. 

Whale Boy reminded me of Saving Finnegan, which uses the issue of a washed up whale as a method of helping a young protagonist come to terms with loss. Here, Nicola Davies creates a scenario to highlight the evils of whale hunting, and challenging the reader to think about the impact of pollution and climate change on habitats and wildlife. 

The novel is beautifully written, full of poetic language and vivid descriptions of vast oceans and wonderful creatures. Michael's dream is uplifting and full of hope. But the story takes an unexpected turn as events unfold, swiftly turning into an action-packed thrill in which the lives of humans and animals are at stake. 

I couldn't quite work out the target audience for this book. It feels like it should sit somewhere between junior fiction and books for teenagers, but I imagine it would only really be selected by children who already have an interest in environmental issues and animal rights. And yet, as an adult reader, I loved the imagery and the message - perhaps it would work as a book for a family to share. 

Monday, 17 March 2014


Cathy Brett
Edinburgh, Barrington Stoke, 2013, 69p

I feel a great sense of victory when I am able to read book in just one day, even if it is a short read...

Graphic is the story of Joe, who is brilliant at art. He likes to hang around after school in the art room, partly so he can practice his skills, but also because Honey Jackson also hangs out there after school working on her fashion portfolio. The only problem is that Honey has a boyfriend. Then, Joe finds that some of the things he draws come true - he could get anything he wants, he could be rich, he could finally get to date Honey; but perhaps some wishes are better left unfulfilled.

This dyslexia friendly short read from Barrington Stoke. These books are tested with young readers to ensure they meet their needs and interests. And because it is a book about an artist, it's pages are filled with illustrations, helping with the visualisation of the story. Graphic is a great example of a fast-paced, high interest level novel for teens.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

A Boy Called Hope

A Boy Called Hope
Lara Williamson
London, Usbourne, 2014, 288p

A Boy Called Hope feels like it amalgamates a load of subjects that have been cropping up in my recent reading, from father-son relationships, to Sherlock Holmes-esque adventures, to novels generally exploring the internal monologue of an optimistic yet disappointed child. And yet, despite seeing these themes recur in almost every book I read, I was not bored or put off by Lara Williamson's debut novel.

Dan Hope is a quirky, imaginative child. He lives with his mother and moody elder sister, his dad having left them four years ago. So when he sees his dad on TV, presenting the news, Dan borrows a saint-like charm from his friend, who promises him that St Gabriel will heel his wounds and grant his wishes, and he sets off to be reunited with his father.

Dan doesn't tell anyone else about his plan, which immediately made me nervous as a reader. He is a naive and big-hearted boy, innocently believing that as soon as his father sees him he will want to come back home. In his head, he lists all the possible justifications for his dad's behaviour, unwilling to see the bad in people. Dan is such a likeable main character - he isn't overly good, and lands himself in trouble more than once, but his determination and willingness to try anything, despite the odds, is uplifting.

He is also very funny. He names his sister Ninja Grace, due to her ability to use words against him, whilst he takes everything quite literally. Seeing the world through his eyes, adults are rather perculiar creatures - designed to be sensible and mature but in fact as unsure and ridiculous as children.

A Boy Called Hope is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year - I breezed through it on the magic carpet that is Dan Hope's imagination. It is realistic, not a fantasy of teenage life in which it's all happy-ever-afters, but a story about family and friendship and love.

Thursday, 13 March 2014


Amulet: The Stonekeeper
Kazu Kibuishi
London, Scholastic (Graphix), 2008, 187p

The Amulet series was recommended to me by a year 7 girl of low ability but high enthusiasm. I like to check out as many of the books that I buy as possible, particularly if it is part of a series. And with this graphic novel, I was immediately gripped, thrown into an action-packed thriller with beautiful illustrations. 

Emily, Navin and their mother move to their great-grandfather's long-abandoned house, shortly after a family tragedy. Whilst cleaning up the place, the children stumble upon some untold secrets in mysterious rooms, and Emily finds an enchanting necklace. In the night, strange noises creak around the house, and on investigation, their mother is taken by a disgusting tentacled creature. Emily and Navin follow close behind, determined to get their mother back at any cost.

The children make a formidable team, demonstrating the power of young protagonists. They are supported by a brilliant, original team of heroes, made up of robots and rabbits. It is a magical tale, in a world where anything can happen and anyone can exist - a fantastic demonstration of limitless imagination. 

The design of the book is phenomenal. I couldn't take my eyes of the pages, taking in the detail of the illustrations, especially the landscapes. This is the first book in an extended series, and I cannot wait to see where we go next!

Monday, 10 March 2014


Brian Gallagher
Dublin, O'Brien, 2013, 218p

I don't know a lot about the conflict in Ireland over the last fifty years, and am always surprised at the lack of teaching of this subject. Fortunately, we librarians can always count on engaging and fact-based fiction to teach teenagers a little about the things they don't learn in the classroom.

In the 1960's, conflict between the loyalists and nationalists is rife. Emma and Dylan move to Belfast because their father, a journalist, has been sent there to report on current events. They are sociable and outgoing kids, so unsurprisingly make friends quickly. Emma meets Maeve at her running club, while Dylan meets Sammy at football. When the siblings bring their new friends together, they find that both have deep-seated suspicions about each other: Maeve is from a Catholic nationalist background, whereas Sammy is a Protestant unionist. With time, they begin to realise that they aren't that different after all; but the rest of Belfast are not so quick to change their views, and conflict breaks out across the city. 

Stormclouds has a clever moral message about prejudice and difference: the children put the adults to shame with their ability to see past religion and politics. The brash aggressiveness that leads to street warfare is distressing, especially when contrasted to the friends' open mindedness and love for one another. This is a brilliant, gripping book, teaching it's young audience about an important and ongoing political conflict. 

Friday, 7 March 2014


Weird World of Wonders: British
Tony Robinson
Basingstoke, Macmillan, 2012, 156p

I had thought this new series of non-fiction books for children might have been similar to the Horrible Histories collection, and was setting myself up for the same format, when in fact it was oddly different, and I cannot pinpoint exactly how.

This Weird World of Wonders book is about the British, charting the history of the Empire from it's rise in the Victorian era to it's fall in the last one hundred years. Weirdly, this book begins by talking more about the Spanish than the British, but Robinson does explain why this is. There is a lot of information in this little book with pages crammed with drawings, jokes and facts.

But it does not have quite the spark of so many of its contemporaries. The comedy is rather too much like dad jokes, and there are no little diversions and snippets of fun facts. Unlike some similary non-fiction books, a young reader could not jump in and out, as the information is too linear.

I think a lot of interesting things are happening in the world of non-fiction for young readers, and this does not engage with some of the best methods and tropes available, despite offering some brilliant factual information.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth

Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth
Chris Priestley
London, Bloomsbury, 2011, 277p

Tomorrow is World Book Day, and I am honoured to have Chris Priestley visiting my school. I cannot wait to hear his gruesome tales and see our students shiver in terror! So I have been reading through some of my favourite Priestley books, including Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth.

Robert is taking the train back to school, on his own for the first time. Accompanying him in the same carriage is a mysterious Woman in White; and when the train stops unexpectedly in a tunnel, she entertains the boy by telling him supernatural and scary stories. Robert is initially very logical and rational, listening to the stories with pessimism, but soon finds they are creeping into his subconscious and lulling him into an uncomfortable stupour. I'd rather not spoil any of the stories - especially as I feel words could not explain how haunting they are - so you will just have to read for yourself. But as Robert notes, the images stay with you long after you have finished reading, and this little collection caused me many a sleepless night.

I initially encountered Chris Priestley at the recommendation of a student, but now constantly find myself giving his books to my readers, both advanced and reluctant. He is an incredibly talented writer, drawing on hundreds of years of Gothic tropes to turn the seemingly ordinary into something terrifyingly disturbing. 

Saturday, 1 March 2014


Robert Swindells
Edinburgh, Barrington Stoke, 2014, 50p

Rumour has it that this short novel is based on a true story.

When Alfie gets a brand-new, top of the range camera for his birthday, he doesn't expect it to put his life at risk. Trying out his new gadget, Alfie witnesses a robbery, and photographs the events. But walking home from the incident, he starts to worry he is being followed, and someone won't stop until the images are destroyed.

This is an unusually long sample of Barrington Stoke publishing, with a higher word count than most of their short reads. But this added to the story, giving Swindells room to play with characterisation and dramatic tension. As such, Alfie has time to wander down side streets and try to shake off his follower, and the reader becomes embroiled in the fear.

Snapshot has been published in the past, so this is a reproduction of the short novel. It is perfect for reluctant or low ability readers, and contains a story that I would recommend to all.