Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood
London, Vintage, 1985, 324p

This is one of those books I have been meaning to read for a long time - the kind of book my non-librarian friends condemn me for not having read. But at last, I can stop feeling guilty - instead, I now feel haunted by one of the darkest novels I have ever read.

In the Republic of Gilead, the roles of all are clearly defined by a strict social structure. Commanders and their wives occupy places of power, served by Marthas and Handmaids. Any rebels are swiftly removed from society, the punishment typically being death. Offred is a Handmaid, and her role is to enable procreation - she's are subject to harsh rules about sexuality and sensuality, dressed always in long dark robes.

But a repressive state does not prevent Offred of dreaming of her past and hoping for the future. She had a child, once, and a husband, and longs to be reunited with them; but fear is a powerful deterrent.

Margaret Atwood defines her writing as speculative fiction, as, unlike science fiction, the world she creates could really happen. As Offred describes, the transition from the contemporary society in which her reader lives into the Republic was slow and smooth, beginning with identity cards and scienfitic developments in relation to DNA. As such, the world Atwood has created is plausible, it could become our reality in the future.

The Handmaid's Tale is a sharp, perceptive novel about structures of power in modern America. Atwood explores issues of sexuality and desire, highlighting the impossibility of a 'moral' state, in part due to the complexity of defining what is moral. Her prose is incredibly witty and readable, drawing you into Offred's world and haunting you with the possibility of this dark, repressive future - and slowly revealing how it came to be.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Stories of World War One

Stories of World War One
ed. Tony Bradman
London, Orchard, 2014, 304p

Memorials to the First World War will come in many forms this year, but Tony Bradman is one of the greatest editors of short stories today. This collection has vast variety and a great selection of authors to read.

My favourite story was The Men Who Wouldn't Sleep by Tim Bowler, which is about a young boy who volunteers at a hospital for returning soldiers. There, Robbie meets Bert and Jimmy, two injured soldiers. Bert is incredibly protective of Jimmy, who sits in a trance like state, unable or unwilling to talk to anyone. Robbie is assigned to sit and talk with Jimmy - at first, he struggles to know what to say, but soon he finds himself sharing his worries about his father, who is lost in France. It is a touching, tragic story; one of many in this collection that stay with you long after you have finished reading.

There are stories set on the home front and on the front line, in France, England, Ireland and elsewhere. Some are about the young and others are about older soldiers. Each of the authors tackles a different element of war, such as the separation of childhood sweethearts, mothers' fears about their sons, and young boys in the trenches. There is a brilliant contribution from Children's Laureate, Malorie Blackman, which explores the relationship between two half brothers on the front line, torn between their love for each other and masculine pride.

Although I didn't feel that the collection began with a particularly strong story, I liked the way these stories brought the war into the present, making it accessible for modern teenage readers. There is a story for everyone in this book, though you may have to read them all to find the one for you.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Tiger Wars

Tiger Wars (The Falcon Chronicles)
Steve Backshall
London, Orion, 2012, 243p

Saker cannot remember who he is or where he has come from, but he knows he is on the run. In the forests of northern India, he is being tracked by dogs and a dangerous clan of boys, trained to hunt and kill.

Sinter is angry with her father - he is trying to marry her off to a rich doctor with no concern of what Sinter might want for herself. She runs into the forest to get some space, but accidentally finds herself caught up with Saker, on the run from a deadly enemy. Together, travel the length of India into China, slowly uncovering the reason why the clan are on the hunt - the most powerful and valuable predator of all, the tiger.

Tiger Wars is an action-packed adventure that never lets up. Saker is a highly skilled jungle expert, and his survival skills comes in handy at every turn. But Sinter is also a force to be reckoned with, fiery and practical, with a great knowledge of medicine to help them along.

I found this novel a little difficult to get into at the start - the sentences and paragraphs are incredibly long and quite poorly structured, which I think might put off a reluctant reader, even though they are the ideal audience for this story. It was dense to trawl through in places, even when the action was at it's peak, but I did enjoy the journey and characterisation.

Steve Backshall has a unique and fascinating knowledge base (survival, wildlife, georgraphy, medicine, science) that shines through in Tiger Wars. The novel is packed with factual information, but it is presented as part of the story so feels like a natural and beneficial addition to the text. The story is full of exotic locations and strange wildlife, with a strong environmental message in support of endangered species, leaving the reader with a love and respect for the magnificent tiger.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee
London, Arrow, 1997, 309p

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in my teens, but a few weeks ago, when I saw the 1962 movie, I realised I couldn't remember anything about the book. So, whilst I holidayed in Hamburg this week, I picked up the classic and once again sank deep into the world of Scout and Jem. 

Scout and Jem are adventurous and curious children, but always stay within the limitations set by their househelp, Calpurnia, and their father, Atticus Finch. When they start hanging out with a boy called Dill, the children start pushing the boundaries of the rules, and seek out to lure their reclusive and potentially dangerous neighbour, Boo Radley, from his house. 

Meanwhile, Atticus is involved in a controversial case in court, defending a black man against the charge of the rape of a white girl from a poor family. All through town, Jem and Scout are subject to comments from classmates and neighbours, and Scout has to work hard to control her feisty temper and keep out of trouble. 

The relationship between Atticus and his children is something to be admired. They adore and respect him, despite some people outside the family thinking he lets them run wild and is bringing Scout up to be less than feminine. But Atticus feels safe and comforting; he is a brilliant role model, combining the right amount of intelligence, comedy and love. 

There is so much going on in To Kill a Mockingbird that I feel this blog does not give me the space to explore all the themes and storylines. I think my favourite element is Scout's narrative - young and sometimes naive, but always ready to learn and to try. She is inquisitive, always asking questions of her father that even he sometimes struggles to answer, and she loves her older brother even when he is growing into a young man and his hormones start to take over. Her world view is optimistic and vulnerable in equal measure, but through Scout, we see the evil in poverty, racism and domestic abuse, and understand how a little love can go a long way. 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave
John Boyne
London, Random House, 2013, 247p

I love the way John Boyne writes - it is so poetical and descriptive that you become completely lost in his world. His novels are so emotional, taking you on a journey of love, loss and hope.

Alfie's fifth birthday is overshadowed by the outbreak of the First World War. At the last minute, most of his friends find they cannot come to his party, caught up in their own family concerns. And those who do attend are distracted by the impending stress and fear of war. The next morning, Alfie's father volunteers, convinved it will be over by Christmas. But four years later, he still isn't home and his letters have stopped coming.

Although his mother tells him his father is away on a special secret mission, Alfie is convinced his father is dead. Until one day, shining shoes in Kings Cross station, he accidentally reads the papers of a  doctor and discovers his father is actually in a hospital in Ipswitch. He sets out to bring him home, but finds himself totally unprepared for the impact the war has had on the mind of his father.

John Boyne is the kind of writer who manages to make you completely adore a character before putting them in a situation of drama and heart ache. Stay Where You Are and Then Leave is slow paced in the early chapters, setting a scene of wartime poverty and family separation. Alfie is a fundamentally good young boy - perhaps a little idealised in contrast to many teenage protagonists of today - but he is determined to go about his secret mission alone rather than asking his mother or neighbours for help and advise, which innevitably cannot end as well as he hopes. So as the reader, you watch helplessly as Alfie stumbles into territory from which you are convinced will only end in tears.

Today, we have a much better understanding of shell shock than doctors had in the early twentieth century. We can empathise with the distress of battle and the struggle faced by soldiers returning to everyday life. But people continue to suffer from the psychological effects of warfare, and not all families are as lucky as Alfie's.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Ghost Stadium

Ghost Stadium
Tom Palmer
Edinburgh, Barrington Stoke, 2013, 88p

I could not put this book down. And that is not just because it is short and I knew I could read through it quickly - no, this book is haunting, action-packed and completely brilliant.

School's out, and Lucas, Irfan and Jack have a great plan for the first night of summer. They are going to break into the old Northface Stadium, abandoned since the closure of the club five years ago. They are going to break in and camp out, reliving the memories of the old football team. But years ago, someone lost his life within the stands, and now he is out to avenge his death.

I don't think I have ever read such a gripping Barrington Stoke novel - it is hardly recognisable as a dyslexia friendly book because it is so fast paced and scary. The chapters are short and succinct, but each ends with something that makes you want to turn to the next page. Every sentence is carefully crafted to entice you to read on, as you get deeper and deeper into the mystery and horror.

Although there are no illustrations, Ghost Stadium is very visual, drawing on classic Gothic tropes and common phobias - you feel like you are there with the boys, seeing strange things in the corners of your vision.

I cannot get enough of this new wave of engaging, high interest level fiction for reluctant and low ability readers. Now if only they could make some romances for my girls...

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Montgomery Murder

The London Murder Mysteries: The Montgomery Murder
Cora Harrison
London, Picadilly, 2010, 246p

Years of watching murder mysteries with my mother have led to a love of crime dramas. So when they are successfully created for a teenage audience, and set in Victorian London, we are onto an instant winner.

Alfie lives with his brother Sammy and his cousins in a Covent Garden cellar. They are children of the street, begging  and performing tricks with their loyal dog to bring in enough for food and rent, but they are savvy and knowledgable. When a murder happens in a nearby street, Alfie is recruited by Inspector Denham to find out the talk about town and solve the mystery.

Mr Montgomery is recently returned to his wife and son from India, where he owned a tea plantation. It seems the crime was not commited for theft, as the body still has many valuables about it. The initial suspect is an Indian boy whose father was hanged for stealing - is this boy out for revenge? But could it be the wife or son, their peaceful lives disrupted by the return of their breadwinner; or even the suspicious Butler, clearly an angry and dangerous man?

The story is led by the young protagonists, who work almost completely without the support of any adults. They manage to find ways into the Montgomery household through a connection with the scullery maid, and they use their knowledge of the city to find people with the answers they need. But the children increasingly find themselves at risk, drawing attention to themselves as they poke around in other people's business, eager to discover the truth.

Cora Harrison has an easy, smooth writing style on which the reader can float along with the story. It is fast-paced and expertly plotted, leaving no opportunities for the reader to get bored with all the action that takes place. And the characters are succinctly developed, though you can tell there is more to learn about these four boys as the series progresses.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Wild Boy

Wild Boy
Wild Boy
Rob Lloyd Jones
London, Walker, 2014, 301p

Authors for young people are having to get more and more creative. By now, every story has been told, so writing something original is a challenge. Cross-over fiction is becoming increasingly common, in which authors bring together classic tropes from a variety of genres to create new adventures and characters.

It's London, 1841. A boy, hairy as a monster, is accused of murder. Wild Boy has been travelling with a freak show for years, and becomes embroiled in a dangerous mystery, which forces him to go on the run. This unusual young man is extraordinarily observant, and his detective skills are the only thing that might save him from the hangman's noose. 

The whole mystery surrounds a scientific machine that is believed to be able to fundamentally change who you are. Wild Boy knows nothing about how it might work, but this little slither of knowledge is enough to motivate him to find this strange machine that might make him just like a normal child.

I adore Wild Boy as a main character - he is an intelligent boy who is easy to sympathise with. He struggles to make friends, simply because he has been hurt so many times before, and the reader shares in his frustration when people are so quick to judge him as a beast. He has built walls all around himself; but when he desperately needs help, fellow traveler Clarissa is there for him, and slowly he learns to trust.

Wild Boy is part-adventure, part-mystery, part-science fiction. Even the protagonist is a cross-over character, drawing on the characteristic traits of the geek, the detective genius, and the lone ranger. Few authors could bring so many elements together to create a succinct novel, but Rob Lloyd Jones has brought these things together in an thoroughly-planned and beautifully-executed story. There is truly something for everyone.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Geek Girl

Geek Girl
Holly Smale
London, HarperCollins, 2011, 387p

For a debut author, it doesn't come much better than this. Even a self-confessed loather of girly novels (read: me) loved this book, with the lovable lead character, ridiculously comic parents, and warm message about staying true to yourself.

There is a lot that Harriet Manners knows. She carries facts around with her, dishing them out at unexpected and sometimes unwanted moments. Around school, this means she isn't the most popular of teenagers. Luckily, she has her best friend, Nat - though on paper their friendship is rather odd, they prove that opposites attract. But when Nat ropes Harriet in for moral support to help her get recognised by a modelling agency, it is in fact Harriet who is spotted, much to Nat's distress. Harriet keeps making things worse for herself, until Nat isn't speaking to her and it seems like the whole world hates her. Perhaps undergoing a complete make over might improve her popularity, so Harriet skips school and flies out to Russia for a photo shoot. Unfortunately, a hair cut and some make up can't change Harriet's geeky core - is it too late to make things right with Nat?

Geek Girl is one of those self-realisation novels, in which the character (and thereby, hopefully, the reader) realises that you can only really change artificial appearances, and essentially we are all wonderful individuals beneath all the fashion and attitude.

I thought Harriet was excellent - very intelligent, completely flawed, and highly relatable. But the novel is carried by the other characters: Harriet's father, a childish, impulsive man who gets more excited about the trip to Russia than his daughter; her stepmother, far from the evil stereotype of so many fairy tales, she is an sharp woman, a lawyer, always one step ahead of Harriet and her father, and incredibly loving and forgiving; and Wilbur ("with a bur, not iam"), the most ridiculous fashionista ever created. Whilst Harriet guides the plot, these extras carry the comedy, the love, the drama, making even the most far fetched elements of the story seem real and possible.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Why Spacemen Can't Burp

Why Spacemen Can't Burp
Mitchell Symons
London, Random House, 2013, 209p

The format of Mitchell Symons' non-fiction books is pretty flawless: filled with comedy and illustrations, sampling facts in bite sized chunks, with answers to questions you never even thought to ask.

In this book, Symons picks the brains of scientists, historians and sociologists to better understand why it is considered unlucky to spill salt, why people say "I'll raincheck", and who invented crisps.

I learnt lots of new facts reading this book, though I cannot really remember anything specific now. This is the kind of book you dip in and out of over time, readign a few facts here and there over the course of several weeks.

As such, it is ideal non-fiction reading for reluctant teenagers or high ability younger children. Symons is accessible and friendly, admitting when he has struggled to find an answer and engaging extensively with his audience - most of the questions in this book have been sent in by his readers, giving us an interesting insight into the mind of the curious teenager...