Monday, 30 June 2014

Before I Fall

Before I Fall
Lauren Oliver
London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2010, 344p

When I last tried to read Lauren Oliver, I was stumped by the slow pace; and although I wanted to find out what was going on in the strange dystopia of Delirium, I couldn't get past the first hundred pages.

And yet, I wanted to give her another chance, so thought I'd give Before I Fall a shot.

For Sam, what starts out as a normal Friday turns into tragedy. It's Cupid's Day, and her and her friends are excited by the prospect of all the roses they expect to receive from admirers. They are the popular girls, admired and respected, but with a tendency to victimise others. Sam has the perfect boyfriend, the perfect friends, and the perfect life. After a great day at school, she heads to a house party in the woods, and excessive drinking results in a road accident.

The next morning, Sam awakes with a start, shocked that she survived, wondering what happened last night. But she soon discovers that it is Friday again, and she has to live her last day over and over, trying to work out what she has to get right in order to escape this limbo.

Before I Fall is about consequences. Whenever Sam changes her behaviour, a different outcome occurs. On one day, she acts out, rebelling against school and family and friends, but ends the day lonely and bitter. Another day, she tries to be the hero, attempting to save one of the victims of her bullying from her all-engulfing depression, but changing fate is not as easy as it appears.

The novel is well structured and engaging - although Sam lives the same day repeatedly, Lauren Oliver successfully creates new situations and develops the character enough to make you read on. It is a sweet novel, full of heart and hope.

Thursday, 26 June 2014


Veronica Roth
London, HarperCollins, 2011, 487p

I have been pestered for weeks by students who wanted me to read this novel. Admittedly, I have been meaning to get around it since before the movie trailer came out, so as I read it, I pictured the established cast as the characters, something I usually wish to avoid.

Tris lives in a world where people are not defined by race or age or sexuality, but by their characteristics. Society is divided into five factions: Abnegation, where one lives a life of abstinence from all luxuries, characterised by selflessness; Amity, for kind individuals who focus on friendship; Candor, for those who are honest and frank; Dauntless, for the brave and fearless; and Erudite, where the scholars find themselves.

Tris is born into Abnegation, but the system recognises the potential for people to feel disconnected from their faction; so in their sixteenth year, individuals can take an Aptitude Test and can choose to change factions. Tris' Aptitude results are inconclusive, suggesting she has the characteristics of more than one faction - she is Divergent. At the Choosing Ceremony, Tris selects Dauntless, and is thrown into a brutal training routine. She finds herself in danger, both from within the Dauntless sector, where competition for membership is fierce, and from across the factions - her results are causing suspicion amongst some of the leaders, who are concerned that the Divergent will rebel against the system, contradicting it's structure and history.

Although Divergent has not received as much hype as the Hunger Games books, they are becoming quietly popular amongst teen readers. Tris is a great role model - honest, brave and selfless, a true Divergent. Opposite her is Four, one of the trainers in the Dauntless camp, a man who makes Tris' heart flutter - he is secretive and mysterious, but the way he slowly let's Tris in to his life is heart-wrenchingly romantic.

The structure of the factions gives young readers something to associate themselves with - for example, I am pretty confident that I would be Erudite (as I am sure many Librarians would agree), though I hope I am not quite as evil as the leaders of this faction...

Like the best dystopian novels, this structured society subtly reflects some of the issues of our own lives - like the fact that so many communities are fractured by labels, splitting people into self-perpetuating 'types' and turning them against each other. 

Now I just have to wait for the students to return the next book in the series to the Library!

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Silver Linings Playbook

The Silver Linings Playbook
Matthew Quick
Oxford, Picador, 2008, 289p

Unfortunately, I saw the film for this book before I realised there was a novel written before. Fortunately, I love Jennifer Lawrence, so found the film to be entertaining and touching. I have waited some time before reading the novel, to avoid getting too mixed up with the adaptations, and I am glad because, as you might expect, there were some differences. 

Pat Peoples is released from a neural institute into the care of his family, where he finds it difficult to readjust to reality. To occupy himself and get fit enough to win back his wife, Pat works out extensively every day; until someone starts following him on his runs and disrupts his routine. Tiffany seems a little crazy, too, and claims she is scouting Pat, though refuses to tell him what for. With time, the two learn to trust each other bit by bit, and Tiffany reveals she wants him to partner her in the Dance Against Depression. 

I love the complexity of the characters in this novel. Pat, narrating in long, winding sentences, is obsessive and aggressive, desperate to win back Nikki, optimistic about silver linings. He sees the good in the world, despite all the bad he had been through, and looks to God for miracles. Tiffany has lost her cop husband, which resulted in compulsive lies and dark behaviours and job loss. Pat cannot deny that she is attractive, and is so preoccupied with his wife that he does not seem to notice everyone seems to be trying to set them up. 

The Silver Linings Playbook reveals that individuals with mental health cannot be defined by distinctive labels or stereotypes. They cannot be grouped as one mass with the same behaviours and triggers. And, regardless of any internal chemical imbalance, love is complicated.

Friday, 20 June 2014


Tom Hoyle
London, Macmillan, 2013

When stuck for what to read, I asked a colleague what she might choose at random from the shelves of my library. Being a lover of action stories, she selected Thirteen, the first novel from debut author Tom Hoyle.

The People are a mass of individuals who believe that a boy born at midnight at the dawn of the millennium will prevent the rise to power of The Master, leader of their cult. Thirteen boys were born at this hour, and The People have killed all but one: Adam Grant still walks free, completely oblivious to his fate. He is adopted, with no idea when he was actually born or what his birth is prophesied to cause. 

My colleague and I were both intrigued by the pretext for this novel. It reminded me of the pretense of Michael Grant's Gone series, which I have not yet read but have heard highly praised. I like the idea of a group of teenagers fighting for their lives, with little support or structure from the adult world - for young readers, this is a world they dream of living! 

And yet I couldn't engage with Hoyle's novel. I felt the pace lagged and the characterisation was incomplete, leaving me longing for more detail and drama. I skipped ahead, and still nothing seemed to be developing: though the plot jumped back and forth between The People's attempts to destroy the Thirteen and Adam's quest to stay alive, the action was stale. 

So despite thinking the pretext for this novel sounded incredible, I was disappointed that it didn't seem to go anywhere. And I hate being unable to finish a novel.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Killer Underpants

A Jiggy McCue Story: The Killer Underpants
Michael Lawrence
London, Orchard, 2009, 145p

I haven't read any Michael Lawrence before, despite strong recommendations from many of my students. I suspect it is because I am not concerned about the content and am confident in their appeal to teenage readers, so feel little need to actively promote the Jiggy McCue books.

Jiggy hates new underwear - they just take way too long to wear in. Instead, he wears the same pair every day, even when they get holey and smelly. His mum is fed up, so buys him some new pants, only this new pair won't come off. And every now and then, they start to ripple and suddely whatever Jiggy says comes true! Unfortunately, what comes out of his mouth seems to always get him into trouble, and he's scared these pants are doomed to ruin his life.

This story is so ridiculous it is brilliant. I had no problem completely suspending my disbelief and falling right into Jiggy's strange world of killer underpants. In fact, there were moment when I strangely believed this might actually happen!

Reading Michael Lawrence was a welcome break from some of the heavier teenage fiction I have been reading recently, full of family drama and dystopian action. Jiggy McCue is a simple, comic character created to entertain, and it was delightful to read about such an unfortunate fool.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Love in a Cold Climate

Love in a Cold Climate
Nancy Mitford
London, Folio Society, 1995, 241p

I only discovered Nancy Mitford rather recently, and now I am obsessed. Her wit; her unique observations of the world around her; her strange ability to write a whole book in which nothing much happens - all these things I adore.

Love in a Cold Climate is one of her better known novels. It is about the wealthy classes in between the wars, as they attempt to find their places in a world that is no longer dominated by old money and status. Linda almost watches from the outside - she is not fully immersed in this world where diamonds represent social standing, but is welcomed into it by friends and distant family. She has grown up with her aunt and uncle, spending time with the Montdores, a local family with a lonely and beautiful daughter, Polly. Much of the book is taken up with descriptions of tea parties and balls, with the drama focusing around the eventual romance between Polly and a much older widower. 

Linda's commentary, very much in the style of Mitford's other protagonists, is full of humour and subtle disdain, highlighting the ridiculousness of these eccentric families. Through the Montdore family, mothers fail and daughters rebel - children act as a temporary distraction when couples get a little bored of each other, and a constant disappointment with their inability to live up to expectations. 

And love is constantly revered, with everyone being "in love" with everyone else far more often than is necessary. But this madness is warm and touching, reminding the contemporary reader of a time long lost, never to return.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Extra Time

Extra Time
Morris Gleitzman
London, Puffin, 2014, 224p

It is a rare thing for me to enjoy a football orientated book, but there is so much more to Extra Time than sport. 

Matt and Bridie Sutherland are very close. Matt is a skilled soccer player, and Bridie acts as his manager - and she does a brilliant job! When Matt is spotted by an English club and given the chance of training with their academy, the siblings leave their parents behind and travel to London with their uncle for the opportunity of a lifetime. But at premiership level, football isn't as friendly as it is when played on the field by their house in Australia. 

Bridie is a wonderful story-teller - very observant and intuitive, able to read exactly what her brother is thinking and to articulate his feelings to the reader. She has a huge heart, and it breaks when she sees Matt changing under the pressures of the academy training routines. In the practice sessions, the young players are expected to demonstrate their best skills, even if it involves hurting others on the pitch. Friendship with team mates seems impossible, but Bridie and her uncle are determined to rectify this. 

I adore the relationship between Matt and Bridie in this novel - in fact, I am a little jealous - they are loving and honest through and through, and not in an annoying way! For Bridie, family and friends come first, and she is always seeking ways to make people happy, even if it proves to infuriate the mean-faced academy coaches. 

In Extra Time, football is just a means through which Morris Gleitzman can demonstrate the importance of family and friendship. The sport element will attract many boys or reluctant readers, whilst the beautiful protagonist will appeal to young girls. At the end of the novel, you feel a better person for reading it, rediscovering the value of love. 

Friday, 13 June 2014

The Bunker Diary

The Bunker Diary
Kevin Brooks
London, Penguin, 2013, 259p

*Possible spoiler alert*

It is hard to write this blog without giving too much away - and I desperately do not want to give anything away, since I was given a little warning regarding how haunting and spine-chilling it is and I worry that too much information might detract from the tension of the story.

When Linus wakes up in an abandoned bunker, he is angry at himself for being tricked by a blind man who kidnapped him. He finds himself alone, but, with five empty rooms around him, suspects that this won't be for long. The only way in or out is a lift, which comes up and down at set times through the day. As time goes by, more people are sent down to join him, each from vastly different backgrounds, each having been tricked in strange and well-planned ways.

And they are being watched; there is no way out. Together, the captives work out how to communicate with their captor, but every attempt at escape seems wrought with punishment. They struggle to be civil with one another, especially in the context of this unusual situation. As the characters sink into desperation and depression, the reader is trapped with Linus in this underground dungeon.

I have not read any Kevin Brooks before, though I have always been intrigued by the packaging of his novels. In fitting with the dark trend running through this year's Carnegie list, The Bunker Diary is a strong contender, full of mystery, tragedy and a slither of hope.

To see the rest of my Carnegie reviews, click here.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Jon for Short

Jon for Short
Malorie Blackman
Edinburgh, Barrington Stoke, 80p

I love a good Barrington Stoke and, with Malorie Blackman, you are bound to find yourself reading something more than good.

Jon is haunted by dark nightmares. He lies in a hospital bed, unable to move, his arms missing and, he suspects, his legs soon to be taken, too. It is a terrifying ordeal because no one believes him, and the doctors and nurses mull around unwilling to help him. 

The dark dream is repeated again and again throughout the book, slowly building and growing to reveal the truth about who Jon is and why he is in this state. 

Malorie Blackman is a brilliant writer, but when combined with the skills and experience of Barrington Stoke, you get a sharp, scary read suitable for readers of all ages and abilities. Embossed with the 'dyslexia friendly' sticker, Jon for Short is suitable for reluctant readers and those with special educational needs; but the psychological thriller would attract all. 

Monday, 9 June 2014


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
London, HarperCollins, 2013, 477p

Having grown up in Nigeria, Ifemelu has a fascinating outlook on life in America. She first moved there for university, and over the years, struggles through relative poverty to eventually achieve success with a blog in which she writes about race from the perspective of a 'non-American black'.
Meanwhile, in Nigeria, her high school boyfriend, Obinze, has become a wealthy business man, despite a short illegal stint in England. After many years apart, Ifemelu starts to wonder about Obinze, and when she decides to move back to Nigeria, she gets in touch with him. Americanah tells of their lives during the years spent apart, and builds towards a reunion that is perhaps not as simple as either would have wished.
Although sold as a love story, Americanah is about so much more than this couple's romance. A large chunk of the novel is dedicated to Ifemelu's observations about race in the USA, highlighting how complicated and unconsciously embedded racism is, and exploring the relationships between different minority groups. This is what I found most gripping - the social commentary about the way race and racism is percieved by the people who are most subject to it. Some of her thoughts made me cringe, embarassed that anyone could ever say or act in such a way; whilst other passages made me reflect on myself and my behaviours, wondering if I had made such ignorant mistakes. And, equally fascinating as her experiences in America were her experiences on returning to Nigeria having been away for so long, faced with a new, different sort of prejudice.
But in becomming enthralled by Ifemelu's commentary, I found myself attached to the character, willing her relationship with Obinze to succeed. Yet, for me, the romance pales in comparison to the story of their journey to the point of reunion.

I love Adichie's style of writing - it is direct and clear, and she effectively balances the voices of Obinze and Ifemelu, allowing both to tell their own stories through an omniscient third person narrative. Her novels are long (and I cannot wait to read another), but they do not feel heavy or difficult; instead, they are a delightful breeze on which to float.

Friday, 6 June 2014


Katherine Rundell
London, Faber & Faber, 2013, 278p

As I neared the end of this book, I had no idea how it would possibly come to it's conclusion with so few remaining pages. After a slow and leisurely build up, I was impressed that everything managed to come to a conclusion so quickly and smoothly. 

When Sophie is orphaned in a shipwreck, she is adopted by the eccentric and loving Charles. He teaches her about books and dreams and she learns to never ignore a possible. But as she grows up, the authorities become increasingly concerned about whether it is appropriate for Charles to remain her guardian, as she is less feminine than is expected of her time. So hiding on rooftops from the authorities, Sophie sets out to find her mother, presumed lost in the wreck, but Sophie still has hope. 

The opening of the novel is rather slow of pace - you are introduced to Charles and Sophie and their little domestic absurdities, which I loved. For Charles, education is the most important thing to distill in his ward, but the children's authorities have other ideas about how a girl should be raised. Considering the novel is caused Rooftoppers, much of the book was given over to Sophie's life with Charles, so that I found myself missing Charles' peculiarities once Sophie took to the roofs. 
  This is Katherine Rundell's debut novel, so it can be forgiven that the balance between introduction and "rooftopping" did not seem quite right; especially since her prose style is so inviting and soothing, written like a classic children's fairytale with feisty modern characters and a dangerous path of adventure. 
To see the rest of my Carnegie reviews, click here.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Every Day

Every Day
David Levithan
London, Random House, 2012, 371p

I first encountered David Levithan via John Green, as they co-wrote Will Grayson, Will Grayson. One of the key themes in the story of Will was identity, a subject Levithan has explored again in Every Day.

A wakes up each morning in a new body. A's life has been like this for as long as he can remember, and every day he must access the memories of the body A is within and wander through life as other people. But one day, A meets a girl he can't help but fall for and finds it impossible to resist going back again and again, taking with the bodies along for an unexpected ride with dangerous consequences. 

Since the first body in which we meet A is male, I struggled to not think of A as male, but it was clear that Levithan is trying to challenge gender and sexuality norms by creating a character who defies all standard identifiers. One day, he will meet with Rhiannon as a football jock, and the next day as a timid studious girl, but each time he still loves Rhiannon unconditionally. And Rhiannon must strive to see through A's external appearance to the person beneath. 

What I love about this novel is Levithan's complete disregard for labels. Each body that A adopts is completely different - academic student, burnout, athletic boy, lesbian, religious fanatic, overweight teen, homosexual, stoner - meaning the weight of labels is challenge on every level. In places, this felt a little forced, as A never embodied individuals with similar characteristics, and I felt that surely a life like this (however unusual) would involve some boring days of being in people with similar characteristics - but I understand what Levithan is trying to do. In implanting one spirit in so many variant vessels, Every Day demonstrates the prominence of socially constructed difference.

t made me think about the way we relate to people based on their looks, their dress and their background.

Monday, 2 June 2014

My Name is Parvana

My Name is Parvana
Deborah Ellis
Oxford, OUP, 2014, 240p

Sometimes, stories can be very difficult to read, especially those based in fact. Deborah Ellis carries out thorough research before writing, visiting refugee camps across Russia and Pakistan to hear the stories of people just like her protagonist, Parvana.

Parvana is being held captive by the American army in Afghanistan, and is refusing to talk. She is accused of bombing her own school, which was run by her mother and run for the education of local girls. Parvana is a well-educated, intelligent young girl, but the American army simply see her as another threat. The novel jumps back and forth between Parvana's imprisonment and her time at school, explaining how she has been mistaken for a terrorist.

My Name is Parvana follows on from previous novels by Deborah Ellis, including The Breadwinner. These previous stories told of Parvana's journey as a refugee, but now she has a home and a purpose. Yet, not everyone sees the education of women as a positive, empowering force for good. Parvana and her family are threatened and feared, and have a lot of work to do to prove their value.

I enjoyed reading this novel because the language was accessible and the characters were likeable. I like that it jumped back and forth between past and present, meaning there was constanly something happening. I was not hugely gripped by the story, but I cannot articulate why.

Especially seeing as Parvana is such an inspirational protagonist: brave and self-assured, despite all she is up against. Her story is harrowing but honest. Ellis is not writing to evoke emotion - this story is no tear-jerker - but writes to inform. Her novels are topical and relevant, making real an experience that is unimaginable for many of her readers.