Book review blog
27th January 2013
This is going to be a double whammy. I read Eleanor Updale’s The Last Minute the week before last, and it’s taken me this long to get my head around it. Then I jumped right into Ruth Warburton’s A Witch Alone, which is due out soon, so I’ll do both in one fell swoop!
A Witch Alone, Ruth Warburton, Hodder Headline, February 2013
I made the big mistake of reading this with no other adult in the house, late at night. I had to go downstairs in the small hours and bolt the doors. It was TERRIFYING! But so good. I loved the first two books in the Witch in Winter trilogy and in the third book, the tension and fear is ratcheted up to a whole new level (for me, anyway, I know that Ruth herself found A Witch in Love more scary).
Not only have Anna and Seth split up, but Anna finds her loyalties tested in a whole different way when her old enemy, the ancient order of the Ealdwitan, is threatened by an even darker foe. There is no such thing as a black and white villain in this trilogy, which regular readers will know is something I really go for: there’s just nothing better than a moral maze of a baddie, and Ruth Warburton is excellent at creating complicated adversaries. At the heart of the book is the secret of Anna’s identity, and her own worst fears: is it really possible for someone to have been born evil, with inherently malignant witchcraft?
The circumstances in A Witch Alone are extraordinary, but there is also so much here that everyone can relate to. Abe’s unrequited feelings for Anna are explored in visceral detail, which adds yet more tension as the atmosphere of fear and distrust builds to a genuinely terrifying climax.
One of the things I really liked about this book is that Anna acts her age. In YA, I often come across characters who seem incredibly wordly wise for their years. That probably sounds really patronising, but I remember being quite confused about a lot of things at seventeen or eighteen (I still am!). Looking back, I did things that were naive and a bit silly, and so I thought the opening of A Witch Alone was really, really well done – there is a scene between Anna and Abe that worried me a little at first, because Abe definitely oversteps the mark, (and he’s old enough to know better). Anna is naturally furious with him, but yet doesn’t seem to question Abe’s action or his motives that much. His action just doesn’t seem to set off the warning bell that it would for me. But actually, this works really well – some readers may question Abe’s outrageous behaviour more than Anna does, but Anna is only human, and is still at school, with experiences naturally limited by her years. It’s really well done, and the mark of a character who has truly come to life in the mind of an author who knows what she is doing.
All in all, an excellent finale to a trilogy I have enjoyed so much. Believe me, you will be mentally digging your nails into the palms of your hands as you read this book. Also, A Witch Alone has one of the best endings I’ve ever read.
The Last Minute, Eleanor Updale, Random House Children’s Books, January 2013
So this is a really hard review to write. I wasn’t able to finish The Last Minute, and so of course was not planning to review it – but at the same time, I haven’t been able to get the book out of my head. It’s very arresting and I think other people may really, really enjoy the read. I didn’t finish it because I’m just a weed. Basically, the book spans the last minute before a huge and mysterious explosion on the high street of an ordinary town. I think every single second is covered in a series of snippets told from the perspectives of everyone in the vicinity of the explosion, and it’s all woven together into one coherent story. And it’s so well done: you know these people. We’re talking a huge cast of characters, all of whom are absolutely three dimensional. We learn so much about these people from such tiny snippets of information. It’s a really extraordinary trick to pull off successfully – I still can’t get my head around the depth of Eleanor Updale’s skill as a writer. Amazing. And this was essentially my problem with The Last Minute and the reason why I couldn’t finish the book: it’s clear from the beginning of the novel that there are going to be a LOT of casualties when those seconds have all ticked past and the explosion rips through the town centre, and I had to turn away. I couldn’t bear it. It’s proper on-the-edge-of-your-seat stuff, and I’m afraid I did the equivalent of ducking behind the sofa during a scary bit in a horror movie.
So, although I couldn’t finish The Last Minute, I would still recommend this book to others – it’s fast, exciting, and asks interesting philosophical questions. Eleanor Updale really is good.
14th January 2013
Midnight Pirates, Ally Kennen, Scholastic, January 2013
I’m already a fan of Ally Kennen’s brilliant and original contemporary books for teenagers, so I was intrigued when the lovely Hannah at Scholastic sent me a copy of Midnight Pirates, which is aimed at a younger audience (9-12, I think).
In the time-honoured tradition of all the best children’s books, Miranda, Cal and Jacky’s parents get called away from their Cornish home on urgent business. Rather than leaving their offspring to fend for themselves, though, Pinky-Sue and her husband get lucky when grumpy old Auntie Mad offers to pay for the children to attend boarding school for a term. Unfortunately, this also means that ten-year-old Jacky will be parted from his beloved hound. No one bargains for the consequences of attempting to come between Jacky and Fester, and so Miranda and her brothers find themselves heading back home to the rickety old Cornish hotel they grew up in, regardless of the fact that it is now up for sale… The children are now officially runaways, and the story of their survival in their crumbling sea-side home is very, very funny and enjoyable.
Miranda and her little brother Jacky are eccentric in their own way and, typically for Ally Kennen, highly original. It was so refreshing to read about a girl who is a complete petrol head and loves nothing more than perusing copies of Exchange and Mart. Jacky is a ruthless force of nature who knows no fear, and although older brother Cal is your typical surfer, he’s loyal and kind, and always comes across as a three dimensional character. I also really loved the Cornish setting – Ally captures both its mystery and the often slighty seedy reality of a seaside resort. It was great seeing Miranda speaking in Cornish to a grumpy old neighbour who really comes into her own later in the book. There is also that breath-snatching feeling of awe and wonder at coming face to face with the animal kingdom which I have come to associate with Ally’s books (seals and a basking shark here, previously we’ve had a giant crocodile and a bounding hare).
The MacNamara children all know they are living on borrowed time surviving on ancient tins of baked beans and takeaway in their old home, and the tension is ratcheted up chapter by chapter. The book begins with a lovely Ferris Bueller’s Day Off feeling of enjoying just a short spell of freedom, but as the plot gathers pace and the children realise they are not the only ones lurking in the Cornish cliffs around their old home, the sense of danger mounts into a pretty spectacular finale.
I copy-edited Ally’s first book, Beast, and I know the lengths she goes to in order to make sure her plots, though wild and crazy, are always credible, and the trouble she takes to get this right really is evident (the effort she put into getting a pig over a fence in a believable fashion!). Ally’s editor, Marion, is a stickler for this sort of thing, and so at no point did I think, hmmm, I really don’t believe this. I’ve read a few novels recently with plots that hinge on unlikely situations or coincidences, and it’s great to enjoy a book with a mad plot which has been so cleverly handled by the author that you are convinced it really could happen.
Ally Kennen doesn’t write books about magic, but she does possess the rare ability to capture a sense of what is magical and strange in the real world. Stirred up with dry humour plus wild, brave and totally believable characters, this makes a splendid combination in a children’s book.
Lots of fun for girls and boys – go for it!
4th January 2013
Oo! That’s the first time I’ve typed 2013. Feels weird. Anyway, on to my first review of the year!
Colin Fischer, Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, Puffin, February 2013
Colin Fischer is a guided tour through the strange land of American high school through the eyes of a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s also a detective story, but you get quite a fair way through the book before that strand of the story is really picked up. I wasn’t really quite sure what to think about this book. It’s not that I think it’s a bad novel, because it isn’t: there’s a whole raft of interesting characters, and I liked seeing them all through Colin’s eyes, with his unique take on the world, but there were just a few things that bothered me. First of all, I did feel a bit like this was one of many, many novels which dissect and explain the social structure of US high school. I read Wonder fairly recently, though, and perhaps if I hadn’t done so, I wouldn’t have experienced that slight sense of “Oh, here we go again.” It is mad, though, the whole high school thing – their social groups seem a lot more rigid than in English secondary schools. Seeing it all through Colin’s eyes is a bit like being guided through a colony of chimps by a slightly mystified 14 year-old David Attenborough, which I liked. I just felt like I’d heard it before, to an extent.
There were aspects of the plot I found a bit unconvincing: I couldn’t get my head around the centrally important crime scene – there was a fight going on, which must have been distracting, but I still couldn’t figure out how a shot could be fired in such a crowded place without anyone noticing who was holding the gun. I don’t want to give away the plot, but I also felt that the evolution of Colin’s relationships with his fellow students was a little idealistic – but perhaps that’s the point. I didn’t really understand how the land lay between Colin and his brother, but perhaps that too is part of the point of the book because Colin doesn’t really get it either.
I didn’t know much about Asperger’s before I read this, but it was explained really well as part of the story, and unfortunately I was put off by the use of a different typeface whenever an emotion is mentioned. It’s already clear that Colin struggles to identify emotion on people’s faces: anger and despair et cetera don’t need to be indicated in another typeface. I also found the footnotes and journal entries very distracting – to me, they didn’t really add to the plot, but that’s a personal thing, and other readers might really enjoy them.
Overall, I enjoyed reading Colin Fischer, but couldn’t escape the impression that it was over-edited, with too many unnecessary explanations/footnotes/different typefaces, and yet also under-edited at the same time because the crucial shooting scene didn’t really convince me as perhaps it should have done. The twist about the perpetrator of the shooting was well done, though, and came as a surprise to me. I do think it would be good fun for readers of high school age if they haven’t read too many other books which dissect the whole jocks/cheerleaders/nerds thing, enjoy collecting interesting facts, and like books which move at a nice fast pace.
21st December 2012
What an auspicious day – not only is the world going to end, but it is also the winter solstice and the day I must sort everything out for Christmas (if the Four Horsemen don’t turn up, that is). What better time to announce my top twelve books of 2012? I love them all in different ways. I haven’t sorted out a way of linking to each review so have included a potted summary of each one instead. Without further ado, and in no particular order, here we go:
Daylight Saving by Edward Hogan – I read this book in less than two hours: it moves at a cracking pace, a crime thriller fused with a ghost story of haunting sadness.
Black Spring by Alison Croggon – a startlingly beautiful and terrifying retelling of Wuthering Height, it’s like a box of magic vials each containing a different raw emotion.
A Witch in Winter by Ruth Warburton – witchcraft and love in equal measure, told with such convincing realism I’m still half convinced I could take the train to the seaside town of Winter and have a drink in the local pub.
Wonder by RJ Palacio – Augie was born with a face like no other, but now it’s time to brave the wider world and start school. A fascinating and genuinely touching insight into the life of a family all coping with Augie’s rare genetic facial deformity.
Goblins by Philip Reeve – a brilliantly disgusting and gruesome fairytale adventure story told with Philip Reeve’s hallmark humour and wisdom.
The Whiz Pop Chocolate Shop by Kate Saunders – a proper children’s book of the first order with an exciting plot, mysterious family secrets, witches, complicated villains and the art of chocolate making.
FrostFire by Zoe Marriott – a beautifully written fantasy adventure, with buckets of mystery and tension, a love triangle and characters who stay with you long after finishing the book
The Feathered Man by Jeremy de Quidt – mad as a box of frogs, utterly terrifying, utterly gripping. A psychological thriller which you really can’t put down.
The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margot Lanagan – knocks other tales of supernatural love into a cocked hat. Beautiful, chilling and completely compelling.
This is Not Forgiveness by Celia Rees – teenagers can be deadly creatures – this book is both unflinchingly dangerous and dangerously truthful.
Bullet Boys by Ally Kennen – Ally at the top of her game! Thrilling and witty account of the fallout when Alex and his mates find a stash of deadly weapons
Witch Crag by Kate Cann – a haunting and original take on the apocalypse (which according to my clock will take place in half an hour, better get on with the Christmas shopping then – or maybe just not bother…)
18th December 2012
Black Spring by Alison Croggon, Walker Books, January 2013
I was nervous before starting this book – I don’t read much fantasy (although have recently started to rediscover and enjoy the genre), and Wuthering Heights is a favourite book I read so many times as a teenager that it’s permanently tattooed on my subconscious, so I did wonder how I would fare with a fantasy re-telling of Wuthering Heights.
Me and my doubts were just knocked completely flat by the sheer, chilling beauty of the writing before Oskar Hammel, a reincarnation of the finicking Lockwood, even stepped out of his carriage in the freezing and inhospitable landscape of the North. It’s very, very clever – you could read Black Spring without ever having looked at Wuthering Heights and still be gripped by the story of Lina and Damek’s forbidden passionate love, but if you are a fan of the original story, it lends an extra level of tension as you wait for the key moments to arrive. This worked particularly well when, at the start of Black Spring, Hammel is forced to spend the night at Damek’s house – just as Lockwood is forced by bad weather to accept Heathcliff’s grudging hospitality in Wuthering Heights. I think I can say this without spoiling the book for anyone, but waiting for the haunting scene was like watching an especially tense and scary horror movie. Black Spring is a wonderful book in its own right, and I loved the way Alison Croggon put her own spin on the love story from Lina’s point of view. It’s a such a clever retelling – all the crucial basic plot elements of Wuthering Heights are here, with characters appearing in similar guises, but what I think is really amazing is the way Alison Croggon captures the atmosphere of the original book, including all the savagery and violence, and its dissection of the concept of revenge. Highly recommended. It would be very interesting to see how teenagers might compare Black Spring to Wuthering Heights – I will definitely be recommending it to friends who teach English in secondary schools. I believe that the author is considering a retelling of Beowulf, and after reading Black Spring, I hope she goes for it.
9th December 2012
Goblins, Philip Reeve, Scholastic
The old magic is rising in the dark towers of Clovenstone, and Skarper the goblin is about to find himself caught up in a whole world of trouble…
This is a wonderful folk tale of a novel, with all the right ingredients – giants, princesses, wizards and goblins, of course – but because this is also a book written by Philip Reeve, all these time-honoured ingredients appear in a slightly different guise which gently sends up the original template. Without going into plot-spoiling detail there are magical creatures aplenty, a fairly useless hero (with redeeming qualities) and a clever goblin who has never quite fitted in with his mates. The plot develops at an exciting pace and even the baddies are so supremely and disgustingly horrible you can’t help but enjoy them, too. It’s very funny, too – I think the last time I laughed out loud reading a book I was in the middle of Gareth Russell’s Popular, and that was ages ago.
This is a wonderful story for children and adults alike – there are so many brilliant one-liners, and some really lovely moments in which the art of doing the right thing is so gently and yet persuasively imparted that the message will just quietly lodge in your brain without making a fuss about it. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but Philip Reeve’s philosophy about aging really struck a chord – I can’t say too much without giving things away, but there’s a lot to be said for appreciating wisdom and other qualities that develop with advancing years even though sometimes we all might mourn a little for how we looked at seventeen or twenty-five. There’s definitely a lot in here for the parents, too.
Apart from enjoying the story itself, I really noticed and appreciated the cover design and page layout. It’s beautifully typeset and very easy on the eye, and the goblin illustrations scattered throughout are funny rather than distracting. Philip Reeve is brilliant at writing novels, of course, but I also think he is one of the absolute best at ending them, and the final lines of his books will haunt you for years to come (in a good way). Goblins is really a book about adventure, and I think I can say without giving anything away that I loved being left with that view out over the moorland across pathways any boy might walk along with his dad, looking for adventure – or any combination of child and adult, really, but Goblins is dedicated to Reeve’s son, and so it made me think of boys and their dads. I have two of my own, and I will keep this book for them.
1st December 2012
Crusher, Niall Leonard, Doubleday, September 2012
Finn Maguire’s life is going nowhere. His mother left years ago, he loathes his dead-end job in a fast-food restaurant, but with Finn’s track record and complete lack of qualifications, he’s never going to get a better one, or nothing legal anyway. Dad means well but no one is ever going to take the TV script he’s been writing about London’s biggest gangster very seriously. Are they? Everything changes the day Finn finds his dad’s dead body slumped over the table with his head crushed – and Finn is the main suspect. Finn is determined that one way or another, he is going to find out who killed his dad, even if that means going straight into the lion’s den…
This is a very well crafted thriller – a swift, enjoyable and totally believable read. I was intrigued to see how Niall Leonard would make it work, plunging a hero in his late teens into London gangland in the role of a lone wolf seeking information – the traditional role of an adult thriller’s protagonist – rather than as a bottom-of-the-heap-teenage gangster. It’s fascinating to see how Finn gets drawn in: he is a beautifully three-dimensional character who I could really see in my imagination, and totally identify with.
One of the things I liked most about the book was how, although Finn is numb and unable to grieve for his dad, Niall Leonard cleverly manipulates strands of background information in such a way that you as a reader will start to grieve for Finn’s murdered father even when he cannot – a man who adopted his wife’s child from a former relationship and stood by him through all the fall-out of Finn’s mother walking out on them, getting Finn involved in boxing and running to channel his energy and frustration after he is convicted of dealing coke. As the plot rushed towards its conclusion, there were one or two moments when I thought my willing suspension of disbelief might waver a little but actually I think that, on the whole, all the twists and turns were executed very successfully. Finn develops into a hero who is one hundred per cent believable, and one who I rooted for right till the end of the book.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this – it’s clearly marketed at boys, but of course any teenager who enjoys a thriller would happily devour Crusher, and afterwards their parents will steal it. And I’ve even got right to the end of the review without mentioning who Niall Leonard is married to, ha! Well, if you want to find out you’ll have to Google it – I’m determined to review this book on its own considerable merits.
29th November 2012
The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater, Scholastic, 2012
I do like a book that starts with a prophecy. Unfortunately for Blue, every single psychic she’s ever met has told her the same thing: if she kisses her true love, he will die. Blue is a charming character – a sensible heroine born into an entire family of psychics. Blue is not a psychic herself, but possesses the highly unusual ability to intensify the psychic powers of those she is with. Which is why, on the night of St Mark’s Eve, Blue is sent down to the old church with her aunt to see which residents of Henrietta will die within the next year. Their shades walk along the corpse road – the old, the ill. And a boy. The boy Blue is destined to fall in love with, to kill with her kiss.
Gansey is both rich and charming; he attends the local private school, but his real obsession is with the ley-lines that run through the town of Henrietta, and with Owen Glendower, the Welsh hero-king who disappeared in the early fifteenth century after leading a rebellion against the English (apologies to the Welsh for the English spelling; I’m following the book). And it’s Gansey who Blue sees on the corpse road.
It’s a fantastic premise, but there were so many things about this novel I simply didn’t get. It all felt rather sketched in. Characters seem to do and say extraordinary things with little explanation – or an explanation that comes too late in the book for me, after many pages of going “Gaaaaah, but WHY?”. To begin with, I never got a real sense that living in a small town and possessing the knowledge of who would die that year might be a tremendous burden. Wouldn’t it be better not to know? If I had a way of discovering who was going to pop their clogs in Ludlow over the course of the next twelve months, I would scream and run the other way. Why does Blue’s mother Maura go to the corpse road every year to find out? I wasn’t satisfied by the explanation that the old people of Henrietta pay her for the information so they can get their affairs in order if need be. After all, death is not something that comes only to the old and weary. What about children or young parents? I found it odd that Blue and Maura didn’t seem that bothered by the possibility they might have to keep a terrible secret from a family destined for tragedy. Perhaps the real truth behind this will emerge in the next book (I suspect it will: there’s definitely more to Maura than initially meets the eye). But still. This peculiarity at the start of the novel thinned my willing suspension of disbelief before I’d really got into the story.
Neither Blue or Maura even seem particularly discomfited by the enormity of Blue’s prophecy, either, or the fact that Blue has now seen her true love, and the boy she is destined to kill with her kiss. It’s true that Maura does tell Blue to stay away from Gansey, but yet when Gansey’s quest to learn more about the ley lines in his search for Owen Glendower takes him to Maura herself, as the local pyschic, she invites him into the house. This seemed odd, and wasn’t really delved into enough.
Blue is a lovely character, a sensible eccentric, but I did feel that she accepted various things a little too easily (why isn’t she more intrigued by her mysterious absent father, rather than just feeling a peculiar fondness for him?), and this challenged my willing suspension of disbelief once again. What I did really love about this book, though, was the way Gansey led his small tribe of friends; they’re like liege-men to a self-doubting king (clever, given what I think might happen in book two), and that relationship was beautifully drawn. However, I felt that the boys themselves were a little sketchy as characters. Gansey himself is defined continuously either by his wealth and the patina of privilege, or by his odd obsession with a medieval Welsh king. I rarely got the sense of him as a real person. I also didn’t see why the school allowed Gansey to live in a former factory. At first, I’d got the impression that Aglionby was a boarding school – I kept wondering why a boarding school would allow students to live off premises, unsupervised. Even if I’m wrong about that, too, I felt that there could have been a little more explanation about why Gansey’s parents were happy with this arrangement. Adam is perfectly drawn, and probably my favourite character in the book, but Ronan I felt was too often defined by his family’s sense of their Irishness – sometimes he even seemed to accord with those old-fashioned stereotypes of the Irish rogue, always fighting and drinking.
Owen Glendower was a problem for me. The entire plot hinges on the notion that there was a pre-Conquest Welsh landing in Virginia, so that the body of the king could be buried far from English enemies who might desecrate his corpse. (WARNING: don’t forget that I am a medievalist and a massive spod.) Here goes: the Vikings set the precedent for potential pre-Conquest landings in the New World, but they were a seafaring people and possessed unique shipbuilding technology that allowed them to make the crossing successfully. I’m just not totally convinced that Glendower’s Welsh supporters could have done it even if they’d wanted to – even Columbus got it wrong about the Atlantic wind patterns, didn’t he? That’s just me being a geeky whatsit, though, and I might be mistaken. But, more importantly, even if the Welsh had a fleet of fighter jets at their disposal in the early 1400s, I struggle to believe that they would wish the earthly remains of their hero to lie anywhere but on Welsh soil. My husband and kids are descended from Owen Glendower, and sometimes when family members refer to themselves as the last Welsh king, I’m not even one hundred per cent convinced they’re joking. That aside, people are genuinely passionate about Owen Glendower to this day. I don’t think the Welsh would have sent him to Virginia in a million years. But even if you do accept this fundamental plot-point, I still think that Glendower’s presence in Virginia and Gansey’s obsession with him are just kind of dropped into the narrative. It is questioned a little bit by other characters, but way too late. I wanted to see Glendower’s grieving followers struggle across the Atlantic with the corpse of their leader, I wanted to passionately believe in the prophecy that whoever woke this immortal king, buried on the ley-line, would be granted a favour by him. I think I needed a flashback, basically.
It all picks up a bit in the second half (I did think it was a bit too convenient that Gansey’s sister happened to be a helicopter pilot, though), but then – then – the book just ends. It just stops. With pretty much all the essential questions set up at the beginning of the novel left unanswered. I know that this is the first in a series, and a cliffhanger is fine, but books need to work by themselves, too, and I felt that this one doesn’t. In fact, to me, The Raven Boys reads like a partially edited manuscript. There is a moment of pure magic that is so beautifully written I almost forgave all that had bothered me up till that moment, and we all know that Maggie Steifvater writers with a haunting lyricism unique to her, but I felt that the sheer glorious gorgeousness of her writing was let down by problems with plot, pacing and character. Of course, I will read her books again – no one writes like magic quite like Maggie Stiefvater – but reading this novel is like looking at a beautiful and mysterious tapestry unravelling before your eyes. Frustrating and a bit sad.
27th November 2012
FrostFire, Zoe Marriott, Walker Books, July 2012
Frost has never fitted in: she’s a fatherless girl with strange grey eyes and a secret so terrifying that even her own mother is afraid of her. Frost has been on the run for years – alone with no link to her former life but her dead father’s war axe and a string of dark memories she’d rather forget, memories which gradually cast light for the reader on the secret at the heart of Frost’s identity. There’s a war on, and it’s hard to scratch out a living when you’re always a stranger, but Frost’s life changes for ever the day she stumbles into a scrap with two guerilla fighters in the mountains…
Apart from the lovely lyrical quality of her writing, I think Zoe Marriott’s greatest strength is her ability to create characters of such psychological depth that it almost feels as if they are in the room with you. Frost’s mother initially comes across as purely horrible, but by the end of the book I sympathised with her, even though I found it hard to forget her treatment of Frost. Luca leads the mountain rebels with a rare combination of utter fearlessness and mercy: his refusal to step down to the level of their Sidorne enemies is so beautifully drawn. It sounds a bit preachy to say this but Luca’s moral strength leaps off the page, without ever causing him to lose his appeal. He’s a genuine good guy, but with complications that ensure he never seems like a cookie-cutter “goodie”, if you see what I mean. I’m a massive Georgette Heyer fan, and Luca definitely reminded me of Heyer’s best heroes, in that he’s older and more experienced than Frost, but with his own complicated history. He’s also gorgeous, which helps. Everyone in the rebel camp adores Luca, and no one more so than his hard-nosed right hand man. Arian and Luca are like brothers: Arian owes Luca his life, and would do anything for him. So when Frost arrives in the camp, championed and protected by Luca, Arian is seriously resentful. And gorgeous, too. Can you see a devastating love triangle shaping up here? Yes, there is one, and it doesn’t play out in the way I’d expected – Zoe really keeps you guessing, which I liked a lot.
It’s so nice to read some high fantasy when it is so beautifully well done. I loved Tamora Pierce when I was a teenager, and one of my favourite jobs as a desk editor was anglicizing the US proofs ready for publication over here. I would have devoured Zoe Marriott’s books, too, and will do so now – I think FrostFire may have sparked a bit of an addiction.
24th November 2012
The Feathered Man, Jeremy de Quidt, David Fickling Books, November 2012
For once, I’m stumped for words. I don’t even know where to begin. I think this may be the most awesome and terrifying and original book I have ever read. Klaus is assistant to Kusselman the toothpuller – a career which has kept him off the streets, but that’s about it. What Klaus hates most about his job is assisting his master when the tooth donors in question are recently deceased (well, that and the continuous niggling fear that Kusselman will continue to pull out all his perfect white teeth till there are none left). But when Klaus and Kusselman find an old man dead in the boarding house owned by Frau Drecht, a squalid place of exquisitely drawn nastiness, where the poor seem to die with slightly suspicious frequency, what neither of them expect to find is a mouth full of gold, and a diamond. Finding the diamond catapults Klaus into a terrifying game of cat and mouse with those who consider themselves to be its “true” owners. Elements of magic are drawn in with convincing gore.
This is an outstanding thriller for children and adult alike, one of the most startling and genuinely frightening books I’ve ever read. All I can say is that I sincerely hope that Jeremy de Quidt has got it wrong about the afterlife. As an author, de Quidt shares with Dickens and Joseph Conrad the ability to convey moral evil in a physical description: you will shudder at Frau Drecht’s perfectly powdered cheeks and hideous glossy wig. Read this book – it’s the love child of Conrad’s The Secret Agent and 100 Years of Solitude.
9th November 2012
Witch Crag, by Kate Cann, Scholastic, October 2012
I was really looking forward to Witch Crag and it did not disappoint. Way back in the mists of time I copy-edited Leaving Poppy, which is a genuinely terrifying book, so good it has kind of stayed with me over the last six or seven years (I seem to remember we had a huge argument over the copy-edit, too – sorry Kate!). As a supernatural thriller, Leaving Poppy was very different to Kate’s earlier books, which are more focused on boy-girl relationships, so I was intrigued to see in which direction she would take Witch Crag. When I realised that I was reading another book set in a dystopian future, I felt worried for a moment – I’ve been sent so many books in this genre that sometimes it really does feel as if you are reading the same novel over and over again, unless of course it is by Philip Reeve, whose take on the apocalypse is original and eccentric. Happily, though, Kate Cann’s vision of a post apocalyptic future is also unique.
Kita has spent her life grinding out a miserable and cheerless existence with the rest of her tribe in their hillfort – tending the sheep, cooking, cleaning and mending. Life for the sheep people is devoid of joy. The menial tasks of day to day life are relentless, girls are valued marginally less than the tribe’s sheep, and everything beyond the walls of the hillfort is to be feared and mistrusted. Especially the savage witches who lurk in the woods, playing with dead men’s bones. But beyond the enclaves of Kita’s small, grey world, a new danger is brewing – and it’s going to change everything. To survive, Kita is going to be faced with some impossible choices.
Kita is a wonderful heroine – Kate Can is exceptional at creating strong girl characters who really change and discover their strengths, which is always so satisfying to read. Mentioning no names, there are some genuinely rubbish female role models in fiction for older teenage girls at the moment, and Kita is a fantastic antidote to them. Arc is a classic Kate Cann hero, too – a little bit gorgeous, and a little bit bad. Irresistible. And I’m afraid to say that this really is what the apolcalypse is going to look like, folks – no glamorous Mad Max style supercities, just ragged bands of people retreating to the hills in order to survive. Cann really does capture the sheer crapness and inconvenience of surviving in a world with no modern conveniences and limited natural resources. In parts, this setting felt so familiar to me – it’s not at all dissimilar to Britain in the wild and desolate years after the Romans left, which is a world I’ve been to before. People battle over food, over the possibility of survival. The most chilling moment for me was when Kita and the rest of her tribe were woken in the middle of the night to trap water during a sudden rainstorm. There’s so much work to do that no one is allowed to go back to bed. Anyone with insomnia or small children will appreciate the numbing grind of having to operate with very limited sleep when this is an absolute necessity, and there is no option for catching up.
Witch Crag is a chilling vision of a future which may, in some respects, be not so very distant as natural resources dwindle further, but it is also a fast paced and exciting battle for survival. All this is tempered with a glorious love story and Kita’s discovery of powers she could never have even dreamed of possessing before her first encounter with the witches, whose magic is more truthfully wisdom and attunement with nature than Potter-style wizardry – a bit like shamanism. My kind of magic, anyway. It’s fascinating to watch the horse tribes, the farmers, the sheep tribe and the witches re-discovering each other after years of isolation, and wondering if together they will be able to find a way of embracing the good things in life that remain, rather than just surviving the horrific dangers they face.
So all in all, a wild ride of a book – a strong female role model, a splash of eerie shamanic magic. This is the love child of Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlett. As a teenager, the former I found too depressing to finish, and the latter I read to ragged shreds, so Witch Crag is perfect for me.
1st November 2012
My Funny Family, Chris Higgins and Lee Wildish, Hodder, August 2012
I’m having a week for newly confident readers over here! That’s how Chris Higgins describes the readership of her new series, anyway, and I’m getting quite interested in books for this lot. The enormous beast that is the publishing industry has been making rumbling and slightly regretful noises recently about having neglected younger readers in favour of books aimed at their teenage brothers and sisters. Post apocalyptic disasters, paranormal love: you name it, we’ve all read it. So the word on the street is that everyone is taking a taking a long hard look at books for younger children who have just started to read on their own. I’ve been sent some to review, and My Funny Family fits the bill exactly.
Mattie is a big worrier. She worries about everything – will the seeds in their new veggie garden survive? Will baby Anika ever learn to speak? Moody sister V is a problem too, and Mattie’s best friend’s parents don’t even like each other any more. But Mattie’s most serious worry is Mum’s mysterious visit to the doctor. This is is a really simple story, grounded in every day life – Mattie and her family grow seeds in their new garden and struggle with problems small and large that will be recognizable to virtually everyone. Mum and Dad don’t have quite enough money, V is angry because she can’t read and it’s always a nightmare when Grandma turns up at dinner time – but Chris Higgins tells the whole with such verve and charm that those new to reading will want to race through the story. There is a lot of depth to the characters, which I really liked. You can sympathise will all of them – the Butterfield family is eccentric, artistic and maybe a little bit different, but their story still feels just like real life. Lee Wildish’s illustrations are perfect – comical and yet expressive at the same time.
30th October 2012
Amazing Esme and the Pirate Circus, Tamara Macfarlane and Michael Fowkes, Hodder, Oct 2012
A wild, rollicking adventure series complete with breathtaking circus tricks, evil pirates and a scheming dastardly cousin. This is the third in Tamara Macfarlane’s series, and would be ideal for confident new readers with just the right amount of sophistication for their older brothers and sisters. It’s entertaining enough for parents to actually enjoy reading aloud without wanting to either hide the book or gouge out their own eyes – I will definitely read it to my four year old. The illustrations are charming and funny, too. It’s great to see a strong female lead character. Of course, Esme is very much on an equal footing with her boy cousins – I remember being so furious reading the Secret Seven and Famous Five when I was a child because the girls were never allowed to join in anything interesting. Sometimes when I read fiction aimed at older teenage girls the content and the structure of the boy/girl relationships makes me fear that in essence nothing has really changed, but series like Amazing Esme help to reassure me otherwise. I wished the illustration on page 4 showed all three of Esme’s cousins – for a few paragraphs I was a bit confused, wondering if Cosmo, Gus and Magnus were boys, tigers or sloths. Criticism number two is that in reading this book I felt very much as though I were being whizzed along at great speed but not quite getting below the surface of things – it’s not a profound read but it is fast and entertaining. It’s not fair to entirely ascribe this lack of depth to the age range, either – there are many picture books aimed at even younger children which are both hugely entertaining yet still more profound than this. However, sometimes we all just want what is simply an exciting read – and if you know someone who has just embarked on a lifetime of reading, this loopy, lovely series will fit the bill for them precisely.
1st October 2012
Circus Maximus, Damien Dibben, Random House, August 2012
Well, well, well, I enjoyed the first book in this series, but must to admit to taking a while to get into it. Also, my slumbering editor’s brain shuddered up from the depths a few times during The Storm Begins and made critical mumblings. Circus Maximus, however, is a different kettle of fish altogether. Plotwise, it follows neatly on from the end of book one, with a wild adventure through time, right to the dawn of western civilisation as we know it – Rome, AD 27. Jake really develops as a hero, with heroic flaws that drive the plot forwards at sickening speed. Without giving away too much, if you’ve ever made a terrible mistake at work, or even just worried that you’ve monumentally screwed something up, Dibben captures that moment with dreadfully sharp accuracy. I liked the way Dibben’s heroes really mess things up – no one is perfect all the time. There’s a good message here for readers of all ages about the inevitability of not being perfect, of making jaw-dropping errors, and the importance of moving on and making amends where possible.
As ever, the historical detail is wonderful – probably (unsurprisingly) one of my favourite aspects of this series – Dibben expertly captures the sights, sounds and smells of Sweden in the 1790s and all the horror, drama and everyday life of Ancient Rome, even down to the snacks people ate in the street. Jake’s fellow History Keeper Charlie Chieverley is an excellent mouthpiece for this kind of information – a learned yet charming geek, but quite carefully drawn so that he remains a three dimensional character rather than simply a device for dispensing historical information, or detailing the plot of an opera. I love Nathan, too – ruthless in combat, but with an entertaining and informative obsession with costume throughout the ages. In fact, mulling over Jack, Charlie and Nathan in The History Keepers has reminded me why I first started reading teenage fiction again – when it’s done well, as this is, you get proper heroes and villains. I got so bored reading contemporary literary fiction for adults, in which all of the people were so totally unlovable.
In short, Dibben has stepped it up in Circus Maximus, and I’d imagine that this series will be devoured by those who are looking for something new post Harry P. I hesitate a little to make age-based recommendations, but this is a good bet for confident readers of nine and more, up to and including much older teenagers. And then afterwards their parents will steal it and read it in bed with a glass of wine.
26th September 2012
Ravenwood, Andrew Peters, Chicken House, May 2011
I read Ravenwood whilst on holiday this year – and WOW! What a dizzying, wonderful and complicated book. Ark is a humble sewer worker living in the forest kingdom of Arborium who stumbles upon a plot against the king’s life. Ark was born just a foundling child, but if his tree-top home is to be protected from the greedy and cruel advances of the vast empire beyond its leafy branches, he must rise to the challenge and become a hero – a tall order for a skinny “treenager” who doesn’t have a clue what he is doing. One of my favourite aspects of this novel is the elaborate and detailed world-building. This kingdom of mutant trees so huge they house an entire treetop country in their branches, trunks and roots is perfectly realised, even down to the meticulously crafted arboreal slang – “totally conkers” – which reveals the author’s love of a good pun. Ravenwood also contains one of my favourite and most prized factors in fiction for this age group – proper three-dimensional villains, with believable motivations and many interesting facets to their odious characters. Not one of them is a cookie-cutter “baddie”. The tension rises to an incredible level as this bloody political coup unfolds, with Ark and his friend Mucum racing against both time and the balance of probability to foil the evil Grasp and his grasping, unpleasant son. The level of imaginative detail in this book is on a par with the steampunk world of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, and people who have enjoyed that series will relish Ravenwood and its sequel, which I’m looking forward to diving into as soon as I can. My oldest child is only four (almost!) but this is one of a very few titles that I have reviewed which I intend to keep for him. He loves machines, invention and intricate detail, so I will find a safe place for Ravenwood.
31st August 2012
Girl, Stolen, April Henry, Walker Books, February 2012
An interesting premise, this – Cheyenne Wilder is driven to the mall by her stepmother to pick up a prescription. Cheyenne is ill with pneumonia and needs antibiotics. It’s not for nothing this disease is called the old man’s friend, or so the doctor tells her. Lying prone in the back seat covered with a blanket, Cheyenne feels the SUV start to move, but a million tiny little signs tell her the car is not being driven by her stepmother. The car has been stolen, and Cheyenne with it. Escape would be terrifying and dangerous for any sixteen year old girl, but Cheyenne is blind, and as the action picks up, the reader quickly realises that her chances of getting out of here alive are slim to none.
This is a very quick read, and one which I shot through in just a couple of hours. Henry cleverly weaves Cheyenne’s story in with her traumatic past and that of her kidnapper, Griffin, creating 200 pages of pure tension. It would have been easy to paint Griffin as a two-dimensional villain, but in giving Griffin chapters of his own to narrate, Henry brings him to life. Nothing is black and white, and every angle of the truth is probed. Stepmother Danielle was one of the nurses who attended Cheyenne immediately after the accident that took her mother’s life and her own eyesight: there is a brilliantly crafted moment when Cheyenne wonders if Danielle engineered the moment when her father walked in to the hospital room to find Cheyenne sobbing in Danielle’s arms. Despite this, Danielle (from what we hear of her) is a sympathetic and sensible woman who certainly isn’t your average wicked stepmother. There is even a moment (admittedly brief) when Griffin’s criminal father Roy shows the lightest touch of concern for his son, which – given the context – is surprising. My only criticism is that although Griffin often notices how ill she looks, Cheyenne doesn’t actually seem to feel that ill given she’s got pneumonia. I also couldn’t help noticing that she didn’t seem to need to pee very often, and wondering if this detail had been deliberately left out! I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Girl, Stolen – it’s fast, furious and a completely fascinating insight into what it must be like to lose your sight.
19th August 2012
Rebel Heart, Moira Young, Scholastic, February 2012
I’ve been looking forward to this – the sequel to Moira Young’s white-hot Blood Red Road. The action here follows on neatly from the end of the previous book, and once again I was spellbound by the quality of Young’s writing – it sears off the page, burning with excitement. Saba is a great heroine, strong but flawed, and brutally honest with herself, and Young keeps the tension ratcheted high throughout the book. The plot takes an unexpected twist towards the end which, to me, felt a little jerky. I was jarred out of the flow of the story by it, but the twist does make way for one of the most interesting aspects to this book: Saba’s introduction to sexual politics. Saba is both heroine and killer, tough and jaded, but she is also a teenager, and Young expertly captures all the complicated emotions that go hand in hand with first love. It’s a complicated game in the this trilogy, and Saba’s nauseous regret at some of her actions is so real you feel it yourself. Fast, brutal and honest, I would definitely recommend Rebel Heart. I think plotting is Young’s only slight weakness as an author, and by this I mean sudden those occasional sudden turns in the narrative which are just a little too off-kilter, and which nudge me out of that willing suspension of disbelief, but she really is an author with an incredible natural talent. The hype surrounding these books is justified, and and it’s very refreshing to writing of this calibre and quality doing so well. This is proper literary fiction for teenagers with the breathtaking pace of a thriller.
26th July 2012
A big welcome to Rachel Hartman today who has dropped by with an excellent guest post. Rachel is the author of Seraphina, which I reviewed a few months ago (scroll down and you’ll find my write-up). Thanks very much, Rachel, for stopping by on your blog tour, and for an insight into the mind of a dragon, and the thought processes of an author during the creation of a story. I think maybe authors’ brains are wired differently to other people’s – read on, and make up your own mind about making up minds. At the bottom of today’s post you will find more details of the other blogs Rachel has visited, and I for one will certainly be checking out her other posts.
The Making of the Dragon Mind, a guest post by Rachel Hartman
One of the biggest and most exciting challenges in writing Seraphina was figuring out how dragons are different from humans. I didn’t want them to be merely humans-in-disguise, and I didn’t want them to be Vulcans – or not exactly. When they are in their natural shapes, yes, there are certain similarities to Vulcans. Dragons are unemotional, logical, and rational. Vulcans suppress their emotions and embrace logic for philosophical reasons; dragons, on the other hand, are built that way. Their species simply don’t have emotions, and logic is all that’s left. Another crucial difference is where that logic takes them. Vulcans are a rationally peaceful race; dragons, being apex predators, do not necessarily find that reason leads to pacifism. First principles are important, or reason can lead to any number of brutal conclusions.
What happens, then, when a dragon transforms into human shape? They don’t merely look different on the outside. Their brains change as well. What would that be like?
One of my insprirations for exploring this line of questioning was Sensory Processing Disorder, which I learned about a few years ago and found completely fascinating. Essentially, different people process sensory input differently. Someone with hypersensitivity to touch might be bothered by tags or seams in clothing, for example. Hyposensitivity is the other extreme, such as someone who never seems to get cold, or isn’t bothered by lots of noise. Everyone has some differences in processing, but they can also be so extreme as to be debilitating.
What if taking human shape was like that for dragons, all the time? Human skin would surely be a lot more sensitive than scales. Everything must taste like ash to a mouth that also breathes fire. A flying hunter would need much better eyesight than the human standard; having human eyeballs would be like going around without your glasses on. And then what about emotions? If human emotions come from brain chemistry, then what would that involuntary rush of feeling be like to a being experiencing it for the first time?
I still find emotions overwhelming sometimes, and I’ve had forty years to get used to them.
It struck me that logical creatures like dragons would come up with strategies for coping with the sensory and emotional onslaught they experience in human form. I could see them meditating and being very disciplined, but I also wanted them to be able to shut emotions off somehow, or put them away in a safe place where they weren’t disruptive.
The ancient Greeks and Romans had an interesting mnemonic device that struck me as exactly what was needed: the Memory Palace. First you memorize the layout of a large building with many rooms. Then, if you have a list of things to remember, you visualize walking through the building in your mind, placing each of the items in sequential rooms. In order to later remember the list, you imagine yourself walking through the rooms again, re-encountering everything you placed there.
I liked that idea. It reminded me of when I was a child and my parents’ house church (which was more like a hippie drum circle) used to do “guided meditations”. Someone would guide us into a peaceful scene – in our imaginations – and then we were supposed to talk to our spirit animals or our chakras. I was not into the mystical side of things, particularly, but I loved it as an imagination exercise. I began to conceive of my own mind as having a geography. There were places in my head, places with names, as if a Memory Palace might be converted into a landscape where the subconscious frolics merrily.
What if dragons thought of their minds as a physical space that could be organized and manipulated? What if they could partition their mental spaces, seal emotions up tightly in rooms, store memories in chests, put inconvenient parts of themselves away? What if dragon mothers could pass memories on to their children by sealing them up in “memory pearls” which would open some time later, under a particular stimulus?
My dragons do all these things, but there is one character who takes it a little bit further, a character who has elements in her head that are so disruptive, she has to build them a place to live. It ends up being a beautiful garden that she must tend daily, lest her mental disruptions start up again and overwhelm her. It is a place drawn heavily from my own inner landscape and filled with dream logic, alien and yet not as unfamilar as all that. It is the place where all these “what ifs” come together and show us our own minds from a different angle.
Huge thanks to Rachel for a genuinely fascinating guest post!
13th July 2012
A Witch in Love, Ruth Warburton, Hodder Headline
Oops. I wasn’t meant to be reviewing this quite yet! I’ve got a massive backlog and, since I only reviewed A Witch in Winter a few weeks ago, I was going to wait a good few weeks for the sequel. I couldn’t, though. I was just too drawn in by the magic and rhythms of life in a coastal town so brilliantly realised in the first novel. Ruth’s excellent guest post here a few weeks back acted as another draw – I just really wanted to see what she would come up with next!
So, Anna has now had a few months to settle in to the seaside town of Winter, and it’s still a far cry from Notting Hill, not least because it was only once Anna and her father moved away from London that the truth about Anna’s real nature, and the mystery surrounding her mother’s disappearance, began to emerge from those carefully wrapped layers of secrecy and lies. It’s an intriguing premise to begin with, and when you add a beautiful and rebellious boy, plus a heady dose of powerful magic, the cocktail becomes irresistible. The magic is so real, too. You really believe in it, and I think this is because of Ruth’s understanding of the oldest words in our language, and the strength of their power.
It’s a fantastic story with a gorgeous yet totally believable hero and heroine. The cast of other characters are also incredibly well drawn and so intriguing – even the most minor adds his or her own level of mystery to the story – you never get the feeling they are just there to fulfill a narrative function.
I really do recommend this series – it made me wish to be a teenager again (quite something then!), marooned in a rainswept holiday cottage with nothing to do except absorb and be a little bit changed by gorgeous books like these.
12th July 2012
Rapture, Lauren Kate, Random House, June 2012
Rapture concludes the epic love story between a fallen angel and a mortal girl – Daniel and Luce will sacrifice anything for their love, and in Rapture we learn just how much they are willing to give up. I’ve said before that this is certainly a series you need to read all of, and in order, to really and enjoy and to get the most out of each book. Rapture is no exception and actually I should really have re-read the others before embarking on it, because the cosmological whys and wherefores are easy to lose grip of. It’s a testament to the force of Luce and Daniel as characters that I really couldn’t stop reading, despite being a little confused at times. I won’t spoil the novels by explaining too much about the plot of the whole Fallen epic, but suffice to say if you’re a sucker for an incredible love story, this is the series for you. It really is incredible how Lauren Kate manages to describe some very metaphysical stuff and makes it seem totally real, completely believable. There were times when I thought “I can’t believe I’m believing this, but I am”. There are locations described which, in the hands of a lesser writer, would seem ridiculous, and yet Kate makes them work. And yes, there are moments when I felt some of the plotting was perhaps a little tortuous and confused, but as a reader I was happy to overlook that and enjoy this beautifully described celebration of love, visiting some of the world’s most astonishing and gorgeous places along the way – who wouldn’t want an author to take them to Venice and the Sinai desert in the space of just one novel? I don’t think Lauren Kate has entirely tied up all her loose ends though – readers familiar with the series won’t be surprised, I’m sure, if a short story or novella about one character in particular appears. He’s my favourite, too, so I’ll look out for it.
19th June 2012
The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen, Chatto and Windus
Judith and her father are forbidden many things by their fundamentalist Christian sect, and partaking in industrial action is one of them – not a recipe for an easy life when everyone else in town decides to strike. Judith has been bullied at school for ages, but now her father is officially a scab, the tension escalates. But Judith is lucky because she has faith, and with the power of faith, surely anything is possible?
This beautiful book was not specifically published for teenagers, but I’m sure many would enjoy it. Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky was one of my favourite novels as a fifteen year old, and I think there is something particularly appealing to the teenage mind about books written from the perspective of a very young character but which deal with adult concerns.
The Land of Decoration was recommended to me by someone who admires a finely constructed sentence, and this is truly fine writing. Each sentence has its own rhythm and beat – each syllable adds to the rising tension as Judith’s world begins to tear open at the seams. Judith is a wonderful and complex character: intelligent, isolated and yet filled with a sense of creativity so rich she struggles with the boundaries between reality and imagination. For Judith, the barrier between the real world and that which she creates in her own mind is porous and untrustworthy. Is Judith just highly imaginative and very isolated, or is she suffering from episodes of psychosis? I had moments where I struggled with how the riddle of Judith’s possible psychosis was answered, or how it seemed to me to be answered anyway.
Looking at it from another angle, though, the end of The Land of Decoration reminded me of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, when Saleem escapes Pakistan in the aftermath of the Partition of India. Some critics argue that, in Midnight’s Children, it happened for too easily – the reality was that many people did not escape and were killed. Others retort that this was exactly Rushdie’s point: Saleem is only able to leave through the intervention of magic. I believe that the ending of Grace MacCleen’s beautiful first novel – as I interpreted it – would take magic or indeed a miracle to reach fruition in the real world. Whatever your perception, this is indeed a magical book – it’s thrilling and absorbing, with a main character you will be standing up in your seat to cheer on by the end. In some ways, it really is a novel about truth and perception: one man’s faith is another’s nonsense. The Land of Decoration has been nominated for the Desmond Elliot Award – I hope it wins, because writing of this quality and calibre deserves widespread recognition.
9th June 2012
The History Keepers: The Storm Begins, Damien Dibben, Random House Children’s Books
I will be honest and say that I took a short while to get into The History Keepers after immersing myself in the world of Margot Lanagan’s Rollrock Island (see review below). The two books really couldn’t be more different. Once I’d accepted that The History Keepers is a completely different kind of animal, I started to enjoy the novel for what it is – think James Bond as a time traveller, and you’ll be on the right track. I do think it’s genuinely a tiny bit slow or somehow awkward at the beginning – perhaps there’s too much explanation; I can’t quite put my finger on it but, anyway, the novel soon settles into itself after a few chapters, and after that it’s a splendid rollicking free-fall through history itself, with some wonderful historical detail – Damien Dibben is particularly good on Renaissance and Regency costume! There are some seriously amazing descriptive passages, too – when hero Jake first drinks the atomium solution which allows him to travel through time and space, I felt like I could have been reading the poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Actually, I think it’s after Jake’s first time-leap that the book really takes off. There are also some brilliantly Indiana Jones moments involving snakes (of course), along with some truly revolting gore. I did worry that, at points, there were a few cliches in the prose, but maybe that’s just me and anyway, I doubt such pettifogging quibbles are likely to worry the target audience swept along by this swashbuckling adventure.
7th June 2012
The Brides of Rollrock Island, Margot Lanagan, David Fickling Books, Feb 2012
The men of Rollrock Island have a weakness for the mysterious and beautiful seal-women summoned up by the witch Misskaella Prout… They are so pretty and biddable – what man could resist, even if the price to pay for such a bride is so huge?
When I read the first page, I knew this book would be special. Margot Lanagan’s writing style is beautiful: each section is narrated by a different character. The rhythms of the characters’ speech and internal thought processes perfectly reflect the wild, windswept, sea-weed splattered landscape. You can practically smell salt in the air, decaying seaweed washed up on the beach. Lanagan is clearly a uniquely talented writer. The plot, too, is expertly worked, unfolding from different viewpoints to reveal the terrible cost of bringing these enigmatic seal-women to Rollrock Island.
It’s a fantasy, but doesn’t feel like one, so gritty and sparse and skilled is Lanagan’s writing, and the tension increases with each page. You really do almost believe that this could happen, or perhaps has happened. I especially loved some of the names – Tatty Anna, Grassy Ella, Ann Jelly – which I suddenly realised were phonetically spelled versions of Tatiana, Graciella and Angela. A gorgeous book, and well worth the read: it really is absolutely stunning.
29th May 2012
A short while ago, I reviewed the fantastic A Witch in Winter by Ruth Warburton – scroll down and you’ll see how much I loved it. Today I’m lucky enough to share a fascinating insight into how Ruth created the dangerously powerful magic Anna discovers in the book. Ruth Warburton’s guest post is all about the elemental power of the oldest words in the English language – she articulates something I’ve always sensed instinctively but never quite managed to put into words, and her post reminds me of the strength – and the potential danger – in the simple words we use every day.
Guest post by Ruth Warburton, author of A Witch in Winter.
I first encountered the Old English language at university. Anglo-Saxon was a compulsory part of the course, and I had no idea what to expect. If you’d asked me, I think I would have thought something like Chaucer, you know:
Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the root
Something that looked and sounded basically like English, but was a bit hard to understand.
What I actually got was this:
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon·
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.
I know. Right? This is the first few lines of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon poem of courage and bloody deeds. Not that you’d know it, necessarily, from those words.
The first fragment is actually Middle English – halfway between Anglo-Saxon and Modern English. Anglo-Saxon is a much older language, the language spoken in Britain before about 1000 AD. As you can see from the fragment above, it looks like a foreign language. It basically is a foreign language. It has a different vocabulary from modern English, and even different grammar, in fact the grammar is quite radically different.
Anglo-Saxon also has some letters which look pretty foreign, æ, ð and þ. They make the words look quite strange, but are probably the easiest part of learning Anglo-Saxon as they are quite simple to decode– æ is pronounced like the a in “cat” and ð and þ are both pronounced “th”. The letter ð is called eth and the letter þ is called thorn. They have pretty much died out of modern English, except for thorn, which you still see occasionally in old pub signs or shop names like “YE OLDE CHESHIRE CHEESE” In this case the Y is actually a thorn, so the sign reads The Olde Cheshire Cheese. The reason for this is that the way medieval scholars wrote þe (which is actually the word the) was like this:
As you can see, the thorn looks a lot like a Y to our modern eyes, but that’s not how it’s meant to be read. It was quite the learning curve, and I can’t pretend that two semesters of Anglo-Saxon gave me anything more than a vague understanding and a life-long interest. But the more I studied, the more I became fascinated with the way Anglo-Saxon is woven into our language. What I learned was that all the strongest, most elemental, most powerful words in our language come from an Anglo-Saxon root. If a word is polite or refined or intellectual, it’s probably an import from French or Latin or Greek or some other language that we’ve encountered in the thousand years since we stopped speaking Old English. But the core words – the root words – the words that we learn first as children and turn to in times of direst emergency – those are all from an Old English root. They are the most powerful in the language. They are usually short and pack a punch, and they are often very rude (many of our swearwords come from Anglo-Saxon).
Love, hate, life, and – yes – witch – those are all words that come from an Anglo-Saxon root. Love comes from the Old English lufu. Hate comes from the Old English hete. Life was spelled the same by the time of Beowulf – life. Witch, as I mention in A Witch in Winter, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word wicca. So when I had to come up with a system of magic for A Witch in Winter, and create incantations with an aura of true power, I turned to Anglo-Saxon, hoping that those ancient words would lend my spells the power they needed to jump off the page, and make the reader believe.
I love the idea that Anna and her friends are tapping into something very old – the fundamental power of language to shape and express our innermost desires, and make them real. Whatever you think of magic, whether or not you believe, there’s something pretty incredible about the fact that we can read the Beowulf poem and experience the same thrill of excitement at the same words, written down by an unknown poet perhaps as many as 1300 years ago. Using nothing more than those ancient words he makes us fear and hope and holds us in his thrall just as he held his listeners in his thrall so long ago. To me, that’s magic. Nothing less.
A Witch in Winter by Ruth Warburton is in the shops now. The sequel, A Witch in Love, is published by Hodder Children’s on 5th July 2012.
22nd May 2012
Oops, sorry about the delay! Just been working on the last few edits to the next book. Yesterday I got my invite to a party celebrating all the Walker titles which are coming out in spring next year, so let’s hope I’ve got that ending nailed this time. Plenty of time for the copy-editor and the printers now!
Anyway, on to more important matters – I’ve just read This is Not Forgiveness by Celia Rees, and I had to review it here. I still remember the surge of excitement I got when reading Witch Child for the first time, many years ago now. There is so much power and raw energy in Celia Rees’ writing. Her latest novel is no exception…
This is Not Forgiveness, Celia Rees, Bloomsbury, February 2012
Jamie and his brother Rob couldn’t be more different. Jamie is quieter, sensitive and way more sensible – not that he doesn’t know how to have a good time, just like their clever sister Martha. Jamie’s best friend is spending every minute with a new girlfriend, so Jamie is bored and looking for summer action. That’s why he’s so interested in Caro: mysterious, sophisticated and beautiful. Martha says Caro is trouble, that she’s even dabbled in witchcraft, but Jamie doesn’t care. Rob, on the other hand, is definitely trouble. He’s a killer by trade – a sniper returned from Afghanistan with a career-ending leg injury. No one, least of all Rob, is really sure if it’s a good thing he can’t return to the army. Rob is damaged goods: the fact is he enjoyed killing people just a little bit too much.
This is Not Forgiveness is the heart-stopping deconstruction of a single, devastating summer – an unflinching depiction of the unravelling mayhem wreaked by charismatic yet deeply damaged young people. Their story is told from alternating viewpoints that will leave you breathless, unable to stop reading. I particularly loved the way the novel unfolds against a backdrop of infinitely realistic teenage hedonism that gathers pace with each chapter. Rees perfectly captures the essence of what it is to be a teenager: there is the usual cycle of holiday jobs and clandestine underage missions into clubs and bars, and beyond all this the real truth.
The fact is, teenagers can be dangerous creatures, with a more relaxed attitude to risk than the older generation but all the physical strength of an adult. In years gone by, they fought and died in battles whilst most today are more worried about their exam results or the next night out. Most, but not all. Rob is a trained fighter, a killer, a warrior. Hundreds of years ago, he would have been considered the ultimate hero. Now discharged from the army, there is no place for him in society. No one is prepared for what will happen when all his frustrated power and strength are channeled into one cause, and you will not know who is the genuine villain of the piece right till the end of the book. The moment Rees turned her gaze onto the true instigator of the novel’s terrifying conclusion is breathtaking: the real culprit will not necessarily be who you expect, and we may not agree who that person is. If there is a moral to the story it is this: take care how you dispense casual cruelty. The repercussions might even be lethal.
This is a truly stunning book, in every sense of the word, beautifully written, unflinchingly dangerous and dangerously truthful. Highly recommended.
2nd May 2012
I’m very excited to announce a whole new addition to the blog! The books I read most often are aimed squarely at the under fives, and my friend Rosie has just published her first ever picture book, so I’ve decided to start reviewing tales for toddlers here alongside my usual 12+ titles. And since Rosie gave me the idea, she will be my first victim, bwah ha ha!
I will still be featuring mostly books aimed at much older readers, so to make sure the picture book reviews don’t get lost or crowded out amongst their teenage cousins, I’m planning to include an interview or some other interesting picture book info alongside these reviews. I chatted to Rosie about the process of actually creating a picture book and how the characters develop – really interesting, and so different in many ways to writing a novel. Rosie’s story will also inspire those who say they want to write but don’t have time. So without further ado…
The Very Helpful Hedgehog, Rosie Wellesley, Pavillion, April 2012
Isaac the hedgehog has always been happy on his own – he doesn’t need any friends and he’s fine all by himself. One day, a rosy apple falls from a tree and gets firmly stuck to his spikes, and Isaac discovers it might be handy to have a friend after all.
Reviewing work by people I know well isn’t something I normally do, and my policy is to steer clear unless I really, really love the book and it’s something I would have picked up without the personal contact. The Very Helpful Hedgehog is is an entertaining, well-paced story which had my 3 year old tester howling with laughter (the-apple-falling-off-the-tree moment was what did it). The value of friendship is cleverly portrayed without any of that dreadful saccharine which sometimes invades the kind of picture books children love but their parents hide in cupboards at every opportunity. It’s a perfect subject for the age group: some very young children move so easily from simply playing alongside others to genuinely playing with friends, but for others this journey is more fraught and complicated. This gentle, humorous tale about how to make friends and why they’re so worth having is ideal for guiding confused toddlers along the way – besides making the point that there is nothing wrong with enjoying your own company, too.
I really liked the slightly old fashioned style of drawing: there is humour and character in every line, and the colour work is lovely. It’s so refreshing to see skilled illustration rather than just computer generated images, which can lack soul. A lovely picture book, and I wish we’d read it a year ago! It will be useful when my younger son starts moving beyond parallel play and on to making friends.
Rosie very kindly answered a few questions about the process of creation, and even allowed us an exclusive peek at some of her very early sketches of Isaac the hedgehog. Read on below the pictures to find out more…
KM: The book’s cover is so appealing – was it easy to arrive at the final design, or did you create lots of different versions before coming up with something both you and the publisher were happy with?
RW: The sketch with the title scribbled in is what I had when I first showed the dummy to the publishers. (The dummy is what you call the mock up of the book that you first show to the publishers to give them an idea of what it would look like). I’m amused now by how little thought I put into the cover I presented to them! It didn’t seem the important bit at the time. Silly me. I think a dummy is difficult to get right though. The publishers don’t want to see a finished work – they like to know that you will be open to suggestions and be able take on some ideas from them. But they do need to see page layouts and how the story fits with the pictures. They also then want to see one or two finished colour pictures to given them an idea of the final style.
KM: So how did you move ahead to the lovely image of Isaac peeking out from behind his apples?
RW: When it came to discussing the cover the publishers made it clear they wanted something with a bit more movement and action. I sat about and scribbled a bit – some of those sketches are here. The sketch with Isaac poking out from behind the apples obviously led to the final picture. I got bored drawing the leafy border even in black and white so I cut it out for the final version. I just did one colour version and they were happy with it, so it was pretty easy in the end. I did have to fight very hard for the white background though! Apparently white doesn’t sell because they are worried it gets dirty in the shops from handling. I think that white keeps makes the picture stand out more and makes it look fresh. In the end I bombarded the publishers with lists of books that have done very well with white covers! They weren’t happy to go ahead with white though until they found a type of paper that was easy to wipe clean that they could use.
KM: Isaac is a brilliant character – as I say in the review, I particularly like how happy he is in his own company, and how he learns the value of friendship. How did Isaac’s personality traits develop along with your early sketches of him?
RW: He started off as a grumpy old thing with the apple stuck on his back, but then he began to appear in sketches when he was getting into all sorts of scrapes. At the time I was doing some large drawings (of something else entirely) that were quite slow, and as a break I would doodle around with Isaac. In one sketch he got substituted for a rabbit in a magician’s hat (a bit of a prickly surprise for the magician), and in another he went skydiving using a spotty handkerchief as a parachute. In that way he started to come to life.
KM: Finally, is it true that you wrote and illustrated The Very Helpful Hedgehog whilst on maternity leave from your job as a GP? How did you find the time to do this?
RW: Well, Isaac first started to appear in my sketchbook when I was pregnant. I was working part time whilst doing the postgraduate program at the Princes Drawing School in London. It is true though that I wrote the story after my son was born, and really knuckled down to putting it together then. Thankfully time-wise babies do sleep quite a lot and it also gave me a great excuse to get my husband to babysit!
22nd April 2012
Another one I read over the Easter break – the latest from Ally Kennen. Batten down the hatches…
Bullet Boys, Ally Kennen, Marion Lloyd Books, February 2012
I’ve been looking forward to this for ages. It’s always slightly scary reading a new book by someone whose work you’ve hugely enjoyed in the past – there’s a slight fear that the new tome may not live up to the standard of earlier books. I needn’t have worried. In actual fact, I think Ally Kennen may have even ratcheted things up a notch. Her previous books are excellent – all tautly plotted thrillers inhabited by misfits skating dangerously close to the edge – but Bullet Boys is tighter and scarier still.
Alex the gamekeeper’s son feels most at home out on the moors – he’s quiet, calm and introspective, and he could blow your head off with his gun at a hundred paces if he wanted to. Luckily, he doesn’t. Max, on the other hand, is the definitive loose cannon. Expelled from his private school for serious misdeeds and still scarred by the consequences, he is heading squarely for trouble. As if this wasn’t enough, Max has a serious problem with the army. It’s a bit unfortunate, then, that Alex, Max and their friend Levi live right on the doorstep of Hammerton Barracks and a vast expanse of MOD training ground – a seriously dangerous combination, particularly when the boys make a terrifying discovery…
Kennen is highly skilled at creating people you believe in. Both Alex and Max are extremely well drawn, as are happy-g0-lucky Levi and teen mum Sasha. The remaining cast of characters are both original and also completely believable. How many books do you read nowadays in which any of the characters are truly original? Ally Kennen shows you what these people are really thinking – which is pretty terrifying in some cases, let me assure you. I really liked the fact that Alex’s chapters are told in the third person, and Max’s in the first person. It’s a clever narrative technique – when you read the book you’ll see why it makes sense. It’s the best way of rendering Alex and Max’s very different personalities, and helpfully draws a clear line of demarcation between two narrative perspectives. I never became confused about which angle of the story I was following.
So, Bullet Boys is an addictive and original thriller, but it also takes a good look at the army, and civilians, and our at times uneasy relationship with one another, mercilessly scrutinizing the bounds of what is considered to be normal and acceptable behaviour. A great writer on top form.
16th April 2012
I’m still bouncing off the ceiling with the effects of eating way too many Easter eggs, but I did find time to read some fantabulous books over the break. Here’s my review of the first…
A Witch in Winter, Ruth Warburton, Hodder Headline
Anna Winterson is less than impressed when a family crisis forces a move to an eerie house by the sea. The sleepy coastal village of Winter is a long way from Notting Hill in every possible sense, and navigating the perilous waters of Winter High is to prove more dangerous than Anna could possibly have imagined. Beautiful Seth may be a gorgeous fish out of water at school, but when Anna and her new friends experiment with an old love spell, both she and Seth are plunged into a terrifying and exhilarating free-fall.
There’s a lot of this kind of fiction about at the moment, and I was worried that I was going to feel as if I’d read A Witch in Winter before, but I never got that sense as I raced through the book. It’s a very tautly plotted thriller, and the large cast of characters is managed with total professionalism. The coastal location is by turns beautiful and highly threatening – as much of a character as Anna herself, and the book builds to a fantastically thrilling climax. I particularly loved the Old English spells and the sense of a link back to a mysterious English past – I’ve just visited Ruth Warburton’s website and discovered that she took the same degree as I did at the University of Manchester. So those Anglo-Saxon studies have inspired two authors now – there must be something in the water…!
Highly recommended – the perfect read for curling up by a window in a storm, and staying there for hours.
25th March 2012
The Intern, Dillon Khan, Puffin, April 2012
Jay Merchant has the ultimate prize in his sights – a career at the biggest music TV channel of all time. OK, so he has to start in a team of poorly paid interns ready to work like slaves and live on virtually nothing in one of the world’s most expensive cities – but Jay is determined to bag the single available permanent contract at the end of it all. The question is, will his old life still exist by Christmas, or will his thirst for the ultimate prize change everything?
Based on the author’s own experiences, The Intern is a bruising account of the dedication and sheer physical grit Jay will need to survive in his bid to get that dream job. The work is back-breaking and the hours are long, but Jay has music in his soul, and this is all he has ever wanted. In the creative industries new blood is that great big elephant in the room no one honestly wants to discuss. Yes, it’s unfair to expect people to spend months at a time living on what is often no more than a travel allowance, with no firm promise of employment at the end, but the fact is Jay lives for music and knows he will have to make sacrifices. It’s left to the reader to make up their own mind about the rights and wrongs of the situation – a wise approach, I think, because there is a lot to consider. Although I too questioned the morality of it all, I couldn’t help but admire just how hard Jay was willing to work.
I had a couple of minor criticisms. At times, the book seemed a little research heavy. The plot is pacey and exciting, but the author clearly has a huge amount of hair-raising personal experience to draw on, and I felt there were episodes included which took the plot on some unnecessary deviations. To be fair, with all the stories Dillon Khan must have up his sleeve, I don’t know how he even whittled them down this far. And, unless I’ve missed something – which is more than possible – there is a plot thread left dangling at the end involving a phone number. Pomposity alert: I’ve been brainwashed for years to look out for these things so I wonder if I would have noticed otherwise – much less cared – given that the subject is so enticing and the characters so well drawn. Either way, this pickiness didn’t spoil my enjoyment of Jay’s story. The workload might be mindbending, the ethics of the whole internship practice may be questionable, but this is a glittering and highly compelling world, and the reader will want to be part of it just as much as the hero. Is the heavy price demanded worth it in the end? Funny, fast and insightful, the Intern will strike a chord with anyone who wants to break into a career beyond that red velvet rope, and anyone with a true love for music.
21st March 2012
The Duff, Kody Keplinger, Hodder Children’s Books, April 2012
So, I may have lost one of my lovely editors, Ellen, to the futuristic heights of Hodder Towers – but she has just sent me a couple of extremely enjoyable books, so I may forgive her after all. The Duff is a classic love-hate romance, with some genuine surprises. Bianca Piper is sixteen and cynical. Bianca does not take kindly to Wesley Rush – school “man-slut” – when he gently informs her on a night out that his credentials with her gorgeous buddies will sky-rocket when they see him deigning to speak to the Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Not surprisingly, Wesley Rush gets a Cherry Coke in the face – and that’s just the start…
There are some brilliantly surprising and entertaining moments in this book – it’s also pretty insightful about sex, relationships and true friendship – what really matters, and what to steer very, very clear of. All this is done with irreverent cynical humour, and I never got the sense of being preached at. This is high school madness that subverts the stereotypes . Also – breathe a huge sigh of relief – here is a book for teenage girls that deals with sex honestly, rather than turning it into this weird forbidden biblical type thing to do with moody vampires acting in an insufferably high-handed fashion for the heroine’s own good. Naming no names. Seriously, at the risk of being all earnest, this is important. It’s a lot of fun, this book – it reminded me of the excellent Kate Cann and her very funny Moving Out series – www.katecann.com
11th March 2012
All Fall Down, Sally Nicholls, Marion Lloyd Books, Scholastic, February 2012
Isabel is fourteen years old when the plague comes to her village. The plague shows no mercy. If you get it, you will die. No one is safe…
When my old colleague, Camilla, sent me this book I knew I would have to read it. I have to admit that I procrastinated about getting down to it with a tiny flicker of genuine trepidation. I read Sally Nicholls’ first book, Ways to Live Forever, in manuscript form when I was still a desk editor at Scholastic. I have never forgotten it. Years later, half-remembered scenes occasionally drift up from the recesses of my memory, feeding the worst fears a parent could possibly have. Ways to Live Forever is a very powerful book. This is an author who has the enviable yet terrifying talent of creating characters you believe in absolutely and really care about, then putting them through the most excruciating tests of endurance.
All Fall Down is set in 1349, the year a horrifying disease laid waste to approximately half of Europe’s entire population. It is estimated that 45 % of people in England died in one year. These statistics are breathtaking – difficult even to imagine – but Nicholls skilfully weaves Isabel’s story of survival. This is a heart-stopping novel, and Isabel’s harrowing adventure is interwoven with some lovely moments and scenes to leaven the horror and suspense. I experienced a minor jolt between the two major sections, and felt at one point that Thomas was too much of a cog in the wheels of the plot, but the relationships between Isabel, her siblings, and their friend Robin are so amazingly well drawn I soon forgot that. Nicholls captures what it really must have been like to live through the apocalypse. Move over, The Hunger Games. This is the real deal. Writing is a kind of sorcery – making people believe in what is no longer true or never has been – and Sally Nicholls is a true practitioner of the art.
4th March 2012
Oof! A backlog!
Seraphina, Rachel Hartman, Random House, July 2012
It’s been a long while since I read any high fantasy so I was looking forward to this – fantasy always feels like such a wonderful escape, and I had a lovely sense of anticipation at getting my teeth into this, as if I were going back in time to a summer holiday as a teenager (but without the drinking too much beer and being unwell in a caravan bit. Sorry, TMI). Anyway. This is a proper fantasy, with a feisty heroine and some truly splendid dragons – the kind which can taken on a human form and live among people whilst doing their best to suppress the desire to devour everyone in sight. I enjoyed this so much – it’s a beautifully told story, with some gorgeously surreal imaginative flights on a level with Alice in Wonderland – it has that dreamlike quality of beauty and absurdity. My only criticism is that the bubble was punctured for me, on occasion, by some of the names chosen for the characters and countries. Lavonda, Glisselda and Kiggs just didn’t seem to fit right within this world – and Samsam felt like an odd name for a country which has been given clear imaginative allusions to Germany, or perhaps Scandinavia. I wish I knew why the author had chosen these names. Anyway, that aside, Seraphina is a fast-paced and skilfully wrought fantasy, a beautiful and original take on the dragon myth.
Socks Are Not Enough, Mark Lowery, Scholastic, February 2012
This is a very, very funny book. I may as well just begin by making that clear. OK, the events described could not have been remotely funny from the perspective of the hero, Michael, but as a reader I defy you not to laugh at this account of the worst few days in Michael’s life. Not only does he (accidentally) blacken the eye of the only girl who will ever love, just as she finally notices his existence, but his parents have a little hobby and it’s time Michael found out all about it.. Yes. They are nudists. And Michael’s mother has decided that it’s time the world accepted her for who she really is. This isn’t just nudity – it’s a political act… I loved Michael’s unswervingly direct observations of the people around him. Michael is the one being forced to visit the school counsellor, but he is probably the most honest and realistic person in the book. A very entertaining read – I always love an author with an acute eye for absurdity within the commonplace, and Mark Lowery is certainly that.
14th February 2012
Fallen in Love by Lauren Kate, Random House, February 2012
This is a lovely collection of four novellas about – you guessed it – true love, in all its guises. It’s clear from the title that Fallen in Love is designed as a companion piece to Lauren Kate’s bestselling Fallen series, and you do kind of need to have read the books to fully appreciate this St Valentine’s Day romp through medieval England. I have read them, and I really enjoyed this. It’s so nice to see a different side to some of the more enigmatic characters in the series. The geek in me enjoyed the link to Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules, too. I love the way Lauren Kate writes exciting, accessible love stories with tortuous philosophical conundrums and a strong literary vein – there for those who wish to find it, but not intrusive for those who don’t. I did get confused at one point by the chronology of Fallen in Love in relation to Passion and the forthcoming Rapture. Lucinda’s attitude to Bill in Fallen in Love comes across a little oddly given the revelations about him at the end of Passion. I suspect this means that I need to re-read the series to disentangle this confusion, so I’m looking forward to that already. There is a sneak preview of Rapture, too – exciting!
31st January 2012
Daylight Saving by Edward Hogan, Walker Books, February 2012
Daniel is not expecting much from this (enforced) holiday with his father to the Leisure World Holiday Complex. Not only does Daniel’s dad have a penchant for wearing socks with his flip-flops and very dubious taste in music, he hasn’t been the best company since Mum left. And Daniel knows that, even though he won’t admit it, his dad blames him for everything. There is the small matter of having been suspended from school, too. This is destined to be no ordinary holiday, but when Daniel meets Lexi – smart, beautiful Lexi – he takes a turn down a much darker path than ever before…
I read Daylight Saving in less than two hours: it moves at a cracking pace, a crime thriller fused with a ghost story of haunting sadness. What Hogan does so well is that very Stephen King trick of rendering an ordinary, humdrum world gradually more and more sinister – the plastic and desperate Leisure World – until you genuinely believe that this could really happen. Daniel is an excellent main character. More familiar from the adult thriller/crime genre, it’s refreshing to see a breed of world-weary hero with issues and a weight problem deposited into fiction for this age group, which is populated mostly by the extraordinarily attractive. Cynical and self-loathing, but gentle and truly brave to the last, Daniel is a real hero. Hogan has a voice all his own, but in an effort to describe it, I was reminded at times of Carl Hiaasen – Hogan isn’t as outright funny and obviously doesn’t intend to be (not a criticism, by the way), but both writers share the same talent for ruthlessly excoriating the surface layers of society to reveal both the horrors and the raw human emotions – the truly great and the horrifying – that lie hidden beneath.
17th January 2012
The final draft of Here Among Us has been fired off to my editor (only one editor now that the amazing Ellen has gone off to Hachette; Denise is brilliant as ever, though, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say…!). So here’s what I read over Christmas and New Year: a proper children’s book to start off 2012…
The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop, Kate Saunders, Scholastic, Feb 2012
Lily and Oz’s family have, under mysterious circumstances, inherited a chocolate shop and the twins can’t wait to move in. The only trouble is, their new home is full of ghosts and talking wall paper… I loved this book – it’s aimed at a slightly younger readership than books I usually review, but it’s such a great old fashioned children’s book with so much adventure and magic, and really loveable main characters. The magic is beautifully blended into the story, to the extent that it seems that magic might be just around the corner in real life. The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop also contains one of my hallmark favourite things – a truly complex and interesting villain who keeps you guessing right till the end of the book. I think it’s so important not to draw characters as simply good or purely evil – life isn’t like that. Of course, it makes for a much more interesting read. I very much enjoyed the detail about the science of making chocolate, too – the level of research struck just the right balance: adding interesting detail without overwhelming the story. There are also some more contemporary issues woven into the book; challenges that children today actually face, like coping with dyslexia, but this is very cleverly done – it’s totally part of the story and I never felt preached at. All in all, a fantastic tale told with that elusive quality – genuine charm.
20th December 2011
Ooh, I’ve got some great novels coming my way – the new Ally Kennen! I can’t wait. This isn’t a review today but just a book-related blither of excitement. My friend Rosie is going to publish her first picture book in April, so this is one for the tinies. I am dying to get my hands on a copy because she’s a genius artist whilst also being a doctor, doing about 4,000 exams and having a small child. Amazing. She even found time to be my medical consultant for Dangerous to Know so I could be sure I had all the details right. Superlative…!
Read on below for the books I’ve reviewed over the past few days, and here is something Christmasish – it’s nothing to do with reading but a treat for your ears as you peruse the reviews. My favourite is Shepherds at the Manger at 5.21. Beautiful.
18th December 2011
Pride and Premiership, Michelle Gayle, Walker Books, May 2011
And now for something completely different…
OK, I shall admit that when I started reading this book I was worried it was going to annoy me. Remy, the main character, wants to be a WAG. It’s her ultimate aim in life, just the same as her big sister… Mailbu has a permatan, long blonde hair and a jaded attitude to the male sex. (Remy and Malibu? I started to suspect early on that Michelle Gayle was enjoying herself and having a bit of a laugh here). Anyway, Malibu is determined that Gary Goldenballs the footballer will be her meal ticket to a celebrity lifestyle, and Remy is absolutely sure she wants to find a footballer of her own. Is this how far we’ve come since the 1960s? Girls with one aim in mind, to marry well? Isn’t that all a bit 1813? But it’s very funny, so I read on and started thinking, wow, this is like being inside the head of Lydia or Kitty Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, the sillier of the younger Bennett sisters, but this is really quite good fun… Oh wait. The title! Yes. I’d had too many Christmas cocktails and my brain was a little addled: it took me till nearly a quarter of the way through the book to realise that it’s a modern-day take on Jane Austen’s seminal offering. And like Pride and Prejudice it’s light and breezy with serious parts, and very amusing. It was fun growing up with Remy and realising, along with her, that all in the world is not as it seems. Without wanting to give away the plot, it turns out that Remy is a great role model for girls in 2012 after all. Good fun, and you definitely don’t have to have read any Jane Austen to enjoy it.
13th December 2011
Woo! I’m on a reviewing roll now after my break. In fact I probably should be doing editorial changes this very moment, but I started reading Wintergirls last night and finished it two hours later. Yes. One of those. You start reading and you can’t stop. But before I get on with that, here’s my guest post at the lovely Overflowing Library. Judging by one of the comments, it looks like Will might get a few commissions making bookshelves if he’s not careful!
Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson, Marion Lloyd Books, Scholastic, January 2011
Lia’s best friend Cassie is dead. And the night Cassie died, she called Lia 33 times. Lia didn’t pick up the phone. But not only must Lia struggle with the enormity of her guilt, she has another cross to bear. To everyone else, Lia is extremely ill, a young woman who has starved her own body to the brink of physical collapse and survived several hospital admissions. But Lia doesn’t see it that way. It took her years to get this tiny. She’ll do what the doctors say to get people off her back, but Lia is cleverer than her parents and the doctors. She knows she’s just thin. With a small frame and a fast metabolism. Right? Being thin is what Lia does best, better than anyone. Better than Cassie. But Lia’s problems go deeper even than anorexia. Because even though Cassie is dead, she’s not gone. She’s here with Lia, right now.
This is a terrifying and gripping book. The anatomy of Lia’s illness is laid bare in minute perfection, utterly believable. It’s more complex even than anorexia, too, and Lia’s other issues are drawn with frightening immediacy. Alongside all this is a portrait of high school life everyone will immediately recognise. I think that’s what the author has done so well: there’s the horrific and overwhelming detail of Lia’s illness, but this is tempered with the everyday story of life: high school cliques, a little stepsister struggling with long division. There are enough of those vital bright touches in Lia’s existence to ensure the novel isn’t a total misery-fest: the grey eyes of a boy who wants to help, the sweet relationship between Lia and her step-sister. Wintergirls handles a difficult subject with real skill and a degree of dark humour – the plot is perfectly balanced and all the characters well-drawn, like people you might really meet, even when they appear only briefly. Very highly recommended.
11th December 2011
To Be A Cat, Matt Haig, Random House, February 2012
Being bullied at school by other kids is bad enough for Barney Willow, but now the evil headteacher has got it in for him too. Could things really get any worse? The answer is Yes. Barney is about to discover that, sometimes, getting what you wish for is the worst thing that could possibly happen – especially when you’ve just expressed the desire to become a cat… Matt Haig’s novel moves along at a speedy pace – it has obvious similarities to Martyn Bedford’s Flip, but with a slightly younger feel, and I enjoyed the dark humour here, too. To Be A Cat is fast and funny, but there’s a serious undertone about the danger of not really liking yourself very much, and the importance of real courage. When Barney is bullied by evil Gavin Needle, he crumbles inside, but his best friend Rissa is able to shrug off equally nasty comments about her hair or unconventional lifestyle because her parents have given her the priceless gift of genuine confidence. It would have been easy to err into schmaltzy self-help wiffle here, but Haig gets the balance just right. It’s daily life and the real problems children and younger teenagers face, with a perfectly realised and believable twist of true magic.
1st December 2011
Phew – first draft of new book has been handed in and now I can get back to really enjoying other people’s! Here’s one I actually read whilst I was finishing Here Among Us, but didn’t have time to review…
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, Random House, March 2012
Ten-year-old Augie lives in New York City. Inside, he feels just like any other boy. But on the outside, he is unique. Augie will never be just another boy: a rare genetic mutation has given him a face like nobody else’s. He will go through life being stared at, sometimes even publicly vilified – or just the subject of misplaced and often patronising pity. Augie’s warm and loving family have shielded him from a lot, but now it is time for Augie to take his place in the wider world. It’s time to start school…
I started this book one morning and couldn’t stop reading. I had to go and work in a cafe, leaving the book back at the house, such is the power of this story. I loved the differing narrative perspectives – you really get to see the situation developing from all angles. The chapters told by Augie’s sister, Olivia, are especially gripping. Augie’s face is so different from everybody else’s, so shockingly ugly when seen through the eyes of most people, that you fall in love with his charm and black humour, his lack of bitterness. Sure, he’s not Pollyanna and it’s not as if Augie doesn’t wish he just looked like everyone else, but you never think about the effect of a genetic condition like this on siblings, or at least I didn’t. Olivia’s perspective is shocking and insightful. What really makes the novel work, I think, is R.J. Palacio’s expert knowledge of the ten-year-old mind, and her understanding of the ten-year-old tribe: Augie’s unusual face aside, it’s a fantastic and totally realistic insight into starting a new school. Without wanting to give away too much, one of my (very) few minor criticisms is that although there should be people in the world like Summer, they must be very few and far between, if indeed they exist at all. I hope they do. Perhaps it’s just that Summer’s initial motive isn’t quite fully sketched in enough to be a hundred per cent believable. But this is a small and perhaps uncharitable niggle (maybe I’m just jealous!). Either way, this is a wonderful book and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Do not attempt to read it when you have a work deadline, that’s all I’m saying. What fantastic stuff.
25th October 2011
Exciting news for all Lauren Kate fans, and a great insight for anyone interested in the writing process. A few weeks ago I interviewed Lauren at the UK launch of Passion and here’s what she had to say…
KM: The historical research in Passion is so well done; accurate but never overwhelming – how did you go about this, and was it all planned out from the beginning of the series?
LK: Most frequently, I researched through literature. I was able to do some travel (Chitzen Itza, Versailles, and Milan), and of course there was some necessary historical research (fact checking online and such), but mostly, I read and reread novels set in the eras and locations I wanted to write about. When writing about Luce in Milan during World War I, I reread Farewell to Arms. When she’s in Moscow, I pulled from Bulgakov’s incredible The Master and Margarita. For her life with Daniel in Victorian Helston, I looked at North and South and The Woman in White. I went back to Shakespeare; I looked at Aida. This literary voyage was the most enjoyable research I’ve ever done, and I ended up with a very dynamic and exciting understanding of the journey Luce had to go on.
KM: The atmosphere in each book is totally different and equally captivating each time – do you have a favourite location?
LK: Each life Luce visits teaches her something she couldn’t have learned any other way. I loved writing the Milan life, as well as the Versailles life, and I really loved filling in the gaps with Daniel’s experiences alone. Helston was special because the prologue of Fallen was set there and those pages have served as a sort of tease all through the series. I loved going back to that parlor scene and fleshing it out, especially now that I’ve grown so much closer to Daniel’s character. I particularly feel for his side of the story—his agony—in that setting.
KM: The changing balance of Luce and Daniel’s relationship is continually fascinating – was Daniel surprised by Luce perhaps being less submissive in this lifetime because now she has grown up in a culture which treats women more equally?
LK: In each lifetime, I think Daniel expects to know and understand Luce completely—and of course he never can, because she’s been faced with new challenges in each one of her growing-up experiences. So it keep things interesting in their relationship.
KM: Are the ups and downs of Luce and Daniel’s love story planned or do they sometimes take control as characters and steer the narrative?
LK: By now, Luce and Daniel are almost entirely holding the reins of the story when it comes to the emotional pitch of their relationship. I know they have to get from point A to point B with a stopover in Tahiti, but it’s up to them to determine how they feel about that, how they are getting along, and whether they want to make any unexpected detours. I trust them to get all three of us lost for a little while within the narrative. Passion was the first time I felt like that though—it’s been a long progression from the way I interacted with them in the earlier books in the series.
KM: I love how there is a darker side to sunny privileged Shoreline – why did you decide to include the scholarship students acting as waiters to their fellow students?
LK: I once had a scholarship to a writing retreat that require me to serve food to some of the other participants at the workshop. It created a very strange dynamic when we were actually in the workshop setting and it’s probably been sitting in a corner of my mind since then. I didn’t consciously think of that when I was writing Shoreline—but clearly it was always there. Anything to add to possibilities for narrative drama in a story about the way people engage with one another is a good thing for a writer.
Thanks so much to Lauren K for giving me such great answers, and to Lauren B at Random House for arranging it. I enjoyed this a lot – I think I might have to start interviewing more people! It’s also reminded me that I really want to read The Master and Margarita and return to some of the other great classics Lauren mentions, especially The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, who wrote the first English detective story. All modern crime novels are in some way influenced by his creation – amazing.
24th October 2011
Legend, Marie Lu, Puffin, November 2011
I’m having to be brief with the reviews at the moment because of a deadline roaring towards me like a high speed train, but I’ve been meaning to write about Legend for a few weeks now. Now, to be honest, I had decided I really needed a break from dystopian fiction, but when Amanda from Puffin sent me this book, I guessed my chances of feeling like I’d read the novel before were slim – we used to work together so I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be disappointed. Yes, Legend is set in a post-apocalyptic world (a divided North America, in this case) and, yes, it’s a familiar landscape of urban desolation. What I found immediately interesting, though, was the division between those at the top of society and those at the bottom – in this futuristic Los Angeles, June’s family – what’s left of it – have almost reached the top of the pile, and live in luxury, whilst Day struggles to survive in the slums. The world of Legend is only a couple of steps sideways from our own. Lu has something to say that resonates beyond the gripping pace of the story: I don’t think it’s going too far to suggest the whole book is a pretty searing criticism of the way we live now. I love this kind of subversive rebellious fiction. June and Day are opposite sides of the same coin, each is from a different side of the track, both radiate charisma; following their story, I forgot I was reading another dystopian thriller. The world we live in needs rebels like this: June and Day refuse to accept that life isn’t fair, but they fight oppression with intelligence and compassion rather than brutality. Highly recommended, and I’m not surprised this is being made into a film: I could see every moment of the book in my mind playing out like a cross between Bladerunner and the Bourne Ultimatum.
19th October 2011
I’m so excited! A few weeks ago, I went to a party for Lauren Kate, author of the breathtaking Fallen series. We did a great interview – and then I discovered my dictaphone hadn’t worked. Lauren, though, was brilliant and has just answered my questions all over again. Her take on the whole writing process and the way her much beloved Luce and Daniel have developed is fascinating, and I will be posting the interview over the next couple of days.
17th October 2011
Oops, a bit lax recently. Blame it on the impending and scary deadline. Never mind, the one I squeezed in was well worth the time…
Flip by Martyn Bedford, Walker, March 2011
Well, this is a funny situation: Martyn Bedford was my tutor at uni. He gave me a rubbish mark for the novel I handed in as my MA thesis and here’s my chance to wreak a terrible revenge (cue wicked cackle). OK, OK, he was right – my MA really was just a bit rubbish. Anyway, now here I am reviewing Martyn’s first novel for teenagers and it’s ruddy brilliant, so my gothic plans for revenge are totally scotched. Never mind.
Imagine waking up in someone else’s skin. You’re you – thoughts, feelings and memories present and correct – but the room you wake up in is a stranger’s. The body you wake up in is unrecognisable. The family downstairs belongs to someone else. Bundled off to school by a mother you’ve never seen in your life (who, by the way, is totally bewildered and pretty irritated by your confused rambling), you go to classes and have to speak a language you’ve never even studied. Even if you were to go home, your real home, no one there would recognise you, much less believe your story. And if you’ve ended up in someone else’s body – in Alex’s case, one previously inhabited by a boy called Flip – what has happened to your own body?
Flip is such a great idea, and really well executed. This is a very exciting book – right up till the final moments, you still don’t know how on earth Alex is going to ultimately deal with finding himself in Flip’s body. Nothing is glossed over or fudged: by the end I almost believed it could really happen (actually, I did believe it could happen whilst I was reading the book). Every practicality is dealt with – girlfriends, Alex’s complete lack of ability in sports at which Flip excels, and there are also moments of excruciating horror; the idea of being forcibly ejected from your own life, but not actually dead, is terrifying when you look at it closely. Able to see your friends and family but never recognised by them, never able to really go home. Flip raises all sorts of labyrinthine questions about what it really means to be yourself. My only minor quibble is that I didn’t get on too well with some of the dream sequences – I think it was really those which were present tense – I don’t know why, so this isn’t a proper criticism, just a personal thing. It’s very funny, too – I loved the quip about dads and dishwashers. So creepily true. How does that happen, I wonder. All in all, Flip is excellent. It’s reminded me how much I enjoyed Houdini Girl, and that I really must read Black Cat.
27th September 2011
Oof – I’ve been busy. Just got back from celebrating the brilliance of Lauren Kate down in London! It was a great night and cool attending a publishing bunfight as a reviewer after loitering variously as a bookseller, an assistant to a mad but brilliant (and nameless) publisher, a desk editor then author. I did feel a bit like some kind of industrial spy being a writer from another publishing house – heeehe! It was lovely to meet other reviewers, the groovy people at Random House, one gatecrasher, and of course Lauren herself who was really nice and very interesting to talk to – there was nooo way you’d have guessed she’d just come over on an all-night flight.
Heard some very exciting Lauren Kate news, too – before the appearance of book four, Rapture, RHCB are publishing a special collection of intertwined love stories about some of our favourite angels and demons. Fallen in Love is due to appear in February 2012, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
And in the meantime, I’m amusing myself by picturing wings for everyone I meet. If you’ve read the books you’ll know what I mean – if you haven’t, well, you should.
Here’s what kept me up till the wee small hours when I got back to my old stamping ground in Hackney (not Hughie’s beetroot and beef burgers – sounds weird but you should try that too, it really works – aaanyway)…
Eight Keys by Suzanne Lafleur, Puffin, August 2011
I may as well just start by saying that I think this book is exquisite. I started reading it last night and couldn’t stop till the end. This is becoming a bit of a theme in these reviews – actually, I half wonder if it is because I don’t have time to finish books that don’t completely suck me in. But even amongst all these other novels that have captivated my enfeebled-by-lack-of-sleep brain, Eight Keys really stands out. It’s a simple premise: Elise has just moved up to middle school. Her new locker partner squashes her lunch every day. Her best friend Franklin cannot seem to stop unintentionally humiliating her. She is drowning in a tsunami of homework. And, finally, there are questions about Elise’s past she finally needs to answer. But the end result is a perfectly crafted story about growing up and negotiating the minefields that lie in wait: wanting to be cool, mean bullies, and the intricate politics of friendship. Eight Keys is so beautiful and I couldn’t recommend it more. Particularly great for nine year old girls and up.
12th September 2011
Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Alfred A. Knopf, October 2010
I’m coming to this late in the game – nearly a whole year late in fact – but it was worth the wait. What a completely charming love story. Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares begins with a red notebook, left as bait in a famous New York bookshop. Lily knows that only the right kind of boy will pick it up and read the message she has left inside. And only the right kind of boy will dare to play her game…
This is a novel so much about character: Levithan and Cohn didn’t plan the book at all, but just let Dash and Lily have free rein around New York, rollicking around like a proper pair of larrikins. This approach works wonderfully well with a few minor exceptions. Dash and Lily are both beautifully drawn. I found Dash’s astonishing verbosity a bit much at first but grew very fond of this bookish grouch by the end of the novel (stick with Dash if his precociousness irks you in the first few pages; I soon warmed to him). Lily is quirkier still but brilliant and endearing. I did find it hard to believe that Lily’s parents would jet off to Fji at Christmas, though, leaving Lily alone with her brother. Why couldn’t they have gone another time? Part of Lily’s problem is that her family are very overprotective, so I did struggle with this rather harsh decision to abandon a sensitive and Christmas-mad teenage daughter in the middle of the festive season. I really hated her parents, actually – they were SO patronising. This isn’t a criticism, by the way – we don’t see much of this pair but you can completely imagine them.
Hmm, what else? I did feel that Lily’s stranger side was introduced a little too abruptly (but won’t go into too much detail here or it will spoil the moment), and also that there were a couple too many handy coincidences within the plot for my jaded and weary eyes. But this is hair-splitting. Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares is a gorgeous love story – there’s no instant lust at first sight in chapter one, and that’s what makes it all so sweet. Dash and Lily get to know each other by exchanging wit and because they both love books so much. What a lovely thing to behold. I bet any money there are now little red notebooks secreted in bookshops everywhere, left by hopeful fans of Lily and Dash.
All in all, I enjoyed this book and definitely had that that all-important couldn’t-stop-reading thing, but was waylaid a few times by plotting issues. Ignore these or put them to the back of your mind if you can, because reading Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares is a fab way to spend an afternoon. New York itself my favourite character in the book: it’s a love letter to the city.
10th September 2011
Blood Magic by Tessa Gratton, Doubleday, 7th July 2011
Silla is spending too much time at the cemetery where her parents are buried, unable to forget their horrific deaths. When a mysterious book arrives, full of spells in her father’s handwriting, Silla can’t resist trying one out – she just wasn’t expecting it to actually work. But Silla’s not the only one haunting the graveyard. New boy in town Nicholas is inexplicably drawn to the cemetery, too – and it’s only a matter of time before he sees what Silla is up to. The magic raises old ghosts for Nicholas, things he’d rather forget…
This is a very dark paranormal thriller that moves at a fantastic pace: it definitely has that can’t-put-it-down quality. I know not everyone’s a fan of love at first sight – there’s a lot of people calling it “instalove” in a quite weary fashion at the moment, and after all there’s so much of this about in books now – but I thought Nick and Silla’s attraction was very believable. Also, Silla’s complete and total trauma at the horrible manner in which her parents shuffled off this mortal coil is absolutely convincing – a far harder feat for an author to pull off than love at first sight. Nick and Silla soon find themselves in a gore-spattered supernatural mess of awesome proportions, and it all got so scary that I didn’t dare stop reading till I’d finished the book at 2 in the morning, just so that I would be able to put it down with my brain firmly back in the real world.
A few things bothered me about this book, though – I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, but there were definitely aspects I found worrying. The spells need blood in order to work. Blood Magic is obviously meant to be a disturbing book, but I felt that Silla’s bloodletting glamorised self harm without really addressing it till right at the end. Self harm is often associated with trauma, and Silla is traumatised – so the connection is there. It’s not as if the blood is simply a spell ingredient. Silla’s trauma and grief adds another dimension to the cutting. No one wants a preachy “issues” book but, call me a dunce, the cutting was addressed with a bit too much subtlety in Blood Magic. I would be very interested to hear what other people think about this. Perhaps I’m just getting a bit old and mumsy – after all, I’m not the target audience. I wish I could know what I would have felt about this at 15.
Hmm, couple of other niggles and cries of admiration: I wasn’t 100 % convinced by Gram Judy as a character – but I do wonder if that was intentional (I can’t say any more about this without giving too much away). I absolutely LOVED Nick’s stepmother. She is hilariously horrible. Actually, I just really liked Nick as a character all the way through. Nick’s always going on about how obnoxious he is, but really he’s just very funny and a bit of a softie. I thought the plot took a very odd swerve right at the end. There is a completely unexpected twist. The book is dark all the way through, but we end up in one of Stephen King’s worst nightmares, which is saying something. This sudden ratcheting up of the horror felt a bit sudden. King’s genius lies not in creating such terrifying scenarios (loads of people can do that); what he achieves so brilliantly is the slow drip-drip of the horror into everyday life. The balance seemed a bit strange in Blood Magic, but that’s just my opinion.
So, all in all, a great addictive read for lovers of romance with a (very) dark edge. I was horribly freaked out by it but couldn’t stop reading. Oh yes, and one of the best names in fiction for a long time: Drusilla Kennicott: gorgeous.
31st August 2011
Quarry by Ally Kennen, Marion Lloyd Books, Scholastic, February 2011
Ooh, it’s a cracker. I’ve been saving this one specially for ages. I actually read it on holiday but have only just got round to the review…
Scrappy’s life is literally falling apart around his ears: his mum has left, his granddad is losing his marbles and needs looking after – it’s a lot to cope with. Even his school is about to be demolished. And then he starts receiving creepy text messages – dares that Scrappy just can’t resist. As ever, Ally Kennen writes brilliantly about serious mind-boggling danger – here the motorway roars right past the salvage yard Scrappy has grown up beside, always a threat, the wrecked cars that arrive for further demolition a constant reminder of the potential for total destruction. And gradually Scrappy begins to realise that his stalker isn’t just a mate playing a trick but someone with much more serious intentions…
Taut, tense and totally thrilling, I enjoyed this book so much. I love the way Kennen draws her characters: Scrappy’s relations are all surprising, off the wall and totally maddening, his friends (and enemies) are ones you can completely imagine having yourself. But what I love most about Quarry, and in fact about Beast, Berserk and Bedlam too, is her sheer originality. I enjoy a bit of dystopia and a splash of supernatural love as much as the next bookworm, but there’s there’s no one like Ally Kennen. One of a kind and totally brilliant, just like all her heroes.
25th August 2011
After some extensive back-reading and catching up, I embarked on a real biggie: this Carnegie-winning humdinger of a novel…
Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness, Walker Books, May 2010
We’re thrown straight back into the action, rattling off at a neck-breaking pace from where Ness deposited us, breathless and terrified, at the end of The Ask and the Answer. War on New World is about to explode into another level of horror and bloodshed, with Todd and Viola desperately battling against not only their old enemy the Mayor, but also, as ever, their own personal demons.
I remember Patrick Ness describing the Chaos Walking series as being like reading His Dark Materials while falling off a cliff, but I think the series is a different animal to Pullman’s creation. Yes, both are thrilling adventure stories which also deal with serious and complex issues, but Ness focuses his unflinching gaze on the genuinely horrifying reality of war, and the moral dilemmas which must be faced by those fighting, and those who are just trying to survive. Violence is exposed is its true form – hideous, with long-lasting consequences. It’s never cloaked in glamour, which I think is the right and responsible way to write about the darker side of human nature, rather than making it seem cool or pretending it doesn’t happen.
Todd and Viola are wonderful creations, complex and utterly believable. I’ve got a bad feeling there is going to be an entire generation of girls wasting time searching for a mysterious vampire or werewolf to adore: it’s a psychoanalyst’s dream. Actually, they should all be looking for a Todd, and the boys for a Viola: loyal, trustworthy, utterly human with real human faults. I know Monsters of Men is a dystopian thriller, but my favourite thing about it is the way Patrick Ness writes about love. It’s not a fairytale but bloody hard work at times. The Mayor is my number one kind of villain, too – complex, horrendous and endlessly surprising.
Finally, there’s a lot of buzz at the moment surrounding dystopian fiction, but the weird thing is, reading this I never thought, “Oh, I’m reading another one of those novels”. I was simply too involved in the book. Monsters of Men rises above its genre. It’s horrifying, exciting, beautiful and very clever, and you should read it.
Aaah, back from the Highlands – what the the midges and mosquitos left of me anyway. It was all rather exciting. Between sailing briskly up a loch with two children under the age of 3 and getting mysteriously lost on a vertical hillside, I managed to read some great books…
7th August 2011
Emerald, by Karen Wallace, Simon and Schuster, August 2011
Have you ever reviewed a book written by your mother-in-law? No? Scary stuff – I mean, what if I hated it? Could make supper on Wednesday night a bit awkward, eh? Especially when they’re bringing the food. I was pretty confident about agreeing to review Emerald, though, because I’ve always liked Karen Wallace’s books, even before I married her son (phew). But anyway, family connections aside, here’s my take on her tale of Elizabethan treachery and head-spinning first love…
Looking at it from the comfort and freedom of the 21st century, Elizabethan England was a dangerous and uncomfortable place to be, even for the rich. Emerald St John has suffered enough. She’s already lost her father, been kicked out of the family home by her horrible scheming mother and sent to live with relatives in the Welsh borders, including the deliciously poisonous courtier to Queen Elizabeth, Cousin Arabella. Now Emerald is to marry, and the man her family have chosen is totally repulsive in every way. As Emerald desperately plots to take control of her own destiny, she’s drawn ever deeper into court politics, and hers is not the only life on the line.
Emerald is an excellent take on the intelligence and wit girls must have had to deploy to gain any control over their lives in Elizabethan England. I’m being deliberately roundabout to avoid giving away the plot, but the dangers of playing a false move are frightening to read about now, and the consequences must have been terrifying then. The game of love was literally a matter of life or death. Period detail is beautifully evoked, too – you never feel it’s rammed down your throat. It’s also a seriously pacy read with that thriller-like quality which forces you to keep reading on, late into the night. Perfect for teenage girls.
Ballad, by Maggie Stiefvater, Scholastic, May 2011
Alrighty, so I avoided YA fiction (and indeed most fiction of any genre) for many years after it became too much of a busman’s holiday – studying novels, flogging them in bookshops and then later copy-editing and having to ready the stuff for publication without any dreadful mistakes that would necessitate pulping an entire print run and THEN actually writing the stuff myself. Now I’ve become a proper bookworm again, it would seem I have missed out on an entire publishing phenomenon. Not knowing about Maggie Stiefvater is a bit Harry who? Embarrassing. Luckily for me, I’ve now had the chance to redeem myself and read both Lament and Ballad in one sitting. Actually, I was quite scared to read anything about bad fairies because (stop press), I’m writing about some myself, so it was a relief to see that the path I’ve chosen is different to the world of Ballad and Lament. I just hope I can pull it off with even a teeny bit of the same skill.
Anyway, enough writerly angst and on to Ballad. James Morgan is a prodigy, but the high-end music school he attends is a dangerous place, haunted by some extremely nasty faeries, including one who inspires musical greatness before destroying the artist. Nuala is condemned to destroy not only those who make foolish bargains in exchange for musical genius, but also herself. She burns alive every sixteen years, never remembering those she has loved. And then she meets James… Ballad is fantastical, mythical and gorgeous – I loved Pat O’Shea’s Hounds of the Morrigan as a child, and Stiefvater brings the rich canon of Irish mythology to a new generation. James’ world is so ordinary, despite his musical skill, that you’re left half-believing in faeries. This is where I think Stiefvater hits the jackpot – yes, it’s a gorgeous love story, but all the supernatural stuff is so well done that you really believe it could happen. This has been said of Steifvater’s work before, but the actual quality of the writing is superb, too – genuinely lyrical. I slightly preferred Ballad to its predecessor Lament, but that’s very personal and largely to do with which of the main characters in each book, James or Dee, you like best.
My only complaint applies more to the previous book, Lament: one evil scheming character is referred to by the hero, Luke, as “a nasty, paranoid-schizo girl who told people what to do and hurt them if they didn’t do it”. Others frequently refer to themselves (in jest) and others as “psycho”. I feel bad for flagging this up because I enjoyed the books so much, and it’s true that using such language is very authentic. It’s a tricky one really. Perhaps readers are supposed to notice and think “Hey, that’s not OK”, but I believe most people will just gloss over it, subconsciously absorbing the stereotype of mentally ill people being violent and a danger to society. I wish other words could have been found. Or is it really that I wish teenagers didn’t use “paranoid-schizo” as a term of abuse, which isn’t the author’s fault? She’s telling it like it is, I suppose. Either way, apologies for the self-righteous and probably overly-politically-correct rant at the end of a review of a great book(s).
Sorry about the long wait between posts – I’m in the midst of travelling between two remote and beautiful outposts of the British Isles: Kinloch Hourn way up in the Highlands of Scotland and the Isles of Scilly. But here are two reviews to keep you going…
24th July, 2011
Power of Six, by Pittacus Lore, Penguin, August 2011
I wish I had written this book, and not just because of the stellar sales of its precursor I am Number Four, oh and the hit film, too. Power of Six is absolutely excellent, continuing the story of alien-in-hiding Number Four, alias John Smith, as he is chased down by US government forces and the murderous Mogadorians, who are determined to extinguish the last of the Lorien race. We now have two very different Lorien heroines added to the mix: the ruthless and all-powerful Six, and quietly furious Marina, marooned in a remote nunnery hidden in the Spanish Picos de Europa mountains. Unlike the other remaining Lorien, Marina has not been running from the Mogadorians: she has been forced into hiding. But no one can hide for ever.
I always love a good thriller, and Power of Six is told at a fast and furious pace. The heroes and heroines are all different but equally appealing. I especially like the fact that writing team Jobie Hughes and James Frey have made the Lorien’s human collaborator, Sam Goode, very kick-ass for a mere human maths geek. Sam doesn’t need super powers to be heroic. But not only does the story move at terrific speed with seriously engaging characters, the quality of the writing is outstanding. In places, especially the terrifying battle scenes, the prose is hallucinogenic, really beautiful and lyrical. I couldn’t recommend this more highly.
Passion, by Lauren Kate, Random House, June 2011
Luce and Daniel are deeply, passionately in love. But Luce is condemned by an ancient curse to die in Daniel’s arms at the age of 17, consumed by fire whilst Daniel, an angel cast out from heaven at the Fall, is forced to live through the agony of her loss until Luce’s soul is reborn and he can love her again for a few short years, months or even weeks.
I’m a latecomer to Lauren Kate’s Fallen series, so I was pretty intrigued – the first book sold over 1 million copies worldwide. Passion is third in the sequence, and I can now see why it has been such a success. Kate has a great gift for tapping into the preoccupations and obsessions of the female teenage mind. I had to investigate the back story a little to make sense of what was happening, so I’d recommend reading the books in order, but Luce is a brilliant wronged heroine, unjustly accused of murder, with a mysterious destiny. At the risk of being very patronising, I’d be willing to bet that most teenage girls (and boys) feel dreadfully and unjustly wronged at least part of the time, and a good proportion would like to believe they have a mysterious destiny, too. Well, I know I did. Anyway, it’s easy to see why so many people love these books.
With the story established in Fallen and Torment, Passion is a race back through time as Luce visits her former reincarnations in a bid to find a weak spot in the curse that binds her and Daniel to their eternal love, and their eternal torment. Each century that Luce visits is skilfully brought to life without shoving too much period detail and research into the reader’s face, each former “Luce” is different to the last, a briefly and deftly drawn character. Initially, I found it weird that the immortal angels in the book speak to each other as if they are American teenagers, but actually this works well and I can see why Kate chose to do it. The series is far more complicated than a simple battle between Heaven and Hell, good and evil, so it makes sense that the characters are very easy to relate to even when they are actually quite complicated philosophical creations. Also, it was great not to be bogged down with that “Forsooth, my liege” kind of language that often gets used in situations like this.
Daniel is the ultimate mysterious boyfriend that many a teenage girl dreams of, gorgeous and yet infuriatingly unfathomable. At first I was a bit worried that Daniel seemed quite controlling, doing things for Luce’s “own good”, and didn’t think this was necessarily a great example, but as the novel progresses it quickly becomes clear that Luce is determined to take control of her own destiny and meet Daniel on equal terms with equal knowledge. All in all, a gripping and intelligent take on an ancient theme, best read as part of the series to get the fully addictive effect.
7th July, 2011
Life: An Exploded Diagram, by Mal Peet, Walker Books, June 2011
Clem Ackroyd and Frankie Mortimer are in love. If their parents ever find out, their world will be destroyed. This is more than just a tale of forbidden love, though. Opening with Clem’s birth into a fiery Norfolk apocalypse at the tail end of WW II, Frankie and Clem’s own drama is set against the snowballing Cuban missile crisis.
This is an outstanding book for older teenagers, unpatronising and completely gripping. Mal Peet treats his audience absolutely as adults – there isn’t even really a child character until a good few chapters in, but this doesn’t matter. Lingering so long with Clem’s family before he is even born, Peet makes sure we know Clem’s parents and grandmother as if we’d lived in the same village all our lives – perfectly capturing the familiarity and claustrophobia of a small town and making his reader part of it, too. I loved Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson when I was 16 – and would have been equally delighted by Life: An Exploded Diagram. Very highly recommended.
Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough, Random House, April 2011
“The doors were all bolted and
the windows all pinned
except one little window
where Long Lankin crept in”
Cora and Mimi’s mother has gone missing. Their father can’t manage, so the sisters leave 1950s London to embark on a stay of indefinite length with an aunt they have never met. To most children, this alone would be disturbing. But Cora and Mimi’s arrival in the Essex village of Bryars Guerdon wakes an evil which has haunted the village for centuries. No child is safe, especially not near the abandoned church. But, somehow, Cora and her new friend Roger can’t resist going to the one place they – or more accurately, their little sister and brother – are in the most danger.
This is a truly frightening and haunting book – I read it alone at night with two small children in the house, not the best idea. If I hadn’t been too scared to get out bed, I would have gone around the house making sure all the windows were shut. Yep, it’s really scary. Weirdly, I think I found Long Lankin more gut-wrenching now I have children of my own than I would have done as an older child or teenager. Told alternately by Cora, local boy Roger, and Cora’s haunted, damaged Aunt Ida, the story races to its conclusion, delivering side-swiping doses of pure terror along the way. I could go into more detail about these brilliantly crafted moments, but don’t want to risk spoiling them for a first-time reader. Just watch out, that’s all I’m saying.
I loved Roger: he’s an entertainingly exasperated older brother doing his best to survive in a busy household (and get out of as many chores as possible), bringing a touch of comic lightness to relieve the mounting fear and tension. Cora is a great lead character – bolshy and courageous. I enjoyed the detail of 1950s life, too – the endless washing of clothes by hand as well as the cricket teas. Cora and Roger roam more or less wherever they like, something which I assume has now become rare among children their age. Now I think about it, I’m sure there’s a metaphor here about the wisdom, or not, of trying to keep children helplessly penned in away from danger, with all the windows shut. And being a history geek, I loved this age-old marshland scene with the Norsemen of the Danelaw still evident as shadowy figures evoked by the odd surviving Scandinavian name in the village.
I was intrigued by the book jacket – it looks very adult to me – and led me to wonder what the difference is between a book cover aimed at adults and one directed at teenagers or older children. I don’t know. That said, even though we have Aunt Ida’s input, Cora and Roger’s voices place the book utterly within a child’s world, and this I loved. Long Lankin has the feel of a timeless children’s classic (albeit a really, really scary one). I will be very interested to see what this first-time author produces next.
Popular by Gareth Russell, Penguin (Razorbill imprint), July 2011
“And how are we?”
Meredith Harper rules Mount Olivet Grammar School in Belfast with beauty, charm and despotic power, aided by a small tribe of It-girls all equally as beautiful (well nearly) and just as bitchy. Cameron, six feet tall and gorgeous, is part of the clique now that he has conquered an addiction to muffins and lost the puppy fat. Obviously, it all gets complicated, but not in the way you might think. This is a very, very entertaining look at what it takes to be part of the in-crowd, especially if you’re a socialite in Northern Ireland (being featured in Ulster Tatler, for one: “Inside the magazine, Imogen was posing on the Giant’s Causeway in a ball gown, with Anastasia Montmorency beside her. They had both gone for brooding, with the waves crashing over the rocks behind them (…) in a fabulously poetic way.”). It’s an extremely funny book – I laughed a lot and kept reading bits out loud to people, which must have been very annoying but I couldn’t help myself.
Popular has the convincing weight of authenticity – at first, I thought Meredith’s friend Kerry was a caricature, but a few chapters in I started to suspect that the author knows someone exactly like her, so I just went along for the ride. Russell does mercilessly laugh at his characters quite a bit, but he chooses his targets carefully. There’s nothing funny about Meredith Harper. There are serious issues, too, which I won’t go into lest I spoil the plot for you. It’s all very well dealt with, though: nothing is clear cut or black and white, just like life. My one complaint – a small one – is that the only genuinely nice characters are boys. The girls are all pretty morally bankrupt to a greater or lesser extent, which seems a bit unfair (on the boys – why can’t they be amusingly wicked, too, instead of just confused? It looks like so much fun.) This didn’t occur to me till I’d finished the book, and didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it. There’s more to come in this series and I’ll definitely be looking out for the next serving of evil glamour.
Scrivener’s Moon by Philip Reeve, Scholastic Children’s Books, April 2011
I wasn’t intending to do this – review another book by the same publisher immediately after the excellent Blood Red Road (see below), and another dystopian one at that. But I couldn’t help it. It’s honestly not because I used to work at Scholastic, I just couldn’t stop myself from reading the book and wanting to talk about it. I promise the next review will be something very different! Anyway, one of my final tasks as a desk editor there a long, long time ago was reading the first few pages of a new book by Philip Reeve, Fever Crumb. He’d just emailed them in and it was brilliant. And now here we are with Scrivener’s Moon, the third book in a series set in the world of Mortal Engines, several hundred (or thousand?) years before the original series began. I’ve only just started reading fiction for this age group again, so I came to Scrivener’s Moon having missed out on large chunks of background. It doesn’t matter – Reeve doesn’t bash the reader over the head with history, but you’ll still know enough to make sense of what’s going on here. At times not having read the previous books made me feel a bit like I was eavesdropping on a really exciting conversation I couldn’t quite hear, but that just made me want to go back and read Fever Crumb and Web of Air – tempting rather than annoying.
To the book. It’s a race through this post-apolcalyptic disaster of a world, with – essentially – rival tribes battling for resources, and the Engineer heroine, Fever Crumb, desperately trying to uncover a secret hidden in the frozen north. Scrivener’s Moon is a thrilling, breathtaking gallop through an intricately detailed fantasy landscape full of woolly mammoths, bold brave heroines and deadly assassins. We also see the first lurching steps of a moving city. It’s perfect for the intended 10 + age group, including those legions of keen younger readers, of course (well, 10+ is the age group indicated by the publisher – who knows if Philip Reeve writes with age in mind or if he just writes. Anyway).
But Scrivener’s Moon is more than this: it’s also an acutely observed portrait of the human animal with a good splash of frivolity and humour. All is laid bare here: our monstrous greed and consumption, our curiosity and love of invention, our love for chosen others and the damage it can do. It’s all so lightly done, and so funny in places. Amazing. What I like most about Philip Reeve’s writing is his ability to create such wonderfully human characters (or not so human, in some cases). We see inside the minds of his nastiest villains, how vulnerable and horribly scheming they are, and, sadly, how misery and other people’s villainy can turn even the gentlest person into something monstrous, or how a single thoughtless action can make a person simply choose not to be good.
There are big ideas here, deftly woven into a very exciting book, including some which are likely to offend the narrow-minded, but that’s a good thing. And no child who reads Scrivener’s Moon will ever trust a politician, especially not the Mayor of London. It should be required reading for everyone in a position of power. You can’t say that about many children’s books.
Blood Red Road, Moira Young, Marion Lloyd Books at Scholastic, June 2011
I thought I’d start with a first-time author – and anyway, out of my stash so far Blood Red Road by Moira Young has easily the most arresting title and cover: splashes of blood and crows, excellent stuff. I remember a sales director telling me once that a book jacket (front and back) has roughly eight seconds in which to persuade a customer to part with their cash. Scholastic are clearly on the case with this one. No surprise, really – it’s a much anticipated release from Marion Lloyd’s boutique imprint. I couldn’t help but pick up the book: a good start. While I’m on the subject, what a brilliant title: gorily alliterative and totally eye-catching.
Onwards to the book itself. I was totally sucked in by the first line. The main character is called Saba. Saba doesn’t just leap from the page. She grabs you in a threatening fashion around the neck, flawed but still utterly absorbing. Young writes in Saba’s own very non-Queen’s English voice: imagine Huckleberry Finn has turned into a girl, got wasted on cheap whisky and come over just a little bit nasty. Saba is grumpier than someone with a perpetual hangover (justifiably, given the horrible things that happen to her). Luckily, rather than jarring the teeth, this clever use of dialect sets the scene, adding a great splash of rusty, sun-burned colour to an arid landscape of post-massive-nuclear-type-disaster. Make no mistake, sustaining such a singular and unusual voice throughout 500+ pages without annoying the reader is a mark of extreme skill.
So, how on earth to describe this place, Saba’s world? It’s like being trapped inside the set of Mad Max with overtones of Hollywood’s more sinister Westerns. Oceans of sand, dead land. Not enough water. Blood Red Road is a very good book set in a very nasty place that you see, hear, smell and feel through every pore. My favourite character is Saba’s sister, Emmi. Unlike most of the other goodies, Emmi looks, well, a bit rough to be honest, but I love how dogged and brave she is. I’ve got a bad feeling something unpleasant will befall little Emmi that we haven’t been told about just yet (or perhaps I’m reading in too much), but I shall follow her progress through the sequel cheering her on at every step.
Now some quibbling, and I’m reluctant to do it really because I enjoyed the book so much. I quibble here so that you guys trust me to give an honest opinion, warts and all. These warts are small and unobtrusive but here they are. A few things niggled: the baddies are, in my view, a shade too relentlessly horrid. I like my evildoers with a streak of common humanity; it makes their wickedness all the sharper and more tragic. Save one, the baddies are physically hideous as well, almost cartoon-like at points – it’s a tricky issue because we do see the bad guys only through Saba’s eyes and they keep doing dreadful things to Saba and her family. But still. And somewhere around the midway point, the plot hangs on a coincidence which is too convenient. Even though Blood Red Road is a book about predestiny and fate, I lost the thread for a moment: I kind of sat back and thought “Hey, that was a bit easy.” So there they are, warty quibbles all out in the open. Didn’t stop me racing through the book, though.
On reading the first few pages, two thoughts competed immediately for supremacy. “This is going to be an outstanding piece of post-apocalyptic fiction; I’m in the hands of an excellent writer,” followed swiftly by “Have I, to all intents and purposes, read this book before?” I’m a fan of Philip Reeve’s peerless Mortal Engines series and hugely enjoyed Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go, and there are definite similarities here. I read on, unable to stop, swept along by a plot that moves faster than a cracked whip. In answer, Blood Red Road is unmistakably of a type (and why the heck not?), but different enough not to seem derivative. Highly recommended, especially for fans of the genre. Actually, this book will almost certainly introduce new fans to the genre. Definitely an author to watch.
About the blog…
OK, so there are many amazing bloggers out there dealing with what at times must seem like an avalanche of new books published every month, but I’m devoting review-space strictly to my fellow teen/young adult authors. My first parcel has arrived with more to follow from other publishers (at least I hope so, or I’ll be shoplifting in the bookshops of Ludlow). I’ve started working my way through the pile and it’s reminded me how much I love fiction for this age group. Wild imagination, characters you fall in love with, none of the pretentiousness that’s often found in mainstream adult fiction, especially the literary stuff. The point is, you don’t have to be a teenager to love it. Plus the covers don’t usually look childish, so you won’t be embarrassed reading these books on the train if that’s the kind of thing that bugs you.
Here’s what I promise to do in the blog:
* Give a fair and honest appraisal. It’s no secret I’ve worked with/for various people in the publishing world but I’m not going to give someone a good review because of a professional connection.
* Include new/up-coming authors.
* Be constructive. I won’t be mean for the sake of it.
* At times, I’ll try and give a writer’s perspective if I think it might offer an interesting angle on a book. This blog isn’t for the purpose of wiffling on about myself (I’ve got the rest of this website to do that in), but I rent my pen for cash as well and sometimes a technical viewpoint from that side of the fence might be helpful.
Here’s what I swear I won’t do:
* Give away the godforsaken plot. Why do people do this? It drives me to the edge of reason (which isn’t very far, for someone as sleep-deprived as I am, but I digress).
On to the exciting stuff. The books…