Friday, 31 January 2014

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

This is one of my first Graphic Novels, really, and there could be no better introduction. I was floored by the warmth, the humilty and the wisdom of experience that the book emitted, and I loved the changing perspective of the narrator as she grows up, grows into somebody else, falls apart and pulls herself together.

The book a history, told in pictures. It's the history of a person, a family, a country and a war. It's so many things it's impossible to count- a memoir, a bildungsroman, an autobiography and a piece of art. Persepolis made me realise that I know next to nothing about the people, culture or government of Iraq, Iran or the Middle East and that made me feel guilty and not just a little ignorant. In the West we know only what we're told: the fundamentalists, the terrorists and the extremists. Something that Marjane points out in her youth- people just don't understand Iran.

Part one tells the story of Marjane's childhood during the war(s) with Iraq and the Islamic Revolution. Brought up by liberal, well off parents, Marjane suddenly finds herself much more restricted; forced to wear a veil, forbidden from listening to music, wearing makeup or sneakers and her French-language school closed down in favour of propaganda-spouting religious schools. Nevertheless, the population finds its little ways of rebelling, or they are consumed by the dogma of the regime. This element reminded me of The Handmaid's Tale, the cloak and dagger acts of nonconformity and the camaraderie that such acts invoke. Marjane takes it all in her stride, her youth and swagger her shield, dodging the authorities and listening to Kim Wilde and Iron Maiden anyway.  Her refusal to be beaten forever endeared her to me- I can't imagine what it must have been like to live under such oppressive rule, and the dignity and resilience with which the Irani people bear it amazing.

Part two tells of her education in Austria, the loneliness of unfamiliar places and languages, the isolation of the new kid and the ease with which a displaced person can find themselves slipping away, becoming unrecognisable from their real self. Falling into drugs, homelessness and depression, Marjane struggles with her identity- too Western to be a true Iranian and too dark skinned to be a European. This section of the narrative is told with such emotion and despair that in places it's a bit difficult to read. Ultimately she must return to Iran, but after an absence of so many years, how much will her country have changed?

Marjane is fast becoming one of my favourite literary characters, despite being real. She's somebody that anybody can relate to; often brave, sometimes stupid, she makes mistakes that everybody else could see coming but she learns from them. She's rebellious, untouchable and foolish and she's absolutely hilarious.   The art work too was excellent- the stark black and white was really effective, surprisingly effective, never struggling to convey facial expressions, emotion or identities. Marjane starts off as a very black/white person, so the format fits the character.  In short, I loved everything about this book. Marjane and her family are a joy to read, I'm still not sure I understand the complicated political landscape of Iran, but I felt like I learnt, sometimes along with Marjane herself, what the implications of the regime were for normal Iranian people.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Rig, by Joe Ducie

15 year old convicted criminal and serial escapist Will Drake has slipped the bars of some of the World's most secure prisons. His efforts have earned him a cell on 'The Rig' a disused oil rig since transformed into a a high-tech super prison for young offenders. Ran like clockwork by the demented Warden, the Rig is stranded in the middle of the freezing Arctic Ocean and only accessible by chopper, so swimming is definitely off the cards.

Confident that he won't be there long and compelled by his survival instincts and inconvenient moral compass, Drake doesn't exactly keep his head down. It's not long before his status as a 'Special Case' has attracted the attention of some of the Rig's more psychotic hard-man inmates and the sadistic military guard force. After hatching some rough escape plans, digging some dirt and vowing to escape the Rig if it kills him, Drake is convinced that all isn't as it seems on the Rig. What were those mysterious blue lights that Drake saw shining from the depths? Why are those psychopath inmates so inhumanly strong? And where do they disappear to for weeks at a time?

Working, eating, sleeping, his tracker noting his every location, Drake knuckles down, biding his time.  Falling short of his own rule, he befriends his computer genius cellmate Tristan and a healer girl, Irene from the other wing. Between them they might be able to discover the secret, sinister purpose of the Rig- not that being a floating Hell of 24 hour GPS tracking and frequent beating aren't sinister enough. Maybe one they've found out what goes on under the seabed- what keeps the Warden so smug and the bullies so strong, then they can plan their escape for good. No prison can hold Drake for long.

The Rig is set in a near future where the majority of the World is ruled by the sinister Alliance in which all resources, funds and rules are controlled by one powerful man. An absolutely brilliantly written, slick prison heist novel with a breathless plot, the Rig is one of the best stand-alone YA action novels I've read in ages. It's intricate, clever and has some truly memorable characters. Gradually wising up to the horrific secret buried under the sea, the reader unravels the mystery along with the characters, so expect to have to keep up. Drake makes an excellent protagonist; funny. charming, mysterious. Though it's not narrated in his voice, the reader still experiences his thoughts and feeling, even if they do not have access to his past. The way he slowly but meticulously adds the pieces to his mental map of the prison was done with style and in a way that really ramped up the suspense and revealed Drake's intelligence, survival instincts and impressive eye for detail.

One of the novel's greatest achievements is the strength of its characters. Each of the principal three are reluctant to open up about their crimes and convictions, each wants to preserve themselves from the pain of friendship and trust, wanting to go it alone. Drake, Tristan and Irene all have their own quirks, motivations and a unique and powerful back story, gradually demystified as each of the characters (and the reader) gets to know each other better. All are essentially huge inconveniences to the Alliance and need to be holed up out of the way. The characters are engaging, funny and convincing and they have a great rapport- they talk like real teens, which is hard to pull off. It's very easy to care about them, despite their obvious heroism. Even the villains are well crafted- sparse on the detail and wildly mysterious, as befits a private military. They seem genuinely evil, and delight in their cruelty. The book raises a few questions about corruption, doing the right thing and the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, which was interesting, and it makes it crystal clear which side Drake is on.

I'm not sure if the younger year groups will appreciate the novel's complexity, and there are a few swears, but overall a pacey, intelligent and incredibly slick YA novel that I think is going to be wildly popular. I certainly enjoyed it. I can see it making an absolutely cracking film one day. Will Drake is such a memorable character, like Jason Bourne meets Artemis Fowl.  I look forward to Joe Ducie's next release!

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Why Spacemen Can't Burp, by Mitchell Symons

The latest in Symons' series of weird 'did-you-know?' fact books takes a pretty similar format to his other books, even right down to having some sort of bodily function in the title.  We've had burps, bums, bogies, ear wax, poo, farts and pukes.  What will the next one be called?  I dread to think...

Why Spacemen Can't Burp is laid out in a Question and Answer format and seasoned with various appropriate doodles.  Symons answers various (loosely science based) questions, many of which have been sent in to him by inquiring young minds.  He explains some unusual idioms, debunks various myths, urban legends and misnomers and generally fuels the reader with enough interesting facts and amusing tidbits to see you comfortably through your next form quiz or episode of QI.

Covering topics such as human bodies, animals, forces, sayings, food, geography and just about everything else, it's a pretty broad spectrum of facts and oddities, corrections and confirmations.

It's funny, informative and interesting and will obviously be wildly popular, as have all of Symons' other titles. It's full of the gross facts and bits and bobs that young readers love to dip in and out of and out-do eachother reading aloud.  Personally, I find these sorts of books really difficult to read, as my attention tends to wander with each page and there's nothing to develop really, in a book of facts but I know there's a pretty huge readership  for this type of book.

Scary Tales: Home Sweet Horror, by James Preller

Following the death of their Mother, Liam Finn and his family move to a "renovation opportunity" out in New York State.  From the very first moment, the family dog Doolin is not a fan, growling and whimpering at the house.  Liam and his sister Kelly aren't thrilled about the new house either, but they're stuck out there now.

Immediately it becomes apparent to Liam that there is something about the house that is not right- a presence or a force that obviously wants them gone.  Not wanting to upset his dad and ruin his new start, Liam keeps his spooky encounters to himself- the noises in the night, the warnings from local tradesmen about the evil of the house, the electrical appliances that seem to work on their own, the messages in the mirror.

When Kelly's friend from back home comes to visit, they decide to see if they can contact the ghost, chanting Bloody Mary in the mirror. They aren't prepared for what comes out of it- and what it is planning to do to them to get rid of the Finns.

A decent, short ghostly horror story, a bit similar in tone to the iconic Goosebumps series.  The author builds up tension through increasingly severe incidents starting with bumps in the night that lead up to the seance, the increasingly erratic behaviour of Kelly and the disappearance of Doolan, until the book culminates in a violent final event.  A solid sense of foreboding is developed, which must be quite difficult to achieve in such a short book.  I really liked the full page illustrations and margin doodles that accompanied the text- some told parts of the story that the text didn't, almost like a graphic novel panel.  The sketchy, shadowy style really suited the tone of the book and I really liked the dangly spider that got lower and lower down the page as you flicked through, it reminded me of the flick-book pages on the Animorphs series.  The illustrations not only helped to set the tone, establish the appearance of the characters and the locations (helpful to the less imaginative reader) but also helped ensure that the bigger portions of text were broken up a little.

In books so short, there is not always an enormous amount of opportunity to develop characters to any great length- and  feel that this was perhaps one of the weaker aspects of this story.  Each of the characters had some personality, but were all pretty basic- Liam was perhaps the most well-rounded, as the reader has access to his thoughts and emotions, we get a better sense of him as a person.  Kelly, the angry teenage and "let's-move-on" Dad both felt a little one dimensional to me, which was a shame.  I would have like to know more about the mysteriously malevolent Bloody Mary- Why was she so attached to that house?  When was she alive?  Why does she haunt the house and not the road where she was killed?  On the whole the characters are functional, but not hugely memorable.  But I realise that these are the restrictions of such short Reluctant Reader fiction...All in all, an engaging chiller with an excellent style and layout- horror is always a popular genre even with weaker readers, so I think this will prove to be quite a hit in the school's library.

Monday, 27 January 2014

SOS Lusitania, by Kevin Kiely

13 year old Finbar Kennedy dreams of working on the world's biggest and fastest ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania, just like his dad. After a flying visit during his brief period of shore leave, Staff Captain Kennedy is due to set sail from Ireland to New York. Determined to stow away on board and have some adventures, Finbar slips off in the night to find a hiding place on the ship and leaving his Ma and his siblings. Once on board, Finbar gets cold feet at the last moment and tries to disembark but he's trapped in a cabin and he's just overheard something dangerous...

With the Great War looming over Europe and submarine warfare on the increase, many of the passengers are a bit tense, particularly after certain pieces of propaganda have been printed.  Finbar has his suspicions too about certain individuals on board who are definitely up to something; he's heard whispers of gold, weapons, ammunition and other deadly things.

I really liked Finbar, he had the wide eyed wonder of a child, but the bravery and resilience of a much more mature person.  I loved how much pride he took in performing his messenger role and how pleased he was to be even a small cog in what to him, was the most impressive machine in the world.  Putting his hat straight all the time and racing around like a madman, calling everything 'duty'. His father was also a well crafted character.  It was revealing to see, through Finbar's eyes, the difference between what he was like as a father and what he was like as an officer.  He's obviously a very well respected man, which I think surprised Finbar a bit.  He knew himself what a hero his father was, but I think it seems strange to him to have that confirmed by other, important people.

Based on a true maritime disaster, the blurb makes it clear from the beginning that the Lusitania sinks, with a not-insignificant loss of life.  Comparisons are of course drawn to the Titanic, 2 years previously, but this sinking was no accident.  The book's narrative has a German U-boat torpedoing the Lusitania, but also has characters discuss the idea (in whispers) that it might be a British plot to force the Americans into the War. Successfully, if that was indeed the intention.  The lack of promised Naval support from the British appears to back this up in the plot.  The author never makes it clear which he wants to be the truth, but works each possibility into the narrative.  He also provides details in the appendix about the following real life court cases and the evidence given by the crew and the Navy, leaving the reader to decide for themselves who is responsible for the attack.

An enjoyable read, Finbar makes a good narrator- he's morally upstanding and takes his job seriously. He has a few early dealings with spies, smugglers and illness, but on the whole, the book is a pretty slow burner. They sail, they discover, the dock, they explore, they sail and they sink.  Large parts of the novel are just the daily business of a passenger liner in 1915.  The tension never really builds, I suppose because technically there is no perceived threat, just the chance of threat for much of the book.  Characters can't really react to something that they don't know is there.  It's not until the attack itself that the tension starts to mount and the reader begins to wonder which of the characters will make it to Liverpool. The crux of the story is in the sinking, which from the very start, the reader knows about.  It's a bit of an odd layout for a book, and an unusual narrative structure, but being based on true events it's the way it has to go.  It's an interesting novel, and I think it will prove popular, as disasters at sea seem to appeal to the macabre part of a person's imagination, especially those based on real events.

Under the Skin, Catherine MacPhail

Omar and his family have fled their war-torn home country and come to the UK to seek asylum and to find a safe place to live.  Writing letters to his cousin back home, Omar describes their penthouse, his best friend Sam and his excellent prospects in the UK.  The reality is that Omar and his family live in a flat on the top floor of an immense tower block and are subjected to daily abuse by their neighbours and Sam, a boy from school that lives a few floors below- but he doesn't want his cousin to think he isn't happy.  When Omar suddenly comes into possession of a secret that could ruin and humiliate his nemesis, he must make a decision- does he do the right thing and keep quiet?  Or reveal his secret and get Sam off his case.

Under the Skin is a short book, so there is little opportunity for a great deal of character development. However, the characters are pretty easy to understand, without being one dimensional.  Omar is obviously from a country in conflict, he describes how his father was tortured and his family persecuted and how much he loves being in Britain where they don't shoot at you.  He's glad to be in the country, even if he is a bit lonely and it's clear that he really wants to make it work.  He stands up for himself (sometimes physically or violently) but has a good sense of right and wrong despite being wronged himself, which pays off in the end.

It's a short, easy to read book that manages to tell quite a complex story in a ways that's easy to understand. Omar speaks in broken English, which means he keeps it fairly straightforward and he frequently expresses his confusion about some of the sayings and idioms in the English language but on the whole considers English to be a wonderful language. The narrative is broken up by letters from Omar to his cousin, which establishes a bit of a contrast between Omar's reality and what he's writing in his letters.   He creates a good sense of what it must be like to live in exile- the prejudice that he suffers and what it is like to be displaced.  It's a story about taking the moral high ground, seeing things from other perspectives and perseverance.  It reminds the reader that nothing happens overnight and friendships have to be worked at, and new starts do not happen all at once.

Crazy Creatures, by Gill Arbuthnott

A short wander through some of the world's more unusual and bizarre creatures including vampire bats, naked mole rats and a bird that has the World's smelliest attack sick.  I found the information in this book interesting, but struggled to understand the format a little bit.  The text is kept to a minimum and there are no images, but it's not a fact-file and it doesn't really have any sort of reads more like a series of quite interesting animal anecdotes that are just grouped into four vague groups...

I have seen similar books to this that include eye catching colour layouts, photos, habitat information and interesting or gross facts. These types of books are accessible, engaging and popular with low ability readers who don't seem to have too much trouble understanding them.  I just found it odd that a book about weird, mind boggling creatures didn't provide any pictures or any other information at all about the animals, apart from the fact that they did something odd or looked a bit strange.  It is quite difficult to appreciate how strange some of the animals are, unless you know already what they look like.  I'm not sure there is much demand for accessible books that just provide random chunks of information and odd animal attributes without any sort of context- I liked the information, but thought that by itself, the contents of the book was lacking in substance.

I think these factual snippets might have been better used as flashcards, perhaps with an image of the creature on the back that could still be used to develop literacy skills, but in a way that fits the format a bit better.

Island of Thieves, by Josh Lacey

Sent to stay with his Uncle Harvey whilst his parents enjoy a child-free holiday,  Tom Trelawney thinks he's in for an exciting week in London.  What he doesn't expect is a whirlwind trip to Peru, thrown into a dangerous and highly unstable situation with gangsters, thugs and thieves.  Convinced he's on the trail of something valuable, Harvey has just one problem (aside from a gang of ruthless criminals on his trail)- the document that he's convinced is a treasure map doesn't actually describe the location of the gold.  So, his first task is to track down the rest of the journal that describes the voyage of the Pelican, the ship of the famous explorer Francis Drake.  But where is the rest of the journal?  After 400 years will the treasure still even be there?  And can Tom and Uncle Harvey evade Peru's most notorious criminal  long enough to actually find the gold?

I really enjoyed Island of Thieves- it reminded me a bit of one of my favorite guilty pleasure films, National Treasure- an unlikely treasure hidden behind riddles preserved in a historically significant document. It's well written, narrated by the likable Tom who can never quite believe what he has gotten himself messed up in- resigned to his demise one moment, determined to accomplish his mission the next.  Quite cinematic in style, the book doesn't focus excessively on description, choosing instead to focus on the action and on Tom's thoughts and feelings, which means that the reader feels like they get to know him well.  The book feels like a re imagining of some of the old fashioned swashbuckling adventure stories, but with guns and organised crime instead of swords and the British Navy.  The author strikes an excellent balance between exciting peril and unraveling mystery, but without too much suffering and violence which I think would give it a broader appeal.

Tom makes an interesting and likable narrator and a good character overall.  Getting stuck into the biggest adventure of his life and then kind of regretting it when it looks like he will probably die (by accident, then murder) and probably never being found by his parents at all.  As the storyteller, his thoughts are readily available to the reader, his admiration for his uncle, as well as his concern for his apparent lack of common sense or sense of adult responsibility are expressed well and does a lot to flesh out the characters of Tom and Harvey at the same time.  Harvey, the reckless but charismatic adventurer that can talk his way out of anything finds his nephew an unexpected asset on the trip, and the two of them make a good (if unlikely) team. The bad guys are stock pantomime villains and a bit two dimensional, but it's not really about them and they do serve a purpose, even if it is to be menacing and villainous.

Another really enjoyable adventure story- I haven't read a good buried treasure story for ages!  A slightly far fetched but swift and twisty plot that that is delivered a way that doesn't seem too absurd at the time.  I loved how Tom's research and reading of the journal brought history to life right infront of him and how excited he was as he made discoveries and connections that went back to the 1500s.  It was refreshing to read something that was simply an exciting adventure, rather than a book that tackled an issue or taught a lesson.  Don't get me wrong, I like lessons and issues, but a book that is just fun is sometimes very welcome.

Stories of World War I, edited by Tony Bradman

A collection of short stories from some of the best children's and young people's writers in the business. Between them, the stories look at World War I from just about every perspective imaginable; the underage enlistees that sign on the dotted line looking for adventure and a ticket out of their home town; the wives, mothers, sisters and children left behind; the men in the trenches; the women on the home front; the broken men that return to their families; the Germans, who had a pretty terrible time too; the soldiers from the Imperial countries who have been shipped in to England to serve the Empire. The book really captures what a global conflict the Great War really was and seems to appreciate the deeply personal and devastatingly unique effect it had on every individual that fought, and every individual that didn't. 

Some of the stories use WWI as a backdrop to address issues as diverse as race, exile, patriotism, class, political unrest and everything in between. None of the authors glamourise, defend or justify the War, they just seek to communicate the horrors of the trenches and the front line, the pain of those left behind and the difficulties faced by all involved, the numbness of those that returned and the holes left behind by those that didn't.

The characters and perspectives are varied, forming a true cross-section of those involved in the conflict.  All stories are easy to read, tailored to the YA audience- many of the narrators are 17 or under, telling their own War experiences.  It's easy to understand the early motivations of the naive, the uninformed and those with no options, and it's easy to empathise with them, knowing that they think they are doing the right thing.  There are a lot of female characters, narrators and voices, so the anthology doesn't feel at all like it is targeting a specific gender.

Though the tone of the anthology is informative and emotional, the stories don't feel exploitative or filled with any sort of political or ideological agenda.  It's respectful and somber and in places it's darkly funny and full of the type of human spirit that always seems to shine through in times of enormous trial or hardship.  A really well put together collection of narratives that do an excellent job of conveying the tragedy and the impact of the Great War.

The Great Ice Cream Heist, by Elen Caldecott

During the school holidays, Eva is talked into joining a local youth
project to refit and refurbish a new youth center.  Her dad and her gran want her to make new friends and mix with people her own age, convinced she has withdrawn since her mother died.  Reluctantly agreeing so that her dad doesn't worry about her, Eva agrees, but she isn't happy about it.  The first friend that Eva makes at the youth center, much to her family's dismay is Jamie McIntryre, the youngest child of the problem family that live next door to Eva and her dad. Escorted by Mel, his social worker, Jamie and his family are supposed to be nothing but trouble but he and Eva bond pretty quickly, and are friends within minutes.

When the new youth center is vandalised, everybody assumes it was Jamie and he is forced into care.  But where? With no way of getting in touch, Eva convinces her new friends that they must track him down and prove him innocent- she knows Jamie better than anyone and knows it's not him or his style.  At least she does now, now she's had time to think about it.  A few accidental kidnappings, daring burglaries and slightly destroyed parks later, the unlikely detective mission to find Jamie is on.

Though the plot is fairy small scale, it is fast paced and dramatic.  Just enough silliness to be appealing to 11 year olds, but still realistic enough to obviously be real life-the social workers and Police prove that much.  A really easy read, written in a style that's very accessible. Being a poor reader herself, Eva tends to keep her narratives short and sweet- she's not one for throwing in a lot of complicated language and tends to use a pretty understandable vocabulary.  There's a wonderfully silly tone throughout- Eva is really funny and warm and she just wants the people that she cares about to be okay.  She proves pretty conclusively that an overactive imagination, creativity and determination will go a long way and that standing up for your friends is important.

The Great Ice Cream Heist has some really strong, realistic characters throughout- in many cases the realism of the characters helps to reign in some of the more outrageous elements of the plot.  Eva's conflicted struggle between having fun and being guilty about putting herself in danger in the process comes through strongly- after all, her dad wants her to make friends, and isn't that what she's doing?  Eva is obviously clever (despite being practically illiterate,) she's brave and loyal throughout and struggles  with some of the decisions she makes.  She's also one of the only characters willing to give Jamie a chance.  Jamie himself is a well crafted character too, intelligent, sensitive and loyal, but anticipating the prejudice that he is almost always subjected to.  He's really quite a decent lad that wants to have fun and just be accepted for himself, rather than based on the notoriety of his family.  Their dynamic works well and the author does an excellent job of showing the strength of their unlikely friendship.

The story has a positive message about accepting people for who they are, not what they live like and about shunning prejudice and discrimination.  I think a lot of young readers would find something to relate to in this book- whether that' losing a parent; having poor literacy; being wrongly accused; being discriminated against or having a best friend that they'd do anything for.  A really enjoyable read with a silly, screwball plot and excellent characters that will appeal to both genders and probably quite a wide age range.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Brightling, by Rebecca Lisle

Set in an almost-Victorian world filled with flying horses and fearsome creatures, Brightling is a fast paced adventure story that has a traditional, almost classic feel to it- a modern re-imagining of Oliver Twist set in the world of His Dark Materials.  The characters are excellent, I really felt like I understood why individuals acted or responded in the ways they did, and I think the tight, twisty plot is going to prove really popular with younger readers.

As soon as she turns 11 years old, orphan Sparrow is unceremoniously ejected from the Knip and Pinch Home for Waifs and Strays. Guided by her one and only clue to her identity, a white baby shawl labelled "of Stollenbach" she sets off, alone to the town of Stollenbach hoping to find out who she is. Joined on the road by her faithful and possibly slightly magical cat Scaramouch, Sparrow must brave the unknown, the dangerous and the despicable to find out who she really is and if she belongs anywhere in the world.

Lost and afraid, Sparrow is taken back to a rooftop hideaway christened 'the nest', by Gloriana, a slightly older girl that she meets near the  market.  Managed by the mysterious and glamourous Miss Minter, Sparrow, Glori and the other girls make and sell matches and keep their mouths shut.  But what else is going on?  Refusing to be duped by Miss Minter's apparent kindness, Sparrow is on the alert as there is definitely something suspicious, probably illegal going on at the nest.  Determined to get to the bottom of it, Sparrow begins unraveling a dense web of secrets and lies and finds herself knee deep in a terrible smuggling operation.  Beaten, imprisoned and with an attractive price on her head, Sparrow must use her wits, her intelligence and her new best friend Glori to escape the nest forever, ruin the smugglers and avoid the clutches of several dangerous villains to get back to her family.

Sparrow herself is unusually endearing.  I often find that orphan girls can come across as a bit sickly and simpering, demanding sympathy and overall being a bit pathetic.  Sparrow, however is brave, she always thinks of others, she is mature for her age, learns from her mistakes, and tries hard to do the right thing. Which makes her really easy to read about and to care about.  I found myself really rooting for Sparrow and her cat, despite her tendency to get kidnapped quite a lot.  She always manages to find a way out of it.  Glori too is an interesting character; Miss Minter's original waif and right-hand-girl is as lost and as alone as Sparrow, and even more conflicted in the decisions she makes.  Feeling indebted to both Miss Minter and Tapper but gradually realising what she needs to do to redeem herself.  I honestly think 11 year olds are going to love this- there's feisty 11 year old girls, cool older sister types, the cleverest cat in the world, flying horses and a tiny sliver of magic.

It's a pacy read, full of page turning peril- deadly pursuits, captures, dramatic escapes, dastardly villains, kind strangers and an interesting plot that combines Oliver Twist and the story of The Little Match Girl.  There are themes of identity and belonging running throughout (for Scaramouch too, even he find out his origins) and a message about doing the right thing and following your head.  All of the tricky plot ends are tied up neatly at the end, which is satisfying and rewards the reader for sticking with the plot's twists.  I think it would be perfect for those younger readers that remain a bit daunted by long series, or 'issue' centered books but are looking for longer, more complex children's novels.  

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Kite Spirit, by Sita Brahmachari

Boisterous free spirit Kite's world falls apart on the day that she sits her first GCSE exam.  Her best friend, gifted musician and serial over-achiever Dawn tragically and unexpectedly kills herself.  Devastated, Kite retreats with her hippie musician father to the Lake District to get some space and start to come to terms with her loss.

Finding that she eats and sleeps better in the Lakes, Kite becomes convinced that she can feel the ghostly presence of Dawn.  Soothed by this presence, Kite begins to find herself again and thanks to the unexpected friendship of some of the locals she begins to start her emotional recovery.  She will never be the same without Dawn, but she learns how to be the post-Dawn version of herself.

Character was probably one of the greatest strengths of this novel, each felt like they had been laboured over and carefully considered.  There are only a handful of characters in the book, but each was a unique person, and each contributed to the narrative greatly and served a purpose in Kite's recovery.  It's apparent from the first page that Kite and Dawn are chalk and cheese. Both are believable, sympathetic characters that are incredibly easy to like and to read about. Kite's parents too are wonderfully well written too- brilliantly eccentric and full of colour, concern and individuality.  They really brought the book to life, demonstrating how Kite came to be so spirited and carefree, once.

The book handles the topic of teen suicide very delicately, though I do think it might be a little intense for younger readers.  It does not dwell greatly on the suicide, but instead focuses on the aftermath; the effect on family and friends, the picking up of the pieces.  The portrayal of grief, disbelief and hopeless rage are done with such skill.  Every reaction is plausible and seeing the characters struggle with their pent up emotions is genuinely difficult.  It's a sensitive and emotional book that forces the reader to experience some of Kite's pain and the anxiety of her family.

They style of prose is simple, but evocative and really well crafted.  Kite is pretty monosyllabic in places, and full of words and feelings in others, I was genuinely impressed at what a complex character she was, but how easy she was to understand.  The beautiful scenery of the Lakes is depicted in loving detail and the contrasts between Kite and Dawn, Old Kite and New Kite and Cumbria and London is enforced throughout...the theme of binary opposites definitely came through strongly.

Though I was really loved the way the book was written, and was thoroughly impressed with the content and the characters, I can't help but be a little concerned with the love interest 'solution'.  I could be wrong, and I hope I am, because it seems such a shame to spoil such a powerful story, but there is an implication that finding the 'perfect guy' is the solution to all of life's problems.  Personally I would have preferred Kite to have found her answers and her peace and calm by making her own choices and accepting her friend's death on her own terms, rather than by finding a boyfriend.

But that's not enough to spoil it.  It's too well written, and sometimes the support of others can be what gets you through life's difficult chapters.

When the Guns Fall Silent, by James Riordan

Published in the centenary year of the Great War, this novel handles the commemoration of a historical event like this in a sensitive and respectable way.  It is thought provoking and shocking to see the events of 1914 through young eyes.  The tone is not celebratory or bombastic, but respectably applauds the hope and the spirit that can be shown by individuals even under the most atrocious circumstances.  There's a sort of gently shocked disbelief that something as tragic and as mindless as this could ever have happened.

Set in 1954, 50 years after the end of the Great War, When the Guns Fall Silent sees Perry and his grandfather visiting the War graves in Flanders. After finding an old photo resting on grave of a long dead friend,  Perry is taken aback when his Grandfather speaks for the first time of his experiences in the war and he begins to tell his story of the conflict and the famous Christmas ceasefire that resulted in one of the most famous football matches of the 20th century.

Jack tells the story of his and his best friend Harry's pre-War football prospects, their underage sign up, the horror of the trenches and the miserable months spent in waist deep mud, all the senseless killing.  But he also remembers the incredible, impossible moment that the guns fall silent and the Germans and the British forces joined together to celebrate Christmas, to swap stories, songs and trinkets and to turn the body-strewn, frozen cesspit of No Man's Land into a football pitch for one day.  Jack recalls to Perry how it was on that day that he realised that the regular German people, shipped unwillingly to France and Belgium to rot and to die had no more quarrel with the British soldiers than he had with any of them.  They were all fighting somebody else's war.

The bookending of war narrative with present day (well, 1954) action contextualises the events, makes the lasting effects of war evident.  The style of the novel is simple, emotional and evocative- 17 year old Jack does a good job of documenting the experience of a "soldier" with zero previous experience.  He's confused and fails to understand the reason behind the blind, meaningless hatred they are required to show towards people they don't even really care about.  Jack has more humanity than that and sees the German forces for what they are- scared boys a long way from home, just like him.  His narrative is clear, full of pain and suffering and horror.  He watches his childhood friends die one by one, recounts his sometimes hopeful, sometimes bitter letters home to his sister and describes in thorough detail the day to day conditions in the freezing trenches.

I also really liked the decision to include some original War poetry at the beginning of some of the chapters- snippets from famous poets such as Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling and Ezra Pound that set the tone for what's to come as the narrative unfolds- they tell such similar stories of death and despair. The book strikes a good balance between the speculative, fictional elements and the first hand experience of the poets.  The author also includes poetry from those left behind and translations of Russian and German poetry, reminding the modern reader that poetry of the first World War was not something unique to the British and providing stories and experiences from different perspectives.

The dual appearance of football in this novel, I think, is going to make it a bit of a hit with non-reader boys.  I get a lot of requests for football stories, and I think this is a really satisfying, thought provoking one.  The book presents football, in times of peace, as the pinnacle of normal- it's the weekly event that brings towns together to hope and celebrate and applaud.  The parallels between football and War are drawn, but it's not something that's pursued to any great extent.  It's also evident that even in times of war, football is a common ground, a great equaliser, still capable of inspiring hope and celebration.

Monster Odyssey: Eye of Neptune, by Jon Mayhew

Prince Dakkar, an heir to the Indian throne in an alternative 19th Century, is sent to England by his father to learn how to be a fearsome ruler and leader of people. His mentor and host, Count Oginski, a brilliant but unconventional inventor and engineer is determined that the Prince will not escape from him, as he has from every other school he has ever attended, gradually earning the Prince's trust over a period of years.

However, Dakkar is not the only person that is interested in the genius designs of his mysterious memento. When Oginski is kidnapped in the night and their housekeeper murdered, Dakkar vows to rescue to only friend he has ever had.  Commandeering his latest invention, a submersible clockwork sea-craft, Dakkar takes to the sea.  Braving gigantic sea squids, pirates, the formidable British Navy, sharks, giant, genetically modified monsters and the feisty temper of his discovered-along-the-way friend and accomplice Georgia.  Together, Dakkar and Georgia take on everything the ocean and its various inhabitants have to throw at them using the handy arsenal in their prototype submarine in their quest to rescue their brilliant mentors from the most dangerous man on land or sea.

I thought one of the particular strengths of this novel was the characterisation, which is really well developed and easy to relate to- both characters are convinced it's their mission and the other is the sidekick, which works well, both Dakkar and Georgia are not afraid to put themselves in danger and get their hands dirty- together they make quite an effective team.  They both learn a lot from each other and form a genuine bond that (thankfully) is never undermined by any sort of romantic element.    Dakkar, entitled and a bit egotistical learns the value of friendship and humility, as well as learning how to understand people and power, not just seizing it.

A really good, engaging and wonderfully old fashioned swashbuckling adventure story that is quite obviously inspired a good deal by Jules Verne.  Sea monsters, pirates, sword fights, explosions, unsavoury rogues and double (even triple) crossing.  The Eye of Neptune has an understandable, episodic narrative that sees Dakkar and Georgia stumbling pretty much from one deadly peril to another- it's definitely a page turner right up until the final showdown in an underground volcano with an evil megalomaniac intent on ruling the seas and lands of the world.

Whilst the book was enjoyable and fun, featured a really strong female character and had positive messages about doing the right thing, bravery and democracy, I can't help but have doubts about how popular it would prove with its target audience.  Though personally I found it charmingly old fashioned, I'm not sure if that would be a bit of a put-off to today's 11 year olds as the pirates or steampunk (or a combination of the two) isn't any kind of trend at the moment that I've noticed.  I hope I'm wrong though.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket, by John Boyne

Born to the least imaginative, dullest, most compulsively normal parents to ever set foot on the continent of Australia, Barnaby Brocket has a problem. More accurately, he is the problem. For his normal-obsessed parents at least. Barnaby Brocket is decidedly abnormal because he is incapable of following the laws of gravity. He floats.

Barnaby's parents are appalled by their son's disgraceful lack of obedience. Convinced that he will horrify all who see him, shame their respectable family name and spoil their normality, his parents fail to notice entirely that people like Barnaby. They don't mind that he floats. After 8 embarrassing, excruciating years of un-normal-ness, Barnaby's parents decide that enough is enough.  Something terrible happens that results in Barnaby being released to the atmosphere, much to the dismay of the family dog of "indeterminate breed and unknown parentage".

Unweighted, Barnaby embarks on some enviable and extraordinary adventures around the globe. Visiting 5 continents, meeting new friends (and one old one) and helping out wherever he can, Barnaby finds others that have been ostracised, shamed or ridiculed for their differences. Barnaby, along with his new friends, proves that normal, actually, is overrated. Why be normal when you can be unique?

A beautiful story, lovingly narrated, about an 8-year-old boy who is remarkable not only in his floatyness, but in his bravery, his loyalty and his absolute compulsion to put others first. Humorous, always able to do the right thing and thoroughly good-hearted, despite the prejudiced and unfair upbringing that he had been subjected to. The book has a brilliant message about being yourself, following one's own path in life and not caring about the expectations, opinions or pressures of others. Being yourself is the best and the easiest way to be happy, not fulfilling the expectations of others. Boyne makes an excellent case for rejecting prejudice, for accepting and celebrating otherness and embracing the unknown.

Barnaby himself is imaginative, well read, full of warmth and love and good deeds. A brilliant character that is excused of his slightly surreal affliction by his complete acceptance of it. Incidentally, I think that it's because Barnaby, and all of his also-not-normal friends are so nonplussed by Barnaby's floating that this novel feels strangely and unexpectedly realistic.

This book made me want to be a bit more like Barnaby. To always help out where I can, to be upfront and to look for the best in everybody, no matter what others see in you.

Doll Bones, by Holly Black

Every day after school, best friends Zach, Poppy and Alice play together in their incredible fantasy world.  Each kid 'Plays' their action figure to act out elaborate fantasy roles; pirates, pickpockets, witches, sea monsters, all ruled over by the fearsome Queen, an antique Bone China doll belonging to Poppy's mother, encased in glass.  Using the limitless power of imagination, their dolls undertake the most heroic of tasks to avoid her evil curses and win her favour.  Until one day Zach's dad decides he is too old for such games, throwing away Zach's beloved action figures and bringing "the Game" to a too-early ending.

Unaware of the real reason that Zach is avoiding them, the girls attempt to lure Zack back to the game by freeing the Queen.  Once freed from the glass, the Queen's own creepy story begins to unfold. Who is Elspeth Kercher?  Why is Poppy suddenly dreaming as her? Are those her bones ground up inside that china doll?

In an attempt to end the game for good, the friends must go together on one last mission to lay the bones of The Queen, Elspeth Kercher to rest in her hometown in the adjacent state.  Then maybe she will stop haunting them.

The story is beautifully written and the characters are brilliant- unique, full of their own characteristics, opinions and behaviour with a wonderful dynamic, the reader really gets the sense that they've known each other forever.  The pace is excellent and the story, though spooky and spine tingling, is not overly dramatic, the adventure remains within the realms of believability, despite its supernatural nature.  I really liked the increasingly complicated relationship between the three protagonists, how their adventure helped them to reconnect and how they coped with their impending adulthood and changing dynamic.  It was tragic, in an inevitable sense, but sweet to see.

I loved how much the author cared about the value and the beauty of stories and imagination- through fantasy and play as youngsters and then through to fiction when we are older and what an effect this can have on our lives.  I loved how desperate the characters, Zach in particular, were to hold onto that magic- but also how relieved they were to realise that stories and adventure can outlast childhood if you would only allow it to.

It made me feel nostalgic for the boundless imagination that only comes with being a kid, but thankful that the powers of stories are appreciated by contemporary characters.  A well crafted story with excellent characters and a spooky, pacy plot that has a lovely folkish reality to it.  Funny, full of warmth and mystery and some chilling moments.  

Tony Robinson's Weird Wonders: The British, by Tony Robinson

Tony Robinson, of Time Team and Blackadder fame guides the reader through the triumphs and tragedies of the British Empire.  It's inventions, explorers, key personnel, overseas territories and general aura of 'Conquer or Die'.  He talks about the various displaced peoples, the lifestyles, habits and tastes of the overseas British ex-pats and some of the key dates that each of the territories were released back to the people that live in them. Robinson also visits some more modern history, such as The Great War and World War II and discusses the effect that these conflicts had on the Empire.

The tone of the book is gently humorous, full of factual titbits of information and trivia.  It's presented by five young illustrated characters who pop in and out at various points and deliver information or ask questions.  A bit Horrible Histories in style, but with less focus on the obscure and the gross.  It's well researched and gives an engaging whistle stop historical narrative that is informative and interesting.

What it lacks in detail it makes up for in accessibility, though it could be said that the single-strand historical narrative is a little simplistic in its approach.  Though Robinson's style is accessible to all and the book is not overtly pitched at either gender, history does seem to be a little bit dude-heavy.  Though, obviously, that is not something that Tony has any control over, it wouldn't have killed him to sprinkle the historical page with a few more women.  Women that aren't Queen Victoria, anyway.

All in all, a speedy, informative read and I actually learned what caused the First World War, which is something I've never been totally sure about.

My history is terrible.

Have a Little Faith, by Candy Harper

Troublemaker year 10 Faith has been re-allocated tutor group as punishment for her many academic misdemeanors.  Cruelly separated from her best mate Megs, she's got to convince stone hearted head of year Miss Ramsbottom that she is a reformed character and model student so that they can be reunited.  However, fate just throws too many opportunities for mischief in her way and Faith just cannot resist rising to the challenge.

Being at an all girls' school lacks a certain amount of mixed-sex-mingling, so despite being a musical dunce, Faith just cannot resist joining the choir in order to meet boys from the local boys' school. Add in a crazy serial-dater granny, some year 10 girl rivalry, some friend drama and boy angst, and year 10 is going to be an interesting year.

My first problem with this book was the many, many interchangeable 15 year olds.  I think there were about 4 main girls and a few peripheral ones?  I'm really not sure.  The boys too.  What they said and did was all sort of blended together. Characterisation on the whole was pretty weak and underdeveloped as all characters fell into one of the following groups: pretty but dumb, thus appealing to boys; scatty and quirky, not so attractive to boys; sworn enemy, but appealing to boys; boy, or uninteresting adult.

Largely though, my problem was Faith, the narrator.  She was difficult to read most of the time and made this book a bit of a slog.  Perhaps the author was trying to evoke the brash swagger of a teen; "I'm incredibly witty and hilarious 100% of the time. Listen to me: hear my quips" or whether she was just an unpleasant character is unclear, but I got bored very quickly of her arrogance and her lack of redeeming qualities.  What Faith considered brilliant comedy came across to me as cruelty, meanness, idiocy and basically being that girl in school that thinks they're hilarious that everybody hates. It's pretty difficult to relate to such a horrible bully. Normally a character like Faith would learn a lesson from the way she's treated people or their behaviour, or the things that happen to themselves and their friends.  Not Faith.  She's far too good for lessons.

The book did deal with some relevant issues, such as jealousy and rivalry in female friendship groups which is very relatable.  It's a mystery why everybody is killing themselves to be Faith's BFF though. Dealing with annoying siblings, first boyfriends, the dilemmas of what to wear for what event and the delicate etiquette of texting would resound with the target audience, but it's not enough to make up for the disappointing narrator. Not a fan, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Good Children, by Roopa Farooki

This novel tells the story of two sisters and two brothers- raised in 1940s Lahore by their revered Doctor father and their poisonous but beautiful mother. Brought up to be the good children of the title- obedient, pious, future doctors and doctor's wives. The girls; sweet but plain and sensible Lana and cynical and achingly beautiful Mea, both primped, spoiled and treated like dolls by their mother. The sons; lovable, passionate rogue Jakie and the serious, troubled but brilliant Sully are browbeaten, punished and ignored and allowed only to pray, to study and obey.

The main theme of the book lies in pain and in learning to live with it. Learning to cope with constant beatings, manipulation and scorn from their mother, learning tiny acts of rebellion. The pain of the separation, as the boys were sent to different continents to pursue their force-fed medical careers (Sully to Yale in America, Jakie to King's College in London), leaving their sisters to mercy of their mother and their arranged marriages. A different kind of pain forces them together again, decades later. All characters are haunted by their decisions, convinced they are constantly doing something disastrous, disappointing somebody, somewhere. The boys in particular absolutely ooze neurotic paranoia, over thinking everything and second, third, fourth guessing every choice they make when they are finally allowed to make them. Each of them falls in love with wildly inappropriate people- one with an Indian woman (a Hindu) and one with a white man. Their indecision is sometimes painful to read, damaged by their invisible upbringing and weighted down by guilt and duty.

The complexity of the characters was amazing, as children and as adults. I've never read about such solid, believable characters. As the reader, you are desperate for them to find happiness and to be comfortable in their own skins. At times their behaviour is frustrating and disappointing, at others it's inspirational and life affirming. They're so unique in their personalities but tethered to the same shared misery. Each of the four siblings has carved out their own path in life, whether by choice or by force, and has resolved to make the best of it, which is admirable in itself.

I really liked the constant shifting of narrative voice in this novel, and it was skilfully done. Split into three parts, it begins in the 1940, during the childhood of the four Children, alternately narrated by Sully and Jakie. It then shifts to their experiences in the US and the UK up to the 1960s and the beginnings of their careers. It's sobering to read of their heartache of separation, their frequent thoughts of their family that lessen as time goes on, until they barely think of home or of their siblings at all. Part two sees their first homecoming after decades of separation, and each of the siblings sees the changes undergone by the others, the time and care worn into their faces. Part three sees them pulled together for a third time, dragging their lifetime's baggage along with them. The men get to tell their stories in the first person, whilst the women are only ever able to tell theirs in the third.

Farooki's prose is immense- it's achingly beautiful in places, and tellingly sparse in others. It's lyrical, full of emotion and is incredibly arresting in places- there were a few lines I had to re-read several times to properly drink it in. There really is some beautiful turn of phrase in this novel. She captures the bittersweet elements of a crumbling family so well, the conflict between duty and guilt, between happiness and disappointment. To be part of such a game-changing generation is bound to pull everybody apart and to leave big question marks hovering over the idea of identity. To achieve happiness through one's own means, as Mea and Lana do, one is forced to disappoint others. To bring shame, dishonour and disgrace upon their mother, who raised them to be obedient wives. But to achieve success, as Jakie and Sully do, is disappointing too, as it's the wrong type of success and in the wrong place.

I found the tone of the book quite refreshingly down beat, but with a hopeful message that shines through- basically life is hard and full of paths and you've got to choose one. If you're permitted to make your own choices, that is. You might be a product of your upbringing, and if you're not then you have nobody to blame other than yourself. Often you can't win. Sometimes you won't know of you've won until the end. You're always letting somebody down. Families grow apart and fall to pieces. Even sometimes when you try your best it's still not good enough. But you've still got to try, and that's the main thing and the most important message of the novel. Even if it's going to end badly, you've got to try.

Read this if you liked East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. The same epic span of a family's history, similar beautiful but poisonous women, brothers that are vastly different but forever connected and though the time and place are different, the Lahore of this novel is every bit as sensory and as alive as the Salinas Valley.

Thanks to @TinderPress for the review copy.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Vampires Inc: Hunter's Moon, by Paul Blum

The first installment in the Vampires Inc series from Barrington Stoke, a set of supernatural monster stories set in the city of Brighton and aimed at older and less confident readers.

John Logan, an author, visits Brighton to meet with his new research assistant and to gather information and inspiration for his next novel.  Brighton has a reputation for being "Anything Goes" so it is popular with people who consider themselves vampires, witches and warewolves.  A series of vampire attacks in the night leads John's new contact, Vampire hunter, bite expert and yoga teacher Rose Peal on a mission to discover the murderous vampire who has broken the rules that the supernatural community live by.  The Hunter's Moon makes the vampires stronger- can John and Rose stop him before he kills again?

Fast paced and full of action, I can see this being really popular with year 8s and 9s that still resist reading. Supernatural horror refuses to go away, and this short novel is pretty inclusive- the language is nice and easy and the plot pacy but uncomplicated.  I was really impressed with the strength of the characters in this book.  John the author is sort of simple, but he has a lot to learn and does it quickly.  He doesn't seem to get much writing done at all though.  Rose is intelligent, strong willed and resourceful, showing newbie John the ropes of the Demon-hunter trade.  She's a brilliant character; tattooed, pierced and pink dyed.  Something that is kind of missing from a lot of YA novels...There's no romantic link between the characters and Rose definitely sets the pace for the novel, making John more of a bystander at times.

I really liked the whole page images that set the scenes for the story- the art style is brilliantly moody.  I thought the inclusion of the character profiles and the map were nice touch too- it would be a big help to those that struggle with independent imagination and provides a handy set of characteristics and a firm setting to work with.  The writing is really engaging and doesn't feel simplified, much more fluid and pacy than a lot of shorter novels, feels like a real thriller.  To tell what is quite a simple story in such an engrossing way is a hell of a skill!

I wonder though what boys will make of this- vampires have a bit of a reputation for being seen as "girly", however ridiculous any gendering of fantastical creatures might it would need to be made evident that it was more of a murder mystery with vampires, rather than a dark romance if trying to target certain readers.

Overall, was very much impressed with this Barrington Stoke offering!

Click on the video below to hear the author, Paul Blum, reading an extract from Hunter's Moon.

Paul Blum reads from Hunter's Moon from Renlearn UK on Vimeo.

Ninja: First Mission, by Chris Bradford

Taka, a 14 year old trainee ninja must risk his life on his first proper mission- to retrieve his Clan's sacred scrolls from their Samurai enemy, the fearsome Lord Oda.  Taka has yet to complete his training fully, failing time after time to pass the final test, much to the amusement of bully Renzo.  At the time the sacred scrolls are stolen, Taka and the acrobatic Cho are the only ninjas not occupied on other missions, so it falls to them to embark on this dangerous rescue attempt.  Will Taka remember his training and can he learn from his mistakes?  Will he earn his black belt after all?

Through the likable Taka, the book deals with coping with failure, feelings of inadequacy and learning from mistakes.  Insecure and a bit down at the mouth about his constant lack of ninja skills, Taka demonstrates resourcefulness and resilience, overcoming his problems in the end.  His companion Cho, is a strong, intelligent female character (not a love interest, which is refreshing) is a brave and quick-witted ninja who teaches Taka quite a lot about attitude and belief that helps him to achieve his ambitions, as well as saving his life.  It's a simple to read but action rich story of justice and perseverance, set in an exotic historical location and featuring characters that are more three dimensional than your average less-than-50-pages-to-tell-a-story novel.  It's fluent, well written and not over complex in terms of its language or themes.

The illustrations and layout of the book are excellent, very dyslexia friendly (as are the off white pages) and they really help the reader to imagine the action.  They're not too Manga either, which I have found in some cases to deter some struggling readers.  My only worry with this novel is the use of some pretty alien terms, particularly the names of weapons, which might be a bit off putting for readers of this ability.  I'm also not sure how wide an appeal ninjas and samurai have at the moment...