Friday, 28 February 2014

Wild Boy, by Rob Lloyd Jones

Firstly, I just want to applaud Walker Books for such a stylish, eye popping, primary coloured gem of a cover. What a beaut, right? I love how it's a cross between pop-up book and sailor tattoo. Coupled with the Victorian setting, freak shows, deductive and observational prowess, dodgy science ethics and a twisting murder mystery, I was getting vertigo from the height of my expectations before I'd even started the first page.

Wild Boy (the only name anybody has ever bothered to bestow on him) is the star attraction in a travelling freak show. Before that, he lived in isolation in a top floor cell in a filthy workhouse, mercilessly bullied by the other boys and abused by the owner. Things aren't much better in the show, but at least he has a friend in his fellow freak Sir Oswald, the no-legged war veteran. Comforted only by the knowledge that he has no place anywhere else in the World, Wild Boy escapes the demeaning, torturous life by escaping into details- he has the most extraordinary talent for seeing things that others don't. Making deductions based on his observations, seeing the little things, making educated guesses and remembering what he's seen.

On the night that he finally stands up to his wicked owner, Wild Boy gets caught up in something way over his hairy head. Mysterious cloaked figures, ominous machines, murder. When a bounty is placed on Wild Boy's head for a murder he didn't commit, he has to find the real killer to clear his own name. Good job he's got those Sherlock style detective skills. Together, he and his frenemy Clarissa, a neglected but feisty acrobat from the circus (Wild Boy punched her in the face once and broke her tooth) must team up to follow the clues left behind by the killer. The perfect team of physical agility and mental brilliance, the killer's trail leads them overground and underground in Victorian London and into the depths of a secret society of mysterious gentlemen.

Wild boy and Clarissa are excellent protagonists, squabbling and fighting amongst themselves, but coming through for each other in the end. Both have been abused and neglected and neither knows life outside of the circus. They make a brilliant team, have a really lovely dynamic and they're both incredibly strong and lovable. The times that Wild Boy's eyes shone with pride whenever he impressed her were a tad heartbreaking, starved of companionship he is bowled over by her friendship and trust.

I loved the subtle nods to Classic gothic literature in this book. Professor Wollstonecraft, electrical scientist took the middle/maiden name of Mary Shelley, the gothic literature and Sci Fi pioneer and author of Frankenstein. One of the test subjects was Arthur Doyle, a nod to Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. The book is a modern tribute to the both of them, questioning the dangers of scientific advancement and utilising deductive skills for crime fighting purposes. The Gothic Fiction geek in me doffed my cap to the authors (dead and alive) at these moments.

It's packed with plenty of gore and action, but is definitely aimed at the lower age range for Secondary School readers. The lack of any angst or philosophical wonderings distinguishes it from YA nicely. It's a beautiful story about the transformational power of friendship and about learning to celebrate difference and about learning to be happy in one's own skin. All absolutely vital messages not just for young reader, but for anybody on the Earth. A brilliant book, it’s going to get recommended by myself an awful lot in future…

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life begins in November 1930 with Ursula Todd pointing a gun at Hitler in a crowded pub. She pulls the trigger. Darkness descends. How has this happened? Who is this woman? How will history look without the evil shadow of Hitler looming over it? From the first page this novel asks questions, and it doesn't always answer them.

Ursula is born on the 11th of February 1910 as the snow falls outside, barring the doctor's way to the house. Within minutes of birth she is dead, strangled by her umbilical cord before she could take her first breath. 11th of February 1910 again. Ursula is born, but a pair of scissors are standing by to cut the cord. Each time Ursula dies during this novel, this is where it starts again. Fox Corner, blanketed in snow. A fresh start for another life and another story to be written. Some elements are the same on each occasion and marginal differences shape the way that life is to be this time.

I love Atkinson's style of prose- it's gently atmospheric, sweeping the reader through woodlands and regency revival dining-rooms, the comforts and fashions of a large Edwardian family of the upper middle class. Her family will prove to be one of the most crucial constant forces in Ursula's many versions of life. Maurice, her brother is always cruel and cold, sister Pamela always opinionated and strong. Her little brother Teddy is everybody's favourite, sweet and loved by everyone. The reader really gets a sense of 'home' from Fox Corner; the love of the family, the abundance of nature. It's a happy place and the warmth shines through, anchoring Ursula to the World in every life she lives.

Death comes in a variety of ways for Ursula throughout the course of the novel, as "Darkness Falls" at the end of each section. She is reborn to die and die again, always starting on the same snowy night in February. She drowns on a beach, slips from a frosty roof, and dies of Spanish flu in the post War celebrations. On her 16th birthday, a naive Ursula is raped on the landing by one of Maurice's friends. Pregnant, she is shunned by her mother and flees to London for an illegal abortion. This Ursula, subjected to unwanted sexual attention from a colleague, wonders if there is something unseen to her but obvious to others that attracts this kind of behaviour from men. This section was beautifully and heartbreakingly written, highlighting the downward spiral of a woman crippled by low self-esteem as a result of abuse. It makes it clear that it can happen to anyone. Lonely and ashamed she turns to drink for comfort until the illusion of love comes along. Another betrayal, Ursula is married to a misogynist and a liar.

In another life, Ursula avoids the rape. Empowered, feisty Ursula lives abroad, has affairs, a daughter in one case, adventures. In others she is embroiled in Nazi politics. Repeatedly bombed in the Blitz. I loved the Blitz section; the assembly of characters that Ursula lived and worked alongside in the 1940s provides so much colour and life to the destroyed London. The attitude and the stoicism of the Wartime Londoners comes across beautifully and each event that befalls Ursula is written with sensitivity, a degree of charm and in some cases a fatalistic resignation. This section feels exhausting, infinitely dangerous and its presence overshadows the rest of the books somewhat. Interestingly, the Blitz leads down some very different paths to similar deaths. The skill of the storytelling in this section is incredible, all the loose ends tied up in the repeated fates of sometimes strangers and sometimes acquaintances in London.

I absolutely adored this book. I could not cram the words into my eyes fast enough. Beautifully written, full of engaging characters and a truly heroic protagonist. It's part family saga, part historical whilwind and it's dizzyingly impressive. I love the idea that even chance encounters and happenstance can have enormous, often fatal effects on the course of a life. The idea too that sometimes our lives are determined by our choices, sometimes it's the choices that others make that affect us and sometimes it's the lack of choice that leads down a certain road. Everbybody has those "What if?" moments in their lives. Sometimes it's not until time has elapsed that you realised how much of an impact certain past decisions have made to turn a life in any given direction...

Ursula is semi aware of her position (in some lives) occasionally feeling intense dread at pivotal moments when her paths diverge. She has disturbing dreams and Déjà vu, remembers things that never happened. This is woven beautifully into the philosophy and the behaviour of Ursula who seems dimly aware of the power of this prior knowledge. I love the partial awareness she has of her opportunity to live life again and the action she takes to steer her course, however better or worse it may turn out. The reader is really in quite a powerful position, able to see from their vantage point the web of choices available to Ursula and the ultimate end point of each of these paths. Thought provoking, immersive and incredibly well written with immense skill, warmth and craft.

Loved it. Everybody should read it.

Any Human Heart, by William Boyd

Where do you start with a book this good? I could not drink this in fast enough, a whirlwind of history, art, literature, love, life, chances and embarrassment. An incredible biography of a fictional man. Absolutely stunning. The novel takes the form of diary entries, sometimes philosophical or nihilistic, sometimes blunt and upfront. Logan is a man of many moods and opinions and this comes across in his journals. Sometimes dated, sometimes not, depending on where he is in his life. An omniscient and anonymous narrator links the parts together as best he can, where Logan has been inattentive in his continuity.

The intimate Diaries of Logan Mountstuart start with Logan as a child in Uruguay, the son of a Beef Products manufacturer. His family move to Birmingham and we witness his East Anglian school days with his friends Peter Scabius and Benjamin Leeping, their bets and wagers designed to spice up their dull academic lives. They will appear regularly through the rest of it. Then to his unremarkable time studying History at Oxford, where Logan falls in love with the mysterious Land Fothergill and decides that his future lies in writing.

He writes. A biography of Shelley and a sexy novel, some translations of obscure French poets. He drifts from literature to journalism, to the art world, to literary criticism, enjoying a modest amount of success at each. The art scenes of London, Paris, New York. Battles of wits with Virginia Woolf, meetings with Joyce and Picasso in Paris, then a spell as a civil War reporter in Spain and acquaintance with Hemmingway (getting three Miro canvasses out of it too). Barbados, Ian Fleming murder and the Duke of Windsor. The War lived out in a Swiss prison. Logan spends so long waiting for his life to begin, waiting for it to get more exciting, more important. It's not until he gets to the latter stages of it that he realises it was important. He knew real love once, and losing it does not take away that memory.

The Jazz era, the War years, the post war, then the psychedelic 60s all come alive, bringing with them their important cultural who's-who that wend their way into Logan's life. All depicted with such conviction, historical accuracy and believability, that at times it's incredibly easy to forget that Logan Mountstuart wasn't a real person too. "Surely not" you think as you read this, "He must have existed and merely been forgotten by history". Logan as a character is a dream. At times arrogant, at others crippled with self-doubt and embarrassment. His respectable exterior and modest professional success disguising his slides into alcoholism and adultery and his grim bouts of depression. Every year ends in a roundup of friends lost, resolutions to drink less and finish that novel he's planning.

Boyd skilfully (sooooo skilfully it's almost painful) weaves the eras of Logan's life together, creating a person that is flawed, but always always interesting. He drifts apart from his family, rarely sees his children, or any of his ex-wives. His solitary life gets a bit grim, at one point he goes from a respected professor living with a staff of four and a villa in Nigeria to existing in a basement flat living on dog food and flogging political newspapers to students. But his fortunes prove that poverty, good luck and greatness can happen to anyone. Even the formerly grand Mrs. Mountstuart descends from wealthy widow to dishevelled landlady on the few occasions that her son visits her. We see that poverty has claimed her too.

I can't possibly even begin to describe the scope of this novel. It's an absolute gift. Absorbing, intimate, funny, tragic, life affirming- the whole human condition lived out in one remarkable life. The prose was absolutely joyous and the tableaux of domestic family life, scandal, political upheaval and personal disaster that it painted were beyond immersive.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Arrowhead, by Ruth Eastham

A dual narrative that starts with the slow death of a Viking boy, trapped and bleeding at at the bottom of a glacial crack.  In his last few moments of life, he scratches warning runes into the frozen wall, warnings about the golden arrowhead in his hand.

1000 years later, the school outcast finds his frozen body and takes the arrow that has been hidden for so long. He and the new kid, Jack return to the frozen cave the next day in a frantic attempt to hide from apparently deranged bullies, psychotic and bloodthirsty. Seeing the frozen boy's face, unchanged by time, they are startled by the dead boy's resemblance to Jack.

When Jack starts having flashbacks of the Viking boy's (Tor) life, he knows they must be connected in some way.  Suddenly able to understand the ancient runes, Jack is able to decipher the warning message on the wall.  The curse of the arrowhead has been released once more, bringing with it four elemental plagues; air, water, earth and fire, just as it did in Tor's lifetime.  Jack and Skuli must race against the clock, decipher an ancient riddle-like ballad and arrange a Viking Warrior's funeral before the Midnight Sun touches the sea...

Arrowhead is a fast paced adventure, full of fights, fire, mountains and mystery that has a really good setting and structure.  The only place that I feel that this book falls down is in its characterisation.  The author has created an interesting backstory for the main character; a hatred of ice due to the tragic death of his father, a mentally ill mother, a well-tuned moral compass- it sounds promising and full of character potential...but nothing that Jack does or says seems to give him much personality. I get that some characters are more interesting because they're mysterious- he makes the reader want to know more about him.  But Jack just seems a little flat.  I didn't understand  the function of the dog, Sno either.  He was cute and all, and it kept seeming like he was going to do something important or spectacular, but that just never happened.

The novel switches between Viking times and Modern day Norway via Jack's dreams, visions and Hallucinations in which he sees through Tor's eyes.  In this case, it's a really effective way of allowing the reader, and Jack at the same time, to discover more information about the demise of Tor, the greed of his brother (Vekler) and the power of the arrowhead, gradually revealing what needs to be done to quell the plagues and save the town. I also really liked the location of the novel (both historically and geographically)- though Scandinavian (set and written) literature is becoming more popular among adults, it remains quite an uncommon setting for Children's and YA literature, which made it quite memorable.  This could be an excellent tie in novel for those studying Beowulf at school.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Knightley & Son, by Rohan Gavin

Darkus Knightly is not your average 13 year old. Not just because he's got an odd name, either. With his fondness for tweed, tidiness and intellectual pursuits, he stands out a bit from the crowd. His father, the renowned detective Alan Darkus (specialising in unusual cases) has been in a mysterious, medically inexplicable coma for the last four years. His mother has remarried to the fashion disaster presenter of a Top-Gear knock off, and his relationship with his step sister Tilly is a bit complicated to say the least. Like I said, not very average.

His father's absence has strengthened Darkus' resolve to follow in his detectively footsteps, to utilise the deductive skills he appears to have inherited and find out what happened to his dad. He trawls through his father's case notes each night, desperately looking for clues or leads, the answer that will bring him back. Cue the sudden appearance of 'Uncle Bill' an enormous Scot, who may not technically be related...but he's here to tell Darkus that his father has woken up as suddenly as he drifted off and has done a runner from the hospital.

Reunited, father and son have a bit of a shaky start- Alan is not convinced that Darkus is up to the task of assisting him. Plus it's a dangerous business, and he doesn't want Darkus to get hurt. Faced with the inescapable talent that his son possesses for crime solving, he finally has to admit that Darkus would be an asset to his quest. Together they continue the search for 'The Combination' a mythical crime syndicate that Alan has committed his professional life to exposing, much to the derision of his peers. Convinced they are responsible for all unexplained crime the world over, he is determined to prove their existence and their guilt. Elsewhere, a bestselling self-help book appears to be inciting otherwise law abiding citizens to engage in an inexplicable crime spree...could this be the work of the Combination too?

An exciting mystery story that twists and turns, letting the reader piece the puzzle together as the story rolls along. I know a lot of the year 7s and 8s at my school are big Sherlock fans, and are really into complex mystery stories, so this novel is going to have a great deal of appeal. Like the city in which it is set, the story strikes an unusual balance between the old and the new, wedging itself in the middle. Some elements, such as the suggestion of hypnosis, shadowy crime circles and the dialogue of Darkus and his father feel quite old fashioned, whilst the setting is distinctly modern. Like the Kinghtleys themselves, it spans the times.

I was really impressed by the characters in this story. Both Tilly and Darkus are driven by their own reasons for wanting to expose the crimes of the Combination. Each of them carries enough intrigue to be interesting, enough back story to be mysterious and to make the reader understand their behaviour, and best of all both are really easy to relate to. I love how much of an oddball Darkus is. He's not cool, he's not popular, but he's not bothered. He's insanely clever, wears three piece suits and insists on triangles not squares when it comes to sandwiches, which is better than being normal any day. I think his uniqueness is going to strike a chord with a lot of readers. Same for the character of Tilly. Her rainbow hair disguises how quiet and reserved she is, still suffering from the loss of her mother. Throwing herself in with Darkus and his dad gives her a chance to find closure and explore her own personality and strengths a little more. I look forward to seeing how she develops in later books.

What I think is really elevates this book over other children's mysteries is the emphasis that the author places on the father son relationship. It really is absolutely key to the novel. The story makes it clear that Darkus has spent much of his childhood without his father's (wakeful) presence, and even so, he has become exactly like him, whether by accident or design. He dresses, speaks and acts like him. It's something that feels important to a good father/son team, the desire of the son to be like his dad. I loved how as they got to know each other better, each realised just how alike they were. It was a joy to see how their relationship developed after such a long and traumatic break and how Alan had to learn to see Darkus as a fully functioning detective, rather than just 'My Son'.

There were a few instances where I thought it borrowed a little too much from ACD's Sherlock Holmes, and in cases the BBC version, but I don't think the readership will mind. It's a fast paced, action packed story about families and truth and it's going to be massive.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Itch, by Simon Mayo

I'm quite annoyed with Simon Mayo. Not only is he a successful and much loved broadcaster, has pretty good taste in music and keeps Mark Kermode from ranting himself to death...he's also an excellent writer and storyteller. How annoying is that?

Simon's debut novel, Itch is the story of 14 year old Itchingham Lofte, periodic table enthusiast and element hunter. Meaning he collects all the elements and stores them in a shoebox in his room. Yep, even the slightly radioactive and/or explosive ones. Cursed with a daft name and an overactive thirst for understanding, he inadvertently explodes himself unconscious, burns off his eyebrows and poisons his entire class within the first few chapters. He's absolutely marvellous.

When Itch is given a mysterious, colour-changing rock by his element dealer friend Cake, Itch's child-hating Chemistry teacher, the mysterious (and apparently psychotic) Dr Flowerdew is suddenly very interested in geology. Is it something completely new that no scientist has ever seen? If so, it could prove to be a new power source, changing life as we know it...every government, scientist and Energy Company is desperate for the rock's secrets. Naturally, there are some less than savoury characters too that will stop at nothing to get their hands on this power also, potentially endangering the whole world. Itch and his cousin Jack (no strong feelings for elements in any way) must use all of their knowledge, their strength and all of Itch's bag of chemistry tricks to keep themselves, their family and the world safe from the destructive power of Itch's little rock.

I honestly cannot recommend this book enough, it's fast paced, entertaining, has some really lovable characters and is actually quite educational. I'm not into chemistry. Not even slightly. Any progress down the "Elemental" thought track inevitably ends up with "WE'RE ALL JUST INSIGNIFICANT SPACE DUST ON AN IMPOSSIBLE LUMP OF ROCK THAT SHOULD NEVER HAVE HAPPENED!!". But I found myself genuinely nodding along (almost understanding) the passion and the awe that Itch feels for his unusual hobby. It is pretty incredible when you think about it- it's the ingredients of the Universe in that backpack.

Itch is such a brilliant character. He's believable, endearingly accident prone, smart, understands his own flaws, loyal. He's a joy to read about and by the end he feels like an actual real-life friend. His sister Chloe and cousin Jack are well written too- their dialogue is realistic, they're funny, intelligent, resourceful and in it to the end no matter what. It doesn't matter that they're girls either, which is refreshing. The three have a nice dynamic and complement each other well as characters. The use of modern technology throughout- Facebook chat, email and texting, for example, gave it extra appeal and authenticity but it is not over done, and the plot didn't depend on these technologies to save the day and to get out of sticky situations, as can often happen.

It's an ideal book for crime fans, mystery fans, kids that like funny books- but it could also prove to be a gateway read for those who struggle to get into fiction. Itch isn't a big reader either- he understands, that's why he hates English and History, too much writing. But the science, the geekery and the sheer fun in this novel might just tempt them to try it. It's a perfect opportunity to send a love of science in a new direction. The book has a genuinely broad appeal and it's bound to be a modern Young Adult classic- I can't think of anybody who could ever dislike it.

Snapshot, by Robert Swindells

Swanky new jacket for 2014
After months of saving his pocket money and thinking he was never ever going to have enough, Victor gets a brand new, state of the art camera for his birthday, which very nearly turns out to be his deathday too. Eager to try out his new present, Victor pops out to take a few shots and get a feel for his fancy piece of kit. A few snaps in, he inadvertently photographs a robbery in progress, recognising his best friend's brother as one of the robbers. After he is spotted by the thieves, Victor is almost run down by the getaway car and then tailed through the town and the estate by a masked man, obviously intent on getting hold of the incriminating evidence on Victor's memory card
After giving him the slip in his maze-like block of flats, Victor witnesses an even more horrific crime, forcing him to hand over the memory card to the police. Whatever is in those photos has cost somebody their life and they are obviously incredibly dangerous...but that's the end of that, right?
The author does an excellent job of building the suspense and creating an atmosphere of threat- starting with the robbery, the pursuit, and the murder and finally the break-in, the tension is mounting all the time. It's genuinely gripping stuff. I loved Victor's voice, his personality and his brilliant turn of phrase- Swindells manages to make his character narrate naturally and fluently, with a huge amount of personality and character, but in a way that is not difficult to read and does not get too ambitious with vocabulary. His complaint about saving up his pittance of pocket money being as difficult as "Pushing a peanut up a mountain with his nose" was particularly endearing.
I really liked the way that peripheral characters were presented in this book- the original robbers of the jewellery shop aren't ruthless killers, just a bit dim and almost pitiful. The police are friendly enough, but a bit inept- lucky more than competent, and the truly dangerous, brutal criminals are scary because of how mysterious and discreet they are. It would have been easy to make every character either good or bad, but this book makes the reader aware that there's more to it than that.
It's a really tightly plotted, suspenseful crime story with an excellent narrator, interesting characterisation of the law and the criminals, and a really satisfying read. My only doubt is whether genuine "City Kids" will be convinced by the narrative, as it is a little bit clean in its language and lacks the 'grit' of some other (newer) crime-related stories. I think struggling readers would be over the moon to read this; the book isn't patronising or over simplified, Swindells has succeeded in the difficult task of keeping the difficulty level low, but the interest level high.

Ghost Stadium, by Tom Palmer

The last day of school has just ended and best friends Lucas, Irfan and Jack have got their summer holidays off to a thrilling start- by camping out for the night in the old abandoned stadium of Yorkshire County FC. They have heard that it's haunted and the boys want to see for themselves if there is any truth in those rumours. Things start to get chilling before they've even managed to climb over the wall- is that just Irfan's imagination or was that the shape of a man's body falling from the roof? Could it have anything to do with the mysterious and unexplained death of the team's star player 5 years before?

A brilliant example of an accessible book that has a genuinely high interest age. Much of the time it feels like cover interest ages are merely plucked out of fresh air, but in this case it is obvious that the author has gone to great lengths to make this narrative genuinely appealing to the 12-15 age range and has managed to keep the language and vocabulary accessible and unthreatening, as well as feeling natural and realistic for the age of the characters.

The football background has enough weight to make this book appeal to those who only ever want to read 'football records' books, or don't read at all, but the football theme is not so prominent that it would deter those who have no interest in sports. The mystery narrative is strong enough to stand up alone, without relying on its football context as a 'hook', so the story has a genuinely broad appeal; football, sports, mystery, chiller. Many readers would be able to identify with the feeling of pride and devotion in following a sports team, and others would simply be pulled along by the exciting mystery or the scary series of events that's unfording. It's not going to be difficult to find a lot of readers who are going to love this. I also love that the author sneakily name drops some zombie and horror books from Charlie Higson and Darren Shan- so any further reading is all taken care of ;)

The chapters are short, two pages as a rule, and fairly numerous. To reluctant or struggling readers, this book would represent a huge achievement and confidence boost because it doesn't feel like a book for a low reading ability. This itself is a really valuable asset, and one that is pretty rare and difficult to achieve. All the chapters end on spectacular cliff-hangers, so finishing this story is not going to be a problem, even for the most apathetic of readers. This book is from Barrington Stoke's Dyslexia friendly range, so format wise the pages are a bit off-white, the font is more easy on the eye than usual and the text is spaced in a way that is easier to read, but not especially noticeable to those who aren't looking for it.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Sky Run, by Alex Shearer

Sky Run is set in a world where there is no real Earth, just pockets of land scattered around in space, floating above the sun. Sky Sharks, Sky Fish and other bizarre creatures ride the thermal currents of the sky, hunting for food whilst nomadic humans cruise in their boats hunting for clouds and t
he valuable water that they produce.

Orphans Martin and Gemma live with their 120 year old Great-Great-Aunt Peggy and their lazy Sky Cat Botcher on a small floating lump of rock far out in the outlying settlements, days and days away from civilisation. Not wanting her family to grow up in ignorance and isolation and being a believer in education, socialisation and in self-improvement, Peggy enrols her charges in school over on City Island. Martin and Gemma are less than enthusiastic about such a huge journey and the prospect of school but board their "Gran's" ancient Sky Runner anyway.

Their dangerous journey takes them through unchartered sky, past isolated Islands populated with damaged and dangerous people (not least a deranged axe-murdering Motel owner) and into some tricky situations with the local Sky-life. Sky pirates, menacing and oppressed slave populations, frantic Rat catchers and floating minefields also find themselves themselves in the path of the rickety Sky Runner and its steadily increasing crew. Peggy must teach her family (and the newer acquisitions) that though an education is very important, not everything that you ever learn can be taught at school. There are dangers, temptations and obstacles that need skills other than academic knowledge to overcome. They need understanding, patience and resourcefulness too- and that's something that can't be taught in the city.

I found this to be a really enjoyable read with an incredibly imaginative and unique setting. Think the British Gas adverts meets Phillip Reeve's Predator Cities series. The World is really atmospheric and creates suspense successfully: the constant feeling of threat, the idea that life is quite tough for everyone and survival is against the odds (despite Peggy's age).

The characters are varied, well-rounded and I think they've got a very broad appeal. Peggy is a brilliant invention: funny and warm, feisty for her centenarian  years and allows the younger generation to learn from their successes and their failures- but she's tainted with a strange sadness throughout, like she knows something that her niece and nephew don't. Martin and Gemma, who take turns to narrate the story are likable, endearing and recognisably realistic- Martin is a dreamy idealist with no real idea for consequences, and Gemma, who sees herself as more put-upon and wiser, seems to resent his simple happiness quite a lot of the time, though it's clear she loves her brother and her aunt. Their squabbling and sibling-ly disgust at each other is funny and true to life. Though they fight and moan about another, they're a team and they each save the others neck a couple of times...

I really liked the episodic structure of the plot and the variety of accidents and predicaments that the characters found themselves in. It proved that there's a lot to be said for doing the right thing and having people around you that you trust. The message that it's not the destination but the journey that's important also really appealed to me- it's a message that I'd like to see moe of in children's writing.

Ruby Redfort: Look Into My Eyes, by Lauren Child

Eeeeeeasily one of my favourites so far, Ruby Redfort is just so entertaining- this is going to go down a treat. I think it might even have the Katniss factor- a female character that eeeeven boys want to read about- gender becomes irrelevant at last!

Ruby Redfort is far from a normal teenager. A gifted code breaker, she was offered a place at Harvard before she was even finished with Middle School. Not that she wanted to go or anything. She's way too clever for education. Content to observe and record the mundane with her friend Clancy, Ruby spends her days drinking banana milk, writing her observations in her hundreds of notebooks and watching cop shows with the housekeeper...Until one day the housekeeper, and the entire contents of the house are stolen. Everything except the phone. Following the theft of the century, Ruby is coincidentally recruited by a mysterious voice on the phone that gives her a code hidden in what appears to be a normal conversation- who's calling and why? What do they want with her? Maybe a few new sleuth skills wouldn't be the worst thing ever...

Sassy, sarcastic and with the best dress sense ever, Ruby manages to talk like a real teenager, act like a real teenager, and also be aware of how clever she is and not even come close to annoying. Something that a many fictional teens with swagger do not manage to pull off. She oozes bravado, but she's loyal and has a solid moral code, so she really does come off well throughout the book- it's easy to root for her and she is genuinely entertaining. I thought the dynamic between her and her best friend Clancy was skilfully done, their origami communications was such a cool idea and I really got the impression that they were best friends through thick and thin. Clancy’s definitely more of a Doctor Watson though, always a couple of steps behind his Sherlock but brave, loyal and a sixth sense for knowing when and how to save the day.

The plot is excellent and moves swiftly, twisting itself together until every seemingly seperate event is tied together. There are abductions, perilous escapes, low-speed chases, mysterious strangers, valuable treasures and vintage gadgets and some truly funny characters. I loved Ruby's parents- well meaning, but so, so dense. Bless them and their organic tomato diets. I forgot I was reading this as a grown-up and completely got swept up in the action. A really fun read that I think most kids will take something away from.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Rugby Spirit, by Gerard Siggins

Firstly, I am more than aware that I am not the target audience for this book. Not just because I am too old, but also because I have never watched a game of rugby in my life. I've seen it happening in TV glimpses- it looks painful and the closest thing the 21st century has to actual Roman Gladiators.

The author has done an excellent job of telling a complex and interesting story in a very accessible way, which is certainly no easy task. I think a healthy interest in rugby is pretty crucial to enjoying this book. Though there are elements of family drama, an appealing underdog narrative and a bit of chilling mystery in the story, these are all bit-part players when compared to the overwhelming importance of rugby to the book. The author provides play by play commentary of several important games, so some technical knowledge is useful for these sections in particular. It's well written and maintains a good pace throughout, but I'm not sure if there's enough there for your regular non-rugby reader.

Eoin Madden, grandson of the mysterious rugby legend Dixie Madden, begins his first week at his grandfather's old school, Castlerock College. A bit miffed that everybody there seems to know more about his very private, quiet grandfather than he does himself, Eoin quickly learns that the Madden name is a big deal in Castlerock College. From some people, this translates to high expectations on the rugby pitch. From others it just earns Eoin a lot of extra grief from school bully and current rugby star, Duffy. Forced from absolute beginner and rugby fledgling to game-ready athlete, Eoin has to learn the rules and the tactics practically overnight, and in no time at all (but with a bit of practice) finds himself on the first team. Rugby players are born and not made, it seems.

As term goes on, Eoin learns to cope with his increasing fame, an unfortunate injury and greater positions of responsibility. He also has to come to terms with his Grandfather's worsening health and the fact that he may never find out why his grandfather quit rugby so suddenly all those years ago. Eoin has some pretty sturdy rugby boots to fill and with a little help from his History Teacher, his dorm mates and a mysterious character called Brian that he meets at the Aviva stadium, he might just be able to prove he can be a future rugby star in his own right- to himself, to his family and to the rest of his team.

I enjoyed Eoin's journey from new kid to game changer, and I thought he came across as a likable lad- modest, a good friend and a decent, hard worker. I found it a little hard to believe that he was never aware of why his grandfather stopped playing rugby. A tragedy of that nature, in any family, is not a secret. Crimes and scandals are kept secret, not accidents and the big mystery that had puzzled Eoin his whole life seemed a bit of an anti-climax when it was revealed. Brian's story on the other hand, was much more engaging and seemed to fit the narrative much better, though it was a bit of a surprise, considering the very real-life tone of the book. His air of mystery made me want to know much more about him and the things that he'd seen come and go. Mr Finn the history teacher slash ex rugby coach was an excellent character, and I'm glad that he became more of a presence towards the second half of the book.

On the whole, this was an enjoyable, if not entirely understandable read. The author clearly explains the rules, objectives and tactics needed in rugby (even providing helpful diagrams!), the reader learns along with Eoin, but I still failed to grasp it! Rugby is obviously not meant for me, I'm afraid. The author's obvious passion and love for the sport shines through every page, and those that want to take up rugby or already love rugby are going to go mad for this book. Even people who are really into any sport at all could perhaps convert those feelings and emotions into rugby and join in with Eoin's triumphs and setbacks. However, I would advise those unmoved by sports to perhaps look elsewhere for their next read...

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Bookbuzz longlist 2014

Bookbuzz is an annual reading programme for schools from reading charity Booktrust, which supports schools in their efforts to encourage reading for pleasure, independent choice and that all important mission of developing a whole school reading culture. Schools that participate in the scheme allow all year 7 pupils to select a book (to keep) from a list of 12 specially selected titles. You can read more about it here- The Book Buzz Scheme

Anyhoo, this year, I am one of the individuals on the "Panel of Experts", to quote the website, that determine what this final list of 12 is going to be.

This is two things.
For starters, it's a massive privilege to get to work with an organisation that has such a brilliant, clear and purposeful mission. Who can disagree with spreading the joy of reading? Why would you not want to be part of that? I'm amazed that they asked me, out of all the bloggers, booksellers, librarians, mums and dads, and children's book readers that exist in the World and on the Internet.
It's also hugely scary. Not just because whittling a longlist of 50 down to 12 a little bit hard. My year 7s loved their books last year. Four months later, they still talk to me about them, still want to read the other 11 that they didn't choose. It got them started in their new school in the best way imaginable- it allowed them to get to know each other, get to know me, and get to know some excellent books well. It's a pretty big responsibility. To be one of the 5 or 6 people that has to choose the book that might switch a kid on to books forever. Picking the right books is going to be tough when there's so many excellent titles out there.

I've always thought that the sheer variety of novels written for the Young Adult audience is incredible. This shortlisting exercise has just entrenched that further- there are as many types of YA novels as there are young adults to read them. There's every 'issue' you could think of, every type of character, with every imaginable quirk and pretty much every setting or location you care to mention. I think special mention has to go to the titles written for reluctant readers- the sheer effort that has to go into enticing non-readers to pick up a book. Setting it against a backdrop of football, ghost stories, ninjas, vampires...any hook that might get caught in the imagination of somebody that doesn't read. I have the utmost respect for publishers like Barrington Stoke, Hachette and Rising Stars and the authors that they work with that try so hard to make books accessible and exciting.

I'm so pleased I've had the chance to read some of these books, there are a handful of titles that I've already assigned to particular kids in my head knowing that they'll be right up their street. Plenty more that I know are going to be choosing them for themselves. I always tell myself I'll read more YA for work, but I always find excuses to read for me instead. Being part of this process has given me the focus that I need to really dig into in some new YA literature. It's made me better able to do my job, which means that more kids and teens at my school are going to get more informed access to the books they want to read, and so I'm quite thankful to the Book Trust for that.

All the titles I've reviewed/thought about for the BookBuzz longlist can be found unfer the Bookbuzz Longlist tag

Last Year's Selection