Megan Abbott has for knack of creating situations that are irresistibly alluring; I read last year’s gloriously seductive DARE ME on the basis of a very brief blurb. A CWA Steel Dagger shortlisted crime thriller with a pyramid of hard-boiled cheerleaders in crisis at its centre - count me in. It was a cool, confident display of ruthless teenage competitive spirit and emotions on the edge. The bitchy banter and cruel glamour of the girls’ competitive physicality created deliciously dark scenery as Abbott’s characters twisted themselves into uncomfortable contortions. Secrets and lies, twists in the tails and stabs in the back kept me gripped from page one. When Abbott’s newest novel was announced I was desperate to catch The Fever.
Back within the claustrophobic confines of high school and all its hysteria, Abbott has swapped noir for disturbia in this unsettling story of a highly strung student body on the brink of breakdown when a mystery illness descends on a very public platform. An entire class witness the first traumatic seizure as overnight beauty Lise clatters from her chair, foaming at the mouth as her body revolts in angry spasms. Panic spreads quickly; parents, teachers and students are manic and mystified, the community is crawling with wild theories. Girls share scare stories between bathroom stalls and local YouTube is ablaze with shocking footage. Caught in the middle is Deenie, daughter of a teacher at school and sister to the high school heartthrob - her world is shaken by this terrifying unknown unknown.
Abbott’s sticking with secrets and lies, gossip and greed, pressure and popularity: what it means to be young and impressionable, head-strong and heart-driven, desperately naïve and deathly dangerous. Despite some luxurious language, languorous flashbacks and climactic cinematic scenes (the seizures are particularly visceral) there is a sense of urgency that drives Deenie’s story forward at a furious pace taking the reader with her, as if we too are in danger of the fever striking again before the mystery is solved. I particularly loved how peripheral characters were assigned their own quirks, the town took on a Lynchian appeal; each home housing their own dark stories with a frantic, feral terror running throughout. A dangerously sticky slice of unsettling Americana, Abbott’s vision is intoxicating and tempting; a Twin Peaks High story that could captivate a crossover audience.
PLEASE NOTE: this is an ADULT book and I am reviewing as we move into stocking adult fiction later on in the year. This is an October release. Proof received with thanks from Helen Mockridge at Simon & Schuster
When Cathy Rentzenbrink tweeted about ‘an engrossing Girls meets American Psycho mash-up with lots about books, book selling, twitter, sex and murder’, my star turned yellow before I’d even found out the title. I’ve seen Girls, I find everyone in it to be horrific. I’ve watched two seasons. I’ve read American Psycho, I love the sheer terror of the discovery that Paul’s apartment overlooks the park. I have to return some videotapes and pre-order season three of Girls but YOU had me at bookseller. It arrived with some post cards that yearned ‘I want you’, ‘I need you’. I thought about using them to creep my friends out and/or write desperate shopping lists. I had just finished reading a particularly excellent wholesome children’s book that is destined to be a future classic…I was ready for something different.
Joe is a bookseller and Beck is his eponymous YOU. She walks into the shop and into his life and then one doesn’t exist without the other. Joe is that very special type of iceberg psychopath, his lunacy can be submerged under the radar until it’s too late and there’s another body to deal with. Joe falls for Beck in a way that’s almost frustrating but as the novel progressed the drip-feed of his past crimes appeased my grimaces, of course he’s over-the-top in his emotions and affections; he is psychotic. But the point is that is something you almost have to remind yourself of from time to time because he’s capable of charm, and he’s a human who gets hurt. Reading YOU is an intense and immersive experience so we feel your angst Joe, and when Beck lets you down we’re sad and we’re sorry. We (sort of) see what you’re trying to do, right up until you go too far. Again. Reader, we are not YOU, thank god and we are not Joe. I don’t want to go into the ins and outs of what happens because really it’s for Joe to confess.
What I will say is that I thought about YOU when I wasn’t reading YOU, I could see YOU on screen and I recognised all the references so I’m either cultured or predictable. I loved the ending and I hated Beck. I want to recommend the book to three very specific friends but I’m worried I’ll offend them. Girls meets American Psycho is a perfect summary - those self-obsessed Girls would love this Bookseller Bateman and Beck is no different, some people simply only exist in the company of others. Perversely, even those claiming to be obsessed with someone else are ultimately the victim of their own selfies and now, dear reader, Joe exists for YOU. You are the priest behind the curtain and the thumbs up on Facebook. Read it and creep.
It’s just been announced that Tony Mitton has won this year’s CLPE poetry award for his tremendous book Wayland (the only UK prize for published poetry for children…sigh). I reviewed this title for Booktrust last year but can’t seem to locate the link. Here’s my review in full to celebrate Tony’s win. Well done Tony and everyone at DFB.
Tony Mitton, illustrated by John Lawrence
David Fickling Books
A Germanic/Norse legend gets a fresh restyling courtesy of the wonderfully accessible Tony Mitton in this tale of Wayland, the smith from the far north. Brother to two fearsome warriors, Wayland chooses a quiet life, despite being the strongest. When the brothers take Swan-Maidens as wives, Wayland truly falls in love with his mate. He keeps her so safe and happy that when the maidens escape back in to the skies she chooses to stay and observe Wayland’s work until it is time for her to become a swan again. Wayland’s skill captures the attention of the ruler of a neighbouring kingdom that has grown sad and gloomy under the greed of King Nidud. Wayland is captured by the King, lamed and kept as a working prisoner on a small island, but he plots as he works and his revenge on the king is as horrific as it is cunning.
Wayland’s story brims with dark horror and action. Told in thumping rhythmic stanzas the strange life of the ‘sturdy smith, Wayland, a Maker of marvellous skill’ is an unforgettable plot of greed and vengeance. Betrayal, sex, magic and gore are all rolled into these rousing rhymes which march along with force and vigour – it defies anyone who dare stop. Even the tender moments when Wayland longs for his swan wife surge forward with strength and urgency, the words strike like a fiery iron. With Lawrence’s carved images this book is a perfectly forged partnership; skilled, dark, atmospheric and enchanting. This gruesome verse deserves to be read and remembered, told and re-told and shared til the pages wear thin. David Fickling Books of course ensures that the book is produced as it meant to be used: as treasure.
Orion is afraid of lots of things, but above all he is scared of the dark. It harbours scary sounds and hides menacing monsters. Orion has tried all sorts of things but every bedtime it’s the same story – tossing and turning until he can’t take anymore.
When he snaps and shouts at the dark, the last thing he expects is for the Dark to come down from the sky and in through his window. But Dark turns out to be nothing like the terrifying blackness that he seemed to be when he was a shade in the sky and luckily Orion never forgets his manners. A whole new night-time world teachers Orion that fun can be found in the most unlikely of places and that having a friend like Dark means there is nothing to be afraid of when the sun goes down. It’s just another adventure!
A bounty of beautiful blues and tremendous typography with inventive page-scaping (is that a word?) make this an irresistible picture book. I love the clever cut-out pages when Dark himself extends from the book to meet Orion and cuddle him close. Emma’s illustrations are genuinely lovely – Orion is an adorable figure and the techniques and textures visible make this a real feast for the eyes; the close-up earth and starry skies make for stunning spreads. The story is sweet and could be useful for anxious children who are struggling with lights-out; a smart peppering of humour will keep everyone smiling. Fans of Oliver Jeffers’s mix of painterly style and cute characters will appreciate the style and substance of the work here. As a bookseller it is production like this that becomes a point of reference when people question the value of page vs. pixel. A beautiful book that deserves to be invited into the bedrooms and imaginations of pyjama-clad little ones everywhere.
After solving the case of the missing school tie, The Wells and Wong Detective Society could only hope that their next case would prove a little more mysterious. But when Hazel Wong (the society’s own secretary) stumbles across the lifeless body of one of their teachers in the school gym things take a turn for the deadly! Could their be foul play at Deepdean school? With their keen set of detective skills they’re already making progress in uncovering the mystery before anyone else learns about the crime. But a private school is a close-knit community and with a murderer in their midst, no one can be trusted.
Robin Stevens debut is a glorious romp through the dormitories and daily quirks of life in a 1930s girls’ school. Bun-breaks, socs and prep are all run of the mill for Daisy and Hazel; corpses, less so. And while Daisy delights in their perilous mission, our narrator Hazel struggles with her own worry-load; the weight of her Hong-Kong heritage continues to confuse her, the terrifying possibility that the killer saw her at the crime scene threatens her peace of mind and, frankly, being friends with someone like Daisy is a daily exhaustion in itself.
Hazel’s endearing voice is the key to this wonderful story’s success, a genuine and genuinely individual voice, her unique perspective on the strange hive of activity that is the boarding school life makes for a wonderful companion and the fact that a murderer looms in the shadows adds a darkly delicious twist. I can’t wait to hear more of Hazel and the strangely alluring Daisy. Although Hazel often admits she’s a shade away of having a pash on Daisy herself, in Murder Most Unladylike Hazel is undoubtedly our heroine. Delighting in its traditional setting this neat little story will charm fans of all generations with its sharp and surprising crime, loveable lingo and memorable characters. The first Wells & Wong Mystery is a real gem that deserves spending several bun-breaks over.
I should admit, She Is Not Invisible is only the second Marcus Sedgwick novel that I’ve read. I know, what have I been doing? I knew the moment I finished Midwinterblood that I should have got myself another one to see if there was a pattern of ‘bloody-hell-that-was-good, or if I had just been lucky with Carnegie shortlisted one. I picked up the proof of She’s Not Invisible at an Orion bookseller evening earlier this year. This week I read it, and now I am absolutely sure that I need another of his books because this is seriously special stuff.
She’s Not Invisible is the story of sixteen year old Laureth Peak, and her seven year old brother Benjamin, and how they flew to New York to track down their father who may or may not want to be found. Jack Peak, brilliant writer –especially his early, funny ones – isn’t meant to be in America at all, so when Laureth receives an email saying his private notebook has been found there she cannot wait for the truth to simply reveal itself. A daring and dangerous journey sees the two siblings work together to find out why their father is chasing chaotic theories across the Atlantic that have led others to dark and disturbing ends. While Laureth’s determination is unrelenting, she worries that her father’s own unforgiving fixation on coincidences has turned into an irreversible obsession.
For a short novel there is a lot to love here. Firstly, that Sedgwick has continued the respectfully challenging content that made Midwinterblood feel so brave and original. Should children’s’/YA literature feature philosophical musings on the nature of coincidence and free will – hell yes it should. These ideas are fresh and exciting amidst the entertaining environment of a family drama and real world teen problems - here is a book that genuinely provokes thought and individual response about life’s real mysteries. Laureth is an excellent companion; she not only translates complex ideas in a clear and an interesting voice but provides a compelling and endearing narration.
I always seem to fall for stories about writers, and I have a particular inclination towards novels that introduce philosophical ideas, or mathematical and scientific problems in a literary space – probably because I’ve never studied these things myself, I love learning through stories, and discovering the real world between the covers of a book. So perhaps She’s Not Invisible is simply exactly the type of book I already like – but this is just what I’ve come away from it with. There’s so much in it that maybe you will find something else to love – the touching relationship between a sister who needs her little brother, the empowering character who lives with disability and doesn’t let it be the thing that people talk about, the mysterious cat and mouse chase with villains and heroes in an unknown city, the message of hope and love and faith that rings through every chapter.
If someone said to me that She’s Not Invisible is like a Meg Rosoff story in a Scarlett Thomas style – I’d say that sounds too good to be true, but I think it’s a fair comparison. Maybe it’s more useful to simply call it a Marcus Sedgwick novel, from what I’ve read that name is capable of representing completely surprising material in a totally engaging and accessible style. The pressure mounts – the question is - which one should I read next?
Anyone who has read Creech’s masterful poetry-narrative ‘Love That Dog’ knows how well she can fold reams of thought and meaning into white space and brief lines. Like the eponymous ‘Boy On The Porch’ the story is fleeting but will resonate long after it leaves. Marta and John are the couple who find the boy; he doesn’t speak and only carries a badly written note that simply says to look after him until ‘they’ come back for him. The kind couple see no reason why they can’t spend a little time with the boy, but one day turns into two and then days become weeks with no sign of anyone coming to claim him.
The boy remains mute but has a natural ability for everything artistic, he speaks in rhythmic tapping that he drums out on any surface. He communicates with animals in a way that he cannot reach other humans. When John brings a guitar and a harmonica home the boy pours out self-composed music only hours after learning the first notes and on discovering watercolours he produces painting after painting. While John worries that the boy doesn’t do chores or manly jobs around the farm, Marta wonders if he might be a true genius.
The inevitable happens, unlike the cows and the beagle that arrived and then stayed, the boy must be returned. Marta and John are heartbroken but use the new void for a destiny that is more wonderful and magical than I could have imagined. A short and special story about the power of love, family and the wonder that a child can inspire, the boy touches John and Marta’s life in a way they never expected and their story will do the same for unsuspecting readers. Creech’s writing remains taught and precise, and all the more glorious for it. Do yourself a favour and bring The Boy home with you for a while.
I wrote this review for the Booktrust website - reposted here to include photo of my beloved whale, which I won from Simon & Schuster!
The Storm Whale
Simon and Schuster
Noi lives with his Dad by the sea. Left alone every day whilst his dad goes to work, Noi only has his cats for company, but one morning after a particularly stormy night there is a new friend washed up on the shore. Noi takes the little whale home to look after, feeding him fish and telling him stories in the bath. When his dad discovers their new guest Noi knows its time to say goodbye. Together with his dad they return the whale back to the sea, in the hope that one day he will see his friend again.
This very simple text tells a gentle story that will delight small children. The idea of bringing a whale home on a wagon and keeping him in the bath is a lovely image and little Noi is immediately endearing. The sea-side scenery is fresh and picturesque and the cool palette is very appealing - it’s just beautiful to look at. Toddlers looking to dip their toes into the chaotic seas of full length story picture books will enjoy paddling in this calming coastal treasure first.
My own little whale, riding the storm of some of my unshelved books, which are soon to be relocated when I move house. I might take them in a little wagon, with my whale sitting proudly on top a sea of stories. It might take a few trips.
Brubaker, Ford & Friends (imprint of Templar)
Olive was in a bad mood. Hilarious (sorry, Olive!) pre-title illustrations show you how she got there – it’s a… shall we say, short series of unfortunate events – but there is she, stuck in a grump. She doesn’t want to play Dinosaurs with Molly, they’re ‘for babies’. She doesn’t like Matt’s new hat, silly old Joe is ‘rubbish with that ball’ and Ziggy is just getting in her way. It seems like nothing can cheer her up, until – Ooo! Sweets! - her storm takes her past the sweet shop. A big bag of Giant Jelly Worms gives Olive a whole new perspective on the day, which is actually sunshiney and beautiful. If only she had some friends to share it with…
Admittedly this is the first book by Tor Freeman I’ve had, so I will be seeking out a copy of Olive and the Big Secret as soon as possible. This simple story is told with real warmth and genuine humour, and whilst the familiar feeling of being in an unjustified funk might be recognisable to adults, the children might be too busy wetting themselves laughing to make any connection to their own cloudy days. Olive’s expressions are quite frankly priceless but it’s the beautiful use of white page that she thunders through under her dark cloud that makes this book special. It really feels like Olive is stomping through the spreads until she is brought to a halt by the sudden sweet shop and the bookended illustrations that take us before and beyond the story are wonderful additions sure to inspire conversations and loads more laughs. This is superior storybook styling. Cor, Tor - I want more!
Andersen Press are a bit of a dark horse. Not content with releases that look set to rival the picture book powerhouse that is Walker Books, they are now making a serious play in becoming a go-to name for daring, innovative and striking fiction. I’m getting rather attached to their middle grade fiction list so when URGLE showed up, practically stabbing its way out of the envelope I had no choice but to surrender.
Urgle is a big brother. He lives in the pit with all the other big brothers and their respective little brothers; Av has Goobs, Fiver has Wasted and Urgle has Cubby. They might have their differences, Urgle and Fiver especially, but Ikkuma brothers stick together, protecting each other until their Leaving Day. After that they’re on their own, there are rumours that some go in search of their long-lost mothers but mother seekers, like scroungees, are frowned upon. True Ikkuma are self-sufficient warriors, they do not need the parents who rejected them, but they live a sheltered life in the protection of the pit with no real knowledge of what waits for them on the other side of the forest. Going back to the pit after Leaving Day is unheard of, but when Blaze returns full of rage and mystery, he brings the outside world and all of its dangers back with him.
Comparisons to the Chaos Walking trilogy have already been made but I’d say Urgle was perfect priming material for Patrick Ness’ masterpiece. Urgle is not really ready to be out there on his own, which is why the story works and why it will resonate with middle grade readers (10-12ish) who are not yet ready to take on the dark complexities of The Knife of Never Letting Go. It is the friendships and relationships around him that complete Urgle’s journey and there are plenty of transferable figures to identify: the friend you envy, the bully you need, the child that makes you feel like a grown up.
What makes Urgle so gripping is the layering of mystery, each act brings about new questions – some left unanswered – with ‘answers’ only encouraging more questions. I loved the fire stories that Fiver was so proud to pass on. The legends that made up their history were exotic and absorbing and for me, this is where the book really shined.
The pit, so foreign to us as readers, is our hero’s norm, and to call the outside world (closer to a real life as we might recognise it) the unknown will provoke interesting discussions about knowledge, power, nature and nuture. I hope to use Urgle with my junior book club and I can’t wait to hear what they make of the plotting of opposing histories (or religions). It is a story packed with ideas and intrigue, begging to be unpicked by brave young readers. Fierce questions are woven in to a fast paced adventure that will delight thrill seekers and deep thinkers alike.