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.
Faber & Faber
Evie’s just had an operation to remove fragments of the shattered ribs she’s been keeping inside of her, along with a heart weighed down with secrets, for far too long. She’s got a new life now, with adoptive parents who will move the skies to protect her, an understanding teacher and an uncle who is teaching her how to have fun. She also has friends she no longer knows how to communicate with, a bully who is making her life hell and a past, filled with fury and fear that crowds her every day.
I won’t explain how a rib becomes a dragon, or how it opens up the nightscape to Evie, who is so often crippled by pain in the daytime but comforted by the sharp feelings of being alive and awake in a world that should be confined to dreams. The dragon is more important to Evie than it is to her story. And that’s sort of what makes The Bone Dragon that much more interesting that other books that deal with this subject – ‘this subject‘ being domestic abuse – because really we learn very little about what Evie has been through. Casale doesn’t even think about dwelling on the details in that uncomfortable way that those ‘tragic life stories’ so proudly advertise (surely more sick lit than any John Green!). Yes Evie has had a traumatic time but she doesn’t want to talk about it, to her friends or to us, the reader. It’s a brave move that might leave some readers feeling a little (wrongly) mystified; but for me it’s the stand-out feature. Evie is a sweet narrator, honest and endearing and she doesn’t ever really sound like a victim because she’s constantly reminding herself how loved she is now, firmly putting the past behind her and trying not to let it ruin the life in front of her. She’s also wonderfully youthful, which sounds a strange thing to say about a 14 year old and of course may well be a side effect of the abuse she has suffered but she’s in no hurry to grow up and that is so refreshing. She can’t understand her friend’s obsession with counting calories, pointless TV shows or debating which sixth formers they want to snog. Perhaps in real life this actually might make Evie a target, the playground is a cruel place, but in this instance is just makes you want to protect her. Phee and Lynne have their own serious problems too so it’s unfair to write them off as sideline airheads and Evie wants (needs) their friendship more than she initially realises. Again this is a smart underplaying of a serious topic; Casale’s simple subtlety speaks volumes.
Overall, it’s an impress debut and I’m already looking forward to seeing what comes next. For a book so full of ‘issues’ it comes less like a punch in the face and more like a slow creeping presence. The Bone Dragon enters quietly in a dignified puff of dream-like smoke and the gentle pull of his unusual tale might curl around your consciousness for days after you’ve finished reading.
There’s something about a private school setting that is instantly appealing. In fact I’ve come to realise that many books that I have particularly enjoyed (read: became glued to my hands)have shared this type of location: The Secret History (Tartt), Prep (Sittenfeld), Skippy Dies (Murray), Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Pessl). I think there’s something exciting about all those people living in close confined spaces with all those books and ideas and energy for things that may or may not be academic. There is often a special teacher, like one you had at school or university, who is ready to share a genuine love for a subject – these characters often lack in younger fiction where the idea of school is just an obstacle to get through or the house of a bully to be avoided at lunchtimes - and there are the strange goings-on; the rituals and the rites that are so alien to an outsider but uphold real history and tradition in these strange spaces. A private school is the perfect place for an intellectual mystery, or in this case, a tragedy.
The fact that our man Duncan has come in to his senior year already bearing the weight of the impending Tragedy Paper, an end of year essay that must analyse the genre in its complex entirety makes it the buzzword for the whole story. Everything feels like part of a tragedy for poor old Duncan who seems to be suffering rather a lot (his wallowing feels rather more melodramatic than tragic if I’m honest). The school setting is perhaps my hamartia because I entered The Irving School ready to love it, and so I did. Like Duncan I couldn’t tear myself away from the story of Tim and Vanessa, and while it threatened to cost Duncan his friends, school work and relationship perhaps it threatened my judgement of the book. I liked the format – the previous year’s story is recounted through a series of audio diaries left by a previous senior, Tim Macbeth to the new senior living in the same dorm room, Duncan. I loved the strange events and quirks of this school – the ‘decorate a donut’ day, the breakfast for dinner event, the games that take place instead of inductions. It all sounds too good to be true – does anyone ever go to class or do any work? There is a very tolerant head teacher, an excitable English teacher and a nurse who will give out aspirin to anyone who overslept and needs a sick note to explain a missed class. Everyone wanders around the class in their sweat pants and logo t-shirts and goes jogging in the middle of the day in the schools lush grounds. Each year there is a secret game or event that has to be especially daring or unusual to which the staff are all ready to turn a blind eye to. In fact it seems the only thing that anyone really cares about is getting this mystery tragedy assignment done, but as that can be submitted in nearly any form and has to include a hit list of words that can add grade-changing points if stuck in somewhere it doesn’t sound that stressful either. Everything is a little bit convenient to be honest, but maybe that’s another facet of the privileged life of American wealth and it sounds really good fun.
Tim’s story falls into place as Duncan listens to it play out up to the part he knows through his own involvement the previous year. The ‘tragedy’ which I won’t go into – is a little underwhelming after the slow-burning build up which promised delicious intrigue. Tim is much more likeable than Duncan – an albino caught in a love triangle – but again his downfall isn’t quite as tragic as I was lead to expect, or rather the reasoning behind it was frustrating rather than heart-breaking. I’m listing all the problems here but I should state quite clearly and firmly that I did not want to stop reading at any point. I was captivated and I could see everything clearly with interest and intrigue and it’s only in writing this that I’ve been able to put these niggles into order. At the time of reading none of this mattered, and the nice clean writing makes this a great story for that mid-teenage read. There is no swearing, sex or drugs (aside from a little Bourbon) that make this unsuitable for teenagers not quite ready for the YA category so I’ll be heartily recommending it to plenty. It really has got that private school magic and when stories exist in this magical place then all the rules can be broken. This is the first book I’ve read in 2013 and I will be interested to see how this holds up against the rest of the TBR pile – the flaws aren’t fatal by any means and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the story that lurks in my memory for months to come. The Tragedy Paper is released on the 10th January and I have no doubt it will go forth and spread light and plenty of enjoyment.
plenty of reviews suggesting ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ as further reading…might investigate
Everything about this book made me want to read it: the title, what a great title; the cover, stylish and strange illustration featuring some very cool spectacles and lovely rosy cheeks; the pull quote from my hero Melvin Burgess – he says its good, I bet it’s good; and the author’s name – Jack Gantos, of Dead End in Norvelt, an almost inexplicably good book with writing you just want to spend time in.
Ivy loves her mother. She wants to dress like her. She is proud of her. She carries her love around like a fat clock that is fit to burst with the love that she cannot separate from the horrific ticking of her mother’s immortality. But does death have to mean loss? Local pharmacists Ab and Dolph seem to be the only ones who understand Ivy’s curse, but of course they would – they are Rumbaughs.
Twins, taxidermy and totally weird goings-on are afoot in this twisted tale that puts the creepy into…er…creepy-love-for-your-mother. Shades of Psycho loom like a corpse in a corner but it’s the bright sunshine of the high street setting that made this story so likeable. The cool period setting gives everything a beautiful frame – I loved the pharmacy with its marble counters and the Kelly hotel Ivy calls home. Small-town America is well acquainted with the gothic tradition and this strange story naturally inhabits its literary heritage. Death, family and ownership are all examined in an up close and personal way and the contemplative nature of Ivy’s struggle mixed with the twins’ stories of research and reasoning all added up to something so bizarre, so enticing and unusual and so genuinely intriguing I feel compelled to pass the curse on. Be sure not to skip over the introduction – Gantos takes YA gothic into superbly sophisticated territory. I am bewitched.
Abrahams & Chronicle recently posted photographs of their November releases on their facebook page. They looked gorgeous. I sent a cheeky request and within days I had an exciting envelope full of books to review…here’s the first.
A Strange Place To Call Home
Marilyn Singer (Poet) and Ed Young (Illustrator)
The introduction to this book is called Risky Places, which would have been an equally good title for this book of poetry that looks at some of the animals that live in odd, often dangerous and frankly bizarre conditions. ‘These fourteen animals defy the odds. They make their homes under the weight of seas, on the slick skin of tar pits, in the sandstorm’s mouth.’ Singer’s short poems give an encouraging nod to these inventive animals and the form is perfect – if there was ever a writing that made a home in hostile conditions it is poetry in today’s literary landscape, but a heroic animal itself, poetry persists. I always think the sign of a good poetry book – especially one aimed at children – is that it inspires work in response so I was delighted to see that Singer had added a short note at the back to explain which forms had been used and directions to the poetry foundation. Just the simple act of creating an inspiring subject to write about can be enough, and this topic is an excellent project to research together. When goats live up high in craggy mountains it is easy to forget their struggle but the addition of books like this in primary classrooms could remind everyone, even for a few minutes, that these animals – and poetry – persevere.
Amy Fields is a rich kid rebelling against her uninterested dad and wrestling with the trauma of her mother’s suicide. When her father buys a yacht and insists on taking Amy and her new stepmother on a round the world boat-trip she’s hardly chomping at the bit, but when the boat is attacked by Somalian pirates and the Fields are renamed as numbered hostages, Amy’s whole world changes.
I should mention that when it comes to reviewing a book that deals with pirates the puns are practically naturally occurring, lucky for me – Hostage Three rightly earns them all so here we go.
It is genuinely captivating – I was just a few pages in when I realised the pirates had boarded my subconscious. Amy’s story infiltrated my thoughts even when I wasn’t reading, which makes Hostage Three different from a page-turner because at times I almost didn’t want to know what would happen. Like Amy, I was mesmerised by this strange situation and enjoying the mystery of being trapped in a floating world where moments of dream-like luxury are spiked with adrenaline and threat. Despite being desperate for a resolution, some things you just don’t want to end and besides, Amy turned out to be good company. She was open and honest in a way that felt truthful and endearing; a real achievement for someone whose foolish antics at the beginning smacked of spoilt child syndrome. Lake’s ability to make Amy likeable and believable in this high-octane situation is really impressive and it is the growing relationship between Amy and the pirate translator Farouz that riveted me to the story. Again in the wrong hands, a Stockholm syndrome situation could have easily felt forced or ridiculous but it avoids both in its slow and natural progression. Amy and Farouz initially bond over their culture-clash differences – Farouz is a magnetic storyteller and their conversations make lovely set pieces that break up the tense action –as they learn more about each other it is their subtle similarities that create a deep understanding and affection. Amy is softening all the time, revealing more of herself to Farouz and learning about herself as she confronts her own past. It is the moments alone in her cabin when she questions the sanity of her situation – the absurdity of reading into her captor’s signals- that show Lake hasn’t forgotten his audience. This is a perfect YA book because it is loyal to its narrator, resisting the opportunity to become just an action thriller,;this is Amy’s story and she’s telling it to the readers on her level.
For me, the smart ending is a real triumph and without giving anything away it put both a grin on my face and a tear in my eye. It is the mark of a great story that makes both the character and the reader reassess what they thought they wanted. I haven’t read In Darkness (Lake’s previous YA release for Bloomsbury) so had no expectations on picking up this book but it crept up on me like a coast guard in the night, and kept me hostage for three days straight. I loved every minute of it.
Hostage Three will be published in January 2013 by Bloomsbury. Thanks to Ian Lamb and Emma Bradshaw for sending the proof. I’ve put it on my list for Teen Book Club choices next year.
This delightful fairytale brings all the familiar warmth and wonder that only a story about a Princess can. Of course it begins with an orphan but Cathryn Constable has modernised the setting enough to make sure legal guardians get a mention and everything is above board. Rather than inflict any time travel or dream sequences the move to the dark forests of Russia ensures the magic of a land trapped in times past is vivid and involving. The danger is real too, thieves and wolves lurk in the shadows, customs are unknown and one wrong move could put Sophie’s fantasy at risk. But the cracks are starting to show, and it’s not long before everyone is walking on thin ice.
I can’t avoid the word ‘girly’ because it just is. The cover is unashamedly girly and despite there being some interesting male characters, a strong sense of history resonating in violence and battle and a dark and threatening landscape we see this all through Sophie’s eyes. But it’s a beautiful viewpoint – she is enchanted by the strange power of this wintery country, she adores the culture that is steeped in fairytale and she delights in furry blankets and satin coats and reader, so will you! Just like the magical setting, the whole experience feels fresh, intoxicating and deliciously princessy – a truly royal treat for a cold winter’s night.
I first encountered Aidan Chambers work when I absentmindedly picked up The Kissing Game, a collection of short stories in a small, pretty hardback edition. I like short stories and I really like short short stories so I gave it a go. Bravo. I enjoyed it. I wished more people publishedshort stories for teens – I wished I wrote more etc. etc. etc.
I bought Dying To Know You mostly because I loved the cover and well, it had this Chambers guy’s name on it and that worked out well last, didn’t it? I had actually been staring at DTKY for weeks before I finally gave in and took it home. It was a strange feeling – I hadn’t read the first page or looked up a review or anything but something was telling me I had to own that book. The thing was right because I ate that book up and then immediately passed it on to my Mum saying not much more than I can’t explain why I have enjoyed this book so much but it is genuinely brilliant and I think Aidan Chambers might be a genius.
And so I was looking for something else. I ordered in some of his other novels and pesky customers immediately bought them and then a particularly loyal customer offered to lend me This Is All and then promptly turned up with it, such as people who have read it are wont to do I suppose. If this was my copy I’d be thrusting it on someone else. As it isn’t I suppose I will give it back (and look into acquiring my own – although it’d need to be a hardback as I’m sure the spine of a paperback edition would snap before Book two and for something you intend to read again …and again – this simply will not do).
As with many great books I hadn’t realised quite how much I was enjoying it until I found myself thinking about it throughout the day and then being annoyed when I couldn’t read it. I have other reading commitments throughout the month due to book clubs and reviews etc. and they were all getting in the way of my being with Cordelia, and the book is so bloody big I couldn’t take it anywhere with me, nor could I read it in bed for fear of knocking myself out with it when I fell asleep with it on my face and having a nose-bleed all over it (remember, it isn’t my book). So I had to make special time to read it, sitting on a chair, with the dust jacket removed so I didn’t hurt it and trying not to open the book too wide (not my spine! – and it’s too big to hold with one hand anyway) so how lucky for me that such dedicated absolute reading time should be rewarded with a text so rich and varied and interesting and loveable.
What’s it about? Oh – a teenage girl writing to her unborn child about her life, falling in love, making mistakes, going to school, dealing with family, learning things, you know. It’s 800+ pages of this. Sounds terrible doesn’t it? I usually shy away from any particularly large books and wonder why the editor has given this writer such luxurious abandon – foolish I know. Now I’m truly delighted, and excited to know that a book like this exists at all – in all its huge, meandering glory, there is no part of it that I would change, how lucky we are to have writing like this and publishers and editors who believe that young adult fiction is ready for such a book. I loved to be there in amongst the pages of Cordelia’s writing, wallowing with her in her bedroom or jogging through the forests, listening to her workings and thought processes – so many ideas matched my own – it was a shock then when true action occurred. Had I know it was coming I would have worried about it upsetting the beautiful tone of the book so far but it was another master stroke - I don’t want to give anything away - nor about the ending – which I’ll just say was further proof that this was one of the most moving and magnificent books I have ever read.
And it seems Cordelia finds her way into this review – look, 700 words +. I loved this book. I love this book.
Nb. I wouldn’t want to tell anyone not to read this book but I should say this is not for young teens and I’d imagine ideal readers will be 15+
Out of the blue, Evie Decker is going to a rock-and-roll concert to see Bertrand ‘Drumstrings’ Casey. She heard his peculiar interview on the radio and she wants to see him - it’s as simple as that. But this is a real change of scene for the studious Evie; her large size means she rarely goes unnoticed but Evie likes to keep her head down. Her (only) friend Violet is the loud one in the bright clothes but even she can’t understand why Evie would go to such a dive. But something about Drumstrings keeps her going back for more and quickly leads her to a shocking act that changes her life forever.
This is a small book set it a small southern town and Evie’s expectations of life are sized accordingly. She knows she’s fat but doesn’t seem to be interested in doing anything about it. She coasts through each day at school hoping to slip under the radar of her contemporaries at every opportunity. She’s uncomfortable nearly all the time. One friend is enough, especially one so loud and vibrant as Violet. Her relationship with her father is calm and quiet. In fact it seems the only person to get a rise from Evie is their help, Clotelia.
When Evie cuts his name into her forehead at a concert she binds her life to Drumstrings before they’ve even spoken, but even as the scars fade its clear their lives have become permanently entwined. Drumstrings is awkward, alluring and infuriating, whilst Evie’s quiet calm commands a strange sort of strength. No one can understand the way their relationship progresses but when Drumstrings wallows, Evie abides. She is simply fascinating. Her cool air nature and the hot southern sun make this a deliciously sticky read. It may be the first Anne Tyler book I have read but it certainly won’t be the last.