Book Review: The 100 Society by Carla Spradbery.

The100SocietyFor sixth-form student Grace Becker, The 100 Society is more than just a game; it’s an obsession. Having convinced her five friends at Clifton Academy to see it through to the end, Grace will stop at nothing to carry out the rules of the game: tagging 100 locations around the city. With each step closer to the 100-mark they get, the higher the stakes become. But when the group catches the attention of a menacing stalker – the Reaper – he seems intent on exposing their illegal game, tormenting Grace with anonymous threats and branding their dormitory doors with his ominous tag.

As the once tight-knit group slowly unravels, torn apart by doubt and the death of a student, they no longer know who to trust.

With time running out, Grace must unmask the Reaper before he destroys everything she cares about for ever…

The striking cover art for this book grabbed my attention, when I then read the blurb I thought it sounded like exactly the sort of thing I’d have picked up as a teenager. I started reading expecting a tense, twisty read – that’s exactly what I got.

This book definitely has a strong feel of the Point Horror titles I devoured as a teenager, the sinister creepiness starts early on in the book and just keeps growing. It is a fast paced read, diving into the action from the very beginning and keeping it up over the course of the book. I liked that there were some quieter, more character driven, moments – they were a good pause from the driving plot. These moments also reinforced the fact that whilst the teens in this book are dealing with this terrifying threat they’re doing it at the same time as they’re trying to navigate being teenagers and the difficulties this brings to life in general.

Grace, the lead, is a really interesting character. She’s highly driven and motivated, particularly in her bid to join The 100 Society and achieve something her highly successful older brother didn’t manage. I would have liked to get to understand Grace a little more than I did, whilst I could see how driven she was I didn’t feel like I entirely understand what was behind this. As I’m typing this I’m realising that actually I feel like this about most of the main characters, I did get to know them but would have loved to get to know them a little more deeply.

The plot twists and turns throughout the book. Very quickly I realised that everything was pointing towards one person being behind the reaper tags and unpleasantness, this made me think that it was perhaps all a little too convenient for it to fall at their feet. This meant I was then increasingly suspicious of everyone, looking at the notes I made whilst reading I managed to have almost all of the core characters in the frame at one point or another! The reveal when it comes is satisfyingly explained, it was entirely believable and the explanation behind it worked for me.

This is Carla Spradbery’s debut novel. It’s an accomplished start, I look forward to seeing her grow with each subsequent book she writes.

The 100 Society will be published by Hodder Children’s Books on 4th September. Whilst I was provided with a copy of the book by the publisher all opinions expressed are my own.

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PoP: Katie in Scotland by James Mayhew & Steggie’s Stammer by Jack Hughes.

PoP Tuesdays on Juniper’s Jungle bring two reviews of picture books.

Katie in Scotland by James Mayhew. Orchard Books.
KatieInScotlandKatie, Jack and Grandma are on holiday in Scotland! There’s lots to see and do, so where should they start? Loch Ness, of course! And when Nessie wants to join them on their holiday, fun is bound to follow!

Join Katie on her latest adventure as she discovers the wonderful delights that Scotland has to offer.

This is a fun, light-hearted read about Katie’s visit to Scotland. Within the first couple of pages she meets Nessie (for this is what the Loch Ness Monster asks them to call her) who proceeds to act as travel companion and sometimes tour guide. They take in the sights in both Glasgow and Edinburgh over the course of the book. It’s a good introduction to Scotland and could be a nice book to share before a family trip.

The illustrations in the book are lovely, they use a slightly soft palette which works well with the gentle story. I had a couple of favourite double page illustrations – early in the book there is a beautiful panorama of the Scottish landscape they are travelling through and then a little later there is a lovely night time view as they approach Edinburgh. The pictures have a timeless feel, whilst this book was first published only a couple of years ago it already has a classic feel to it.

This book is the twelfth book in the Katy series by James Mayhew, on the strength of this I’ll be looking out for the others on my future trips to the library.

Steggie’s Stammer by Jack Hughes. Wayland.
SteggieSteggie has a stammer and sometimes it takes her more time to get her words out. Her friends are in a hurry to play a game and they rush off without listening to her.

Before long, the friends get into trouble and it’s up to Steggie to rescue them. But will they listen to her advice?

I was drawn to this book both by its very appealing cover and it’s intriguing title. This book clearly was going to deal with stammering, something that affects lots of young children (about 5% of children go through a stammering phase with 1 in 5 of these being at risk of persistant stammering). I wondered how well it would manage the topic – there’s always a risk that books with such a specific purpose can be a little cheesy or worthy. Seeing that the Education Office for the British Stammering Association had acted as a consultant made me think it would probably avoid these pitfalls, I started to read with great hope.

The story is a simple one, Steggie and her friends are playing and her friends won’t give her the time she needs to speak instead interrupting and going off to do their own thing. This naturally goes wrong, and Steggie comes through to save the day with her friends learning that they need to listen to her and give her time to talk. The message is strong but does avoid feeling preachy, I think the book would definitely be enjoyed by its target age group. The illustrations are attractive, they often give the impression of being at least part done with wax crayons which gives them great child appeal.

Upon finishing the book I discovered that this is one book from a set of 4, Steggie’s 3 dinosaur friends all get their own book – I assume serving a similar purpose. I had noticed that Rex wore glasses and Dachy had a hearing aid, though must admit I didn’t spot Emmy’s eczema. I would imagine that these books would make a good addition to any childcare setting’s picture book collection.

Both books featured in this post were borrowed from my local library.

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My 2014 in books – the halfway point.

I love reading and I love statistics so I always love posts about reading stats, whether my own or others’. The last time I talked properly about the stats behind my reading was at the end of 2012 (you can see that post here) – I wasn’t so good about keeping detailed stats in 2013 unfortunately.

I didn’t set any specific reading goals at the beginning of 2014, I simply decided I wanted to be more mindful about what I was reading. I wanted to continue to extend the range of books I was reading, and I wanted to make sure there was greater diversity in my reading both when it came to the characters in the books and the people who were writing them. With that in mind I drew up a spreadsheet so that I could track all sorts of data about what I was reading and have been filling it in ever since.

I wasn’t going to write a halfway post which is why now I’ve decided to do it it’s coming towards the end of July rather than the beginning (I am still only counting the books read between 1st January and 30th June). Part of this was because I didn’t read as many books as I’d hoped in the first half of the year. I think though that it’s still worth looking at how my reading in the first six months of the year breaks down – I have a feeling the picture in the second half of the year may be a little different. No graphs in this post I’m afraid, you’ll have to come back at the end of December for that fun!

The Basics.
So far in 2014 I’ve read 32 books. Of these the target age breakdown is as follows:

Children’s (8 and under) – 2
Middle Grade (8 – 12) – 10
Young Adult – 15
Adult – 5

I’m a little surprised by this, whilst I knew the Children’s figure would be low I definitely didn’t expect the Middle Grade figure to be as high as it is. I love middle grade fiction but hadn’t realised I’d read quite so much already this year.

Only one of the books was non-fiction, of the 31 fiction books I read 1 was a novella, 2 were picture books and the rest were novels. I haven’t read any short stories or graphic novels yet this year.

The Authors.
So far this year I’ve looked at a couple of traits for the authors who’ve written the books I’ve been reading. In terms of nationality they breakdown:

Australian – 1
French – 1
Irish – 2
American – 9
British – 19

I really wish there was a bit more of a range here. I’m really pleased to see that I’m reading lots of books by British authors, but I’m going to try harder to read more broadly for the rest of the year.

The gender breakdown is also something I’ve been interested in. So far I’ve read 19 books written by a female author, 12 books written by a male author and one book co-written by a male and female pairing.

8 of the 32 books are début novels, 7 of the these are by female authors. The début novelists come from 4 of the 5 nationalities I’ve read (Australia, France, USA (2) and UK (3) ).

The Books.
I’m not going to drill too deeply into the data I’ve been collecting on the books in this post. I’m going to pick out three of the things I’m really interested in but save the rest for my big round up at the end of the year – I think there will definitely be a couple of posts in it.

One thing I have been curious about is whether I naturally lean more towards standalone books or those which make up series. So far I’ve read 18 standalone books, 8 series openers, 3 books that are second in a series, 1 that’s third in the series, 1 from a series of companion novels and 1 prequel (the novella). This is pretty much as I expected, I sometimes find series harder to keep track of so have a bit of a habit of reading the first book in a series and then waiting until I can read all of the subsequent books in a row.

In addition to looking at the the gender of the author I’m also looking at the gender of the main characters of the books I’m reading. This one’s a little more tricky to record, there are books where I’m finding myself wondering about the most accurate way to describe it – some are dual narrative (though this is easy, I’m just recording the gender of each narrator), more difficult are the ones where I find myself wondering whether they have a true main character or fall more into the ensemble grouping. As it stands the breakdown is as follows (only includes novels and novellas):

Male Ensemble – 1
Dual Narrative Male and Male – 1
Mixed Ensemble – 3
Dual Narrative Female and Male – 4
Male Main Character – 8
Female Main Character – 13

For the same set of books I’ve also been looking at representation of diversity. I’ve been noting books that feature at least a significant supporting character from one or more minority groups. 5/29 feature at least one LGBT character, 3/29 have at least one character with a disability and 11/29 have one or more characters of colour. I’m being at least a little deliberate in my aims to read books with more diverse characters – if they’re not being read and talked about they’re not going to increase in their numbers. This is an area I really hope to do yet more with over the second half of the year.

The rest of the year.
I’m glad I’ve taken the time to look back at what I’ve been reading so far this year. There are some gaps I want to fix; to read more non-fiction books and some short stories and graphic novels for starters. I also want to try and broaden my reading further, I want to make sure I’ve read books by authors from all of the continents. Finally I want to keep doing what I’m doing, but just do more of it. Reading as many varied books as I can and talking about them.

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Book Review: Jet by Jay Crownover.

JetWith his tight leather pants and a sharp edge that makes him dangerous, Jet Keller is every girl’s rock and roll fantasy. But Ayden Cross is done walking on the wild side with bad boys. She doesn’t want to give in to the heat she sees in Jet’s dark, haunted eyes. She’s afraid of getting burned from the sparks of their spontaneous combustion, even as his touch sets her on fire.

Jet can’t resist the Southern Belle with mile-long legs in cowboy boots who defies his every expectation. Yet the closer he feels to Ayden, the less he seems to know her. While he’s tempted to get under her skin and undo her in every way, he knows firsthand what happens to two people with very different ideas about relationships.

Will the blaze burn into an enduring love. . . or will it consume their dreams and turn them to ashes?

Last week I reviewed Rule, the first book in Jay Crownover’s Marked Men series and mentioned that I ordered Jet the second in the series as soon as I finished reading. I made myself read another book in between, but was quickly back to the world of tattooed, pierced boys and strong ladies. Whilst there won’t be any specific spoilers for Rule in this review there are some similarities I will be drawing to the review so if you didn’t read it and are interested now might be a good time to read it – here.

Jet again follows a dual narrative structure, with the heavy metal bandleader Jet and Ayden, Shaw’s best friend and roommate, taking their turn in the limelight. The book begins partway through Rule – we get to see one specific scene from the book from Jet and Ayden’s perspective, this acts as a prologue and scene setter before the timeline jumps forward a year. I liked this a lot, whilst it was nice to get that look back at part of Rule the jump forward meant that the whole cast of characters continued to develop. The only slight niggle I had as a result of this was that initially Jet felt a little like he was info dumping, this passed very quickly and his voice then shone through clearly.

One of the things I loved about Rule was the tight knit nature of the group of characters, this holds absolutely true for Jet too. The group dynamic is brilliant, and I enjoyed seeing how the group had evolved over the year that had passed. Having the book from Jet’s perspective in particular was interesting, he doesn’t work at the tattoo shop like the majority of the male characters so his relationship with them is slightly different. Cora again stands out as a character I love, she plays a slightly more prominent role in this book – this made me very happy.

The relationship between Jet and Ayden is beset by difficulties. Both are characters who keep quite a lot of themselves hidden, this only results in miscommunication and frustration on both sides. Even when things are going well it is easy for the reader to see how fragile their relationship is – I found I was, like the characters, waiting for the other shoe to drop. At times whilst I was reading it felt like my heart was aching for both of them. I have to say too that whilst the more adult moments between them were well written and hot, it was the quieter moments that I loved the most.

Jet in particular spoke a lot to me as a character. He’s a hugely talented musician and as such everyone has an opinion on what he should be doing and achieving. They’re less keen on listening to what he wants and accepting that he might know himself better than they do. I think these sorts of assumptions are all too easy to make, if Rule focused on knowing who you truly are then Jet turns on the focus onto knowing what you want to be. These are both such huge themes that root the books firmly in the New Adult styling and both ask and attempt to answer the meaningful questions many people are still trying to answer much further into their grown up lives.

This book is another really excellent read, I loved it just as much as I did Rule though for different reasons. If this series is an indication of how the New Adult publishing world is evolving I may have to reconsider it completely.

Rule is published by Harper in the UK. My copy of the book is one I purchased myself.

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Book Review: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.

EleanorAndParkEleanor is the new girl in town, and with her chaotic family life, her mismatched clothes and unruly red hair, she couldn’t stick out more if she tried.

Park is the boy at the back of the bus. Black T-shirts, headphones, head in a book – he thinks he’s made himself invisible. But not to Eleanor… never to Eleanor.

Slowly, steadily, through late-night conversations and an ever-growing stack of mix tapes, Eleanor and Park fall for each other. They fall in love the way you do the first time, when you’re young, and you feel as if you have nothing and everything to lose.

For the last twelve months or so everywhere I’ve looked I’ve seen people raving about Rainbow Rowell’s books. Well actually, I’ve seen as many people raving about how awesome Rainbow herself is as I’ve seen discussion about her books. Either way I knew I needed to finally get on and read her books. Eleanor and Park seemed like the perfect place to start. Now I’ve read it and loved it I find myself wishing my reviewing skills were better, this book deserves a far better write up than I have any hope of producing.

Eleanor and Park is set in 1986, and is told jointly by the characters named in the title. The setting was an interesting one, I was a young child in the UK during 1986 but much of the nostalgia that the time period evoked worked well for me. Whether it would work quite so well for today’s teen I don’t know, but I always managed fine with books set many decades in the past so I reckon it probably will.

Both Eleanor and Park have significant challenges within their lives. Eleanor’s are more obvious, living in poverty with an abusive stepfather and a mother who doesn’t seem able to provide the comfort or support Eleanor so desperately wants and needs, transferring to a new school . Park on the other hand has to manage a father whose expectations seem unreachable, and his own desire to simply get on with life and remain beneath the radar. The dual narrative, third person structure of the book means we really get to see inside the two characters’ heads – we get to understand how they feel, what they want, what they’re struggling with. I felt that this meant I could connect more deeply with them as characters.

This is definitely a love story, though I haven’t read many like it before. It’s slow and tentative and awkward, like so many real life burgeoning teen romances. Neither Eleanor or Park fit into the quintessential romantic lead pigeon holes and the book is all the better for it. The uncertainty that underpins their relationship again draws the reader further into it, and I’m sure will be something that many readers find they can identify with. So many love stories play out more like the Hollywood romance and whilst these occur in real life they’re not the only sort of romance and I really appreciated the authenticity of relationship found within this book. The Hollywood take on this story would also result in some neat, saccharine sweet ending. What we get is so much better, an untidy ending of hope and progress.

I loved the role both comics and music played within this book. The mix tapes element of the book was something I particularly found I identified with, whilst personal CD players were a feature of my teenage years mix tapes were still somewhat important – I still have a box which contains a few that meant most to me for one reason or another. Their differing circumstances means there is something of an inequity in the relationship between Eleanor and Park, her life has meant that in many ways she hasn’t experienced many of the cultural things that Park has. Music however is something she knows even if what she knows is different to what Park knows. He might know the stuff that’s current but she knows the greats that have come before. She is able to teach him in the way he is able to teach her – this is the power of music and something that moved me greatly as I read.

This book is hard to describe neatly. It’s quiet and yet huge, its story is simple and yet multi-faceted. Fundamentally this is a book that will claw its way under your skin, dragging you into its characters’ lives, staying front and centre in your brain even once you’ve finished reading. I absolutely loved it and am already looking forward to revisiting it.

Eleanor and Park is published by Orion in the UK. My copy of the book is one I purchased myself.

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PoP: Captain Brainpower and the Mighty Mean Machine by Sam Lloyd & Black Dog by Levi Penfold.

PoP Tuesdays on Juniper’s Jungle bring two reviews of picture books.

Captain Brainpower and the Mighty Mean Machine by Sam Lloyd. Harper Collins Children’s Books.
CaptainBrainpowerHoley moley! There’s a new superhero in town!

Meet two very special toys: Captain Brainpower and Mojo Mouse. They’ve been thrown away at the rubbish dump where the Might Mean Machine has snatched Mojo for breakfast! Can Captain Brainpower activate his amazing super power and save Mojo from becoming mouse on toast?

3, 2, 1… Captain Brainpower to the rescue!

I really wanted to enjoy this book, its bright colourful cover had grabbed my attention and I loved the idea of having brainpower as a super power. Unfortunately I was left underwhelmed by the book, despite its short length it felt like the time spent reading it dragged.

The book is as colourful as its cover, if anything I found at times it was a little too colourful – the pages filled with bold colour shades sometimes felt a bit too busy. Some pages have a huge amount of detail, there would certainly be lots to talk about if reading it with just one or two children.

The story itself has all the elements that make a good picture book, the action starts straight away, there’s sufficient peril to keep the reader’s attention. I personally found that the middle section fell a bit flat – I would have expected to love seeing Captain Brainpower in action but unfortunately didn’t. I also didn’t like the name calling there was going on throughout the book and Captain Brainpower’s repeated utterances of “Holey Moley” and “Blooming Brains” – this made the character feel a little on the twee side.

All in all this was a book that sounded great but unfortunately failed to deliver for me. I have every confidence that it’ll work well for some young readers but it’s certainly not one I’d be rushing to add to my collection.

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold. Templar Publishing.
BlackDogAn enormous black dog and a very tiny little girl star in this offbeat tale about confronting one’s fears.

When a huge black dog appears outside the Hope family home, each member of the household sees it and hides. Only Small, the youngest Hope, has the courage to face the black dog, who might not be as frightening as everyone else thinks.

This book won the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2013, awarded for distinguished illustration in a book for children. Having now read the book I can completely understand how it won, the illustrations are absolutely stunning. Every double page spread contains one large colour illustration and a number of small sepia toned illustrations. There is a real beauty and slightly unusual quality to the illustrations, they brought to mind the work of Shaun Tan – an illustrator whose work I adore.

The story is about a family who in turn see the black dog outside, each person who sees it describes it as bigger than the last person right up until Small, the youngest and tiniest member of the family, sees it and instead of hiding from it like her family members does exactly the opposite and goes to confront it. It shows how fear can be self generating, with each family member the fear of the dog becomes bigger and more exaggerated until Small refuses to be drawn into this, showing them that standing up to the thing they’re all afraid of is the way to conquer it.

Black Dog is a beautiful book which balances a big message with stunning illustrations, bringing a sense of whimsy to the whole reading experience. A definite new favourite book for me.

Both books featured in this post were borrowed from my local library.

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Book Review: Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman.

BoysDontCryYou’ve got it all planned out. A summer of freedom, university, a career as a journalist – your future looks bright.

But then the doorbell rings. It’s your ex-girlfriend, and she’s carrying a baby.

Your baby.

You agree to look after it, just for an hour or two.

Then she doesn’t come back – and your life changes for ever.

A gripping and original story about love, relationships and growing up the hard way.

Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses books were for me, like so many others, some of the first young adult fiction I read as an adult. I was blown away by them and passed my copies to others so that they too could read their brilliance. For whatever reason I hadn’t read any more of her books, I kept hearing great things about Boys Don’t Cry so I grabbed it when I saw it at my local library. Eventually I sat down to read it and devoured it in one slightly emotional sitting, and then kicked myself hard for not reading it sooner.

Boys Don’t Cry is Dante’s story, he is a bright teen waiting for the uni results that mean he can go away to university and pursue his dreams of becoming a journalist. His life is turned upside down by the discovery that he fathered a child, and is now entirely responsible for that child. At the same time Boys Don’t Cry is Adam’s story – he gets nearly half of the narrative duties – he’s the younger brother, his heart is set on a career in the performing arts and he’s openly gay even if his brother and father don’t outwardly do or say anything to acknowledge it.

Both boys are under a lot of emotional pressure, they feel the absence of their dead mother keenly, and whilst their father is trying his best to bring them up there are significant cracks in his relationship with them both. The addition of the baby into their family unit pushes the relationships even further, at times this made for painful reading – I found I could understand everyone’s perspective, there truly was no right or wrong between Dante, Adam and their father.

Dante’s reactions to his rapidly changing future feel both harsh and entirely genuine. Discovering he has a child and becoming responsible for her has a dramatic impact on his life in every way imaginable, I found myself wondering how I would have reacted to a similar thing at his age, it felt too big to even begin to consider. I realised as I was nearing the end of the book that we never hear about the Dantes of the world – there must be young single fathers out there, I can’t remember ever hearing about one though.

Adam’s story was somewhat unexpected in that I didn’t expect him to have such a strong presence or narrative within the book. He gets his own storyline, though it twists in and out of Dante’s, whilst this works well there were times when it almost felt like there was a little too much going on – I guess it’s that age old age of it never raining but pouring. I found that I could see relatively early on within his story where it was going, I was willing myself to be wrong but was proven right.

The final section of the book in particular has some beautiful, touching moments. I spent the last few chapters in a completely heightened state of emotions. The conclusions felt very true to the characters and the plot, and I closed the book feeling incredibly glad for the opportunity to read such a book. It deals with some huge issues but never feels like an “issues” book. It is instead a book about the value of communication and the power of family and of love. I have seen mention of a companion novel coming at some point, telling the story of baby Emma’s mother Melanie – I’ll certainly be reading this book far more quickly.

Boys Don’t Cry is published by Corgi. My copy of the book was borrowed from my local library.

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