Book Review

Book Review: Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson.

OfThingsGoneAstrayMrs Featherby had been having pleasant dreams until she woke to discover the front of her house had vanished overnight …

On a seemingly normal morning in London, a group of people all lose something dear to them, something dear but peculiar: the front of their house, their piano keys, their sense of direction, their place of work.

Meanwhile, Jake, a young boy whose father brings him to London following his mother’s sudden death in an earthquake, finds himself strangely attracted to other people’s lost things. But little does he realise that his most valuable possession, his relationship with his dad, is slipping away from him.

Of Things Gone Astray is a magical fable about modern life and values. Perfect for fans of Andrew Kaufman and Cecelia Ahern.

The first thing that drew me to this book was that gorgeous cover. The synopsis sounded pretty great too, but this was absolutely a case of choosing a book based on its cover.

To try and describe this book is going to be incredibly difficult. It’s one of those books that needs to be read to be understood. It follows a number of characters who have lost something, the focus rotates between them for each chapter. The chapters are short, some less than a page long, each giving us another little glimpse into the character and their life since they lost whatever it is that is dear to them.

The things that each character have lost vary from physical objects to less tangible things – skills, feelings, purposes. The more we get to know the character the more we understand why they might have lost this, why it was so important to them and what its loss means to them. This made the book a captivating read for me, I love trying to understand characters (and people for that matter) and so this book appealed to the part of my brain that loves nothing more than to try and unpick someone’s make up.

The different characters’ stories do intertwine a little, the author manages this in such a way that it doesn’t feel forced or overly convenient. I enjoyed each and every character, I’d have to pick Mrs Featherby as my favourite I think. There are perhaps other characters whose stories are more obviously interesting, but she’s the one I wanted to keep delving deeper with.

Of Things Gone Astray is an impressive book, made all the more impressive by the fact it’s a debut novel. On the basis of this book I suspect we may be seeing quite a bit more of Janina Matthewson over the next few years.

Of Things Gone Astray is published by The Friday Project in the UK. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review · Reading Challenges

48HBC: The Vandal by Ann Schlee and The Night Sky in my Head by Sarah Hammond.

Day 2 of the challenge has started well with two more excellent reads. I’m now up to 11 hours 20 reading time and 2,314 pages.

The Vandal by Ann Schlee. Catnip.
TheVandalPaul started a fire.

Tonight he will do as he always does: take the Drink and submit the day’s events to the MEMORY.

Tomorrow the MEMORY will remind him what happened today. Paul trusts the MEMORY.

But should he?

This book is a reissue by Catnip Publishing, it was originally published in 1979 and won the Guardian Prize for Children’s Fiction. I was told that you would have no idea it hadn’t been written recently, and I have to say that’s absolutely right. It feels fresh and current, it definitely doesn’t feel older than I am!

The book straddles the boundary between sci fi and dystopia nicely. It works so well because it’s not a big stretch of the imagination to see how this could be a potential future – the idea of this level government control is all too believable.

I loved the world building in this book, I found I could really imagine how it looked and functioned. I liked Paul a lot as a lead character, his spirit in particular had me hooked.

The Night Sky in my Head by Sarah Hammond. Oxford University Press.
NightSkyInMyHeadStep backwards. Witness the murder. Find the truth

Mikey Baxter isn’t like other fourteen year old boys. Not since the accident.

The world sees him as damaged. But Mikey has a remarkable gift: the ability to go backwards in time and witness things that hide in the shadows.

Now he must uncover the terrifying truth behind his dad’s disappearance. Before the past starts to repeat itself . . .

This book opens with an intriguing prologue and then gets going with the action right from chapter 1. We’re quickly introduced to Mikey, and to the fact that Mikey is able to see The Backwards – shadows and places offer up reruns of things that happened in the past for him to see. Of course the adults in his life don’t believe this, labeling it as delusions or just another facet of the brain damage he suffered when he was younger.

Mikey’s story has him piecing together the circumstances around his father’s disappearance. Everyone has kept many of the details from him and he doesn’t know why, but as he investigates and uses The Backwards to help him he starts to uncover things that maybe no one else know either. At the same time Mikey’s experiencing new things, making friends and finally starting to work out where he fits in the world and what he might like the future to hold.

This book has a lovely, warm feeling to it. I can understand the comparisons with both The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Skellig, I think for me it sits happily at the crossroads between the two books. I really enjoyed reading it, and have already got a couple of people in mind to recommend it to.

Book Review · Reading Challenges

48HBC: Skinny by Donna Cooner and Fracture by Megan Miranda.

I’ve finished reading my first two books for the 48 Hour Book Challenge. I’ve logged 2 hours 25 minutes reading, and have read a total of 560 pages.

Skinny by Donna Cooner. Electric Monkey.
SkinnyEver Davies is fifteen years old and dangerously overweight. She was named for the fairytales her mother loved so much, but feels sure that “happily ever after” was never written for her. Until, one day, she decides to take drastic action. Changing on the outside is one thing – but silencing Skinny is the hardest task of all.

Skinny is the story of Ever, a teenager who is massively overweight and emotionally vulnerable. Ever’s personal demons have taken on a being all of their own, Skinny is the voice inside her head, castigating her and putting into words what she imagines everyone is thinking about her. It’s when the abuse from Skinny gets to fever pitch that Ever takes the decision to have gastric band surgery, every diet and exercise plan she’s tried has failed, this seems like the only option.

The book is well researched, the author herself talks briefly in the acknowledgements at the end of the book about her own experience having gastric band surgery. This book is no endorsement for such major surgery, it tries hard to show it in a balanced way – it isn’t a magic wand, and there are downsides to it along with the benefits. The overall message of the book is positive and supportive, but it keeps away from turning into a fairytale like the ones that are talked about throughout the book.

I found I could really identify with Ever, as times she comes across in quite a challenging manner but I felt she was well created and I could completely understand why she behaved as she did. My favourite character though was Rat, he completely stole my heart.

Fracture by Megan Miranda. Bloomsbury.
FractureBy the time 17-year-old Delaney Maxwell is pulled out of the icy waters of a frozen lake, her heart has stopped beating. She is officially dead. Then Delaney starts breathing… The doctors are mystified. But Delaney knows something is very wrong, even though outwardly she has completely recovered.

Pulled by sensations she can’t control, Delaney now finds herself drawn to the dying. Is her brain predicting death or causing it? Then Delaney meets Troy Varga. Is Troy a kindred spirit who somehow understands her weird and frightening gift? Or are his motives chillingly more sinister…
This was such an interesting read, I don’t know that I could put a label onto it – it fits into so many different categories. At its very essence it’s a book about life and death, about what makes us human and about how we relate to one another. From the opening line “The first time I died, I didn’t see God.” it had me in its grips and I couldn’t read it fast enough (a good choice for this weekend’s challenge).

Delaney doesn’t really understand what’s happening to her. She understands that she fell through the ice, and that she died for 11 minutes. She understands that she shouldn’t have survived, and that she certainly should be as well as she is – she sees the images of her brain scan and how damaged it is. What she doesn’t understand is why shy didn’t die, and why she’s now feeling just that little bit disconnected from the world. This sense of unease and confusion works really well to bring the reader into the book, we’re as confused by what’s going on as she is, and we keep reading to find out the answers she’s looking for.

Meeting Troy and finding out that he too is drawn to the dying, and that he too was in a coma is an interesting development in the plot. I found I was uneasy about him from the very start, the creeping sense of dread his presence caused kept me on the edge of my seat and the conclusion of the story really made me stop and think.

In a similar way to Skinny I found that I liked Delaney but again it was her close friend Decker that I really loved. He provided some much needed stability in the story both for me as the reader and for Delaney.

I’ve discovered that there will be a companion novel / sequel to Vengeance out next year. I’m already looking forward to revisiting these characters.

Book Review

Book Review : North of Nowhere by Liz Kessler.

NorthOfNowhereWhen Mia’s grandfather disappears, Mia and her mother immediately rush down to stay with her grandmother and offer support. With no friends and no internet access in the little seaside village where her grandparents live, Mia is bored and lonely–until she makes friends with Dee, the daughter of a fisherman from a nearby island, and Peter, who is on holiday with his parents. But Mia’s grandad is still missing, and actually meeting face to face with Dee is proving surprisingly difficult. Mia becomes determined to find out what’s going on, but the truth is much more mysterious than she ever imagined…

When this book arrived in the post the first thing that grabbed my attention was the gorgeous cover. I love the silhouettes of the trees against the stormy twilight sky, straight away I wanted to get reading to find out who the two children on the boat are and what they’re doing.

This is going to be a book that’s a little tricky to review, the plot is clever and needs to be discovered by reading rather than be me trying to describe it without giving anything away. At its most basic this is a story about family and friendship, but it’s so much more than this at the same time. Two or three times as I was reading I started to think I knew what was happening and where the book was going and then was thrilled to find that I was wrong or only half right.

I liked Mia, the main character, a lot. I found that as I was reading I felt like her thoughts were my thoughts from when I was in year 8, so many years ago. I think many young readers will really identify with Mia, particularly those in that tricky stage of trying to be the person they think their peers want them to be when at the same time they don’t really want to give up on things they love just because they might be perceived as babyish.

This book is targeted at the 9+ audience so I found it to be a lovely, quick read. There’s plenty packed into it and I found that I didn’t want to do anything other than keep reading it – there was no quick checking of Twitter or anything else until I’d finished reading, this is an exciting book that complete drags you in. I was really impressed by the book, it’s definitely one that I’m going to be pushing into young relatives’ hands.

North of Nowhere is published by Orion Children’s in the UK from 24th January 2013. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Book Review : Dirk Danger Loves Life by Chris Rothe.

Dirk Danger Loves Life, the début novel by Chris Rothe, is a comedic tale of a sad little man who cannot function in any self-​​sufficient capacity. As his life swirls down the drain, serendipity provides a phone number that launches him into the world of Dirk Danger.

What follows is a not‑so-​​typical coming of age story involving scuba gear, terrible poetry, a fish eulogy, a walrus, pop music, terrible puns, marijuana, a fake attorney, homelessness, death, and far, far too much pornography. The road to recovery is a twisted and ridiculous one indeed.

The plot of Dirk Danger Love Lifes is pretty straight forward, our protagonist is a young man who’s finding that he’s a bit rubbish at pretty much everything he turns his hand to. He’s lost countless jobs, is about to be evicted and can’t even keep his pet fish alive. So he responds to an advert that leads him to talk to Dirk Danger and agrees to meet with him and tell him just how much he sucks at life, and Dirk in turn decides he’s going to take on the he responsibility for fixing our nameless protagonist’s life.

The book then follows this plan of action through, and that’s when things really take a turn for the strange. Dirk Danger’s plan involves a series of lessons that seem utterly random, but as the story progresses slowly start to fall into place. There are bits of the story however that I still haven’t quite been able to make my mind up about, the fox and the walrus for instance, but after trying really hard to work them out I realised that it didn’t really matter.

Along with the two main characters in the book there are a number of more minor characters who appear throughout the book. I liked the way that even a character who only appeared briefly once of twice was created in such a way that I had a clear idea of them.

Whilst this book is in places rather bizarre, it is ultimately a rather positive, almost nurturing read. The final chapter in particular leaves you feeling really glad that you’ve read the book. I certainly felt entirely satisfied as I read the final page.

Dirk Danger Loves Life is published in paperback and eBook by Atomic Fez. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Book Review : The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart–he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone–but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.

This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.

I heard lots of wonderful things about this book from friends whose opinions I really trust so when I won a proof copy I was really excited to discover what all the fuss was about. I picked a suitably cold and rainy day, curled up and let myself be transported back to 1920s Alaska.

This book is absolutely beautiful. It tells the story of Jack and Mabel who have moved to Alaska in the hope of a new life after the heartbreak of losing a baby. The book follows the couple as they adjust to a whole new way of life, we get to experience the life of the homesteaders from hunting to coping with the cold and lack of sunshine, and to becoming a part of this small community. Then the mysterious Faina appears in their life, everyone has their own theory on where she has come from and why. Whatever her story, her influence on both Jack and Mabel is both instantaneous and significant.

There are so many wonderful characters in this book. I found myself drawn to both Jack and Mabel, and I loved the way that the book took into account both of their feelings rather than focusing solely on Mabel. The way they related to one another was beautifully written, at times I almost felt like I was peeking through the window and eavesdropping on them. I also loved Garrett, and the way we got to see him grow from a boy into a man over the course of the book. And then of course there is Faina, mysterious, magical Faina. She’s such a quiet character, yet she fills every page she appears on, and when she disappeared (as she periodically does) I found that I was missing her as much as the other characters.

The book is written in such a way that you are entirely transported into it. The descriptive writing really brings the reader into the harsh world of wintery Alaska. As I got towards the end of the book I tried to slow down my reading, I wasn’t ready to return to the real world. I did of course reach the end, and there was only one thing to do – I sat there and hugged the book, still captured under the spell it had cast over me. It’s been a long time since a book has made me feel like this, I know I’m going to be going back and re-reading this book many times to recapture that feeling.

The Snow Child is published in hardback and eBook by Headline Review in the UK from 1st February 2012. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Mini Reviews : The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Between Two Ends by David Ward.

I thought I’d try something different today and bring you a couple of mini reviews. Both of these books are adventure stories with a fantasy twist so it seemed to make sense to talk about both of them.

The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
Set in Calcutta in the 1930s, The Midnight Palace begins on a dark night when an English lieutenant fights to save newborn twins Ben and Sheere from an unthinkable threat. Despite monsoon-force rains and terrible danger lurking around every street corner, the young lieutenant manages to get them to safety, but not without losing his own life…

Years later, on the eve of Ben and Sheere’s sixteenth birthday, the mysterious threat reenters their lives. This time, it may be impossible to escape. With the help of their brave friends, the twins will have to take a stand against the terror that watches them in the shadows of the night—and face the most frightening creature in the history of the City of Palaces.

This the first of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s books for teenagers that I’ve read. The plot has plenty of excitement, though at times I found it to be a little far fetched and I had to work to keep up with it. On a few occasions I found myself having to go back and re-read a section, trying to get it to make more sense.

I quite liked the main group of characters, though as to be expected with teenage characters I did sometimes find some of their actions a little frustrating. I found the villain a little hard to understand, his actions didn’t always match up with what I expected.

The most frustrating part about this book was how much potential I could see in it. The good bits are really very very good, I just wish the whole book could have been consistently at this level. Unfortunately The Midnight Palace didn’t live up to my expectations, I think in the future I’ll stick to Zafon’s adult fiction.

Between Two Ends by David Ward.
When Yeats and his parents visit his grandmother’s creepy old house, Yeats reunites a pair of pirate bookends and uncovers the amazing truth: Years ago, Yeats’s father traveled into The Arabian Nights with a friend, and the friend, Shari, is still stuck in the tales. Assisted by the not-always-trustworthy pirates, Yeats must navigate the unfamiliar world of the story of Shaharazad–dodging guards and tigers and the dangerous things that lurk in the margins of the stories–in order to save Shari and bring peace to his family.

Whilst The Midnight Palace fell short of my expectations Between Two Ends completely lived up to them. It’s an exciting read that combines folk tales and pirates, a surprisingly good combination. I liked Yeats from the beginning of the book, and I found myself really rooting for him throughout the book.

I loved the idea of the characters going into the book to go on a big adventure, and I know that the young me would have been completely blown away by it. I had to read this in two sittings, I spent the time between them looking forward to getting back to it.

This is aimed at the middle grade audience, I’m sure that it’ll also do well with the YA age group too. I’ll certainly be looking out for more by David Ward.

The Midnight Palace is published in hardback by Orion Childrens in the UK priced £12.99. Between Two Ends is published in hardback by Abrams in the UK priced £10.99. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of these books via all of the opinions expressed are my own.