Book Review

September 2015 Reads.

September was a slower month for me, I was on holiday for the first part of it and so didn’t read anything. I read a total of 9 books, I’ll be rounding up 7 of them here. One of the remaining books is part of the same project I can’t talk about at the moment that I mentioned last month, and the other was The One by Kiera Cass – I’m planning on writing something about the series as a whole once I’ve read the final book.

Naked Heat by Richard Castle. Titan Books.
I really enjoyed the first Nikki Heat book so was keen to read another. I again really enjoyed this, reading it is a lot like watching an episode or two of Castle – the series it is based around. The characters in the book are clearly, as intended, reminiscent of the characters in the show so this feels like a good way of spending more time around them. A fun, easy read – I know I’m going to keep returning to this series, there are 7 books so far so I have plenty more to work through!

The DUFF: Designated Ugly Fat Friend, and Lying Out Loud by Kody Keplinger. Hodder Children’s Books.
I’m reviewing these two books together as they’re companion novels, both set in the same Hamilton High. There is some overlap of characters, particularly with one main character from The DUFF being a sibling to one main character from Lying Out Loud but in good companion novel style both books stand alone really well.

Both books have strong casts of characters, both the main and supporting characters are well developed and feel very real. Something I loved about them both was the way that while there are romantic relationships in the book it is the exploration of friendship that feels more important and more central. Female friendship treated like this is something I want to see more of in books, so I’m glad to have found an author who does it so well!

These books don’t shy away from the challenges facing teenagers; self image, feelings of isolation and family problems to name but a few. Everything is dealt with carefully, and adds to the realistic feel of the books. I saw on Goodreads that in her profile Keplinger says “I write books for teenagers and strive to be honest and true-to-life”, I think both of these books are excellent evidence of this.

The Big Lie by Julia Mayhew. Hot Key Books.
A startling coming-of-age novel set in a contemporary Nazi England.
That was the line that drew me to this book – the concept of that setting felt huge. This is a brilliant piece of speculative fiction that has left me feeling so happy that there are authors out there trying things and getting them so right.

This book is harsh and bleak, and at times incredibly disturbing – I found I was entirely gripped by it from start to end. The main character, Jessika, is brilliantly challenging to read, she’s been brought up by an ultra loyal father and has almost been brainwashed into believing in everything she’s been told. At times you wonder how she can be so clueless, but then this only goes to reinforce the themes of the book. A really brilliant read with huge potential for discussion and further thinking.

Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell. Arrow.
This is a wonderful book from Lisa Jewell, but then I’ve never not enjoyed anything I’ve read that she’s written. This is a story told in two historical timelines, it tells the story of Arlette which is set in the 1920s and it tells the story of Betty which is set in the 1990s.

Betty was Arlette’s granddaughter, following Arlette’s death she strikes out on her own and moves to London in pursuit of finding her own path and at the same time finding the mysterious Clara Pickle named in Arlette’s will. Both storylines are captivating and wind around each other beautifully. I particularly enjoyed the moments where something happening in one story provided a lightbulb moment for the other story – each time I was even more eager to read on and discover whether what I thought I’d realised was correct. This book made me laugh and cry and for the time it took me to read it, transported me to two former versions of London and allowed me to explore for a while.

One by Sarah Crossan. Bloomsbury.
Okay, hands up, I must admit that the very words verse novel have in the past been enough to have me moving away from a book very rapidly. I’ve heard wonderful things about them, but there was something that just put me off the idea of actually reading one. The buzz around this book though was enough to convince me to give it a go, and very quickly I realised I’ve been missing out on some really good books.

This is a story about conjoined twins Grace and Tippi. They’ve spent all of their lives sheltered as much as possible from the cruelness of the world at large, they’ve been home schooled and protected. When the money for their home schooling runs out they have to go to school, which is naturally terrifying. I found it really interesting that we were seeing their experiences through Grace’s eyes so we get her perspective on things along with what she tells us of what she knows of Tippi’s perspective.

This is a beautiful book about sisterhood, about friendship and about personal identity. The flow of the narrative works so well for the story, I think it would have been a very different book if it’d been written a different way – I dare say it would have lost a lot of the connection for the reader. I’m a definite convert to verse novels thanks to this, I’ll be picking up Sarah Crossan’s previous two as my next ones for sure.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. Walker Books.
This is a story about not being the Chosen One. It’s a story about being ordinary and about wanting to just make it through high school without getting involved in any of the drama going on, and it’s brilliant.

Mikey is our main character, he and his friends make for a wonderful group – the sort of friendship group teen me would have read about and wanted to run away and join. Each of the members of this group has their own, ordinary (within the context of the Indie kids as the Chosen Ones are referred to), life challenges to deal with – things like parents who are more engaged with their careers than their children, teen romance, passing finals. Most of them have additional things to deal with too, issues around mental health problems and sexuality are all dealt with brilliantly in this book, but still all of this is part of their normal which makes for an excellent contemporary read as the main thrust of the book. And, just in case you are worried about what the Chosen Ones are up to, each chapter opens with a brief synopsis of what the Indie kids are doing which brings in an excellent urban fantasy thread before the focus returns immediately to our ordinary characters and their lives. The balance is perfectly found, resulting in a book I already can’t wait to re-read.

An unusual book? Pretty much. A must read? Absolutely, definitely.

Book Review

July and August 2015 Reads – Part 2.

Day two of my catch up with the books I read in July and August.

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton. Bantam Press.
I’ve read a few of Sharon Bolton’s earlier books and really enjoyed them so I jumped at the chance to read her newest. Set on the Falkland Islands, the book follows three former friends as the community is torn apart when a child goes missing. The plot has bucket loads of tension, I found I spent most of the time wondering who to believe – at various points I decided I didn’t believe a single one of the characters!

I loved the Falkland Islands setting of the book, I’m always keen to explore new places through literature and this book certainly allows you to do that. Sharon Bolton’s writing really evokes a sense of the place, I feel now that if I ever visited I would feel like I was returning rather than being there for the first time. This is yet another excellent book from this author, she’s so consistently good!

Stitch Head: The Beast of Grubbers Nubbin by Guy Bass. Stripes Publishing.
This is the 5th book about Stitch Head, I hadn’t read any of the previous ones but hoped it wouldn’t matter. Essentially it didn’t, the story is told in such a way that you understand that these characters have spent time together already but you can follow this plot completely without knowing what happened. I think I would have got even more from the reading experience with prior knowledge but that just means I’m going to have to catch up and re-read – I’m glad to spend more time in the world of these books!

The story itself is fun and fast-paced, Stitch Head and his fellow are playing host to a group of children who they rescued in a previous book. There’s a monster about however and they all start to suspect each other. The book is illustrated by Pete Williamson, his art adds a lot to the reading experience. I enjoyed the resolution of the story, it worked really well and left me keen for the next story.

A Million Miles Away by Lara Avery. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
This book has an interesting premise, when Kelsey’s identical twin sister is killed in an accident can’t bring herself to break the news to her sister’s boyfriend who is currently serving in the armed forces. Instead she pretends to be her sister and finds herself falling deeper into the lie she is spinning. I was intrigued by the idea of the story but wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy the way it played out. Many of the fears I had for the plot were unfounded, it works pretty well though I did feel the resolution to the story came a little quickly and easily.

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. Bloomsbury Children’s.
I really loved this book. It’s incredibly atmospheric, it reminded me a little of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child which I also loved. The book is written in such a way that really evokes the setting, I felt like I was actually walking alongside the characters for much of the story.

The book is set against the backdrop of early communist Russia, something I studied a little in my GCSE History lessons but don’t feel I know a lot about. This didn’t matter, the necessary aspects of Russia at that time were woven easily into the story and I never found myself wondering about anything. I loved Feodora, the main character, she’s a great blend of tough and vulnerable – the sort of character you’d happily spend time around. The wolves that are under her care are also wonderful characters, they’re so distinct and as fully realised as the human characters

I haven’t yet read Rooftoppers, this author’s previous book which won the Waterstones children’s book prize 2014 but based on how much I loved this I know I need to read it sooner rather than later.

Almost Grace by Rosie Rowell. Hot Key Books.
I have really mixed feelings about this book. There were aspects I loved, particularly the South African setting and the idea of the group of friends going away together for a holiday after finishing their education. I didn’t however enjoy much of the main character’s storyline, particularly her relationship with . This doesn’t seem like the healthiest of relationships and at times I just felt a bit uncomfortable reading.

My overarching feeling at the end of the book was that I wanted to read other YA books set in countries I don’t usually see in books. This in itself makes me realise this book was a bit of a miss for me.

Remix by Non Pratt. Walker Books.
Trouble was one of my favourite books last year so my hopes for this book were high. It definitely lived up to them, it’s another brilliant, realistic YA read, this time set at a music festival. Told in dual narrative best friends Kaz and Ruby are off for a weekend of music and fun, but the unexpected presence of the two boys who’ve broken their hearts puts an unexpected spin on things.

I’m a huge fan of books with multiple narratives providing this is done well, Non really, really does it well. The voices are distinct and the perspectives wind brilliantly around one another. On top of this the characters behave in an entirely believable manner, poor decisions and all, and are allowed to be teens which is just brilliant. I loved this book and I know that my music obsessed teen self would have probably loved it even more.

The Secrets of Sam and Sam by Susie Day. Red Fox.
I absolutely love Susie Day’s series of books featuring Pea so I was really excited when it was announced that she was going to be writing a companion novel that focused on Sam and Sammie who lived next door. Sam and Sammie are boy and girl twins who are very different, they have different interests, different personalities and different challenges facing them. With a school residential trip looming these challenges become all important – how can Sam tackle some of the adventurous activities when he’s so scared of heights and how can Sammie share a room when no one can see how good a best friend she could be?

At the same time that the twins are preparing for their trip their mums also seem to be keeping secrets, and Mum K is writing her book about child development based on bring the twins up. This adds further layers to the story, most entertainingly the excerpts from the book that come complete with corrections by Sammie. The way each of the individual plotlines plays out and wraps round the others is brilliant, this is such an excellent addition to the series of books focusing on Pea and her family.

I’ve commented before about how brilliant Susie writes books featuring diverse characters. This book is no exception to that, characters differences are acknowledged and included and happen to just be. This whole series should be an automatic inclusion in school libraries as far as I’m concerned.

Book Review

PoPB: Carlo and the Really Nice Librarian by Jessica Spanyol and The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt & Oliver Jeffers.

pairofpicturebooks
Pair of Picture Books Tuesdays on Juniper’s Jungle bring two reviews of picture books.

Carlo and the Really Nice Librarian by Jessica Spanyol. Walker Books.
CarloIn a simple storybook adventure, curious Carlo discovers the joys of the library with the help of a gentle (if toothy) librarian.

Carlo the giraffe is making his first visit to the new library. “Wow!” he says when he sees all the books, the colorful posters, and especially the chairs with wheels. But Carlo is a little afraid of the librarian, Mrs. Chinca, with her sharp teeth and claws, until he learns how much she loves books. With bright illustrations and a cheery text, Jessica Spanyol offers preschoolers a spirited introduction to the library — and a really nice librarian.

I am a big fan of picture books that show a character going to do something for the first time, particularly when its something to do with reading. This book tells the story of Carlo’s first trip to the library, he loves books and reading and instantly falls in love with the place. It takes him a little longer to fall in love with Mrs Chinca, the librarian, mainly because she initially seems a little scary. I enjoyed the story but felt that in its effort to be simple and cute it ended up being a little underwhelming, neither the idea of joining the library or of getting to know someone instead of judging them on their appearance ended up being dealt with as fully as I would have liked.

The illustrations in the book are fun, bold and colourful. This is the second book I’ve read that is written and illustrated by Jessica Spanyol, after loving the look of the first one (Go Bugs Go!) I had high hopes for this and I was not disappointed. The pages are very busy but not overwhelming, I really enjoyed how much there was to look at on every page.

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt & Oliver Jeffers (illustrator). HarperCollins Children’s Books.
TheDayTheCrayonsQuitPoor Duncan just wants to color. But when he opens his box of crayons, he finds only letters, all saying the same thing: We quit!

Beige is tired of playing second fiddle to Brown. Blue needs a break from coloring all that water, while Pink just wants to be used. Green has no complaints, but Orange and Yellow are no longer speaking to each other.

What is Duncan to do? Debut author Drew Daywalt and New York Times bestseller Oliver Jeffers create a colorful solution in this playful, imaginative story that will have children laughing and playing with their crayons in a whole new way.

I absolutely loved this book, as soon as I finished reading it I added it to my shortlist of books for my next Beaver Scout Sleepover and to my books to buy for children I know list. It’s clever and enchanting and cute and just brilliant. It tells the stories of Drew’s crayons. They’ve gone on strike, leaving behind letters to explain why. For the different coloured crayons there are different reasons, some are feeling over-used, some under-used and some are in the middle of a feud over who gets to be the official colour for the sun. Regardless of why they’re on strike each crayon’s letter is both funny and thought-provoking, each makes its case very well for the strike action.

Having a cute and clever plot is only half of the story. The illustrations by the ever brilliant Oliver Jeffers add so much to this book. Each double page spread contains the same key elements; the letter, handwritten in the relevant colour, a picture of the crayon and some of the pictures that crayon has been responsible for. These all work so well together, they each support the other elements and add a richness to the reading experience. The resolution of the plot brings a couple more lovely illustrations, I particularly liked the very last one.

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

Book Review

Book Review: Double Crossing by Richard Platt.

DoubleCrossingIt’s 1906, and David O’Connor, newly orphaned and alone in the world, has had to leave his home in Ireland to go and live with his uncle and aunt in America. His journey to New York and his new life there are tougher than David could ever have imagined, especially when he is harbouring a dark secret which he must take with him to his grave.

Double Crossing is historical fiction, set in the early 1900s first in somewhat rural Ireland and then in New York City. It has an interesting structure, the story is told primarily through diary entries but there are illustrations and images of artefacts such as newspaper clippings and record cards dotted throughout the book. I really liked this about the book, the illustrations in particular. The structure also makes it a pacy read, the book spans less than 6 months but it feels as you read as though the time is zipping past.

The early part of the book, set in Ireland, is naturally set against the backdrop of the significant unrest between the Catholic and Protestant members of the community. The diary nature means that whilst this is described well there isn’t a huge amount of explanation of why (though that’s such a huge question I’m not surprised), it may mean that younger readers have some questions – I think historical fiction that leaves its readers wanting to learn more about the book’s setting is an excellent thing.

David’s journey to America, travelling in steerage class was really eye opening, and despite the fact I’ve visited the Ellis Island Immigration Museum I was shocked by his treatment. These shocks continued as his time in America unfolded – what started as a good story became increasingly gripping as time went on. I felt increasingly scared for David and the characters around him.

There are twists and turns throughout the book, with one fairly major one towards the end. Unfortunately I was expecting something along the lines of the major twist though there were still a number of details I wasn’t expecting so there were still little surprises for me. Regardless of whether I’d expected it or not it worked really well for me and provided a fitting end to the story. There’s a final twist at the very, very end of the book – I read the book a couple of weeks ago now and have to be honest and say I’m still not sure what I feel about it, but I’m enjoying the thinking it’s led me to do!

Whilst the author has written many books this is his first novel for young people. I certainly hope it won’t be his last, I see from his website that he is an expert on smuggling and piracy – I’d love to read a novel on these topics written by him.

Double Crossing is published by Walker Books. Whilst I was provided with a copy of the book by the publisher all opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Recent Reads: See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles and Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll.

See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles. Walker Books.
SeeYouAtHarrysTwelve-year-old Fern feels invisible.

Her dad is preoccupied with the family restaurant. Her mom is constantly going off to meditate. And then there’s Charlie: the “surprise” baby, and the centre of everything.

But when their lives are suddenly turned upside down, Fern feels responsible for the devastating even that wrenches the family apart.

Things will never be the same, but can Fern do anything to make them better?

This book broke my heart into little, tiny pieces. The blurb suggested it was going to be an emotional read and I’m known for crying easily, but I still did not expect to spend quite so much of the book ugly crying!

There’s not a huge amount I can say about the plot for fear of spoiling the read. It’s believable and realistic, probably at times all too much. I found I was quickly drawn into the lives of the characters, this only meant that the emotional aspect of the book resonated all the more strongly.

There was a lot to love about this book, it tells its story beautifully and nothing feels shoe-horned in for impact. I loved the fact the children in Fern’s family were all named after characters in books – that’s parenting done properly! There are some really well done sub-plots, every character gets their rightful share of the attention.

I can’t say that this is a book I will revisit often, I’m not made of strong enough stuff for that. But it is one I will most definitely be re-reading, it’s got so much I want to appreciate again.

Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll. Faber & Faber.
FrostHollowHallThe gates to Frost Hollow Hall loomed before us. And they were very definitely shut.

In the middle of a frozen lake, a girl is skating. She’s not supposed to be here. No one is. Not since Kit Barrington drowned at Frost Hollow Hall ten years ago. But the dead don’t scare Tilly Higgins.

The ice is thin. It cracks. Suddenly she’s under the water, drowning. Near death, a strange spirit appears to her, a boy so beautiful Tilly’s sure he’s an angel. But he’s a ghost. A very troubled ghost. And he desperately needs her help…

I love a good ghost story, and this is a really good one. It’s a beautiful, atmospheric, wintery read – it completely lives up to its gorgeous cover.

The book is set in the winter of 1881, it’s described in such a way that you feel like you’re really there. Much of the book takes place in and around Frost Hollow Hall, the recent successes of TV shows such as Downton Abbey and the Upstairs Downstairs revival make this a setting that is easy to imagine and understand.

The plot has two key aspects; Tilly’s personal progress and growth, and the story of the ghostly being desperate for her help. These are seamlessly blended together resulting in one enthralling and entirely satisfying read.

I loved Tilly as a main character, she’s a completely charming mixture of plucky and vulnerable – I know that she’d have really appealed to me when I was a younger reader too. I liked that the characters in the book aren’t all straightforward, but they’re given the time to reveal the secrets that make them the way they are.

This is a really beautiful read, perfect for the winter. It’s going to go straight onto my winter re-reads shelf ready for next year.

Whilst I received review copies of both books from their publishers all opinions expressed are my own.

Book News

Trouble’s coming.

TroubleA boy. A girl. A bump. Trouble.

Hannah’s smart and funny … she’s also fifteen and pregnant. Aaron is new at school and doesn’t want to attract attention. So why does he offer to be the pretend dad to Hannah’s unborn baby?

Growing up can be trouble but that’s how you find out what really matters.

One of the 2014 books I’m already most excited about is Trouble the debut novel from Non Pratt who until the end of tomorrow is the commissioning editor at Catnip Publishing. I got to meet Non at a YA event last summer and was thrilled to discover she was as lovely as I’d heard, hearing soon after about her book I had a feeling it was going to be good. The early copies of the book are out and about already and I’ve been hearing uniformly brilliant things about it, I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

The lovely people at Walker Books want to make sure as many people hear about this book as possible. They’ve worked with Thinkjam on this, and today have launched a dedicated Tumblr account – you can find it here. That wasn’t sufficient, so they’ve also launched a search to find VIP readers to read Trouble early and join in with spreading the word.

(Click to make it bigger and more legible.)
(Click to make it bigger and more legible.)

This is a great opportunity for readers to get to read the book early – why not get emailing?

Book Review

Picture Book Mini Reviews [6].

One of my 2013 reading resolutions was to read more picture books. I’m going to share my thoughts on these books in mini reviews throughout the year.

Ruby Nettleship and the Ice Lolly Adventure by Thomas and Helen Docherty. Templar.
I thought this was a nice story but it does need the reader to really suspend their disbelief. I’m sure children won’t find this an issue, but I struggled a little with it. This combined with the fact that the driving factor for the story was the featured child taking an ice lolly from a stranger meant I didn’t really enjoy reading it, and would be reluctant to have it in my own collection (it would be just my luck that I’d end up having to read it time and time again). The illustrations in the book are very colourful and engaging though at times they’re incredibly busy – I found there was too much on them to take in.

Duck, Duck, Goose by Tad Hills. Boxer Books.
I was drawn to this book by the name, Duck, Duck, Goose is a very popular game with my Beaver Scout colony. The book is a lovely story about friendship – Duck and Goose are best friends and do everything together but then Duck meets Thistle Duck and is wowed by her so brings her along to play too. I thought this was a really nice exploration of friendship, it would provide lots of talking opportunities. The illustrations are lovely and I liked the variation of font size and style to show volume and thoughts etc. Since reading this book I’ve discovered that there is a whole series of books featuring Duck and Goose so I’m going to be on the lookout for others next time I visit the library.

Shoe Baby by Joyce Dunbar and Polly Dunbar. Walker Books.
This is a really fun rhyming story, with a little bit of magic sprinkled through it. We follow the baby on his adventures, meeting new people and greeting them all “how do you do?”. There’s a warmth and predictability to the book that will make it a firm favourite with many children, and I think its charm will mean adults won’t mind the repeated readings I’m sure it’d get. The art is, like all of Polly Dunbar’s work, truly beautiful – bright and colourful with wonderful use of patterns and textures.