Wednesday, 27 February 2013

A Month With April-May - joint review

A Month with April May by Edyth Bulbring
This is a joint review with separate thoughts from M and Little M.

M’s thoughts
April-May February is a Twilight addict and fancies herself as Bella – even though her skin will always be a couple of shades darker. Her parents have split up and she’s living with her dad who, in the current economic climate, works as a tow-away driver. She’s won a bursary and has just started at a posh new high school in Johannesburg. However....she just doesn’t connect with her new teacher, Mrs Ho. Of course, April-May is also a rebel and gets up to all sorts of ‘scrapes’ which she has designed - but she’d say this was due to “circumstances”. She’s the very clever practical joker, only she’s not joking.  A Month With April-May is about April-May desperately trying to get her life back into the order that she wants.

The novel starts off really well – and is quite addictive. Although it keeps up the pace (with April-May’s witty wisecracks, how could it not?) it quickly becomes a situation comedy. One that many young teen readers will probably find very funny.
A Month With April-May is written for young teens but I really wanted to read it because I enjoy a lot of South African adult fiction that has children or teens as its main characters. I’m thinking of adult novels like Barbara Trapido's Frankie & Stankie, Lauren Liebenberg's The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam, and Rachel Zadok's Gem Squash Tokoloshe. These are the books that sprang to mind when the publishers said that April-May had a “special charm”.

Yes, the character April-May February has a special charm as does the novel. The first chapter or so (for some reason) is reminiscent of recent Barbara Trapido. But, unlike the aforementioned adult novels which are retrospective stories, April-May takes a post-apartheid contemporary view of life in Gauteng's eastern suburbs from a mixed-race teen's perspective (with a dash of authorial presence sniping at current socio-economics and the high traffic incident casualties). I think it does it well. What is refreshing, is that race wasn't obviously relevant to this story and only casually pops up when that all-important activity of Johannesburg poolside tanning takes place.

A Month With April-May made me smile and I loved April-May's cold facts which she includes at the end of each chapter. The novels themes include typical school based ones as well as the changing structures of contemporary family units. I thought the last line of the novel was very meaningful and pulled the novel together well. Also, April-May should be applauded for reminding people that it does rain in Cape Town in winter.

This is a quick and light read with a very distinct South African flavour. There’s a glossary at the back – which might be useful for some readers in explaining some of the South African slang used in the novel.  Probably best suited to readers 11+ (plus older South Africans living abroad).

Little M’s thoughts
A Month With April-May didn’t really hook me. I am probably not used to how it’s written. I  got a bit confused and sometimes I didn't understand what April-May was talking about. It also jumped around a bit. I’m not used to books where it’s just about a person rather than an adventure. I haven’t  read any Louise Rennison books (the publishers compare April-May to books in Rennison’s style) but I like books by Judy Blume.

Publication details: Hot Key Books, February 2013, London, paperback
This copy: uncorrected proof received for review from the publisher

A Month With April May was originally published by Penguin South Africa under the title Melly, Mrs Ho and Me. Melly and Mrs Ho are key characters in the novel.

Monday, 25 February 2013

VIII - guest review by Kate

VIII by H.M. Castor

VIII has been nominated for the Carnegie 2013 longlist. This review takes into consideration some of the judging criteria as used by Shadowing groups.
This review has been written by Kate (Year 9).

VIII is H.M. Castor’s newest book. It is the story of Henry VIII from childhood to his death at 55. It is fiction but well written and thoroughly enjoyable.

At the beginning of the book the reader is introduced to a few main characters: Henry, his mother, his grandmother, his father and his siblings. All the characters are very believable and the dynamic between the members of this family is very true to how any family behaves with one another. This is particularly well written because while the reader gets this dynamic there is definitely the sense of them being royal and going through the struggles that present themselves.
VIII by H.M. Castor
Throughout the book Henry slowly turns into the character that he is stereotyped as today: brutal, unforgiving, fat and ruthless. However, the ghostly figure that he sees presents the reader with one thought as to why his behaviour changes as it does. I think the relationship between Henry and this mysterious figure is probably the most important in the whole book because it is something that affects Henry massively throughout his life and reign as King. The figure becomes something he uses to measure how well he’s doing at ruling and is vital to his reign. The relationship between Henry and this figure does change through the story because while throughout the story he is scared of it, towards the end there seems to be some sort of acceptance of how it is part of him and his life. He has grown up with this ‘ghost’ and becomes accustomed to it.

All the conversations and interactions of the characters are very realistic and suit the time period. The language and actions of the characters are true to the time and work well with the relationships between the characters.

Most of the characters are quite likeable but there are moments when each character is disliked. However, through most of VIII even if you don’t like Henry, you often feel sympathy towards him.

The style of writing is easy to understand for any reader whether the reader commonly reads historical novels/non-fiction or not. The timing and setting of this story is very important because of the main characters. The plot starts to build up from the beginning but that is to be expected, as it is the story of Henry’s life. The action is however quite stable throughout the latter part of the book.

There is quite a bit of dialogue, but it’s appropriate as the story is about a person’s life. The characters’ interaction and the story development depend on the dialogue quite a bit and it works very well with the style of writing. There is however, an equal amount of description that balances the speech out nicely and it really immerses the reader within the book and creates a very clear picture in their head.

Personally I really like the style of writing because I read a lot of historical fiction but it depends what books the reader normally reads. Historical fiction is written in a specific style and takes some getting used to so if this is the first historical novel the reader reads, it will take a little bit of time to get into the style.

The story is told through Henry’s perspective the whole way through and this creates a very nice diary feel, moving the story along. Using this perspective Castor creates very effective atmospheres and emotions’ depending on how Henry is feeling which, again, immerses the reader. Using language and sentence structure itself the story is well-constructed and creates an obvious mood of fear in the reader.
The plot is quite easy to follow because of the way it is set up. Castor explains what’s happening at each stage through Henry and the language used makes it easy to understand.

At some stages in the story the reader can guess what’s going to happen next but there are also some surprising twists that are not expected. Mostly it is a story about a famous historical figure but it has a dark edge, which the reader hasn’t come across before. The sub-plot which is the dark edge is very important and ties in well with the main plot of Henry’s life.

Castor puts equal emphasis on the plot and the characters because the characters are so essential to the plot in historical novels. The characters make the story and because of that both are equally important in the book.

The ending is the obvious one at the end of a life-story, a death, but the ending of the dark twist within the plot is not one I was expecting. The ending does tie up all loose ends and is effective because it makes the reader want to carry on.

I did really enjoy VIII and found it very riveting. I think anyone with an interest in historical fiction about the Tudors could read this book but probably over the age of 12. At the end of the book I did really want to keep reading but the end did tie everything up nicely so it didn’t feel like I lost anything at the end. I would definitely recommend this book to others who like historical novels as a genre.

Reviewed by Kate, Year 9

Publication details: 2011, Templar, Surrey UK
This copy: received from the publisher for shadowing the Carnegie longlist


Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Beadle - M's review

The Beadle by Pauline Smith

When Little M and I first started blogging about books, I found that all my recommendations were from my own childhood, teenagehood and even early university years. I also kept referring to some of these books as must-reads and using them as benchmarks. But, it’s been years since I’d read them and I really didn’t have any idea of whether or not they would still stack up.

Since reviewing, I started noticing things about my own reading habits, and the sorts of themes or aspects of a novel that I would pick out in comparison to Little M and other book bloggers. It really hit home that context and life-stage affect my reading experience (not much a revelation in theory but it is in practice).

Then I came across the Classics Club where you have to read at least fifty classics in five years (the definition of classics is left up to each individual reader). That’s what gave me the final push to rereading. My first re-read and my first read for the Classics Club is The Beadle by Pauline Smith.

But my review of it has a long, contextual story.

The Beadle by Pauline Smith
I first read The Beadle at high school and my comment was that it was okay. But The Beadle is one of the few school texts that left a positive imprint in my mind. I was intrigued by why my memory of it and my comment at the time of reading should differ so much.
However, The Beadle is out of print and buying a secondhand copy of it in the UK was rather too pricey. Lo and behold, what do I find on holiday in the middle of South Africa’s Klein Karoo (Little Karoo)? Dustcovers, a secondhand, collectibles and antique bookshop in the middle of the now trendy but still rural karoo town of Nieu Bethesda. Yes, there it was. A copy of The Beadle.

So the scene for my re-read has been perfectly set. I’ve just stayed in the middle of the karoo on a farm. I’ve bought the book in the karoo too. And of course, The Beadle is set in a little karoo valley.


The Beadle is set in the very rural karoo when carts were still the main means of travel and when the role and standing of the church was paramount. It is a poignant and softly biting portrayal of coming-of-age in rural South Africa The story is about Andrina who lives with her aunts and the surly old beadle, Aalst Vlokman, on the Harmonie farmland. Her mother, Klaartje, ran away for home and died in childbirth, and there are all sorts of family secrets lurking in the background. Andrina is sweet and seventeen and she’s just about to join the church. And then an Englishman arrives at the farm.

Published in 1926, the language as well as the story are almost of a completely bygone time but it is still an easy but evocative read. Having read a little of Olive Schreiner’s The Story of An African Farm, the vocabulary and language use is similar.

The Beadle's story, on one level, is a very simple one about sin, moralities, taboos, betrayals, love and religion.

I remember feeling terribly sorry for some of the characters when I first read this book. The kind of feeling that must be empathy because how they must have felt gets right into the pit of your stomach and refuses to leave you. The effect of the story this time around wasn’t as intense – I’m older and wiser and the story is nothing new. Not like it would have been when I was a teenager.

Second time around, yes, I enjoyed The Beadle. For anyone interested in South African literature (or young adult literature from another time and place), I’d definitely recommend this. As a novel, it has been heavily negatively criticised since the 1970s by the likes of Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee for its portrayal of the rural Afrikaner and promoting the need for nationalist ideology in South Africa (and this critique may have been vital at that time in Sputh Africa's history). Pauline Smith may well do that, and if you’re looking for this, you’ll find it – the Englishman certainly doesn’t come off well. However, that’s not how I saw The Beadle at all (but I wasn’t especially looking for it).
For me, The Beadle, as it was on my first reading, is Andrina and Klaartje’s story. And theirs is a story that we still find today in all sorts of settings.

Publication details:First published 1926.
This edition: 1990, David Philip, Cape Town, paperback, my own


Friday, 22 February 2013

The Double Shadow - M's review

The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner

The Double Shadow has been nominated for the Carnegie 2013 medal. This review forms part of our longlist shadowing and takes into consideration the judging criteria.
Sally Gardner has a second nomination for Maggot Moon which recently won the Costa Children’s Book of the Year 2012.

The Double Shadow starts off darkly and within pages sexual abuse is strongly suggested. At the same time, mystery and strange goings on are suggested too. Perhaps some secret histories and secret futures too....

The Double Shadow is a science fiction that is set just before World War II. It tells the story of Amaryllis whose father has built a memory machine encased in a picture palace for her seventeenth birthday present. It is built upon people’s memories and she will not age. Amaryllis is not sure she wants this, especially after she realises the significance of the double shadow which throws everything into a mindbending haze for her and the reader.

The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner
At first, I felt sorry for Amaryllis, the main character. Something awful has obviously happened to her – more than once. But then, she starts to grate on you. She’s not so nice – or dependable – and I’m not sure if her hidden traumas can justify her behaviour. Ezra, as he’s supposed to be, is the hero character – and I was holding my fingers crossed that he would stay this way. Also though, I was crossing my fingers twice for Amaryllis: once, hoping that what I think might have happened didn’t happen, and twice, hoping that she might actually be nice and forgivable for what she does to Ezra. Some have likened their relationship to that of Dicken’s Pip and Estella, and I think some of that is apparent. For me, the characters are slightly (and sometimes very) unbelievable. Why would Amaryllis be so mean to Ezra? Why would Ezra stand by her? Also, I didn’t quite get the point of Roach. However, there is character and relationship development as the novel nears its end.

The Double Shadow is a complex and challenging read. Plotwise and structurally, the novel dives straight into the action but then it winds in all sorts of ways, backwards, forwards and sometimes somewhere else. I often got confused about which character’s voice was telling the story. For me, the sub-plot of the war was superfluous. However, the language used is easy to follow.

I do wish the novel was a bit shorter. There was a little bit too much repetition going on. Also, three-quarters of the way through, the tone of the novel changes and the narrative style has become much more detached and matter-of-fact. A bit more like Lemony Snicket – because what is continually implied is dark. For me, this sits uncomfortably with the abuse that has taken place and with the tone that was originally set. However, the plot is intriguing. Although the mood is grim and confusing, I still wanted to know what happens/happened. I want to see the pieces all put together – indeed, whether they can be. Most of the loose ends are tied up sufficiently. However, the pace towards the end of the novel was accelerated and glossed over a fair few details.

This tale is a real cauldron pot with leaks. Each reader will have to decide for themselves whether the pot retains all the core ingredients to make something most delicious. For my reading palate, I think the balance of flavours wasn’t quite right....but I’m still not sure! Other readers may feel that this novel is a triumph.

Although very sensitively dealt with, I think that the themes of sexual abuse combined with the plot and structural complexity would make this a more satisfying read for older teens (although it is still a very uncomfortable read for anyone). This is definitely Young Adult rather than teen fiction.

Publication details:  2011, Indigo, London, hardback

This copy: received from the publisher for shadowing the Carnegie 2013 longlist

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Tempest - Little M's review

Tempest by Julie Cross

Time travel, romance, action: if you like these Tempest will be right up your street.

Tempest by Julie Cross
Nineteen year old Jackson can time travel, but he can’t tell anyone, not even his girlfriend, Holly. When Jackson gets stuck in the year 2007 he can’t manage to get back to his home base, 2009. While trying to get to 2009 he finds he can only go backwards, not forwards which leads him to his sister, Courtney. Courtney died at the age of 14; she was Jackson’s twin sister. They were both without a mother because she died in childbirth. The novel is about whether Jackson can jump back into 2009 and whether he’ll choose to join the Tempest (part of the CIA) or the EOTs (time travellers who want to run the world but their time travelling will rip apart the universe).

This was the first time travel book I have ever read. Reading this made me think about the book called The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I haven’t read it but I wondered if the time travel thing was the same. I still don’t know.  :(

This book will definitely be up in my top books. I found I liked it as much as Insignia (by SJ Kincaid) and Divergent (by Veronica Roth), which are very high on my list (at the top). I am definitely going to recommend this book to people and I can’t wait for the next book Vortex which is coming soon. I am sad to say that Tempest has beaten most of the horse books I have ever read (I think some of the horse books get boring or are a bit young).

I definitely will say people who like action, romance and time travel should love it. I think 13+ for this book partly because of language and parts of the romance but other than that it’s a great book.

After reading this I thought more about how most of the books I read now are science fiction.

Publication details: 2012, Macmillan, London, paperback
This copy: received from the publishers for review





Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Last Minute - M's review

The Last Minute by Eleanor Updale
The Last Minute traces the 59 seconds before an explosion rips through Heathwick High Street. It's quite a different read.

The Last Minute by Eleanor Updale
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Through fifty-nine chapters, the details of each second build up a rich picture of what was happening on the High Street that morning. A cast of characters, community activity and life stories are developed. On this morning, there are emergency gasworks and a traffic jam that are creating havoc for dog walkers, cheating politicians, coffee drinkers, party planners and new drivers. There’s also a funeral about to take place and a Year 8 school trip that’s running a tad late.

There are also people observing one another on the street and it is through their thoughts, some authorial clues and perhaps some of your own guesses that the reader starts to really develop their own bit of cluedo detective work. The novel is quite good at exploring how we make assumptions and pass judgements about other people’s actions and lives – many of them incorrect and even rude.

The Last Minute is a pageturning mystery. Of course, you want to know what caused the explosion and who did and didn’t die in it. However, not much can happen in just one second and as the high street starts to fill up, some detail repeats itself across the chapters: some of this is needed to remind you of what is happening but some of it is superfluous. Personally, I found it a bit drawn out and would have preferred it to be a bit shorter.

However, there is excellent supporting material for the fifty-nine chapters: an epilogue and prologue, before and after maps of the high street, some lists of the dead, and media footage. A website with other materials is also available. Altogether, this could make for a great bit of speculating and investigative work for readers who are so inclined. I can imagine a class having great fun with it.

Because of all the interlinked characters and activities that make up the busy plot, The Last Minute reminded me a bit of Matt Dickinson’s Mortal Chaos which explores events that occur as a result of the butterfly effect (the idea that a little change can set off other changes). However, there is no graphic gore in The Last Minute and I think younger readers will enjoy it too.

Despite the seriousness of the topic (a deadly explosion), The Last Minute is a very light read and places more emphasis on issues that might arise in investigative detective and reporting work. There are quite a few funny bits in it too: think farts, dog poo and ripping trousers.

Publication details: January 2013, David Fickling Books, Oxford, hardback
This copy: received for review consideration from the publisher   

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Tragedy Paper - M's review

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban
I loved the premise of this novel: an English teacher sets his final year students a project: a Tragedy Paper. But for some students, this takes on a much more sinister meaning.   The first page reads “Enter here to be and find a friend.” Immediately, the novel is filled with the same wondrous coming-of-age atmosphere as Dead Poet’s Society, a 1989 film which I loved - and I think The Tragedy Paper manages to sustain it (see trailer at end of post too).

It’s also a thrilling but thoughtful read: a combination that I like.

An atmosphere of trepidation filled suspense is created from the beginning with Duncan being worried about the treasure he will find in his new senior boarding school room, which room he will get, tackling his English tragedy paper and hoping that nobody will bring up what happened last year.  Added to these worries, there’s a girl.
The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban
Duncan ends up in a room whose previous resident was an albino called Tim (whose surname is a tragic irony). The narration moves between Duncan and Tim’s points of view and therefore moves back and forth in time too. The Tragedy Paper is a pageturner that is difficult to put down. It uses a similar suspense-building structure to Annabel Pitcher’s Ketchup Clouds. You know something not-so-great has happened. Slowly you begin to learn which characters may have been involved and you start putting together clues about what’s happened. There’s a love triangle of sorts too. And lessons to be learned.

While thrilling and enjoyable overall, for me the novel was a bit anti-climatic. Sometimes, I felt like it tried a little bit too hard.

The novel obviously explores the themes of tragedy (in both a literal and literary sense), but there is also friendship and romance. A highlight for me was that the plot beautifully captures and questions the ways social hierarchies can be created and sustained through cloak-and-dagger traditions.

Publication details: January 2013, Doubleday, London, hardback
This copy: received for review from the publisher

PS. I've included the Random House The Tragedy Paper trailer: I loved it and seeing as I watched it before I read the book, it formed an important part of my reading experience.

Friday, 15 February 2013

A Greyhound of a Girl - M's review

A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

A Greyhound of a Girl has been longlisted for the Carnegie 2013 medal. This review takes some of the judging criteria into account.

A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle
A Greyhound of a Girl is a short, contained story about an Irish family. Mary’s grandmother is dying in hospital and she thinks she’s just met her great-grandmother who died many decades ago. The sub-plot draws in four generations of women to tell the story of this great-grandmother’s death.

At first, the story was really promising. As I expected from Roddy Doyle, it is very humorous and it frequently made me laugh and read little snippets out loud. There is a lot of dialogue and Doyle manages to paint very, warm and engaging characters. You can just picture all of them – Mary, Scarlett, Emer and Tansey – all with different kinds of twinkles and tears in their eyes.
A Greyhound of a Girl is a pretty straightforward story with easy language and a lot of dialogue. It is a quick and light read. While the main theme of the novel is about death and obviously has some very sad parts, the main mood that is created is funny – not in a poignant way but in a let’s-have-some-fun way. However, the storyline does switch characters and timeframes quite a bit. Usually I relish this but not so much with this novel. I was confused too many times about which ‘mother’ was speaking. Also, an event involving greyhounds was continually repeated, mostly from different characters’ perspectives, but it still felt repetitive and became annoying.

Genrewise, I’d say this might be contemporary mixed with light paranormal (that would all depend on whether or not you interpret ghosts as real or not).


Publication details: 2011, Marion Lloyd Books, London, hardback

This copy: received from the publisher for reviewing the Carnegie 2013 longlist


This review counts towards M’s British Books Challenge 2013.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Red Ink - M's review

Red Ink by Julie Mayhew

I really liked the cover of Red Ink and I really liked the story. It’s grittier and more intriguing than its blurb (or even its first page), and I couldn’t put it down.

Red Ink by Julie Mayhew. Cover art & photos by Jet Purdie and Jan Bielicki
Fifteen year old Melon lived with her single mum who has been killed in an accident. Her mum’s boyfriend, Paul, has moved in as her ‘foster parent’. Melon has social workers and therapists all trying to help her through it all but of course, she finds this actually makes her feel worse. Melon is mostly angry at her mum, and while she is grieving, she’s trying to figure out why her beautiful, Greek immigrant mum landed her with such a ridiculous name: ‘Melon’ makes her the butt of all kinds of teasing at her London school. Her mum’s explanation had always been in the form of ‘The Story’ about how she had left Crete when she was a teenager. But Melon’s sick of hearing this story and wants a better explanation.

Red Ink is about Melon’s explorations and discoveries about herself, her mother and her family as she reconsiders ‘The Story’ and all the little traditions that were built into it. The more she finds, the more you want to know. The novel flips backwards and forwards in time and place, counting the days and months before and after Melon’s mum’s death. These chapters are also interspersed with ‘The Story’ as Melon begins to write it in a notebook.

It’s a coming-of-age tale, or as the publishers describe it, a rites of passage novel full of symbolism (like red ink itself is) where the characters, mostly Melon, move from separation, through transition and into re-incorporation. Julie Mayhew gives all of her characters depth and she’s not afraid to dig deep into their weaker points.

The writing in this novel is gorgeous and creates a great sense of place and character. Mayhew captures the little details in life beautifully: like why being on a bus is scarier than the London underground tube trains. But her writing is gripping at the same time  - and occasionally startles you with the odd crudity. In Red Ink, what’s below the surface really isn’t always smooth nor shiny.

Red Ink is a deliciously compelling read that had me eating sticky sweet baklavas and thinking about a holiday to Crete (haha – but perhaps not with Little M!).

Depending on your view and age, there are a couple of small (even big) rude or cringe-inducing scenes (but I guess that’s par for the course with many coming of age novels).  I’d say Red Ink is probably more suitable for older teens and adults. Some themes in the novel that stood out for me include family secrets, teen pregnancy, identity, grief and stereotyping. There are references to drugs and sex.

 Another very good and atmospheric coming-of-age novel that I’d recommend particularly (but not only) for younger teens/older tweens is Raspberries on the Yangtze by Karen Wallace.

Publication details: February 2013, Hot Key Books, London, hardback
This copy: received for review from the publisher

Cover design &  photos by Jet Purdie and Jan Bielicki


Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Killchase: Codename Quicksilver #4 - Little M's review

Killchase (Codename Quicksilver #4) by Allan Jones

Killchase is the fourth book in Allan Jones's Codename Quicksilver series. If you haven’t read the first three books, this review will have some small spoilers. Here are my reviews for the other books in the series: In the Zone, Tyrant King and Burning Sky.


Killchase by Allan Jones

Zak is no ordinary teenage boy. He is an undercover project 17 spy. It is so secret that some of the government don’t even know it exists. In project 17 only teens go out into the field but adults do help them.

This time Zak is working without his unit and is going to help Archangel find the mole in MI5. When Zak gets a mysterious phone call from a man named Archangel who says he knows his long lost brother, Jason, will he be able to trust him?
Can he also jump 10 metres and will the General turn to Operative Rogue?

This wasn't my favourite novel in the Codename Quicksilver series but it is still one of my favourite series that I am reading at the moment.

Readers who aren't so enthusiastic about reading will definitely want to read more but it also may make them want to read other books. People who like spies and action should love it but readers who want a challenging read might find it a bit dull. I find them easy but I still do love them.

Altogether it was an okay book. Some people might love it but some might hate it. I am in the middle.

I can’t wait for the fifth novel, Adrenaline Rush.


Publication details: January 2013, Orion, London, paperback

This copy: received for review from the publisher.


Friday, 8 February 2013

Zenn Scarlett - Cover Reveal

Sci-fi, teen main character, and training to be a vet – who looks after alien creatures in space! With a few mysterious escapes, disappearances, accusations and strange voices thrown in, seventeen year old Zenn Scarlett is on a serious rescue mission on Mars.

Ticking all of the plot boxes for Little M, this one’s been on our wishlist for months so  we’re delighted to take part in our first ever cover reveal for Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon. It’s being published in May 2013 by Strange Chemistry, Angry Robots’ newish Young Adult imprint.

I read and reviewed Katya's World which was published by Strange Chemistry last year. I thought it was a good, adventurey sci-fi for teens so I'm hoping Zenn Scarlett will match it.
Ta da!

Zenn Scarlett cover art by ARGH! Oxford

And here’s a pic of the author, Christian Schoon. Zenn Scarlett is his debut novel.
Author Christian Schoon
Little M thinks he looks farmy and film-like, which is probably just as well since he lives on a farm in Iowa, USA and he’s written scripts for Walt Disney studios. Apparently there are lots of horses on his farm too, so that’s a bonus point for him....!!
Little M thinks the cover for Zenn Scarlett looks and sounds cool. Do you?


Pushing the Limits - Lucy's review

Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry
A big welcome to a new guest reviewer on the blog, Lucy, who is 13.
Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry

I really enjoyed this book.

It’s about two young people who have had to deal with an awful lot for their age. They fall in love but just as you think they have had enough to deal with, something huge blows back into their faces.

At the end you take away a lot from it. One is respect, and love what you have as it can quickly disappear. You also want to go and scream at the characters: “stop and think about what you are doing!” plenty of times.

All in all it is a fantastic book that you learn a lot from. A good read.

I would recommend it for an older audience as some scenes are inappropriate.

Publication details: Mira Ink, 2012, Surrey
This copy: Lucy’s own

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Mortal Chaos - M's review

Mortal Chaos by Matt Dickinson
Mortal Chaos has been nominated for the Carnegie medal 2013. This review forms part of our Longlist shadowing and has taken the judging criteria into consideration.

The premise for Mortal Chaos intrigued me. It looked like it could be a complex, exciting and thought provoking story.  From the first page, it quite literally puts chaos theory’s butterfly effect into the story. Chaos theory is complicated but basically suggests that just one small change can cause much bigger and broader changes. even in a determined system. 

Mortal Chaos by Matt Dickinson
Mortal Chaos is a page-turning global action adventure. There are quite a few characters and sub-plots, as you would expect in order to demonstrate the butterfly effect. But the plot itself is thin: a butterfly startles a rabbit one morning in Sauncy Wood, England. The plot revolves around the events that this sets in motion around the world, very few of which are pleasant (although this in itself is thought-provoking). Some of the connected events also seemed a bit too contrived (e.g. film crews and producers) and I thought some of the links between  characters and events was occasionally tenuous (again, an area for debate).

The characters are vast and include a mountaineer on Everest, a woman pilot, a hungry six year old in Africa, a trainee astronaut, jockeys, vets, American psychos, thieves and kids who bunk school. Perhaps because the novel is quite short and there isn’t enough space or time to develop the characters (and because the focus is obviously on the events), the characters are quite flat. We don’t learn very much about them. However, many of them were stereotypically typecast – like the gambling plumber, an American psycho-divorcee, rich Japanese, poor African villagers. Interestingly, the two main female characters, Tina and Kuni, are not put into gender stereotyped roles, but while not giving anything away, male heroism dominates this novel. On the whole, I didn’t like many of the characters.

The language is highly accessible. There is also a lot of ‘telling’ rather than reading between the lines which makes the story very easy to follow (perhaps too easy).   With very short chapters, this was a page-turning quick read. I finished it – and quickly. But, I was relieved to finish it. The majority of the characters and plot situations revolved around adults in adult roles and I felt like I was reading a quick-read adult fiction novel rather than a complex teen novel.  

Clearly I am turning into an old prude because some of the gory details seemed superfluous to me and didn't enhance the story. The last page really turned my stomach. Of course, I know that none of this bothers a lot of other Little M would say, it probably just wasn't my cup of tea. I'm really disappointed because I wanted to love this story!

Other action-adventure reads on the Carnegie longlist include Call Down Thunder by Daniel Finn (it is an accessible action adventure that ticks a lot more of the Carnegie boxes for me – but it does have a singular plot and linear structure which is both less demanding and less exciting).

For a completely different perspective which highly recommends Mortal Chaos, see Beth Kemp’s review.

Publication details: Oxford University Press, 2012, Oxford, paperback

This copy: received for reviewing the Carnegie longlist from the publisher


Tuesday, 5 February 2013

In Darkness - M's review

In Darkness by Nick Lake

“...born in blood and darkness, and that’s how he’ll die....”
In Darkness has been longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie 2013 medal. This review considers some of the judging criteria. This novel has recently won the Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature 2013 (US based award).

In Darkness is the story of Shorty, a fifteen year old slum gang member who’s been shot. With the events leading up to this forming the main plot, in just over 300 pages, author Nick Lake manages to pack a rich and accessible history of Haiti into a novel that is both absorbing and arouses curiosity. It draws heavily on historical events and is a wonderful novel.

In Darkness by Nick Lake
The chapters alternate between Now and Then which are starkly different and add an intriguing complexity to the story which mixes up contemporary issues with history and voodoo zombie magic. Now is narrated by Shorty, a 15 year old boy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It’s 2010 and he is trapped in a coffin-sized darkness after the walls of the hospital he was in collapsed due to an earthquake. Then is set in about the 1790s and is about a slave, Touissant L’Ouverture who leads a rebellion that sets in motion the end of slavery. These chapters are narrated in the third person.
The main story is about the intertwining of gangs and politics in the life of the slum, Site Soley (a real place), drawing upon the rivalry between Aristide’s group, Route 9 and Boston, the rebels. At first you wonder how Now and Then are linked. But quite quickly, you realise that there are similarities between Shorty and Touissant: they both have a twin sister, both have been told by their houngan (a male priest) they only have half a soul that needs to be filled, and both of them are deliberating over the merits, demerits and complexities of group belonging, and liberty versus revenge. The author provides lots of clues to what the links are and these alone will get you thinking about spirituality and faith.

Like Call Down Thunder, In Darkness provides a bleak view into the complex and connected lives of politicised communities that depend on organised drug and crime. In Darkness offers a much richer and broader picture, and is aimed at an older audience.

The book jacket warns of language and violence.  With regards language, yes there’s plenty of swearing. But, Shorty’s narration particularly, also slips in and out of French chants, a bit of Creole, and his slum dialect makes for a slightly challenging use of language.

With violence, the body count is high and the killing is often extensively graphic. I skipped many paragraphs, and even a couple of pages at a time. This doesn’t detract from the story though. Shying from graphic violence is typical for me, but what is important to me is the big difference between violence that is integral to the story and violence which is simply gratuitous. The violence in In Darkness is integral to Haiti’s story (just as it is in Cambodia’s Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick).

Genrewise, this is a mix of contemporary, historical and maybe even paranormal as it blends the past and the present through voudou spirits and places a well grounded spin on the topic of zombies.

In Darkness touches upon all sorts of topics and themes with a depth that got me thinking about many things: slavery, religion, the afterlife, international peacekeeping, Haiti, Bonaparte, war, belief, crime, rap music, and slums.

Something I really liked about this novel was that I continually felt like I was learning and felt a pressing need to explore (or at least google) which bits were fact and which were fiction (Nick Lake provides a brief authorial and historical note at the end of the novel which clears some of this up). It weaves in some real-life extracts from Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s speeches.

On a negative note, some of the links between Shorty and Touissant are driven home too frequently and the ‘in darkness’ metaphor might be slightly over-extended too (although this may help to make the story accessible to more readers). But, for me, the story and other elements that make up the novel overrode these slight niggles.
I think In Darkness is an outstanding read both for its content and reading enjoyment. It is pageturning yet properly fascinating at the same time and will appeal to teens and adults alike. I’ll be recommending it for years.

Publication details:
January 2012, Bloomsbury, London, hardback

This copy: received from the publisher for reviewing the Carnegie longlist (and this one’s not going anywhere: it’s signed!)

Monday, 4 February 2013

Hot Key & Templar Book Lunch – Spring 2013

One of the unexpected highlights of our book blogging is going to publisher events. Less than a year ago, we didn’t even know these things existed. Yes, they’re essentially publicity events but they really are quite delicious. The atmosphere always buzzes with anticipated excitement from publishers and bloggers alike. You get to eat and mingle and you get to see their forthcoming range of teen/Young Adult fiction titles. It’s a bit like being at the fun fair or at the pick ‘n’ mix where you’re confronted with an array of colours, textures, shapes, sizes, smells and good old favourites.

On Saturday, we went down to the very charming Hot Key Books (I blogged about our first visit to them here) who, alongside TemplarPublishing (their Bonnier Group sister publisher) were presenting their Spring 2013 Young Adult fiction catalogues.

Once again, one of our favourite parts of this blogger event was the ‘mingling’: going around and chatting to other bloggers, striking up all kinds of conversations with authors (many of whom will be debuting in children’s fiction) and getting the publishers’ takes on their list building (because both Hot Key and Templar are definitely developing their lists).

This time, Little M was most excited to catch up with Georgia (another young teen blogger at Books & Writers Jnr) and starting up new conversations with Meg (who blogs at The Book Addicted Girl) and Nina (who blogs at Death Books and Tea). She also thought the lunch spread was delicious. For me, it was probably putting new faces to old names (like Annie from Templar), chatting with Sarah Odedina about setting the bar high and having a long conversation with author Alison Rattle about babyfarms, writing, reading and what YA fiction means to us.

And then we ran out of time........but not before they’d handed over a big bag of forthcoming books, toting a new slogan of Sleep Less Read More. Between both publishers, there’s a real mix covering most genres and reading tastes. We’ve highlighted the ones that have immediately caught our eye (so most of the paranormals, contemporary romances, gender-targeted and sequels-where-we-haven’t-read-the-first are out; unusually some of the magical realisms and a comedy are in).

M & Little M’s Joint Picks:
The Quietness by Alison Rattle (Hot Key, March 2013)
Author Alison Rattle
Women’s rights and history. We’re sold. This is an action-driven historical coming of age novel that explores the rights of women using a Victorian setting to unfold a story about unwanted pregnancies, babyfarming and belonging. The idea for this novel came about after the author had done extensive research for a non-fiction title. By the time of writing this post, I’d finished it. A good teen read about an important story that’ll likely bring a tear to your eye. Written for the teen market, it’s still a bit of a shocker and doesn’t beat about the bush. Publisher Sarah Odedina describes Rattle’s writing as being along the lines of Celia Rees and Mary Hooper. She is right.

Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key, June 2013)
A dystopian novel about children in care who have their memories wiped and live Julian’s Life rather than their own. Already sold to us. The publishers describe it as having flavours of Never Let Me Go and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Little M wouldn’t have a clue about these but I loved both, so let’s see.
Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo (Hot Key, August 2013)
This is the story of a girl who marries a dead man. Yes, really. The plot is based on a Malayan tradition where wealthy people who are unmarried at their death are married off to someone so that they can be respected in the afterlife. In the USA, this novel is being published as adult fiction but Hot Key is pitching it for teens too. It’s a definite for me (although the fantasy elements usually go either way for me) and a maybe for Little M.

Paper Aeroplanes by Dawn O'Porter (Hot Key, 2013)
This is described as a novel that ‘tells it like it is’ about teen friendships, betrayals and everything that teen girls go through. A top pick for Little M; a maybe for me.

Bombmaker  (at least, we think that might be the title?)
Coming from Templar in 2014 (very far ahead for us!), this is the second novel from Claire McFall (whose debut, Ferryman, which also looks interesting is out in March). Bombmaker is about gangs and national identity. For us, very promising themes.
Little M’s Picks:

Vortex (Insignia #2) by SJ Kincaid (Hot Key, 2013)
The publisher’s promise is that this Insignia sequel is more of the same, which means fast-paced sci-fi adventure for teens. Little M can’t wait.

Mary by HM Castor (Templar, late 2013)
This is the chronological follow-on from VIII, Castor’s acclaimed and highly enjoyable historical novel about Henry the Eighth. Another highlight for Little M.

M’s Picks:

Red Ink by Julie Mayhew (Hot Key, 7 February 2013)
Author Julie Mayhew
The themes of this novel are family, identity and stories that are told to protect others. It’s described as a challenging crossover read providing a glimpse into an adult world. Great cover too.

Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield (Hot Key, July 2013)
One of the best openings I’ve read in a long time, effused publisher Sarah Odedina (not in quotes because I may have paraphrased!). A great character-driven, literary novel that combines the contemporary with some magical realism, she loves the way it captures the wonderful “sense of space and landscape” that many good Australian authors achieve. I didn’t listen to what the plot was about: I don’t need to – it’s character-driven.

The Savages by Matt Whyman (Hot Key, 6 June 2013)
Author Matt Whyman
Described as an intelligent black comedy, this would be a new venture for me and not something I would normally choose to pick up. A cannibal family’s teen daughter brings home a vegetarian boyfriend.....But the author described it as a family drama that asks questions about what we eat. I really am intrigued and expect it to be a love or hate relationship. I’m hoping that it will be the former. We’ll see.....

Thank you both, to Hot Key Books and Templar Publishing for inviting us. We loved it. It is so lovely for the teen readers to be able to attend events like this. It’s about so much more than just the books.
I'm also very curious to see what Red Lemon, Bonnier's new UK children's non-fiction imprint brings. If Hot Key's digital projects are anything to go by.........And of course, Templar has bought Piccadilly Press, so that's another string for Bonnier. The future of children's literature is....bonny?