Thursday, 26 September 2013

All Our Yesterdays - Cristin Terrill

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill

Review by Little M

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin TerrillEm is in a cell and Finn is in one next to her. They haven't a clue if they will get out alive. But then she finds a piece of paper which says that she has been here before. It also says she must escape to save the world and kill the boy who she loved, the boy who is now known to them as the Doctor. Marina is a safe and very privileged girl who is falling in love with the genius James who lives next door. What she doesn't know is that her whole world will come crashing down very soon and it will destroy her life. Em has to travel back in time to save Marina and kill the boy Marina loves!

This is a time travel, action, adventure, sci-fi, romance novel and it reminds me a bit of The Tempest by Julie Cross because it involves time travel. However, I haven't read many time travel books yet so it may be very similar to some others.

I liked how All Our Yesterdays was written especially the way the author wrote it from two points of views in two different times.  I really enjoyed this novel at the beginning but towards the end events made me change my mind because I found it too predictable. I also didn’t really connect with the characters.

Publication Details: Bloomsbury, August 2013, London, paperback
This copy: uncorrected proof received for review from the publisher


Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Portal 24 - Meredith Stroud

Portal 24 by Meredith Stroud

Review by Little M

Portal 24 is about a secret government organisation called Oberon who only recruit teenagers as their agents. They then send them back in time to stop catastrophic events from taking place. Darius is their new recruit; he is a street-smart con-artist who has been taken from his old life to live a new one.

Portal 24 by Meredith StroudThis book had me hooked from the very beginning. It wasn’t just a time travel novel that made me like it. It also had quite a lot of scientific explanation in it, which I really liked. Sometimes it could go a bit overboard with the sciencey bit but I think that was to show you how the characters felt and dealt with it all. If I was one of those kids I would be a bit baffled by it all.

This was a quick and easy read which I couldn’t put down. I think this is a very good book for someone who wants a quick and easy read.  I loved the idea of how the writer has created the time travel machine which is really cool.  At times I did think that the plot was missing something but I can't say what.
I think this novel is good for younger teens because the writing style is quite easy to read and the plot is easy to understand. It is perfect for younger teens who haven’t read a time travel novel yet.
If there is a sequel I would like to read it!

Publication details: Hot-Key Books, London, 2013, paperback
This copy: Received from publishers for review

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Rig - Joe Ducie

The Rig by Joe Ducie

Review by Little M

Joe Ducie won the Hot Key Young Writers Prize for 2012 with his novel The Rig. I think this is a brilliant winner.

The Rig by Joe DucieThe Rig is about a prison where no one can escape from it, maybe not even Will Drake. Will Drake is a 15 year old boy who was sent to prison for stealing. He has been kept in many prisons, however, not one of them have successfully been able to contain him for more than a few weeks or a month. So now he has been put on the Rig. The Rig is an old oil rig which was changed into a rehabilitation centre for youths. It is based in the middle of the ocean with shark infested waters around it. Will is determined to escape and no one can keep him locked up.

Overall, I really liked this novel because the plot details are different to some of the books I normally read. I also really enjoyed the mystery aspect to it. I really liked the novel up until a certain sci-fi element came into it and I thought it didn't really need it.

This novel contains action, sci-fi and a lot of mystery! The Hot-Key Key Ring for this says 1/4th action, 1/4th friendship, 1/4th prison break and 1/4th mystery. I agree with all of them.

I think this novel will appeal to both boys and girls. It worked for me, and anyway I have a boy as the main character for once, not a Katniss or a Tris!

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

Monday, 16 September 2013

Fortunately, the Milk - Neil Gaiman

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

Review by M

Fortunately the Milk by Neil GaimanLittle M’s read Coraline and still remembers it being scary. We have The Graveyard Book and Chris Riddell’s illustrations mesmerisingly frighten us away. We read Neil Gaiman’s poem in the A Little Aloud, For Children anthology – it was marvellous. Fortunately, the Milk came along and now I’ve read my first Neil Gaiman novel. Fortunately, the Milk is also fully illustrated by Chris Riddell. Fortunately, for me, these illustrations are dazzlingly fun. Fortunately, the Milk is too.

It is funny in a laugh out loud way (yes, I was on a train, which probably made me laugh for even longer!). It is preposterous in either a ‘eyes wide open’ or ‘I don’t believe you’ way depending on your gullibility, disposition to enjoy or propensity to question. It introduces all sorts of concepts like quantum thought and superpositions, international invasions and colonisations, and the history of language. Do not read this book if you want the bedtime light turned off soon after reading because there will be questions. Lots of them. Expect to be challenged throughout the story and possible footstamping in response the ending.

Fortunately, the Milk page illustration by Chris Riddell
An inside page illustration by Chris Riddell
The scenario is this: mum’s gone away and dad’s in charge and of course they’ve run out of milk for breakfast (and tea!). So off he goes to the shop. When he returns, ages later, what a yarn he spins about what took so long. A time-travelling, galactic and maybe even extra-galactic adventure story. Fortunately, there is milk, a dinosaur, a grundledorfer, ponies, gloop, a sandwich box and much more.

A book that would suit almost or newly independent and curious readers, and it is a must for reading out loud.

Unfortunately, the only downside is that the dedications page is too full of clues so make sure to skip that until after reading....

Reviewed by M

Publication details: Bloomsbury, 17 September 2013, London
This copy: uncorrected digital proof received for review from the publisher.


Author of Fortunately, the Milk, Neil Gaiman. Photo by Kimberly Butler
Neil Gaiman: photo credit: Kimberly Butler 



Thursday, 12 September 2013

Fireweed - Jill Paton Walsh

Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh

Joint review by M & Little M

Fireweed by Jill Paton WalshBill and Julie meet each other in a chance encounter at Aldwych underground where they are sheltering during an air raid in 1940. He is fifteen. She is maybe slightly younger – or not. Both are runaway evacuees who have returned to their home city: London. They don’t see it as dangerous and they want to stay there. But, this means they have to live without adults, without ration books, and without a place to stay. Their best chance of survival, literally and as independent children, is to pair up and become a team. They think holding hands will make them look like brother and sister and make them less conspicuous....

Fireweed was a very quick read with a lot of description, and it was quite unusual (for us). We would recommend it to readers interested in what central London looked like during the Blitz. It often felt a bit like a tourists’ guide around central London, especially the area around the Thames and Embankment. Little M liked this aspect of it and felt that it made the novel seem more real.

Overall, what did we think?
Both of us agree. It started off really well, then it became a bit dull, then it livened up and then it ended a bit suddenly. The novel left us a bit uncertain and we didn’t quite get the point although our discussions were interesting (the joy of discussing books together). We decided that some people might say the point of the novel is summed up in the final paragraph about fireweed. On reflection, the novel may be about letting go. Some readers may find this poignant.


Here are some questions we asked ourselves and discussed together. Be aware that these contain some small plot spoilers but nothing that big.
Why is it called Fireweed?
We think this is summed up in the last couple of pages and refers to things like a city/nation/world/individual that has been damaged by fire and flame but heals over and can grow again.

Did we believe in the characters?
Little M: I believed in Bill the most but Julie was difficult to figure out. Also, sometimes she seemed like she was five and sometimes she seemed like she was thirty!
M: I agree. I didn’t really believe in the characters – perhaps I did Bill. They were a bit stilted. It was going alright up until just before Dickie (when they take refuge in the bombed out house). Then it starts to sound like they’re playing grown-ups in a romanticised way rather than being children who are living independently because they don’t want to be sent away.

Little M: Bill is not his real name. Why is it never revealed?
We don’t know. We could hazard guesses.

Were Bill and Julie in love?
M: I don’t think so. Bill perhaps develops an infatuation but I think more than anything, they’re dependent on each other for everything.
Little M: I think Bill was in love but I’m not sure about Julie.

Was Julie selfish?
Little M: No, because she also gives up something after Bill gives up something he longs for.
M: I think she is. She shouldn’t have asked him to let the person in the distance go in the first place.

Publication details: Hot Key Books, August 2013, London, paperback
Originally published in 1970.
This copy: received for review from the publisher


Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Elites - Natasha Ngan

The Elites by Natasha Ngan

Review by Little M

The Elites by Natasha NganThe Elites is a very good dystopian novel. I think it is well written and it is a standalone book whereas today most dystopian novels come as a trilogy which can be a pain.

This novel is about Silver. She is a teenager who was streamed into the Elite training program from a young age. Elites are people who have something special in their DNA. They are then put into the Elite training programme and then their job is to protect the city, Neo Babel. No-one is allowed to leave Neo Babel. But when the president is shot, Silver is suspected to have been involved. Because of this, she and her best friend Butterfly escape Neo Babel to save Silver from an awful fate and to also find her parents who have mysteriously disappeared.

The Elites portrays a world where the people who live in it think that they are the only civilisation left. But there is actually more than that but the people in power are hiding the truth about what is beyond the walls of Neo Babel.

Due to some of the confusing aspects of the plot, like the president’s shooting and the DNA streaming, I would recommend this novel for Year 7 and above. I would definitely recommend it to fans of the novel Divergent (Veronica Roth) and The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins). It includes a tiny bit of romance, lots of action and adventure, and an awful lot of science fiction.

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

Thursday, 5 September 2013

SF Said chat

We Sat Down for a Chat...with SF Said

I love it when a book starts ringing bells and making connections in my brain. Phoenix by SF Said did exactly that and I'm delighted that he's taken the time to answer my 'extended' questions! Like his novel, SF's answers are wonderful storytelling....
Phoenix creates a picture of a realised astrological space world with terrible warring, and intolerance for religion paradoxically alongside blind acceptance and faith. But the concept of creation out of destruction (e.g the Phoenix) is also there and with Mystica being the Startalker of the Present (whose special star is Aquarius), it feels like Phoenix might be an allegory for some interpretations of the Age of Aquarius? Or perhaps it's just an allegory of our time? Or something else?

SF Said: First of all, I'd like to thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking questions. Coverage of fiction for young people often just focuses on plot, missing themes and ideas. And while I think it's important to say up front that my goal with Phoenix was to create an epic, mythic space story – and while I did everything I could to make that story as thrilling and page-turning as I possibly could –it's refreshing to be asked to talk about themes as well!
It's quite hard to talk about Phoenix in the abstract because it's such a big book (in terms of its ambition and scope, as well as physical size!) There are so many themes and ideas and elements in it, and I think it operates on all sorts of levels. On one level, it's an exciting space story with lots of action and adventure. But I hope it also has other levels: philosophical, mystical, political, scientific… I hope that anyone aged 9 and up could read it and enjoy it, but I suspect different readers will find different things in it. A 9 year old will see it very differently to a 19 year old, and a 49 year old would see it differently again…

So I'm a little reluctant to pin down any one specific angle or interpretation. I think that's for readers to do, each in their own way. A good story should transcend its influences, and be open to multiple interpretations. I certainly wouldn't want to say that Phoenix was an allegory of any specific situation – though I hope it might have something to say about any situation where "us and them" thinking is part of the conflict. You can see that kind of thinking throughout history, and all over the world today, at every level – from the school playground to the United Nations.

One thing I will say is that over the seven years it took me to write it, there was a very strong sense of the apocalyptic in the air. In the early years of the 21st Century, we've seen so many huge conflicts with such potential for destruction; cultural and religious conflicts as well as wars between nations. All kinds of catastrophic scenarios continue to haunt our world, ecological as well as military. At the same time, there is hope that human consciousness might somehow evolve; that old conflicts might be resolved and transcended; that creation rather than destruction might prevail.

That hope is sometimes expressed in the idea you mention, the Age Of Aquarius. Astrology is something I grew up with; my mum had all the Linda Goodman books when I was a child. I'm not sure I believe in it as such, but I certainly find it interesting! Also, astrology and astronomy were one and the same thing for a long time. For most of human history, people have looked at the stars and seen pattern and purpose and even intelligence there. Astrology speaks to those feelings, I think, as does mythology. So those dimensions were important in this book, particularly as realised in Dave McKean's stunning illustrations of space and the Twelve Astraeus. If you're writing a story about the stars, those perspectives should be just as much a part of it as astrophysics. (Though I did lots of astrophysics research too - see below!)

The theme of appearance versus reality runs strongly through your novel, Phoenix: the eyeballs, the Axxa as a different species, the shadows and so on. Can you say a bit more about this and did you draw on Plato's Allegory of the Cave for inspiration?

SF Said:  I can't say that Plato's Cave was something I specifically thought about while writing Phoenix, but I remember finding the idea fascinating when I first came across it.  Appearance versus reality is a great way of putting it.  I'm very drawn to the idea that things are not always as they first appear, and I think you can see this in all my books. 

In Varjak Paw, it happens with the cats and dogs.  The cats think the dogs are terrible monsters… but Varjak talks to a dog, befriends it, and learns that there's more to dogs than anyone else realises.  In Phoenix, it happens with the Humans and the Aliens – the Axxa.  They're at war with each other, and they both have awful prejudices about each other.  The main character, Lucky, finds himself at the mercy of a crew of Axxa who he finds terrifying, but gradually learns that they have more in common than he suspected.

I tried to bring this theme out in lots of small, specific ways.  The scene with the eyeballs is one of my favourites.  Lucky's grown up believing that the Axxa eat eyeballs – so what's going to happen when he has to share a meal with them?  Maybe he'll find out that there's more to this food than meets the eye…  The same happens with various other elements in the book.  I hope it's a humorous and interesting way of exploring the theme.

What is your favourite star sign?

SF Said: I can't really pick one; I like the fact that there are twelve!  You can see this in the Astral Martial Arts in Phoenix: the secret Axxa system of fighting, which has a different style for each of the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

But I'm a Taurus, myself, and I have to admit, I like being a Taurus…  Apparently it gives you perseverance, which is useful if it takes you seven years to write a book!

Did you study (or have to research) astrophysics or philosophy?

SF Said: I'll research anything that's relevant to the book I'm writing.  So with Varjak Paw, I read lots of books about cat behaviour.  And with Phoenix, there was definitely a lot of astrophysics research.  I found Michio Kaku's books very helpful, and I enjoyed watching Carl Sagan's 1980s TV series Cosmos, and Professor Brian Cox's Wonders Of The Solar System and Wonders Of The Universe. 

I've never formally studied either astrophysics or philosophy, though.  Strangely enough, I studied Criminology at university!

What does SF stand for (other than science fiction)?

SF Said: Something Fantastic!
Something Fantastic!!!
Here's my review of Phoenix - it's amazing (Phoenix, that is!).

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Phoenix - SF Said

Phoenix by SF Said

Review by M

Phoenix is a soaring space quest story packed full of starry action, adventure, science, myth, colourful characters and wowsome illustrated pages. It’s a compelling and beautiful pageturner.

Phoenix by SF SaidLucky’s world on Phoenix is falling apart: he doesn’t know his dad, he’s lost his mum in more ways than one, he’s carrying some illegal kit while the sky is splitting apart and discovers that unmentionable things are happening to him when he’s asleep and dreaming. All of this happens in the middle of an ongoing inter-celestial battle between the Humans and the enemy Aliens (horn-headed, hoof-footed Axxa). On top of this, Lucky’s off on a quest to find his dad and the best way it seems to do this is to hitch a rocket ride with a bunch of very frightening Aliens. They eat eyeballs, you know! The ride is very bumpy and there are all sorts of deceptions and revelations along the way. There are numerable sad losses too.

Author SF Said writes Lucky’s space quest adventure in engaging and occasionally mesmerising words that are vividly enhanced by pages of beguiling illustrations (thanks to illustrator Dave McKean). As the quest progresses and we learn more about Lucky and his dangerous power, we also learn that there are twelve ‘gods’ who will be unable to save the celestial world from the wolf that eats the stars. A second quest ensues and yes, some aspects of the plot are a bit contrived and coincidental.

12 doublespreads like this depicting the 'gods'/Astraeus
Skirting the action-adventure of the quest and just beneath its shiny but grimy sci-fi surface, the novel explores themes of race, religion, deception, right and wrong, choice, and war. More than anything, Phoenix is a pacifist’s heaven that rings the peace message loudly: war, war is stupid......but very complicated too. Unexpectedly, the novel also injects some deep-seated and properly bittersweet romantic elements too. A satisfying but heartbreaking resolution becomes beautiful and slightly teary.

Overall, this is an exciting story weaving together multiple sub-plots and sub-texts in a way that should make much of it readily accessible to young readers. There are also many plot elements that point towards the potential for numerous allegorical interpretations. Those that sprung to mind for me were many religious stories, particularly the Age of Aquarius, and also Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. There are plenty of shadows and deceptions in Phoenix! Unravelling and linking all these allegorical clues can be a lot of fun for the readers, and even young ones will spot some of these.

For colourful characters, apart from Lucky, my heart was taken by Bixa Quicksilver, an Astral Martial Arts fighter with glowing needles in her hair; a couple of old-wizened Startalkers; and Bazooka, a phoenix.

Unusually, I’d also highly recommend watching the book trailer before reading: it’s just the opening pages of the book being read aloud but it is completely captivating and sets a beautiful, glowing tone to the novel.

Following the navigational quest theme, I don’t need an astronomer nor a mariner’s astrolabe to know that for me, Phoenix is this year’s A Boy anda Bear in a Boat. My hunch is that it will attract a much broader story loving audience, especially among newly confident readers who hunger for the thrills often housed in whopping big tomes.

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

This video is made up of the illustrations that appear in the book! Pages and pages of them.....

Monday, 2 September 2013

I met Margaret Atwood!!!

Yes - I met Margaret Atwood! I asked her a question, two actually! She signed two of my books (hardbacks of MaddAddam and The Handmaid’s Tale)!

Hatchard Bloomsbury Bookclub Event with Margaret Atwood
This all happened at the Hatchards Bloomsbury Book Club event in London, Friday 30th August. I’d bought a ticket – which was posh and arrived in the post. Included with the ticket was a glass of wine (redeemed at the event!) and a hardback of MaddAddam direct from the publishers and fresh off the press (that arrived by post well in advance of the event, so I had read it).

There was storytelling at this event.
There was no singing.

MaddAddam is the third book in a trilogy, preceded by Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. I’ll write about MaddAddam in a separate post but suffice to say at this point that it is very, very funny. In many ways, it the funniest of Atwood’s book that I have yet read. Fittingly, the evening started and ended on a funny note.

Margaret AtwoodFunny #1

The first thing Atwood said to us was that she’d won the Swedish Humour Award. For this, she was given a glass bowl except she’d never received the bowl because, en-route to her, it had been...stolen. So, she’s not actually sure whether she received this award or not!

Funny #2

When she was signing my books I suggested to her that I thought she might have had a lot of fun writing MaddAddam. She looked up at me and smiled: “Yes, I did” she said, and signed away.


My 2 questions

I asked her a question about ‘singing’ in MaddAddam. Plotwise, it’s quite a significant activity both for Zeb (whose ditties go back to an abusive childhood event) but especially for the Crakers (whose singing is a between- and cross-species communication), but its portent is lost on most of the characters for most of the novel. Atwood said that Crake tried to rid the new humanoids (Crakers) of singing and storytelling but that he failed. She suggested that singing and storytelling are part of humanity’s (or societies’) core. She thought that Toby and Blackbeard may have been irritated by the Crakers’ singing because it interrupted the storytelling. In Toby’s case, the praiselike singing that followed any mention of Crake’s name was also bound to be annoying (read the trilogy to find out why).

That was all I asked her.

On to everyone else.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood. UK hardback edition.She started writing the trilogy with Oryx and Crake in 2001 after seeing a cassowary when she was in Australia. This was very exciting for me because  I also saw a cassowary in the wild in Australia. I didn’t start writing a book though. She wished she could lie and tell us that she knew the story would stretch into a trilogy etcetera, but she couldn’t and didn’t. When she finished writing Oryx and Crake she knew there would be many questions asked and that’s why there are further books. Who was the grand master of MaddAddam? We want to know more about Zeb. And so on....

Many of the questions were ones that are repeatedly asked of Atwood. The science fiction versus speculative fiction issue (Atwood continually insists that her writing is not science fiction). For her, it boils down to doing what it says on the box. It’s about “accurate labelling”. If she sees ‘science fiction’ on the book cover, she expects to find outer space in the story – but if it’s not there, she’d be annoyed. Most of her novels are not in outer space. For me, science fiction doesn’t signify spaceships.

She was asked a question about her thoughts on a trend in fiction relating to reproduction and resisting technologies. Her answer was “Oh, I don’t know”. But she then preceded to talk about how this wasn’t actually a new trend anyway. She went on to say how questions about reproduction always come into stories about alternate worlds. And, having referred to the Crakers as not being plagued by our “romantic ills” she later responded to a question about whether she really believed in a society that did away with romance.  She suggested that fiction often finds that we don’t like “designed societies” because we like “serendipity and choice”. And about utopias that ask “How do we do things better? Then you get down to the nitty-gritties.....” She ended this with a little smile.

Some interesting facts about Margaret Atwood:

  • She is quite short.
  • She never finished her thesis.
  • As a child, she didn’t have electricity, television, school and there weren’t many people around where she lived but there were lots of books.
  • She laughs when children ask her what she thinks will happen in thirty years’ time: “That’s not gonna be my problem,” that will be yours.
  • She doesn’t guffaw loudly: she smiles with a twinkle in her eye. Her novels do this too.
  • She often throws another question back at the asker as a way to get clarity on the first question.
  • She cares about bees.
  • She likes to have fun.