Thursday 29 August 2013

Ghost Hawk - Susan Cooper

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper

Review by M

Ghost Hawk is an unusual, inspiring and sad story about two friends, a clash of cultures and ghosts. I loved it.

Ghost Hawk by Susan CooperLittle Hawk is a Pokanoket Indian. John is a British immigrant in America. They live different lives in different, and sometimes conflicting, cultures. A couple of chance encounters mark their friendship and seal both their fates. Coincidentally, at age eleven, they both go on different journeys. John’s journey becomes a story that he must keep secret or risk being branded a witch. The narrative combines both John and Little Hawk’s stories but is told just from Little Hawk’s point of view.

The friendship between Little Hawk and John is so vivid and beguiling, you can almost touch it. It is a fictional friendship that I will remember for a long time: in some ways, it gives the poignancy of Code Name Verity’s Maddie and Queenie’s relationship a run for its money.

A fantastical story about an unlikely and tricky friendship, Ghost Hawk is also a story about early British settlement in North America and how something as simple as living together – be you beast, human, or earth - can be so complicated and devastating. The novel is set in the mid 1650s around the time when the first British people started to settle in North America. It draws on a large amount of historical research and some of the subsidiary characters’ names are taken direct from history.

The first two sections of the novel are its strongest and my favourite. The first section is good and exciting and interesting and then – shockingly! - it changes. An anticipation for what is to come falls beautifully into place for the reader and the story starts to weave many strong threads together. The last few sections draw the stories to their necessary and neat closes.

Themes in the novel include the way we treat the earth: as a resource or as its own living entity; cultural clashes; colonialism; religion and beliefs; and friendship. There were plenty of lines in the novel that made me stop and think. Things like the need to extend warmth to those who live beyond the family. But, above all that, Ghost Hawk is glorious storytelling.

The tone of the novel is gentle and reminiscent of ThingsFall Apart. In many ways, it reads like a Things Fall Apart tale for current day children and pre-colonial America. The intertwined histories will also likely appeal to many fans of Nick Lake’s In Darkness. There is death and a few violent scenes (though not gratuitous or entertainingly enhanced) in Ghost Hawk but the graphic violence is not as vivid nor as sustained as In Darkness, making it more suitable for a younger audience too.

I added a ‘you should read this’ tag when I highly recommended this novel to Little M. It’s one of the best stories I’ve read for a long while. Whether you like history, epic adventure, great characters or light fantasy, this is an enthralling story whichever way you look at it.

Publication details: Bodley Head, 29 August 2013, London, hardback
This copy: received for review from the publisher

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Reviewed by M

I first read Things Fall Apart at university for African Literature. It was possibly the first novel I’d read that was written by a black African author. The novel recently reappeared on my bookshelves after bringing it back from my attic bookhaul earlier this year (some of you might recall this event!). What prompted me to read it now, however, was We Need New Names, a new and wonderful novel by NoViolet Bulawayo.
We Need New Names referred frequently to ‘things fall apart’and I was sure this was more than coincidence. Having read Things Fall Apart, I should have known....but I didn’t. So I reread it. Yes, it is more than coincidence.....

Things Fall Apart by Chinua AchebeThings Fall Apart is a tragedy: a tragedy about an individual, a tragedy about a village and perhaps a tragedy about colonialism. Set in pre-colonial Nigeria, it tells the story of Okonkwo, a proud and successful member of his tribe. The novel describes the tribe’s way of life, their (almost) unflinching adherence to their religion and patriarchal values. However, the novel also introduces questions that cut right into how we perceive our own and other cultures. At the forefront of this are differences about individual will versus the will of the gods as well as group will, justice, and sorrow. What comes out most strongly in Things Fall Apart is the suggestion that without missionaries and further colonisation, the tribes, as any other group of people, would have developed in their own time and ways – who knows what our histories would look like if that had happened? Achebe makes it clear that individuals in Okonkwo’s village were starting to mumble about the ways some things were done: for example, killing people simply because the gods said so or abandoning twins. The novel makes an effort to point out that cultural interpretations vary even within countries and that what is an atrocity ‘here’ might not be considered an atrocity ‘there’.
It is a highly enjoyable and gently compelling re-read and I think I got much more out of it this time. The writing style is quiet and quite different to many contemporary novels and especially 'western' novels. Some people criticised Achebe for writing in English but I'm in the camp that thinks this was a far-reaching move and achievement for both literature and cultural thinking.

Comparatively then, how did I view Things Fall Apart and We Need New Names?

Things Fall Apart was first published in 1958 and is set in Nigeria just before colonial times (probably late nineteenth century), around the time that the first European missionaries moved in. We Need New Names was published in 2013 and is set in Zimbabwe and the USA post-2005. Both novels are written in English and their authors are both African by birth.

About halfway through Things Fall Apart, Ekwefi (one of Okonkwo’s wives) tells a story about a tortoise and the birds who have a feast in the sky. I think that NoViolet Bulawayo has borrowed from this little story and weaved it into We Need New Names. There are other scenes, images and thoughts in Things Fall Apart that make the two novels interesting for parallel reading most notably in how different groups of people (towns, tribes, nations, religions, races) respond to other cultures and about tolerating (or not!) their vastly different ways of life.

What both novels do well is to lay out the beautiful and the ugly nitty gritties that underpin the rules and regulations and daily functioning of specific communities and cultures. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is not the most sympathetic character and there are many views and actions that may grate on your personal worldview. And that’s the point. Covering a century of time, reading these two novels together is a wonderful experience. In some ways, it's a tragedy that  hundreds of years later, there are still so many overlaps.

A little heads up especially for younger readers: Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk is set in the USA and has many parallels with Things Fall Apart too. Adults who have an inclination towards comparative reading and discussion might want to check that out too.

Classics Club verdict

Things Fall Apart is also on our Classics Club challenge list. Little M and I have been drawing our own conclusions about what we think a 'literary' classic is. Of course, Things Fall Apart has its feet firmly planted in the African canon and has made tracks in European and American canons too. Our own 'canon' is more about whether we enjoyed some aspect of it enough to recommend it to readers from another generation. Things Fall Apart ticks the box for me.

My copy’s publication details: 1987, Heinemann African Writers Series, London, paperback

Thursday 22 August 2013

Rendezvous in Russia - Lauren St John

Rendezvous in Russia by Lauren St John

Review by Little M

Rendezvous in Russia by Lauren St JohnRendezvous in Russia is Lauren St John’s current novel in the Laura Marlin mystery series. It is the fourth novel in the series.

Skye performs a dramatic stunt in their hometown, Cornwall. Due to this, the three of them find themselves stuck in yet another mystery. This time Laura Marlin, her best friend Tariq, and her three-legged husky, Skye, are on The Aristocratic Thief film set in Russia. With The Straight A’s criminal gang on the roam in Russia, Laura, Tariq and Skye are never safe.

Lauren St John’s Laura Marlin mystery novels are brilliant. They are one of my favourite detective series even though they are getting a bit young for me but I still really enjoy them. This one was very well put together and I love how the author makes you think someone is the villain when it is actually the person who you would least expect it to be.

I adore Laura’s dog Skye. He is a marvellous three-legged husky who is always the hero of the novel. He may be three-legged but he is priceless to Laura.

I can’t wait for another Laura Marlin mystery. I hope there is one.

Here is my review for the third Laura Marlin mystery, Kentucky Thriller.
Publication details: Orion Children’s Books, August 2013, London, hardback
This copy: received for review from the publisher

PS. This book was printed by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc. I find this funny because the character Laura Marlin lives in St Ives, Cornwall!

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Hannah Sheppard chat

We sat down for a chat...with Hannah Sheppard (literary agent)

With a career in children’s editorial, Hannah Sheppard has recently joined DHH Literary Agency as a literary agent. This move caught my eye because she’d done something interesting at university. I thought it might have involved letterpress – but it doesn’t. Hannah tells us more about setting up a new poetry press, being a literary agent and gender in young adult fiction.

Can you tell me a bit more about your poetry press at university?

Hannah Sheppard - literary agentHannah Sheppard: The poetry press came about because of three different elements I think. I knew already that I wanted to go into publishing, I’d done some work experience in London and I worked on a literary magazine at the uni (The Reader – it’s still going and a great read if anyone’s interested) but I was looking for anything else to add to my CV, I was also part of a creative writing group and we’d talked a bit about trying to put together an anthology of some of the work and (possibly most importantly) there was a cafe in Liverpool called The Egg (also still going and worth a visit if you’re in the area) which ran regular open mic nights which I went along to and was always impressed by the talent of some of the performers.

A friend and I took it upon ourselves to organise an anthology that could incorporate both the work of our creative writing group and talent in the wider city (we called it The Liver Bards) and had a lot of fun (and stress) putting it together. It was my first taste of the full publishing cycle– we chose all of the works, I typeset the book and got a friend to design the cover, we raised the money to print it (I was insistent that it had to be perfect bound which meant it cost more – but it was digital print rather than letterpress) and then we had to market and sell it too – but it just confirmed my love of the process and made me more determined to find a career in publishing.

As a result of that anthology we identified four poets who we thought had talent and the following year we released a single poet pamphlet (a short book, rather than a few sheets of paper stapled together!) for each of them –Julie-Ann Rowell’s volume, Convergence, was a Poetry Book Society recommend in 2003 and from there we started getting submissions. We’ve published another 4 books since then, from a variety of poets, and the press is still in existence but we’re all so busy now that we’re trying to find a way to turn it into an educational project and possibly hand it back to some undergraduates.

What does a literary agent do and what sort of things will you especially be looking out for?

Hannah Sheppard: A literary agent has a number of roles. The one I’m currently engaged in is talent spotting – we read submissions hoping to find a gem that we think we can polish (attached to an author who we think we can work well with), but we’re also on the lookout for interesting writers and ideas in our daily lives (via magazine articles we might read or blogs we spot) so that we can approach people with interesting lives and stories who might have a book in them.

My background is editorial (at Macmillan Children’s Books and Headline Publishing Group) – I love that process and it’s very much a part of what an agent does too. We work with authors to help develop their ideas so that a publisher is more likely to take them on.

Once a book is ready then it’s time to be a sales person – talking to all the relevant editors to let them know that you have a fantastic book they might want to buy and negotiating the best deal for the author.

And, on an ongoing basis, it’s all about relationships – keeping up your contacts in the industry so that you know what editors are looking for but also helping your authors as their book goes through the publishing process – being there to explain why a publisher might want to do something they’re not sure about and making sure the process runs as smoothly as possible.

In terms of what I'm looking for - I love a strong, distinctive voice and a premise that really grabs you. I published Tanya Byrne's Heart-Shaped Bruise while I was at Headline and the first lines of the submission were: 'Last year, the psychiatric unit of Archway Young Offenders Institution was closed. A notebook was found in one of the rooms. The contents are as follows...' which sent a shiver down my spine and I knew I was going to love it - it suggested darkness and the idea of secrets being revealed - just delicious. I do have quite dark taste in general - but I'm also a bit of a sucker for a gorgeous contemporary romance and a brilliant meet-cute.

You're often tweeting about gender discrimination/inequalities topics. Do you have any strong views on the portrayal of gender in fiction (particularly teen/children's fiction)?

Hannah Sheppard: I actually think we’ve come a long way in terms or portraying interesting, rounded girls in fiction. But it’s so easy to fall into the stereotypes and I’m sick of the ‘even though she’s a girl’ mentality – girls can be as adventurous and brave and spirited and complicated as boys and portraying that as unusual is just perpetuating the stereotypes. Sadly it’s in the real world where it feels like we’ve got further to go!

Hannah Sheppard is delighted to have recently taken on two authors and with an agent’s list to fill, she has room for more.
In her words:
 “If you’re a talented aspiring author please take a look at the submission guidelines here ( and send your work my way”.

Friday 16 August 2013

Classics Club Spin #3

Classics Club Spin – August 2013

This might be the Classics Club’s third spin but it’s our first! Hosted by the Classics Club, the idea is to choose 20 books we haven’t yet read from our original Classics Club Challenge list – and list them. On 19 August, the Classics Club will spin the bottle (or something) to pick a number from 1-20.  The number picked is matched to the corresponding book title on our spin list and we need to read that book by 1 October.

The idea is to include some titles that might challenge us. We’re both going to try and read the same book, so this list was jointly selected - rather quickly too! You’ll see that a couple of numbers have two titles next to them. That’s because Little M really wants to read them but M’s already read them for the Challenge so the second title is M’s option. And of course, not all of these books are on our shelves either, so getting them in good time will be another challenge!

Our spin list

Because we’re scared of them (but have them both):

1. Black Beauty – Anna Sewell
2. Ulysses – James Joyce

New for Little M (but dreaded re-reads for M so obviously we don’t have these):

3. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
4. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

Never got around to reading (yes, we have them):

5. Jock of the Bushveld – Percy Fitzpatrick
6. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
7. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

M’s Old favourites (re-reads for M so have them all; new for Little M)

8. Thunderhead – Mary O’Hara
9. A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula le Guin
10. A Dream of Sadler’s Wells – Lorna Hill
11. The Chocolate War – Robert Cormier
12. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

Because we want to (have most):

13. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee / Emil and the Detectives – Erich Kastner
14. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne
15. Tamar – Mal Peet

Old classics (have all):

16. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
17. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte / The Trial – Franz Kafka

Playful! (no, we don’t have them):

18. Hamlet - Shakespeare
19. Othello - Shakespeare
20. Waiting for Godot - Samuel Beckett


Tuesday 13 August 2013

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock - M's review

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

Reviewed by M

It’s Leonard Peacock’s eighteenth birthday. He’s on his own, he’s wrapped four gifts in pink paper as parting presents for four people, he’s quite distraught about his life, and he’s planning on taking a gun to school. Tough stuff and the gun business put me off at first. If you feel similarly to me on that, persevere like I did: it could go either way for you.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew QuickThis novel reminded me of two things: The Catcher in the Rye (novel) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (film adaptation since I haven’t read the novel – but Little M has). Despite the miserable and uncomfortably controversial subject matter, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is a very thought-provoking, quick and compelling read – and remarkably, its tone is light (Warm? That really depends on you!).

The narrative structure is slightly unusual. Leonard’s first person narrative takes us inside his head as he tells us his thoughts as his eighteenth birthday progresses. This is enhanced (perhaps?) by footnotes at the bottom of the pages. These do provide background information and some deeper digressions into something he has said or thought. I skipped a fair amount of them – the type was small and I’m not a footnote fan.  These first person accounts of Leonard’s eighteenth birthday are interspersed with some letters from people who’re operating a lighthouse in the future. These letters are interesting and intriguing at first, then their raison d’ĂȘtre becomes clearer and finally they add an extra touch of ambiguity to the novel. For me then, they worked well and add a bright spark of debate to the novel’s end.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock bears many similarities to The Catcher in the Rye, which I reread recently. Both novels deal with identity, alienation and mental health issues for ‘gifted’ teenage boys and character comparisons between Leonard Peacock and Holden Caulfield (the main character in Catcher) are easy to make. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is an extra-ordinary day-in-my-life novel and similarly, Catcher is an extra-ordinary weekend-in-my-life novel. Other elements of the plot (hotels, girls, suicidal thoughts, absent parents) and some caring adult characters (an elderly man and a male teacher) also share parallels with Catcher (Herr Silvermann, Leonard’s holocaust teacher, is a great character with an interesting story of his own).

Like Salinger, Matthew Quick has deployed contemporary speech usage to denote similar things nad these bounced out at me. For example, Leonard is surrounded at school by ‘ubermorons’ while Holden was burdened with ‘phonies’. As a reader, if you weren’t sympathetic to Holden, you’re probably not going to be overly sympathetic to Leonard either (although his story provides more ‘justifications’ for his actions than Holden who was arguably just a lot more selfish).

A significant difference between the two novels is in the plot details and sub-plots. To me, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is much more about suicide, bullying and sexual abuse whereas, The Catcher in the Rye is more about grief and social class. For me, Forgive Me. Leonard Peacock also stresses the need for tolerance of difference much more – and maybe even forgiveness.

I think I preferred The Catcher in the Rye (partly because of it's lighter subject matter, it's clean monologue and it's my classic read from my teen years) but mature teen readers today may prefer Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. It addresses contemporary issues in a hardhitting way but at the same time it is also funnier and softened by what I think is occasional and well-placed sentimentality: nothing ubergooey, mind you, and it is definitely not a soft novel.

Publication details: Headline, London, 15 August 2013, hardback
This copy: uncorrected proof received for review from the publisher

Saturday 10 August 2013

The Catcher in the Rye - M's review

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Classics Club Review by M

The Catcher in the Rye is narrated by Holden Caulfield. He starts off by saying that he’s not going to tell us too much. And he doesn’t. It’s a short novel (about 200 pages, small type though) and the plot covers just a few days - a few days that he tells us covers some “madman” stuff when he’s just been dropped by his private Pennsylvanian prep school for failing too many subjects. He’s not too keen to tell his parents and, with only himself to blame, things go a bit haywire for him.

The Catcher in the Rye by JD SalingerI first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was thirteen and just about to finish primary school. My English teacher had recommended it to me and apparently I loved it so much that my parents bought me my own copy as a gift nearly ten years later. That also means the copy I read must have been lent to me from either the teacher or the library.

I can hazard guesses at what I liked about it so much then: teenage angst and rebellion would be at the top of the list; chunting about the state of people living in the world around me would be another; and it was possibly the first plot thin novel I’d ever read.

So what did I think now?

For the first few chapters I was a bit sceptical about the story. Holden doesn’t like anyone and he’s overly caustic and rude in his judgements about them. I can see why many readers see him as an unsympathetic character. Despite some unpleasant content, it’s nevertheless a smooth read (which is surprising because there are hardly any paragraphs!) and I wanted to read on. Having read it before, I should have known what happens (but I’d forgotten the whole thing completely!) and I thought that someone was going to get hurt – I just didn’t know who or how. I read it quickly and more-or-less in one go. However, if it was a new read and if it hadn’t been a cult classic, I might have skipped out on finishing it. I’m glad I stuck with it though.

By the end, I'd warmed to Holden hugely. Yes, he’s rich and abuses his privileges, and yes he’s rude about people. But, I suspect his character was a pretty accurate portrayal of someone in his position at that time. On the surface, he’s sexist too but underneath (and when it really counts) he actually treats girls far better than any of his friends: he’s torturing himself about stopping when someone says ‘no’ (although I’m not giving him too many brownie points because he does this out of cowardice rather than for any loftier reasons). There are a number of other things that suggest Holden is a nicer person than he seems so maybe his name calling all those ‘phoneys’ and ‘jerks’ around him are justified.

I’m not saying what happens in the novel other than there really isn’t too much plot. The Catcher in the Rye is all about Holden’s state-of-mind from his point-of-view. If you can cope with all the slodgy murk that goes with that, you’ll probably like the novel.

First published in 1951, and regarded by many as one of the first novels about the ‘teenage condition’ (if there is one), The Catcher in the Rye has been both revered and reviled and repeatedly finds itself on a number of ‘banned’ and ‘challenged’ lists. Of course, there’s the language: lots of swearing and references to sex but ‘sexual intercourse’ and ‘goddam’ are as strong as it gets, so language-wise it’s tame in comparison to some of today’s YA fiction. And of course, Salinger didn’t write with a teen nor a politically correct audience in mind, which I think is a strength. The most surprising thing about The Catcher in the Rye, is that while it could be seen as a very despairing story, ultimately, to me, it is a very hopeful novel.

I think I can see why my teacher recommended it to thirteen year old me: not least would have been that it was a highly challenged book! Interestingly, I don’t know if my copy is a censored edition or not.  I wouldn’t say that I loved reading it a second time round but overall, I enjoyed it and liked it much more than I was expecting. I would recommend it to older teens or younger readers that I knew for all sorts of different reasons. The writing style is likely to be quite different to most other novels they've read.

Some key issues in the novel include teenage angst and rebellion, belonging, sex (including prostitution), education, depression, suicide, death, privilege, adult/child relationships and (possibly) grief.

Publication details: 1958, Penguin, London (first published 1951)
This copy: my own (Easter gift from my parents).


Wednesday 7 August 2013

Blood Family - M's review

Blood Family by Anne Fine

Reviewed by M

One thing Anne Fine doesn’t do in Blood Family is beat about the bush. This is a story about the lasting and complicated psychological and emotional damage and trauma that domestic violence can induce for both adults and young children. It is also about breaking and making (and even forsaking) families as well as addiction.  

Blood Family by Anne FineSeven year old Eddie has been hidden away with his mother in a filthy apartment for years and is terrified of him (Bryce). Rescued by the police and social services, he seems to have escaped the years of physical violence that have fallen upon his mother. But social services and new foster families know that psychological damage can be deeply hidden and longlasting. The novel explores the effects of this on Eddie and the different coping strategies that he (and others) use right through to his late teenage years.

Blood Family is a grim read – and uncomfortably - it’s compelling even though the subject matter of this novel is not pleasureable. The plot itself is not exciting, gratuitous, glamorous, disneyfied, rose-tinted nor everyday (except of course, it may well be more everyday for more children than I’d like to think, and for me, that’s the point of the novel).

However, multiple point-of-views presented in short spurts keep up the pace and add tension. These views from the different people 'assigned' to give Eddie a new life also help to build up a complex picture of the highly-charged practicalities of the child protection and social care system. A foreboding atmosphere permeates the book. Although terrible, terrible things have happened at the outset, there’s always a sense of danger: will Eddie’s father find him, can we trust his mum, can we trust Eddie, will he fall through the nets? The book blurb alerted me to this and I anticipated a twist. There is one, and for Eddie, it is shattering but it was less so for me, the reader. I did start skipping bits in the last part of the novel.

Despite the grim story, and without giving much of it away, Blood Family does offer up hope and suggests the chance of happiness for abuse and addiction survivors. The focus of the novel is also less about the whys, wherefores and specifics of abuse, and is more upon the lasting effects and the long, painful and painstaking paths of recovery.

Unfortunately, I didn’t connect with any of the characters in the book – I imagine many other readers will. I didn’t laugh. I didn’t cry. My face was probably deadpan and I bet my emotional level was pretty flat the whole way through too – except for the first chapter. In Blood Family, one of the foster parents wails: the system says we must do it this way - but what about Eddie? What about Eddie? Ironic that for me as the reader, the child got a little lost in the issues.

If you can move yourself away from the child abuse issue (which many readers should be able to do), the novel also delves into the realities of addictions and the question of family and identity. How much of your personality is determined by your genes, your blood family? Will you be like them? How much of 'you' can you shape and determine yourself? And who cares about you the most? Is it yourself? Will your blood family love you the most, protect you the most? And if they don’t, can anyone else step in to do it better?

Would I recommend this novel? Holey moley, that’s a tough one. For any adults working with young people or children, yes, I’d recommend it. For anyone thinking about following a career in public services or with young people, yes. Teenagers who simply want to read for pleasure? Only if I knew them very well. Although the first few pages of the novel are the most shocking in its details, the rest of the novel is definitely not for the feint-hearted (nor for those who’ve suffered abuse and may be susceptible to trigger points).

Another novel for teenagers that deals with the aftermath of child abuse is If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch. Its tone is softer and the novel has a melody although the issues and effects are just as harsh and harmful as those explored in Blood Family. Two very contrasting novels. If you can handle the issues, worth exploring these two side by side for a very different reading experience.

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

Go and read Little M's interview to find out more about Anne Fine.



Sunday 4 August 2013

Anne Fine chat

Little M sat down for a chat...with Anne Fine

Anne Fine was the second Children’s Laureate from 2001-2003. Little M caught up with her at this year's announcement for the eighth laureate, Malorie Blackman.

Little M: Can you remember what your favourite book or series was when you were a child?

Anne Fine: When I was seven, it was definitely Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books. I adored them. When I was about 9, it was Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge. They were school stories; I loved them. When I was about eleven it was William books by Richmal Crompton. I adored those and I did remember who my favourites were – but it did change as I got older.

Little M: Did you like reading as a child?

Anne Fine: I read all the time. Because my mum had triplets when I was three and was just overwhelmed with work, I went to infant school really early. I just learned to read along with everybody else. They were five and learning to read with phonics and I was three and went along with them. So I’ve always read. And also, when you come from a big family, reading’s a lovely escape so I read all the time.

Little M: What’s your opinion on closures of libraries?

Anne Fine: It’s disgraceful. I think it’s the act of an absolutely barbaric government to sit by and watch, pretending it’s nothing to do with them, and allow local authorities to do it. I think that the government is disgraced by its attitude to the closure of closures. It’s utterly, utterly shameful.

Little M: What is your favourite novel you have written?

Anne Fine: I have two favourites. For younger children, I’m tremendously fond of How To Write Really Badly. I just think it’s funny and I like it. And The Angel of Nitshill Road. Those two together are my favourites for younger children. And for older children, one of my favourites is The Book of the Banshee.

(PS. Anne mentioned another title too but it got stolen by the sound of the wind and Little M couldn’t hear it!).

Little M: What did you do as a laureate?

Anne Fine: I started the My Home Library website, which is still running and has over 200 free downloadable bookplates for children to build their own home libraries with secondhand books where you can cover up the name of the last person who owned it and it’s new to you. I did work for blind children and raised £30 000 to start off an interleaved Braille picture book scheme that Clear Vision is still doing. They’ve got a lending library of interleaved Braille picture books for families with blind parents who want to read to their children or blind children who want to read to their parents. They’ve got thousands in the library now so I’m very proud of that. I did three poetry collections, I did 5o talks. I never stopped. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I spent two years and I didn’t write a thing! When I finished, it was just bliss to be writing again.


Thursday 1 August 2013

Boonie - M's review

Boonie by Richard Masson
Reviewed by M

Boonies are outsiders. JD is a Boonie, he just doesn’t know it yet. Set in a dry almost waterless fantasy (and maybe futuristic) world, an eco-message runs like an undercurrent through the novel, which takes a typical children’s quest story: a young teenager loses both parents (one to death) and goes on a journey of search and survival. Along the way, he makes a couple of good friends and the search quickly turns into an adventurous quest to uncover dark secrets of a world JD didn't know existed, save himself and maybe even the world. The cover image featured here is for the paperback edition and it captures the setting for Boonie really well (note: the black O is not a vinyl record!).

Boonie by Richard Masson - paperback edition
Boonie begins as an edgy, gritty read for older teens. However, it quickly becomes something more likely to appeal to a younger readership and I had to reframe my reading expectations.

Although it isn’t a fully happy-ever-after novel and there are some harrowing scenes, the overall tone is warm and the characters of JD, speechless Godrum and feisty Aqua are very likeable. There is a lot of moving plot and action. Boonie manages to pack in a lot of thought-provoking elements too. The plot moves quickly from one adventurous and dangerous scene to another (sometimes I wanted it to linger a little longer to find out more about what was going on in each one).

Themes and issues raised in this novel include the earth’s resources (especially water), slavery, power and rebellion. The overall themes and ideas reminded me of SD Crockett’s After the Snow, though the two novels are quite different and Boonie may appeal more to a younger, middle grade readership than After the Snow. The warm tone reminded me in some ways of Lois Lowry’s The Giver (again, these novels are quite different and The Giver isn’t really a quest story and is more hard-hitting). 

Younger readers who like adventure and would like to explore fantasy/science fiction may enjoy Boonie. The publishers’ Hot Key Ring indicates that Boonie's content includes Danger, Dark Future, Rebellion and Friendship. I would agree and maybe add a little of Eco/Environment.

Other eco/environmental novels for teens include After the Snow by SD Crockett (weather) and Breathe by Sarah Crossan (oxygen). There are also Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd and Julie Bertagna’s Exodus and Zenith (which I haven’t read yet).
Boonie's Hot Key Ring (by Hot Key Books)

Publication details: Hot Key Books, London, 2013, hardback (paperback out in August 2013)
This copy: uncorrected proof received for review from the publisher