Thursday 31 October 2013

Such Wicked Intent - Kenneth Oppel

Such Wicked Intent: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein 
by Kenneth Oppel
Book Review by Little M

Such Wicked Intent is the second novel in Kenneth Oppel's prequels to Mary Shelley's classic book, Frankenstein. The first novel is This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein. I haven't read Shelley's Frankenstein but I assume that Kenneth Oppel created part of the books around it.

Such Wicked Intent by Kenneth Oppel, UK, paperback coverOppel has written this novel with a sixteen-year old boy, Victor Frankenstein, as the main character and narrator. After the death of Konrad Frankenstein, Victor and the Frankenstein household suffer terribly. The novel shows how Victor grows an obsession for resurrecting his twin brother, Konrad, from the dead. Victor is madly in love with his headstrong, distant cousin, Elizabeth. However, Victor knows that Elizabeth and Konrad were together but he will not stop till he gets what he wants. Victor, Elizabeth and their best friend, Henry, search for ingredients to help Victor bring Konrad back from the dead. Though, what they find will change their perspectives on life altogether.

I loved both of these novels written by Kenneth Oppel though my favourite is definitely the second novel, Such Wicked Intent. I find the characters change a lot more and they grow a lot more as a person. Even though I prefer Such Wicked Intent I really did love This Dark Endeavour otherwise I might not have read the second novel.

I really love Oppel's style of writing in these novels. It is very different to another book I have read by him, Half Brother. Both series/books are exceedingly different and I didn't realise they were written by the same author as the style of writing is very different and also the novels are in completely different genres. I think the Frankenstein prequels would be in the Gothic genre as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was a Gothic novel but I also think it would be in the YA category. I think the Half Brother novel would come under contemporary fiction or realistic fiction. Half Brother I think is written for younger readers than the Frankenstein prequels however I have recommended Half Brother to M (who is my mum).
I have read three books by Kenneth Oppel and I have loved all of them. He is definitely one of my favourite authors. I would definitely recommend him to readers of H.M Castor because Oppel’s writing style reminds me a lot of VIII.

Publication Details: David Fickling Books, Oxford, 2012, hardback but this edition 2013, paperback
This copy: Received for review from the publisher

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Being a Boy - James Dawson

Being a Boy by James Dawson
Non-fiction review by M

Being A Boy is a non-fiction guide to ‘being a teenage boy’ written by a former PSHCE teacher (that’s someone who teaches you about puberty, sex and stuff in school). It is written with humour and illustrations, is full of surprises and guidance, and probably breaks with most taboos. It covers many things that go hand in hand with puberty and secondary school: feeling good about yourself, how you look and what to wear, how your body changes, being a ‘man’ and being a boyfriend. There is a lot about sex too.

The book’s emphasis is on feeling good about yourself and treating other people with respect and care. The guide breaks with traditionally heteronormative texts and takes the view that multiple sexualities and genders are possible and to be embraced. Each to their own – just do it with care, is one of the book’s many mottos.

Surprisingly, this is also a guide to ‘doing it’ in real life with real people. At one point in the book, Dawson warns that the squeamish should not continue reading (while I don’t agree with all of Dawson’s advice, follow him on this!).  Again, any which way goes as long as ‘it’ is done with care and respect. Another motto: Use A Condom. And, of course, No Means No even if it’s said with a giggle, or in slightly different words.

I’ve never read a guide to being a teen boy (there must be one somewhere!) and I haven’t read a guide to being a teenage girl since I was a teenager myself. What surprised me was an emphasis on getting a sexual partner. While Dawson points out that it is okay not to want this, I think the book overstates the need ‘to pull’.
Overall, I see Being A Boy as predominantly a teen boy’s guide to healthy sexual relationships. This book will certainly get you talking. If it does that, James Dawson will smile and say ‘job done’.

The book's motto round-up (as I see it):

  • Respect yourself
  • Respect others
  • Take care
  • Use a condom
  • No Means No
  • The internet sometimes tells you lies
  • Have fun

Publication details: Red Lemon Press, London, September 2013, paperback
This copy: uncorrected proof received for review from the publisher



Sunday 27 October 2013

New Books

We haven't done a post like this for a very long time...... a little showcase of some review books we're looking forward to reading and some delightful looking suprises that we may not have time to read in the immediate future. And some things that might be more to other readers' tastes than ours.

I was thinking about before we had a blog and how we didn't actually know about many children or teen books that had been published - other than what you saw on the shelves in bookstores. And then I thought that these shelves change so quickly, how would you know that you'd missed a gem?! So, just in case any of these might become one of those gems.......

These finished copies look gorgeous!
Catherine Fisher's The Box of Red Brocade is the sequel to her Obsidian Mirror time-travel adventure fantasy that I really enjoyed last year. I expect this one will be good (or at least, will take the story further).
Blackberry Blue and other fairy tales by Jamila Gavin is published by Tamarind (November 2013) so I expect some fantastical diversity in these short tales. The cast, I'm told, is a multicultural one.
And then, a wonderful surprise and news from Virago that they're publishing children's classics under their Virago Modern Classics imprint. That makes my heart jump a little and it's an apple I'm keen to bite. I loved the Anne of Green Gables stories when I was a young girl so it's great to see LM Montgomery's Emily trilogy on the new list (November 2013). I haven't read them before so it's all new. Three for our Classics Club Challenge lists perhaps: Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs and Emily's Quest.

Because we don't have the time to review that many books, we love it when publishers send us the book we're really looking forward to very early because then we can take our time to enjoy reading them.
More fairy tales, Tinder by Sally Gardner is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Tinderbox. Although I loved them as a child, as an adult reader I'm not really one for them anymore but everything I've read from Sally Gardner has been surprising and unexpected. So that's what I'm expecting. Forthcoming from Indigo in November 2013.
Much to Little M's delight, the second book in the Oksa Pollock series, Oksa Pollock: The Forest of Lost Souls has landed. She knows that these books are aimed at readers just slightly younger than her, but she loves Oksa! That's out in English translation from Pushkin Children's in February 2014.
We're also both looking forward to Rosie Rowell's Leopold Blue (a coming-of-age story set in rural 1990s South Africa!) and Tom Easton's Boys Don't Knit (a comedy about a teenage boy who is sort of forced to choose knitting). Both are forthcoming from Hot Key in January 2014.
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is a fiction inspired by Sarah Grimke, a female abolitionist in nineteenth century USA. I'm hoping that this one will be a single sitting type read. It is out from Tinder Press in January 2014. The Tinder Press list is always on my radar because they've had some really good ones (Snapper and Amity & Sorrow instantly come to mind). And with that one came a copy of Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees! Both adult fiction though I've seen Bees recommended as a crossover so...
Some quirky non-fiction for the Whovians: Who Goes There by Nick Griffiths has been updated with a new chapter to celebrate 50 years of Doctor Who. The book is a kind of travel guide around the Doctor Who film locations. Published by Legend at the end of this month.
Ostrich by Matt Greene, is a an adult fiction coming-of-age styled comedy. I'm getting into fiction that makes me laugh lately (and I know that's tricky because apparently I have a weird sense of humour!). Coverwise, I think we've had enough of the John Green bandwagon though.... (already published; Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Candy Gourlay's Shine is out from David Fickling Books. I'm a fan of many Fickling novels and Candy Gourlay is an intriguing middle grade author. A lovely surprise to receive and it's on the review pile - hopefully one of us will find some time for it!
Thanks to all the publishers who have sent these books to us.

Friday 18 October 2013

MaddAddam - Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
Adult fiction rambles by M

(haha, there’s a short video of Atwood somewhere, cracking a smile about MaddAddam’s dark humour, “parental guidance and all that”!)

Thanks to Hatchards Bloomsbury Book Club, my copy of MaddAddam turned up early enough for me to be an advanced reader before any of the mainstream reviews surfaced. So I read it whole, then made some notes, then read some mixed reviews, and then met Margaret Atwood. A couple of other things happened too and now, these are my thoughts-at-this-juncture on MaddAddam. It's a bit uncharacteristically gushy. For a succint overview of the plot, look somewhere else.

Punning satire and parody, MaddAddam is earnestly comical cult fiction. Forget literary salons, guys, the next cosplay is MaddAddam CampGeek at my place via PulpFiction-cum-RockyHorrorPictureShow-cum-BoneyM (and if we can fix the world too, great). And then we can watch Aidan Quinn (sorry Offred) and maybe eat cake (morally disordered, of course). If ever there was an impetus for me doing fan-fiction, MaddAddam is it (wonder what the Toad’s copyright regime is...).

So yes, if you haven’t read any of it, the trilogy’s a Margaret Atwood blast: Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and then MaddAddam. And then read The Blind Assassin: the parallels between her latest offering and her Booker winner are mad! There’s plenty of overlapping pulp fiction in that winner.

Trilogy- and plot-wise, all three overlap but fill gaps and provide alternative perspectives on the same events: the story behind the MaddAddam ARG and organisation, the apocalyptic time and the fallout. But in MaddAddam, Atwood brings storytelling to the forefront as the novel’s form is structured around Toby’s night-time storytelling. This could be be seen as the development of the chapters in a new Crakers’ gospel, much as the God’s Gardener’s from The Year of the Flood had their psalms/songs. Toby even creates the possibility for the addition of new testaments through Blackbeard. Indeed, each of the three novels are a new testament on the same central story.

Comic. Above anything else, for me, MaddAddam is funny; at times it is farcical. Known for her caustically detailed observations about our lived and culturally-enhanced humanities, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam is nothing if not a moment of let’s-laugh-and-cry at ourselves. Much of the humour feels like it has developed straight from a creative stream-of-consciousness brainstorming session that delights in wordplay. God’s Gardeners, it’s cutting bloody dark fun.

Of wordplay there is plenty and the novel's central themes, for me, are about words and meaning particularly in the context of storytelling, both written and spoken, and with multiple narrators over periods of time. In some ways, this has threaded all through the whole trilogy and were present in The Blind Assassin.

For other readers, eco-political themes will ring loudest. And of course, as with many of her novels, Atwood also grapples with sexual and romantic relationships. Sexual relationships and particularly monogamous versus polygamous relationships, romance versus biological reproduction and consensual acts versus abuse abound in the MaddAddamite trilogy. MaddAddam shows – clearly – how blurred lines really are. An example of this is an “energetic” pun on foreplay which in some ways is a reprehensible bang.

At the same time, despite her matter of fact and non-sentimental style, MaddAdam, like The Handmaid’s Tale, is also a smouldering love story. For the critics who suggest that MaddAddam sacrifices characterisation, in my mind, they’ve missed the point/s. Nowhere are Zeb and Toby more real than in this novel. Shucks, I even shed a tear (note the singularity). And look at the Crakers whom we first meet and the Crakers that we leave.

Singing: this seems to work as some sort of motif or extended metaphor. Zeb sings little ditties when he’s frightened or stressed. Gospel singers sing. The Crakers sing. Adam, Toby, Crake and eventually, Blackbeard, don’t like singing. But Toby also learns that the Crakers’ singing is something that might save them. I even asked Margaret Atwood about it.

In the latter part of the novel, there are strains of Animal Farm.

At first, I couldn’t get into MaddAddam. I wasn’t fond of the ‘storytelling’ form that it was taking, framed by a very thin plot. However, as it develops into a story about Zeb, it becomes much more interesting although there is no real crescendo – though there are some very high and significant ends of chapters towards the end.

I read both of the previous novels a few years ago, and although there is a very extensive ‘the story so far’ at the beginning, and although Atwood provides lots of catch-up details throughout MaddAddam, I couldn’t help wishing that I’d read the three novels in order quite quickly one after the other.
At the end, the MaddAddamite left me sorry to say goodbye to some of my favourite Gardeners. It also left me craving to go and read, and re-read more of Atwood’s fiction. So, I did.


Publication details: Bloomsbury, 2013, London, hardback
This copy: mine and signed!


Monday 14 October 2013

The Testament of Mary - Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Review by M

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin (Penguin). Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013The Testament of Mary is a short novella, my edition being only 104 pages. It is shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize and I picked it up because it was on a 4 for 3 type offer at our local bookshop. The title itself hadn't appealed to me and I was unfamiliar with Toibin's work so it wasn't at the top of my reading list. I had no idea what it was about, but, being the Booker that often doesn't matter.

The opening pages are extraordinary. A dark, menacing and increasingly brutal mood is created and there was a scene involving rabbits and a bird that I pretty much had to skip. Still, I didn't know what the story was about and it was intriguing.

And then it clicked. This made me smile but then my relationship to the book changed because I knew the story it was based upon. This was a story that had been shoved down my generation's throat time and time again at school. It's not a story I like.

Of course, this is a retelling and from a different perspective: the testament of a mortal woman who experiences pain, fear and love; who explains how some stories turn into slightly different legends. We were often asked to tell this story in school, though I suspect this particular telling might not have met favour with the teachers (today, and in the UK, many of them might be more accommodating).

The opening pages are exquisite and the final pages come close. I didn't feel the middle section was as strong and the characterisation of the son remains very aloof (perhaps unsurprisingly). Mary's voice is strong, whereas perhaps once it was weak, and it is noteworthy how the book feels contemporary yet still recreates an image of a time and society from long, long ago. Overall, I felt it was a bit too drawn out for a character portrait but not long enough to hold my overwhelming interest as a story. I feel slightly ambivalent to it overall and it wouldn't be my choice for this year's winner (though I've only read two on the shortlist).

I would recommend it to other readers though, partly for what it's about, because its short length makes it a quick read and the writing is good. It is a very accessible novella and suitable for all ages.

Publication details: Penguin, 2012, London, paperback
This copy: mine

If you like suprises when you read a story, do not read on......

The story: Yes, it is the testament of Mary, recounting the time of Jesus' crucifiction: my least favourite of all the Bible stories.

Friday 11 October 2013

Stoner - John Williams

Stoner by John Williams
Classics Club Review by M

Stoner is a wonderful, wonderful read. Some people should expect to receive it as a Christmas gift (how do you that emoticon wink thing?).

Originally published in 1965, it has been heralded as one of the less-known or forgotten classics, has been recently republished in the USA and now, in the UK, by Vintage Classics.

Stoner by John Williams (Vintage Classics)The plot, to many people’s ears (including mine), will sound drab. The novel tells the story of William Stoner’s relatively unremarkable life as a university teacher of English (although this particular turn of events for a rural American farmer boy is interesting in itself; and he lives and works in some awful conditions). It is a linear narrative told in the omniscient third person, so no textual games here.

But this novel is remarkable. From the opening page, I couldn’t put it down. There was excitement and tension in the deeply brutal interpersonal conflicts that assuage Stoner’s marriage and professional life but there is also fantastic characterisation, particularly of Stoner. More than any other character I’ve read in a long time, you immediately and wholly sink into William Stoner’s being; and it so quietly and humbly mournful (yet in a strangely uplifting way?!).

Thematically, the novel explores the work ethic, love (in the most unsentimental of ways), fitting in and literature.

John Williams proposes the notion that the university is a refuge from the rest of the world and explores this beautifully and painfully through a variety of characters. For those of you who have any familiarity with ‘mad professors’, Stoner is definitely worth a read! For those who don’t, the notion of refuge has broader appeal and significance too.

In many ways, the novel is also a reflection on a life and the different stages and moments that it goes through.  In this case, the life is Stoner’s, but his own introspective thoughts again mimic the kinds of general ‘life’ thoughts many Western people might experience. It would be interesting to see how people at different age stages in their lives respond to Stoner and whether they all enjoy it equally well: maybe at 20, 40 and 60?

Some interesting debates about the representation of gender and disability in the novel played through my head while I was reading it. There’s his wife, who might be described as a damaged femme fatale, and there is Lomax, doubly damaged by his disability. Taking into account a) American society at the time of the plot, and b) American society at the time of the novel’s writing, these issues in the novel are clearly raised by the author and they’re not clear cut.

Other people have commented on the novel and its relationship to ‘literature’. This runs strongly and frequently throughout the novel, but it wasn’t the aspect that interested me the most (I was the kind of English student who would have had Stoner in complete despair!).

Classics Club Challenge Verdict:
Not originally on my Classics Club challenge list (as I’d never heard of it), is it a classic for me? Yes. I would highly, highly recommend it to most readers. It would be a fabulous novel for book group chats.

With that in mind, this is what I’d want to talk about first.....


Discussion – includes spoilers

Much in Stoner’s life is excruciating: his home life, his marriage, his work schedule. The author lays this on pretty thickly, especially after the birth of Grace. For example, there’s a section where Stoner is described as having to be more a mother than a father. Taking into account the gender context of the time (like note too how few references are made to female students or academic staff), his life can’t really get much lower than that – he’s doing everything. At this point, however, I start to think that the narrator is perhaps a bit more unreliable than usual and this is suggested even further in the closing pages of the novel where Stoner feels that he was partly to blame for Edith’s behaviour. Maybe Stoner wasn’t quite as easy to get along with at home as is suggested (though on the whole, I think the balance is definitely in his favour).


Publication details (this edition): Vintage, London, 2012
This copy: digital copy received for review from the publisher


Wednesday 9 October 2013

Children's Book Awards

It's UK Book Awards chat time of year again. Over the last few weeks, The Man Booker announced a controversial change, Booktrust announced the launch of a new Best Book Awards for children 0-14, and the CILIP Carnegie and Greenaway medal nominations are underway. Amidst this, of course, there's been many hurrahs and excitement but also corners of bah-humbugs criticising the awards for a variety of reasons. It's also Children's Book Week, so, in case you haven't noticed,

We Sat Down LOVES children's book awards.* + **

For years, book award lists (not just the winners) have informed our reading - and especially our book purchases. The lists just make browsing easier. They are often a starting block for our browsing, and there're generally a whole bunch of books on there that we like (as well as a whole bunch of books we don't). We keep an eye on all sorts of awards (you can see the links on our right hand sidebar). Other than award lists, trusted word of mouth is what tends to guide us.

Different awards aim to achieve different things. And so of course, we love some awards more than others and that's how it is. Humans are generally all relatively critical: we make preferences to filter things and choose. Whatever floats your boat.......

For us, at the moment, the big one is the Carnegie, for obvious and multiple reasons: it has a well-developed Shadowing scheme, its juding criteria is published and the award is for literature written for children. In addition to a 'list', all of these factors mean that both of us can actively follow the award process  - and enjoy it. Other awards, like the Red House Children's Book Award, let readers nominate and vote - and this is a whole different ball game (which we take part in too, when we're eligible).

There is a lot of mumbling and grumbling about the fact that it is adults who both choose and judge the Carnegie & Greenaway medals. It's run by CILIP, the UK's librarian association, and is nominated and judged by CILIP members (who are adult librarians). For me, more than anything, what distinguishes the type of books shortlisted for the Carnegie is that adults and children can often both relate to them (this flavour is probably precisely because adults - who were once children - have selected them). They're mostly an intergenerational read and I love this. There are plenty of books that Little M reads, which I don't and vice versa. Currently, the Carnegie medal is an exciting meeting place for us both.

Now, I'm also keen to see how the new Booktrust Best Book Awards works. It's arguably going head-to-head with the Carnegie in the world of UK children's book awards. The timings of the award process looks similar and it's planning some sort of 'following' scheme. But, it's involving children directly in the process and it has many award categories divided by age and genre/type. I have lots of respect for Booktrust, so this award's on our radar (though whether it'll match my intergenerational preference, I'll have to wait and see).

*PS. Actually, we just love AWARDS!!!
**PPS. There are plenty of yummy books that don't make award lists. We've read (and bought) more than a fair few of those too.

Thursday 3 October 2013

Ketchup Clouds - Teen Book Club

In September, I (Little M) set up a teen book club at the local library. We had all read Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher, which The Reading Agency had sent us. At this event, we did not just talk about Ketchup Clouds but also had chips and t-sauce (ketchup). You can read mine and M's joint review from January here.

There were six of us. We all introduced ourselves (though most of us knew each other). Then we discussed the book. Overall, I think most people liked the book. Here are some of our comments:

Teen book club's thoughts on Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher
What our teen book club thought of Ketchup Clouds: it's written in the clouds!

"The way this book was written meant that you had to finish it because of the suspense and the connections you felt you had with the characters."
"I enjoyed the book and thought, considering it was written as letters, a style I normally dislike, the plot was good although slightly confusing. I found it quite enjoyable overall."
"I thought it was very good, perhaps a little predictable but it was hard to put down."
"Ketchup Clouds was very well written but I didn't like the feeling of guilt that was transmitted to the reader."
"It was well written but not my kind of book. I enjoyed reading it and I would recommend it to readers."
"It was well written and an interesting concept. I would definitely recommend it to others."
One comment has been withheld as it is a spoiler but it gives good feedback about the twists and turns in the novel.

It was really good fun even though we were a teeny bit too loud for the library (oops, sorry!). I can't wait for the next one, which is tomorrow! We will be discussing John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (also supplied by The Reading Agency).

Read M & Little M's interview with Annabel Pitcher.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

That Burning Summer - Lydia Syson

That Burning Summer by Lydia Syson
M's review

Once again, Lydia Syson's teen fiction marries the thought-provoking nitty gritties of wartime with a tone that is celebratory in its joie de vivre. That Burning Summer is a quick and enjoyable read that complements her debut novel, A World Between Us.

That Burning Summer by Lydia SysonThat Burning Summer shares some similarities with Syson’s first novel, A World Between Us: war, moral conflicts and courage, deceptions, first love and an underlying playful humour that adds a light touch to otherwise heavy subject matter. But there are significant differences too.

That Burning Summer is set in England and weaves Poland in, and whereas A World Between Us looked at principled reasons for engaging in war battle, That Burning Summer grapples with reasons for not fighting. And of course, refusing to fight in the war was a punishable offence......

This time, the action is set on English home ground down in Romney Marsh, Kent in the summer of 1940, the year of the Battle of Britain. At this point, most of the children in that area of England have been evacuated but Peggy (16) and Ernest (11 nearly 12) have not. They’re living in and helping out on a farm with their mother and their aunt’s family. Their father is away...well, somewhere?

The novel is organised around the different rules and advice the government set out in a leaflet on what to do when Britain is invaded:
  • How do you spot an invader and what should you do in that situation?
  • And if it’s by parachute?
  • And they’re foreign, with a name like Hendryk?
It is interesting to see how this propaganda leaflet affects the behaviour of the novel’s different characters, especially young Ernest who is most perturbed and alarmed by this document.

The novel is filled with tension as you wonder what individual characters will do when they’re faced with potential and life-threatening deceptions or revealing secrets. And where is the children’s father? Is Hendryk as innocent as he claims? What will happen in the end? Like a mystery thriller, the plot is interspersed with clues as to the answers.

For me, the most compelling narrative is Ernest’s story: his fixation with doing the right thing at his age is endearing. The heroine, Peggy, is a headstrong and wilful character. Ernest is too, but in his own much quieter and reflective way. June their cousin, is an interesting character and brings to mind the portrayal of Trixie in the Call the Midwife television series. And pilot Hendryk's story and dilemma is truly heartbreaking.

Two of my favourite scenes include a funny one (borderline farcical when something slowly appears round a corner) and a passionately truthful one (everything some of you already knew about dancing very closely!). The developing romance was my least favourite part of the story because I thought Peggy would have been more afraid and confused about what to do. But, I suppose especially in times of war, there's no accounting for what people might do....

Younger readers especially will likely appreciate Ernest’s confusions and actions, and enjoy the historical explanations that are woven through the novel. Older readers are likely to sympathise with Peggy. Syson also creates a really strong sense of place – I could see Romney Marsh in my mind even though I’ve never been there.
Although there is a thrilling romantic thread in this novel, rather than an historical war romance I would describe That Burning Summer as an historical war mystery/thriller which, in terms of interests and age, may appeal to a broader readership than A World Between Us.

Publication details: Hot Key Books, 3 October 2013, London, paperback
This copy: received for review from the publisher