Friday 19 December 2014

Dear Committee Members - Julie Schumacher

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Review by M

For me, this was more self-indulgent than a chocolate box (or whatever else is your guilty pleasure). A series of increasingly disgruntled – and often hilariously cringeworthy – letters, are written by Jason Fitger, a well-established professor of English Creativeve Writing and Literature.  His lengthy letters show he is overwhelmed by the increasing academic protocol of writing recommendations for colleagues, funding and students. All of this is set within the context of university cuts (which seem to affect English creative writing university courses more so than the Economics department) as well as his personal relationship and publishing debacles.

This is a short book and each page is almost tediously ‘more of the same as the last page’ – but I found it immensely addictive. Recommended as a light but spot-on read.

Publication details:  The Friday Project, 9 October 2014, London, hardback

This copy: digital review copy from the publisher

The Midnight Dress - Karen Foxlee

The Midnight Dress by  Karen Foxlee

Guest Review by Alice (15)

Rose Lovell and her dad arrive in yet another town, she knows it will be the same as always, they will stay a while, her dad will get drunk and they will move on, it's happened before and it will happen again, won't it? But this time it's different, Rose makes friends with Pearl Kelly, the 'town sweetheart' who convinces the closed-book Rose to take part in the town's harvest parade. Rose goes to Eddie the town dressmaker whose life is riddled with secrets, tales, and according to the townspeople, witchcraft. Together they create a dress woven and stitched from memories, stories and magic. On the night of the parade the girl with the midnight dress goes missing, and nothing will be the same, ever again.

On top of having a beautiful plot line this book is one of the most spectacularly written books I have read in a long time. Rose is a bit of a goth, loves all things black and most of all the rainforest she discovers after hearing  Eddie's stories. When she meets Pearl she starts to come out of her shell. The way the character Rose is written made me fall in love with her and also feel a little bit of empathy for her, she had never really had any friends before Pearl and her dad doesn't really care about her. The book is written in a way that at the beginning of each chapter you find out a little bit more of the end and that helped me to understand the story more as the plot twisted on.

Anyone over the age of 11 could easily get as absorbed by this book as I did!

This book is brilliant for anyone who loves a good bit of friendship and mystery in a book. If you do then this book is most definitely for you!

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

Thursday 25 September 2014

Heir of Fire - Sarah J Maas

Heir of Fire by Sara J Maas
Review by Little M
(originally published on Manchee & Bones)

Heir of Fire by Sarah J Maas
Heir of Fire is the third instalment in Sarah J.Maas's series with Celaena Sarodthien as the main character in a magical kingdom. I highly recommend this series. As this is the third novel in the series I haven't included much of a synopsis because it could be a huge SPOILER!

Celaena Sarodthien is an unbeatable assassin and the King of  Adarlin's Champion. She is continuing her quest to fulfil her dying friend's wish and to find the dark secrets her king is hiding from everyone. Celaena is put to the test. She is pushed to her limits both physically and mentally. She gains a couple of friends along the way and one of them will stay with her forever.

I love this series by Sarah J.Maas; it is high on my favourite books list (the whole series). I loved Chaol in the first two novels but Rowan is now my favourite character with his dry sense of humour and witty comebacks. This third novel really turns the whole story around. This is positive as some books put a plot twister in, which doesn't quite fit. However, this book just made me want to keep reading and reading!

I would definitely recommend Heir of Fire to those who have read Sarah J.Maas and possibly fans of Harry Potter. It is a magical, thrilling novel, which most fantasising teens may like. Well, I did and so do many of my friends. The writing style is pretty straight forward, like many teen novels. Although, there is the odd phrase, which is used far too often. This could be slightly annoying for some but it didn't put me off. Altogether, this is a highly recommended magical series, which teens like me may like.

Publication Details: 11 September 2014, Bloomsbury, London (originally New York)
This copy: digital review copy from the publisher

Wednesday 17 September 2014

J - Howard Jacobson

J by Howard Jacobson
Review by M
J has been shortlisted for the Man Booker 2014.

(Please note: The title of this novel is not J. It is a struck out J but I don’t know how to type that!)

I’ve never finished The Finkler Question, the only Jacobson I’ve ever started to read, and the curious thing about this was that there ‘was’ something that I liked about his writing just as there ‘was’ something I did not like. Precise, aren’t I?

When J came up for review (prior to its Booker listing), both this niggle about Jacobson’s writing and the premise for J grabbed my current attention. Going by the blurb, J is both a dystopian novel and a love story, so pretty much right up my street.

Set in the future, a not-spoken -about past frames the novel, and the narrator hovers it over the characters like a thick mist: What Happened, If It Happened. Most of the novel is spent providing clues and red herrings as to What happened, if It happened (my early hunch was that something almost apocalyptic had happened due to social media – but I was wrong and anyone who understands the significance of the struck out J will have a good idea from the offing What has happened).

The narrator expounds philosophically about the pre- and post- treatment of It (for me, this went on a bit too much and was not sufficiently convincing). Post-It, public mood is presided over by an agency known as Ofnow (hmm, Atwoodian handmaids anyone?). Unfortunately, this ‘new’ world that J creates, is not fully explored and just doesn’t feel quite right.

J turns, however (and ultimately,thankfully), around two central characters, Ailinn and Kevern, and their new love affair, the future of which hangs in the balance due to a pair of ugly feet and a murder mystery. Jacobson crafts a believably poignant relationship, and these two characters, for me, are what carry the novel.

As the novel unfolds, the significance of the struck out J and What Happened, If It Happened is deadly serious. It is unnerving and unsettling, and on one count is not something unfamiliar from real life and on another count is not unfamiliar from the worlds of big brother.  

Jacobson puts much detail but also not enough into the plotlines so that some elements seemed superfluous while others were lacking. I found the ending very unsatisfying, partly because some things felt as if they were left hanging, but also because some things just didn’t feel like they fit well. I struggled to identify the ‘tone’ of the novel – there was always a lighthearted humour mingling with something much, much darker. It just didn’t feel plausible enough (though perhaps this is ‘the point’). I think I'd recommend this as a library read to some people.


Publication details: 14 August 2014, Jonathan Cape, London, hardback
This copy: digital review copy from the publisher



Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
 Adult fiction review by M


Station Eleven was pitched as being for Margaret Atwood or Hugh Howey fans.  I’m an Atwood fan but had never heard of Howey. This novel has had a huge (social media) presence, and from what I can gather, many people adore it. I didn’t.
Station Eleven is an apocalyptic novel. A virus, details unknown, kills almost everybody. There are a few survivors who have to start all over again and they’re afraid (typical apocalyptic scenario). A group of them form the Travelling Symphony, which tends to perform Shakespeare. Rather than simply exploring the now, the novel focuses on a few characters and their past, which helps to provide clues as to why survivors choose to protect and sustain certain ‘artefacts’. This held much promise for me but then the novel introduced a very coincidental ‘bad guy’ plot that I did not find very believable nor interesting.

I felt like I was reading something that wanted to be profound. But there was a disconnection for me: too many characters, none of whom were especially endearing to me; a plot that was built upon many coincidences (potentially very plausible but always unexplained, and therefore too convenient).

I couldn’t sense the ‘Atwood’ beyond post-apocalyptic similarities with the MaddAddam world (and on my current re-read of Cat’s Eye, some similar objects turn up: comics, glass ornaments etc ). As an Atwood fan, I was disappointed. The Travelling Symphony doesn’t hold the same place in my heart as God’s Gardeners. I can’t comment from the Howey camp.

Publication details: September 2014, Picador, London, hardback
This copy: review copy from the publisher





Monday 11 August 2014

Emily Climbs - LM Montgomery

Emily Climbs by LM Montgomery

Guest review by Alice (14)

This is a beautifully written follow up to Emily of New Moon but you have to read Emily of New Moon first as I did because it would get a bit confusing as to who's who as there are quite a few characters from the first book in this book. I for one can't wait to read the last book in the Emily series (Emily's Quest) to find out what happens next.

(Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read Emily of New Moon, go away and do that first if you're afraid of spoilers for Emily Climbs!)

Emily Climbs by LM Montgomery

Emily Climbs is the second book in the Emily series. In the first book, the 12 year old Emily moves to New Moon, her aunt's house after her father’s death leaves her an orphan. Now 14 in the second book, Emily goes to Shrewsbury high school with her friends, Ilse, Teddy and Perry, but going to Shrewsbury means going to stay with aunt Ruth and to stay with aunt Ruth means to give up her beloved writing. Emily now torn from her dreams faces many dilemmas throughout the story.

My favourite character is Cousin Jimmy who although he is not the main character is always willing to listen to Emily and he will always side with her, always thinking her right.

This thought provoking book will make all teenagers and adults sympathise with the woes and dilemmas of young Emily from the start of the book when she is 14 to the end where she is 17. Some of the language on this book may be a bit tricky for younger readers to understand (even I had a bit of trouble with some words!) and this book gets ten out of ten for a deeply satisfying read.

Publication details: November 2013, Virago Modern Classic, London, paperback (first published 1925)
This copy: review copy from the publisher

Thursday 24 July 2014

The Booker and Me

Prepare yourself for my longest post ever. Watch, if you care, as I descend into the darkest depths of memory, and watch it all fade…..

The Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist was announced yesterday. We’ve shadowed what I regard as the UK’s children’s literary equivalent, the CILIP Carnegie Medal, for two years, so I thought it’s about time I start to note my Booker reading commentary.

Unlike the Carnegie, I’ve usually never read any of the novels on the Booker longlists when they are announced (with a few coincidental exceptions). To be honest, before this blog, I don’t think I even knew when the longlists (or even shortlists) were announced. I’d certainly never become excitedly embroiled in critical shadowing nor joyful predicting.

This year, however, I’m aware that there has been a Booker rule change. Previously, the award was open to UK and Commonwealth writers. Eligibility was opened up to make this a global prize. Of course, an American onslaught was feared. From the 13 slots available on this year’s longlist, 4 Commonwealth writers have been moved out to make room for 4 Americans. And, expect unfortunate punning on ‘Man’ Booker as there are only 3 women writers on the list (cough: I think 2 of them are from the American contingent).

Whether any of these facts are significant to readers (or publishing today), I don’t know because I’ve not read any of the novels on this year’s longlist. I have read some novels in the past year that may have been eligible. These novels included writers who were men, women, UK, US and commonwealth writers. I loved many of them but I didn’t expect any of them would turn up on the Booker (and they didn’t). I don’t even attempt to ‘judge’ what will make it or not because my breadth of reading and understanding of literature just doesn’t come close to matching that of the judging panel. Unlike the Carnegie, the Booker doesn’t publish detailed judging criteria. It’s a very, very subjective process contained within a set of industry rules (and probably agendas).

As a reader, I’m okay with this. I never read a book and think, ‘o, this one for the Booker’ (that’s probably because I’m mostly reading backlist recommendations). However, my shelves and reading habits are adorned with Booker listed and winning novels (along with a whole host of other sorts of fiction too).

My first thoughts on this year’s longlist are:
In comparison to 2013, it doesn’t ‘look’ as ‘exciting’, but only the reading will tell. I will buy The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell just because it’s Mitchell (I’ll have to wait a long time though: it’s not published until September and then only in hardback and my Mitchell editions are paperback!). Also, I have a review copy of J by Howard Jacobson because I like his writing and the sound of this one is a bit more sci-fiey, so I’m good to try this. Ali Smith is on the list too – and I like her writing, so that’s an obvious read for me. David Nicholls appears but I was not a fan of One Day (it’s on my shelf of kept-because-someone-else-might-like-it books). As for the other 9, I don’t’ really know anything about them but have heard that one of them was a crowdfunded book, which apparently is a first for the Booker (so that might be worth a nosy). I have, however, started off with Richard Flanagan’s novel simply because I have a review copy…..and the writing on the first few pages just glides……

Note how my familiarity with the names of titles and authors on this year’s longlist is very shaky. For self-indulgent (or illuminating reasons) rather than lazy ones, I haven’t used the internet to provide the details.

Now for the fun bit!

My quick thoughts on an adulthood of  ‘Booker’ reading:

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (2013 winner)
It’s a big one. Am halfway through the e-book and wish I’d bought the paperback. Quite like it but won’t be sure until the end. The gold dust magic hasn’t quite done it for me yet.

A Tale For the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki (2013 shortlist)
I loved everything about this novel and highly recommend it to many people. Right up my street.

We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo (2013 shortlist)
Pageturning and wonderful, it’s a favourite of mine. Highly recommended, though I didn’t expect it to on the shortlist, probably because I don’t expect to see pageturners on the Booker. Curiously, read this on a e-reader!

The Testament of Mary – Colm Toibin (2013 shortlist)
Compelling writing, interesting and controversial tale. Very short, and I liked that. Pleased I read it. Would never have selected to read this without some form of recommendation, which the Booker gave it.

The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri (2013 shortlist)
Thoroughly enjoyed this one, though perhaps it’s not going to be one of my favourites. Borrowed it from the library but not sure I’d buy it.

 Almost English – Charlotte Mendelson (2013 longlist)
Bought an e-copy, which may have been a mistake and puts it in the company of The Luminaries. Have only read a few chapters and I haven’t got into it, so can’t comment until (if) I ever finish it.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng (2012 shortlist)
Very atmospheric writing and an interesting and disturbing tale. But, I haven’t finished it yet. Don’t know why because I love reading it. It still lingers in my head so this is very curious!

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes (2011 winner)
A short book that I enjoyed. Easy writing, cleverish and intriguing story. Generally, I enjoy reading Barnes even if it’s to see what he’s come up with this time. Not sure this was his best but perhaps it was his most accessible.
Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman (2011 shortlist)
This was subsequently published as a Young Adult novel, and I read it in that context. It is excellent, highly recommended, accessible and very moving.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb – Jane Rogers (2011 shortlist)
I loved this novel. Curiously, like Pigeon English, this would suit a YA audience too, primarily because of the main character’s age. It’s also the novel that caught Little M’s eye and made us realise that she had probably outgrown Enid Blyton even if she wasn’t quite ready for Jessie Lamb!

The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson (2010 winner)
Enjoy the writing but haven’t finished this one yet. Not sure if I ever will so only time will tell.

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas (2010 longlist)
I read this on a beach holiday and while everyone else went out to discover the nightlife, I stayed in to finish it. Enough said! Loved it.

The Children’s Book – AS Byatt (2009 shortlist)
It’s been a few years but I’m still just under halfway through. I just can’t connect with  it.

2008 – completely passed me by

The Gathering – Anne Enright (2007 winner)
Wonderful book. Interestingly, I think I bought this not in connection with the Booker but because I saw her alongside Maggie O’Farrell at a literature festival reading.

Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones (2007 shortlist)
Enjoyed this hugely. Reminded me of the atmosphere of Wide Sargasso Sea but the Dickens element grated on me a little.

On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan (2007 shortlist)
A very short book, and though I love McEwan, I think I remember being very underwhelmed by this one.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Moisin Hamid (2007 shortlist)
Loved this book. Quite pageturning too with bits of mystery.

Get a Life – Nadime Gordimer (2006 longlist)
It’s Gordimer, so I’d have got it anyway.  I remember reading it quickly, and perhaps being slightly on the fence about it when I’d finished. Hazy memory though.

The Accidental – Ali Smith (2005 shortlist)
Can’t remember much about this other than lots of intimate intrigue and that I was mesmerised.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith (2005 shortlist)
I think this is my favourite Zadie Smith novel.

The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst (2004 winner)
I read the whole thing. I think the writing carried it because I didn’t like the characters. It’s on the same shelf as David Nicholl’s One Day.

Bitter Fruit – Achmat Dangor (2004 shortlist)
Loved it.

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (2004 shortlist)
This is why I buy so many David Mitchell novels. Took me a chapter or two to get into it and then the magic unwound. Sonmi 451 is one of my favourite literary characters. A friend thought it wasn’t as clever as people were raving about because so many authors had done similar stuff before (and arguably better). She’s read more than me!

Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2004 longlist)
Fell totally in love with this novel. Have her next novel on this back of this, but not read it yet (it’s probably an e-book!). Couldn’t get on with the main character in her latest, Americanah.

Vernon God Little – DBC Pierre (2003 winner)
Someone bought me this. Oh dear. I started reading it but the plot was way out of my comfort zone. It’s unread on a shelf that I can’t see. One day, I may venture into the dark.

Brick Lane – Monica Ali (2003 shortlist)
Loved, loved, loved. Now, I always get the names of Monica Ali, Ali Smith and Zadie Smith mixed up. I just buy all three.

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (2003 shortlist)
Curiously, 2003 must have passed me by too, despite the fact I’ve read novels off the list. Here’s why: I’ve read Oryx and Crake but only after I’d read The Year of the Flood, during which I realised that this was some sort of sequel and I’d started in the wrong place. So Oryx and Crake became the second, rather than the first, in my MaddAddam trilogy reading. I just love the whole trilogy immensely for everything it does, mostly storytelling and humour. Shelved on my Atwood shelf. Read years after its shortlisting.

Frankie and Stankie – Barbara Trapido (2003 longlist)
My favourite Trapido novel, but this might be for nostalgic reasons more than anything else. That’s just a disclaimer because I think it’s funny, insightfully and warmly told.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon (2003 longlist)
I only read this in the last few years. It’s good and I like the writing, and I do recommend it. I didn’t like the dad character and I didn’t like the dead dog. I’m unmoveable on some things, so it seems.

Life of Pi – Yann Martel (2002 winner)
Took this as a lazy beach read. Wrong move. Gave up for years. Gave it another go recently, alongside Little M and the film adaptation. So glad I did because I loved it. The thing that stands out for me most is the ending, and pissing (haha, I’m so childish!).

Atonement – Ian McEwan (2001 winner)
One of my all-time favourites.

Looks like 2001 was the first year for a Longlist.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood (2000 winner)
Read this very recently. It’s superb.

Disgrace – JM Coetzee (1999 winner)
Intrigued and shocked me simultaneously. Perhaps one of the first novels to really do this for me successfully (that’s probably about me, not the novel).

Amsterdam – Ian McEwan (1998 winner)
The start of my McEwan love affair

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy (1997 winner)
Remember enjoying this a lot and think it was my mother who recommended it (could be wrong about this though).

Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood (1996 shortlist)
This is why I need reading notes. It’s either The Robber Bride or Alias Grace that I didn’t finish. Will have to give this one another go (or is that  a reread?).

Time’s Arrow – Martin Amis (1991 shortlist)
“It goes backwards,” someone enthused to me. A big hit with me and I recommended it to everyone.

Possession – AS Byatt (1990 winner)
Sits among my most favourite novels ever. Completely captivating.

Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood (1989 shortlist)
Loved it then. Currently re-reading it now. There’s a boy-man in a tree. Knock, knock MaddAddam.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (1986 shortlist)
Forever kind of love!

Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes (1984 shortlist)
My introduction to Barnes. I was young: found it experimental but tedious. I kept on buying and reading him though!

Life and Times of Michael K – JM Coetzee (1983 winner)
I remember a long pub conversation about Coetzee and this being recommended. I think I read it and loved it – but I could be wrong. Another one for the reread (or is read?)
So that's me and the Booker. We've had some memorable times.











Monday 14 July 2014

Love, Lies & Lemon Pies - Katy Cannon

Love, Lies & Lemon Pies by Katy Cannon
Review by Little M
(Review first published on Manchee & Bones)

Love Lies & Lemon Pies by Katy Cannon
Love, Lies & Lemon Pies by Katy Cannon is a fantastic romance novel. What is quite strange about this particular novel is that I wouldn't normally choose this sort of book. However, I have really opened my mind to these sorts of books now!

Love, Lies and Lemon Pies is about a teenage girl, Lottie, who is coping after the death of her father. Lottie is sent to the headmasters' office one morning and he pushes her into joining the Bake Club. Bake Club helps Lottie and also the trouble maker, bad ass, Mac to see the world in a different way. Lottie finds her feet again in the real world, not the world where she pushes everyone away from her. And for Mac, well, Bake Club shows him there is more to life than blowing up buildings and working at a garage.

Love, Lies and Lemon Pies is a romantic, creative novel that contains the recipes which the Bake Club actually use. I have even tried out a recipe myself. They are amazing. It is a fairly easy read and I read it within a day, I loved it that much!

Publication details: Stripes Publishing, London, 2014, paperback original
This copy: review copy from the publisher

Thursday 3 July 2014

Jon Walter chat

We sat down for a chat...with Jon Walter

Close To the Wind, Jon Walter's debut and launch title for the newly independent David Fickling Books, publishes today. It's a gorgeous children's read and Jon Walter took some time out to answer our questions. I think he calls me old!

Close To the Wind author, Jon Walter
WSD: In the front of Close To the Wind (in the proof copy I read), there's a quote from you:

'I began to think of this story by wondering what I might try and save if I were about to lose everything. I packed Malik’s bag for him, making sure he had something useful, something of value and a spare pair of trousers – only to discover he needed something else entirely.’ – Jon Walter
At what point in crafting the story did you discover that Malik needed something else entirely? 

Jon Walter: Pretty much as soon as he opened his mouth and started talking.
I suppose what I’m saying in that quote is that I tend to begin writing from ideas rather than characters and the idea was to put a boy and his grandfather into a really desperate situation where they had to leave everything in a hurry.

I don’t do any work on my characters before I begin to write, so I don’t know who they are. I like to get them talking and see what happens and what happened here was that Malik made it very clear he wanted to be in a safe place with all of his family and nothing else mattered.

WSD: Have you ever been in a situation where you've prepared yourself for the wrong thing?
Jon Walter: I’m sure the answer is yes but I can’t think of a single thing. Perhaps it was so traumatic it’s been wiped from my memory.

WSD: What sort of photo-journalist are you?
Jon Walter: I’m not a photo journalist any longer but I used to work for magazines and organisations providing services in the UK, so education, police, healthcare, all that kind of thing. Sometimes it could be very exciting, like covering demonstrations or being at No.10 for a general election and it was always a privilege to see how people live and work.

WSD: Have you ever travelled on a ship?
Jon Walter: Of course! Hasn’t everyone?

I don’t really have a big interest in ships and I don’t especially like the idea of going on a cruise. I even had to research basic nautical terms like ‘stern’ and ‘prow’ to make sure I got them right.
Having said that, ships which go to far flung places do excite me. I once spent a couple of days travelling in the arctic circle on the Norwegian Hurtigruten line and Scottish CalMac ferries always make me go weak at the knees.
I think there’s something very literary about travelling by sea. In Jungian analysis, the sea represents the unconscious mind, so perhaps that’s why.

WSD: You sold records? What were the best and worst bits of that?
Jon Walter: Vinyl’s making a bit of a comeback isn’t it? There’s something very satisfying about flicking through stacks of albums, hoping for something rare to pop up. Best and worst bits were probably all contained in the same situation when a customer came in and couldn’t remember the name of a record. You’d always smile and ask them to sing it for you.

 WSD: And did you ever sell a copy of Rodriguez's Cold Fact?
Jon Walter: Twenty years too late for me but I like your style.

Read M's review of Close to the Wind.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Close To the Wind - Jon Walter

Close to the Wind by Jon Walter
Review by M

Close To the Wind by Jon Walter
Close to the Wind came to me as the first book proof from the newly independent (not newly established) David Fickling Books. Being a ‘fan’ of their previous novels and authors, I have waited in anticipation for this ‘launch’ title – and it’s a good all rounder!

Close to the Wind is about a boy and his grandfather who are seeking refuge from a war torn country. The peacekeepers are coming and Malik and Papa will need to catch a ship – but they don’t have tickets yet. Quietly and warmly told, this debut novel had me holding my breath, closing my eyes, smiling, rooting and crying.

Using an occasional light touch, Close to the Wind deals sensitively with big and traumatic issues and themes, like lies and truth, and sacrifice. An adventurous story is delivered that will delight readers from about age 8 upwards. This is a middle grade novel that deals in hope and is not afraid to reward the reader with it. Gorgeous.

Publication details: 3 July 2014, David Fickling Books, Oxford, hardback
This copy: uncorrected proof from the publisher (& dedicated, signed and embossed!)

And here are some pics of that very special book proof 1!

The whole package
Reverse of the card
Embossed page: DFB Where Good Stories Begin







Friday 27 June 2014

Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Review by M

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea was a reread for me this time, and so I’m charting my reflective thoughts on my reading journey with it. There are some small spoilers but nothing that actually ‘spoils’ a first read. This is a dense and special book, the kind that really begs to be read again and again (and I rarely read a book twice).

Wide Sargasso Sea is about Antoinette, a creole girl in 1930s Jamaica, set just after the emancipation of black slaves. Born to a white slave owner and a creole mother from Martinique, Antoinette passes into womanhood during turbulent times, and finds that her family is reviled from every side. Struggling with her own identity problems and with a history of family ‘madness’, marriage and a move to Granbois in nearby Dominica begin as a blissful escape and descend into something much more sinister.

The novel is often talked about as a companion novel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Certainly, that’s how I came to first read it. It was on the reading list for an English Lit options module that I took, something along the lines of either Gender in Fiction or Feminist Fiction (because of course, they may not be the same things). Essentially, Wide Sargasso Sea is the prequel to Jane Eyre and features the first Mrs Rochester as well as the Mr, and gives voice to the mad woman in the attic.

Previous to first reading it, I’d read Jane Eyre, again for a literature course. I cannot immediately recall anything about it (!) and my recorded comments for it were ‘Disappointing’ (clearly my expectations had been somewhere quite off the mark). My comments for Wide Sargasso Sea, however, were “strange but powerful”. Additionally, I could remember much about the atmospheric Wide Sargasso Sea, although in a very disjointed way.

Recently, it popped up in conversation on Twitter. When Natasha Farrant mentioned that she had started reading it, wondering how it had never been in her life before this, I knew it was time for me to look it over once again.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a little book. I read it in just over one sitting (simply because I started it very late on a Friday night and I was past being ready for sleep). It is beguiling, and sad, and unbelievable, and stark, and confusing, and deeply rich in its imagery. Antoinette’s relationship with Christophine, and the pulls and sway of both obeah and christian religions in the novel are both intoxicating for the characters and the reader. Wide Sargasso Sea still says as much to me as it leaves unsaid and trails, in a sweetly troubling way, around my head.

Part One is narrated by Antoinette, Part Two by the I who is her husband and Part 3 again by ‘Antoinette’. On narration, I had the feeling that Antoinette also narrates sections in Part Two of WSS (but without a triple check, I may be wrong). Part 3 is perhaps the one that most directly links WSS to Jane Eyre and is my least favourite part of the novel.
I’ve heard some people say you need to read Jane Eyre first in order to understand Wide Sargasso Sea. Well, seeing as Jane Eyre had left such a weak impression on me, I do not agree. Of course, there are references in Wide Sargasso Sea that are obviously Jane Eyre, but they don’t detract from Wide Sargasso Sea as it’s very own story. As much as there’s the idea of giving a voice to the mad woman in Jane Eyre, for me, Wide Sargasso Sea is very much its own distinct – though connected – story to Jane Eyre. Antoinette’s story is compelling and powerfully told. For me, again, it is both Jean Rhys’ atmospheric language as well as Antoinette’s desire to be accepted and not treated as an unworthy foreigner, that leave the biggest marks on me.

Throughout the novel, Antoinette also recalls a dream she has, and tells it in three parts (I think, it was three). At the end, her dream becomes clear to her but it muddled a few things for me. I felt as if both she and I had experienced some sort of déjà vu and that I should have been paying more attention to her dream segments than I had (I often lose interest when characters relate aspects of their dreams!). Clearly, there is plenty left for me to explore on a third reading at some point, perhaps!
I’m currently rereading Jane Eyre (I still can’t remember anything about it! Perhaps I previously skim read it for an exam!), so it will be interesting to see whether this enhances or alters my thoughts on Wide Sargasso Sea.

My classics club challenge verdict: Absolutely a classic: it has been re-read by me and I suspect generations on will continue to explore it


Publication details: first published 1996
This copy: mine, Penguin, 1968, paperback (yep, it’s my varsity copy)






Tuesday 24 June 2014

What tone has the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2014 set for children’s literature?

Yes, this is a comment piece (as distinct from the commentary in our reviews)!

Kevin Brooks’ chilling, The Bunker Diary won this year’s Carnegie medal, which awards an outstanding book for children. The novel is the diary of a kidnapped boy, the tale is bleak, its grit relentless. This is not the sort of novel I am drawn to yet I selected it as part of my personal shortlist for this year’s medal. This was very much despite the plot and very much about the writing and the form (you can read my review, which denies the plot). While The Bunker Diary is shocking, I don’t think it is ‘shock factor’ writing, and I think it’s a worthy winner bravely chosen by the judges.

The Telegraph, online, questioned whether the Carnegie judges had overstepped the mark in awarding this novel because it is unrelentlessly and unremorsefully dark. Additionally, the opinion piece berated the publishers for the book cover’s lack of content guidance.

The CILIP Carnegie shortlist provides age guidance for each book on the shortlist to help inform readers. This is available on their website. The Bunker Diary is marked as 14+, and with my parent hat on, that sounds about right to me. I’m keen on informative content guidance, so I do agree with The Telegraph on that.

However, the Carnegie medal awards an outstanding children’s book. The book has to be first published as a children’s book. The Bunker Diary fulfils these criteria. But, I read Bradbury’s comment piece as really raising questions about tone: should the Carnegie be setting a tone for children’s literature?

In his acceptance speech, Brooks spoke about the question of hope, which many commentators say is lacking in The Bunker Diary. Brooks disagrees with this view but, to him, this is a subsidiary issue anyway. Ultimately, and arguably controversially, he believes that ‘hope’ and happy endings are not a pre-requisite for children’s literature. I, now a legal adult for many years, quite like hope in anything I read, but a lack of hope doesn’t necessarily affect literary quality (but it may affect a reader’s appreciation).

We started this blog just over two years ago when Little M was twelve. We thought we knew what children’s literature was: something entertaining and something excitingly exploratory – but with a safety net. But we knew that young adult fiction (targeted at children) was something slightly different – we suspected the net had moved. Without reading it (which she hadn’t and I hadn’t for about twenty years), we could tell this from the covers. They often looked more like something you’d find on the adult genre shelves or on a movie poster. Actually, most of the cover-facing books probably were movie tie-ins! Both of us were very much in favour of knowing ‘what’ was in these books. Yes, we mean sex, drugs, violence, and their degree of graphic depiction and, importantly for me, a subtextual worldview.

Two years later, we’ve decided that YA is very much a free-for-all with a teenage protagonist. And to me, that’s fine – just tell us on the cover: not for the adults who read YA, or the fourteen years olds; do it for the sake of those who’ve just finished reading The Famous Five. Because after all, YA is widely considered children’s literature and we don’t want to start censoring teenage content….or do we?

The Bunker Diary is a challenging read. It covers difficult and abhorrent subject matter, it smashes a reader’s expectations of story structure and of a children’s book (let’s be honest, this is young adult fiction not middle grade), and it provides avenues for questions about all sorts of things, including literary ones. For me, that’s the tone that this year’s Carnegie win has set and it has nothing to do with light or dark.

Read my review of The Bunker Diary.
Read my interview with Kevin Brooks.
The Telegraph piece.