Friday 10 March 2017

We sat down for a chat...with Jeff Zentner

Jeff Zentner is the author of debut The Serpent King, a warmly funny, charming and moving young adult novel that I couldn't put down. After reading his novel, and looking over his website, I'm delighted to have asked him a few very random questions.

WSD: Do you like Segway (I looked at your twitter too)?

Jeff Zentner: I would rather walk slowly down a busy street completely nude, with people pointing and laughing and trying to hit me in the butt with darts than ride down the same street on a Segway. 

WSD: You have 9 tattoos! I have none. Tell me about yours and make it sound interesting (but be sensitive, I'm scared of needles).

Jeff Zentner: It's actually 11. Many have very long, boring stories. I have one I got to commemorate appearing on a recording with two of my musical idols, Nick Cave and Iggy Pop. One I got when I decided to become a writer, to burn the bridge behind me and force me to go through with it. I have both of my book titles in my title font. I hope this sounds interesting. They were all done by, uh, a...pirate captain? There you go. 

WSD: Yes, that sounded interesting. But, do you like snakes (like needles, I'm also afraid of spiders)?

Jeff Zentner: Not especially, but nor am I especially afraid of them.

WSD: What do you like about cast-iron skillets?

Jeff Zentner: I love how durable and nondisposable they are. I use one from the 1940s on a daily basis. You can see the marks where a human being hand-filed down a rough spot. There's something poignant to me about creations that endure and endure. Plus, they're a southern cooking tradition and food made with them tastes really great. 

WSD: Do you like fantasy novels?

Jeff Zentner: I do, but I've read very few. Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. Game of Thrones. That's about it. 

WSD: We know you like music. You can wax lyrical for a bit now.

Jeff Zentner: Music was my first love. It was the thing that made me believe I had something beautiful to share with the world. 

WSD: Did you ever want to leave Tennessee (I'm assuming you grew up there)?

Jeff Zentner: At times, and I tried, but I came back. This is my home. 

WSD: And here, you can answer a question I haven't asked.

Jeff Zentner: Why yes I do have another book out soon! GOODBYE DAYS will be out in March!

WSD: So there we go - another book out this month!


The Serpent King was nominated and has been longlisted for the 2017 Carnegie medal.

Thursday 9 March 2017

A Life Discarded - Alexander Masters

148 diaries found in a skip. The author is unknown and a stranger starts to read them, and then write this book about them.

It's years since I read a biography (and I don't think I've ever done it just for fun). Invariably, they're all about celebrities of some sort (generalisation, I know, but still....) but this one! The social researcher inside me was alerted and my brain chemistry was already smouldering.

A Life Discarded is a wonderful interweaving of the biographer's inner thoughts with those of the unknown diarist. Who were they and, perhaps more intriguingly, why were these diaries dumped (died alone was probably my foremost presumption)?

The diarist doesn't name themselves, and there doesn't seem to be a clear chronology. This makes for lots of narrative twists and turns, which A Life Discarded uses to good effect. The biography is deliberately written and structured to heighten this sense of intrigue and ever-deepening mystery. Alexander Masters alludes to this intention by offering up, early on, mistakes that he discovers in his assumptions about the diarist's life. Of course, these add an extra element of humour and poignancy to the narrative.

And, of course, there is the whole question of ethics: entering into the private space of a person's life - these are a lot of diaries; does them being in a skip mean you have been invited or not? And history; again 'of course', how do we make it and record it? How reliable is it, and at what and whose expense? Masters doesn't ignore these issues that are potentially big ethical problems, and includes conversations he's had with his history and philosophy academic friends. Throughout the novel, Masters talks his way through his ever-changing methodology. It feels a bit like the Famous Five Does a PhD, and I was charmed on both counts.

A Life Discarded brings the diarist's recordings (otherwise discarded both on paper and in their own mind) alive, and also plays a wonderful tribute to important people in Alexander Masters' life, most notably Dido Davies who gave him the diaries and was living with terminal cancer throughout the development of the autobiography.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's probably one of those where little things about it will stick with me and I'll bring them up in conversation at some point in the future.

Read further if you want to find out a bit about the diarist. It's a little bit spoilers but not too much. You decide.

Publication details: 2017 (paperback edition), 4th Estate, London
This copy: received for possible review from the publisher

Spoiler Alert! 

Spoiler ahead!

Alexander Masters talks about the diarist as a 'he'. And then he discovers that he is a 'she'. This brings another ethical dimension to the biography, which Masters does not shy away from: a man reading a woman's intimate thoughts and descriptions about her personal life. Oh boy! Frankly, this could have gone so wrong. But, it doesn't.

Thursday 16 February 2017

A broad mix marks the Carnegie 2017 Longlist

Whittled down from 114 to 20 (whew!), there's a broad mix of genre and age-appropriate books on this year's 80th anniversary Carnegie 2017 medal longlist. Here they are in author's alphabetical order. My initial thoughts follow.

Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare (Firefly Press)
Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Pan Macmillan)
Unbecoming by Jenny Downham (David Fickling Books)
The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Orion Children’s Books)
How Not to Disappear by Clare Furniss (Simon & Schuster)
The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (Faber & Faber)
Whisper to Me by Nick Lake (Bloomsbury)
Beetle Boy by M.G. Leonard (Chicken House)
The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard (Old Barn Books)
Pax by Sara Pennypacker (HarperCollins)
Railhead by Philip Reeve (Oxford University Press)
Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff (Walker Books)
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt (Andersen Press)
The Marvels by Brian Selznick (Scholastic)
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (Puffin)
Island by Nicky Singer (Caboodle Books)
Dreaming the Bear by Mimi Thebo (Oxford University Press)
Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford (HarperCollins)
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk (Corgi)
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner (Andersen Press)

My thoughts on the 2017 Carnegie medal longlist:

  • There's a wide mix here, so I expect the younger years will be as happy as the older years, and the avid readers as drawn is as reluctant readers (although I think the school's get more engaged at shortlisting stage, but the judges have left themselves ample room for mix there too, if that's how things pan out).
  • From the 20, I've read five and my early thoughts on them: The Bone Sparrow (loved it, expect shortlisting), The Smell of Other People's Houses (loved it hugely, would love it shortlisted), the stars at oktober bend (a brave little gem, would be very happy to see it shortlisted), Dreaming the Bear (interesting and I can see why it's long listed, but overall, it missed the mark for me), The Serpent King (surprisingly adored this, very much expect a shortlisting). Okay, so I'll have to see if any of the ones I haven't read are even better than these!
  • Beck - I started this. Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff: what a combo, and I think it works. The writing is fantastic and I expect the plot line will more than hold up. But I stumbled over what I expect will be a controversial scene and stopped. I promise I tried but it was way too graphic for me. I even read it out loud to the family (just in case this was me being being 'just me'). He wasn't keen, Little M a bit fazed but not as much as me. I doubt the primary schools will be looking at this one. A brave (and probably warranted) choice by the judges.
  • Wolf Hollow -This one popped up time and time again, from all sorts of people saying how exceptional it was. I read a couple of pages in the library and the start is everything I'd expect from a Carnegie book. It's near the top of my reading list. I do not have a review copy so library, here I come.
  • Whisper To Me - This is on my 'Yes' to read shelf. I really enjoy Nick Lake's books, so it's definitely bumped up a spot or two on my reading list.
  • Orbiting Jupiter is on my 'Yes' to read shelf, so a bump there  too.
  • I've read earlier novels by both Ruta Sepetys and Clare Furniss. They were highly readable so their long-lasting has peaked my interest.
  • Alpha and The Wolves of Currumpaw: these were nominated for the Carnegie and I read them and thought they were both superb. They're not on this longlist but they are on the Kate Greenaway longlist (for illustrated works).
  • Paper Butterflies by Lisa Heathfield: this is not on the longlist and it's one that I thought might make its way here. It didn't but it's a great read anyway.

Some silly facts:

  • If the author's surname began with a K, V, Y or Z they was little chance of being longlisted because there was only of each on the nominations list. But Zentner nabbed a long-lasting spot.
  • If the author's surname began with a C or S, they had much higher chance because they were over-represented on the nominations list. Yes, a few of them have bee shortlisted.
  • Wolf or Wolves in the title? Four of them were nominated, Wolf Hollow is longlisted for Carnegie and The Wolves of Currumpaw for Kate Greenaway. 
  • Not so silly, and not 100% factual, but a quick glance suggests a balance of author gender (of further characteristics, I am unaware).

So, just under a month to the shortlist of about 8......

Wednesday 15 February 2017

On selective reading....(and the Carnegie)

About four months ago, after a horrible spell with disease, I decided to rekindle this blog. It coincided  with the Carnegie nominations and so I launched myself in to 'shadowing' from the beginning, as I had done a few years ago.

Since our 2014 Carnegie cavortings, a few things have changed: I'm doing it alone (that's a bit boring), the nominations list has jumped from 76 to a whopping 114 books, and I hadn't read a single book on the list (so no head starts).

This meant that I was going to be ultra selective in the books I managed to read: remember, I'm also a slow reader! So this is how my meticulous narrowing down went (yes, I'm a bit like this in real life):

1. Nominations list announced: already a narrowing down of every 'children's/YA' book published in the last awards calendar year; plus, they've 'met' the criteria for being considered an outstanding piece of children's literature (oh yay, lit crit the fun way!).

2. Many publishers send me review copies of their nominated titles (yes, it's a marketing and publicity period of the awards) so I focus on these eighty-one (81! Hardly makes a dent!).

3. I pick up the book, maybe read the blurb, definitely read the first page. This makes three piles: yes, no, maybe (these piles go in boxes and on shelves). The Yes pile: catchy first page (either lyrical, distinctive, or suggestive of subtle humour), or maybe just about a plot or character or theme that interests me (very subjective!). The No pile: voices that whine within the first few sentences, topics or genres that I don't really enjoy, crass humour, first pages that lack a distinct voice. The Maybe pile: neither a Yes nor No but I-don't-think-I'm going-to-have-the-time. And then they're organised by publisher (yep, try to give each one some coverage because, selective as I am, I still try to be a bit fair like that).

4. I start reading - fast (well, for me). Book after book, and making the odd note. It's a headrush and then things start to get a bit samey (jaded me). I slow down, get off my butt and do some non-sedentary activities that get my heart and head pounding. And then I swap the piles of unread books around a bit because my idea of Yes, No, Maybe has changed a bit (fickle!). Plus, some of the books I was excited about didn't go my way so they've been tried-but-not-finished-and put-in-a-box.

5. I start some - and quite enjoy them - but for some reason, I'm pulled away from them (this happens a lot) so they get moved to the 'with-a-bookmark-still-in-them' shelf (The Bombs That Brought Us Together, Girl on a Plane, and The Dog, Ray). Another couple I started and was quite taken by but haven't finished because I've simply logged them as a couple of books that I might recommend for more age-intended readers than myself (Illuminae and Perijee and Me).

6. I start running out of time because my mind has drifted to some adult novels and biographies and some new teen titles and I've been doing a lot more heart-pumping and head-pounding stuff and what do you know, it's longlist day tomorrow!!!!! Oh. So, I've reviewed 17, have tried but not liked 11, and still have quite a few that I would genuinely still like to read whether they're longlisted or not. So, yes, my selective reading, often starts with a list (an awards list, a reading list, a curated list, or an advance-copy list.

7. Everyone will be pleased that I'm not a judge (because I'm so fickle and so slow - plus I'm not a librarian). Longlist tomorrow!

And I made 3 videos (hen I wasn't reading or doing the heart-pumping stuff) showcasing the 81 (or so) titles that I was sent. I had fun with that and made up some categories to put them in. Some of them I'd read, some of them I'd just contemplated. Here's one of them.

Tuesday 14 February 2017

The Serpent King - Jeff Zentner

Working my way through this year's Carnegie nominations list, The Serpent King wasn't at the top of my to-read list. The first page was good but I wasn't too sure about the plot and its religious themes. Plus, I've tried to approach this year's longest with a blank slate (ie. avoiding reviews etc) and I've done quite well. Except for the The Serpent King. And especially once it won the Morris award. I picked this book up not because it appealed to me but because of the favourable criticism it was receiving.

One of the best things, for me, about The Serpent King, was that it's a novel that I wanted to go and on. I was sad to finish it. At the end, I felt like I knew the characters and I wanted to hear more about their stories. This doesn't happen to me very often anymore (it happened a lot when I was a child/teen reader) so I was quite delighted.

The Serpent King is primarily Dill's story. He's in his last year at high school, he lives with his mother in poverty stricken conditions, and his father is a religious extremist who's in prison. But, Dill's story is very strongly interwoven with his friends Travis and Lydia such that this is also a novel about a friendship trio in rural Tennessee.

All three characters are very likeable and quite different from each other. Some wonderful dynamic tensions are played out. Character and friendship-wise, The Serpent King is reminiscent of the styles and interests of other American authors like John Corey-Whaley, John Green and Pat Schmatz.

What seems particularly distinct, for me, about this novel is the unflinching space the plot gives to an extreme religious faith. Dill's parents are fanatical and, in turn, this has made pariahs of them: not something that's easy to deal especially when you're a teenager. While the narration does not necessarily endorse this way of life, it gives it a very respectable, almost judgment free space. On the other hand, it balances it with Travis' religious family and Lydia's very educated middle class family.

This novel is full of some sincere and some (slightly) overplayed tragedies, a handful or two of good and bad luck, buckets full of dorky vintage love, a spot of glamour, and making tough and brave decisions. Hugely recommended and I'm keeping my copy.

Oh, and it's in third person - if that's the kind of thing that matters to you.

Publication details: Andresen Press, 2016, London, paperback
This copy: received for possible review from the publisher

Sunday 5 February 2017

We Come Apart – Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

I loved this novel from beginning to end and thought it was one of the best books I’d read for a while. So, I waited for a few weeks before I wrote this review, just in case that feeling wore off. It didn’t. Jointly authored by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan, We Come Apart is a clever little book, combining voice and verse beautifully.

We Come Apart is the story of a London mascara-stealing girl and a Roma gypsy-boy immigrant who unexpectedly find themselves on the same community service programme. Through their contrasting perspectives and homelives, the novel deftly explores racism, nationalism, criminality, friendships and belonging.

The two distinct voices of Nicu and Jess are captured perfectly by the pairing of Crossan and Conaghan’s very different styles. You are in no doubt which character is speaking. Nicu’s voice takes a little getting used to but it’s possibly my highlight of the novel.

Perfect for fans of The Weight of Water, One and Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English.

It’s out in hardback in Feb 2017. If you’re not a hardback buyer, jot this one down for its paperback release. You’ll not forget about it because it’ll be turning up in all the award listings, I’m sure.

Publication details: 9 February 2017, Bloomsbury, London, hardback
This copy: uncorrected proof received from the publisher for review

Thursday 2 February 2017

All About Mia - Lisa Williamson

All About Mia is all about Mia and her sibling rivalry. Mia is a sixth former, and is a middle sibling. Her older sister is a perfect, high achieving academic heading off to Cambridge and her younger sister is a quiet, tween swimmer with eyes on the Olympics. Mia, on the otherhand, is popular, curvaceously flirty, and her only talent appears to be consuming high volumes of alcohol.

The first page is brilliant. I loved it. Turn over and it’s about a teenager who wants to get drunk on a Friday night. Eye roll on my part but I stick with it. It makes me smile a lot and not too long later, I’ve finished the whole novel.

Often, I find it difficult to read – and so rarely finish - novels with main characters like Mia whether they be child, teen or adult. They have chips on their shoulders, gripes about everyone and everything and they think that the world owes them everything. Yes, it’s all about them. Many times, these novels end up with a whingey, whiney and bitter tone that I find grating. But All About Mia is different and manages to avoid this tone possibly because the narration doesn’t overly indulge Mia’s chips.  The novel is filled with wonderful, warmly flawed characters. Additionally, All About Mia portrays characters, school life and family drama in a way that I believe.

There is plenty of high drama too covering everything from sibling rivalry, alcohol abuse, cheating friends, teen pregnancy, being dealt consequences and how to get a grip and feel comfortable in your own skin (or t-shirt!).

I’d heartily recommend it to teenagers and young adults. I would feel very comfortable buying this for almost any teenager, whether I knew their personal reading habits or not.

Publication details: David Fickling Books, Oxford, 2 Feb 2017, hardback
This copy: received for potential review from the publisher

Saturday 28 January 2017

We sat down for a chat...with John Corey Whaley

I loved John Corey Whaley's Highly Illogical Behaviour. Its snappiness, Star Trek jokiness and lemonade flavour provides the inspiration behind these questions that I put to John:

John Corey Whaley - author
WSD: A Wal-mart woman put a curse on you? You've remembered that so how did it affect you?

John Corey Whaley: Well, I believe she spoke gibberish, so I never actually knew what the curse was--and, look, who's to say she didn't bless me or something?  I have no idea.  She grabbed my hand, chanting something nonsensical, and walked away.  I guess it's given me a good, weird story--and what better for an author to have, eh?

WSD: What's your favourite drink and how do you like it served?  

John Corey Whaley: Coffee---and I like it with cream and a little sugar, maybe some coconut oil. Please no almond milk in there. Please.

WSD: If you know any Star Trek jokes, can you please tell me one (or two) so that I can repeat it and impress my friends and family?

John Corey Whaley:

What did Captain Picard say to the tailor when his uniform ripped?

Make it sew.

(That's the only one I know and it's so bad hahahaha)

WSD: Oh yeah, that's bad! 

WSD: What books should be on every responsible reader's shelves?

John Corey Whaley: Mine. I'm KIDDING.  I think a responsible reader is someone who reads a wide list of authors from around the world--who write for different age groups, fiction or non-fiction.  Poetry too--a responsible reader has books of poetry and the sciences and maybe a weird book about birds or contagious diseases thrown in the mix.

WSD: What's the most highly illogical thing you've ever done (or one of them)?

John Corey Whaley:  I quit my job as a teacher to tour with a book no one had ever heard of. It worked!

WSD: Do you like dogs or cats?

John Corey Whaley: Both, but my boyfriend and I have a cat named Banjo.  He is like our child.

WSD: OK, he likes dogs so so he gets the big thumbs up! My review of Highly Illogical Behaviour is here.