YA

Furious Thing by Jenny Downham

furious thingAre you angry? Is it justifiable anger? And when is it appropriate to express it? This is an even harder question when you’re a woman. Just ask Serena Williams.

It was difficult to listen to the radio interview with Sally Challen a couple of weeks ago, the wife jailed for her husband’s murder and subsequently released after it was established she had suffered from coercive control. Emotional abuse is often hidden in plain sight.

For a child, it is even worse – how can children distinguish correct behaviours in relationships if they have only ever experienced the bad? In a time of fake news and half-truths, of increasing polarisation and threatening language, it’s more important than ever that young adults can dissect the truth, can learn to trust their instincts, and can distinguish between right and wrong, between whom to believe and whom not to believe.

Fifteen-year-old Lexi has always been told she has a problem with anger. In fact, if she just learned to control it, apparently, all would be well. Lexi lives with her mother, her mother’s fiancé John, and younger half-sister Iris. As her mother’s wedding draws near, Lexi can’t seem to help erupting, especially in scenarios involving her soon-to-be stepdad.

And then it spills over at school, at first in small incidents, and then culminating in violence. When she throws a chair through a window at school, she realises that her rage is out of control, and quite probably misdirected.

Of course, this isn’t her only preoccupation. There’s school, and romantic interests. At school, Lexi auditions for The Tempest, and Downham weaves an intelligent dissection of the play and its characters into her novel, as well as exploring the interactions between staff and pupils. Lexi’s romantic issue is more complicated, seeing as she has confusing feelings for John’s son from his first marriage. This is handled with great sensitivity in the novel, Lexi to-ing and fro-ing on whether feelings are returned, and Downham evokes a lush confusion from both parties as to what they feel when.

And all the time, threaded neatly throughout the story, is the slowly dawning realisation for the reader, and also more slowly for Lexi, that Lexi herself isn’t the problem in the family dynamic, John is. This is abuse, albeit not physical, just a slow grinding-down of self-awareness, confidence and trust.

Each piece of dialogue feels authentic, from the manipulative language John uses, to the timidity of Lexi’s mother, depending on whom she is speaking to, and the dialogue of all the youth, which feels fresh, spikey and young. Where Downham excels is in the gaps between the words – the pauses and silences, the loud unspoken.

Beautifully observed, this is particularly established in how the novel captures the confusing metamorphosis as the fifteen year olds morph from innocence to sexual beings, both in how they view themselves, and also in how they are viewed. In a party scene, Downham captures the essence of this with deep understanding in its complexity – exploring the scents of the bar, nitrous oxide, the whiff of sexual power, particularly in that although sexual allure leaks from the girls, they often don’t understand it themselves. And therefore it’s even harder to avoid it being abused.

This is a masterfully written novel, as one would expect from Downham. The sort of YA that the industry should be aiming for – with depth and nuance, and still holding extraordinary pacing, as well as pulsing with energetic prose. There is an intense subtlety in the slow deterioration of Lexi’s sense of self, made even more compelling as the reader discovers that not even everything Lexi says can be trusted – she may be narrating the story, but she’s not entirely reliable.

There are some lovely periphery characters, especially well-meaning adults, who also feel conflicted and don’t have all the answers, from John’s ex-wife to Lexi’s mum’s friend.

In the end, Lexi uses her anger as a force for good, and sees what’s really important in a family dynamic – as does the reader.

At times this is an uncomfortable read. Lexi makes bad decisions time and time again, and the people around her don’t help. But by the end, there is immense growth and understanding. For those who want more nuanced YA, and a better grasp of what constitutes a healthy relationship, this is an excellent and dynamic read.

With thanks to David Fickling Books for the early review copy. You can buy it here.

Summer 2019 Reading Recommendations

I always like to leave a list of great new children’s books on my main page at the end of July, because MinervaReads doesn’t blog in August. And, usually you’d find a small selection of picture books, nonfiction, novels etc. This year THERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS. Narrowing down my summer reads for you has become increasingly difficult. So without further ado, I’ve tried to sum up each book in a concise way in order to feature as many as possible. Flick to the heading for the correct age group.

picture books

Picture books

Falling below the threshold of the age group for whom I normally review, but too adorable to ignore, is a new series of lift-the-flap board books called Treacle Street by Kate Hindley. From following Marcel Trunkmore delivering parcels in Marcel’s Parcels, to the star ballerina bunnies in Prima’s Missing Bunnies, the books are tightly plotted with intricately detailed illustrations for curious minds.

Stylistically arresting, Grandma Z by Daniel Gray-Barnett is a curiosity in itself. Coloured orange and blue, it not only explores the dynamism of a grandparent/grandchild relationship and the power of imagination, but adds retro dimensions and quirky elements to stand out from the crowd. Wild, exuberant, full of energy.

In the holiday spirit, Clem and Crab by Fiona Lumbers is cognitively dissonant as it feels both traditional and completely fresh. Clem explores the beach, and rescues a crab stuck in plastic. If ever a book made you wish you were at the seaside, this is it. And with an environmental message. Illustrations are expressive and wholesome – a whole story encapsulated in each vignette.

Also by the beach is The Tide by Clare Helen Welsh and Ashling Lindsay. Slightly more linear illustrations with harder colouring, this also captures the sensual nature of the seaside, but deals with dementia too. A heartwarming grandfather/grandchild relationship with clever analysis of memories and making memories.

For fun, The Big Stink by Lucy Freegard will capture hearts from the cover, just as mouse is captured by cat in this heist adventure. Nods to Mission Impossible, among other references, this mouse-led caper will have adults chuckling along with captivated children. Who could escape arrest with ears like that?

young fiction

Young Fiction (ages 7-9 years)

Newly independent readers are well served nowadays. Ariki and the Island of Wonders by Nicola Davies and Nicola Kinnear is pure summer adventure. Shipwrecked to a paradise island, Ariki and Ipo are initially struck by the wonder of nature they encounter, but then realise there is a darkness to paradise. With conservation overtones, and textured black and white illustrations, this is an immersive text that sparks a real sense of purpose and love for nature.

It’s not a new premise, but My Babysitter is a Robot by Dave Cousins, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri is neatly executed. A grandma inventor, twins, swimming pools, football and more, this is a fun and funny new series.

Fairy tales remain high on the list of starting points for stories, and Cinders and Sparks by Lindsey Kelk, illustrated by Pippa Curnick is another twist on the Cinderella story. A talking dog, an unreliable fairy godmother, and neighbours called Jack and Jill combine in a modern deviation and continuation of the traditional fairy tale. Fun, neat and magical.

middle grade

Middle Grade (Novels for 9+ years)

Abi Elphinstone’s new novel Rumblestar is possibly her best yet, and that’s saying something. She writes with a keen intelligence, a fiery spark, and a wisdom that infects the fantasy she writes, so that the reader feels there is an importance to the story being told. And she sweeps the reader away with engrossing, action-filled storytelling. In this first of the Unmapped Chronicles series, Casper accidentally stumbles into an unmapped kingdom in danger, and finds out that the peril is tied to his own world.

More peril in Peril En Pointe by Helen Lipscombe, described as Ballet Shoes meets Murder Most Unladylike. The novel has a relatable protagonist and a surprising reveal. A series to watch.

The Last Spell Breather by Julie Pike delves deep into fantasy, as main character Rayne discovers more about the magic that keeps her village safe. A wholly original idea with a great mother/daughter dynamic, and a sense that magic and darkness pervade everything. Well crafted.

Ben Davis often makes me laugh, whether it’s a one line tweet or a whole novel. What’s That in Dog Years? is a tender book about losing a dog but gaining perspective. Part narrated by owner, part by dog, this is a heartfelt and touching book about friendships and families with a mystery at its heart, and a bucketful of humour. Makes the reader laugh and cry.

Stewart Foster’s Check Mates offers a surprising twist and marries ADHD, chess and the Stasi. It’s a longer, slower read, but merits rewards to those who stick the course with superbly drawn characters and a great reveal.

Halo Moon by Sharon Cohen is an easy read, but the short sharp chapters belie a degree of profundity in its message. Blending two disparate cultures – Ageze in Ethiopia and Halo in Yorkshire, Cohen uses the stars to navigate her protagonists towards each other and avert a disaster. Told with aplomb, this is a hope-filled, inspiring story.

Fleur Hitchcock’s The Boy Who Flew has an explosive opening and immerses the reader in Bath during the Georgian era. It’s dark and inventive, and leads the reader in a twisty mystery involving flying machines and shadowy villainy.

A much more down-to-earth mystery in A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths, also set in the past, this time the 1930s, in which the heroine is sent to boarding school, where crimes and misdeeds need investigating. From an experienced adult crime writer, this is a delight, with common room gossip, games in the rain, and a Christmas play, and although the ingredients feel old, the result is fresh and lively, and will be devoured in one day by competent readers.

Scavengers by Darren Simpson is for those looking for something completely different. It’s a coming-of-age that’s gritty, clever and brave. With a sort of wild abandon, this novel shows how far an imagination can go, and there’s a terrific undertone of tenderness and empathy.

I was blown away by Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm last year, and this year Wildspark: A Ghost Machine Adventure is another success. A sort of steampunk mechanical adventure, reminiscent of Tin by Padraig Kenny and Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart, this has a particular focus on dealing with grief, and the things that drive us. Hardy is most adept at creating new worlds and absorbing the reader with superb detail.

As climate change dominates the young generation’s thoughts, Sita Brahmachari’s timely Where The River Runs Gold explores a dystopian future of rations and compounds, in which children labour to pollinate the crops. But of course, there is hope amid the inequality and deprivation. Dense and thoughtful.

If you’re just after some short stories – the Return to Wonderland anthology brings some of the very best modern children’s writers together in a mission to re-imagine Alice and her Wonderland.

YA

YA (novels for 12+ years)

It’s rare for a book to catch the attention of both my older children – but William Sutcliffe’s The Gifted, the Talented and Me was whipped through by both, each stopping only to roar with laughter. Light and humorous, this satire of a modern middle-class family who go to live in Hampstead hits all the right spots.

Slightly darker but also an accessible read is Because of You by Eve Ainsworth, a dyslexia-friendly story about family dysfunction and learning to live with a parent’s new partner. Ainsworth excels at getting inside the head of a teen, particularly a victim of bullies, and this is an emotionally astute short novel.

Rose Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence is another tale that invokes social media, so important to today’s teens, but it explores it from a different angle, as Rose and brother Rudder have escaped from a religious sect and are coming at it anew. How do you navigate this new world where everything is so alien? A coming-of-age that uses a new approach to show us the perils of modern life, and how we work out who we really are.

Lastly, The Boxer by Nikesh Shukla is a brilliant exploration of the psyche. Told over the course of the rounds of a boxing fight, with flashbacks, this is a fantastic read about a seventeen-year-old who feels disengaged, but finds a community and a purpose. With themes of radicalisation, violence and belonging, this is an essential teen read.

non fiction

Nonfiction

Three completely different reads here. Be a Super Awesome Photographer by Henry Carroll gives 20 photo challenges for the budding photographer, with real photographs to illustrate and inspire, and ideas for tasks to make different and interesting photos. We’ll be using it on our summer holiday.

Incredible Journeys by Levison Wood, illustrated by Sam Brewster is an informative and inspirational large-size book about famous explorers. With illustrated maps and full page illustrations, this book travels from The Silk Road to Zheng He, and all the way to Nellie Bly and into space.

Watched too much Love Island? A modern and relevant book for teens is Body Brilliant by Nicola Morgan. It takes the reader through the steps to embracing a positive body image. Morgan provides data, encourages taking challenges to make her points and inspire confidence, and aims to change mindsets. Common sense goes hand-in-hand with examples and explanations.

glitchLastly, a graphic novel for you – the only one that dropped in my mailbox this summer, but anyway, Glitch by Sarah Graley would be a good choice. Ever since Aha’s Take On Me, we’ve dreamed of entering into our own comic. Here, 14-year-old Izzy, the protagonist, is depicted in a comic, but enters into her video game. But what happens when she gets Game Over? Great bright visuals, humorous too.

Well that should keep you busy reading over the summer! Come back in September for ballerinas in Russia, furious teens, prison camps, 1870’s opera houses, shadows in the woods and frosty hearts.

The Summer of No Regrets by Kate Mallinder

the summer of no regretsHas the trend for up-lit died down? The zeitgeist that propelled Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine to the top of the bestseller charts and made it the bestselling novel of 2018? Judging by today’s lists, there’s still an appetite, even if we like murder more. But what about for today’s teens?  Recent discussions assumed that all YA books either slot into the fantasy genre or deal with issues such as eating disorders, bullying or depression. But what should parents and their offspring buy if they want to read something lighter? Some humour? Some clean teen fun? These books do exist, they just might not be face out on the bookseller’s shelves, and you’ll need to ask the bookseller. Start by requesting this one.

The Summer of No Regrets is clean teen uplit. After their exams, four sixteen-year-old friends are ready to embark on their summer together; long lie-ins and fun days out. But then Sasha is given an opportunity to go and stay with her estranged father in Geneva, and on the advice of Hetal’s Nani, they decide to opt for a summer of no regrets, (embracing adventure and new challenges), even if that means going their separate ways. Home-loving Hetal takes up a place at an exclusive science camp, Nell goes for a job she wants, out the way of her over-protective mother, and fostered Cam decides to look for her birth father. But will their summers work out the way they anticipate?

Each chapter is written from one of the four girls’ points of view, and Mallinder executes this skilfully, nicely imbuing each voice with its own idiosyncrasies and character. As with these types of novels, the reader may identify more with one girl than another, although they will possibly see characteristics of themselves, or their friends in all four. Each character is nicely flawed, and self-critiquing, sometimes overly as teens are prone to do – but they are rescued from too much introspection by Mallinder’s lightness of touch, and her use of the secondary characters around each girl.

But it is the four friends who dominate because the book is about friendship – a refreshing reminder that not all friendships degrade because of sniping about each other on social media or griping behind each other’s backs. Although some of the foursome are more in tune with each other than others – splitting into twos occasionally depending on circumstance and personality, all four have a wonderful support network of the other three behind them – even if they are geographically apart. Nowadays this is easy to portray with the use of mobile phones and Mallinder nicely portrays the girls’ messages to each other without it becoming overbearing or interrupting the flow of plot, but she also hints at a shared history, an ongoing bond between them that’s deeper than text messages.

The book is character-led, and each girl does have her own ‘issues’ within her story – whether it is a summer romance, an overly-competitive streak that gets them into trouble, or more serious issues such as post-traumatic stress, and feelings of abandonment and rejection. However, these issues never dominate – they are just a part of each girl’s life – a test they have to go through on their own, but which ultimately they can do because they have the strength of friendship behind them.

This is a story about real friendship – trusting, kind and generous; the sort of friends who pop by and see you while you’re at work, or answer your cries for help immediately. As the author William Sutcliffe pointed out a few weeks ago in The Times, it’s what makes the sitcom Friends so enduring – not just the humour, but the appealing essence of true friendship.

But this is about sixteen-year-olds rather than adults, and Mallinder captures well the liminal space they occupy between being children and stepping into their own independence – they still need guidance and still push boundaries.

As intimated by the glorious rainbow cover, this is a light, breezy summery read, which I read in one sitting, happily engrossed in the girls’ stories. A clean teen read, I’ll be heartily recommending it to every teen and pre-teen this summer. You can read your own copy for pleasure here – and pleasurable it will be. For ages 12+ years.

The Disconnect by Keren David

the disconnectI’m as guilty as the next person with regards to phone use. My weekly checker tells me if I’ve spent more time on my phone this week than last, and I feel relief when the numbers move down. Should we feel guilty though? Is phone use a bad thing? The headlines flip-flop back and forwards with regards to children and screen time – children need to be tech savvy, ready for a changing workplace, and yet social media is damaging their mental health, their brains are rewired with over-use of the phone, their concentration spans zapped. Which of the screaming headlines is true? It’s a question that dogs this moment in time – perhaps even more than Brexit.

Keren David has written a fascinating novella that more than lives up to its topical and intriguing premise: Could you live without your phone for six weeks?

When an eccentric entrepreneur challenges teenagers in a school to give up their phones, offering a cash incentive (£1000 for six weeks), it’s not wholly surprising that many don’t participate. Esther gives it a try, wanting to use the money to visit her sister and father in America. But of course, with most of her friends on their phones, what will she miss, and can she stay the course?

Esther is introduced to the reader as an average Year 11 student: she takes validation selfies – seeking her friends’ advice on what to wear before going out, she has major FOMO (fear of missing out), and she uses her phone to stay in close contact with her older sister, who has moved to New York. She misses her terribly and their relationship is crucial to her wellbeing.

So when she gives up her phone, she is inevitably going to miss out on friends’ interaction and gossip, and on her relationship with her sister – after all, old-fashioned snail mail is exactly that – slow. But David goes much deeper, exploring all the elements she misses out on by sacrificing her phone, and all the benefits she reaps.

Yet this isn’t an essay of pros and cons, this is a concisely written story about fully-rounded people with whom the reader can identify, with advantages and disadvantages of life without a mobile phone carefully extrapolated and interwoven into the story. What’s more, David probes deeper into the more nuanced arguments around social media – whom to trust, tech giants’ motivations for making their products and the software within, and issues around privacy.

This last issue is particularly pertinent to one character – a crossover from another Karen David book called The Liar’s Handbook, in which she investigated undercover policemen who fathered children with unsuspecting women. The boy, River, features as the protagonist in that story, and a secondary character in this, and David deftly explores his ongoing sense of mistrust of those in positions of authority, and his influence on Esther, in a lovely twist on the ‘disconnectivity’ in the title here, seeing as the books are so neatly connected.

There’s a lively authenticity to the setting here too – London feels very much alive, and in particular the café that Esther’s stepfather runs, and David deftly depicts the Middle Eastern food with mouth-watering descriptions.

The little details are carefully thought out – Esther and her peers are self-conscious about using their voice – so much of their interaction comes from texting and written language – and they are also self-conscious about their appearances, stemming from a constant need to monitor who says what about how they look. Social media accentuates social groupings, instant gratification, knowing stuff about people that usually would take time, or that wouldn’t even be known.

But there’s also a brilliant summation of the emotional importance of Facetiming a relative who lives far away but stays close to the heart, and the usefulness of knowledge at one’s fingertips.

In the end, David portrays a good equilibrium in her answers. Esther comes to understand the uses and abuses of her phone. There’s loneliness both with her phone and without it; everyone needs to appreciate solitude and understand its difference from loneliness. And Esther has a new-found understanding that self-worth doesn’t just come from other people’s online likes and comments. Offline interactions are just as important, although interestingly can be damaging too, but it’s those ‘real-life’ face-to-face connections with family and friends that build confidence and self-belief and help a person to sustain them. Through real-life human interactions we form resilience and find confidence within ourselves. Taken all together, facial expressions, tactileness, actual physical presence and words spoken can mean much more than a text or a Facetime conversation. It is no coincidence that when writers write their characters, they use the full gamut of senses – they explore the character’s body language, facial expressions, the physical presence in a scene including scents, flavours, touch, sound and words spoken. Esther will come to find that she can choose an outfit without using validation selfies and waiting for likes.

Mainly though, time away from the phone gives Esther space to think and to read a physical book, an appreciation of a calmer, quieter, slower way of living, and the overriding message is that some degree of disconnectivity is healthy.

This is a thoughtful read but also a gripping one – will Esther win her money, and will it have been worth it? You’ll want to disconnect yourself for a while just to find out. Click the button to ‘connect’ you to a bookshop here!

Reading Brexit for Kids: Outwalkers

outwalkersAt the end of last week, someone wrote on twitter about how unproductive she’d been. As with many of us, she had been consumed with checking the news every few minutes for the latest in the Brexit debacle, although at the same time rueing the fact that it was so all-consuming, when really there were so many more important issues on which to concentrate the mind.

So it was with full fervour that I threw myself into the latest read from David Fickling Books after being promised by their publicity agent that it was a post-Brexit novel for children. Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw is indeed a post-Brexit novel, dystopian and political, with a warning that makes you realise we are only a few steps from our own dystopia. Or are we living it already?

Outwalkers imagines a time long after Brexit in which England has closed its borders, following the mass murder of the ‘Faith Bombings’, and imposed a wall between itself and Scotland (now an entirely independent country). What’s more, individuals are chipped to enable government tracking and citizen identification, and there are clear distinctions in the way different classes are treated – those whose microchips enable them to enter John Lewis, as opposed to entering the foodbanks, for example. On the good side, citizens are looked after and protected, the propaganda says.

In this mix, the reader is introduced to twelve-year-old Jake, currently in a state-sponsored Home Academy after his parents die in a car accident. He escapes this prison-like institution to find his dog, Jet, and plans to flee England (it is illegal to leave the country) to join his grandparents in Scotland. Before long, he meets a group calling themselves Outwalkers, also bound for the border for various reasons, and all self-de-chipped. But as their journey progresses, they become more and more important for the government to find, and more entrenched in danger.

Shaw has created a thrilling read, essentially a chase novel through England – and it’s her details that bring it to life both politically and visually. The scenes in John Lewis and in the London Underground, particularly the visit to the postal museum in Kings Cross, are superbly rendered, as is the use of the Angel of the North as a rather battered landmark. More than this, she delves into the future with old posters for ‘Brexit the Musical’, and endless Star Wars sequels, as well as the constant news streaming, and of course citizen tracking.

The message behind the book is definitely anti-Brexit: that closing the borders is short-sighted, insular and ultimately devastating for the people inside, but it really pushes its message about the loss of democracy. Although England is ruled by the ‘Coalition’ in government, a seemingly harmless and democratic-sounding compromise government, they actually work more like a dictatorship, duping their people and ruling behind a veil of secrecy. There’s commentary on ‘group’ rule too – or perhaps on our current government cabinet and the whip:

“But when it’s something that’s really wrong, really terrible: then I don’t think there’s any excuse. Doesn’t matter if someone else orders you. Doesn’t matter if your team all agree.”

The group of Outwalkers are well-delineated and strikingly different from each other. At the beginning they induct Jake into the group by asking him for his contributing skill, but it soon becomes apparent that they have different hidden skills too – not just the obvious of navigation, climbing, cooking etc. Some are empathetic, some nurturing of the little ones, some motivational, others optimistic. All are brave and savvy, and it is this courageousness and loyalty to each other that sees them through. In a society in which people are encouraged to spy and report on each other, this ancient attribute of loyalty and love is particularly poignant, and these attributes grow with the novel so that by the end the reader is fully invested in both the chase but also the fate of each individual.

Shaw also delves hard into the idea of class – something so inherently British – and, in the novel, so divisive. There are the forgotten people – lowlifers – who dwell mostly underground, away from prying government eyes – and there is a futility in their existence, and yet heartrending humanity. Implicit in the novel is a clear message of how we treat others dependent on who they are – something as simple as the sound of a ‘posh’ voice has different consequences from those without that accent, and the amount of money people have and their standard of living makes a huge difference to their societal choices. The privileged work high up in the government, and remain privileged.

So, yes, Outwalkers feels very much of its time – a Brexit novel for children. But as with the government in the novel, this is a skewed view. And this view veers massively towards Remain. There is little nuance, and far too much unexplained at the end of the novel. There’s no examination of right or wrong – the morality is very straightforward.

Some critics have complained that the harshness of the dystopian society Shaw has created feels out of kilter with the normality and sanity of the people depicted, but judging by past oppressive regimes, what’s happening in China at the moment, or even judging by our own political madness, who knows how far and how quickly things can spiral out of control – despite the seeming normality of the everyday?

This is a sharp critique of people’s acceptance of what they are told, what they are fed by the news or government and what they believe, and in the end saviour comes in the form of a member of a religion in a seemingly faithless landscape (interesting in itself). But also the real saviours are the children themselves – bringing about a resolution of their own stories but also a resolution for the dystopian England they grew up in – and perhaps this is where Shaw is most accurate in her portrayal of our politics. The real change is going to come from our youth – striving for the government to listen to them about climate change, when all around them politicians and leaders are ensconced in this political hiccup in time called Brexit. You can buy Outwalkers here.

The New Boy: True Love

the new boyWas it the marketing description of ‘Black Mirror-esque’ that made me pick up this YA thriller, or its supposed preoccupation with social media, free will and privacy? A few YA titles have been dropping through the post that are bouncing around this theme – social media, privacy and truth are hot topics right now. However, it’s also Rawsthorne’s gripping writing and her previous books that made me pick up The New Boy.

When Jack starts at Zoe’s school, everyone seemingly adores him. What’s not to like? He’s charming, handsome, outgoing, popular – as good with parents as he is with peers. So Zoe’s amazed, but flattered, when Jack chooses to date her. But as they become more involved, things feel slightly out of kilter. Is it her, or him? Can someone be that perfect?

This is an intriguing novel that dissects personality as well as technology. Which behaviours are helpful and which controlling, when is a person being manipulated? The book explores tension between using tech wisely as a force for good, and letting oneself be guided by it. It’s about control of ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Rawsthorne also explores social groups, peer pressure and relationships. In fact, it’s Zoe’s initial strength – her confidence with her individual image, her unwillingness to follow a crowd on social media that makes her stand out as a great protagonist, someone we want to identify with, and someone who is suspicious of anything out of the ordinary. But everyone has their weakness, and when Zoe’s is exploited, her boundaries and relationships begin to crumble. This is a thoroughly enjoyable, yet also thought-provoking look at how we can stay truthful to ourselves, but also fit in with society. I’m delighted to host Paula Rawsthorne dissecting true love:

Falling in love can be dangerous when you don’t know who’s pulling the strings.

The New Boy is a twisting psychological thriller and that makes it very hard to talk about the themes of the story as they only become clear once the reader has finished the book and discovered what it was really about.

However, I think it’s safe to say that one of the themes is about different understandings of romantic love.  We may all think we know what it is, but if you ask a group of people you’d be surprised at the array of answers – it often seems that one person’s idea of romantic love would make another person run for the hills.

So, let me ask you, what does it take to fall in love with someone?

Does there have to be a chemistry between you?  Do they have to be charming, thoughtful, full of romantic gestures?  Do you want their undivided attention and adoration? Are shared interests and passions important? Should it be a meeting of minds as well as a physical attraction?

I’m sure that you could add your own ‘must-have’ factors to the above, including that ‘je ne sais quoi’ – that alluring, intangible element that seals the deal.

In The New Boy, everyone at Hinton Dale Sixth Form College is enamoured with the handsome, charming and clever, Jack Cartwright.  However, romantically, Jack only has eyes for Zoe Littlewood.

Jack seems to provide Zoe with all of the essential factors for falling in love.  He’s drop-dead gorgeous and full of romantic gestures.  They have interests and passions in common, he’s generous, thoughtful, kind and even heroic.  He’d go to any lengths to make her happy.  He bolsters Zoe’s confidence and helps her with her studies.  He even takes her to one of the most romantic locations in English Literature.

Anyone in Zoe’s shoes would be head-over-heels with Jack but, despite his perfection, it takes some time for his charms to work on Zoe as there’s something about Jack that unsettles her.

Maybe a contributing factor that bothers Zoe is Jack’s belief that the ultimate romantic lovers are Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights.

“He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”  Catherine Earnshaw in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Whilst Jack considers Heathcliff and Catherine to be soul-mates who embody passionate, eternal love, Zoe sees a toxic, revengeful relationship that destroys the lives of the couple and others around them.

Zoe is also a fan of the Bronte sisters’ novels but, for her, it’s the relationship between Jane Eyre and Rochester that represents a healthier, stronger ‘romantic love’.

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you –and full as much heart!  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Sure, Rochester is far from perfect (SPOILER ALERT – even if he thought he was protecting his wife from an inhumane asylum, he did have her locked in the attic and was prepared to let Jane marry him in ignorance).  But Zoe admires Jane’s strength of character and individualism (something that Zoe also possesses, not least for her decision to come off social media).  Zoe considers Jane Eyre’s relationship with Rochester as, ultimately, a rather beautiful meeting of minds, bodies and souls and not the twisted love displayed in Wuthering Heights.

However, Jack seems to have a particular understanding of what constitutes true love and once he sets his sights on Zoe she soon realises just how hard it is to resist The New Boy.

………………………………………………

With thanks to Paula for her intriguing post. You’ll have to read The New Boy to find out the twists and turns in this fast-paced, not always romantic, novel. You can buy a copy here.

Unstoppable by Dan Freedman

unstoppableI sometimes look at the lives of the children around me and marvel how they fit so much into each week. Whether it’s keeping up with friends, schoolwork, celebrity gossip, world news, or the myriad of hobbies, sports and activities they all seem to undertake. As well as copious hours on Insta of course (and reading!).

But it’s not just physical time and energy these activities consume, it’s also copious amounts of mental space. And with this busyness comes pressure.

Dan Freedman (author of the Jamie Johnson football novels) has tapped into this busyness, and also into the zeitgeist, by writing a pertinent YA novel for our times about pressure on teens, and linked to this, about the causes and motivations behind the rise in knife crime. Combining his knowledge of sports, and real-time information gathered from conversations with children during his school visits, Freedman has penned a gripping novel about how life for these children can seem unstoppable, how pressures build up and can lead to the difficult choices that may set them on the right or wrong path in life.

Covering a range of hugely contemporary issues, from alcoholism, first love, knife crime, gang warfare, poverty, parental and school pressure and the meaning of sports, Freedman keeps his novel fresh and spikey.

Fourteen-year-old twins, Roxy and Kaine, used to be close. But recently, their pathways have diverged – both are excellent sports players, Roxy training to be a tennis champion, Kaine good enough at football to be scouted for the Premier League.

But the path to success isn’t easy. As well as the hard work that needs to be put in, the teenagers face a daunting series of barriers – from their father’s joblessness and alcoholism, parental pressure to succeed, poverty, and, seeing as they live in London, the ongoing gang recruitment on their doorstep. It’s only a matter of time before knives are involved.

Highly readable, and with as much pace as a professional tennis serve, Freedman’s prose is in the ilk of genre writing – concise and tight, going for the simplest words but still managing to convey a depth to both setting and character. The writing is particularly astute on the sports field, and it is here that Freedman excels, making the reader believe that they are learning about two future sports stars.

There’s also the continuing issue of the teens’ mental health. Written in third person, but alternating between the points of view of Roxy and Kaine, this is a close up view of the pressure both children are under, but in different ways. What the book does, very cleverly, is point to the issues that are occupying today’s children and try to disseminate them within the narrative arc.

Supplementing the main prose are diary entries, flashbacks, old-fashioned notes!, and also text messages – with plot points turning on photos that come up on people’s social media feed. It might sound overwhelming to the reader, but is actually straightforwardly packaged, so that the reader is empathetic to Roxy and Kaine, (despite their differences), without feeling the pressure him/herself.

It’s interesting that there is equal emphasis on the internal and external for the twins. Their own determination and grit to succeed, their interior struggle with mental wellbeing, but also the sphere of their family and its wellbeing, and finally the exterior of peers and the dangers of the community in which they live.

A tribute to Freedman must go to his understanding that it is through individual acts of kindness (one person seeing employment potential in Roxy and Kaine’s Dad), and trusted adults (a teacher consistently rooting for Kaine; the memory of an unfaltering grandparent relationship) that the youngsters come good.

Despite the many issues, this is in essence about sibling rivalry and sport, and the story zings through the teens’ potential to their ultimate triumph, despite the hurdles in their way. For a rattling good read, and a dissection of how we live today, even unbookish sporty readers will be tuning in. And with an equal balance in having both gender protagonists, the book looks set to be Unstoppable. You can buy it here. 

International Women’s Day 2019

I’m a keen viewer of University Challenge on the BBC, a quiz show for students. Recently, I’ve noticed more and more questions creep in that refer to women in history, previously unnoticed women composers and artists, those whom the layperson in the street definitely couldn’t identify. I admit, I don’t know enough about women in history either, and my shouting ‘Beethoven’ in answer to most questions just doesn’t cut it! Luckily, on this International Women’s Day, children’s publishers are waking up to these lesser-known important historical figures too. And so today’s collection is a definite celebration of women – from famous sisters in history, to lesser-known scientists and pioneers, to modern celebrity women pushing boundaries.

the bluest of bluesThe Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs by Fiona Robinson
This extraordinarily exquisite picture book is a biography of British botanist and photographer, Anna Atkins, who lived 1799 to 1871, and used the newly-invented technology of cyanotype photography to record her catalogue of plant specimens.

What could be quite a dry biography is manipulated into an aesthetically intimate and touching portrayal of Anna, her enthusiasm and love for her craft – and a meshing of science and art, creativity hand-in-hand with discovery.

The book is cast in an illustrative shade of blue, mimicking the cyanotype’s blue and white tones – with Robinson cleverly incorporating the odd splash of red or yellow to emphasise inspiration – the first poppy Atkins examines, the roses in her marriage bouquet, the red ribbon round the gift of her first camera.

The book explores her life and works, and also the support from those around her, particularly her father, who educated his daughter in science, despite it being unusual at that time. This is good narrative non-fiction, delineating the scientific concepts of photography and botany, whilst remaining true to telling Atkins’ life. You can buy it here. 

the brontesThe Brontes by Anna Doherty
Another picture book that frames the world of important women in a single hue, this time a turquoise minty green. Of course, these sisters are well-known to many, but may be accessed for the first time by readers of this picture book, as it is squarely aimed at a young audience. Illustrations dominate the pages, as Doherty documents the girls’ life story from their childhood through to publication, illness and death.

A family tree starts the book, and individual profiles of the sisters and Branwell come near the end. The story is inflected with the author’s own perspective, clearly infused with feminist undertones as she explains how the sisters first published under male pseydonyms. The text is simplistic but clear, and the author takes the opportunity at the end of the book to articulate further social history, exploring why the Brontes were so fantastically feminist.

The book is marvellously attractive, speaking not only to the power of women, but to the power of imagination and story. An inspirational book that makes the world of the Brontes feel intimate, and fascinating. First in a series. Other titles include Ada Lovelace and Michelle Obama. You can buy it here. 

grace hopperGrace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu
With a rhyming poem on the endpapers introducing the scope of this lively picture book for youngsters, ‘Software tester. Workplace jester. Order seeker. Well-known speaker…’ the reader is immediately engrossed in this enthusiastic exploration of how Grace Hopper discovered computer code and became a trailblazing STEM advocate. What’s intriguing about this book is that it highlights that women’s involvement in computers and tech isn’t a recent phenomena  – Hopper was engaged from the beginning – she was a pioneer.

Hopper developed a ground-breaking way of writing computer code, as much from her understanding of how things work, numbers and logic, as from her intuition and creativity. The book carries that perpetually important message of determination and perseverance, especially in the face of adversity, and ends on a high hopeful note.

The full-colour, almost cartoonish illustrations provide an insight into the zest and energy that powered Hopper, from showing her as a frustrated but determined and curious little girl, to a hardworking, brave and intrepid Navy employee. Her insatiable curiosity and her ability to step away from code to find the answers in life as well, show her as a fully rounded, identifiable human. This is an informative and aspirational picture book – you’d do very well to show this to your sons and daughters. You can buy it here. 

one shotOne Shot by Tanya Landman
Ever since my parents took me to see Annie Get Your Gun in the West End as a child, I’ve had a thing about Annie Oakley. With numbers like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, and ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’, who wouldn’t be inspired by this trailblazing feminist? Landman’s novella on Annie Oakley’s childhood, One Shot, (which is completely fictionalised) is just as powerful and poignant, although in a very different way. Set in the later part of the 19th century, this sometimes disturbing, haunting book imagines Annie’s harsh upbringing – the death of her beloved father, her rejection by her mother, and her abusive treatment by adoptive parents (there are references to rape).

But mainly this is a compelling historical visualisation of the social normalities that Annie had to fight in order to prove her worth as a sharpshooter, to rebel against the constrictions imposed on her because of her gender. Powerfully dressing herself younger so her rebellion looked more excusable to outsiders, and her constant seeking of parental approval, are both markers of the nuance and depth of Annie’s character that Landman has imagined in her novella. Written for a reading age of nine, but with teen content, this is another example of a strong inspirational woman fighting for survival and recognition, and beautifully conjures the landscape and political reality of America at that time. Landman cleverly incorporates Annie’s bravery into her fight to do what feels natural, even though it is classed as unladylike, and also showing her courage in admitting her abuse to her future husband. The chapter in which she steps into the shooting competition with Frank Wilkes made me want to sing again. I’m hoping Landman will bring her own targeted eye to writing the next part of Annie’s life. You can buy it here. 

ariane grandeUltimate Superstars: Ariana Grande by Liz Gogerly
Hot on the footsteps of the wildly successful Ultimate Football Heroes, comes this new series on ‘superstars’, a loose concept, but so far comprising Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. It doesn’t matter how famous a person is for these biographies, it’s the journey to get there or the quirkier achievements that make for a decent life story.

The focus for Ariana Grande is, of course, the bombing at her Manchester Arena concert in 2017, and this is where this life story starts and ends, and is dealt with sensitively, making much of the fans, and also her shock at the time and sympathetic nature afterwards. Grande’s life story has been one of success after success from early days as part of the cast of 13, a ground-breaking all-teenage production on the Broadway stage, to Victorious on Nickelodeon, and then onward to her music career, including performing in front of President Obama at the age of 21.

Success may have heralded success, but the book documents Grande’s tough skin, her hard work and determination, her efforts and affinity with fans through social media, and her supportive family, including her much-loved grandfather. For fans, a must. For others, I’m generally of the opinion that a subject needs to be slightly older to have a truly interesting biography. Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez publications follow in May. You can buy it here. 

gloria's voiceGloria’s Voice by Aura Lewis
A good premise to showcase the influence and achievements of feminist Gloria Steinmen needs more explanation in this picture book for a young audience. Illustrated in throw-back 1970’s oranges and pinks, the text is simplistic and yet in some places rather cryptic – simplistic in the language used that explains how Gloria dreams of being famous, yet cryptic in that it fails to explain the name or influence of her magazine ‘Ms’. However, it does explore the aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and it does draw attention to global inequalities that Steinmen witnessed then, and that persist now. So this is an interesting biographical text that may stimulate further curiosity. Watercolour illustrations range from the fantastical to the strange in showing Steinmen playing unhappily with a dolls’ house, representing her care-taking role in her mother’s illness, to a rather strange portrait of Steinmen flying ‘a la Wonder Woman’ above a suburban neighbourhood. Extra information at the end gives some context, but really the text needs more explanation from the beginning so that young readers understand why Gloria was so influential. You can buy it here. 

The Year I Didn’t Eat by Samuel Pollen

the year i didnt eatI have a distinct memory of reading The Best Little Girl in the World by Steven Levenkron in middle school. It had an arresting cover of a painfully thin girl studying herself in a mirror, the colour washed out, almost all faded to grey. It was an influential work at the time, (published in 1978), being one of the few novels for children that addressed eating disorders. Historical perspective shows that the narrative was more about the psychologist’s view of anorexia, and the narrative bends rather too far towards the male psychologist as saviour of the little girl. It very much speaks to the 1970’s perspective of eating disorders.

In some ways, we have come a long way to understanding eating disorders since that 1970’s viewpoint, although not far enough, and with the growth of science comes the growth of technology, and social media has been shown (for some) to heighten the damage in this area.

Into this torrid landscape steps the refreshing and very modern The Year I didn’t Eat by Samuel Pollen. Part of publisher’s Zuntold new ‘Fiction as Therapy’ resource, this is a powerful, devastating, yet quietly hopeful novel written by someone who has drawn on his own experiences to tell his fictional narrative, and it very much doesn’t speak to the scourge of social media as being at fault. This book comes from a very different place.

Fourteen-year-old Max writes a diary to Ana, short for anorexia, his eating disorder. Privy to these epistles, as well as to the main first-person narrative recording a year in his life, the reader comes to understand the complicated and irrational emotions behind Max’s mental illness. Some days are okay and normal. Readers discover Max’s brilliant relationship with his older brother, Robin, and how Robin introduces him to geocaching, which turns out to be a factor in Max’s recovery; the reader also discovers Max’s friends, and new girl Evie, and see the very authentic everyday situations that arise at school, be it at lunchtime or during lessons, and there’s also, of course, Max’s parents, brilliantly portrayed and heartrendingly pictured from afar – only seen from Max’s point of view, we feel the quiet despair they must feel, but never get too close. This is clever writing.

Then there are the bad days. Pollen writes with excruciating detail and raw emotion about the complexity of anorexia – how it draws the sufferer away from those wonderful friend and family relationships, how it tricks the mind and yet also concentrates it. He explains misunderstood conceptions, without preaching – because this is all through Max’s eyes. He dissects the portrayal of anorexia in the media and online, the fallacy that food is off-putting to anorexics when really it is enticing and causes revulsion at the same time – even anorexics have their favourite foods.

In no way condescending, but written with a natural flair for easy prose, this is a compelling and genuinely fascinating story. Fed throughout with injections of humour – Max is a likeable and funny character – this is a really great YA novel, in the end uplifting and hopeful.

For those who worry that reading about teens with anorexia leads to teens having anorexia, I quite simply explain that in the same way that reading Horrid Henry doesn’t make young children horrid, reading about a mental illness doesn’t make one aspire to be ill. In fact, what the book gives the reader is empathy – in large doses. Whereas travel books might be aspirational, this is firmly off-putting in its portrayal of what anorexia does to body, mind and relationships.  Where it does show hope, is in facing down anorexia, confiding in others, sharing the pain and learning to recover. It’s not an easy journey – Max is a character the reader wills to good health, knowing all the time that he may not make it – and it’s a rewarding novel. And one that makes you thankful for every nourishing bite. You can buy it here.

Fiction Books with Birds

Ever since the dove made an appearance in the Bible as a symbol of peace, and ravens whispered news into the god Odin’s ears in Norse mythology, or since Ancient Greece where the goddess Athena had an owl as a symbol of wisdom, or in Ancient India where a peacock represented Mother Earth, birds have been used in religion, mythology and literature symbolically, as messengers or perhaps signs of hope, and particularly freedom. In some of my favourite novels, birds have been used in symbolic ways: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle…. Here are three children’s novels that synchronise with this theme.

larkLark by Anthony McGowan
McGowan returns for a final time to his beloved working class characters, Nicky and Kenny, in this novella for Barrington Stoke. Although the last of a quartet, Lark can be read as a standalone, a self-contained adventure. The teenage boys are escaping their everyday reality, in this case, a visit from their estranged mother, by taking a walk on the Yorkshire moors with their dog. With understated empathy, McGowan describes Kenny (who has cognitive disability), as needing to let out his pent-up energy – ‘he’d punch the cushions on the settee or shout out random stuff in the street’ – and so the brothers seek nature as a release – the perennial theme of this book quartet.

Narrated by Nicky in an authentic teen voice, which is both accessible and yet intensely profound in its own way, the prose starts in the middle of the action, backtracking a little but then ploughing on – not unlike the boys, who are suddenly caught in the middle of a blizzard on the moors.

Danger becomes all too apparent – the problems of home (hunger, cold, poverty) are magnified in the natural expanse of the moors, and yet also reduced to this particular day and this particular time. The boys get into deep trouble, pushing them to the brink of existence.

Nicky’s trademark humour never lets up, lending even more pathos to the situation in its own darkly rich way, and by the end a fair number of readers will be sniffing back the tears. What lingers is the bond between the boys, the exploration of teen masculinity – full of bravado and yet vulnerability – and yet also the ultimate draw of never-ending hope.

Suspenseful, written with immaculate style, and ultimately heart-warming, this is another triumph from McGowan. You can read the review of Rook, the third in the series here, when it looked likely to end as a trilogy. To buy Lark, click here

asha and the spirit birdAsha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
Another book reaching for the symbol of a bird as hope, and with a treacherous journey, is this spellbinding lush book from newcomer Jasbinder Bilan.

Asha lives with her mother in the foothills of the Himalayas, living a rural life and working on the farm, spending leisure time in the mango tree with her friend Jeevan. Her father works away in the city. But when he stops sending money and moneylenders come to collect her mother’s debt, Asha decides to find her way to the city herself and see what’s happened to her father.

As vibrant with the sights and sounds and colours of the landscape on the inside as the cover is bright on the outside, this is a stunning evocation of a completely different way of life, with a filmic quality to the descriptions of flowers and wildlife, food and landscape. The journey is treacherous, the children not only at risk of death from hunger and tiredness, but also in the face of wild animals. Here too, though, nature is a saving grace in the form of a magical spirit bird that guides Asha, giving hope and reassurance throughout.

The book takes an even darker turn with its exploration of poverty and exploitation in the city, but Asha never loses self-belief, and the book drives forward with an unrelenting optimism and moments of kindness, exploring too the role of faith and ancestry, ritual and tradition, in shaping personality and way of life.

But more than this, it’s an immersive experience in a different culture. A glossary gives Hindi and Punjabi words, but Bilan seamlessly blends them into her prose, so that with context it is easy to understand what they mean. The Indian way of life is portrayed with enthusiasm, empathy and energy, and the threads of friendship sew the plot neatly together. You can buy it here

call me alastairCall Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo
Something vastly different in this quirky novel told from three completely distinct points of view, the first of which is Alistair, an African grey parrot. Trapped in an American pet shop, Alistair dreams of freedom and blue skies, but unfortunately for him has two broken wings and a habit of plucking his own feathers out of anxiety. When he discovers eating paper, and delights in the taste of the different types of literature – poetry being his favourite – he soon starts to compose verse himself.

With this sense of the world giving him an extra taste for freedom, he is adopted by lonely widow, Albertina Plopky (Bertie), whom the reader meets through letters to her deceased husband. Add to this eclectic mix, the meticulous record-keeping of pet-shop helper 12-year-old Fritz, (musing also on the recent separation of his parents and the death of a grandparent) and suddenly the reader grasps how the three points of view and stories meet.

The book is about perspective and freedom, but also speaks to the idea of loneliness. We stifle our own freedom if we build cages around ourselves. Unique and idiosyncratic, this is not for everyone, but with a mix of poetry and prose, different narrative voices, and a quest for courage, this is a very unusual middle grade book. You can buy it here.