Friday, 31 August 2012

Friday Feature: Interview with Karen McCombie

(This interview originally ran at The Bookbag.)

As I mentioned a while ago in my post How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love YA, Karen McCombie was one of the authors who got me interested in reading childrens' and YA books after quite a while mainly reading adult fiction. After reading her latest, Life According To Alice B Lovely, I was incredibly excited to get the chance to interview her!

1. When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

I see wide eyes and smiles. It's those certain girls in the audience at my school, library or festival talks who absolutely get my books - I can spot them a mile off, and they gladden my heart! Even after years of doing talks, I still feel a shy-girl knot of awkwardness when I'm standing on my own in front of people. But as soon as I gaze out and see a tell-tale reader, I relax and feel at home.

2.You've written about lots of wonderful main characters - with Edie in Life According to... Alice B. Lovely being one of my favourites, along with Ally from Ally's World, Stella from Stella Etc, and Lemmie from Marshmallow Magic And The Wild Rose Rouge. Out of all of your characters, who's most like you as a young girl?

Before I launched into writing the 'Ally's World' series, I rediscovered, re-read and cringed my way though my childhood and teenage diaries, so I guess a lot of Ally Love's personality is based on me, aged thirteen - worrying, goofing up and trying to hide my shyness with jokes. And I guess her lifestyle was one I'd have adored myself at that age; her family might be slightly chaotic, but I love the ditziness of her rambling, crumbling house, the bustle of brothers, sisters and wonky pets. I was an only child growing up in a calm household with zero pets. It was a happy time, but I ached for some eccentricity, which is why I decorated my room like a hippy-fied Victoriana parlour, despite living on the 15th floor of a tower block. Oh, and we can't forget Ally's space cadet sister Rowan... I may have dressed a little like her, I guess! I always accessorised my school uniform with vintage shoes, antique fingerless gloves and lots of black eyeliner. (School was not impressed...)

Rowan is my absolute favourite of your characters (although shamefully, The Raspberry Rules is one of the only books of yours I've never read!) Your school uniform sounds very stylish, although as a former teacher I think I'm glad you weren't in my class - I had enough problems with kids who can't do their ties up!

3. In addition to those fabulous main characters, you also have a real talent for creating memorable siblings - Stan and Edie are wonderful together, while I was hooked on Ally's World by the wonderful relationship between Ally, Rowan, Linn and Tor. Who are your favourite pair, or group, of siblings from another author's book?

Somewhere in my head is a flower-covered alter, with the book 'Catcher In The Rye' by JD Salinger propped right in the middle. I the useless and wonderful central character Holden Caulfield so much. And you've got to love a teenage boy who adores his diddy kid sister (Phoebe)...

I may be one of the few people who DOESN'T like Catcher... you may have inspired me to give it another try.

4. You started off as an author writing books for older teens, but over the last few years you've become hugely successful writing for younger teens and tweens. What made you decide to focus on books for this age range?

I guess I didn't so much decide as got asked if I'd like to. And when I thought about it, yep, I knew I really would like to! I suppose I began with older teens because I worked for years on teenage magazines, and had that mind-set seared into my head. But having my own daughter made me glide really easily into writing slightly younger books, especially 'Indie Kidd' and 'You, Me and Thing'. That said, I know a lot of my older readers love to zip through those shorter books. After all, it's the same humour and the same sensibility, only with pretty brilliant illustrations added!

I've read a couple of Indie Kidds and the first You, Me and Thing and definitely agree that fans of your older books will love the humour!

5. I absolutely love your website with your blog, wallpapers, links to advice sites, and much much more. How important do you think it is for an author these days to have an active web presence?

Up until only a few years ago, authors were almost invisible people. Readers might passionately love a book, but know absolutely nothing about the person who wrote it, unless there happened to be a paragraph about them tucked on a fly-leaf or back page. It seems weird to imagine that now, but it makes sense to let readers know who you are. You wouldn't expect a band to put out a record anonymously. And being more interactive isn't just positive for readers... authors spend most of their time alone in a room in front of a computer. Having a way to connect with your audience - to get feedback - is fantastic. I'll often read an enthusiastic e-mail and think "Yes! I AM doing it right!"

6. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, could you share with us the soundtrack to Life According To... Alice B. Lovely, or any of your other books?

I'd love to listen to music while I write, but I just can't do it - I start listening to the lyrics or dancing. Though I often have a crush on a certain album or band around the time a book is being written, which tends to help me give it a background vibe, even if it's not one that's readers are remotely aware of! During 'Alice B. Lovely', I was obsessed with 'Infinite Arms' by Band of Horses, which is full of guitars and songs that are uplifting and sad and funny and beautiful. I could imagine spiky Edie blasting them on her headphones as she buries her head in a book and tries to ignore her warring parents and the strange presence of Alice B. Lovely...

Ooh... sounds cool! About to wander off to Spotify or something to check it out!

7. I know that you're appearing at Hay next month to talk about You, Me and Thing. What's the best thing about being at a festival? (Oops - slightly out of date question! It was okay when this interview was on the Bookbag, honestly!)

Being allowed out! Like I say, it's a solitary life being a writer; in fact I'm typing this in my local garden centre cafe, just because it's nice to have people drifting around me when I work! Visiting schools and libraries makes for a welcome change of venue, and festivals are the best, because you get to the chance meet other authors. We're like some rare breed who sometimes bump into each other and go "Ooh, there are others like me! How exciting!". Then it's back on the train and home to our little back bedrooms, dreaming up new worlds, characters and books.

8. What are you reading at the moment?

There's never enough time in the day, the week, the month, etc to do all the things I want to do more of. And of course one of those things is read more. Isn't it ironic that I loved books so much I wanted to tell my own stories, and now that I work full-time as a writer, I don't have the luxury of time to read as much as I'd like. Having said that, I've just finished 'My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece' by Annabel Pitcher, and it was v. v. v. good.

9. If you could have three wishes, what would they be for?

1. Crisps infused with vitamins.
2. Another day in the week (Thurnesday?).
3. A fringe that would behave itself and sit nicely at all times.

10. What's next for Karen McCombie?

KM: I'm currently writing a new novel for Scholastic, to be followed by some more 'You, Me and Thing's for Faber, a book for the lovely Barrington Stoke (who specialise in books for readers with dyslexia), plus a new project too. That's the big stuff. But what's next right now is another mug of latte from the lovely staff at the garden centre cafe, and a packet of crisps, even though I know I shouldn't...

As I mentioned above, I picked up the first You, Me and Thing a while ago and really enjoyed it - great to hear about more coming out, and really looking forward to the other stuff you mention.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Karen!

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of I'm Dougal Trump... and It's Not My Fault by Dougal Trump

Dougal Trump is worried about dying. You might be surprised that a young boy is already writing (and rewriting) his will, but that's because you haven't met his sister Sibble (it's Sybil! - sorry Sibble), the mysterious creature in the shed, or the even more mysterious person who left the creature there with a note saying "If it dies so will you." If you were in his circumstances, wouldn't you be worried about your life expectancy?

Thankfully, in between worrying about whether someone will kill him shortly, Dougal has found the time to write down an account of what exactly is going on, interspersed with his various wills, notes from his friends and family, and some wonderfully expressive scribbled illustrations. Jackie Marchant has then put these fragments together into a rather fantastic book which made me laugh out loud several times when reading it. Dougal himself has a really strong voice while the supporting characters are really entertaining, in particular Dougal's sister Sybil and a group of boys who switch between being Dougal's best friends and mortal enemies in the way young boys often do.

I also particularly liked the way the book was put together - the mixture of Dougal's narration, the notes and wills, and the illustrations is eye-catching and does a great job of drawing the reader in. Added to that, the plot is extremely well-worked - I was taken completely by surprise by the ending, but it makes perfect sense when you read the book again (which I've done already - the joys of having a short, quick, and fun read!) 

Definitely recommended to people looking for a light-hearted, quirky, and really enjoyable read. I'm looking forward to the further adventures of Dougal Trump!

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Bookish Confessions

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.

1. When I was growing up, I was awful at looking after books - I used to put them face down while open to save my place in a book, thereby irrevocably damaging the spine. I'm blushing even thinking about it!

2. Perhaps tied in to the above confession, I don't own a bookmark. (Well, I'm sure I do somewhere, but not one I could put to hand immediately.) I tend to use train tickets instead. Or occasionally my debit card, although there've been a couple of occasions when I've tried getting money out and realised it's back at home in the middle of a book, so I don't normally do that anymore.

3. I think Tolkien is the most overrated author in the history of the universe. Give me Dragonlance Chronicles over Lord of the Rings any day.

4. I barely ever read reviews. Actually, scratch that - I read quite a lot of reviews but ONLY from bloggers I trust, or reviewers at the Bookbag. I never take any notice of average scores at Amazon or Goodreads due to all the fixing that goes on.

5. I love Gossip Girl - at least the first few books. Yes, they're trashy and have no literary value and are so filled with brand names that they may well be virtually indecipherable in 50 years time if most of those companies have gone out of business. But they're written with a stunning voice and helped get me back into reading YA after years spent reading adult fiction. "Our **** still stinks, but you can't smell it because the bathroom is sprayed hourly by the maid with a refreshing scent made exclusively for us by French perfumers" (starring out mine) is still one of my favourite ever quotes.

6. I hate the TV adaptations of Gossip Girl and the film adaptation of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which both butchered wonderful source material. On the other hand, I love the TV adaptation of Rosamunde Pilcher's Coming Home, which may have taken more liberties but featured such a stunning cast that I can forgive them anything. (Also, I watched that before reading the book, which may have helped.)

7. If I won the lottery I would spend more money on books than would normally be considered sane. In particular, I'd try and bribe Curtis Jobling with huge sums of money to let me read the rest of the Wereworld series well in advance of publication, because dammit, I need to know how it ends!

8. I have hundreds of books I've never read (and, worryingly, may never get round to reading because I keep getting review copies and stuff!) In particular, I went through a spell a few years ago of grabbing anything in The Works or similar shops for less than £2 and then realising I wasn't particularly interested in it.

9. 80% of the adult books I read are non-fiction. I think the only adult authors I currently read are Ali McNamara, Lee Child and Anne O'Brien. (Which may be the most bizarre trio around...)

10. I've never avoided reading a book because of a one-star review - but I have a mental list of at least a dozen authors I won't read because there's no way I could judge them fairly after seeing their responses to negative reviews. Bizarre, isn't it?

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Sunday Spotlight: A Witch in Love by Ruth Warburton

My new Sunday Spotlight feature (which actually bears a striking similarity to my old Saturday Spotlight feature) will showcase some of my favourite recent books reviewed for the superb Bookbag site.

As always with my reviews of sequels, spoilers below for A Witch in Winter - read at your own risk!
Anna has sworn off magic since she accidentally bewitched Seth into falling in love with her. He's convinced the spell has been lifted and his feelings for her are genuine - but she's not so sure. Anna might want to be finished with magic, though - but it keeps leaking out. When a visit to her old home reveals that someone placed a powerful spell which was the reason she didn't discover her abilities until coming to Winter, she's left wishing she knew more about her family history. As if that wasn't enough, the Ealdwitan are still taking an interest in her and she's also being threatened by a group of 'outwiths' who appear to have found out her secret...
As you can tell from that brief summary, it's a book with a lot going on. It all works brilliantly, because Ruth Warburton juggles the various plot strands really well. She's also got a fabulous heroine in Anna, and a really strong love interest in Seth, while I still think his grandfather Bran - who knows Anna's a witch and is furious that she's dating his grandson - is one of the best supporting characters of recent times.
It's also really good to get more of a sense of both Anna's background and family life, and of the world of witchcraft in general, while the setting of the coastal town of Winter is still great and it's interesting to see some more magical locations crop up. Particular mention, as well, goes to the dialogue, which really sparkles - it's one of the most 'British-sounding' series I've read for ages (although there does seem to be a little less specifically British slang in it than in the last one, meaning it's probably a bit easier to follow if you're not from these shores.)
While much of the book is character-driven, as Anna tries to find out more about her past and her mother, it's book-ended by two really strong action scenes and has a climax which left me desperate to get my hands on book three as soon as possible!
Strong recommendation.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of Ingenue by Jillian Larkin

Warning: This review contains spoilers for Vixen by Jillian Larkin.

Gloria Carmody and Jerome Johnson fled Chicago for New York to escape the mob and the police after Gloria killed a man. They thought that their love would be enough to get them through – but a white woman and a black man living together will need a lot more than that to get a happy ending. After witnessing another murder, Jerome's sister Vera knows that New York is about to get even more dangerous for the pair, but can she find them to warn them in time? Meanwhile Lorraine Dyer, formerly Gloria's best friend, is also trying to find them – but in her case she wants revenge on Gloria. As for Clara Knowles, former 'Queen Sheba of the flapper scene', she may be back in New York but she's not going back to the speakeasies and parties. She's happy with quiet, respectable Marcus Eastman. Until she gets an intriguing offer...

I was worried that the main characters all moving from Chicago to New York would feel forced and that Larkin might not be able to capture the atmosphere of the Big Apple as well as she did her previous location. Happily, the worries were misplaced – Larkin is absolutely wonderful at drawing the reader in and I could almost taste the illicit booze as I was reading this one. I mentioned when reviewing book one that if there was a tiny fault it was perhaps the length of time taken scene-setitng – this one is much faster moving, with a murder in the very first chapter. As previously, Larkin's writing style is gorgeous and draws you in to the action as well as the setting.

As well as the excellent descriptions of the time and place, Larkin is also great at creating strong characters. All four narrators here have distinctive voices and are easy to care about, while the various love interests, especially Jerome's friend Evan who helps Vera search for him, are attractive but realistically portrayed. I was especially impressed by the changing relationship between Gloria and Jerome, now past the first stages of love and having to work at being a couple despite the problems of racism and the danger they're in. It's also enjoyable to see real people from the time period, including Louis Armstrong and Al Capone, either appear or get a mention.

I'm absolutely desperate for the next in this wonderful series, which the epilogue sets up beautifully – but I'm also appreciative that there's more of a sense of resolution to this one than there was to Vixen. Larkin's ending managed to both give me a satisfying conclusion to this part of the trilogy while also leaving me eagerly waiting to see what happens next – the best of both worlds!

Really strong recommendation, fans of YA historical novels shouldn't miss this superb series.  

Monday, 20 August 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I've Read Since I Started Blogging

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.

1. Amy and Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson - Edges out Matson's sophomore novel Second Chance Summer, this is a tearjerker which had me in absolute floods. Do read it, don't read it on public transport!

2. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein - One of the best books I've ever read. Completely heartbreaking and with two sensational narrators, this Second World War story deserves all of the plaudits it's been getting.

3. Department 19: The Rising by Will Hill - Hill follows up the superb Department 19 with an even better book in this epic, which weighs in at about 700 pages and never wastes a word. Phenomenal.

4. Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley - Crowley packs an incredible amount of romance and character development into just one night (aided by some great flashbacks.) It's also incredibly lyrical.

5. The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson - I read this on the train back from Birmingham after buying it on impulse at the train station because it looked so gorgeous and had to put it away with about 50 pages to go before I burst into tears. (I REALLY need to think more carefully about my reading habits on public transport.) Utterly wonderful.

6. Lottie Biggs is (Not) Mad by Hayley Long - "Brilliantly, staggeringly, life-affirmingly superb" was my initial verdict, and re-reading it hasn't changed my mind. It starts off as a comic romp and develops into a more serious look at mental health issues, but the change in tone is perfectly judged.

7. The Monstrumologist: Isle of Blood by Rick Yancey - I thought the first Monstrumologist book was too long - by book 3 Yancey is writing 560 pages and if anything, I wanted it to go on for a few hundred more! Yancey's language is spellbinding and the combination of his writing style and the relationship between the Monstrumologist himself Pellinore Warthrop and his apprentice Will Henry make this series a must-read.

8. Pea's Book of Best Friends by Susie Day - Modern classic in the making, this is a wonderfully fresh novel in the spirit and style of greats like Noel Streatfeild and E Nesbit. 

9. Paper Towns by John Green - Even better than Green's Looking For Alaska. Stunning dialogue, gorgeous writing, and I can't remember the last time a book moved me from tears of sadness to tears of laughter, and vice versa, as quickly as this one did.

10. Skin Deep by Laura Jarratt - Stunning romance which deals with disfigurement, prejudice, mental illness, and recovering from tragedy. Highest possible recommendation.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Tarzan: The Jungle Warrior by Andy Briggs

My new Sunday Spotlight feature (which actually bears a striking similarity to my old Saturday Spotlight feature) will showcase some of my favourite recent books reviewed for the superb Bookbag site.

Spoiler warning as usual when I review sequels – if you haven’t read the excellent Tarzan: The Greystoke Legacy then carry on at your own risk.
Rokoff, the world’s most notorious hunter is in Africa, to snatch a baby gorilla from its family. When he does so, it’s left to Tarzan to chase across several countries to rescue the youngster, Karnath. But there may be danger closer to hand – can all of the wild man’s friends be trusted?
The Andy Briggs reboot of Tarzan is one of the best updates I can recall seeing of any classic series. He takes familiar characters such as Tarzan and Jane, places them in a modern African setting, and creates a really compelling story. The first book was excellent and this one is just as good – there’s some stunning action sequences as the chase to get Karnath back heats up, and some nice development of the strange relationship between Tarzan and Jane.
In addition, I’m really impressed by the way Briggs has made the characters so well-rounded. Tarzan is clearly the hero but uses methods which are brutal – does the end, of protecting the animals and rescuing Karnath, justify the means? Jane’s friend Robbie is a really intriguing character, on the run from legal problems in the States because he’s wanted for the attempted murder of his stepfather. Desperate to earn money, he’s now trying to help his boss Clark get evidence of Tarzan’s existence. He’s not necessarily a nasty character, but he’s clearly got some difficult moral decisions to make. Similarly, Jane’s father, who’s involved in illegal logging but actually seems to be a fairly pleasant person, is very well-drawn.
Throw in a strong environmental message which never threatens to dominate at the expense of the action, and a stunning ending which left me absolutely desperate to read book 3, and this is one which young and old alike will love.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

I Have Too Many Books!

I posted a list of books yesterday that I wanted to pass on to other people, and had a few requests. They were ones at my parents' house - having just got back to my flat I've found MORE that I could do with clearing out to make space! All available to people going to the UKYA event on Monday -just e-mail me at BEFORE NINE O'CLOCK MONDAY MORNING when I need to leave. (I'm editing this list at about 9:00 pm Sunday night so you have less than 12 hours!)
All in reasonable condition or better. All free, obviously. (It would be awesome if you'd write a review of them to spread the word, but not required.)

Tarzan: The Jungle Warrior (Tarzan reboot book 2) by Andy Briggs
Tempest Rising by Tracy Deebs
Department 19 by Will Hill
Adorkable by Sarra Manning
How To Keep A Boy As A Pet by Diane Messidoro
Fraction by Megan Miranda
Silenced by Simon Packham
Pulse (Siren 2) by Tricia Rayburn
My Soul To Take by Rachel Vincent
The Alchemy of Forever by Avery Williams
Choker by Elizabeth Woods

Friday, 17 August 2012

Friday Feature: Interview with Anthony McGowan

Award winning author Anthony McGowan has taken on a new project, writing a sequel series to Willard Price's Adventure books. The original series was a favourite of mine when growing up - my dad used to read them to me a lot - so I was eager to get my hands on Leopard Adventure, which certainly didn't disappoint! While waiting for the next book in the series, I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview Anthony.

1. Was it your idea to write a sequel series to Willard Price's Adventure books, or were you approached to do it?

It wasn't at all my idea – it came to me as a proposal through my agent. The idea originated with the Price family, who sold the rights on to the same company that owns the rights to the Ian Fleming books, who then approached my agent, who then … all very complicated! But as soon as my agent mentioned it, I leaped at the opportunity to step into the great man's shoes.

2. Do you have a particular favourite of Price's original series?

I'm rather fond of Merlin Kaggs, the villain who recurs in the South Sea, Diving and Cannibal Adventures, so they're all favourites of mine. But I think the best from a literary point of view is the very first – Amazon Adventure.

I agree that Amazon Adventure's great, but Kaggs is a superb villain so that trio of books is probably my favourite - I reread Cannibal Adventure a few months ago and thought it was still really exciting twenty years or so after I first read it!

3. How different is it writing a series based on someone else's work - even with the vast majority of characters being new ones of your own - compared to writing something completely original?

I didn't have any problems standing on someone else's shoulders. I've been able to take it in more or less any direction I fancied. However,  what I have found quite tricky is writing a pure adventure story, where there's a huge need to keep the excitement levels up. So I can't waste time indulging my taste for gross-out comedy or surreal darkness.

4. It's been a good year for fans of classic 'Boys' Own' stories - in addition to Leopard Adventure, we've had the second book in Andy Briggs' Tarzan reboot. Are there any other older books you'd love to see modern authors tackle?

Good question. I didn't read very much children's fiction when I was younger – I consumed huge amounts of non-fiction, then went more or less straight on to adult fiction -  so I haven't got loads of cherished childhood favourites that scream out 'update me!'. And the books I did love – such as the Lord of the Rings, well, you'd have to be insane to even think of continuing them. However, there was a strip called Billy's Boots in an old comic, Tiger and Scorcher, that I'd quite like to novelise...

I think Lord of the Rings is probably one of the very few classics which is virtually untouchable in terms of sequels or reboots. Billy's Boots sounds like a great plan, though!

5. You write for a range of ages, having achieved success writing adult thriller, teen novels and books for younger children. Which age range do you prefer writing for?

Definitely teens. It's the groove I hit most easily. Perhaps most people my age are still teenagers in their heads.

6. You're appearing later this month at Edinburgh International Book Festival to talk about the Adventure books. What's the best thing about giving these sort of talks?

When they go well, you you get a huge adrenaline rush – it's all down to the first joke you tell – if the faces in the crowd light up, and you get that combination of splutters, guffaws and outrage, then you know you're in for a good one. And the first drink afterwards in the pub is always very pleasant...

7. In between writing books, you're also a keen cricketer. If you were given the choice between winning a major book prize or taking five wickets in the Ashes, which would you pick?

These days I'm more of a batsman, so if the choice was a century, then I'd take it in a flash. The sad truth is that at my age, literary success is rather easier to achieve than sporting glory. But at night I dream of flashing cover drives and towering hooked sixes, rather than neatly-turned metaphors.

8. Do you listen to music when writing? If so, what was the soundtrack to Leopard Adventure?

Sometimes – if I'm really in the groove and writing smoothly, then music helps to keep it going. But if I'm stuck, or working on a particularly tricky bit, then I need silence. As for what I listen to, I've got (and I've just checked) 6563 tracks in my iTunes library, and I play through them, randomly. I basically I'm an indy music fan, so there's a lot of Smiths and Pixies action going on.

That's one seriously well-stocked iTunes library! Very impressive.

9. What are you reading at the moment?

I've just finished Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, which is magnificent, and I'm also reading Postwar by Tony Judt – a history of Europe from 1945. And I've also just finished a scientific study of badgers, which I'm using as research for my next book...

Sounds intriguing! I'll look forward to reading that one.

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Anthony. 

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of The Anti-Prom by Abby McDonald

Bliss has spent years waiting for the perfect prom. Part of the school's social elite, it's her night, isn't it? She gets a rude awakening when she sees best friend Kaitlin and boyfriend Cameron making out in the limo. Jolene didn't even want to go to the prom - she was pushed into it by her mother, who's tired of her bad girl image. Meg's so invisible that she's stood up by a boy she's never even met, a family friend who was going with her out of pity, but obviously doesn't pity her enough to turn up. With the help of these two unlikely allies, can Bliss get revenge on Kaitlin? One thing's for sure - this will be a night no-one will forget.

This isn't quite the best book I've read all year - although it's not far off - but it is easily, without question, the most fun I've had reading a book for absolutely ages. I was looking for something light and funny and The Anti-Prom delivered in spades here, as shown by the speed I read it at. (It took me just a couple of hours and for once I managed to completely ignore everything else and focus on it – I didn't even check Twitter while reading it!) While I was hoping for, and partly expecting, that after reading a few other reviews of it, I wasn't quite prepared for just how wonderful the characters would be. Bliss, Jolene and Meg take turns in narrating the book and Abby McDonald captures each of their voices brilliantly. All three are portrayed well and I thought the way the relationship between the girls developed was very realistic - from the plot summary I was expecting them to just become friends straight away but their reasons for helping each other were cleverly revealed as the book went on and made perfect sense.

McDonald also captures the social groups and standings at high school and college with great skill and the more important minor characters are fleshed out well - but make no mistake, this is rightly dominated by the three truly superb narrators. (My personal favourite was Meg, who is absolutely adorable, but your view may vary.) In fact, at the start of the book I really wasn't keen on Bliss but McDonald's portrayal of her meant she really grew on me – outstanding character development for a book which takes place in one night.

Huge recommendation, one of my favourite contemporaries for a while and I think anyone looking for a light read will absolutely love this one.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Tuesday Thoughts: Mia Mania by Van Casey

Lyle Hall is a track star who's hopefully college bound. Mia Hampton is a TV star who's world famous. They seem to have little in common - but they're secretly in a relationship. When Lyle finds out from his best friends Bobby and Zibby that his supposedly virginal girlfriend has just been named by Perez Hilton as having a sex tape, he thinks he's going to lose his mind. Can it be true? Can their relationship be saved? And how can he concentrate on running the big race at the end of the week in the time he needs to impress a college scout?

The action here bounces around between different narrators, mainly from Lyle's point of view but also showing us events as seen by Bobby, Zibby, Mia, and her bodyguard. It took me by surprise at first as the first nine chapters are all narrated by Lyle and by that point I'd assumed the entire book would be, but the changes to other POVs work well and Casey gives them distinct voices which all sound authentic. Virtually all of the characters are very well-rounded - while someone eventually emerges as the villain of the piece, most of them are likeable despite having some significant flaws which make them believable.

As for the plot, it certainly has twists and turns! I managed to guess one or two in advance while others completely blindsided me but made sense looking back - it's very cleverly written and hugely enjoyable. Casey also manages to capture the atmosphere both in high school and in Hollywood really well, with all of the scenes having an authentic ring. The short chapters and punchy writing style make it easy to pick up for just a few minutes (although plenty of cliffhangers - especially when viewpoints are switched - mean it's significantly harder to put down when those minutes are up.)

It's not without its flaws - the ending seems rushed and the gay principal is rather a stereotypical character - but overall I'm really glad I read this one and will definitely be eagerly anticipating Casey's next book. If this was around the five pound mark, as many Kindle books are, I'd be happy to recommend it - for just 77p currently it's an absolute steal.

I should warn younger readers and/or their parents that there are quite a few references to sexual activity, boners, and so on, as you'd expect from the plot summary. Nothing particularly explicit and I'd be happy to give it to readers in their mid-teens personally - just providing the information.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Bunheads by Sophie Flack

My new Sunday Spotlight feature (which actually bears a striking similarity to my old Saturday Spotlight feature) will showcase some of my favourite recent books reviewed for the superb Bookbag site.

Nineteen-year old Hannah Ward, a dancer with the Manhattan Ballet Company, has devoted her entire life to dance. She works hard, watches her weight like a hawk, and navigates the complicated maze of relationships with the rest of the company who, in many cases, are both friends and rivals. But then she meets musician Jacob, and she realises just what she's missed out on while growing up like this. Will she do the unthinkable and give up her career, or pass up the chance of love in the hope of gaining success in the ballet world.

I've always been a massive fan of ballet books - when growing up, Jean Estoril's Drina series and Lorna Hill's Sadler's Wells books were two of my favourites, and they're some of the few classics of my childhood that I still revisit. Given the amount I've read, I would say I know a fair amount more about ballet than the average reader probably does. For example, I know what terms such as maneges, tombes and soutenus mean, but think the majority of readers would perhaps have found it more accessible with a glossary in the back.

That's a rather minor grumble, though – this is a thoughtful look at ballet dancing which really brings home the hard work involved for all those who aspire to make it their career. First-time author Sophie Flack, formerly a dancer herself, does a great job of portraying the world she was a part of, and her characters are particularly realistic. I especially liked Hannah herself, love interest Jacob, and her rival Zoe – who I think many authors would have made into a rather two-dimensional villain but was given a far more well-rounded treatment by Flack.

I've seen a couple of reviewers criticise Bunheads for being rather quiet, with nothing really happening, and am trying to work out whether they've read the same book as me. While it's true that it's not the most dramatic of reads, it does involve a young girl choosing between the career she's spent her life pursuing and her first chance at love, and does a remarkably good job of keeping you guessing as to which decision she'll make until the very end. It's definitely not Black Swan (and I think some people were expecting it to be as they're both about ballet!) but if you honestly don't feel there is anything much at stake here, I'm stunned.

Overall, this is clearly going to appeal most to ballet fans, but is well-written enough to be enjoyed by anyone looking for an introspective book rather than an action thriller. I'm not sure if Flack – who's also a visual artist – is planning on writing more books in the future, but I'd be very interested in reading them if she did.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Friday Feature: How Do You Review?

I've been thinking about this a lot recently as I'm slightly changing the focus of this blog - more on that tomorrow, perhaps - and won't be doing as many reviews as I once was. Because of this, I want to make sure the ones I do write are as useful as possible.

So, how does everyone approach reviewing a book? I tend to keep mine short and (hopefully, at least!) to the point. 100 words or so in a plot summary, 200 - 300 words of my thoughts on the book, finishing off with something like "highly recommended to everyone", "recommended, especially to fans of XXX", or "not really recommended unless you're a massive fan of YYY".

I'm also (over?) cautious about 'spoiling' a book. My general rule is I try to not even touch anything that happens past the quarter-way mark in the book, other than a vague comment along the lines of "I thought the ending was very well-handled" or "I found the ending to be a real let-down." Unless the blurb on the back is incredibly vague, I try not to give away more in my plot summary than that does - and sometimes, as with my recent review of Dark Eyes by William Richter for the Bookbag, I think that's gone too far and try to say a lot less.

As for what I'm looking for - in my mind, I tend to focus on (in roughly this order) characters, dialogue, voice, plot. For me, a book with really strong characters can hook me even if there's virtually nothing happening - although in that case, I'd certainly mention it as I know not everyone feels this way! - while a book with a great plot but weak characters is unlikely to hold my attention much. I'm also much more critical of dialogue when it's a book in a fairly familiar setting - as a teacher in the UK, I find myself gnashing my teeth at the dialogue in certain books saying "But children don't talk like that!" On the other hand, that makes it easy to appreciate the best dialogue in contemporary novels as well - as an example, James Dawson's Hollow Pike captures the tone of his teenage characters so well that it was no surprise to find he worked as a teacher himself. I won't necessarily mention all of those things when reviewing but will pick out anything that particularly impressed me - or, indeed, that I felt wasn't so good.

Finally, the long-standing debate - to rate or not to rate? I don't, personally. (Although I do on the Bookbag and working out what score to give a book often takes nearly as long as writing a review!) I can see strong reasons for doing so but personally slightly prefer not to. This is partly because my reviews are quite short - if I was writing 600 or 700 word reviews I think I'd be much more likely to come up with a rating system to let people see at a glance how much I enjoyed a book.

How do you write your reviews? I'd love to read your comments - or links to your own blog posts if you've previously tackled this subject.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of Paper Towns by John Green

"At least I carpe’d that one diem."

Back when they were nine, Q and his neighbour Margo Roth Spiegelman found a dead body. But by the time they reach their last term at high school, they’ve grown apart. Until the night Margo shows up at Q’s window, takes him on a wild ride around town to get revenge on their enemies, then breaks into SeaWorld. Could this be the rebirth of a beautiful friendship?

It would seem not – because next morning, Margo is gone. After a few days, Q’s left to face the truth – she’s not coming back. And then he finds a clue to her whereabouts – can he track her down, or is he becoming obsessed?

I loved Green’s Looking For Alaska so much that I couldn’t quite bring myself to review it, so terrified was I of spoiling something – but this is better. Q is a fantastic main character, the enigmatic Margo is wonderful, and the supporting cast are really strongly written. As well as that, though, Green captures the atmosphere of the crazy last few weeks of high-school, with an almost-nostalgia setting in as students see each other for the last few times, perfectly. Then, of course, there’s his writing style. I sometimes jot down lines from a book I’m particularly impressed by in a small notepad I keep in my pocket. When reading this one, I’d have needed about six pads (and a bigger pocket.) For example, Radar’s speech to Q after Q whines about Ben is stunning – it’s brilliant dialogue precisely because it feels so real, perfectly capturing the frustration Radar feels but also reminding Q why the group of them are friends.

Virtually every page contains at least one fabulous quote, and I’m struggling to think of any other author who can shift the mood of a book from melancholy to hilarious (or vice versa) so quickly without missing a beat. Oh, and to cap it all, it has one of the most perfects endings I’ve ever read.

Absolutely massive recommendation, definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

"Maybe by imagining these futures we can make them real, and maybe not, but either way we must imagine them."

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Blog Tour: The Twice-Lived Summer of Bluebell Jones by Susie Day

I'm rather thrilled today to be presenting a piece by Susie Day, author of the wonderful Twice-Lived Summer of Bluebell Jones. She released this a month or two after releasing the brilliant Pea's Book of Best Friends - which is pretty much the literary equivalent of Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour De France and following up with Olympic gold. As well as this, she also wrote some fantastic stuff for the blog tour - including this fascinating piece on time travel.


As I boasted (confessed?) on these very pages the other day, I’ve never yet written a book which doesn’t have a Doctor Who reference in it. A character with a long stripy scarf, a desire to ‘ex-merminate’, even a mention of Raxacoricofallapatorius. How I got that past my editor I’ll never know. But The Twice-Lived Summer of Bluebell Jones is the first time I’ve written time-travel itself.

It’s a bit of cheat, still. Time-travel which happens because of a wish? I can’t see that ever happening on Doctor Who; he’d have no truck with something so unscientific. But in Blue’s story there are grandfather paradoxes, and fixed points, and flagrant disregard of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect: all the classics.

Doctor Who has been on telly for nearly fifty years, and the premise is such a bonkers load of nonsense, monsters, foam, hope, jelly babies and Nicholas Parsons that it’s impossible to pick a favourite element. (Except possibly that time Harry Sullivan got his foot stuck in a giant clam.)

But one thing I always enjoy is how often the Doctor messes it up. He’s got an incredible time-and- space machine at his fingertips - but little Amelia Pond still ends up waiting twelve years instead of five minutes. Rose wants to pop back to reassure her mum - only to discover she’s been reported missing for the last twelve months.

He’s not the only one to get things wrong. My favourite timey-wimey film is an un-sci-fi indie called Primer, in which some dotcom geeks invent a time machine in their garage. Time-travel turns out to be really boring, and involve loads of careful clock-watching and hiding in a box so you can’t possibly bump into your other self.

Basically, I like time-travel when you boil it down to the awkward uncomfy practicalities. So it’s no surprise, really, that Bluebell’s adventures in time don’t involve a fun space trip to Metebelis 3, or becoming queen of the ancient Aztecs. On her 13th birthday, Blue wishes for some help getting through that difficult ‘becoming a teenager’ thing. Up pops her 14-year-old future self, known as Red, dispensing advice and eyerolls from her all-too-knowledgeable position. She’s lived this summer once already; she can see where she went wrong the first time, and save Blue from repeating her mistakes.

But, of course, as any Doctor Who fan will spot at once, when Red lived that summer, she didn’t have that advice. So she didn’t take it. So now Blue’s summer isn’t the same summer. And that’s assuming Blue should believe what Red tells her at all...

After all, the Doctor is a Time Lord, at least 1000 years old (he might claim otherwise, but that’s clearly vanity) and he stuffs it up all the time. Time-travel? Think twice.

Thanks, Susie - great piece!

For more from Susie, check out a recent interview with her at this very site - and then go and buy both of the books!

(Credit for images goes to:

TARDIS image: User:Zir / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-3.0
Clock image: Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 photo by CityGypsy11 / / CC-BY-3.0)

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Saturday Spotlight: Tarzan: The Greystoke Legacy by Andy Briggs

My normal Sunday Spotlight, showcasing some of the best books I've reviewed for the Bookbag, is back on Saturday for one week only because the fabulous Susie Day has kindly given me a place on her blog tour tomorrow. This is the first in a series which reboots the Tarzan legend, placing it in modern-day Africa. I've reviewed both for the Bookbag and they're both highly recommended!

Robbie Canler is on the run. From what, it takes us a while to find out, but it's clear that it's something bad when the alternative is working for an illegal logging team in the jungle of the Congo. The work is tough at the best of times, and when things start going wrong for the team, it's definitely not the best of times. And then Jane Porter, his boss's daughter, disappears... Can she be found? And why do all these strange things keep happening to the loggers? It's almost as if there was a weird presence in the jungle.

I should admit straight away that I'm not particularly familiar with Tarzan. I know the very very basics, including the famous line Me Tarzan. You Jane. being a misquote, but that was about it before reading this book. Thankfully, Briggs has made it very accessible to novices like myself, while a quick check of reviews of the original Edgar Rice Burroughs novels shows that he's stuck firmly to the spirit of those books.

On that note, I have to say that the decision to set this in modern times as a 'reboot' rather than do a prequel as various authors have done with other classic characters recently works really well. It's easy to identify with Robbie, the villains - loggers, poachers and rebels - are completely believable products of our times, and Jane is a great modern-day heroine.

So, good choice of setting, but even more impressive is the way Briggs introduces his lead character. Right at the start of the novel the lord of the jungle dispenses summary justice to a group of posters, killing them brutally, and it's clear that this is a no-holds-barred read with a really wild star. Having said that, it's not particularly gory - the violence is present but never overly explicit, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this to mature primary school readers as well as secondary school students. I really enjoyed Briggs' fast-paced writing style, the characters were well-developed, with the subplot of just what Robbie was running from being intriguing, and I'm definitely looking forward to the next in this series.

High recommendation to fans of thrilling adventures! It's also got enough about the destruction of the jungle to be genuinely thought-provoking and open younger readers' eyes to the problems some countries have with these kind of activities.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of Saving June by Hannah Harrington

I picked this up on Kindle for just £1.09 after it was recommended by Caitlin over at The Cait Files - many thanks to her for tipping me off about such a great book at such a fabulous price!

Harper has always been the difficult child, much less perfect than her older sister June. When June commits suicide, though, Harper is left trying to cope as her mother falls apart and her father retreats to his new lover. When she finds out that June was hoping to go to university in California, then Harper decides to foil her parents' plans to split her ashes by taking them to California herself. Aided by best friend Lacey and a boy June knew, Jake, she sets off on a cross-country road trip.

I love road-trip books when they're written well and this one was written really well. The central trio of Harper, Lacey and Jake interact really well and the romance that develops is realistic and believable. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of the places they went, while the strong focus on music - including a CD Jake made for June that she was listening to when she killed herself - really appealed to me. (On a sidenote, it was wonderful to find track listings of the 3 CDs made during the course of the book in the back - it's given me lots of ideas for things to listen to.)

Also, the ending was really good, wrapping some things up and providing a definite sense of conclusion but feeling realistic rather than overly neat.

Strong recommendation - it comes with a warning, though - this is a definite tearjerker! Not quite up to The sky Is Everywhere or Code Name Verity levels but a pack of tissues is certainly recommended.