Monday, 30 April 2012

Monday Musings: Book Review of Butterfly Summer by Anne-Marie Conway

(I was provided with this book by the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.)



Becky doesn't want to move away from her friends to return to Oakbridge, the tiny village her mother grew up in. She feels even worse about the move when she discovers a strange photo of her mum holding a baby - 12 years before Becky was born - and her mum slides into a deep depression before Becky can find out more about the photo. But when she meets Rosa May, a girl of her own age, things start to look up. Except Rosa has a terrible temper and a jealous streak - could she have a secret of her own?

I enjoyed this one and thought that, as always with Conway’s books, the characters were really well-drawn. Becky is a lovely main character while Rosa May is really intriguing, and Becky’s mother’s depression is handled sympathetically. Like Conway’s Star Makers Club series, it’s really easy to read – she has a wonderful writing style which makes the book hard to put down and her prose captures the settings, especially the Butterfly Garden itself, vividly. It feels much more grown-up than the Star Makers Club, with a decidedly dark streak to it, and it's great to see an author change style quite significantly and pull it off so well. It's also decidedly tense!

My only slight issue with the book was that I found it was rather predictable – however, that was perhaps partly because the back of the ARC gave significantly more details than the Amazon product description (and presumably the back of the finished book) does. If I hadn’t known these extra details, it may well have been that I found the ending more surprising. Having said that, despite being reasonably sure I knew how things would work out, this didn't spoil my enjoyment as I still enjoyed seeing how Conway brought everything together in the end.

Definite recommendation to people looking for a thrilling read.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Sunday Special: Blogger Interview with M and Little M of We Sat Down


One of the best things about book blogging is the sheer variety of blogs out there to read, with new ones springing up all the time. Even though it's only April, there have already been some great ones started this year. One of my very favourites so far is the wonderful We Sat Down, which is run by the mother-daughter team of M and Little M. They were kind enough to take some time out from reading and blogging to talk to me.

1. Tell us a bit about yourselves - what do you both do aside from reading and blogging?

Little M: I do horse-riding, gymnastics, Guides, school, art e.g. textile work like our bookmarks!. I play with my dog and my hamster.

M: I travel the world and the seven seas (mostly but not always in my head) and muck about with campaigns, NGO and charity work. I have a 'This is What a Feminist Looks Like' t-shirt, I like cooking Kylie Kwong style, I rarely turn down a glass of good bubbly and I wish I had an enormous dance floor at home.  


2.. Whose idea was it to start a book blog?

Little M: "Was it mine?"

M: "Maybe. It was one of us!"

Little M: "When M was my age, she wrote down the books she read onto paper and she still has them now. So I thought maybe we should do one on the computer."

M: "And then we sat down on the brown sofa....and you all know the rest!


3. Who reads more out of the pair of you?

Little M: "Who is it? Is it me or you? I think it's me."
M: "Well, I read all the time but a lot of it is non-fiction.  I think you read more fiction that I do right now."


4. Are there any books which you've both read but completely disagree on? Anything M loves that Little M can't stand, or vice versa? 

Little M: "My Name is Mina!"

M: "You haven't read it! I loved it and I love Mina and her mum. But Little M read Skellig and Mina was her least favourite character - too much bird business. We tend to disagree on what books to read. And then often go our separate ways. But there are plenty of books we've both read and loved like Between Shades of Gray (Ruta Sepetys), Divergent (Veronica Roth - although Little M loved it, I liked it), the World's End series (Monica Dickens).  Neither of us have read Black Beauty or National Velvet - but we love the stories."

I've never read Skellig and I keep meaning to. Same with Divergent, actually! I'll have to make a serious effort on remembering to get hold of that one if you're both recommending it.


5. You've mentioned Little M's aversion to 'girly' covers - what are your favourite and least-liked covers?

Little M: "I don't like book covers that have gory pictures or pink and loveheart kisses. I like Lauren St John's Laura Marlin covers - painting style. I also like covers with a picture of an animal like Marley & Me, Christian the Lion, and the Pippa Funnell series. I dislike Lauren Child illustrations, they just look childish!"

M: "I love the Pippi Longstocking cover that Lauren Child illustrated!  I like Lauren Child's illustrations full-stop. Oh ,and Eric Carle too! I also like Marley & Me too - all animal goofy and cuddly. Generally, I don't like photos on covers but if they're there they need to be worked up and more like a collage.  I like a little bit of art love on them - and texture.  My Name is Mina has some great texture.  Currently I like Code Name Verity's cover too - it's a bit cliche in its nostalgia but I probably would have put a poster of it on my wall as a teenI! Neither of us like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time cover (although the back and spine are great). I'm not really very good with violence (I wish I was a punkrocker with flowers in my hair)."

Agree that Code Name Verity's cover is superb! (As is everything else about CNV, obviously.) I have to agree with M about Lauren Child, I've never read any of her books but I quite like the illustrations.


6. M, are there any classic books from your own teenage years you're hoping that Little M will read and love when she's a bit older?

"Part of the reason for me getting involved with this blog was to find new books for Little M to read - and for me to see how much the world of kid lit had moved on!  But yes, there are quite a few books from my past that I'd love her to read (not sure how they stand up now so I may have to re-read a few myself). I think she'll love these but she'll have to make up her own mind.  The list would include the horsey Mary O'Hara trilogy - My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead and Green Grass of Wyoming,  maybe Lorna Hill's Sadlers Wells ballet series (but that's for when we visit ze grandmere), at some point Robert Cormier (like I Am the Cheese or The Chocolate War), Orwell's 1984, Ursula le Guin's Earthsea books and The Beadle by Pauline Smith (if anyone can get this easily, please let me know!). And of course Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye."

Sadler's Wells is an amazing series which I don't mention anywhere near enough on here - great choice! I find Cormier hit and miss but the Chocolate War is one of my all-time favourites, along with The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. I'm less keen on I Am The Cheese. I won't mention my thoughts on Catcher in the Rye!

7. Little M, how many of your friends enjoy reading? Do they know about your blog?

"Some of my friends know about my blog but only a very, very small amount read. I'm also going to tell my teachers about it because my school is going to do the Carnegie shadowing."

Jealous! (Although my school actually does the Carnegie shadowing, I'm just too busy to take part in it!) Hope you have fun.


8. I’m hoping some of my readers will rush over to We Sat Down once they’ve finished this interview. Is there any particular post on the blog you’d recommend they check out? 

M: "No. We think everyone visits blogs for different reasons and I'm definitely an explorer!  We have a tag cloud and there's a page with all our reviews linked. The We Sat Down tag is for posts where I tend to get a bit heavy and controversial - but there's a lot of fun too. The Easter In My Mailbox post is quite fun - it has Easter eggs in it.  And one of the IMM's has the dog's nose in it too! Hopefully, there's a little bit for everyone in most of our stuff."

Great point! I'll take the opportunity to plug your We Sat Down For a Chat... About YA post, though, because I really loved it.


9. You have an incredibly impressive collection of animal books! Who's your favourite fictional animal?

Little M: "Sheltie!  Because he's really funny.  He's cheeky.  And he's got a funny little personality.  He'd do something silly like pull a scarf off your neck."

M: "I really can't pick a favourite. I'd have a menagerie full of Flickas and Thunderheads - that's probably a stable actually!"


10. Do you think you'll still be blogging in another 2 years time?

Little M: "U-huh, I think it will carry on because it's meant to log the books we've read."

M: "I've been blogging since 2006 so chances are...yes! This one's my favourite blog so far.  It's the most interactive blogging community I've ever joined."

Great to hear! Thanks for taking the time to give us such a fab interview!

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Saturday Special: Book Review of The Things We Did For Love by Natasha Farrant


In a small village in South-West France in the final years of World War II, the Resistance fight against the occupying Germans. Against this backdrop, Arianne falls madly in love with Luc, who has returned to the village after a long time away. They seem perfect for each other – but Luc has a dark secret in his past, and is desperate to make up for it, leading him to become involved with the fight against the Nazis. When someone else becomes jealous of Arianne’s feelings for him, tragedy seems inevitable.

It was, in retrospect, a mistake reading this straight after Code Name Verity, my favourite book of the year so far. Not for the reason I half-expected, though. I nearly left it for a while because I was worried that no other World War II novel could compare to the fabulous CNV - but this one holds its own. The reason reading them in succession was a mistake is that I ended up crying so much over a period of a couple of days that my eyes took ages to recover.

It’s truly heart-rending, it has a wonderfully drawn cast of characters – I fell completely in love with about six different people at various points in the book – and Farrant’s writing style is utterly beautiful. Massive recommendation as one of my top few of the year so far. I appreciate this is a rather short review – as always, with the books I really loved I find it very difficult to say too much because I’m always petrified of spoiling them – but it really is one you should rush out and buy.

As mentioned above, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein really is wonderful. For more mid 20th century historical fiction that I absolutely loved, I can't recommend A Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master highly enough.

Saturday Special: May 2012 YA Releases To Watch Out For

There are some amazing books coming out in May - I just about narrowed it down to 10 I'm particularly looking forward to!

1st May


Welcome Caller This Is Chloe by Shelley Coriell – Bright and breezy writing style coupled with sensitive handling of some serious issues (including the effect of Parkinson’s disease on a sufferer’s family) and a fab central character make this a huge recommendation. This is one of my top 3 YA contemporary releases so far this year.


Butterfly Summer by Anne-Marie Conway – I’ve read this one but the review’s not up until Monday! I’m also worried about giving stuff away so even when the review is up I’m not convinced it’s that illuminating. All I’ll say, though, is it’s a definite recommendation due to Conway’s really strong characters and great writing style. 

Wentworth Hall by Abby Grahame – This appears to be being billed as ‘Gossip Girl meets Downton Abbey’. What more can you want? 

3rd May


Slated by Teri Terry – Every time I decide I’m fed up of dystopia, something drags me back in. The concept of a society who deal with teenage criminals by wiping their minds and personalities sounds chilling and there’s a bunch of great reviews of this one.

8th May


Ordinary Magic by Caitlen Rubino-Broadway – I’m trying to read more MG, and this sounds amazing! Story of a world where nearly everyone can use magic, focusing on a girl called Abby who’s one of the few who can’t – an ‘Ord’.


Struck by Jennifer Bosworth - If the idea of a lightning addict who has two cults fighting over her isn’t enough by itself to make you want to read this one, check out the amazing trailer!



In Honor by Jessi Kirby – Girl receives a last letter from her brother, a Marine, three days after learning of his death. Letter contains tickets to a concert to see his celebrity crush and a joking request that she tells the star he loves her. She sets off to grant his last wish, with help from his best friend – who’s her polar opposite. I don’t know about you, but I’m welling up just reading the plot summary. I previewed this in a WOW a few months ago and there was tons of interest. Hope it’s as good as it looks!

10th May



Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne - Again, I've read this and will be reviewing soon. In Emily Koll, a gangster's daughter who's awaiting trial for taking revenge on the girl who stabbed her father, Byrne has created an incredible narrator. I actually liked her despite everything - I'm not holding her up as a role model, admittedly, but her behaviour is almost understandable. Interview coming with Tanya on Friday, by the way!




Black Heart Blue by Louisa Reid - Stunning debut is exceptionally difficult to read, dealing with a girl who has Treacher Collins Syndrome grieving over the death of her twin sister. Add in abusive parents and this is one for those with strong stomachs - but it's incredibly well-written and certainly worth reading.
   
24th May





What’s Up With Jody Barton by Hayley Long – It’s Hayley Long, people! You know it’ll be awesome. As much as I loved Lottie Biggs and her friends, this twin sister tale featuring brand new characters sounds like it’ll be brilliant.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Friday Feature: Guest Post by Jon Mayhew on Inspirations for the Bonehill Curse


As regular readers will know, I'm a big fan of Jon Mayhew's! I really enjoyed his first two books Mortlock and the Demon Collector but thought that his most recent, the Bonehill Curse, was his best yet. I've interviewed him in the past, and he was kind enough to suggest something a bit different this time - a guest post on his inspirations for the Bonehill Curse. Naturally, I jumped at the chance!

Over to you, Jon.


Be Careful What You Wish For – The Bonehill Curse Influences and Inspirations

Imagine you had your own magic lamp, just like Aladdin. Think of what you’d wish for!

This is an ancient daydream. Nowadays, we just buy a lottery ticket and hope for a win (sometimes the odds of finding a magic lamp seem better) but ask any group of children what they would wish for and you’ll be there all afternoon!

The story of The Fisherman and the Genie has long fascinated me. A genie lies in a bottle at the bottom of the sea and he promises a thousand blessings on the first person to free him. But as time rolls on, the genie’s imprisonment becomes harder to bear. His bitterness twists his promise and he vows to slay the first person he meets as a punishment for not freeing him sooner. When the fisherman frees the genie, it takes all his wit and cunning to trick the creature back into the bottle.

In the Bonehill Curse, Necessity Bonehill meets such a genie, one that will grant her wish but will take its revenge on all of mankind. She has to stop it. And being human, her wish isn’t for world peace or an end to poverty; it’s something much more personal.

Wishes also permeate the Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs and it was this short story that first inspired me to write about the supernatural at all. The Monkey’s Paw is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ story. A wish makes everything wrong and another wish to put things right makes it ten times worse. Having read the story over and over again, I was left wondering about the adventures of the first holder of the paw in the tale, one Sergeant Major Morris. It’s no coincidence that a character by that very name appears in The Bonehill Curse and maybe one day, I’ll return to map out his further exploits!

Finally, reading Mayhew’s Characters, I came across an account of a ‘Turkish Spice Seller’ called Azuli. He was the inspiration for the ‘Aladdin-type’ male companion for Necessity! He’s proud, haughty and constantly getting a fat lip courtesy of Miss Bonehill but there’s a spark between them too.

So there you have it, a few folk tales, a ghostly short story and a little research led to this third ‘Mortlock adventure.’ Of course, I haven’t mentioned the homicidal flying carpet, the vampires, zombies or the return of Rookery Heights. Find out more on my blog.

Jim: It's definitely worth checking out Jon's wonderful blog! And, of course, the Bonehill Curse and the other two books. Thanks for taking the time to write that excellent post, Jon.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of The Summer My Life Began by Shannon Greenland

(I read this book via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.)



Elizabeth Margaret (Em for short) has her life planned out for her. She's just graduated and will go to an Ivy League university, then law school, then work for her wealthy father's firm. It's not really what she wants - her secret fantasy is to become a chef, as her younger sister Gwenny knows - but it's what's expected of her. Then, she gets a postcard from her Aunt Tilly congratulating her on her graduation. Nothing surprising there, you may think - but neither Em nor Gwenny even knew they had an Aunt Tilly. Taking up the offer of a stay at Tilly's B & B, Em will learn more in this summer than she has in her entire life beforehand.

I wanted to love this one - I'm a huge fan of coming of age stories in general - but it fell somewhat flat for me. Greenland's writing has some really strong points, especially her mouth-watering descriptions of the food Em cooks, but her characters are generally fairly bland. (The exception for me was Gwenny, I really liked the relationship between her and Em.) It also moved at too slow a pace to retain my interest fully.

Add to this a rather predictable plot, with first love, the mystery of why Em had never been told about Tilly, and Em's choice between her family's expectations and her heart's desire, and it's hard to recommend this unless you're a massive fan of YA contemporary.

I should point out that Greenland has a pleasant writing style and her dialogue is realistic. If the pacing issues is less of a problem for you then it might be worth checking out. Several bloggers whose opinion I really respect have liked this one - if you're looking for a second opinion it's well worth reading the Sweet Bookshelf's view or Nifty Novels.

Personally, my all time favourite coming of age story is a close call between Rosamunde Pilcher's wonderful Coming Home, an adult novel that teens will definitely enjoy as well, and Dodie Smith's gorgeous I Capture The Castle. For a more recent teen read, anything by Sarah Dessen is worth checking out, with Just Listen being my personal favourite.


Wednesday, 25 April 2012

March in Review

Having said February was an unbelievably strong month for books, I found the first half of March was struggling to match up to it but still had some books that were well worth reading. Then we got to the last week or so, in which I read three which were staggeringly good, to the point I've had to do a top three this month instead of just a 'Book of the Month' because I couldn't quite bear NOT to acknowledge the brilliance of 2 of them.

YA reads

The Gathering Dark (published as Shadow and Bone in the US) by Leigh Bardugo - I have slightly mixed feelings on this. I enjoyed it and thought it was a well-written fantasy slightly let down by a rushed ending. From what I can see, virtually every other book blogger out there has got it down as one of the best of the year so far. I'm a slightly dissenting voice here - it was good and I'd recommend it, but it's not up there with the really top fantasy books (like the Moorehawke trilogy or Daniel Abraham's stunning The Dagger and the Coin) for me. Still worth reading, though.

Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci - I wasn't reading much YA back when this was published in 2005, but I picked it up from the library and was really glad I did. It's a lovely, sci-fi tinged, coming of age story about a girl obsessed with her favourite movie and not interested in romance - until she meets a particular boy. Well worth taking a look at.

Hollow Pike by James Dawson - Super creepy and incredibly tense tale of witchcraft in a sleepy community. Great location and awesome characters make this fabulous.

Pieces Of Us by Margie Gelbwasser - Staggeringly bleak, this is a compelling and exceptionally powerful look at some terrible events including cyber-bullying, sexual abuse and blackmail. It's not one you're likely to enjoy but it's very, very well-written. Margie was kind enough to give me an interview.

Torn by Stephanie Guerra - Hard-hitting contemporary which stood out as the best I read in the first half of the month. Guerra's debut YA novel fizzles with great characters and a red-hot plot. Look out for an interview with Stephanie nearer publication date, by the way!

Illegal by Miriam Halahmny - Wasn't overly keen on the characters here, but thought it was well plotted. Worth a look for fans of edgy contemporary novels. 

Invincible by Sherrilyn Kenyon - Despite some good dialogue here this is a massive step down after a very enjoyable start to the Chronicles of Nick series.   I'm not sure whether Kenyon wrote this in a rush or it was poorly edited but there's little of interest going on and some of the writing is dire - notably the use of the word 'pwning' which irritated me beyond belief.

Infamous by Sherrilyn Kenyon - After the let-down that was book 2, Kenyon comes back into form with her best yet in this series. It's much pacier, the writing is better, and it has a strong message about the evil people can do to each other, even without help from demons and other nasties. Good enough to get me really excited about this series despite my thoughts on Invincible.

Vixen by Jillian Larkin - Wonderful writing and an incredibly good setting in Prohibition-era Chicago, along with three interesting main characters, make this a must-read for fans of historical fiction.

Bonehill Curse by Jon Mayhew - It's always a pleasure to read something new by Jon Mayhew, and in his loosely-linked trilogy of Victorian fantasy he's saved the best for last. This tale of a cursed bottle and a vengeful genie is a must-read with a fabulous central character. Check back on Friday for a post from Jon about the inspirations behind the book, by the way.

Alibi by Annie Miles, Isabel Eckersley, John Byrne and Sorrel Provola - Intriguing 'serial novella' follows four teen suspects in the aftermath of the death of a girl. They all had reasons to kill her - as we see through flashbacks - but who did? Well worth checking out. Twist Literary, the new publishers behind this series, gave me a fantastic interview.

The Truth About Celia Frost by Paula Rawnsthorne - Slightly mixed feelings on this one, as I was enjoying it a lot to start off with but found the bizarre ending put me off. I think a lot of people will really enjoy it, though.

Virals by Kathy Reichs - YA sci-fi debut by adult crime writer Reichs is very different from what I was expecting, and takes a while to properly get going. That said, the action once it comes is fast and furious, and I'll definitely be picking up the second in the series, Seizure, sooner rather than later. 

Reality Check by Laura Peyton Roberts - It took me 5 minutes and some searching on Amazon to remember what book this was (I'd forgotten to note down the author as well as the title.) As you can probably tell from that, I wasn't very impressed - a shame given how much I liked the first. This one seemed much blander and little happened during the course of the book. I'll probably carry on with the series, since I enjoyed Get A Life, but this seriously disappointed me.

Top three for the month, though...

3rd

The Things We Did For Love by Natasha Farrant - It wou have been a worthy winner; I just happened to read two books which were even more exceptional than this one. (I can't imagine that will happen in many months!) Farrant's tragic tale of France in WWII is heart-rending and beautifully written. Absolutely superb. (I keep meaning to review it and haven't got round to it yet.)


2nd

Department 19: The Rising by Will Hill - Hill is a genius. No question about it. I generally feel anything over about 400 pages should have been cut down; this runs at about 700 pages in hardback and every word feels essential. Fantastic world-building, awesome characters, and a great plot make this a must-read.


And the YA Book of the Month is...




Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein - Just read it. In my constant quest to avoid spoiling this mesmerising book, I'll just repeat the very basics. World War II, stunning characters, beautifully written, heartbreaking, MUST READ. Elizabeth Wein was kind enough to talk to me about it.



MG reads

I managed to read significantly more MG this month than last month, including a few really good ones.

Poppy's Hero by Rachel Billington - Oh boy... this was one of the first I read in the month and I decided to pass on reviewing it because I couldn't quite work out what to say and didn't want to give it the oxygen of publicity anyway. Billington is the daughter of Lord Longford, who was a famous campaigner for penal reform. Learning this after reading it, it did at least answer the question as to what on earth the point of the book was. With flat characters and little to hold a reader's attention, it's clearly been written to try and put forward Billington's views on the prison service.

Butterfly Summer by Anne-Marie Conway - Conway takes a break from the Star Makers series to write an altogether darker book. Creepy and atmospheric, I found this a slightly on the predictable side but it was still a good read.

Sinking Deeper - Or My Questionable (Possibly Heroic) Decision to Invent a Sea Monster? by Steve Vernon - I get maybe three requests a week from authors to review their books at the moment, but have such a massive list of stuff to read that I have to turn most of them down. This is one of the very few I've accepted recently (the title captured my attention enough to read the opening chapter and narrator Roland's sarcastic stlye got me hooked) and I'm really glad I did - it's a fast-paced and very readable book with a great setting and a surprisingly moving ending. Steve talked to me about the book as well.

Million Dollar Mates by Cathy Hopkins - Another victim of inflated expectations here. From many authors, I would have thought this was a pleasant enough book to spend an hour reading. From Cathy Hopkins, author of two of my favourite series for teens and younger tweens, it felt like a let-down. The characters aren't as sparky as those in Truth, Dare, Kiss or Promise and Mates, Dates... so I struggled to get into it properly. Mild recommendation if you're a big fan of MG.

Revenge of Praying Mantis by Jane Prowse - First in a trilogy about a girl who discovers she's the 'Golden Child' and is plunged into a battle against ninjas is notable for having a very well-drawn set of characters and a really strong message about standing up for yourself but using force only as a last resort.

Stalking the Enemy by Jane Prowse - As good as the first Hattori Hachi book was, this is slightly better. With the scene and most of the characters already set, Prowse concentrates on giving us some amazing action. Jane Prowse was kind enough to give me an interview.

Big Fat Teen Crisis by Jenny Smith - Engaging central character with a strong narrative voice and a breezy writing style make this one worth checking out.

MG Book of the Month though goes to



Farm Boy by Michael Morpurgo - Sequel to War Horse is short, but beautifully illustrated and just as well-written as we've come to expect from this wonderful author. Moving, sweet and with a wonderful central pairing, it's a high recommendation.




Highly Recommended (These are all the books I rated 4 ½ or 5 stars this month.)

Hollow Pike by James Dawson
Things We Did For Love by Natasha Farrant
Torn by Stephanie Guerra
Department 19: The Rising by Will Hill
Vixen by Jillian Larkin
Bonehill Curse by Jon Mayhew
Farm Boy by Michael Morpurgo
Revenge of Praying Mantis by Jane Prowse
Stalking The Enemy by Jane Prowse
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Recommended (These are the books I rated 4 stars this month.)

The Gathering Dark by Leigh Bardugo
Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci
Butterfly Summer by Anne-Marie Conway
Pieces of Us by Margie Gelbwasser
Illegal by Mirama Halahmny
Infamous by Sherrilyn Kenyon
Alibi by Annie Miles, Isabel Eckersley, John Byrne and Sorrel Provola
Virals by Kathy Reichs
Big Fat Teen Crisis by Jenny Smith
Sinking Deeper - Or My Questionable (Possibly Heroic) Decision to Invent a Sea Monster? by Steve Vernon


Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Favourite Ever Characters


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


This was insanely hard to do. I've compromised on a few things here to get it down to ten! Firstly, I stuck rigidly to YA/MG/children's books for once, disposing of Jay Gatsby, the ultimate tragic hero of the Great Gatsby, alcoholic sportswriter WG Karunasena whose jaded, cynical voice made Chinaman my favourite adult novel of the last 10 years, and Raistlin Majere, the gold-skinned mage with the hourglass eyes who is still my favourite ever fantasy character. Oh, and Discworld's Nobby Nobbs, "disqualified from the human race for shoving."

Then I ditched couples, because I only wanted one character from each series or book and couldn't separate Amy and Roger from Amy and Roger's Epic Detour, or Ryan and Jenna from Skin Deep.

Eventually, I THINK I have 10 I'm happy with!

1. Kat Stephenson from the Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson by Stephanie Burgis - If you haven't read A Most Improper Magick and A Tangle of Magicks yet, you're missing a treat. Kat is loyal, feisty, clever and altogether wonderful, and stands out as the best character in the series despite an excellent supporting cast. We need more stories about Georgian witches!

2. Wesley Jefferson “Link” Lincoln from the Caster Chronicles by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl - EVERYONE needs a friend like Link - but when you're in the kind of situations Ethan and Lena get into, you need him more than most. Just a fabulous, amazing character.

3. Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling - Forget Harry, Hermione and Ron, the secondary trio of Luna, Neville and Ginny were always my favourites. Luna just beats out the other two (I limited myself to one character per series) because of the 'friends' scene in Deathly Hallows which nearly broke my heart. I also love the ending to Deathly Hallows part 2 slightly more than the ending to the book because of Luna.

4. Old Wilkie from the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge - "I... I... I... CORWUMPH!" The teacher who's continually frustrated by 'silly little boys' but has a heart of gold buried deep, deep down, is the most memorable character from a series I absolutely adored as a child.

5. Maddie from Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein - Words cannot express how brilliant she is. I also flail about like a lunatic worried I'll spoil something every time I mention this amazing book, so I won't even try.

6. Hector from the Wereworld series by Curtis Jobling - Just a stunning, staggering character arc to change from a naive young Boarlord to what he is now. (Again, will end that there to avoid spoilers!)

7. Brianna from the Gone series by Michael Grant - I love the way Brianna is clearly having a blast in the FAYZ despite the most terrifying circumstances imaginable. And hey, gotta love anyone who gives themselves a superhero name to go with her powers! Go Breeze!

8. Pellinore Warthrop from the Monstrumologist series by Rick Yancey - The title character of the monstrumologist is absolutely fascinating. A giant personality who starts the series as rather remote and unlikeable, the relationship between Warthrop and young assistant Will Henry has developed to the point where they're an outstanding duo.

9. Drina Adams from the Drina series by Jean Estoril - I've raved about my love for Drina many times before, so she was obviously going to be in here. The way we get to see her grow up from a young child in primary school to a successful dancer is fantastic.

10. Clover from Life, Death and Gold Leather Trousers by Fiona Foden - The heroine of this MG book is one of the most charming I've ever encountered. I love the realism of her relationships with her parents (who've just split up), their new love interests, her kid sister and her first crush.


Monday, 23 April 2012

Monday Musings: Book Review of Charity's Child by Rosalie Warren

(I don't normally post two reviews in a day, but this is FREE on Kindle today and tomorrow so wanted to get it out there quickly to encourage people to grab it!)



(Please note: This book was received free of charge from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.)

Joanne can't believe Charity's pregnant. She thought they were in love and were happy together - so why would Charity have sex with a man? Except Charity swears she hasn't had sex with anyone and thinks that the father is God himself. Could it be true? Or is the real dad rather more earthly than heavenly, possibly in the shape of one of the men from the Christian group both girls attend?

This is an intense psychological drama which deals with some really heavy issues. However, it's still enjoyable reading as Warren skilfully crafts a great plot - which was really unpredictable - and a host of sympathetic characters, most notably narrator Joanne and pastor Tom, whose diary entries form an important part of the book. The voices of both these characters are extremely vivid, and there's a great supporting cast as well.

After reading it, I wondered slightly about the decision to class it as YA. It doesn't 'feel' particularly like YA to me. I'm not sure why - it's perhaps partly because Tom's diary is such an important part of it. I think it's definitely one that adults, as well as mature teens, will enjoy reading, and it deserves real praise for the way it handles so many thought-provoking issues, particularly teen sexuality, with Joanne and Charity's relationship being portrayed very well, and the realistic way in which it shows arguments within the Christian group they belong to without being critical of any beliefs.

Recommended to both mature teens and to adults.

It's currently FREE on Kindle, by the way! Monday 23rd and Tuesday 24th only, though, so hurry!

Monday Musings: Book Review of Fear by Michael Grant


Spoilers for Michael Grant's first four books in this series comes fast and furious below!



Darkness is falling in the FAYZ. The dome that isolates the children from the outside world is turning black, and Sam, Astrid and the rest know that this could be the worst thing yet to happen to them. I'm leaving the plot summary there, because it deserves to be read with as few spoilers as possible.

First, a warning. This has always been one of the most gruesome teen series out there, and this is exceptionally strong stuff. I had trouble reading about a kid who clawed his own eyes out when he was forced to hallucinate by Penny, who makes a monstrous villainess in this one. (I'll admit that I have a weak stomach for this sort of stuff compared to most teen readers, though!)

Getting that out of the way, then as long as you can cope with violence, you won't want to miss this one. There's some really interesting developments in both the plot and in several characters' stories, and Grant has created one of the most compelling worlds I've read about for years. What strikes me most when reading this is how well he does the human side of the story. Yes, Sam can fire light from his hands, Brianna runs like the wind, and Drake has a tentacle instead of a hand, but it never feels like it's just about their powers. In fact, one of the most interesting parts is the way people like Albert, Quinn and Edilio are realistically depicted as amongst the most important figures in the FAYZ despite having no special powers. Particularly notable are the way Albert continues to develop into a darker character, and an absolutely wonderful scene between Brianna and Dekka which I don't want to give away anything about but which I loved.

There's also a significant development outside the dome, in the story of Sam and Caine's mother, which left me intrigued as to what we're not finding out yet. In fact, there appears to be an awful lot we're not finding out yet. Of course, that's where Grant's track record is crucial. If this was one of the first books in a series, I think there's enough not being answered that this would frustrate me. (In particular, how Little Pete is doing everything he's currently doing.) As it is, Grant has proved himself to have such an incredible grasp on his world that I'm happy to assume that he knows what's going on, and that everything will be revealed to us in Light, the final book in this series.

Strong recommendation, with the aforementioned warning for weak stomachs!

I think fans of this one would also really like Scott Cramer's excellent Night of the Purple Moon, which also deals with a society with no adults.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Sunday Special: Interview with Elizabeth Wein

If you've read my review of Code Name Verity, you probably have some idea of how excited I was to get the chance to interview author Elizabeth Wein!


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

I see myself at 16.  Then I shiver.

If I try to look further, I see a person who looks a lot like Queenie - on the inside more than the outside - an avid reader, enthusiastic to the point of loopiness about the things she’s interested in, not sure yet what she wants to do with her life.  Looking for adventure.  I do confess that this is a book aimed more at girls than at boys.

2. Who do you relate more closely to in Code Name Verity, Queenie or Maddie?

I think there’s a bit of me in both of them, but I guess the answer has to be Queenie.  Her bookish childhood, university background, love of pretense and pleasure in writing - that’s me.  I have never in my life created a character whose voice came so naturally to me.

I had to work harder at Maddie’s voice to keep it consistent.  Maddie is a nicer person than me - sometimes when I was working on her part I’d put my pen down and exclaim aloud, ‘Maddie, you are just SO NICE!’  Most of my characters have a mean or jealous or devious streak.  Maddie’s straightforward generosity surprised me.

Agreed, Maddie is staggeringly nice! 


3. I've read several articles talking about Code Name Verity being your debut book - which is rather wide of the mark! That said, it's certainly brought you to the attention of many people who haven't heard of you before. Do you think there's a particular reason for its phenomenal success compared to your earlier books?

There are two clear answers to that, and I think they work together with equal weight:

1) It’s the best book I’ve ever written.
2) It’s being more aggressively promoted by the publishers than my other books.

It’s really only the Brits who use the ‘debut’ word, and that’s no doubt because I’ve never had a book published in the UK before.  So British booksellers and librarians and the general reading public are very unlikely to have heard of me (though a few savvy reviewers have pointed out that it’s NOT DIFFICULT to search Google or Amazon before calling this a debut novel… and my other books ARE mentioned on my website and on Goodreads…)

A third answer is ‘online buzz’.  I think this has made a huge and amazing difference for Code Name Verity.  My most recent book previous to CNV was The Empty Kingdom, published by Viking in 2008.  That’s only four years ago, but my impression is that book blogging was in its infancy then.  There weren’t any online reviews for the book.  Virtual galleys weren’t available.  Online literary exchange - in particular Goodreads, Facebook, and Twitter, in addition to the bloggers and readers themselves - has had an enormous effect on Code Name Verity’s early success.  It’s so easy to promote the book online.

I ran an on-line launch for The Empty Kingdom in 2008 and it was such an original idea at the time that the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators paid me to write an article for the SCBWI Bulletin about it. It really wasn’t very long ago, but there’s nothing original about this idea now.  (The mortal remains of that party are viewable here, but it’s a ghost of its former self.)

I think the 'online buzz' factor is awesome. (Although as a blogger, I would say that!) I'm thinking back to my own childhood and teenage years and how much I woud have loved it if I could have found likeminded readers then!


4. Your love of planes shines through Code Name Verity, and I wasn't particularly surprised to find out you had a pilot's license. In the same situation, do you think you could have coped as well as Maddie does?

I really, really hope so.  A large part of a pilot’s training is ritually practicing what to do in an emergency (so in fact I’ve actually done the same firefighting maneuver as Maddie, but only in practice).  I feel obliged to point out that Maddie is a much more experienced pilot than I am; but practice for emergency situations is handled as a drill, to get you in the habit of going into a set routine the moment you recognize a problem.

The only recurring dream I have about flying is of having to land a broken plane.  Amazingly, these dreams are never nightmares.  I usually have to land in some really dumb place like the top of a car or the roof of a narrow boat, and I always manage to pull it off successfully.  I like the confidence of my dream world emergency landings, all the more so because in real life practice emergency maneuvers scare the pants off me.  And practice forced landings are the worst.

‘Fly the plane’ isn’t something I made up specially for Maddie to remind herself when she needs to stay calm - it’s something every aviator is supposed to remember.  But honestly - anti-aircraft guns?  I don’t know if I’d cope as well as Maddie. I would certainly use stronger language than she does.


5. Your POV for a large part of the narrative shows Queenie talking about herself in the third person. It's drawn a lot of comments, partly because it's quite unusual and partly because you handle it so wonderfully. Did you always know you were going to write those bits from that POV?

I did decide early on to do it that way, for all the reasons Queenie gives - mainly that we were telling the story from Maddie’s point of view and it would have been awkward to introduce another viewpoint character.  What I had trouble with was figuring out what to call her in her role as Queenie - or rather, what she should call herself.  I thought it would be weird for her to call herself by her own real name, and I also liked the idea of messing with Anna Engel’s brain by fooling her into thinking the narrator hadn’t turned up yet.  And then I realized that it would be kind of neat if the narrator didn’t mention her own name throughout her narrative.

I have never been entirely comfortable with ‘Queenie’ as a name for this character, though it is useful and appropriate for many reasons, and when she says, ‘I am not Queenie any more,’ it makes sense to me. In my head I call her by her real name, the name she calls herself.  ‘Scottie’ is another pseudonym I (and she) considered, but it’s less of a disguise and wouldn’t have worked so well for messing with Engel’s brain.

There is a point at which Queenie slips up and talks about herself in the first person during her embedded story - it describes a traumatic experience for Queenie which Maddie doesn’t witness, though she is on hand to pick up the pieces immediately afterward.  It seemed right for Queenie tell this particular experience from her own point of view, so the slip is purposeful on my part but not on hers.

Most reviewers have been extremely careful about not revealing Queenie’s real name.  This is incredibly touching to me, because the name itself isn’t a spoiler.  It feels like sympathetic magic - almost as if by, protecting her identity, you are declaring your allegiance to her - as though she were a real person.  It awes me that people feel so strongly about this.


6. One quote that I've seen loads of people use is the one which Queenie uses to describe herself and Maddie - 'We are a sensational team.' Who's your favourite team, or group of friends, in YA fiction?

Gaby’s Gang in The Horse Without a Head by Paul Berna, first published in 1955.  There are 10 friends in this multicultural, variously aged gang of poverty-stricken post-war French children, boys and girls, each with a distinct personality.  Gaby Joye is the oldest and the leader; the story is told from the point of view of Fernand Douin.  The absolute hero of the novel is the girl Marion Fabert.  The gang gets inadvertently involved with a high-profile train robbery which ends in a showdown between kids and gangsters in an abandoned factory.  Marion saves the day, and her friends’ lives, by setting a pack of sixty dogs against the armed gangsters.

I’ve read The Horse Without a Head innumerable times in English and twice in French.  It is one of my top ten favorite books EVER.  The setting, a gritty industrial railway village on the outskirts of Paris, pretty much gave me the framework for my invented French city of Ormaie in Code Name Verity.

Here are my two Goodreads reviews of The Horse Without a Head - the second complements the first:

Since Gaby’s Gang is pretty obscure, here’s a favorite pair of friends from contemporary YA fiction:  Saffy and Sarah from Hilary McKay’s Casson family books.  McKay is my favorite contemporary children’s writer and although only Saffy’s Angel focuses on Sarah and Saffy, I love the fierce, supportive friendship these two continue to develop as they grow older throughout the rest of the series. 

Hilary McKay is one of those authors I keep meaning to try and somehow forgetting about! Will definitely keep an eye out for Saffy's Angel. Gaby's Gang, which I hadn't heard of, sounds great as well!


7. What advice would you give to someone trying to get their first novel published?

NETWORK.  I can’t stress enough how productive it is to get to know other writers, to go to workshops and conferences where you have the chance to meet editors and agents, and to learn to take constructive criticism.  Every single one of my publishing breakthroughs has been because someone I knew helped me out - handed my manuscript to the right editor, or gave me a recommendation, or asked a friend for a blurb.  Join a writers’ group and/or a reading group; go to author readings and book festivals in your area; find out if your council or town has a local writer in residence.  Building a network of friends and industry contacts is essential to getting published, no matter how talented you are.

If you’re hoping to write for children, join the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

 

SCBWI Scottish region:

The Writers &Artists Yearbook also has a very informative website:

Finally, this site is a little weird-looking, but it has useful links to all the fantasy-related conventions going on in the UK in 2012.  If you write any kind of genre fiction you’ll find that conventions are a great way to meet authors (both published and unpublished) and many other people in the publishing industry:

A massive thank you for that wonderful advice!


8. Are there any books you'd recommend to people who enjoyed Code Name Verity while they wait for your next book?

There’s a book about a teen who joins the SOE coming out in June which I’m excited about myself.  It’s called The Violins of Autumn by Amy McAuley:
 
Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith, is a well-researched look at a teenage girl who becomes a pilot for the WASP (Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots) during the war in the US.  Tension is added by the heroine’s subterfuge of being a black woman ‘passing’ as white. My review:
 
I find Garth Ennis’s six volume graphic novel series on World War II, Battlefields, to be exquisitely good, though maybe not to everyone’s taste.  My very favorite episodes are Vol. 1, Night Witches, and Vol. 6, Motherland, which are both about a fictional Russian female combat pilot, Anna Kharkova. My reviews are on Goodreads- NightWitches and Motherland.

There are two books by Kathryn Miller Haynes, The Girl is Murder and The Girl is Trouble, which may appeal to people who enjoy CNV.  I haven’t actually read these myself (The Girl is Trouble doesn’t come out till July 2012), but they sound like the right stuff - mysteries set during World War II with a no-nonsense teenage heroine.
  
Finally, Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis is neither about spies nor pilots, but is a beautifully crafted and gently courageous story of another teenage black woman, this one underage but otherwise legitimately enlisted with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.  Her unit is sent to wartorn Europe as postal workers.  Mare’s War is a Coretta Scott King Award winner and deserves a good deal more attention than it gets.


Tamar by Mal Peet is another post-CNV reading recommendation which I have just downloaded to my Kindle.  It looks brilliant. (There's a Kirkus review here.)

Thank you so much for all of those! (Although I have a feeling I'm about to hit Amazon or the Book Depository pretty hard; this is undoubtedly going to end up being an expensive interview!!)


9. Do you listen to music when writing? If so, what was the soundtrack for Code Name Verity?

Stuck in my head for six months:

‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ (words by Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Jerome Kern, 1940)

Stuck in my head for two months:

‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ (words by Gus Kahn, music by Wilbur Schwand and Fabian Andre, 1931)

Maddie’s comment that this song was a welcome relief from ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ was really Maddie voicing my own thoughts!

The actual soundtrack I associate with the book:

Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides Overture’ - Die Hebriden.  Maddie mentions it, obliquely, as being part of the soundtrack for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.  If CNV ever gets made into a movie, I think it is the perfect music to accompany it - Scottish-themed music by a German composer, with the Colonel Blimp association thrown in.

I didn’t actually listen to any of these while writing, but in fact played it all on the piano (and sang along to the pieces with lyrics) when I was taking a break from writing.

Although it’s not contemporary, I also have a strong association with CNV for Nanci Griffith’s album Flyer. ‘Don’t Forget About Me’ just crystallizes, for me, the friendship at the heart of the novel.  I listened to this album again and again while driving as I was writing the book.  (I only have it on cassette so I can only play it in the 16-year-old car!)


10. What's next for Elizabeth Wein?

I am about halfway through a sort of follow-on novel about a different ATA pilot.  It takes place the year after CNV and ends up in the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp and then at the Nuremberg war trials.  The plot isn’t as complex and twisty as CNV but the project is feeling over-ambitious at the moment, which may be because it is JUST. SO. HARD to write about Ravensbrück.

However, this is a book I have been itching to write since I was about 10.  So I guess it’s time.

Sounds amazing! I can't wait to read it.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, Elizabeth! Very best wishes for the future.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Saturday Special: Tips for Self-Published Authors on Getting Reviews

I occasionally review self-published books on this site, such as my recent review of the wonderful Night of the Purple Moon by Scott Cramer. Not often - perhaps one a month, and I'd say I get an average of 2 requests a week - but I do so at times. This doesn't make me unique amongst bloggers by any means, but my gut feeling would be that it puts me in a minority. So, I figured I should share some tips on how best to approach review requests. I've seen a couple of posts about it from authors, just wanted to give you a blogger's perspective.

Note: 80% of people who approach me to review their books follow at least most of these rules. None of them are set in stone, there's not meant to be any criticism implied of people who have approached me, whether or not I've accepted them - just hopefully some half-decent advice.

1. Only send review requests to bloggers who might be interested in your book. This would seem obvious, but I've had one or two really strange ones in the past. Personally, as my blog name suggests, most of the books I read are YA. I'll accept MG at times, but I'm unlikely to be interested in adult fiction or non-fiction. (Caveat: if someone had written a romantic comedy book similar to Ali McNamara's wonderful From Notting Hill... With Love Actually and e-mailed me a review request mentioning they'd read my review of that and/or author interview with her, for example, I'd be seriously interested because it would show they've actually read the blog and think I'd be a good fit to review the book.)

2. Tying into that one above, personalise your requests. If you're expecting me to take the time to read your book, take at least a couple of minutes to type in "Hi Jim", "Dear YA Yeah Yeah", or something similar and send the e-mail to me personally rather than BCC'ing me in on an e-mail to another book blogger. Following any guidelines such as how to title your review request is essential. (I get dozens of e-mails on a slow day; I need to be able to find the one you sent me quickly to respond to it, so having a standard subject line makes it easy for me to search.) Saying something which shows me you read my blog, such as a comment on a feature or review I've done, will give you at least a little bit of goodwill. Saying something which shows you don't read it - such as talking about my great use of quotes to illustrate points I'm making, which I've done precisely once in nearly 18 months of blogging - will probably not help you.

3. Give bloggers as much information as possible about the book. Back page cover, word count, and whether it's YA or MG would be a bare minimum. Comparisons to similar authors, background about yourself such as whether you've been published before and any relevant experience you have would be good. (Relevant experience is more for non-fiction, generally.)

4. If other people have enjoyed it, feel free to tell us - but bear in mind I've seen countless self-published novels on Amazon with 3 or 4 reviews, all 5 stars, from reviewers who've barely reviewed anything else. I'm cynical enough to think there's a fair chance it may be friends and family trying to help you. Not saying for a moment there's anything wrong with that - however, if you can share with me a review from another blogger or a top reviewer on Amazon it will carry a lot more weight.

5. Check the e-mail you're sending out carefully. If I get an e-mail which is eight lines long and has more than one spelling mistake or missing word in it, I'm starting to worry that the book will have hundreds.

6. Don't send books which haven't been requested. I actually don't mind this one personally, but I know some people feel authors are trying to put pressure on them when they do this. I'd say it's probably safer to wait.

7. If you've got a web presence - blog, website, Twitter account, etc - send links to everything. That way I can take a look (I'm nosy!) and it makes it easy for me to put these links into the final review if I do decide to review it.

8. Don't pester bloggers. I would say that if someone's said they'll review your book or will try to review your book, and given you a time span, it's acceptable to e-mail them 6 weeks or so after the end of the time period. If they haven't given you a time span they think it will take them, I'd say maybe two months after you send it. If you are e-mailing us, a polite reminder is all that's necessary. "Hey, just wondering if you'd had the chance to get round to taking a look at my book, INSERT NAME HERE?" or something along those lines.

9. Once a blogger has reviewed your book, that's it. You may want to say 'thanks' for a good review; if it's a bad review, you may want to say many other things. In the case of a bad review, please don't! I doubt there are many bloggers who particularly enjoy writing negative reviews of stuff, but we have to be honest. Starting an argument with a reviewer over a bad review is likely to be at least ten times as damaging as the review itself. If the blogger wants an interview, guest post, or giveaway, they'll get in touch with you.

10. Who says all lists need to go up to 10? Not me!

Hope those are of use - I'd love to hear any other bloggers add to them, or any authors join in with their views!