Saturday, 30 March 2013

Saturday Special: February in Review

Total books read: 14

Dare You To by Katie McGarry
By Any Other Name by Laura Jarratt
Smuggler's Kiss by Marie-Louise Jensen
Abyss by Tricia Rayburn
Essential She-Hulk Volume 1 by Stan Lee, David Kraft, John Buscema and Mike Vosberg

Knights of Pendragon: Once And Future by Dan Abnett, John Tomlinson, Gary Erskine & Andy Lanning
Twisted by Sara Shephard
Curse of Kings by Alex Barclay
Joy of X by Steven Strogatz
Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian

Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger
My Best Friend and Other Enemies by Catherine Wilkins 
15 Days Without A Head by Dave Cousins
Rumpole and the Reign of Terror by John Mortimer

Random Thoughts

After not reading comics for ages, I picked up a few individual issues that a friend lent me and two TPBs from the library. The good news is that some of the single issues were awesome - Superior Spider-Man has to be one of the strongest opening few issues I've ever seen. Unfortunately, both of the TPBs were pretty dire, with She-Hulk not having aged well and Once and Future being just awful - an interesting ecological message told in a really ham-fisted way.

Finally got book 9 of Pretty Little Liars, and it's as enjoyable as ever. Looking at other series, Rumpole and the Reign of Terror wasn't one of Mortimer's best - being rather too predictable, for a start - but anything starring the charismatic barrister is worth reading, and this was no exception. Tricia Rayburn's Abyss brought a dark YA paranormal series to a decent, if slightly anti-climactic, ending, while Gail Carriger's new series - a YA spin-off from her adult Parasol Protectorate sequence - got off to a good start with fabulous world-building, a great main characters, and a real sense of fun, and Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian combined to kick off their new trilogy with an intriguing story of three girls looking for revenge on people who've wronged them.

Book of the Month

3rd: Smuggler's Kiss by Marie-Louise Jensen - My first experience of the highly-regarded historical novelist showed me exactly why so many people rave about her! Brilliant narrator, fantastic love interest and a really strong setting combine to make this an outstanding read.

2nd: Curse of Kings by Alex Barclay - Wow! Adult crime author Alex Barclay turns her hands to children's fantasy with sensational results. A dark fantasy set in one of the most richly developed worlds I can remember for ages, the first novel in the Trials of Oland Born series has me chomping at the bit for the next book.

1st: By Any Other Name by Laura Jarratt - Jarratt follows up her stunning romance Skin Deep with a very different, but equally stunning, contemporary in By Any Other Name. More action-packed than her first book, but looking at just as many difficult issues and with more of the superb characterisation that she showed in Skin Deep, this establishes Jarratt as quite possibly the very best YA contemporary author out there today.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Friday Feature: Author Interview with Gail Carriger

I really enjoyed Etiquette and Espionage, the first YA book by Gail Carriger, despite having not read her adult series The Parasol Protectorate (which E & E is a spin-off from.) I jumped at the chance to talk to Gail - a huge thanks to the wonderful people at The Bookbag who arranged this interview, which originally ran there.

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

The first time I visited the LA area (on tour for my second book, Changeless) I had a reading. I didn't know until that moment that I had actual fans. But as I snuck through to the back of the bookstore, I saw a crowd sitting patiently waiting for me. Patiently, that is, except one small contingent of about a handful of ladies. They were being patient . . . in their way. It's just that "their way" involved amazing hats and costumes, and putting their parasols open and up and bobbing them up and down, giggling madly. When I close my eyes and think about my readers, I always see that scene in my head. At some point that day someone said, "I love Gail's readers, all the women are outrageous and all the men are polite." I love that.

2. You're an established adult author, but this is your first book for teens. How is writing for teenagers different to writing for adults?

I had to work to create a more youthful and accessible voice and characters who would grow and change with the books. Sophronia has a different world view than Alexia. She's private and introverted and must become more self actualized along the way by making new friends and discoveries. Her focus is on her immediate environment, less political, more personal.

3. I loved the world-building in Etiquette and Espionage! If you lived in your world, what do you think you'd like most about it?

The fashion, without a doubt. I take any excuse to dress up. It's one of the reasons I feel so lucky to write in the steampunk genre, there's an a aesthetic component to all steampunk conventions and I get to bring out my favorite costumes.

4. And is there anything you definitely wouldn't like about living in it?

The troublesome hygiene, medical science (or lack there of) and the food. Please, don't get me wrong, I love Victorian food, just not all the time.

5. If you could ask any author any question, what would you ask and who would you ask it to?

Oh that's and easy one, Aeschylus. I'd ask him to tell me all about his lost plays. He is thought to have written some 90 plays of which only 6 survive. One of the great tragedies of the burning of the Library of Alexandria.

6. I thought Sophronia was a fantastic main character, clever, resourceful and extremely likeable. Who's your favourite fictional heroine?

I love Tamora Pierce's Kel (Protector of the Small series) and Alanna (the Song of the Lioness series) both tough young women making their way in a man's world. So far as adult books go, I think Mara from the Empire Trilogy (by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts) is brilliant because her ability lies in political manipulation and intelligence rather than physical prowess.

7. I'm guessing that half the people reading the book will wish at least once that they were a pupil at Mademoiselle Geraldine's, or at Bunson & Lacroix's. When you were a teen, which fictional school would you most like to have been a pupil at? 

The Herald Collegium in Haven from Mercedes Lackey Valdemar books.

8. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what was the soundtrack to Etiquette and Espionage?

Never. I'm a dancer by training and if music is playing I want to dance, not write. Sometimes I can have classical on (in order to drone out a yappy dog, for example), but silence or the mummer of a cafe better suits my authorial style.

9. The 'How To Ride A Werewolf' step-by-step guide on your website may be my favourite book-related thing of the year so far. As well, your blog is fantastic! How important do you think the internet is to writers today?

For me, two best things about writing in the internet age is the ability to met ones readers online and provide insight into the world that does not fit in the books. I treat my website as a kind of place for the DVD extras, there are sketches of outfits, sources for research into the Victorian era and a whole window into the steampunk social movement. So far as the business side of writing is concerned I would find it nearly impossible to work in this industry without the internet. Apart from everything else it provides me with water cooler venues, places where I can gossip with other authors, or just relax and not thing about writing for a while. Being an author can be terribly isolating without social media.

10. What's next for Gail Carriger?

So far as publications are concerned, the second Finishing School book, Curtsies & Conspiracies, is out in November of this year. Just in time for the holidays! On the European convention front I'll be at Les Etonnants Voyageurs (Saint Malo Festival, France) May 18-20 and Imaginales, (Epinal, France) May 23-26. And hopefully in London for WorldCon in Autumn of 2014. As for writing, right now I'm working on Waistcoats & Weaponry, the third Finishing School book. I have two due this year, so I have to stay disciplined.

New York Times Bestselling author Gail Carriger writes to cope with being raised in obscurity by an expatriate Brit and an incurable curmudgeon. She survived her early years by reading most of her local library and memorizing Greek battles. Eventually, she escaped small town life and inadvertently acquired several degrees in Higher Learning. In pursuit of further finishing, Ms. Carriger traveled the historic cities of Europe, subsisting entirely on biscuits secreted in her handbag. She now resides in the Colonies, surrounded by fantastic shoes, where she insists on tea imported from London.

The Parasol Protectorate books are: Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, Heartless, and Timeless. Soulless won the ALA's Alex Award. Manga versions of the first two books release in 2012 (Soulless Vol. 1 & Vol. 2) and the adaptation of the third is due out Winter 2013. The first in her young adult Finishing School series, Etiquette & Espionage debuted at #9 on NYT. The second in the series, Curtsies & Conspiracies is due out Nov. 2013.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Thursday Thoughts: Review of The Elephant of Surprise by Brent Hartinger

(An e-ARC of this book was provided to me by the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.)

Warning: Spoilers below for the first three books in the Russel Middlebrook series.

After a discussion about the Elephant of Surprise, 17-year-old Russel and his friends Min and Gunnar experience some extremely unsettling times in their lives. Fresh from realising that his relationship with long-distance boyfriend Otto has run its course, Russel meets Wade - a hot guy who's a freegan, living in a community with others who forage for food and occupy a vacant house. Meanwhile, Min is having doubts about her relationship with her girlfriend Leah, while Gunnar is becoming obsessed with documenting his life.

This was the first book by Brent Hartinger that I've read - I didn't realise when I agreed to review it that it was a series book - so a fairly detailed recap of the events of the first three books in the series before the novel actually started was most welcome, catching me up nicely on who everyone was and what had happened before.

Once the novel started, I was quickly engaged by Russel's voice - full of character and quirky enough to be entertaining without pushing too far into annoying territory. Min and Gunnar are also good characters, while Wade and the rest of the freegans are really well-portrayed, with Hartinger looking closely and the movement and exploring its positives and negatives. In addition, Hartinger's writing style is easy to read, and the book is a quick read - due both to its relatively short length, and a fast moving plot which makes it difficult to put down.

One minor gripe is that Kevin, Russel's ex, seems a bit one-dimensional - particularly in comparison to the other well-rounded characters - and the subplot with him was a bit predictable for me, personally. Still, there's an awful lot to like about this book, and it's great to see a novel about gay teens which doesn't feel like an 'issue' book. I'm certainly planning on checking out the three previous novels in the sequence (and will be intrigued to see how the film version of book 1, The Geography Club, turns out!)

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Sunday Spotlight: Waiting For Gonzo by Dave Cousins

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.

Oz is newly arrived in the sleepy village of Slowleigh. At first, he wishes life there was more exciting, but drawing a moustache on a photo of schoolmate Isobel Skinner - nicknamed Psycho - might bring him the wrong sort of excitement. Someone else who's wishing her life was rather less exciting is his sister Meg, who's hiding a secret which Oz knows but her parents don't - can he survive Psycho and help his sister?

At the time I read this, I hadn't got round to reading Cousins' 15 Days Without A Head, so this was my first experience of reading one of his books. It was very different from what I was expecting - the cover and blurb seemed to suggest knockabout comedy. While it's definitely a funny book, with some parts which made me laugh out loud, it's significantly deeper and more thought-provoking than I was expecting, with one particular topic that's very rare to see covered in teen fiction.

Oz, writing the book in the form of a message to the mysterious Gonzo, is a really good narrator and I thought the relationship he had with his older sister was especially well-portrayed. There are also some excellent supporting characters, notably Isobel - who when not terrorising Oz is actually really helpful to his mum, working as her assistant in creating sculptures after Oz accidentally causes her to break her arm - and Ryan, Oz's Hobbit-obsessed friend, whose hobby of taking part in battle re-enactments supplies much of the humour in the story. In addition, it's cleverly plotted and everything builds to an exciting and unpredictable climax which neatly ties things together.

Despite it not really being what I was expecting, I definitely enjoyed this one and would certainly recommend it to people looking for a book which is both funny and thought-provoking. I'll look forward to reading more from Dave Cousins in the future!

Friday, 15 March 2013

Friday Feature: Author Interview with Luisa Plaja

I suddenly realised a few weeks ago that Luisa Plaja's Diary of a Mall Girl, originally written interactively, was about to be released in paperback, and sent a cheeky interview request because I was really interested to hear about the process of writing it. She was kind enough to fit it in at really short notice.

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

I think it’s some version of my younger bookworm self, always lost in fiction. Having said this, an editor once told me that my writing entices teenagers who perhaps wouldn’t normally read much. This is an enormous compliment! It would be great if I did encourage non-readers to pick up a book. Reading is wonderful.

2. For those readers who haven’t seen Fiction Express and the concept of interactive e-books before, could you give us a quick introduction, please?

Fiction Express publish children’s novels online in weekly instalments. Every chapter ends with a reader vote, guiding the author on what to write next. Fiction Express now runs in schools, encouraging young students to interact with writers on varied and entertaining novels. 

You can read more about the project here

3. How did you get involved in writing an interactive e-book?

I was approached by Fiction Express and asked whether I was interested in an innovative online writing project. I loved the thought of allowing readers to take an active part in shaping a novel.

4. I think I’m right in saying that when you originally wrote Diary of a Mall Girl, you had just a few days between receiving the votes for a chapter and having it published on the site. How stressful was it, working to such a short deadline?
You’re right. My vote result came in on Monday morning, and the chapter needed to be with my editor by 10am on Thursday, to be published on Friday. Let’s just say that I didn’t really sleep on a Wednesday night for the entire duration of the project!

5. How much planning could you do before you started writing the book? With so many possibilities depending on which way the voting went, I’m guessing it must have been very difficult to plan too far ahead!

I had a rough outline of the setting and the characters, but I couldn’t (and didn’t) really plan the storyline at all. Diary of a Mall Girl includes a romance, and I didn’t even know who the main love interest would be – the readers decided this with their votes. (They then seemed determined to destroy the main couple’s relationship with later votes… which was probably a good thing, from a story point of view. Thank you, readers!)

6. Would you say it was more or less enjoyable than writing a ‘normal’ book?

It was definitely more stressful, and possibly more fun. Writing a book in a conventional way now feels like a luxury!

7. What’s the top tip you’d give to someone writing an interactive e-book in this way?

Enjoy the reader feedback, and trust your story. I had no idea how certain themes in Diary of a Mall Girl would pan out, but everything came magically together in the end. 

8. You’re active on Twitter and I know you do book clubs and school visits and things as well – did you get much feedback from people reading along as you were writing it? If so, what was it like?

Yes, I got some amazing feedback on Twitter, Facebook, book blogs and from the young members of my library book club throughout the process. Mostly it was extremely welcome encouragement, but people also made it clear which characters they liked and disliked. Thankfully, this mostly tallied with what I’d wanted them to think.  It’s fantastic to hear from readers who are involved in your story and rooting for people you’ve made up. It definitely kept me writing!

9. Looking back, at any book ever written, which would you most like to have been written interactively so that you could have taken part in the voting for it? (And, if there’s anything you’d have voted to change, what would it have been?)

What a brilliant question! OK, without a doubt my answer would be Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers, one of my all-time favourite teen books and a story I paid homage to in Swapped by a Kiss. (I reviewed it here) I would have voted for more scenes involving Annabel and Boris, or maybe I would have voted for more scenes full-stop.

10. What's next for Luisa Plaja?

My next couple of months are full of trips all over the country, including library visits, school visits and a literary festival. I can’t wait! After that, it’s back to the excitement of writing my next novel.

A huge thanks to Luisa for doing such a fab interview - especially at such short notice! You can find her at her website or on Twitter. Diary of a Mall Girl was released yesterday - according to Amazon, at least, I could have sworn I saw a copy 'in the wild' (or at least in a bookshop!) last weekend! It's published by Curious Fox.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Why I Don't Post Negative Reviews

This is a post I've been considering writing for absolutely ages, but kept holding off on for various reasons. Inspired by a post by Laura Lam (go buy her book Pantomime, by the way, it's AMAZING, then read the great interview she took part in here) and another one from Readers' Wonderland, I finally got round to doing it.

Over at Reader's Wonderland, the piece is about negative reviews and not being afraid to write them. I agree with the piece in general, but the particular bit I'm interested in isn't the piece itself (although it's well worth reading!) but one of the questions asked at the end.

"How do you feel about blogs that only post five star reviews? Do you doubt them?"

To some extent, that applies here. I don't give star ratings, but I only really post positive reviews. That's not to say I only write positive reviews - head over to the Bookbag and you can see me being scathing about various novels, including one book which I summed up with a quote along the lines of "Two men have a miserable time. Three, including this reader." That said, I choose not to post the negative ones here, because I'd much rather concentrate on giving out praise to the wonderful books out there - and there's a lot of them - than criticism to those which, for whatever reason, I didn't enjoy.

In addition to the Bookbag reviews I repost as part of my Sunday Spotlight, I also review others. However, they're rarely (almost never, at the moment) review copies. Most of the Thursday reviews I post here (when I get round to posting reviews, anyway!) are of books I get from the library, or buy. I've requested, and been accepted to view, only one book on NetGalley this year, and got a hard copy of a review book from a publisher - both of these are from authors I'm confident I'll enjoy. In both cases, if I don't enjoy them, I'll politely decline to review. When it comes to library books or books I've bought, if it's a good book, I want to share the love with everyone. If it's a bad one, I already feel I've wasted enough time reading it without spending another hour or so churning out a review! Does that mean some people will look at my blog, see only positive reviews, and decide that I'm not to be trusted? Quite possibly, but when it's a choice between doing that or wasting my time writing reviews of books I just want to forget, I'll go with that. I tweeted asking book bloggers what percentage of their total reading did they end up reviewing, and was stunned that nearly everyone who replied was over 80% - mine is barely at 50%.

I'd always assumed that authors wouldn't particularly want negative reviews posted, anyway, but I'm questioning that assumption after reading Laura Lam's excellent post on how to help authors.

She says in it "For a debut, there is no bad publicity (even if the bad reviews can hurt our sensitive little hearts if we stumble across it)".

What do you think, authors (particularly debut authors?) Would you rather people were talking about your book even if they didn't enjoy it, or would you prefer it to go unreviewed by people who didn't like it? (Assuming no-one's crass enough to go out of their way to direct you to a negative review - I think most of us will agree that tweeting or e-mailing an author and linking to a review criticising their book isn't a good thing to do.) Bloggers, do you post negative reviews? And what percentage, roughly, of books you read do you end up reviewing?

I'd love to get a good discussion going here, so please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Sunday Spotlight: Smuggler's Kiss by Marie-Louise Jensen

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.

Fifteen-year-old Isabelle has given up on life. Walking into the sea, she is ready to drown herself - until she changes her mind, too late. But instead of drowning, she's pulled from the waves by smugglers. While the crew aren't all happy that a couple of their men have jeopardized them by rescuing her, she quickly becomes useful to them and starts to get a thrill from helping to evade the Preventives. Can she be happy in her new life, or will her dark secret catch up with her?

This is a hugely enjoyable historical adventure with a brilliant narrator, a fantastic love interest and a really strong setting. Jensen captures the time period of the early eighteenth century very well and it's a thrilling read with lots of action-packed sequences. In addition, there's great character development, particularly as Isabelle matures and learns more about the world away from her privileged background, even starting to question what she's always been taught is the natural order of things and to feel sympathetic towards the poor people she meets. Speaking of the poor people, Rudyard Kipling's A Smuggler's Song at the start of the book sets the scene perfectly for the relationship between the Gentlemen, the people of the communities they deal with, and the Preventives, and Jensen's portrayal of all of her characters is compelling.

It's not perfect - I thought Isabelle's background was revealed a little too slowly, perhaps. It's also one of the very few books I've read recently which I thought was a tiny bit short, if anything - I'm far more likely to complain that a book feels padded out, but I wished this one was longer.

Despite those slight criticisms, this is really easy to recommend - the last few years have seen a huge amount of excellent historical fiction for teens and children and this ranks highly amongst them. Jensen is an author who I've always meant to read but never quite got round to before this book - I'll definitely be seeking out some of her earlier works!

Friday, 8 March 2013

Friday Feature: Interview with Marie-Louise Jensen

As a fan of historical fiction, I've been meaning to read something by Marie-Louise Jensen for ages, but only got round to it a few weeks ago when I reviewed Smuggler's Kiss for The Bookbag. I was seriously impressed, and jumped at the chance to interview her. (Note: This interview has previously been published on The Bookbag.)

1. When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?
I see a mix of all the teens and pre-teens I've spoken to in schools over the past few years. Plus the readers who have emailed me.

2. You've written half a dozen books spanning a wide range of times and places - if pushed, what would be your favourite period in history?
How to choose between them when each era that I've written about has its own charm? I confess to a great love of the Viking era, however. Despite the violence, it was a time of tremendous adventure and women were powerful and important. Unfortunately, it's the least popular with readers.

3. On a similar note, do you see yourself as always being a historical author, or would you ever consider writing contemporary fiction?
M-LJ: Writing stories set in the past is my great love. However, I have written other things (unpublished) and have some more work in the planning stages at the moment.

4. I've just been looking at your website and seeing the details of your school visits - I wish I was still teaching in a secondary school, because I'd get the English department to bring you in! What's your favourite thing about giving talks to teenagers?
Well, thank you! Dressing up has to be high on the list! Especially the highwayman costume; that one is awesome to wear.
I think teenagers are brilliant. It was a vitally important and formative age for me personally and I love meeting young people at that same stage of life; so full of possibilities, ideals and potential. Today's teenagers know so much too. I'm always so impressed with them and come away inspired

5. BB: I loved the chemistry between Isabelle and a certain young smuggler in Smuggler's Kiss - what's your all-time favourite example of fictional chemistry?
Fictional chemistry – ah, it's the best! Well, if we are going to stick to English language books, there's Jane Eyre of course, with its passionate but flawed Mr Rochester, though I thought it a great shame he needed to be unmanned to have a happy ending. A symptom of the Victorian age perhaps. And then there's Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South – most beautifully brought to life in the BBC adaptation. Both Margaret Hale and John Thornton learn so much. And Aragorn and Arwen. I've always loved romances.

6. Do you listen to music when you write? Is there a soundtrack for Smuggler's Kiss?
I never listen to music while I write! There's too much going on in my head. I don't listen to all that much music at all. I did, however, listen to Loreen's Euphoria on repeat while I was editing Smuggler's Kiss.

7. I thought Rudyard Kipling's 'A Smuggler's Song' set the scene for your novel perfectly (and have spent far too long trying to track down a Show of Hands version of it which I'm starting to think I'm completely imagining!) What's your favourite poem?
M-LJ: In fact that is one of my favourites! Kipling's been accused of romanticising smuggling but I read it in a collection as a child and it really spooked me. It was the idea, I think, of the men passing in the darkness being too dangerous to even look at. I used to imagine the moon casting their dark and frightening shadows onto my wall as they passed by and shiver.
I always found poetry difficult, but over the years I've discovered Byron's epic poem The Corsair, the mystical poems of William Blake, Thomas Grey's Elegy and – as a complete contrast – Wendy Cope and James Berry.

8. If you could ask any other author any question, what would you ask and who would you ask it to?
Mr Tolkien, I have three extended dvds for you to watch. *ten hours later* So, what did you think?

Fab - definitely one of the best responses I've ever been given to that question!

9. If you were hosting a literary dinner party, which six authors or characters would you invite?
M-LJ: I'd like two dinner parties, please (as long as I don't have to do the cooking). Authors: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Ann Bronte, Aphra Behn, Elizabeth Gaskell and (provided we have a handy tardis nearby so we can understand one another) Snorri Sturluson.
Characters: Aragorn (of course!), Willy Wonka (plus chocolate), Pippi Longstocking (to lower the tone), Captain Jack Sparrow and Lizzie Bennett and Aslan. I'll leave someone else to sort out the seating arrangements.

Liking the first one, and loving the second one - Willy Wonka providing the chocolate as Jack Sparrow flirts with Lizzie Bennett sounds like a hoot!

10. What's next for Marie-Louise Jensen?
M-LJ: Next from me is another Georgian tale, publishing 2014. It's a masquerade and murder mystery set around stable yards, inns and horses and is already finished. Next for me is less certain at the moment as I don't have a contract yet. I have plenty more historical stories I'd love to write. And I have some completely different stories on my mind too; I'm interested in exploring some issues arising from our current political, social and environmental situation. But any stories I write won't be as dull as that sounds!

That sounds great - best of luck with it! Thanks so much for taking part in this interview, Marie-Louise!

Marie-Louise can be found on her website and on Twitter.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Sunday Spotlight: Never Odd Or Even by John Townsend

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.

Elliot is twelve. He's obsessed with numbers and letters, especially palindromes. He loves to spend his spare time playing about with words or numbers, when he can avoid school bully Victor Criddle, his arch-enemy. But when the biggest mystery that struck our school in the history of the world has to be solved, Elliot's forced to use all of his brain power.

This is a short, quick read which is definitely going to interest children who, like Elliot, love playing about with numbers and words. It's packed full of palindromes, anagrams and weird and wonderful number facts, but it's also got an engaging narrator and a clever plot. Just how clever the plot is doesn't really become apparent until the end - at which point I went back and flicked through it to see what I'd missed the first time around!

In addition to Elliot himself, there are some good characters here - notably the school bully and the older girl who Elliot has befriended - and Townsend's writing style makes it easy to read, while it's always good to see a book that will really get children thinking.

That said, my one slight... well, complaint is perhaps too strong a word, so let's use niggle. The one niggle I'd have would be that the blurb is on the misleading side, suggesting that there will be lots of puzzles for the readers to solve throughout the book. In actual fact, most of them are just palindromes and other similar things thrown into the narration by Elliot himself and it's only towards the very end that readers are really challenged to work out the mystery.

Still, this is a refreshingly different story which I'm sure will be popular with both children and parents. Well worth reading!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Author Interview: Na'ima B Robert

Really pleased to present an interview with Na'ima B Robert, author of the excellent Black Sheep, one of my 3 favourite contemporaries of the year to date! 

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

Such a diverse group, I honestly don't know! Definitely kids or adults who are looking for something slightly different or want to learn about a different segment of society. 

 2. I loved both narrators of Black Sheep - was it difficult to write characters with two such different voices?

No, not at all because they were so distinct from each other. In terms of accent, exposure, education and background, Dwayne and Misha come from totally different sides of the tracks. Although I must say, I really enjoyed talking to myself in Dwayne's voice and that of his inner voice - good fun! 

3. One of the strongest parts of Black Sheep for me was the portrayal of Islam. How big a part does religion play in your own life?

Well, like Dwayne, I chose to convert to Islam when I was at university and I know loads of people like him and Misha who have become Muslim - that part was the easiest to write because I know about it from the inside, whereas the gang life was something I had to research and check with others. 

4. As well as the two excellent narrators, there were lots of other great characters in Black Sheep - with one of my favourites being a particular teacher who showed faith in Dwayne. Who was the most memorable teacher you were taught by?

Definitely my O Level English teacher, Ms Nyandoro. She was bold, witty, fearless and never accepted less than my best work. Later, she became a friend and someone we all credit with shaping us as young women.

5. There have been lots of outstanding screen adaptations of YA books over the last few years - would you like to see Black Sheep filmed? If so, any thoughts on who you could see playing Dwayne and Misha?

I think Black Sheep would make a good film but I might be too chicken to watch it! I don't know any young actors out there so, if age wasn't an issue, I would say Ashley Walters as Dwayne, and Thandi Newton as Misha. Otherwise, I think the two leads from Kidulthood would do well.

6. If you could ask any author any question, what would you ask and who would you ask it to?

I would ask Amy Tan how she gets some amazing historical detail into her novels like The Joy Luck Club, one of my favourites.

7. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what was the soundtrack to Black Sheep?

No, I don't listen to music but I did watch Bullet Boy about 4 times! I actually watched more movies and documentaries for this book than I ever have before - even trailers helped! 

8. What are you reading at the moment?
My Masters course notes! Although I have just finished Peacock Spring by Rummer Godden which I absolutely loved! 

9. What's next for Na'ima B Robert?

I am working on a Muslim love story at the moment, which should be out later this year if all goes well. That, and running 2 magazines and studying for my Masters :)  

Best of luck with all of that, Na'ima! I'm looking forward to reading your next book.

You can find Na'ima on Twitter, and on her website