Monday 29 April 2013

March in Review

Total books read: 15

The Oathbreaker's Shadow by Amy McCulloch 
Ladies And Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning by Jonathan Mahler
One Seriously Messed Up Weekend In the Otherwise Un-Messed-Up Life of Jack Samsonite by Tom Clempson
One Seriously Messed-Up Week: in the Otherwise Mundane and Uneventful Life of Jack Samsonite by Tom Clempson
What The Spell by Brittany Geragotelis

Requiem by Lauren Oliver
Geekhood: Close Encounters of the Girl Kind by Andy Robb
Finding Cherokee Brown by Siobhan Curham
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Socks Are Not Enough by Mark Lowery

Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J Bick
Elephant of Surprise by Brent Hartinger
Dept 19 Battle Lines by Will Hill 
Titanic Thompson by Kevin Cook
Going Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt

Random Thoughts

Despite a few disappointments - notably Rebecca Stead's Newbery Medal winning When You Reach Me, which was okay but didn't live up to my expectations, and Amy McCulloch's The Oathbreaker's Shadow, in which I liked the plot and setting but disliked almost all the characters - March was a strong month overall. I finally got round to reading books by Andy Robb, Tom Clempson, Siobhan Curham and Brent Hartinger, all of whom have been on my 'to read' list for ages, and all lived up to high expectations. In addition, I read a couple of brilliant non-fiction books - both Kevin Cook's biography of legendary gambler Titanic Thompson, and Jonathan Mahler's stunning Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning, an account of New York City in 1977, were superb.

Book of the Month

Very tough call for third, but Finding Cherokee Brown by Siobhan Curham just holds off both Jack Samsonite books, the first Geekhood, and Going Vintage on the strength of a wonderful narrator and the really believable relationships she has with her family.

2nd place goes to the stunning conclusion of the Delirium trilogy, Requiem by Lauren Oliver - I loved the ending, and found the entire book to be the best of the three, and one of the best dystopians I've read.

1st, though, was a strong contender for book of the year so far, Department 19: Battle Lines by Will Hill. Every time I read another book in this fantastic series, I'm filled with mixed emotions - joy at having read such a great novel, and despair at having to wait another year to find out what happens next. Thankfully, Will has released three short stories, set between 1917 and 1919, in the Department 19 universe to keep us going!

Sunday 28 April 2013

Sunday Spotlight: Dance of Shadows by Yelena Black

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.

Vanessa is just one of many new students at the New York Ballet Academy - but while they're all trying to become the best dancer, she has her own reasons for being there. Three years ago her older sister disappeared from the school, and she's determined to find out what happened to Margaret. Can she find out? And will the two boys taking an interest in her, charismatic Zeppelin and incredibly intense Justin, help or hinder her search?

I’m not even sure how to start reviewing this one, because my head’s still spinning after reading it. I’ve gone back and forth on whether to mention that it’s paranormal – because apart from a prologue which I initially thought might be a dream sequence, it only becomes obviously paranormal fairly late on – but I think I have to, because if you’re not interested in that genre then the last quarter or so will be well out of your comfort zone as things get increasingly magical.

So, if you’re looking for anything remotely realistic, don’t go near this. If you’re on board for a breathtakingly, rather brilliantly, bonkers read, grab a copy and I doubt you’ll be able to put it down. It’s thrill-a-minute stuff, with mysterious characters, a ballet academy with a sinister history, and a complete lack of any sense of restraint which is to be commended – if this plot had been toned down to be even vaguely sensible it would probably have collapsed, but the sheer insanity keeps it going.

Also, despite the crazy plot, Black’s writing style is excellent – at least, it works perfectly for this book. Reading my favourite bits out loud to my dad while he was watching a football match on TV, I nearly lost my voice – virtually the entire last half a dozen chapters deserve to be quoted, and it contains a really strong contender for ‘best made-up word of the year’. (Sorry, telling you what that is would be too spoilery even for this review.)

The characters are slightly sketchy, to be honest, but while this is normally a major problem for me, I was far too busy trying (and failing miserably) to guess what on earth would happen next to worry about that.

I have no idea where on earth Yelena Black will take the series with the already-announced second book – but I’m definitely looking forward to finding out. Recommended if you’re looking for an incredibly entertaining and really unusual read.

Saturday 27 April 2013

Saturday Special: Review of Tide by Daniela Sacerdoti

My thanks to the lovely people at Black & White Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Warning – major spoilers below for book 1 of this trilogy, Dreams by Daniela Sacerdoti.

After her parents' deaths at the hands of the demons they fought against, Sarah Midnight was left reeling again by the revelation towards the end of book 1 that her 'cousin' Harry Midnight was actually Harry's friend Sean Hannay. Unable to trust Sean following his lies, Sarah turns to Nicholas, new on the scene. But Nicholas has dark secrets of his own - has Sarah placed her faith in the wrong person? And will she find out the truth about the Midnight legacy before the demons attack again?

One of the most ambitious paranormal trilogies out there, like the first book, this is told mainly in third-person following Sarah, but switches to first person from the perspective of other characters at times. It works well as Daniela Sacerdoti’s voice for each character – particularly love interests Sean and Nicholas – is very strong.

It’s also got my favourite love triangle in any current YA series. The romantic tension between Sarah herself, Sean – who she hasn’t forgiven for lying to her about his identity – and the tormented Nicholas works really well and actually adds a lot of depth to the novel. Also adding depth is the slow revelations about the history of the Midnights, who are a far cry from a 'standard' heroic fantasy family - indeed, there were times when I thought that they were arguably more to blame for Sarah's problems than the villains were! Sarah's discovery of her family's past The world-building, a strong point of the Dreams, continues to be good, and it benefits from an ending which seems to tie up more than the first book did.

If there is a criticism to be made, I think that it's arguably a little too long - it doesn't feel quite like it's a story that needs 350 plus pages to be told - but that's a fairly minor complaint. Overall, this is well worth reading and I'm certainly looking forward to the conclusion of Sarah's story.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Phil Earle Talks About The HEROIC Cover

Awesome author Phil Earle's new book HEROIC comes out today, and I'm just a little bit thrilled to be presenting this guest post from him about the cover of the novel!

I’ve learnt that I should have absolutely nothing to do with the covers for my books. As a ridiculous control freak, it’s been a difficult lesson to learn, but finally, three books in, I’ve accepted it.

And my covers are better for it.

Every author daydreams about how their precious story will finally look on the shelf, the number of finishes it’ll have, the amount of foil or embossing that will make it pop and leap off the bookshop table and into the arms of an adoring reader.

I spent far too much time thinking about it, at the expense of writing whatever came next. I knew exactly how the jacket should look in my head, but it had become such a fantasy or an ideal, that I was buggered if I could describe it properly to any of the good folk at Puffin.

I tried though, through a series of waffly emails that probably had them tutting and scratching their heads, until they kindly came up with this concept.

I really liked it.

It felt more dynamic than Billy or Daisy, had intrigue and movement that might attract new readers looking for something faster-paced.

Job done. Or so I thought.

However, the cover didn’t go down well with retailers.

And that’s the thing you see, it’s not just about the author and publisher back-slapping each other over another glorious cover. The bookshops have to love it too, because if they don’t, they don’t put it in their shops.

And if they don’t put it in their shops?

Enough already…you get the drift.

So we were stuck, as our cover’s reception was lukewarm at best, which sent me into a head-spin.

I had no idea how else it could possibly look, or how it could do the content justice if it was different.

But obviously, clearly, I was wrong and this is where my lesson was learnt.

Authors, generally, don’t know what’s best for their covers. They can advise and prompt and be generally irritating to their publishers, plus, every author should have a cover they can be proud of. But they should NEVER design them, or try to be involved as much as I was, as I had no objectivity whatsoever.

When the final, magnificent cover for HEROIC dropped into my inbox, I had no idea whatsoever what was on it. There was a moment, as the jpeg threatened to open, that the fear nibbled at me, but that was soon replaced and forgotten. What we ended up with, to me, looks iconic and intriguing, without appealing solely to any gender or particular age.

I hope it’s universal in its appeal, but know for sure, that it’s better than the words that follow inside. And for that, I am very grateful indeed…

And I'm very grateful to you,. Phil, for such a fascinating look into part of the book publishing process that I've never really thought of before! I like both covers, but think the final one is definitely better and am sure it will draw lots of readers in. I hope HEROIC is hugely successful. 

Sunday 21 April 2013

Sunday Spotlight: One Seriously Messed-Up Weekend: In the Otherwise Un-Messed-Up Life of Jack Samsonite by Tom Clempson

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.

Slight spoilers for One Seriously Messed-Up Week: in the Otherwise Mundane and Uneventful Life of Jack Samsonite, although I think I've done a better than usual job of avoiding them. Anything I refer to here was given away in the first page of that book, so you can probably read this review even if you haven't read it. (Although really, if you're planning on reading the book, you should definitely check out that one first!)
Two years after the messed-up week described in the first Jack Samsonite book, things aren't all that different for our hero. He's still trying to get together with a girl - despite having ended book 1 in bed with someone, things didn't go as he would have wanted after that. He's also struggling at school again, and it's even more important than his attempts to pass his GCSEs were. This time, he needs to get into film school. He has a weekend to make a film, and he needs a girl to kiss, and at least one enemy to fight.
On the plus side, he's not struggling for enemies...
I read this one straight after reading Tom Clempson's debut novel, the first in the Jack Samsonite series, and it's another funny, crude, but ultimately warm-hearted slice of life for a reasonably typical teenager. Jack himself is the main strength of the series. He's sweet (well, as sweet as seventeen-year-old boys generally get), good-natured, and if his overactive sex drive and a tendency to insert his foot neatly into his mouth gets him into some sticky situations, he's normally got his heart in the right place. It's clear from his narration that the three girls who are potential love interests here are, in his opinion at least, way out of his league, but it's easy to see what they see in him - even if some of his appeal is clearly more in a 'little boy lost' way than the 'sex god' status he's hoping for! In addition to the girls, who are each well-described with their own personality (and a lot more common sense than the title character!) it's great to see the change in Jack's friend James in the two-year gap between the books, and the changed dynamic of their friendship is interesting reading.
Being completely honest, I didn't think it was quite as enjoyable as the first in the series, perhaps because that felt so wonderfully fresh and it's always going to be hard to recapture that originality in a follow-up. The sheer amount of toilet humour, especially when Jack, who struggles to use public toilets, has to leave home in the morning without getting a chance to use the bathroom properly, might also put some people off. It's still a definite recommendation though, thanks to Clempson's easy to read writing style, the wonderful central character, and a clever, unpredictable plot with lots of twists and turns. Oh, a warning - this series isn't one to be read on public transport, as I found out to my cost after numerous fits of giggling!

Friday 19 April 2013

Friday Feature: Interview With Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver's Requiem was a stunning conclusion to her excellent Delirium trilogy. I jumped at the chance to interview her - huge thanks to The Bookbag for arranging it! (This interview originally ran there.)

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

Lauren Oliver: An adorably enthusiastic teen girl...and her mom. :)

2. Readers of my reviews will know that ever since Delirium, Lena has been one of my favourite lead characters. Which lead characters in other authors' books are your own favourites?
LO: I love Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice; I'm still resentful of the fact that my sister is named after her. I love Matilda in Matilda, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, and Lyra in the His Dark Materials Trilogy. And plenty, plenty more.

3. As well as the Delirium trilogy and your debut Before I Fall, you've written two acclaimed books for younger readers, Liesl & Po and The Spindlers. Do you approach writing for younger readers differently than writing for teens, and if so, how?
LO: Not really. Much of writing is unconscious, intuitive, and fluid. When a young narrator starts speaking to me, I try and listen, as I do when an older narrator begins to speak.

4. As well as writing, you're a co-founder of Paper Lantern Lit, a literary development company. How much day-to-day involvement do you have with Paper Lantern, and what's the best thing about working with authors who write for Paper Lantern?
LO: I'm definitely involved day-to-day; editing and developing stories for Paper Lantern Lit takes up sixty percent of my daily work time at least. And the best part of working with the authors is watching their skill sets grow over time. It's extremely gratifying.

5. If you could host a literary dinner party, which six authors or characters would you invite?
LO: That's so hard! I'll pick authors, living and dead: Agatha Christie, Ian McEwan, JK Rowling, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dr. Seuss.

6. I thought the ending to the trilogy was absolutely amazing, but it seems to have split reviewers somewhat so far - many loving it like I did, with others being not so keen. Did you always plan on ending it like that, or did you ever consider tying up more loose ends?
LO: I always intended for the book to end exactly as it did. I don't really think that there are very many loose ends. The Delirium trilogy is simply a window into a world; I like the idea that the world exists beyond what is written on the page.

7. A pilot for the Delirium TV series has been announced - I can't wait! How excited are you, and how involved have you been in creating it?
LO: I am extremely excited. I wasn't responsible for the script, and of course generating enough material for a TV series from a 3-book trilogy necessitates a lot of changes. But I'm in touch with the producers, the writer, and even the actors. I'm thrilled.

8. You've written several novellas set in the world of Delirium, letting us see other characters as well as Lena and Hana. Can we expect to see some non-Delirium related novellas from you in the future?
LO: It's possible! I loved writing the short story spin-offs; it was such a fun way to explore ancillary characters.

9. What are you reading at the moment?
LO: Doll Bones, by Holly Black; the Madman's Daughter, by Megan Shepherd; and Half a Life, by Darin Strauss.

10. What's next for Lauren Oliver?
LO: Next up, I have a standalone YA called Panic. It's a realistic book about a very small town and a very dangerous game that is played there every summer.

Really looking forward to that, Lauren! Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. 

Sunday 14 April 2013

Sunday Spotlight: Requiem by Lauren Oliver

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.

Warning: Spoilers for Delirium and Pandemonium below!
Out in the Wilds, Lena is now trying to cope with the return of her first love Alex along with her feelings for Julian, but these relationship issues take a backseat as life becomes very dangerous for her, and everyone else. Back in Portland, her friend Hana is set to marry the man who will become Mayor - a perfect pairing, surely? While both girls have changed a lot since the start of book one, the biggest changes are still to come...
The strongest parts of the Delirium series, for me, have always been Oliver's gorgeous writing style and the character development of narrator Lena. With that in mind, I was initially surprised when I realised Lena's old friend Hana - who played a big part in Delirium but wasn't involved much in the second book - was narrating part of it. While it seemed a bizarre idea to switch from one narrator to two at this point in the series, it actually works stunningly well, giving us an insight into the life of someone who's been 'cured'. The main reason it works so well it that, like Lena, Hana has an exceptionally strong voice, and I was completely captivated by both of their stories.
We also get a memorably nasty villain here, evil enough to make your skin crawl, and a staggering amount of action in what's a comparatively short novel, at least in contrast to series like Twilight where every new book got longer and longer. This is a relatively quick, and completely engrossing, read which I didn't put down once between starting and finishing it. Oh, and as well as the main novel, there's a bonus story told from Alex's point of view, which is well worth reading.
What we don't get - thankfully, from my point of view! - is much of the love triangle which I'd been expecting to take centre stage. While both Alex and Julian play a part, and Lena still has feelings for them, rather than concentrating on the romance the book spends far more time on the action, and we see Lena complete her transformation from the meek girl desperate to receive the cure for love who we saw at the start of the first book into a seriously awesome heroine. It's a massive shift from the priorities of book one, but it really does pay off.
As for the ending... wow! I can see this one really dividing people - it's an open ending which definitely leaves a fair bit to the imagination, but for me it was perfect. It ended on just the right note, wrapped up enough to be truly satisfying, and the last few paragraphs, in particular, were completely heartbreakingly beautiful. Massively recommended, and overall this trilogy go from being a fairly strong recommendation to a huge one, as one of my favourite teen trilogies of recent years, on the strength of this concluding volume.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Sunday Spotlight: Burn For Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian

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.

Kat wants revenge on her ex-best friend, who now taunts her whenever they cross paths. Lillia wants revenge on the boy who's started treating her little sister as more than a friend. Mary wants revenge on the boy whose cruelty led to her leaving Jar Island for years, only returning now. Individually, they may not be able to do much - but as a trio, they're sure they can wreak vengeance on those people who've wronged them. Just how far will these three 17-year-olds go?
It took me a while to get into this one - I didn't think Kat, Lillia and Mary really developed their own voices until I'd read a couple of chapters with each as a narrator - but by the time I'd got a third of the way through or so I was really enjoying it. Once they develop their voices properly, the central trio are intriguing characters, while Han and Vivian also do a very good job of turning the people they target for revenge into believable characters, raising the question as to whether they deserve everything Kat, Mary and Lillia want to put them through.
It's pacy, cleverly-plotted, and thought-provoking. Having said that, it's also a little confusing at times, and I'll break with my usual practice to provide something of a spoiler here as I think it's probably something that will colour people's views on the book.
There's a paranormal element which is hinted at a couple of times, but only becomes completely apparent towards the end. It didn't put me off, but it certainly took me by surprise.
I also thought the book suffered from a rushed ending which worked well in setting us up for the sequel, but didn't give us a particularly satisfying conclusion to this one. Despite this, I'd still recommend it to people looking for an entertaining read with more depth than first meets the eye, and I'll look forward to the rest of the series.

Saturday 6 April 2013

Saturday Special: Remembering Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert, famed film critic for the Chicago Sun Times, passed away on Thursday. The news affected me perhaps more than any other death of someone I've never met that I can remember - Ebert was a real icon to me, who I admired hugely because of his love of films and his wonderful writing style. I wanted to pay tribute to him, but couldn't find the words. So, here's some of his, which are better than anything I could ever have written myself - twelve of my favourite quotes from his reviews, along with links to the full versions of each one (click on the film title to go to his review.)

I loved Wet Hot American Summer, personally - for camp, trashy, low budget hilarity, it worked perfectly. In my opinion, at least. Ebert disagreed rather strongly, but his scathing review, written to the tune of Allan Sherman's comic song 'Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter From Camp) is fabulous whether or not you like the film. (So much so, in fact, that it was performed by the writers at the tenth anniversary screening!)
"Don't make me stay,
Oh mudduh faddah--
In this idiotic motion picture."

There seemed to be a lot of reviewers criticising The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor for various reasons, some of them unfair. Ebert summed the movie up by saying "Moviegoers who knowingly buy a ticket for "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" are going to get exactly what they expect: There is a mummy, a tomb, a dragon and an emperor. And the movie about them is all that it could be. If you think "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" sounds like a waste of time, don't waste yours." Good advice!

The Brown Bunny is another personal favourite of mine, although I'm glad I've never seen the 118-minute version which Roger crucified, leading to a feud between him and director/writer/star Vincent Gallo. After Gallo described him as a 'fat pig', Ebert's response was ''I will one day be thin but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of 'The Brown Bunny.'" Later, though, Roger would say "he is not the director of the same 'Brown Bunny' I saw at Cannes," giving the cut version three stars out of four.

I've never seen Deep Blue Sea, the Samuel L Jackson and Thomas Jane thriller. Somehow, after reading Ebert's review, the highlight of which is "Deep Blue Sea resembles a shark. It moves ceaselessly, and someone gets eaten from time to time." I've never been sure whether the film could live up to that quote, despite the three star review.

Lost And Delirious, Lea Pool's stunning film about two girls in love at a boarding school, inspired a hymn of praise from Ebert which captures as well as any review could this amazing movie. Best of all, is his footnote, slamming the MPAA for the ridiculousness of this movie being released 'unrated'. "The movie is being released 'unrated,' which means it is too poetic, idealistic and healthfully erotic to fit into the sick categories of the flywheels at the MPAA. Mature teens are likely to find it inspirational and moving."

Another favourite review of mine was the one of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, following on from star Rob Schneider's attack on Ebert's fellow critic Patrick Goldstein, "Maybe you didn't win a Pulitzer Prize because they haven't invented a category for Best Third-Rate, Unfunny Pompous Reporter Who's Never Been Acknowledged by His Peers." Ebert's response?
"As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks."

I haven't seen Valentine's Day, but the review brought a smile to my face anyway. (Which, by the sound of things, may be more than the film could manage!) "Valentine's Day" is being marketed as a Date Movie. I think it's more of a First-Date Movie. If your date likes it, do not date that person again. And if you like it, there may not be a second date."

Freddy Got Fingered is making most lists of Ebert's best ever reviews, usually with the quote "This movie doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels." As great as that is, I think I prefer the more cutting "The day may come when "Freddy Got Fingered" is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism. The day may never come when it is seen as funny."

I loved Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused the first time I saw it, but thought that it didn't hold up particularly well for the second viewing. Ebert summed it up wonderfully, saying "The most pathetic character in "Dazed and Confused" is a graduate from a few years back, in his '20s now, who still hangs out with the kids because he senses that the status he had at 17 was his personal high point. This is a good film, but it would not cheer people up much at a high school reunion."

Early Hugh Grant movie The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain wasn't one you'd expect to play particularly well in the USA, but Ebert liked it nearly as much as I did. "Every character in this movie, with the possible exception of the fresh-cheeked local lass Betty of Cardiff (Tara Fitzgerald) is crazy as a bedbug, and none of them know it, and that is why they are so funny." 

Perhaps the best movie of the last few years, for me, has been Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle's action comedy The Guard. Summing it up by nearly quoting one of Cheadle's lines, Ebert simply said "'The Guard'" is a pleasure. I can't tell if it's really (bleeping) dumb or really (bleeping) smart, but it's pretty (bleeping) good."

To say I wasn't a fan of The Village would be something of an understatement. However, I think I still liked it more than RE did! "To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore. And then keep on rewinding, and rewinding, until we're back at the beginning, and can get up from our seats and walk backward out of the theater and go down the up escalator and watch the money spring from the cash register into our pockets."

As I said, I'd love to have written something but couldn't find the words. Tim Grierson, writing for Paste Magazine, paid an eloquent tribute to him, while The Onion - not a site I'm usually a fan of - produced one of the best articles I've ever seen online, with their beautiful piece Roger Ebert Hails Human Existence As 'A Triumph'.

Friday 5 April 2013

Friday Feature: Author Interview with Laura Jarratt

After loving Laura Jarratt's superb debut Skin Deep last year, I was thrilled to find her second novel, By Any Other Name, was just as good! It was brilliant to get the chance to interview her - thanks to The Bookbag, where this interview originally ran on Monday, for arranging it!

(And speaking of interviews, just before we start this one, can I direct your attention over to The EDGE blog, where I've been interviewed today! Laura's superb Skin Deep gets a mention or two from me there.)

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

Laura Jarratt: I see the kind of people I work with every day, a whole spectrum of teenage girls. Generally I write with teenage girls in mind though I have got some teenage boy readers too. My adult audience is more varied but I don’t have them in mind when writing YA – I think it’s important to write YA for that specific age group and let any crossover happen naturally.

2. I've loved all three narrators in your first two books - was it easier to write the dual narrative of Skin Deep or Holly's solo narrative in By Any Other Name?
LJ: It was much easier to write the dual narrative in Skin Deep originally but that took way more editing later to keep the voices as distinct and authentic as possible. Holly was harder initially and it took several chapters for me to know her voice, possibly because she doesn’t really know who she is herself any more at the start of the book, but once I had her then she was much easier than writing a dual voiced book.

3. What are you reading at the moment?
LJ: Insurgent by Veronica Roth. After ignoring Divergent for ages, I finally picked it up to read it for an article I was writing and was utterly hooked from the start. I devoured it in two days and then couldn’t wait to get my hands on Insurgent to find out what happens next. Four is currently my current favourite male mc in YA and is going to take some toppling from that pedestal, but I also like Tris a lot. Quite often with two main characters, I find I like one much more than the other so it’s really good to find a book where I think both are great. I don’t mind dystopia in general but I don’t go out of my way to find it, however I’ll read any genre if the characters hook me.

Not a huge dystopia fan - despite loving Lauren Oliver's Delirum books - but one of my students was raving about Roth a few weeks ago, so she's on my list of authors I really need to get round to reading. Sounds like a fab series!

4. Coming from a fairly small village myself, I loved the setting of By Any Other Name and the way you captured the feel of the place, with everyone knowing each other fairly well. Did you grow up in a village yourself?
LJ: No, I grew up in the middle of Salford (next to Manchester) on a massive, sprawling council estate. However I should have been born in the country – I was definitely misplaced and escaped the city as soon as I finished Uni. I’ve lived in villages ever since. I like to be able to see green, open space from my window and I’d never go back to living in a city now.

5. It was fantastic to see your first novel, Skin Deep, get nominated for the Waterstones Children's Book Award. Did you ever dream when you wrote it that it would be as well-received as it has been?
LJ: Usually when I’ve written a book I think it’s very weak, to be honest, so I definitely didn’t expect a good reception! It takes me about a year to be able to see anything good in one of my books at all so it wasn’t until Skin Deep was coming up to publication time that I thought perhaps it wasn’t too bad. Logically I knew the book couldn’t be that poor or I wouldn’t have picked up an agent with it or sold it – I just can’t see the positives myself at first. And when you’re editing you’re always looking for the flaws so that colours your perspective for a long while.
I’m delighted by the response it’s had though, of course, from the very detailed and insightful reviews to the ‘I <3 Ryan’ ones from some of the teens, because, of course, I wrote it for them. And the Waterstones nomination is fantastic because it helps bring the book to a wider audience

6. My favourite character in By Any Other Name (as great as Holly was!) was Holly's autistic sister Katie. Did you have to do a lot of research into autism to portray her so convincingly?
LJ: I did some back-up research but mostly Katie was inspired by an autistic girl I met when I was doing a summer job while at Uni. Katie isn’t based on her in terms of the things Katie obsesses over or her little behavioural peculiarities – those are all Katies’s own – but she is inspired by her. And as I’ve worked a lot with children with special needs, I have got experience of milder autistic spectrum behaviour too.

7. If you could ask any other author any question, what would you ask and who would you ask it to?
LJ: I’d like to ask the late Rosemary Sutcliff where the inspiration for some of her characters came from. I read her autobiography, Blue Remembered Hills, many years ago and would never have realised from the richness of her books that she’d had such a difficult and restricted life in terms of her ill-health. Many of her characters exhibit a very distinctive form of honour, and I’d love to ask if that came from her or was inspired by people she knew. Her characters on several occasions describe the notion of not ‘breaking faith’. They seldom explain what they mean by this, though there is one beautiful example in The Mark of the Horse Lord, but you understand instinctively because she’s painted them so well as characters.

Fab question - RS was a favourite author of mine when I was a teen!

8. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what was the soundtrack to By Any Other Name?
LJ: I sometimes have music on, usually if I want to create a certain mood and am struggling to get into the zone, but then I tend to play a few tracks and switch off to write. I’m happiest writing in a coffee shop actually, with people around me. I prefer them as my soundtrack. Most of By Any Other Name though was written in my now-husband’s flat so the soundtrack was probably his stuff, which really isn’t my taste at all, but for some reason having to block out noise helps me concentrate on writing a first draft. Er, I’d guess there was probably a lot of Skrillex playing while I was writing, much to my disgust!

9. Your two books so far have had two of the most gorgeous covers I've ever seen! Do you get any input as to what's on the covers, or is it a total surprise when you see them?
LJ: I’m glad you like them!
I didn’t get any input at all with Skin Deep, although you get asked if you like it as a courtesy. I did have to slightly change Jenna’s hair colour in the book though to match the model as it wasn’t the same shade and I hate it when the cover art doesn’t match what the character looks like inside. Because of the light used in that photo, it just wouldn’t have looked as good if they’d photoshopped the model’s hair to Jenna’s original colour.
With By Any Other Name, I did ask for a minor tweak which was related to a photographic effect that I thought made it look more contemporary. They sent me several different samples for that one so I could comment on them.
I have a friend who is a cover designer though and she has impressed on me that the cover designer knows best! They have a knowledge of what attracts the target audience in terms of the art work that a writer doesn’t have in the same depth so she’d already primed me to leave the covers to the experts unless there was something really amiss. I showed both to her when I got them and she really liked them too.

10. What's next for Laura Jarratt?
LJ: I’m due to have a baby in the same week that By Any Other Name comes out so one thing that’s next will be a lot of nappy changing!
I’ve been working on two other books over the last year, one YA and one for an older audience (still not happy with that though), and I’m now writing another YA which is the one I’d like to see out on the shelves next. It’s a romance/thriller where one character get sucked into something he never intended to get caught up in with disastrous consequences and I guess it’s also about how some relationships just aren’t good for us, no matter how much we might want them.

Wow - best of luck with ALL of that, Laura!

Thursday 4 April 2013

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of LIGHT by Michael Grant

Warning: MAJOR spoilers below for the first five books in Michael Grant's excellent GONE series.

The dome has become transparent. The teens, and kids, in the FAYZ, are still trapped inside, but now they can see out - and their parents, and others, can see in. With interviews taking place by primitive methods, the outside world are starting to find out just how violent life has been, and this is just adding to the worries of Sam, Astrid, and the rest. How will the world receive them when they get out - or rather, if they get out? The gaiaphage, having taken human form as Caleb and Diane's rapidly-maturing daughter, is as evil as ever, and with Drake as its servant, is destroying anyone in his path. Can those left alive inside the FAYZ survive?

I always think that by this point in a series, a book is pretty much review-proof, anyway, especially when the quality of the series has been as consistently high as it has in this one. Whatever I said about this one, I'd be unlikely to put anyone off reading it if they'd enjoyed the first five. Thankfully, no need to put that theory to the test - because this is stunning stuff, perhaps Grant's best novel yet in the sequence. It's brutal, as his fans have come to expect by now - nothing quite as horrifying as a couple of the scenes involving Penny earlier in the series, but there are still some terrible deaths, one of which nearly had me throwing my copy at a wall in frustration, despite this being the most expensive book I've actually bought for ages. (I was 2nd in line to borrow it from my local library, but I couldn't wait even a day longer to read it and grabbed it in town a few days ago.)

I think the most impressive thing about the series, as a whole, is just how realistic the characters and their relationships feel. Yes, there's people who can shoot light out of their hands, telekinetics, and healers, but as out of the ordinary as the powers are, the teens wielding them seem utterly believable. As well, I love the way the non-powered teens have played such a big part in the series, and the character development of the entire main cast over the six books.

It's completely unpredictable - I had absolutely no idea how on earth it would end, but Grant brings things to a stunning conclusion.

Huge recommendation, and the series is up there with Department 19 as the very best of recent years for teens.

Monday 1 April 2013

Spotlight: Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger

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.

Etiquette & Espionage is the first in the Finishing School series by Gail Carriger, a spin-off from her Parasol Protectorate adult series. As you can see from the review, I really enjoyed it, and was thrilled when she agreed to an interview with me - check it out here

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is being sent to a finishing school. She's none too happy about it, until she gets there and finds there's rather more to Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality than meets the eye. Because while her mother thought she was there to be finished, she's also going to learn just how to finish - anything or anyone who needs finishing.

This is a spin-off from/prequel to Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, which I've never read - I'm not really a huge steampunk fan - but I'm very glad I took a chance on this one. I'm told there are some fun bits in for people who are familiar with that series, but I was able to follow this perfectly well without any prior knowledge. Sophriona is a very likeable heroine - more at home tinkering with machines than learning about proper manners - and the world-building here is fabulous. We get steampunk, mechanimals, vampires, werewolves, the wonderful Finishing Academy, another school, for the education of evil geniuses, and an exploding wicker chicken. And, as one of Carriger's characters says, Who doesn't want an exploding wicker chicken?

As you may be able to guess from that brief list of some of the elements included here, the chief thing to recommend this novel is that it's fun. Really, really good fun. I read it in two sittings - it would have been one, but the pesky day job got in the way - and had a wide smile on my face right through reading it. It's not without flaws, as I thought many of the supporting characters were on the thin side, and the plot seemed to take a while to get going and then end up being rushed at the end, but in terms of sheer light-hearted enjoyment this is pretty hard to beat. Carriger's witty dialogue, which is particularly strong, deserves a special mention also.

Definite recommendation - I'm already looking forward to the next book (especially if we get to see more of the wonderful Captain Niall!) and will be moving out of my comfort zone into adult steampunk fiction to try the Parasol Protectorate series.