URGENT: Save the Children appeal by Patrick Ness

If you’ve been moved by the plight of the refugees over the past few weeks and months, please consider donating to this Save the Children appeal.

It was started by the awesome children’s author Patrick Ness and has garnered over half a million pounds already – it would be great to get it to a million!

Authors and publishers are giving very generously, often £10,000 a piece as the total hits each target. It’s a phenomenal effort and just shows that compassion and generosity are still alive and kicking in these troubled times.

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Strangehaven by Gary Spencer Millidge

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Continuing my graphic novel mood, I rediscovered some old favourites, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed delving into again. The Strangehaven series are wonderfully quirky and dark, and right up my street. If you like The League of Gentlemen, or the novels of Phil Rickman, or the philosophy of Dion Fortune, or dramas that suddenly twist unnervingly from mundane reality to disturbing psychological, possibly supernatural, horror, then Strangehaven is for you!Strangehaven1

School teacher Alex Hunter is driving through the countryside when a girl suddenly appears in the middle of the road. He swerves to avoid her and crashes. When he regains consciousness, he is being looked after by the local doctor in the village of Strangehaven – and there is no sign of the girl. Recovering slowly, he discovers that Strangehaven isn’t easy to leave, not just because of the warm quirkiness of the locals, but because all roads seem to lead back to the village. And as he starts to integrate with the community, he discovers that dark secrets lurk under the picture postcard perfection of this little English village.

Adultery, murder, addiction, insanity – all human life is here.  Among the usual villagers with secrets, there’s Adam, who is convinced he’s an alien, and Megaron, an Amazonian Indian shaman.The local police officer, Sergeant Clarke, is somewhat shady. There’s Janey, young and innocent, who has the hots for Alex, and her friend Suzie, whose love life is getting dangerous. strangehaven2Oh, and there’s Janey’s dad, John, the local Headteacher who is also head of a secret society called Knights of the Golden Light…. As lives intertwine, the connections between the characters are slowly revealed, and the plot just gets darker and darker…

The illustrations storyboard the drama perfectly, and are realist in style. They focus on character, so you really feel like you know this odd bunch. The third volume ends on a cliffhanger, but fortunately, if you start this series now you won’t have to wait forever for the final volume. Volume three was published in 2005, but Millidge is currently releasing new installments after a ten-year break – see his blog for up-to-date information. Can’t wait!!strangehaven3

Surreal, “quintessentially British”, and intelligent, you don’t have to be a graphic novel fan to enjoy these – they are excellent stories and well worth a few hours of your time.

Rating:****

Strangehaven: Arcadia, Abiogenesis Press, 1998, ISBN 978-0946790043

Strangehaven: Brotherhood, Abiogenesis Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0946790050

Strangehaven: Conspiracies, Abiogenesis Press, 2005, ISBN 978-0946790074

The House That Groaned by Karrie Fransman

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Now I’m not a die-hard graphic novel fan, but I know what I like. And when I find a graphic novel that I get excited about, it’s a good day. A colleague recommended this title to me and I think it’s a brilliant example of the genre at its best: quirky, distinctive, and original, leaving you with a fresh perspective on the world.HouseGroaned

It’s the tale of 141 Rottin Road, a dilapidated Victorian house divided into flats. Into this mildly seedy environment Barbara, a young cosmetics salesgirl, bravely enters, to take up residence in Flat 3. Her fellow housemates are: a young man who retouches pictures of models; an older woman who runs a diet club; a man who is only attracted to women who are dying or disfigured; a woman who has been there so long she literally blends into the background; and a voluptuous hedonist. How their lives intersect, and how they ended up there in the first place, forms the core of the story.

It’s funny in a dark and twisted way, but there is compassion for all the characters, as Fransman reveals their back stories. The plot has some surprising twists, and the shocking ending is tempered with a moment of genuine poignancy. It’s sexually explicit, but not in a titillating way – there’s a sense of acceptance, of showing the reader that behind every desire and deviance there’s a human being, desperate to be seen. And the stylised illustrations match the quirkiness of the plot and characters perfectly. I think it’s an excellent example of how a graphic novel can express so much without using as many words as a conventional novel – how the form and the content work in harmony to convey the pure ideas of the author.

Definitely one that will find a permanent place on my bookshelves! Rating: ****

Square Peg, 2012, ISBN 9780224086813

Slash: A Serial Novel by Evan Kingston

Alex is an actress on a popular American TV family drama, Koops Kitchen. But the reality behind the sickly sweet serial is less than wholesome. Feeling alienated from her fellow cast members, and secretly in love with her co-star, Alex loses herself in reading slash fiction about the show – in particular, seeking stories where she can vicariously experience a sexual relationship with the perfect Lissa. But a new fan has started posting more than risque stories, in which the two women have sex after finding another of the show’s characters dead. And then the actors killed in the story start to die in real life…. Alex is convinced a serial killer is at work, and that it must be someone closely connected to the show. But which one of her fellow cast members or crew could it be? She turns detective to find out…

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This was a little outside my comfort zone initially, as I’m not a reader of slash fiction on the internet, but this doesn’t really matter. At its heart it is a serial killer whodunnit, and although it is not for the easily offended, it is great fun. The characters are writ large, but are entertaining for that; if the cops are rather unbelievable, as a TV in-joke they work perfectly. Alex’s snooping reveals the bitter, greedy and fake side of the celebrity industry, just as it reveals that she, a clever woman, cannot read people at all. She’s an interesting heroine – brave, reckless, and often clueless – as her own issues cloud her perception. I loved the coarse banter between her and Perry, as their animosity grows into something more meaningful. Raw and cutting, it’s a relationship fresh out of a Chuck Palahniuk novel.

The most enjoyable aspect of the novel is as metafiction – it’s fiction about fiction about fiction – constructing layers of fictional reality which shows the reader the lies that each is built on. It’s an interesting concept. At first I was a little disorientated, as Alex’s private world and the internet slash fiction mesh with each other, but quickly realised that that’s the point – in a world where we are surrounded and saturated with stories, who’s to say which one is more real than the other?

Definitely a whodunnit for the internet age, this was originally written as a series on the author’s blog, but is now available as a collected edition. For more information see Evan’s website, and you can download Slash to Kindle via Amazon.

With thanks to Evan for the review copy.

More Than This by Patrick Ness

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Okay so this is an interesting one to review.

I’m not going to tell you what this book’s about. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Because I can’t without spoiling it.

I’ve been reading children’s and young adult fiction – professionally – for eighteen years. And this is the sad, secret song of every librarian – there’s nothing that surprises us. We can pretty much always guess where a story is going, even if the how is a bit fuzzy. It doesn’t mean that we don’t enjoy what we read, but it’s simply that we’ve read so much, we’re either tuned in to the author’s wavelength, or know the conventions of the genre – and how to subvert them – inside out.

And then along comes Patrick Ness and blows me away.

He’s an absolute genius and he SHOULD have won the Carnegie for More Than This. His Chaos Walking trilogy is mind-blowing and remains my absolute favourite science fiction series for teenagers of all time. He treats his readers with utter respect and weaves a vibrant tapestry of challenging ideas and themes with words that are so precise, so cutting, you feel them – like a gentlest caress or the most sudden, violent punch. He is an author that can and will surprise you.

Discussing this novel with a colleague today we both felt the same – reeling with the shock and the perfection of it, you can’t promote this book in the normal way. morethanthisIf only, we lamented, the cover was more eye-catching. But then how could you design a book cover for something so surprising, without hinting at what’s within? It does make a kind of sense by the end, but ignore the cover, and just read it, as the quote from John Green so rightly says.

Patrick Ness, I salute you.

It takes a lot to surprise a librarian. And More Than This really does live up to, and surpass, the promise of it’s title.

Rating: *****

Walker Books, 2014, ISBN 9781406350487

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

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“Oh, but you must travel through those woods again & again…” said a shadow at the window. “…and you must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time… But the wolf… the wolf only needs enough luck to find you ONCE.”

Wow, it’s not often I’m so excited by a work of fiction I immediately want to tell everyone I know about it! But this graphic novel has simply blown me away.ThroughTheWoods

I like graphic novels but don’t read them too often; Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods has made me think I’m missing a trick here. It’s just sublime – five short tales on the theme of what lurks in the dark dark woods, a twist on familiar fairy tales which leaves a delicious shiver down your spine. Little Red Riding Hood is the archetypal fairy tale, so deep with psychological resonances it transcends its medium. Carroll closes her novel with a wonderfully short but utterly perfect take on this story. Her other tales are gothic, disturbing, compelling, and not a word is wasted or out of place. The first two – Our Neighbor’s House and The Lady With Cold Hands – read aloud amazingly well, so rare for graphic novels, and so they are destined to become a staple feature of my book promotions to teenagers. And all the stories are illustrated in just the right mood and tone, adding layer upon layer to the words. Gruesome and unsettling by turns, illustration and writing work in perfect partnership to chill the blood.

Utterly exceptional, I highly recommend this spooky collection!

Rating: *****

Faber and Faber, 2014, ISBN 9780571288656

Books of delight

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Well, it’s been a crazy six months, but I’m finally back where I belong, working as a children’s specialist. Over the past month I’ve been knee-deep in books for children and young adults, which has been a pure delight. So much to read, and so few hours in the day! But the world of children’s publishing just gets stronger and stronger. So here are a few of the books I’ve particularly enjoyed over the past month…

I confess to always being a little sceptical when a celebrity turns to writing books for young people, but Simon Mayo has got it right in Itchthe first in a new series of action adventure novels. We start with Itchingham Lofte (Itch) having lost his eyebrows; he burnt them off by accident when he blew up his bedroom, experimenting with phosphorus. But that’s the least of his worries when his obsession with the chemical elements leads him to acquire a rock which is radioactive. His sleazy teacher in particular is very keen to get hold of it. With governments and gangsters on his tail, will he manage to get the rock somewhere safe, save his sister’s life and not die of radiation poisoning? It’s not looking good for our hero… This is genuinely tense stuff, with our protagonist in very real danger. Mayo isn’t afraid to portray serious threat and doesn’t talk down to his audience, making this a compulsive read. (Corgi, 2012, ISBN 978-0552565509).

Meanwhile my passion for spooky horror was very well met by Alex Bell’s Frozen Charlotte. Sophie and Jay download a Ouija board app and suddenly everything gets spooky – and by the next day, Jay is dead. Sophie is convinced that the spirit of her dead cousin Rebecca is responsible, so visits her remaining cousins on the Isle of Skye to find out the truth. Cameron, Piper and Lilias are seriously weird, and claim that a collection of tiny dolls called the Charlottes are possessing frozen charlotteBthem…  What’s really going on in that spooky house and are the dolls really capable of driving people to murder? This is a truly creepy story with some shockingly violent moments. Not to be read before bedtime! If you find dolls scary like me, this will freak you out. Just my sort of thing! (Stripes Publishing, 2015, ISBN 978-1847154538).

Tension of a different, but equally disturbing kind, is the theme of Becca Fitzpatrick’s Black ice, one for older readers. Britt thinks that one way to get over her broken heart is to go backpacking over the mountains with her best friend Korbie. She didn’t count on her ex, Calvin (Korbie’s brother), tagging along too. But before the girls get to the cabin on the mountains, a snowstorm forces them to abandon their car and take refuge in another cabin, where they meet handsome Shaun and Mason. Something’s not right about these guys… and suddenly the girls are taken hostage. black iceBBritt convinces them she knows the mountains well and is their only hope of escaping whatever it is they’re running from. But forced outside, she has to fight to survive, and figures her only chance is to build a bond with Mason. But can he be trusted? Britt has to use every ounce of ingenuity as she tries to outwit her kidnappers, but when she’s falling for one of them, it’s harder to see the truth… Very tense story which I couldn’t put down, with a shocking twist in the tale – I did see it coming, but it was still utterly compelling and in no way spoilt the ending. (Simon & Schuster, 2015, ISBN 978-1471118166).

seedBSeed by Lisa Heathfield is one of those stories that makes your skin crawl. Pearl lives a simple life at Seed and is looking forward to the day she’ll become a companion to Papa S. But then newcomers come, and Pearl feels an attraction to one of them, a boy called Ellis. He tells her that Seed is wrong, is evil, and that she must escape – but surely Papa S wants the best for all of them, even though he sends her to the Punishment Room…. A disturbing tale of life in a cult, with a horrifying ending. Not for the faint-hearted! (Electric Monkey, 2015, ISBN 978-1405275385).

Tim Bowler is a stalwart of young adult literature and Game changer is another excellent, gripping story. Mikey lives in his wardrobe. It’s safer there. Especially since the last time he dared to venture out, and saw something terrible. But now they know where he is and he can’t escape the flood of text messages threatening to kill him. Even at school he’s not safe. But then they take his sister Meggie, and Mikey is forced to confront his worst fears to try and save her. Gripping thriller that gives you a tense feeling right in your gut, as you wonder if Mikey and Meggie will survive… Impossible to put down, and like Mayo, Bowler does not shrink from putting his characters in very scary situations. (OUP, 2015, ISBN 978-0192794154).

Taking a totally different tack from the books above, Jasmine Warga’s My heart and other black holes is a tear-jerker. Aysel (pronounced Uh-sell) wants to end it all, but doesn’t want to do it alone. She meets a boy online who is also looking for someone to help him, and before long she and Roman have made a pact to commit suicide on April 6th. But in spite of herself, she starts falling for him – and realises that she has far more to live for than she ever imagined. But will she convince Roman in time? Very moving story that makes you cry, yet also makes you realise how precious life is; Warga’s story tackles a difficult subject with sensitivity and insight. (Hodder, 2015, ISBN 978-1444791532).

Margo Lanaghan in The Brides of Rollrock Island delves into folklore, another staple ingredient in children’s literature. Misskaella doesn’t look like the other pretty girls on Rollrock Island and is teased and bullied by them. But Misskaella has a secret – she can charm the seals on the shores into shedding their skins and becoming human. bridesBTo get her revenge on the girls who look down on her, she gives each young man a beautiful seal wife – for a price. But the selkies pine for the sea, and the strange, enchanting seal women of Rollrock Island will find a way to return to the water… A beautifully told tale, quite a challenging read, but if you are enchanted by fairy and folk tales this unusual story will capture your imagination just as Misskaella captures the seal women. (David Fickling, 2013, ISBN 978-1849921121).

Melissa Marr is one of my favourite young adult authors and her latest is Made for you. Eva’s the queen bee at school, with a coterie of loyal friends and a handsome boyfriend. Then she’s nearly killed by a hit and run driver. Not only scarred, she discovers that when someone touches her, she has a vision of their death, and not just that – she’s having visions of her friends being murdered. When the visions start to come true, she realises that the hit and run driver was a serial killer – and now he’s obsessed with Eva, and killing her friends to get closer to her. But can Eva’s visions save everyone she loves? And is the killer closer than she thinks? A very disturbing tale about love gone wrong, with adult content. (HarperCollins, 2015, ISBN 978-0007584208).

Kim Slater’s Smart is for fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time. Kieran is a little bit different, which means that his stepfather Tony and stepbrother Ryan hate him. He spends his time down at the Embankment where he befriends homeless Jean, but when another homeless person is found dead in the river, he resolves to play detective and find out what happened. His investigations will lead him to fall foul of Tony and Ryan even more…  But Kieran is different, not stupid, and his quirky view on life sees more than anyone realises. Moving and satisfying story, very heartwarming. (Macmillan, 2015, ISBN 978-1447236672).

Another delightful spooky tale: Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree. In Victorian times, girls weren’t supposed to be clever – and Faith’s a clever girl, who takes after her scientist father. No one listens to her though, especially not her father. But then he then dies in mysterious circumstances, and Faith is convinced he was murdered. lie treeBShe discovers that her father had acquired a rare plant, which feeds on lies, and rewards the liar with visions revealing the truth of things. She starts to tell lies, big, dangerous lies, in the hope that she’ll find out who killed her father; but telling lies changes you. As Faith falls further in darkness, will she find the truth she seeks, and will it be too late to save herself? An unusual thriller with an unearthly twist; I really got lost in this one. (Macmillan, 2015, ISBN 978-1447264101).

And one for younger readers which I thoroughly enjoyed: Stitch Head: The beast of Grubbers Nubbin by Guy Bass. Stitch Head is a small, gentle monster living in the spooky Castle Grotteskew with lots of other monsters created by mad scientist, Professor Erasmus. Looking after a horde of hungry orphans is no easy task for the monsters; their attempts at cookery aren’t too successful to say the least! So they hatch a plan to steal the villagers’ food, food that’s being saved for the feast of Guzzlin’ Day, but they didn’t reckon on a wild and scary beast getting in their way… Mad and hilarious adventures with Stitch Head ensue! There is a whole series of these and they are a delight. (Stripes Publishing, 2015, ISBN 978-1847156099).beastB

Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni

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This is an intriguing story set in the Philippines, and is rich with exotic characters and poetic language that evokes the sights and smells of a seaside town. Told by Joseph, who is the houseboy of a once rich, and still respected, widow, it relates his observations of the diverse community he lives in. ESPERANZA-STREET-300x460Amusing and sad in turns, his anecdotes slowly reveal a level of corruption within the town that affects the lives of  everyone – including himself. Caught up in the illicit love affair between the BabyLu, mistress of the local “fixer” Eddie Casama, and Dub, the son of his employer, the plot slowly meanders to a tragic conclusion; but Joseph is a survivor.

The novel is full of fascinating vignettes of life in the Philippines, and all the characters are fascinating; it is told with affection and warmth, in a hazy, lyrical style that perfectly captures the essence of the place and its people. I loved the descriptions of the marketplace, and the passive resistance of the hairdressers, who when faced with eviction simply take their salon out onto the street. It’s the kind of story that opens your eyes to other cultures really well; it’s subtle and realistic, and whilst the darker tones are clearly there, the humour and the warmth of the relationships never tip it into melodrama.

What is also intriguing is the publisher –  And Other Stories, who have a different publishing model. They encourage people to subscribe in order to fund their list, and are a not-for-profit company. They are worth checking out, especially for their commitment to the environment; and aim to publish intelligent, unique novels. On the evidence of Esperanza Street, they’re doing well.

And Other Stories, 2015, ISBN 9781908276483

A copy of this novel was provided by the publisher for review

New Year promises…

Happy new year!

Well I really don’t know where the time has gone. The last few months have flown by and now it’s 2015. I have been reading avidly but I confess that I spend so much time in front of a computer during the day job, book blogging at home has a taken a back seat, so the first of my new year’s resolutions is to rectify that!

I spent Christmas mostly snowed in, with the wood-burner blazing, listening to Nick Drake and Kate Bush and drinking whiskey; snuggled up in my Gomer Parry Plant Hire sweatshirt, thanks to Terry of Ledwardine Lore, and getting lost in re-reading Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series again (I’m now up to The Remains of an Altar) and revelling in the JCB-related heroics of said Gomer. I’m very excited by the news that Sky have commissioned the series which should air later this year – keep up-to-date at Phil’s site. Can’t wait to see Gomer-related chaos on screen!

And I’ve started writing again – I’ve dusted off the draft that has languished in my drawer for far too long, and have reconfigured it. My central point-of-view character is now different, and the focus has shifted somewhat, but I’m much happier with its structure now. My second new year’s resolution is to write 1000 words a day – already I’m struggling now I’m back at work, but I do think the trick is to keep it in your head and write little but often.

Fingers crossed!