Tag Archives: British Books Challenge

UK Crime Review: Sweetpea by CJ Skuse

Sweetpea, C J Skuse, (HQ, Apr 20 2017)

Genres in the mix: crime, black humour

Age target: adult

Story basics: (from Goodreads):

‘This isn’t a book for the squeamish or the faint-hearted … think Bridget Jones meets American Psycho’ – Red

The last person who called me ‘Sweetpea’ ended up dead…

I haven’t killed anyone for three years and I thought that when it happened again I’d feel bad. Like an alcholic taking a sip of whisky. But no. Nothing. I had a blissful night’s sleep. Didn’t wake up at all. And for once, no bad dream either. This morning I feel balanced. Almost sane, for once.

Rhiannon is your average girl next door, settled with her boyfriend and little dog…but she’s got a killer secret.

Although her childhood was haunted by a famous crime, Rhinannon’s life is normal now that her celebrity has dwindled. By day her job as an editorial assistant is demeaning and unsatisfying. By evening she dutifully listens to her friend’s plans for marriage and babies whilst secretly making a list.

A kill list.

From the man on the Lidl checkout who always mishandles her apples, to the driver who cuts her off on her way to work, to the people who have got it coming, Rhiannon’s ready to get her revenge.

Because the girl everyone overlooks might be able to get away with murder…

Review-in-a-tweet: gloriously no-holds-barred, hilarious and disturbing peek into serial killer Rhiannon’s diary. Loved her kill lists!

The emotional ride: almost as crazy as Rhiannon herself! One minute you’re nodding along with her observations about the world, thinking ‘yeah, that’s it exactly’ and the next, recoiling in horror as she reminds you in full technicolour that she’s an actual serial killer.

Narrative style: I loved the diary mode of this, with Rhiannon’s daily thoughts and annoyances. It’s really up close and personal, so you’re never in any doubt why Rhiannon’s doing what she’s doing (or at least, why she thinks she’s doing what she’s doing, I suppose – but that could be a whole other book!)

Main character: fabulous and detailed in all her psychotic glory. I loved her ‘hit list’ approach to daily journalling – each daily entry begins with a numbered list of the people who’ve annoyed her/she’d love to kill. I also loved her dry wit and straight-talking. These were things that helped to make her behaviour seem reasonable, despite everything.

Supporting cast: others in the novel are also really well drawn, even though we see them all through Rhiannon’s obviously quite limited viewpoint. I enjoyed reading them through all her snark, although it is clear that she is surrounded by largely unlikeable people…

I definitely need to reiterate that this is an adult title. It may be the most inappropriate for a YA audience title that I have reviewed here. The humour is very black indeed and there is graphic sex and violence. I would not recommend this book to students as a teacher, although there are some sixth formers who I might mention it to discreetly in an unofficial capacity as I also know that almost all my students will definitely be seeing worse on TV than they would read here (but couldn’t have it said that ‘school’ in any way suggested reading this…!!). Having said all that, it was hilarious and I did have some embarrassment as I read on the bus to work – laughing is generally frowned on in that context…

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Sweetpea is out now in the UK from HQ, who provided me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

I’m counting this review towards the British Books Challenge. It is my fifth.

UKYA Review: The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury

The Scarecrow Queen, Melinda Salisbury, (Scholastic, March 2017)

Genres in the mix: Fantasy (high)

Age target: YA

Be warned: this reviews the conclusion to a trilogy, so there may be spoilers for the first two books. If you haven’t read the first two, my advice is simple – do that. It’s a cracking fantasy series and I am even more convinced of that now I’ve read the whole thing. I would especially recommend it if you tend to notice shades of anti-feminism or poor female representation creeping into books and media that claim to have ‘strong female characters’ or to be ‘for girls’. These books will not let you down. Mel’s ethics shine through in her realistically-portrayed-and-therefore-flawed characters (sidenote: strong female character does not equal robotically tough) and her commitment to offering her female characters in particular genuine choices, great relationships (and by that I mean friendships with each other as well as romance possibilities) and real growth. If you’re new to the series, now’s the time to leave…

Story basics (from Goodreads): The final battle is coming . . .

As the Sleeping Prince tightens his hold on Lormere and Tregellan, the net closes in on the ragged band of rebels trying desperately to defeat him. Twylla and Errin are separated, isolated, and running out of time. The final battle is coming, and Aurek will stop at nothing to keep the throne forever . . .

Explosive, rich and darkly addictive, this is the stunning conclusion to Mel Salisbury’s internationally best-selling trilogy that began with The Sin Eater’s Daughter.

The emotional ride: Tricky and intense. There were moments in both Twylla’s and Errin’s sections when I thought I might cry (this is not a common thing for me), as well as moments of genuine joy. Brilliantly handled pace.

Narrative style: I loved the switching between Twylla’s and Errin’s points of view and felt it really increased the tension as well as clearly showing different parts of the story. It gave it a very filmic feel, like we were switching scenes: ‘meanwhile, at the castle…’

Plotting and pacing: A real strength of the book, heightened by the narrative style, I feel. Shifting the focus between the two viewpoint characters from the first two books really helped to keep the pace shifting. I also really liked that this was in large chunks, rather than chapter by chapter as it’s often done – this worked great for this particular story.

Main character: Obviously, there were two main characters here, and I loved them both. Twylla has grown so much from the naive young woman we first met in Sin Eater’s Daughter – poor thing, she’s had to! I do like that both she and Errin defy a lot of the ‘strong heroine’ stereotypes and yet really grow into their roles as leader-types in this book. It feels very organic and realistic here.

Supporting cast: These are also really well drawn. I think Merek comes into his own here and I enjoyed his development. I appreciated the arc of Lief’s character, difficult though it is and the Sleeping Prince is a marvellous full-on moustache-twirling baddie. However, it’s the supporting cast of women that I loved and who I feel make the series. The Sisters really are the heart of it all.

One final note: I loved the ending. I commented at the beginning that I see this as a strong series in terms of representation of women and I think that the ending is a crucial part of that. I don’t want to give spoilers, but I feel the ending is perfect in that it is true to the novel’s own spirit. It gives the characters the ending they deserve, on their own terms, and that is the most satisfying ending possible.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

The Scarecrow Queen is out now in the UK from Scholastic.

I am counting this review towards the British Books Challenge 2017.

UKMG Review: Who Let the Gods Out? by Maz Evans

Who Let the Gods Out?, Maz Evans, (Chicken House, Feb 2017)

Genres in the mix: fantasy, humour, mythology

Age target: MG

Story basics: Elliot’s mum is ill and his home is under threat, but a shooting star crashes to earth and changes his life forever. The star is Virgo – a young Zodiac goddess on a mission. But the pair accidentally release Thanatos, a wicked death daemon imprisoned beneath Stonehenge, and must then turn to the old Olympian gods for help. After centuries of cushy retirement on earth, are Zeus and his crew up to the task of saving the world – and solving Elliot’s problems too?

Review-in-a-tweet: Sharply witty, a brilliant twist on the Greek myths, plus keenly-observed social commentary. Everyone will love Elliot and root for him!

The emotional ride: Elliot’s home life story is deeply sad, but delivered with warmth and gentle humour so it never becomes too much, or treated with sentimentality rather than genuine emotion (a pet hate of mine – I hate feeling manipulated for cheap emotional impact). The humour of the Gods’ less-than-perfect understanding and abilities to function in the modern world also balances this beautifully.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: obvious opportunities to follow up and learn more about the characters, places etc referenced from Greek mythology (and readers are likely to be keen to do that), but child carers as an SMSC/PSHE topic could also be explored from here.

Plotting and pacing: plenty of movement and twists to keep the target audience engaged. It’s clearly the first in a series, and there is more of the overall story to tell, but it’s not left with an unfinished feeling.  I definitely want to read the others when they come out.

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

This is Waterstones’ Children’s Book of the Month for February, which shows how brilliant it is. As well as writing her own books, Maz Evans manages Story Stew, which runs creative writing workshops in schools. She was here on the blog earlier this month talking about writing.

Who Let the Gods Out? is out now in the UK from Chicken House, who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

I’m counting this review for the British Books Challenge 2017, my fourth for the challenge (and this book is the featured debut for this month).

UKYA Review: Mind The Gap by Phil Earle

Mind The Gap, Phil Earle, (Barrington Stoke, Jan 2017)

Genres in the mix: contemporary

Age target: YA

Story basicsWhen Mikey’s dad died, something in Mikey died too. He loved his old man and he never stopped dreaming that one day his dad would land the role of a lifetime, prove them all wrong, and rock back up to the estate in the flashiest car anyone had ever seen. Now there’s just numbness, and not caring, and really, really stupid decisions. He says the worst of it is that he can’t even remember his dad’s voice any more. Eventually Mikey’s best mate can’t bear it any more, and so he sets out to give Mikey the memories – and his dad’s voice – back.

Review-in-a-tweet:  Gripping and emotive tale of mates and choices. ‘Super-readable’, sharply contemporary, realistic; will strike a chord with many teens.

The emotional ride: Obviously, at times this is tough. Mikey’s pain over losing his Dad is clear, but it is generally quite understated. It’s more about the immediate problems of Mikey acting stupidly because he doesn’t care about things any more, and about his mate’s quest to find a way to give Mikey his dad’s voice once more.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: The biggest opportunity this book (and others from Barrington Stoke) offers teachers is the chance to get students reading for pleasure. It’s a genuine gift in that department.

At Yr 11 Parents’ Evening last week, I had this along with The Liar’s Handbook and Unboxed from Barrington Stoke, (and some other YA titles of various kinds) on my desk ready for the ‘but I don’t know what to read’ moment, and it was brilliant to be able to show them the fantastic package that these little books are to make them super-readable:

  • clear sans-serif font
  • tinted pages (one mum said ‘I have dyslexia and I can see those words – I couldn’t on the sheet of exam dates you just showed me’)
  • short chapters and overall book length
  • stories by authors already successful for this age group, not teachers or ‘dyslexia experts’
  • topics and themes found in other YA novels, nothing simplified in content, only in readability

Several students took photos of the books, to be able to buy them later/find them in a library – yay!

Main character: I’d say it’s impossible to read this and not be behind Mikey 100%, even when he’s being an idiot (and he really is, at times). Phil Earle makes you understand why he’s being an idiot, so you just feel for him even more (that’s part of the ‘not simplified content’ thing about these books – they require an emotional maturity, but the reading age is only 8. No mean feat!)

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

Mind the Gap is out now in the UK from Barrington Stoke, who kindly provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

I’m counting this review towards the British Books Challenge 2017: my third for the challenge.

UKYA Review: Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Wing Jones, Katherine Webber, (Walker, Jan 5th 2017)

Genres in the mix: contemporary, magic realism, romance

Age target: YA

Story basicsFor fans of David Levithan, Jandy Nelson and Rainbow Rowell: a sweeping story about love and family from an exceptional new voice in YA. With a grandmother from China and another from Ghana, fifteen-year-old Wing Jones is often caught between worlds. But when tragedy strikes, Wing discovers a talent for running she never knew she had. Wing’s speed could bring her family everything it needs. It could also stop Wing getting the one thing she wants.

I’ve been looking forward to this one for months. The cover was revealed at YALC last July and there had been chatter about it before then. All this hype made me slightly apprehensive about reading it, as it can be hard for books to live up to it (especially, for me, for contemporaries which so often rely heavily on romance – personal taste, but that’s not my favourite thing and a book which offers only/solely that is not going to satisfy). Anyway, Wing Jones does NOT disappoint – it’s a fabulous, diverse family drama told with a light touch which offers plenty of warmth and even some humour.

The emotional ride: dramatic and, at times, unrelenting. This is not a ‘quiet’ book, but one full of passion and emotion. It drags you through a range of emotions with poor Wing as she deals with tragedy, family, school and trying to just be fifteen. However at no point does it feel manipulative or gratuitous and there is often humour in amongst the drama.

Narrative style: Wing’s first person narrative is lyrical and beautiful, and we are easily drawn into her imaginative and metaphorical thought process.

Supporting cast: I feel that characterisation is a strength of this book, but I particularly loved Wing’s two grannies, LaoLao and Granny Dee. They often brought warmth and humour to the story.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: the diverse make-up of the book’s cast is fantastic for addressing the narrow range of representation offered by the set GCSE curriculum. I’d love to offer this as part of KS3 or on a ‘reading for pleasure’ list to KS4 to offset the set texts. There are also plenty of SMSC opportunities: bullying, poverty, culture (especially biracial heritage) and Wing herself is a great example of resilience and could therefore be discussed in relation to learning power/four Rs and growth mindset. The writing itself is also beautiful and descriptive, often using metaphor.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Wing Jones is out now in the UK from Walker Books.

This is my first British Books Challenge review for 2017 – and what a brilliant choice of book! I’m also counting this for the Diverse Reads Challenge, as Wing’s dual heritage is important in the story.

British Books Challenge 2017

As I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump over the past few months, I’ve decided to sign up for a blogging challenge or two to give me a boost for 2017. I’ve participated in the British Books Challenge before, which is hosted this year by the very lovely Chelley of Tales of Yesterday. It’s a straightforward challenge – read and review at least 12 books by British authors during the year (since US titles often get a bigger publicity push), with prize packs sponsored by UK publishers for bloggers remembering to link up their reviews on the official site post each month. Chelley’s also added some extra incentives with an ‘author of the month’ and ‘debut of the month’ – anyone reviewing those will get a double entry in the draw, so we’ll see whether I can qualify for any of those.

My plans so far are to read and review some of the British titles I’ve already got, along with some new books that I’m eagerly awaiting. I’m sure more books will emerge as the year goes on too. If I review all of these, I’ll more than meet the challenge, but some of these are quite chunky tomes, so we’ll see…

New titles to look forward to are:

  • Wing Jones by Katherine Webber (out 5th Jan)
  • Unconventional by Maggie Harcourt (out 1st Feb)
  • The Night Spinner by Abi Ephinstone (out 23rd Feb)

Titles I already own:

  • The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (on Kindle)
  • The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (on Kindle)
  • How Not to Disappear by Claire Furness
  • Cuckoo by Keren David
  • My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons and Laura Ellen Anderson
  • Who Let the Gods Out by Maz Evans
  • The Graces by Laure Eve
  • Jinks and O’Hare Funfair Repair by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre
  • Barefoot on the Wind by Zoe Marriott
  • Cogheart by Peter Bunzl
  • The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
  • The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanne Cannon
  • Jolly Foul Play by Robin Stevens (unavailable for photographing… on my daughter’s shelf 😉)
  • Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens (unavailable for photographing… on my daughter’s shelf 😉)

These are a mix of adult, YA and MG – thankfully, everything goes for this challenge: as long as the book was both read and reviewed in 2017, it counts.

Review of Venus Rocks by Fiona Dunbar

This sassy ghost-focused story for tweens and young teens was great fun!

Author: Fiona Dunbar

Title: Venus Rocks
Genre: Paranormal (kids/teen)
Series: Kitty Slade (this is book 3)
Publisher: Orchard
Published: Jan 2012
Source: Kindly sent by the publisher
Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Hey, Kitty Slade here. Just hanging out, doing ordinary things. You know, like seeing ghosts. It’s been happening for a while now, but this time – this time is different…

When Kitty sees a ghost ship, she knows her spooky powers are growing stronger. Plunged into a dark mystery from long a go, she soon encounters Beth, a lost soul who drowned on board. Kitty must uncover the secrets buried at the bottom of the sea – before it’s too late…

My verdict: a great central character and fabulous voice make this a great read. Recommended for older children and younger teens (and adults too…).
NB: Since this is the third in the series, this review may contain spoilers for books one and two.
 
This is the first Kitty Slade book I’ve read. It will not be the last. Do you need to know more? 🙂 Just in case you do…
By this, the third book in the series, Kitty is fairly comfortable with her ability to see ghosts (known as phantorama in the story), but she is quite surprised to see a whole ghost ship. This story takes place in Cornwall and is steeped in the lore of shipwrecks and pirates associated with the area. I like that the family live in a camper van (known as The Hippo), which gives Dunbar more flexibility with settings and additional characters. They are certainly a quirky family, and Kitty’s abilities (and the issue of who knows and who doesn’t – it’s inherited from her late Mum so can’t be a complete secret) make for some interesting family relationships.
The story is narrated by Kitty, so we get to enjoy her individual point of view and entertaining voice. She appears confident and sassy, but her narration allows us to see some less confident feelings and to sympathise with her. Some sections are presented as Kitty’s blog, which she maintains privately like a diary to set out and explore her feelings. I also enjoyed her interaction with other characters, including her quirky-bordering-on-weird Grandmother Maro and her cousin Ashley, who lives a much more normal teen life including a cute crush.
Although there are scary moments, this is not a creepy ghost story – more like junior urban fantasy than horror. The lively voice and the confidence of the children in their investigations ensures that it is on the lighter side and would be unlikely to terrify any delicate souls. 
Overall, I really enjoyed this and would definitely recommend it (and the series).

Tuesday Tidings: British Books Challenge Wrap-up

I signed up for the British Books Challenge last December and was keen to get going in January. The challenge was simply to read and review at least 12 British books. This was my first blogging challenge and gave me an excuse a reason to start doing reviews on this blog, which I have greatly enjoyed, so my thanks go to the Bookette for that!
I have mostly reviewed children’s and YA books, and my 22 UK titles this year are:
An Act of Love by Alan Gibbons
Birdman by Mo Hayder
Bloodstone by Gillian Philip
Dark Angels by Katherine Langrish
The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner
Firebrand by Gillian Philip
Flood and Fang by Marcus Sedgwick
The Iron Witch by Karen Mahoney
Kaspar – Prince of Cats by Michael Morpurgo
Lob by Linda Newbery
The Long Weekend by Savita Kalhan
Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick
Paper Wings by Linda Sargent
Soul Beach by Kate Harrison
West of the Moon by Katherine Langrish
When I Was Joe by Keren David
Witch Hill by Marcus Sedgwick
Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver
I’m definitely signing up for next year’s challenge, which is now being hosted by Kirsty at The Overflowing Library, and I’m now inspired to look out for other interesting challenges for 2012. Do you take part in reading/reviewing challenges? Would you like to recommend any? 

Family Friday: Review of Flood and Fang by Marcus Sedgwick

A great mystery for kids, with delightful gothic touches.

Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Title: Flood and Fang
Genre: Kids
Series: Raven Mysteries (Book 1 of 6)
Publisher: Orion
Published: 2009
Source: purchased (on Kindle)

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says:
Meet the wonderfully weird Otherhand family and their faithful guardian, Edgar the raven, and discover the dark secrets of Castle Otherhand. Edgar is alarmed when he sees a nasty looking black tail slinking under the castle walls. But his warnings to the inhabitants of the castle go unheeded: Lord Valevine Otherhand is too busy trying to invent the unthinkable and discover the unknowable; his wife, Minty, is too absorbed in her latest obsession – baking; and ten-year-old Cudweed is running riot with his infernal pet monkey. Only Solstice, the black-haired, poetry-writing Otherhand daughter, seems to pay any attention. As the lower storeys of the castle begin mysteriously to flood, and kitchen maids continue to go missing, the family come ever closer to the owner of the black tail…

My verdict:  Hilarious with gentle gothic elements for children. A good choice for sharing/reading aloud or for more confident readers.
There is much to praise in this book, but I think I’ve finally settled on its key strength being the narration. Having the family raven (called Edgar, of course) tell the story is a fabulous feature of this very entertaining book. There are aspects which I think the younger end of its target audience (8-9 year olds) might miss, but at the same time, I think there’s plenty here to keep them reading while also being sharp enough for 12 year olds to enjoy. Despite the many gothic elements, the book is not scary for younger readers: this is zany-gothic rather than creepy-gothic.

The pace is lively, with short chapters and quirky illustrations, making it suitable for newly-independent readers, while the content (particularly the unreliable narrator, in that Edgar doesn’t always understand everything immediately) offers enough to engage older and more experienced readers (myself included!).

The characters are wonderful. Edgar, of course, is closest to us and we learn a little of his history and that of the house. His absolute belief in his superiority is endearing (and befitting a raven), as is his loyalty. The family are, of course, hilariously crazy, and the castle itself (in fine Gothic tradition) is effectively a character too. Using an animal to narrate, and spreading the focus around the whole family means that this is easily a gender-neutral choice and will appeal to both boys and girls.

I would absolutely recommend this for anyone of 7 or over, and will be reading further instalments in the series.

This is my twenty-second British book reviewed this year. Are you signing up for next year’s British Books Challenge?

Thrilling Thursday: Review of The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner

Sally Gardner’s new YA novel is an ethereal literary experience, which I would urge you to treat yourself to.

Title: The Double Shadow
Author: Sally Gardner
Publisher: Indigo from Orion
Published: 3 November 2011 (HB) – coming Aug 2012 in PB
Genre: hmm, tough one. Fantasy maybe (since it’s not realism)? Magic realism perhaps? Sci-fi (since it posits a fabulous machine)?  I suppose you’ll have to read it to decide 🙂

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Once there was a girl who asked of her reflection, ‘If all I have is fragments of memories and none of them fit together, tell me then, do I exist?’

In a bluebell wood stands a picture palace. Arnold Rubens built it to house an invention of his that could change the war torn world forever. It is to be given to Amaryllis, his daughter, on her seventeenth birthday.

But it’s a present she doesn’t want, and in it is a past she has to come to terms with and a boy whose name she can’t remember.

Who knows what her past has been, or what the future might hold for Amaryllis, lost as she is in this place with no time?

My verdict: beautiful, haunting and evocative, this is a real book to lose yourself in. Recommended for teens upwards.

This novel is extraordinary. Lyrical, elusive and utterly compelling, it draws you and hooks you long before you have any real sense of exactly what is happening.
When I first read the info about this book, it made me think of Angela Carter – probably because of the surreal machine plan and the uncanny double idea hinted at in the title. That comparison was borne out in the reading, due to the lyrical beauty of Gardner’s writing, the surrealism and the mythic sense of symbolism created. But that isn’t to say this is a derivative work, by any means. This is a truly original novel with genuine literary quality. It’s great to see something so unashamedly literary produced for teens.
The characters of Amaryllis and those around her are beautifully drawn and the period detail (the novel is set largely between the world wars) is informative, creating a realistic backdrop to the crazy memory machine. As well as the gorgeous and imagery-rich writing, we are drawn in by the characters’ feelings and behaviour, which, together with the setting provide a grounded realism to support the extravagant fantasy of the memory machine, sited in the picture palace. This glorious building stands as a symbol of the nostalgia and unreality which haunt the inventor Ruben.
The narration shifts around in time, adding an additional layer of complexity to the plot, and contributing to the theme of the nature of memory. These shifts in time are matched with changes in tense, switching between a dreamy and fairytale-like past and an immediate and more charged present, giving a sense of urgency to these sections. The narration is all third person in an omniscient style, adding a further sense of the past due to the old-fashioned tone of this narrative style.
The novel has dark overtones and touches on some unpleasant themes. As Gardner stated in her guest post here as part of the blog tour for this book, the past contains some unpleasant truths and it would be wrong to pretend otherwise and prettify them in writing. This darkness, as well as the novel’s complexity, make this a book suitable for teens and adults rather than children. I would strongly recommend it to anyone of around 14 and up.

Thank you to Indigo at Orion for sending this lovely book for review.  This review is my twenty-first for the British Book Challenge at the Bookette (to be hosted at the Overflowing Library next year).