20 June 2012

Ben Okri's 10 1/2 Inclinations

This isn't new, but I only just discovered it and wanted to share it. Author Ben Okri was asked for his book recommendations for children, he instead offered these 10 1/2 inclinations:

1. There is a secret trail of books meant to inspire and enlighten you. Find that trail.
2. Read outside your own nations, colour, class and gender.
3. Read the books your parents hate.
4. Read the books your parents love.
5. Have one or two authors that are important, that speak to you; and make their works your secret passion.
6. Read widely, for fun, stimulation and escape.
7. Don't read what everyone else is reading. Check them out later, cautiously.
8. Read what you're not supposed to read.
9. Read for your own liberation and mental freedom.
10. Books are like mirrors. Don't just read the words. Go into the mirror. That is where the real secrets are. Inside. Behind. That's where the gods dream, where are realities are born.
10 1/2. Read the world. It is the most mysterious book of all.

13 June 2012

Carnegie 2012 Summary

This year there were eight books on the Carnegie shortlist, the UK children's book prize that celebrates outstanding writing for children. Overall, I thought this was an exceptionally strong shortlist, there was only one book that I didn't really see the appeal of and I thought the other seven were all incredibly strong. For me, there was a clear top three, with one just edging above it but I would be content to see most of these win. Whilst they are all fairly varied, all of them except for Small Change for Stuart featured a close relative who had died or dies during the novel so it is quite a heavy shortlist and five out of eight had me in tears. Nonetheless, if you are looking for exceptional modern writing for children, this shortlist would be a good place to start.

Here is my countdown, I found it difficult to sort the top seven out into an order but this is what I've come up with. These are my personal preferences, not based on which I think will win or the reaction from children. I am hoping to do another summary tomorrow, based on the ratings that my student shadowing group gave, to give a teenage perspective. Click on the title of the book to go to the full review (opens in a new window).

8. Everybody Jam by Ali Lewis

The story of Danny and his family in Australia as they face family problems and the annual cattle muster. I felt that this doesn't really stand up to the extremely high quality of the other seven shortlisted novels. Well written and thought provoking, it is just too slow paced and lacks heart. Too many descriptions of animals and food and not enough focus on any characters other than the protagonist.

7. Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans

This is the story of Stuart, who is forced to move town by his eccentric parents and ends up unearthing a family mystery. I really liked this a lot but I don't think it has been shortlisted for the right award, I could see this doing very well in the middle readers section of the Red House Book award, which was won by Liz Pichon for Tom Gates this year. This is charming, magical and fun but for much younger readers than any of the other shortlisted novels so it is difficult to compare and perhaps not quite in the same league as the heavy-hitters.

6. Trash by Andy Mulligan

A story of three dumpsite boys who find something that was supposed to stay lost and end in the middle od a dangerous mystery. Superbly paced with appealing characters and a great, very tense, mystery at its centre. Easy to read but with real depth and lots to discuss. For me it could have been a bit longer with a bit more time devoted to exploring some more of the issues and giving the boys more time to explore some of the clues they discover.

5. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

This is the upsetting and harrowing story of Lina and her family who are deported from Lithuania by the Soviets and ensure horrendous circumstances in Siberian labour camps. It brings a little known mass deportation to light. The family relationships are beautifull created and extremely moving and the horrors of the farms and prison camps are evocatively rendered. But, if I dare say it, I'm not sure this is really outstanding writing and the story itself carries the majority of the weight, rather than Sepetys' writing.

4. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

The moving story of Jamie, whose family has fallen apart after his sister was killed in a terrorist bomb blast in London. Pitcher has created a wonderful character and voice in Jamie, as well as two superb secondary characters in his other sister and the Muslim girl he befriends at school. Pitcher has a way with story and characters and I couldn't put this down. It made me laugh and it made me cry, it made me angry and it made me hopeful.

3. The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett

This top three was a clear top three for me and I struggled to put them in order but this beautiful story just slipped down because it took me a few chapters to get into it. But once I did I was blown away by the beauty of Hartnett's writing and the wonderful story of two brothers and the abandoned zoo they found. A section near the end in particular absolutely broke my heart with its soaring words and bittersweet story. 

2. My Name is Mina by David Almond

A very close second, I found this uplifting and marvellous. I absolutely adored Mina as a character and narrator and could have read pages and pages more of his diary. I loved the creativity of the words but also of the book itself with its 'extraordinary activity' boxes and pages packed with words or with just one in the centre. Working in a school myself, it inspired me to make sure my library is a creative and inspiring place, the cage that Mina sees school to be. This book is wonderful in every way. 

1. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

So my pick for the win would be Patrick Ness, for the second year in a row after he won last year for Monsters of Men. As with My Name is Mina and The Midnight Zoo, Ness manages to fuse beautiful language with an entrancing story and characters. The story of Conor as he deals with his mother's cancer, through the yew tree monster that visits him at night is incredibly moving and filled with beauty, tragedy, love and things which are not as they seem. The wonderful illustrations by Jim Kay elevate this even more with gasp-inducing black and white illustrations that really up the atmospheric darkness of the books.

In terms of which book I think will win, I think Between Shades of Gray is in with a very strong chance as it ticks a lot of the boxes I think Carnegie goes for with its very heavy theme, with Ness, Almond and Harnett in serious contention. I must admit I would be surprised to see any of the others take it although I have a soft spot for My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece because Annabel Pitcher is so lovely and it's an exciting debut.

I am incredibly excited to say that I have managed to get hold of some tickets for this awards ceremony and will be attending on Thursday with four of my students who have been reading the shortlist. I will be tweeting at @acaseforbooks on the day and will post some photos and thoughts at the weekend. So exciting!

12 June 2012

Review 46: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

"One night fifteen-year-old Lina, her mother and young brother, are hauled from their home by Soviet guards, thrown into cattle carts and sent away. They are being deported to Siberia. An unimaginable and harrowing journey has begun. Lina doesn't know if she'll ever see her father or her friends again. But she refuses to give up hope. Lina hopes for her family. For her country. For her future. For love - first love, with the boy she barely knows but knows she does not want to lose... Will hope keep Lina alive? Set in 1941, Between Shades of Gray is an extraordinary and haunting story based on first-hand family accounts and memories from survivors."

Whilst I was very impressed  by this, I did feel that its strength lay in the importance of the story being told rather than Sepetys' skill as a writer. Whilst she is obviously a very capable writer, her words themselves didn't uplift and inspire me with the way she captured her story. The story itself though is a traumatic one with moments of hope and happiness few and far between and plenty of moments of heartbreak and tragedy. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see this win, and apparently its been very popular at lots of school but for me, and for many of my students, Sepetys isn't at the top of the pile

First Line: "They took me in my nightgown."

Why I read it: It is the last of the eight books on the current Carnegie shortlist.

Who I would recommend it to: If you appreciated The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and are prepared for harrowing and upsetting details of horrendous things that really happened.

11 June 2012

Review 45: The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett

"The wolf turned an ear a little, and Andrej wondered what the animal was hearing. Tanks churning through burning cities perhaps, or whales talking to one another in the sea. "There's no limit to what a wolf can hear," Uncle Marin had said. "A wolf can hear your heart beating even before you're born." Can you? Andrej longed to ask it. Can you hear my heart? Under cover of darkness, two brothers cross a war-ravaged countryside carrying a secret bundle. One night they stumble across a deserted town reduced to smouldering ruins. But at the end of a blackened street they find a small green miracle; a zoo filled with animals in need of hope. A moving and ageless fable about war and freedom."

Well, this has been another pleasant surprise on the Carnegie shortlist. As I'm not generally a fan of animal stories, I was not expecting to particularly enjoy this but I wasn't expecting a moving and haunting story of family and loss. Hartnett's writing is truly beautiful, I am in awe of her talent and would definitely like to read more of her work. This is familiar territory, being set in World War II, but Harnett offers a totally unique take on it which balances fantasy and magic with the cruel truths of the war.

First Line: "If the old bell had been hanging in the steeple it would have rung to announce midnight, twelve solemn iron klongs which would have woken the villagers from their sleep and startled any small creature new to the village and unaccustomed to the noise."

Why I read it: It is on the current Carnegie prize shortlist.

Who I would recommend it to: If you like the Once series by Morris Gleitzman or The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. Fans of lyrical, haunting writing.

8 June 2012

Review 44: Everybody Jam by Ali Lewis

"Danny Dawson lives in the middle of the Australian outback. His older brother Jonny was killed in an accident last year but no-one ever talks about it. And now it's time for the annual muster; the biggest event of the year on the cattle station, and a time to sort the men from the boys. But this year things will be different: because Jonny's gone and Danny's determined to prove he can fill his brother's shoes; because their fourteen-year-old sister is pregnant; because it's getting hotter and hotter and the rains won't come; because cracks are beginning to show..."

So far, this is comfortably my least favourite book on the Carnegie shortlist. Whilst it was okay and covered some interesting and important themes, it was just a bit dull. Nothing really happened until half way through and if I hadn't been reading it for Carnegie, I probably wouldn't have finished it. It has some appealing elements but the endless descriptions of cattle just got a bit boring for me.

First Line: "I'd known for ages how a baby was made."

Why I read it: It is currently on the Carnegie shortlist.

Who I would recommend it to: People who like gently paced family dramas, animal stories or are interested in the Australian outback.

Review 43: Skellig by David Almond

"Michael was looking forward to moving house. It was all going to be wonderful. But now his baby sister's ill, his parents are frantic and Doctor Death has come to call. Michael feels helpless. Then he steps into the crumbling garage... What is this thing beneath the spiders' webs and dead flies? A human being, or a strange kind of beast never seen before? The only person Michael can confide in is Mina. Together, they carry the creature out into the light, and Michael's world changes forever..."

Whilst I much preferred Skellig second time round, I can't say it is up there as a classic for me, which it is often described as. Indeed, it won the Carnegie award when it was first published which is high praise indeed. So I didn't like this the first time I read it, which would have been when I was around 12 or 13 but I can't really remember any specifics about why I didn't like it but I have grown up knowing I didn't like it, criticising it to English teachers and not recommending it to students. I now feel bad about that. Although to me it is a good read, it didn't transcend any boundaries for me and whilst it had some lovely moments, it is nowhere near my list of favourites. My Name is Mina is a far superior book in my opinion, although it obviously does build on themes and ideas that were first created here.

First Line: "I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon."

Why I read it: After reading My Name is Mina, the recently released prequel, I wanted to reread this.  I read it when I was much younger and didn't really like it but I loved My Name is Mina and wanted to see if my opinion had changed, reading it as an adult.

Who I would recommend it to: If you're after a quick read with depth and you don't mind unsolved problems and unanswered questions.

1 June 2012

Review 42: My Name is Mina by David Almond

"Mina's a rebel. She can't be controlled and she won't fit in. People say she's weird. Some says she's just crazy. But all she wants is to be free, to be happy, and to be herself. One night, as she sits in the moonlight, she picks up an empty notebook, and begins to write. And here is her journal, Mina's life in Mina's own words; her stories and dreams, experiences and thoughts, her scribblings and nonsense, poems and songs. Her vivid account of her vivid life."

I read Skellig when I was much younger and didn't really like it so when My Name as Mina was announced as being on the Carnegie shortlist this year, I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about reading the prequel to Skelling. However, I was totally unprepared for how much I loved this. Almond's writing is beautiful and Mina is a truly remarkable creation. The word I would use to sum this up is uplifting, I felt really inspired and moved reading this and I would highly recommend this. I think it is going to be a battle between this and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness for my pick for the Carnegie win.

First Line: "My name is Mina and I love the night."

Why I read it: It is on the current Carnegie Prize shortlist.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of quirky yet lyrical writing and you don't mind a story not driven by plot. If you don't mind precocious child narrators.

Review 41: A Midsummer Tights Dream by Louise Rennison

"'In my squirrel room, looking out over the moors to Grimbottom, thinking about Alex. When he next sees me, I will be up there on the wild moors, lost to the world, unaware that I am being observed. It's only when I glance up, that I notice Alex in his breeches and fancy shirt. He runs to me and takes me in his arms. I close my eyes and hear... "We is here, wiv our bumbums out." And open them to see the toddler twins at my bedroom door, naked from the waist down.' You know when something feels really bad, worse than a bat trapped in your mouth? Or kissing the boy who just wants to be your friend? Tallulah Casey does. She's your kind of mate."

This is the gloriously silly sequel to Withering Tights, the romantic mishaps of Tallulah Casey, aspiring actress, hampered by her out of control knees and distinct lack of acting ability. Rennison's charm is her ability to manage to get inside teeenage girls heads whilst also introducing enough ridiculously bizarre situations and characters to make her books stand out from the hundreds of imitators out there. If you are a girl who grew up in the 90s or 2000s in the UK, you will struggle not to be charmed and endlessly entertained by Rennison. This series is not  as funny as Georgia but still has many laugh out loud moments and is a quick, fun read despite not being as tightly written as the Georgia series.

First Line: "Performing Arts College, here I come again, hold on to your tights!"

Why I read it: I grew up reading Louise Rennison's Georgia Nicholson series and have a huge affection for her as a writer so whilst I am no longer the target audience for these, and they don't make me cry with laughter any more, I still enjoy reading them and having a giggle at the complete silliness.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of Chris Higgins or Jaclyn Moriarty. If you fancy a quick and silly read that manages to blend the absurd with some real truisms about growing up as a girl.