Review: Where Monsters Lie

wmlFor her second novel, Where Monsters Lie, Polly Ho-Yen has made a brave and brilliant leap from the inner city tower blocks of her first novel, Boy in the Tower, to an imagined village on the shores of a Scottish loch where Effie lives with her parents and younger brother.

The village is small, claustrophobic. Everyone knows everyone; blood lines are knotted together and unbreakable, particularly if, like Effie, there are hints of being an outsider.  The water is menacing and unfriendly. Keep away, the elders say.  Keep away, so the legend goes, because there are monsters in the water.

Like her first book (reviewed here), Ho-Yen establishes a powerful, memorable setting – one which provides an intriguing canvas for her narrative to unfold.   Continue reading

Review: Wonder

As a teacher, it’s my professional duty to make sure children can read and, once the mechanics of decoding are in place, to show them why reading matters.  There are plenty of arguments to deploy, even for the most reluctant or disinterested of readers.  Reading tells you things you didn’t know before.  You will know more words and so be able to explain yourself better.  You can travel the world and visit distant, unknown planets or stay close to home, all at the turn of the page.  It’s fun – join the library, and it’s free. You’d me mad not to.wonder

But, for me, reading matters most because it makes us better people.  The grandest and most humane function of reading is to instil empathy in the reader, an understanding of the world from someone else’s point of view.   It is in those moments when the written word means reality is seen in new ways, through another’s eyes; when the character becomes as real as the paper you are holding and in some way becomes part of you. This, I think, is what is most remarkable and what is most important about reading.  The best writing can change you and make you quietly, subtly better at being who you are.

This is is certainly the case with Wonder by RJ Palacio, a book which tells the story of August Pullman, a boy born with a facial disfigurement, as he starts his first year at middle school.  August has a face that is shocking in its deformity, so shocking that it is only partially described in the book and is revealed mostly by people’s reactions; they point, they stare, they whisper, they turn away, they say cruel, cutting words.  But on August goes, into the world – gently cajoled by his parents from the cocoon of home. Continue reading

Review: Smart About Sharks

smart2.jpgThe defining feature of any book from Flying Eye Books is that they are made to be treasured, none more so than Smart About Sharks by Owen Davey. The disposable, fleeting nature of modern consumption, with products devoured on the hoof and slung thoughtlessly in the trash, is countered the moment you hold Davey’s book in your hands. Like art, it is something to be gazed upon; something to be absorbed and assimilated in the mind and the soul, not grabbed, ripped at and stuffed in the gullet.

Davey’s illustrations are something else; they deserve a wide audience and much acclaim.  I first discovered his work when drawn to the cover of the wonderful Knight Night, a delightful picture book, perfect for fearless four year olds who love to swish a sword and battle to the death, or at least until a toe is stubbed, the tears flow and a cuddle is needed. It’s full of stylised images often using a palette based around one bold colour (orange dominates in Knight Night, next to browns and muted yellows).   Continue reading

Review: Boy in the Tower

boytowerIt may seem odd for a sci-fi novel, but Boy in the Tower is a book that oozes reality. If there is a story that warrants being described as dystopian then it it this one – it’s not always an easy read and emotional punches are far from pulled. They land heavy with a thud.

Polly Ho-Yen’s debut is, at times, a disturbingly grim portrayal of urban life and environmental decline.  But there, in the reality, resides a remarkable honesty – the characters are real, the emotions are raw, the setting – literally – could be the estate where I work, and (like all great sci-fi) the unimaginable becomes oh-so-believable. War of the Worlds made people run to their cars and flee to the hills, believing an alien attack was underway. Boy in the Tower has that same sense of maybe, maybe one day… Continue reading

Review: Oi Frog! and Oi Dog!

Events have made it hard for me to write my blog recently. Nothing dramatic – just work, life, work, life and work and life.  But the brilliant Oi Frog! and the sequel, Oi Dog!, purchased recently as a pair, have spurred me back into action.

Oi Frog! all starts from a wonderfully absurd premise; a pompous, stick-to-the-rules cat and a rebellious, rule-busting frog arguing about what animals should or should not sit on.  Cat – yellow-eyed, condescending, severe – tells frog to sit on a log. Frog doesn’t want to – he wants to sit on a mat, or a stool, or even a sofa. But, no.  Mats are for cats, stools are for mules and sofas – oh so clever, this one – are for gophers.

And on they go, cat and frog bickering their way back and forth through ever more inventive and preposterous couplets, brought to life by brilliant illustrations of gorillas perched on pillars and pumas balanced on satsumas.  The first books ends with a delightful image of poor frog being sat on by a dog…which leads perfectly into the second book Oi Dog! where, this time, frog is in charge and re-writes the rules and gets to sit where he likes.  Continue reading

Review: SP4RX

sp4rxHaving read How to Survive in the North, I’ve got a 100% success rate with graphic novels – read one, loved one. Wren McDonald’s SP4RX, a cyber punk novel set in a dystopian future, maintains my winning streak – read two, loved two. It’s a riveting, thriller of a read – and one to make you think.

SP4RX, a not-to-be-messed-with computer hacker, becomes involved in a do-or-die struggle with Structus Industries who are using technology to control the impoverished people on the ‘lower levels’, while the ‘upper levels’ flourish and live a life of indulgence. Desperate and alone, his only hope is a mysterious band of insurgents who plan to bring the system crashing down around them – but can they be trusted?

This is a worthy companion (or more likely a worthy introduction) to 1984 or Brave New World, classic stories of a class system gone horribly wrong (it also reminded me of a recent film – High Rise – based on a novel by JG Ballard). It serves as a warning against inequality and the relentless corporate mantra which means ‘efficiency’ is used as a justification for any number of evils. SP4RX also serves as a warning about technology and how, in the wrong hands, it brings control rather than freedom. Continue reading

Review: Animal Babies

animalbabiesAs any parent of young children will know, there comes a moment when it’s time for a clear out. It’s when the floor is no longer visible beneath a carpet of plastic cars, colouring books and various devices which bleep, glow or flash at unpredictable moments. It’s when you no longer tidy the mess but simply bend the knees, stoop low, drive the shoulders into the mass of tat, and shove it piled-high into a corner.

It’s also well-known that clear outs have to be clandestine affairs, carried out stealthily when the kids are in bed. Do this with said children and you’re doomed. Untouched board games suddenly become precious treasures. Fluff-covered superhero figures, left alone for months in some dark recess, are suddenly clutched lovingly to chests. Despite lacking critical parts and despite generating next to no prior interest, jigsaws become vital, as essential as oxygen.

In a recent after hours clear out, and with that unique, stomach-flipping feeling of discovering your children have moved imperceptibly from one stage of life to the next, we filled a bag of board books. My children are babies no more. So many favourites, like Millie Moo, Rainbow Rob, I Like it When – reminders of those special days when books weren’t just read, they were licked and chewed and salivated upon. Books that established a bond between adult and child, before words are understood – when the neurons in the brain are firing in a way that is almost perceptible. Continue reading

Review: Alfie Bloom and the Talisman Thief

talismanAlfie Bloom is the sort of book that gets children hooked on reading. The narrative zips along – it’s chock-full of magic, mystery, time travel and more evil elves than you can shake a stick at.

The main character, Alfie, and his buddies are easy-going and likeable, and the baddies are of the pantomime kind, inviting a boo-hiss and a wild cheer when they get their comeuppance.

This book, the Talisman Thief, leads on nicely from the first in the series and points enticingly towards the third. It’s a fun, moreish read – you can well imagine this book being devoured, feasted on by fans of Charlie Bone and Harry Potter.

Review: Archie Snufflekins

ArchieSnufflekins_cover_webOver the years I’ve placed many things on a pedestal – footballers, musicians, artists and authors. Norman Whiteside, for anyone with a recollection of football in the early eighties, was the first – his posters adorned my bedroom walls, and everything he did was majestic, a colossus in the midfield of an otherwise mediocre team.

While Norman always had a blu-tacked space in my room – he’d still be up there if I had my way – others soon joined him. Almost every heavy metal band of note was pinned up at some point, poodle hair and all. Then, as I moved through those deeply serious teenage years, black and whites of Dylan appeared, as well as whatever French impressionist was in the bargain bucket in Athena (whatever happened to Athena!). Later, it was prints of Hemingway front covers and probably a Sartre too, just to show how damn clever I was.

Continue reading

Review: How to Survive in the North

HowToSurviveInTheNorth_coverLet me start with a confession.  Despite my claims to bookishness, before How to Survive in the North, I had never read a graphic novel.  It’s a whole world I know little or nothing about. So I have no real barometer to measure the book against. I know not whether it is better or worse than other books of its kind, whether it breaks new ground or churns over familiar turf.

I feel out of my depth – it’s like discovering new music, like listening to jazz for the first time. All I do know is that I read it, mesmerised, in one sitting.

The book weaves together three stories, two of them historical and based on truth, the third is contemporary and entirely fictional. The true stories are each about expeditions. They tell us much about survival, and about that strange human spirit that make us go to places that may kill us. Continue reading