A theme for my reading this year is to plunder the back catalogues of favoured writers. Like a bookish family tree, the aim is to start with one of my ‘must reads’ and then drill down into other books by the same author. I’m on the case with Robert Westall – The Machine Gunners is my starting point, next step is The Kingdom by the Sea and then on some of his twenty-odd other books. It’s a risk, of course – some books are better known than others for good reason – but I’m hoping it will unearth some gems.
Top of my topmost family tree, sitting majestically on its throne, is Skellig by David Almond. Where to go after reading Skellig – a stunning, near-to-perfect book – is a question to puzzle over. One could almost stop reading; we’re done, that’s it, nothing will come close. But then I read The Fire Eaters. It matched Skellig for the beauty of its prose, and had the same magic ingredients; it was both familiar and mysterious. Some of the beings in his books are like people we know, some are like visitors from the stars. Both books are very briefly reviewed here.
So, from Skellig to The Fire Eaters and then back to Skellig for inspiration – this led me to My Name is Mina. It’s a prequel of sorts, but different in style to Skellig. In many ways it had to be in order to complement rather than compete with it. It contains an intriguing mix of diary, random thoughts, digressions and more conventional narrative. These fragments, distinct nuggets of writing, could have fallen apart or felt disjointed but instead they form something remarkable. Together, they show the world from Mina’s unique perspective.
It’s hard to believe that only a few months ago I’d never read Kate DiCamillo. Shameful, I know. Where my reading was life once bereft and shallow, it is now filled with the works of this wonderfully inventive writer. And ‘Tiger Rising’ is as good as it gets; a punchy, powerful book that transcends any notion of a children’s book being something light or fluffy or, for that matter, fitting only for children.
Set in deepest Florida, the story follows Rob Horton – still grieving for his mother, suffering at the hands of the the school bullies, living in poverty and afflicted with a chronic skin condition, young Rob has it tough. His grief is locked deep inside, packed down in a metaphorical suitcase, never opened for fear of what would burst forth. Then, everything changes. Continue reading
It had to happen. I’ve had a lucky run of excellent reads recently and, when I’ve dipped my toe in unfamiliar literary waters, I’ve invariably been rewarded with the discovery of a new favourite author or the prospect of a rich back catalogue to work my way through.
This is what led me towards Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones; the reviews were consistently impressive, often spectacularly so (it is said that JK Rowling may have leant on this and the subsequent books in the Chrestomanci series when writing the Harry Potter books). But here, my lucky run came to an end – I found Charmed Life hard-going and deeply disappointing.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Words – at least the words I am capable of writing – can’t do justice to this extraordinary book. Famously, the idea for the book came from the late Siobhan Dowd, developed and brought to fruition by Patrick Ness. It’s a deeply moving and imaginative story about Connor, who is visited by a monster as his mother is horrifically weakened by illness.
It’s the kind of book you read wide-eyed and open-mouthed, turning each page with a sense of wonder, anticipation and dread – knowing you are reading something masterful, something that is permanently changing the wiring in your brain. The ending left me reeling; it had almost a physical effect, the equivalent of a literary jab to the solar plexus. A stunning book. Continue reading
One of the best I’ve read recently, Rooftoppers is exceptional, both for its narrative scope and emotional depth. It sucks you in from the first page – with the discovery of Sophie, a baby in a cello case, left adrift and orphaned after a ship has sunk – to the very last, where Sophie scrambles across the rooftops of Paris in search of her long lost mother.
How exciting to discover an author who is capable of producing such a complete and imaginative book, particularly when the basic story (orphan goes on quest to find parents) is a familiar narrative path. But the endearing peculiarities of the characters – not least Matteo, a fellow-orphan who scratches out a tough, miserable existence high above the Paris streets – makes this one stand out from the crowd. Continue reading
Once by Morris Gleitzman/The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
I read Once and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in close succession. Both books deal with the Holocaust and both manage to communicate the unimaginable realities of life under Nazi rule to a younger audience. Of the two, I found Once the more convincing and the better book. It manages to remain realistic and plausible whereas the very premise of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a narrative device which feels a stretch too far (a boy in a concentration camp is supposedly able to move freely about the camp, freely enough to allow him to regularly speak to his German friend, Bruno, on the other side). Nevertheless, both are extraordinarily powerful, moving and important books. Continue reading
It’s interesting to read a well-established classic, such as Carrie’s War. The plot and characters are instantly familiar and comforting. It’s the literary equivalent of pulling on a favourite jumper.
Despite this familiarity, key moments in the book, when Mr Johnny attacks Frederick with a pitch-fork or when Carrie and Nick are spooked walking through the woods, remain vivid and fresh. This, perhaps, is what defines a ‘classic’; a story that not only withstands being commonly known but actually flourishes and becomes richer the more times it is told.
Amongst other bookish things, my plan for this blog is to record and review my reading but, before I get going with all the books lined up for this year, I need to catch up with some of my reading from 2015. So, this post and one or two to follow will briefly record these books with a few words on each. Here goes:
The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel
Stunning art work to go with a stunning book, which tells the story of a murder on board a brilliantly imagined mega-train making its inaugural journey across the Canadian wilderness. It’s packed with heart-racing adventures in, on, between and under the carriages as the train hurtles through the Rockies.
This was my first read of a Canadian author who deserves a big audience this side of the pond. An absolute must-read.
As mentioned here, one of my first books after returning to reading was The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd. This is a great read, a page-turner with enough excitement and plot twisting to engage even the most reluctant of readers.
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I’m currently reading it with a Year 6 book club – five boys who had to be cajoled and bribed with popcorn before they agreed to give it a go. They love it. It has a reality that they connect with – London landmarks, tower blocks, a swear word or two, imperfect adults and snippets of technology.
What lifts this book above the fray is the subtle treatment of Ted, the main character whose brain has ‘a different operating system’. It is Siobhan Dowd’s description of Ted’s Aspergers which transforms this book from thriller into something more powerful.
It’s not long after the last of the new year fireworks have fizzled and dimmed that thoughts turn to resolutions for the year ahead. January is the month of fresh starts and promises. For me, it’s a familiar list of eating healthily and exercising more (although given recent slothfulness the ‘more’ is superfluous).
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Like many of the authors in this new year article, I’ve also made a pledge to read more widely and more often, not least by spending less time on line (he says, while writing a blog post). And, with some reluctance, I’ve set a target to read 40 books in the year ahead – reluctance not because it’s too ambitious, less than a book a week is well within reach, but because a reading challenge has a strange effect on me.