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Monday, 29 April 2013

Discussion: When is it time to give up on a book?

How do you know when it’s time to give up on a book?

Should you keep slogging away, even if you’re not enjoying it?

My answer is no. Life’s too short.

But it becomes difficult when you’re shadowing a book award with pupils. You’re asking them to read 8 books and judge which one should be the winner.

Of course, I tell them if they really aren’t enjoying it, then they shouldn’t feel pressured to keep reading. Some of them have been struggling with Code Name Verity. I haven’t tried that one yet.

The book I refer to is In Darkness. I really am not enjoying it. I put it down and picked up another book and read that so quickly. Then I’m back to In Darkness and I can’t find anything to like about it.
So it is certainly not a book that I would pick as a winner of the Carnegie Book Award 2013. But should I keep reading it so I can discuss it with the pupils? I’ve read 129 pages. That’s definitely enough to know you don’t like a book. But is it enough to have an in depth discussion?

Other books I haven’t been able to finish:
  • 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson – could a book be any more complicated? I wasn’t reading that book. I was deciphering it. Gave up. Too much like a translation exercise and not enough like reading a story.
  • The Duchess by Amanda Foreman – Boring!
  • Eragon by Christopher Paolini – Too much description for my taste.
  • The Deadly Sister by Eliot Schrefer – Felt like I got the big twist in the first few pages. Didn’t seem much point in carrying on.
  • The Woman He Loved Before by Dorothy Koomson – Couldn’t stand the style. Urgh!
  • The Submission by Amy Waldman – Found the first half really interesting but I got stuck in the middle. There wasn’t much action and so I didn’t keep reading. I do wonder if I should have persevered with that one.

I don’t give up on a book lightly. Do you?

Who else thinks about their Goodreads goal when they have to give up on a book?

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Review: Just Send Me Word

Author: Orlando Figes

Release date: This UK paperback edition 3rd January 2013
Non-fiction: Biography, History
Target audience: Adult
UK Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0241955901


Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag is a historical non-fiction book which explores the lives of Lev and Sveta – two young Russians who fall in love in the 1930s and are separated by war.

I’m not usually a reader of non-fiction for pleasure so this book is a departure for me from my comfort zone. I went along to the Jewish Book Week events in February and Orlando Figes spoke about his experience writing this book based upon the letters written by Lev and Sveta at the time of his imprisonment in the Gulag. It was one of the most interesting author events that I’ve been to and as soon as it finished I rushed to the bookshop to buy a copy. I had never even heard of the Gulag before. They were Russian prison camps where the prisoners are used for labour under the Stalinist regime. There were many such camps in Russia. The prisoners lived in appalling conditions and had poor diet and ill health. Their labour was used to build many of the “great” structures of the Soviet society.

This an extraordinary story made even more fascinating because it is true. Lev and Sveta met at the Physics Faculty of Moscow University in the 1930s. Their story spans decades and despite their separation due to the Second World War and Lev’s imprisonment as an enemy of the state, they remained constant. Lev was convicted as an enemy of the state because he had spoken German when he was held as a prisoner of war by the Nazis. He was released from the German camp only to be arrested, convicted of collaboration and sent to the Gulag camp in Perchora.

What I really loved about this book was the beauty of the letters which Lev and Sveta wrote to each other. Their styles of writing are so different and though they do not gush with statement of love, they are full of understated emotion and constancy. Lev was imprisoned for eight years and all of the letters they wrote survived. There are over 1000 letters which are now part of the Memorial archive. Most letters from prisoners were destroyed by the people who received them as just by having contact with a convicted “enemy” they too could have been seen as guilty by association.

I found this book enthralling and emotional. It has made me open to reading more historical non-fiction and very keen to learn more about the experience of every day Russians under Stalin. Though I haven’t told you very much about it, this book comes with my highest recommendation. It’s hard to put into words the experience of reading this book – it can only be said that it moved me and gave me a window into another world. Like all the best books do.   

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Book Trailer: The 5th Wave

You must read this book. I just finished it and it was FANTASTIC.

This is the 1st Wave...

This is what really happens when we discover we are not alone!

The 5th Wave is out in the UK on 7th May.

I'll be posting my review on the 2nd. So watch out for that.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Top Characterisation Tips: House of Secrets Blog Tour

Today is the first day of the House of Secrets blog tour.
I'm delighted to have one of the authors here today to share his top characterisation tips. Without further ado, here is Ned Vizzini

Three Ways to Make Your Characters Unique 

by Ned Vizzini

  1. Use who you know.
    The easiest way to make a unique character is to take someone you know well—say, your best friend—and make one big change. You can make the character vindictive instead of kind, or a man instead of a woman. Then you'll have a character both familiar and novel.  And as long as you make up a name, you'll never be sued!

  2. Don't be afraid to use accents.
    Not every writer is brave enough to have their characters speak in the bonkers ways human beings actually speak. Here is Zadok Allen, the 96-year-old drinker and lore-keeper from H.P. Lovecraft's horror tale “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”:

    “Dun't believe me, hey? Hey, heh, heh - then jest tell me, young feller, why Cap'n Obed an' twenty odd other folks used to row aout to Devil Reef in the dead o' night an' chant things so laoud ye cud hear 'em all over taown when the wind was right?” [
    full text]

    You might think that's grammatically incorrect,  or silly, or even disrespectful. But your job as a writer isn't to make your characters sound good; it's to make them sound real.

  3. Get in their heads.
    Along with dialogue, quick snippets of a character's thoughts can really bring that character to life. Each chapter of House of Secrets has a narrator who presents the action and whose thoughts the reader can access. Here's an example, paraphrased from the book:

    “Soon Brendan was not only convinced that the old crone wasn’t dangerous or supernatural (supernatural, come on); he was determined to go back and drive her from the property.”

    Stephen King and George R. R. Martin are masters of this strategy; their work shows how a few off-the-cuff remarks from a character's brain make that character real.

Ned Vizzini is the bestselling author of the acclaimed young-adult books The Other NormalsIt's Kind of a Funny Story (also a major motion picture), Be More Chill, and Teen Angst? Naaah.... In television, he has written for ABC's Last Resort and MTV's Teen Wolf. His essays and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, the Daily Beast, and Salon. He is the co-author, with Chris Columbus, of the fantasy-adventure series House of Secrets. His work has been translated into ten languages. He lives in Los Angeles. 

I put a poster of House of Secrets up in the library this week. I've already had five students beg me to read it as soon as our copy arrives. Now that is the sign of a series that will take off.

Thanks to Ned for sharing his top tips.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Review: A Boy and a Bear in a Boat

Author: Dave Shelton

Release date: This paperback edition 14th March 2013
Genre: Comedy adventure
Target audience: 7+
UK Publisher: David Fickling Books
ISBN: 9781849920520


A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is a seafaring adventure story. It’s a quirky book with charismatic illustrations for younger readers.

Boy steps aboard Bear’s boat. He’s going somewhere but we don’t know where. The Bear is the ship’s captain and he rows the boy across the sea. It’s a long way but how far, we don’t know. Boy is in a hurry to get there but Bear understands the beauty of the wide open sea. As they journey across the sea, they experience the joys and difficulties of friendship and a great adventure.

This story is all about the journey and not the destination. It’s about enjoying the adventure of travelling for its own sake. It’s a sort of metaphor for life I think. It’s not reaching a goal that’s important but rather the experiences you have in attempting to reach it. As well as the deeper meaning, there’s also the humorous story of being stuck in a boat with a Bear who likes to drink tea. There’s slapstick and use of repetition for comic effect.

You might think a story which pretty much takes place in a very small boat would be quite boring. I for one am not a fan of “sailing” or “pirate” stories, but actually there is a good amount of action in this book. There’s a sea monster, there’s a storm and there’s a ghost ship.

I think parents will enjoy this book as much as younger readers. There’s a special humour about the fact that children get bored so easily. I found it entertaining. A Boy and a Bear in a Boat has an unusual style; it reminds me of a picture book in some ways – the illustrations and the form of the plot: each chapter is like the page turn of a picture book, there’s something new each time. It also has a charming humour which makes it a fun read.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Review: Beautiful Americans

Author: Lucy Silag

Release date: US 8th January 2009
Genre: Contemporary
Target audience: 12+
Publisher: Razorbill
ISBN: 9781595142276


Beautiful Americans is a contemporary young adult novel exploring the lives of four teenagers who spend a year studying in Paris.

Alex, Olivia, PJ and Zack leave their families behind in the US and arrive in Paris to study the Programme Americain at the exclusive Lycée de Monceau. Each of them has a different reason for leaving their homes behind. Alex expects to find a wonderful romance in Paris. Olivia wants to audition for the Opera ballet school to help her achieve a scholarship. PJ wants to escape her past and find her sister. Zach wants to be himself and find a boyfriend away from the watchful eye of his small town community. As the weeks at the Lycée go by, each of the students tries to find their way through this new world. They experience the highs and lows of friendship, the agony of love and the wonders of learning in a new culture.

Although I found this book easy to read, I didn’t find it particularly engaging. None of the characters are especially likeable. Alex is a selfish, self-obsessed, whiner. PJ doesn’t let anyone get close to her – even the reader is kept at arm’s length. Zach doesn’t seem to have any unique character traits. Olivia is the most likeable but even her love of dance doesn’t make her stand out.

I think there are two main problems with this novel. The first is that the character voices don’t sound different from each other. What they say and think is different, but the way they say it is the same. There were none of the idiosyncrasies of dialogue that you experience with the different way people speak. As each chapter alternates between the four perspectives, they needed to sound clearly different from each other.

The second problem is that this is a character driven novel where not all that much happens. There is the wonder of Paris but there isn’t a sweeping romance or a thrilling plot. So when the characters don’t leap off the page, you’re not left with enough to feel connected to as the reader. This is just my opinion. I know other people have loved this book. Personally, I much preferred Party by Tom Leveen which succeeds in telling a story from multiple viewpoints.

Overall, Beautiful Americans was a disappointing read for me. A contemporary novel set in Paris. The setting was wonderful but the story fell flat. Perhaps a worthy beach read but not something you can really sink your teeth into. 

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Review: The Weight of Water

Author: Sarah Crossan

Release date: 3rd January 2013
Genre: Realism / Poetry novels
Target audience: 11+
UK Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 97814088303239


The Weight of Water is a novel told in verse. Each poem reveals a little more of Kasienka’s experience. It’s a heartfelt story of moving to another country, of family breakdown, of needing to belong and most importantly, the need to be loved.

Kasienka moves with her mum from Poland to England. They go in search of Kasienka’s father who walked out on them. They move to Coventry and there Kasienka starts at a new school. She’s nearly thirteen but she’s put into Year 7 because they teachers see her English as a weakness. But she is a bright, intelligent girl. This novel really makes you understand how hard it must be to go and live in a different country. It shows you loneliness through lines of poetry, through imagery and language.

The novel explores themes of difference and bullying. Kasienka is victimised and made to feel worthless. The girls at school criticise her hair, her bag. They keep other girls from becoming her friends by telling lies. They use rumours and Kasienka’s own embarrassment about her differences against her. It is almost overwhelming to read such pain in poetic form. It moves you more somehow than if the author wrote those emotions in prose.

I read this book so quickly. Partly it is the style – it lends itself to be read in one sitting. Partly it is the feeling of the story happening in this very moment. This novel explores life as an immigrant in the UK and lets you experience it through a teenager’s eyes. It is incredibly moving and powerful. My favourite poem is the chapter titled ‘Home’.

The Weight of Water is a perfect book. There isn’t a single word to change. It is beautiful in every way.