“Looking at the Stars” Jo Cotterill

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Amina’s homeland has been ravaged by war for many months, but so far she and her family are safe, together. When a so-called liberating force arrives in the country, the family think their prayers for peace will soon be answered, but they are horribly wrong . . . The country is thrown into yet further turmoil and Amina’s family is devastated . . .

Through it all, Amina has her imagination to fall back on – of a better place and time. But can her stories get her through this?

This is a really interesting novel about survival and what it is like to flee your own country and end up as a refugee. Cotterill has written a bold and important story which tells us the plight of Amina who lives in a developing country under an oppressive ruling “Kwana”. It appears to be a fictional place and remains non specific which I did find a little confusing to start with but appreciate that Cotterill really wants to explore the human story behind the family’s struggle rather than make a political statement or stick to factual events.

The story begins with the aggressive intervention of the Kwana as the girls are unsuspectingly just walking home. Their mother is immediately suspicious: “Why did they pick on you?” “I was smiling….I looked too happy.” The Kwana don’t need an excuse and Amina’s response is almost flippant in her acceptance that this is just how it is. “Nobody cares what I think,” she continues, “The Kwana have taken away everything women had had- jobs, rights, freedom – when they came to power”. Amina and her sister have to stop going to school and her mother has to give up her job.
Cotterill doesn’t shy away from the more shocking aspects of a controlling, militant ruling power and the story of Amina’s brother, Ruman, is distressing and upsetting even though it is a powerful and necessary part of the plot.
The fear and hopelessness of the characters is palpable, their need to escape but with nowhere to escape to is well captured. The description of the refugee camps is convincing and clearly well researched and despite the sense of location throughout the novel generally remaining (deliberately) a little hazy, the scenes within the camp are very easy to visualise.
Amina remains a positive and optimistic character as much as she can and turns to the power of storytelling to help the people survive the atrocities. As in her other novel “The Library of Lemons”, Cotterill shows us the power of stories, imagination and sharing in books to heal, unite, reassure and calm.
This is a moving story. It is one which will remain with you. It is poignant and definitely an important read for the now. It would be a good book to use in the classroom or with a young adult reading group because of the issues raised and also because of the characters and their fortitude.

I would rate this book 3.5/5 stars and would highly recommend that you check out “Library of Lemons” as well.

More about Jo Cotterill (taken from biography on Amazon) 

I like variety, which is why I’ve had three careers so far: acting (and music), teaching (English GCSE, eep!) and writing children’s books. Writing is my favourite job so far because it enables me to create all the variety myself! I write the Sweet Hearts series for girls aged 9-13 and also lots of short books for reluctant readers (Love Bites, Take Two etc). My standalone novel Looking at the Stars came out in January 2014 and is the book I’m most proud of. It’s about a girl called Amina who’s a natural storyteller but her society has never valued her imagination. When civil war brings in a foreign army, Amina’s family is torn apart and she and her sister are forced to walk to a refugee camp to seek help. To keep their spirits up, Amina tells her sister stories – and soon, both of them discover that storytelling is possibly the most valuable skill a person can have when all around is horror and grief.

I live in Oxfordshire with my husband and two young daughters. I like sewing, making cards and writing songs – and I read a lot of fiction for 9 upwards. You can find my reviews and my general musings on my blog at jocotterill.com – and the Sweet Hearts series has its own website at http://www.ilovesweethearts.co.uk

I have also published several books under my maiden name Joanna Kenrick.

“The Deviants” C J Skuse (14+)

The Fearless Five – Ella, Max, Corey, Fallon and Zane -spent their teenage years exploring and playing together on nearby islands just off the coast line – always inseparable. Years later, Max and Ella are still a couple (from when they were 13) and best friends. When Corey is bullied, the group reunite to seek revenge on the perpetrators but their coming together also leads to a succession of revelations and suddenly the secrets some of them have tried to hide can no longer be hidden……

This is a Young Adult novel but I would also recommend to adults. It is original and fresh and bravely tackles a number of dark, complex issues in an engaging and bewitching narrative which I found enthralling. Within a few pages I could tell this book had a kind of magnetic power and I was entranced by Ella’s voice. Skuse’s use of simile, imagery and description is quite unique and impressive – highly original and so accurate I found my fingers desperately highlighting line after line while my eyes rushed on with the story!

Ella describes her relationship with Max as “like those really old paintings you see in art galleries….If you look at them from a distance, they’re beautiful. A quick glance, it’s a masterpiece but as you get closer you see the cracks.” They have a very complicated relationship – getting together at 13 after practically growing up as siblings, they are incredibly close; true best friends. Now they are stumbling to negotiate their way through the next phase of their relationship as their physical needs and emotions are becoming more pressing. But there seems to be something deeper holding Ella back – something more than just nerves or self consciousness.

From the outset there is a sense of secrecy and Ella talks about going back to before “things went wrong”; Corey also claims to know Zane’s secret. Ella’s comment at one point that “I was enjoying myself..It felt odd…It was an emotion I always tried to shut out because something bad always happens when I’m happy,” heightens the tension and sense of foreboding that Skuse astutely creates within each line and maintains until the end of the novel.

The use of italics at the end of most chapters was very effective – whose voice is it? In what context are they responding? What have they to do with the story? Where is Ella as this recount takes place? My guesses merely compounded my sense of trepidation and intrigue.

When we meet Fallon, we realise that the group of friends are quite a haphazard, quirky and rather dysfunctional group of young people. Fallon’s mother is an Animal Rescue Specialist which also includes euthanasia and cremation and Fallon explains in a very down to earth manner – “we burn ’em….it’s good business.” They are quite a ramshackle group of characters, full of issues and complications but very loyal to each other and prepared to help each other come to terms with past events.

I have to talk about Skuse’s use of language because this was just so impressive and what made me completely devour the pages. For example, Ella’s description of her friend Corey is very imaginative. He’s already a troubled child before the bullying as Ella tells us his grandparents took him in and “wrapped in him home knits and crisply ironed school uniform.” When Ella finds him under attack she describes him as being “curled up like one of those little cellophane fish you get in Xmas crackers” which I thought was incredibly clever. I was also left cowering from Zane (the bully) who had a “scowl that could shatter glass.” Later I really enjoyed Ella’s caustic words when she said “he gave me a look as if I’d given him a bunch of barbed wire to cuddle.” I have never come across metaphors quite like them before; each one shows how intelligent and gifted Skuse is a writer.

The references are contemporary and appealing for a teenage audience. How about when one particular bombshell is dropped and “it was like in Scooby Doo when they see the monster for the first time only we didn’t yell zoinks or drop our sandwiches.” Original huh?

And I really could go on and on…….the description of “memories dangling before my eyes like gold stars I can’t reach” capture the emotional complexity and psychological difficulties they are trying to process. Then towards the end of the novel Skuse’s detail of flickering lights and rickety staircases create such fear that reading these passages was worse than watching “The Silence of the Lambs” for the first time!

The ending is just fantastic.

This is a dark, dark novel. It is macabre in places. It is harrowing and it is painful. It is most obviously about cruelty and revenge but there are also plenty of other themes like families, relationships, bullying, intimidation, secrets, love and friendship. However, this is most prominently a highly engaging and compelling novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am keen to find out more about this author who seems to have quite an extensive back catalogue – how exciting! Lots more to discover!

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for approving me an advanced copy of the novel in return for a fair and honest review.

Minibibliomaniac’s Summer Holiday Reading

 

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This is my 10 year old’s pile of books waiting to be read this summer. There’s a mixture of humour, non fiction and fiction.

He loves history so Horrible Histories is an absolute must – I think we have the whole collection now but he will reread and reread them. They are fantastic fun and don’t underestimate their educational value!

“Robin Hood” sits there as he is interested in reading more “classic” tales and we thought this would combine with his love for history, adventure and surviving in the wild! Which of course explains how Steve Backshall is on there! I think an Alex Rider book might also sneak its way in very soon as the world of spying and adventure is too exciting not to escape with over the holidays- when there’s a chance to escape with a book rather than a video game – honestly, reading is much more compelling!

We’re off to Rome so there are two mystery books set in Italy in Roman times. They were recommended by author Katherine Woodfine who writes detective novels for this age range and I am very hopeful that he will take them on holiday with us to fully embrace the experience of travelling and to help bring to life the sights we hope to see!

The “Infopedia” is published by National Geographic and is typical of the sort of thing this minibibliomaniac will enjoy flicking through and dipping in and out of. We have found this sort of thing great for journeys and restaurants. It also sometimes inspires some drawing / labelling /  writing as, like a lot of young boys (and girls!!), he likes to collect facts, figures and pictures of animals.

As a more lighthearted, entertaining read, he has chosen “My Brother is a Superhero” which is highly acclaimed. It has been keenly started – and I have been read bits from it – but the bookmark hovers around the first third point so I am hoping it may continue its journey towards the end very soon!

Other books this minibibliomaniac would like to recommend are:

David Williams’ “The World’s Worst Children” which is a really fun collection of illustrated short stories.

Lauren St John “Deadman’s Cove” which was also recommended by Katherine Woodfine and as a huge fan of Helen Moss (highly recommend her adventure series – in the vain of Blyton and very engaging) my minibibliomaniac is very keen to get started on this Blue Peter Book of the Year 2011 novel – of which there is a series if he wishes to read more!

Polly Ho-Yen “Boy in the Tower” has been leant to us by a friend the same age who apparently flew through this! Any recommendation from a peer is definitely worth following up!

IMG_3860This is my 7 year old daughter’s pile of summer reads – although it is likely to change significantly as more take her fancy -there’s always another book coming along and distracting her from her original choices!

Again there’s a nice variety. This minibibliomaniac is a big fan of poetry. She enjoys scanning through collections and picking out a few random poems to read at bedtime if we’re short of time for a whole chapter of something or if she’s not quite ready for bed when we’re finished reading a chunk of her current book. She’ll enjoy performing and reading aloud as well as copying the form or concepts in her own writing so it’s always worth having a poetry book with us as it can fulfil several different purposes!

“Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat” was my sister’s favourite book – it’s all about a reluctant witch’s cat and when I found it in the charity shop I had to buy it! The endorsement from another adult seems to encourage my minibibliomaniacs to tackle a new book – but it has to be another adult, if I endorse anything it’s a bit like a kiss of death…!

We’re working our way through “Return to Secret Garden” together. Holly Webb is an all time favourite author for my daughter and I dear say a few of Webb’s other books will find their way into her suitcase as they are a guaranteed good read! “The BFG” is in there as it has been started in a bid to read before watching the film -which will be the must see movie this summer! There’s also an adaptation of a Shakespeare play which is included in memory of some great topic work at school this term.

“Mariella Mystery” has actually just been finished in record timing. Once more, we are in debt to the clever Katherine Woodfine who recommended this and according to this bibliomaniac it is so “seriously good” she had no idea she’d read so much of it as it only felt like she’d been reading for 5 minutes. I have ordered the next couple of books (there’s a series of 8 I think) so I hope the enthusiasm doesn’t wane just yet! There’s also another mystery story in there too which is also part of a series –  she is beginning to enjoy trying to solve the crime herself before the end of the book, so this is a great genre to get in to. There are a huge amount of very impressively written titles in this style currently available.

A collection of Enid Blyton stories seems to have been a staple for children of this age for so long now that it is impossible not to include it! Again, short stories work really well for dipping in and out of, for encouraging reluctant readers and as a less overwhelming option that a full length chapter book.

My youngest (5 years old) will probably put together a haphazard collection at the last minute but I’m pretty sure this one will be in it! A present from a friend earlier this summer, we have really enjoyed this lovely story and I would recommend it to anyone who has a child starting school in September as well as children moving into Year 1.

I think his pile will also include a few traditional fairy tales – we have some great editions from Marks and Spencer which have very clear text in them and are helpful in building confidence with reading independently. He’s also really enjoying a collection of very slim books called”Ark Adventures Collection” which is a lovely, brightly illustrated, fun collection of stories about all the different animals Noah and Mrs Noah have to round up, brought up to date with contemporary characters. We got them from “The Book People” which has some fantastic offers on early readers.

Ark Adventures Collection - 8 Books - Collection - 9781408335048 - Sally Grindley

He’s also a fan of non fiction and there will be a plethora of DK books about Dinosaurs and Bugs. I’ll probably find a Star Wars Compendium infiltrating the suitcase too but these sorts of books are great for journeys and when eating out.

So, what will your minibibliomaniacs be reading this summer? What have they got on their To Be Read pile?! Please leave a comment below if there are any books you’d like to recommend!

Happy Reading!

Meeting author Katherine Woodfine

I have had a lovely morning listening to Katherine Woodfine speak at the St Albans Literary Festival on Saturday 9th July! Katherine gave a really interesting and interactive talk to a room full of 7-13 year old fans, all clasping well worn copies of at least one of her gorgeous books! Read on to hear some highlights of what she had to say….

There are two types of books from Katherine’s childhood that had a huge influence on her writing: Mystery and Classics. Her favourite childhood books are:

Enid Blyton “Adventure on…” series, Famous Five and Secret Seven
Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew series
Macolm Saville “Mystery at Witchend” (now out of print)
E Nesbit “The Railway Children”
Frances Hodgson Burnett “A Little Princess”
Why?
Katherine loves mysteries and stories full of clues where you have to put the pieces of a puzzle together to work out what has happened – and most importantly, books where the children themselves are more brave and clever than the adults; they can solve the mystery even when adults can’t!
She also loves stories from the Edwardian era (beginning of the 1900s) because they can transport you to another period in history where there are no mobiles, no internet. Although it’s old fashioned, it is still very exciting – even the most simple of things that we take for granted like travelling by train – and the children are still faced with difficult problems to overcome; they still need to be brave and clever.

Tell us more about the inspiration for “The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow”….
Set in 1909 the novel stars teenage orphan Sophie who is lucky enough to she find herself with a job in the Hat section in the brand new department store “Sinclair’s”.
Sinclairs is loosely based on Selfridges which opened in 1909 by American Harry Selfridge. Selfridfges introduced a whole new way of shopping to the Edwardian people. Before, you went to individual small shops for one thing, which you requested over the counter and were handed directly. However Department stores were places to browse, to gaze, to touch, to select from a range of exotic and exciting new products and foods. They were places of intrigue and glamour – therefore the most perfect setting for a mystery story!
Mr Selfridge became a celebrity within society and two details about him – his love for orchids and pug dogs – have been adopted by Mr Sinclair in a way of honouring his influence on Katherine’s writing.

Research – but it’s not all books and dusty libraries…..
It’s obvious Katherine had a lot of fun researching for her detective series. She spoke in great detail about what she found out, keeping it relevant to her novel and of interest to the children listening in the audience. She had a selection of photos from the Edwardian era showing clothes, children working in different jobs and street scenes.
She also looked at adverts, illustrations, maps, bus tickets and anything at all that would help her recreate the details, the sights and smells, to make her writing completely authentic.
The best piece of research looked like photos of her enjoying afternoon tea at Harrods! Because of course, shops had never had restaurants or cafes inside them before and now they were somewhere to socialise and be seen as well as shop! And one couldn’t possibly write convincingly without sampling first hand!

Tell us a bit about writing the second book “The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth”…..
The sequel gave Katherine a chance to introduce new characters and take Sophie and Lil out of the Department Store and further into Edwardian London. She sets part of the novel in China Town which in the early 1900s was near the Docks in the East End as this is where the Chinese families first arrived and set up their homes.
It also keeps Sinclairs as the most important location and this time Katherine interweaves two story lines between Mei, who we meet in China Town, and a wealthy female customer who Sophie serves in the store. If you want to know exactly what these very different characters could possibly have to do with each other you will just have to read the book and find out!

Sharing…..

Katherine brought lots of things along to share with her captive audience. For example we saw:
-photos of Katherine aged 8 in her detective outfit – huge oversized raincoat, big hat and a magnifying glass
-three Edwardian hats – modelled by children in the audience – Katherine then asked the children to guess who might wear the hat and where they might wear it too. We chatted about how important hats were in this era and what they revealed about the people wearing them
-2 gripping extracts from “The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow” – one describing Sophie arriving at Sinclairs for the first time and one about a mystery character witnessing a theft…..
-1 extract from the opening of “The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth”- ending rather unfairly with a cliffhanger!

If you like Katherine Woodfine’s books try:
“Mystery and Mayhem” – a collection of 12 crime stories written by the best young adult mystery writers of today
Kate Pankhurst, Robin Stevens, Lauren St John, Chris Riddell, Helen Moss, Caroline Lawrence, Elen Caldecott
(Just got massively sidetracked ordering a bundle of these…. ooppss!!)

Questions from the Audience….
Did you base any of the characters in your books on yourself?
A tiny bit of you creeps into each and every character…. Billy the Porter is always sneaking off to read books rather than work -that’s me!
Did you always plan to write more than one book in this series?
As each book is a separate mystery they can be read as individual stories but there is a bigger story arc and I definitely want to write at least four – one for each season of the first year of Sinclairs. Book 3 is due out in January!
What is your advice to young budding writers?
Write! All the time! Write anything – diaries, letters, newspaper articles, poems, blogs….do it for fun! Practise writing like you practise everything else! But get down your ideas, don’t get hung up on spelling and punctuation – let your imagination loose on paper! And read! Everything and anything! It’s the best way to learn about writing.
What are you reading at the moment?
James Nicol “The Apprentice Witch” -highly recommend especially for fans of Chris Riddell or “The Worst Witch”

Then the children started to tell us more about their writing and ideas for stories!

The best comment came from one girl who offered a title for a future book- “The Mystery of the Emerald Beetle” – fantastic! If Katherine doesn’t write it, I hope the young lady does!
One girl explained how they had written a sequel to one of their favourite novels which Katherine thought was a brilliant way to get started if you were unsure how to what to write about.
Lots of the children have started writing their own novels – Katherine said that the most important thing was to try and finish at least one of them! This is the hardest challenge of all but the most satisfying!
Well it was a really great hour and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing all the old photos, learning more about the Edwardian era and being reminded of how well written and exciting Katherine’s novels are. The historical detail is so delicately incorporated into her description it enhances the characters and setting without feeling educative or heavy handed at all.

Katherine Woodfine is intelligent, enthusiastic, engaging and lively – and so genuinely interested in what her audience of young readers had to say. She kept us all captivated for the whole hour and it was a real delight to hear her talk. Naturally the highlight was getting our books signed and having a quick word with her in person – a very inspiring moment for my children who are currently working on chapter 1 of an average of 5 novels each and all have “to be read” piles which rival my own!
Thanks so much to St Albans Literary Festival for organising the event and to Katherine for travelling to meet us all! Check out her website for more information (katherinewoodfine.co.uk)

“The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth” Katherine Woodfine

 

A fast-paced historical mystery adventure for readers aged 9+, with gorgeous Edwardian period detail. Perfect for fans of Chris Riddell, Enid Blyton and Robin Stevens.The follow up to Katherine Woodfine’s bestselling debut novel, “The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow”.

THE HONOUR OF YOUR COMPANY IS REQUESTED AT
LORD BEAUCASTLE’S FANCY DRESS BALL.

Wonder at the puzzling disappearance of the Jewelled Moth! Marvel as our heroines, Sophie and Lil, don cunning disguises, mingle in high society and munch many cucumber sandwiches to solve this curious case! Applaud their bravery as they follow a trail of terrible secrets that leads straight to London’s most dangerous criminal mastermind, and could put their own lives at risk . . .

It will be the most thrilling event of the season!

This is completely charming, entertaining and exciting! It’s such a gorgeous book – the cover is so lovely, the endpapers are also lovely, the font for the blurb is lovely as is the blurb itself which begins “The Honour of Your Company is Requested….” Lots of fun! I think this is a really great recommendation for 9-14 year olds.

All the characters are clever, positive, energetic, creative, brave, full of life and spark. The girls are strong and brave. The language is evocative of its historical setting (early 1900s) but not forced or intimidating or a barrier in anyway. It’s authentic and witty. The characters actually feel very contemporary and I think a good balance has been struck. Woodfine’s writing and use of dialogue is very easy and natural.
The setting of a Department Store is perfect for the start of numerous adventures and opportunities for disguise and undercover work. The attention to historical detail is impressive but subtly enhances the story and characters rather than being in anyway educative or intrusive. Woodfine offers a real insight into the Edwardian period and offers readers a real escape into a colourful and exciting past. She is able to bring London alive and make it as captivating and enthralling as it is today – if not more so!

It’s a very fluent and well paced light read. The dialogue between the characters is highly convincing and believable. I found all the characters likeable and engaging.
These books are like watching your favourite, well produced costume drama on a Sunday night. A real pleasure and very refreshing. I highly recommend them to adults and children alike! Enjoy!

Don’t forget to start with “The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow” which is the first novel in the series although they can be read as stand alone novels as each story is a separate mystery.

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“How Not To Disappear” Clare Furniss

I have been wanting to read this book for ages and was delighted when my reserved copy at the library finally arrived! I was attracted by the cover but also I really enjoyed Furniss’ previous book “The Year of the Rat” so was hopeful for her second novel!

Tackling the emotive and sensitive subject of teenage pregnancy, Furniss has written a moving story weaving the tale of Hattie together with that of her great aunt Gloria. It’s a perfect balance of seriousness and humour, poignant yet uplifting.

18 year old Hattie is confident, intelligent, witty and with two very close friends, Rueben and Kat. But this summer they have both deserted her – Kat, with her possessive new girlfriend, has gone to Edinburgh and Reuben, the father of her baby, has run off to Europe “to find himself”, unaware of the predicament he has left Hattie to face. Her mother is caught up in her own frenetic life of work, frequently leaving Hattie to look after her younger siblings as she avoids facing her feelings about her pending wedding with partner Carl. Hattie is left feeling a bit detached from everyone, rootless and confused as she tries to figure out how she really feels about Reuben – her best friend – and whether he truly loves her back or whether their one night together was a mistake.

With no one to turn to, jealous that her friends have gone off on adventures and can’t even be bothered to reply to her emails and texts, she decides to visit an elderly relation following a bizarre phone call from a stranger ringing to inform that “Gloria” was ailing and her family ought to come and see her……. Family that neither Hattie nor her mother realised they had….

Gloria is suffering from dementia. When lucid she is sharp, down to earth, highly observant and not afraid to confront the truth of Hattie’s situation. She is also sad, weighed down by her past. At first dismissive of Hattie, they then began to form an important relationship which helps both of them to reconcile themselves with the past and face the future.

This is a lovely story. Hattie is a really likeable teenager with a strong voice. She is very relatable and I really enjoyed her emails to Reuben – both the ones she deleted as well as sent! The blurring of her feelings towards Reuben capture the complexities of relationships at this stage in life. It explores motherhood, family relationships, pregnancy now and 50 years ago, memories and dementia (“the terminal illness where you get to die twice”). I found Gloria very moving. Her standoffishness to hide her real feelings of loneliness and fear, and the touching mental, emotional and physical journey the two women take together which brings them closer and helps them process their feelings adds depth and resonance to the novel. I think the novel will appeal to young adult readers as Hattie is very likeable, her sections reflective but vivid and humorous, and adults will enjoy the interplay between the two generations.

I liked the insertion of Gloria’s back story alongside Hattie’s and thought both voices were strong and engaging. I really liked Gloria’s comments about memories, love and how we define ourselves.

“Our memories are what make us who we are. Some are real. Some are made up. But they are the stories that tell us who we are. Without them we are nobody.”

I also liked the title of the book. With love – whether from the past or in the moment – you can never disappear.

I would recommend this book to readers 13+ who enjoy parallel time lines and multiple voices or stories about contemporary issues. Once again Furniss has tackled emotive and complex issues carefully with sensitive, beautiful writing without judgement or moralising. I can’t wait for her next project!

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“Swan Boy” Nikki Sheehan

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This is a quirky, original and uplifting story about Johnny and how he learns to overcome bullying at school.

13 year old Johnny has to look after his little brother, Mojo, while his mum is at work and they adapt to life as a single parent family following the death of their father. They live in London and when he starts his new school, Johnny is troubled by Liam and the “Populars”. In an attempt to get out of the punishment of litter duty following another altercation between himself and Liam, Johnny opts to attend a dance lesson instead and is introduced to the world of ballet. In his complicated, difficult life, dance suddenly offers Johnny some space, clarity and empowerment in a way he could never have imagined.

This is an unusual story. At first it reads like many other contemporary Young Adult novels and creates an authentic situation, with a likeable character who is trying to cope with all the usual teenage issues as well as dealing with the added pressure of his grieving family. Johnny does his best, but there are times when the responsibility of looking after Mojo, helping out around the house and trying to help Mojo negotiate his way through his grief, take their toll. Then on top of this, he is bullied at school by the unpleasant Liam and his crew.

On a school outing to Regents Park there is a rather strange incident with a swan, leading everyone to call Johnny “Swan Boy”. Reflecting on what happened, Johnny picks up a lone swan feather and takes it home. Mojo then loses it out of the window as they talk about flying. Johnny races out on to the street to recover it but it has disappeared. Mojo then draws it for him (something he’s talented at even if it is often on the table top) so “he doesn’t need to go out and look for it again.” Both suddenly seem aware of the importance of this feather.

This incident with the swan and his need to keep the feather, plants a seed in Johnny’s mind – he is convinced that he has some kind of understanding with the swan, that somehow it was protecting him, that they are somehow connected. This is felt more deeply when he realises the dance class are practising “Swan Lake”.

The story continues with an element of magic. As his dancing skills develop, Johnny embraces the desire to fly. He immerses himself in the idea of becoming a swan. He imagines his neck lengthening, wings from his back, the sensation of pushing off into the sky. He practises leaping and leaping and leaping. He discovers tiny tufts of downy feathers appearing on his chest……..

Although not really comparable, I was reminded a little of Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the obsessive dancer in “Black Swan” (rated 15) but this is obviously much more heartwarming and gentle – much more similar to “Billy Elliot”. Indeed Mrs Cray could be played by Julie Walters. This novel reminded me of David Almond’s “Skellig”, maybe a slight nod to Roald Dahl (maybe also slight similarities with Matilda’s ability to make things happen with her mind), with elements of Melvin Burgess – but without the need for any rating or warning – it’s not controversial in the way some of Burgess’ books are sometimes perceived to be. It is also similar to stories by writers like Sarah Crossan and Sally Nichols or authors that scatter their images with ethereal references and the blurring between reality and dream.

This book is about self empowerment, self esteem, learning to overcome situations and learning to fly. It is well written and fluent. The main character is very likeable and his relationship with his brother is very affecting. The family dynamics are very touching and very credible. Young adults will relate to the frustration Johnny sometimes feel as he yearns for some freedom and flexibility instead of watching Mojo every evening. It deals with grief and death with sympathy and sensitivity; it’s hard not to shed a slight tear when Johnny takes Mojo to “visit” their father – truly a kind of “coming of age” moment for both boys.

Sheehan clearly understands her audience and clearly understands how to write for Young Adults. Her dialogue is authentic and at times very poignant. It is a very good read. The reader does need to suspend belief a little at times but it still feels a very natural narrative and although not entirely believable, it does not feel overly far fetched. The symbolism and imagery is pertinent and reinforces the ideas Sheehan is exploring. The ending is so effective -very moving and resonant.

A great book about bullying, families, friendship and dance!

My thanks to Nikki Sheehan and One World Publications for the free copy in return for a fair review. I was delighted to get a chance to read this book and am intrigued by what other tales Sheehan might choose to tell!

“Dear World, How Are You?” Toby Little

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“The true story of a little boy on a big quest.”

One of my minibibliomaniacs is a fan of writing letters and so when I read about this book I felt we had to push the boat out and buy it in hardback – and it is such a lovely book to dip in and out of I am really pleased we did.

Toby Little came home from school one day at the age of five and a half with a non fiction home reader all about the postal system and how letters travel around the world. Captivated by the physical size of the world and the distance a single letter can travel to communicate something simple between people, Toby decided he would like to write a letter to a person in every country. He wanted to learn more about the world, help people understand each other and make the world a better place. At time of publication at the end of 2015, Toby had written over 560 letters as the project has grown and grown; friendships and lengthy correspondence developing from his first simple wish. He continues writing as he is still discovering connections, thinking of further questions and finding more to explore and learn about the people living in our world.

He began his project with the help of his mum. They researched a list of countries using the UN membership as a starting point. His mum posted requests on social media for friends and relatives to suggest recipients around the world who might like to get a letter and write one back. And so began his enormous project.

Every letter was sent to a real person who had given their permission via the website they set up (www.writingtotheworld.com) and Toby wrote a polite, short note which asked a few questions about the country in which the person lived. This book is a selection of the most interesting letters – sent and received – with a brief explanation from Toby’s mother. There are some pages of coloured photographs showing some of the most interesting replies, including a pop up book made by some students in the Philippines.

This is a book to dip in and out of and we haven’t yet read all of it. But already, we have had some conversations about geography, history, sociology and just some very basic observations about the lives of people in different countries – like the people in Kenya who have Zebras wandering along the bottom of their garden!

In such a digital age, there is still something special about receiving a letter and making personal contact with someone. Hopefully this book will inspire some letter writing or curiosity about the people and places in our colourful and diverse planet.

I would recommend this book for anyone aged 5 upwards.
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“One” Sarah Crossan

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This is a unique and moving story told through the honest, pragmatic and unsentimental voice of Grace. Crossan’s novel is written in free verse and in June it was awarded The Bookseller’s YA Book Prize 2016 – just one of many prizes for which I’m sure it will be nominated.

“One” is the story of conjoined twins Grace and Tippi, named after Tippi Hedren and Grace Kelly – 2 of Hitchcock’s biggest stars who were “so beautiful it sometimes feels like a cruel joke.” They are conjoined from the hips down and have defied medical history by surviving for 16 years, although “lucky isn’t really how I would describe us.”

“As time ticks by / the chances of us / suddenly / ceasing / to be / get / quite /high / that’s just a fact / that will / never / go / away………I suck it up.”

Living as a conjoined twin is described without any undue sensationalism, as to Tippi and Grace it is normal. They have adapted to their life together. They have ways of operating effectively together. Sometimes it’s frustrating – for example, “I cannot watch a film in secret / and even with my headphones / on / I know that Tippi hears the tinny hissing / of my music / in her own ears.” But, as with waiting for each other, “It’s what happens / when / you’re bound like we are / to a body too stubborn / to peel itself apart at conception,” – this is just the way it is and ultimately they share everything and are everything to each other.

Yet Grace tells us how she struggles to become invisible and longs to be normal and boring, not amazing.

“Normal  is the Holy Grail / and only those without it / know its value”

Sometimes she wants to speak for herself and to be seen just as Grace, not always with Tippi. She wants “eyes to focus on me without the tiniest hint of horror.” What Grace tells us is at times heartbreaking and always poignant, but her voice remains candid with such a matter of fact tone, that even when her sadness and longing creep in, it doesn’t become over sentimental or gratuitous. Crossan has struck a brilliant balance of exploring the emotional, physical and mental journey of teenage conjoined twins that evokes empathy and understanding without voyeurism or pity. As Grace herself says, “hatred’s better than sympathy.”

Starting a new school, they make new friends. Yasmeen is HIV positive and the girls form a bond with her, knowing how it feels to be “burdened at birth /by a curse your mother /never knew she was under.” They also meet Jon. Tippi warns Grace that they can never fall in love, but for Grace this comes too late.

Half way through the book the twins decide to monetise their quite unique life to relieve the family of its financial burden.  They turn to reporter Caroline who has plagued them for years and she arrives to film the family every day and reveal the inside story of living as a conjoined twins. This allows Crossan to subtly raise some thought provoking points and ask intrusive questions without making the book trite or hackneyed. Grace’s voice constantly the more intelligent, more observant, more philosophic. For example, Caroline says, “You laugh a lot. It’s inspiring. You embrace life.” “What am I supposed to do with life other than embrace it,” Grace flatly replies. These twins are girls who are well balanced and essentially happy. They are inspirational but not because of their conditions, because of their grounded perspective.

Then something happens. Something they hoped would never happen. Neither of them can admit it to the other. This section of the book is painful but also reflects that actually, this is a family that is no different to any other family faced with the most devastating of decisions. I would like to quote more from these elegant and exquisite passages but will refrain- only to avoid spoilers and possibly my tears. There is some beautiful symbolism through the image of a Russian Doll which is filled with several smaller dolls, until the smallest is so tiny it is barely anything at all, but without it, the doll would never be complete.

As I said, the book is written in free verse, so although it is thick and runs to over 400 pages it is actually a very quick read due to each page being one “poem”. Each page is given a different heading and is about a different topic, day, incident, emotion, reflection which prevents all the ups and downs (and there are some very down bits) of such a story from becoming overwhelming, depressing or too harrowing. It keeps moving, the pace and structure carefully considered in order prevent overly dwelling on things but still providing enough detail to make the characters, emotions and events authentic and three dimensional. Words linger – in fact the visual effect of extra space at the bottom of the last stanza on each page and the new title on the next, encourage a reflective pause. Crossan’s choice to write in this style is inspired and original. It makes the story fresh and completely engaging. The images, symbolism and inference are precise and affecting. The shape of the words on the page adds a whole other layer to the content and I loved the way it changed to reflect certain events and stages of the girls’ lives. I also think it is important to see novels written in less conventional forms which opens up a whole new realm of self expression, creativity and imagination for teenagers.

This is a novel I will read again and again and again and again and probably notice something different or deeper each time. I totally admire what Crossan has achieved. At the end of the book, Crossan says it was an honour to write it but I felt it was an honour to read it. I can only imagine what she much have gone through researching and writing this but the result is so impressive. The brevity of her words, the empty space surrounding the lines and words is so effective; what is not said becomes as interesting and resonant as what is said.

I have read “The Weight of Water” (also written in free verse) and “Apple and Rain” (also nominated for prestigious awards) and thoroughly enjoyed them both. I recommend all of these three books for young adults (and fully grown ones too) who love language, issue based books, original characters and well written stories.

The link below will take you to Amazon where you can buy the book.

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“Flawed” Cecelia Ahern

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Cecelia Ahern is very well known for her highly successful and popular adult fiction. I have only read “PS I Love You”, “The Gift” and “One Hundred Names” and found them easy, romantic, gently humorous reads about contemporary relationships and women. Perfect for a holiday or when you need a bit of a break from the demands of life! I was interested to read her first novel for Young Adults and even more interested when I saw the genre was Dystopian Fiction – I’m a bit of a sucker for a bit of dystopia and spent my teenage years engrossed in it. But with the recent explosion in this genre, particularly for young people, how will she fair against the giant success of titles like “The Hunger Games”, “Divergent” and “Delirium”?

“Flawed” opens with its definition: “Faulty, defective, imperfect, deficient……and of a person, having a weakness in character”. Celestine, the protagonist, then follows with the statement that she is a “girl of definitions, of logic, of black and white.” And she is. Life is straight forward and clear for Celestine. The right choices are obvious and she frequently repeats statements that remind the reader of her perfection. She is the perfect student, perfect daughter, perfect girlfriend and living a perfect life where she mixes within the privileged society of the “Judge” and feels protected and immune from the threat of the “Whistleblowers” who seek out and punish the “Flawed”. Then one day, after the “last perfect moment of my life” Celestine makes an impulsive decision – an emotional reaction to a situation – and everything changes. She is suddenly one of the “Flawed”, a regular citizen who has made a moral or ethical mistake in a society that will not tolerate bad decisions. Its mantra is “think before you act”; there is no room for hindsight as the controlling Judges seek to breed a society of forward thinkers, their motive to ensure that the public are never again punished with the financial ruin brought about by bad decisions. The Flawed are branded with the letter “F” either on the temple, tongue, hand or chest depending on their crime and weakness. They wear a red armband also with the letter “F” on it and are shunned by society, their civil rights relinquished and treated as an underclass.

Initially Celestine fights the accusations. She is offered a way out and her mother, whose mask of perfection gradually begins to slip in a world where image is everything, convinces her to lie in order to save herself. But can Celestine do it? Can she let an innocent old man take her punishment? Yet on the other hand, can she lose everything she has, including her family, friends and future, in order to do the right thing? And to add further complication to the decision, it seems the Judge wants to use Celestine to feed the fire of fear for the Flawed; to manipulate her in order to secure his own power and position. Does she become a hero for trying to rid the world of the Flawed or a hero for standing up for them?

This novel is about standing out rather than fitting in. It is about giving a voice to the silenced. It is about a girl who only wanted to fit in making a change through her own self sacrifice and finding an inner strength she did not know she had. It is the start of an adventure; a life changing journey.

It is a novel that raises questions like what is a bad decision? Can you breed forword thinking and eradicate bad decision making? “If you never make a mistake, how do you learn what is right and wrong?”

Teenagers will love this book because it is about making decisions and choosing what sort of person you want to be. It is about the power to make a change. It has all the necessary ingredients for a successful dystopian novel including a reluctant heroine who finds herself under the limelight by accident and circumstance- a perfect, law abiding girl, who suddenly finds herself cast out on the wrong side of everything. Celestine is a strong female role model.

The style of writing is deliberately very plain and full of statements which helps emphasise the debate about “black and white” and decisions only being “right or wrong.” There is a lot of repetition which also re-emphasises the key messages of the book. The chapters are short and action packed. The opening pages establish the key characters and their relationships quickly, throwing the reader straight into the drama.

It’s only natural that “Flawed” will be compared to other trilogies but it doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of a place amongst them. It is not as violent or as harrowing as some of the other dystopian representations but is capable of provoking just as much discussion from the issues it raises. With it’s love triangle, sibling rivalry, injustice and drama it has everything that most readers will want from a story and it is a satisfying and appealing read. The ending is really only the beginning and Ahern has enticed the reader enough to make them desperate for the next instalment as soon as they finish the last page. I think Ahern’s first foray into Young Adult Fiction is a successful one. This would also make a good film!

Thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this book in advance of publication in return for an honest review.