Friday 13 December 2013

Past on Paper - 1940s Review - 'That Burning Summer', Lydia Syson (Hot Key Books, 2013)

Romney Marsh, July 1940. When invasion threatens, you have to grow up quickly. Sixteen-year-old Peggy has been putting on a brave face since the fall of France, but now the enemy is overhead, and the rules are changing all the time. Staying on the right side of the law proves harder than she expects when a plane crash-lands in the Marsh: it's Peggy who finds its pathetic, broken pilot; a young Polish man, Henryk, who stays hidden in a remote church, secretly cared for by Peggy. As something more blossoms between the two, Peggy's brother Ernest's curiosity peaks and other secrets come to light, forcing Peggy and Henryk to question all the loyalties and beliefs they thought they held dear. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Quick warning: the odd spoiler on the horizon folks...

That Burning SummerWith that amazing title and a synopsis that strongly hints of a secret wartime love affair, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this book is an out-and-out romance. Ok, it is a bit of an out-and-out romance, but as much as I adored this particular relationship and the mammoth objects put in its path, the thing I took away was a different sort of fire - having the strength to cope with the day-to-day realities during some of the most difficult and tense events in history.

As with her previous book, Syson's writing takes a particular point and place in the past and opens it up in a way I don't think I've come across in YA before. All the research and attention to detail is evident, yet it never feels like you're sitting through a history lesson. Or maybe just like you're experiencing the best history lesson ever. This book not only sheds light on the contribution of Polish pilots to the war effort, but also the story of those who chose to stand by their pacifist principles in the face of overwhelming pressure and the ripple effects this had on their families. I was initially a bit apprehensive about the large part Peggy's younger brother Ernest appeared to be playing in the story ( just wanted to get to the kissing bits to be honest), but his journey and how this tallied with Henryk's experiences, ended up being my favourite part of the book. This is a tale about a different sort of war time bravery - of coping with overwhelming mental as well as physical hurdles as well as standing up for beliefs in the face of public opinion and convention. But with all the complex issues floating about, there is still a strong and powerful chemistry between Peggy and Henryk that was a  joy to read. Some of the scenes actually made my page CRACKLE, I swear. 

As with all the best historical fiction, this provides a new perspective on a period that has been depicted on paper many, many times before. It's a very welcome addition to the growing number of YA books set during this period that I've had the pleasure to read in the last couple of years. Not only does it make you think AND swoon, but there's also does a rather good sideline in suspense too. Oh, and the cover's ace as well. Seriously, what more could you want? 

If it turns out you DO want more, then have a read of my interview with Lydia Syson in which she discusses writing historical young adult fiction and the presence of politics in YA. You're welcome.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Interview: Bridget Tyler, Author of 'Drummer Girl'

You may remember my review of Drummer Girl from a weeks back - this addictive tale of a group of London school girls winging their way to LA to take part in a reality show is a great page turner with the snappiest of snappy dialogue. Today I welcome author and screenwriter Bridget Tyler to my blog to chat about pop culture, friendship and happy endings in YA...

What first drew you to writing for young adults and what were your favourite reads at this age? 

-         I love writing for Young Adults because I think great stories about growing up have more impact on us over the course of our lives as readers than any other kind of book. I still remember the books I loved when I was a teenager vividly – The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, the Nancy Drew series, The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper, anything by Anne McCaffrey, Harry Potter… the list goes on. Those characters, and their journeys, helped me understand and survive my teenage years and I will never forget them. If I can tell just one story that makes someone else feel that way, then I will consider myself a success.

        Pop culture and current trends are a major part of Drummer Girl – what do you think are the pros and cons of writing about music in YA? 

-         Obviously, anything related to pop culture is dangerous in a book because it is bound to be out of date in a heartbeat. That’s why, as much as Drummer Girl takes place during a reality competition, I worked hard to avoid too many references to contemporary pop culture. You’ll notice as you read that most of the specific references made to bands are either to icons like Madonna and the Beatles, or to fake bands that only exist in the world of Drummer Girl. I even tried to stick to fairly classic styles when mentioning clothes, hair and make up while still being on trend. I used the framework of reality television and the music business, but I really wanted to be sure Drummer Girl was also about these five girls and their friendship not about the world they find themselves in.

Drummer Girl        You’ve clearly got a knack for both authentic US and UK dialogue – how does writing dialogue for novels differ from screenwriting?

 -       Not much, actually. Whether I’m writing a book or a screenplay, I read the piece out loud to myself many, many times before it’s finished. It’s really the only way to tell if dialogue is going to ring true or not, at least for me. The biggest difference with the dialogue in a novel is that you don’t have to make the characters say as many things out loud. In a script, I might need a character to say, “Wait. Mum can’t possibly know we cut school last week. She spoke to Mrs. James this morning and neither of us is grounded. What are you up to?” because otherwise the audience has no way of knowing what’s happening in the character’s head.  In a novel, I might do this instead:

Molly stopped short, starring at her sister as she dug through her dresser drawers. No matter what Jane said, Mum couldn’t possibly know that they’d cut school. She’d spoken to Mrs. James this morning and everything. They’d be beyond grounded if either had a clue. So what was Jane up to?

See the difference? Finding organic and natural ways for characters to say what they’re thinking out loud is actually one of the most challenging aspects of screenwriting.

Friendship is a strong theme in Drummer Girl – do you think this is something we should be seeing more of in YA and what other themes do you think deserve more attention? 

-         Yes, I think friendship, particularly female friendship, is highly under utilized in YA and in storytelling in general. Friends are such an important part of the growing up experience – good friends make everything so much better and bad ones can be downright dangerous, in the wrong situation. Romance is fun, and there’s a lot of that in Drummer Girl too, but it isn’t the only kind of relationship out there to explore. As for other topics that could use more attention, this isn’t exactly a theme but I have to say I think it’s important for YA writers to create more characters who are into science, female characters in particular. Too often math and science gets ignored, or even vilified, in teen literature. Those fields are both truly fascinating and very important for the future – we should be telling stories that encourage people to be interested in them.

        Drummer Girl has an incredibly fast-paced plot – how do you ensure that this is balanced out with strong characters? 

-         Well this is another trick that comes from screenwriting – plotting that doesn’t develop the characters is going to end up being boring and character development that doesn’t advance the plot has a good chance of ending up on the cutting room floor. The goal is to make every new twist and turn of the plot service the characters so that you don’t need to slow down and take a detour in order to develop them. 

      And finally, how important do you think ‘happy endings’ are in YA?

-        I think every story deserves the ending that best fits it. Some stories end well, some don’t. There are happy endings in Drummer Girl and very, very sad ones. And a few that are in between. That’s the way life is. The one thing I do think all stories should have is hope. I think there is a place in the world for bleak stories that lack hope for the future, but they aren’t the kind of stories I chose to tell, nor are they the kind of stories I like to read. 


I'd like to thank Bridget for taking the time out to answer my questions and in particular, those very handing tips on writing dialogue. So thank you Bridget - I'm certainly looking forward to your future YA titles! And it's always nice to find a fellow Nancy Drew fan...

Friday 15 November 2013

I Need to Get Out More #5 - Wood Green Literary Festival

I don't normally manage to get out to literary or author events too often, so I was especially pleased to make it to a couple of events taking place as part of the Wood Green Literary Festival a few weeks back. I'm usually pretty clueless when it comes to doing write-ups (I suppose it's a good thing that I don't get the chance to do too many then), so I thought I'd take a different approach with this one as look at a few of the points raised and see how I can relate them to my own writing...

16120429The first talk was about Uncovering Ancient London and featured Lydia Syson and Catherine Johnson. Now, if you follow my blog, you'll know that I'm a big fan of Lydia's writing and you can find out her thoughts on political YA in this interview from a little while back. As you can imagine, it was very interesting to get a writer's perspective on how London history has made them tick. Catherine Johnson talked animatedly about how a trip to the Huntarian Museum inspired her to write Sawbones, a book that sounds delightfully gruesome and rich in the historical detail of the backstreets of this city. Lydia Syson talked about how she is a fifth generation Londoner, something that is quite rare this days, and how she has grown up to appreciate the rich history London has to offer, in particular, surprising facts about her family history.

That Burning SummerThis got me thinking about stories that my own family have told me. I've lived in west London on and off for the last ten years, but I was brought up in a commuter town after my parents moved away from their original west London haunt. My dad used to tell me stories about when he used to place Underground Hide and Seek on the tube with his friends as a teenager. You might be able to guess what it involved...basically, jump on a train, jump off at different stations and try to remain illusive to the person tasked to find you. I had completely forgotten about this story up until that moment, and now it's taking pride of place in my notes for something I'm planning about London set in the 1960s. It's nice to be reminded that I couldn't live anywhere better in the world when it comes to writing about the past, so thank you lovely authors!

When I Was JoeThe second talk I attended featured Keren David and Hilary Freeman discussing Edgy YA Fiction. This is of particular interest to me right as I'm currently working on a contemporary YA, although I don't know if I'd describe it as particularly 'edgy', but I suppose that was the whole point of the discussion - what does constitute edgy YA and how do you get the balance right? One of the issues that has been at the forefront of my mind recently (especially now I am at the editing stage) is swearing in YA. A while back, I read this interesting article by James Dawson which got me thinking about whether established authors are in a better position to have swearing feature in their books rather than debut novelists. However, both authors didn't think this was really the case and that all authors need to compromise to a certain extent on this depending on the market.

Lifted. Hilary FreemanWhen I first started working my MS, I was given some advice that I've always found useful - when it comes to swearing, don't censor yourself in the early stages - it's more important to get the first draft done and you can always compromise on this at the editing stage. Needless to say, my first draft was as potty-mouthed as it gets and I remember reading it back and blushing. As I'm going through my chapters now, I can appreciate that a little goes a long way in this respect. I think it's important to get my dialogue as authentic as possible (and this includes using swear words), but perhaps using too many can have the same effect as using none - it might only succeed in distracting from the story.

All in all, this was a great, informative afternoon, and I've very much looking to venturing north again next year. My only criticism would be that the talks were too short! I could have listened to them all for hours...

Monday 4 November 2013

YA REVIEW - 'Drummer Girl', Bridget Tyler (Templar Publishing 2013)

It was supposed to be the summer of her life. Instead, 17-year-old Lucy finds her best friend Harper shot dead in an LA swimming pool. How did it come to this? Lucy Gosling is the drummer in Crush, a rock band formed by five London schoolgirls that has just won the UK semi-final of an international talent contest. But when the band lands in Hollywood for the big final, things are not quite as they seem. The band's lead singer, Harper, has just one thing on her mind - using sex, drugs and rock and roll, not to mention Crush itself, to win back her bad-news ex-boyfriend. Lucy must decide whether she's playing to Harper's tune, or setting the rhythm for the rest of the band (Synopsis from Goodreads)

When I read a YA that features a heavy dose of pop culture, I sometimes have mixed feelings - not because it's a a terrible subject to explore, not at all, in fact. More that I worry about the future. Mostly because I am a worrier in general, but also because I get all concerned about how relevant this is going to be in a few years time. But then, just as I started writing this review and waffling on about this, it dawned on me that reality telly isn't exactly a new phenomemon - how many years has The X Factor been with us? - so does that mean it's here to stay and that I am worrying about nothing? (probably). Anyway, my point in relation to Drummer Girl is that I shouldn't really be worrying at all. Because even though this book is full to the brim with pop culture and TV shenanigans, it embraces it and is all the better for that.

Drummer GirlSaying the plot is fast-paced does not do it justice - within the space of a few chapters, friendships have been shattered and reformed, a band has been pulled together, we moved from London to LA and we haven't even begun to touch on the tales of romance, addiction, underdogs, and glamour. But what I loved about Drummer Girl the most was the girl that held it all together - friendship. Even though action was most definitely the key factor, this is a book about friends and I don't think there's enough YA books where this is the driving force behind the story. Romances are very much on the periphery and it was all the more refreshing because of that.

The one thing I wasn't too sure about was the inclusion of a certain scene right at the start of the book. I wasn't going to mention it but now I've just realised that it features in the synopsis so I'm not really spoiling anything. I still can't make up my mind whether my knowledge of Harper's fate was necessary - on the one hand, I was desperate to find out how it came about, but on the other, would I have preferred to see more a twist at the end? I'm still undecided. Anyway, the book doesn't necessarily suffer from it and it's an interesting way to structure the story. And another thing worth mentioning is the dialogue. Occasionally, when UK characters feature in US novels, they either talk like they've just stepped off the set of Mary Poppins or they sound like they're trying to channel their inner Jason Statham, but the exchanges between the girls here ring true.

This book is gloriously addictive. I was halfway through it when we were struck by a power cut and I had to turn our flat upside down looking for an industrial-sized torch because I couldn't see any of the pages by candlelight.

And I really wanted to see those pages.

This book was sent to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

I Need to Get Out More #4 - FILM REVIEW: How I Live Now

These days, about 90% of my movie-going habits consist of Saturday morning trips to the local old school cinema to watch the kids flick with the cheap tickets. So for me to go and see a new release, on the first day of its release, in the first screening, is a rare occasion indeed. Ok, so I didn't have much choice as to what time I could go to as I had to get back to pick the kids up from school, but whatever...

How I Live NowAnd by the way, yay from my first film review! To say I've been looking forward to this is a bit of an understatement. I first read How I Live Now a couple of years ago. I'd finished What I Was after picking it up by chance from my local library and then immediately deciding to consume the whole Meg Rosoff back catalogue. Actually, these books were some of the first YA novels I read (in my current period of YA love, not when I was a teenager) and consequently, they've have been burnt on my memory, not only for their brilliance, but also because they are partly responsible for my YA re-discovery.

However, it has also dawned on me that I haven't read How I Live Now since that first encounter a few years back (not sure why) and I have also lent my only copy to my best friend who has yet to return it, so I'm going to have to rely on my not very reliable memory when it comes to comparing the two. But, as you'll soon find out, the whole point of this review is that we shouldn't really be comparing the two at all...

How I Live Now (2013) Poster
As with any book-to-film adaption, my anticipation is always a mixture of extreme and on occasions, uncontrollable, excitement and a touch of terror, because I reckon it's completely natural to think that any adaptation might not live up to the original prose. But after we came out of the cinema, I realised that when it comes to How I Live Now, this sort of worrying was a bit of a waste of time. Yes, they made some changes to the characters and the story, but that wasn't unexpected. What was more important to me was that the overall power of the story remained intact and it worked as a film, rather than a version of a book. There was one particular addition that I don't remember in the book (but like I said, it's been a while) that was especially moving. And heartbreaking. And let's face it, just horrific. But it also summed up the whole feel of the film for me. I don't know why I wasn't expecting it to be quite as dark as it was (the book is about a war after all), but this was powerful stuff indeed. Made all the more intense by the contrasting images of beauty and despair.

My one quibble is that the central romance didn't quite have the effect I had hoped. I can see why they made certain changes to Edmund's character, but the way their unique bond was shown here didn't really work as well as it could have done. I could forgive the whole insta-love thing in the book because of the amazing prose, but on film, not so much. Saying that, I would have been quite happy staring at Edmond for two hours straight. Top marks for casting on that front...

This is an intriguing and beautiful film in it's own right, as well as a companion to the book, and I'm very glad that my uncontrollable excitement prior to viewing was justified.

Also, I recently found out that the girl who plays Piper also does the voice of Peppa Pig.


Tuesday 8 October 2013

Past on Paper: 1970s YA REVIEW - 'Koh Tabu', Ann Kelley (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Fourteen-year-old Bonnie MacDonald couldn't be more excited for a camping trip on an island off the coast of Thailand with her fellow Amelia Earhart Cadets-the daughters of the men and women stationed there during the Vietnam War. But when a strong current deposits the girls on what their boatman calls the "forbidden island," things take a turn for the worse. What once seemed like a vacation in paradise has become a battle against the elements (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Gosh, this is a tricky one to review. But I shall try. You know that problem I was pondering in my last Past on Paper review? The one about whether to judge these books on how well they use their historical context? (I may have put it in a slightly more rambling, less coherent way). Well, this could perhaps be used as an example of not using your historical context to the best effect. Gah, I so wanted to love this one, because it sounded fantastic - a group of girls marooned on a far-flung Thai island in 1974. Doesn't it sound fantastic? 

Koh Tabu.Back to that old historical context thing. One of the many things that interested me about this was the time period, but if I hadn't known it was set in the 1970s, I'm not sure I would have been able to pin it down. Ok, so yes, it was set on a baron desert island, and they're not famous for their availability of cultural references, but there was very little in the voices or actions of some of the characters that felt like it they might stem from this time period specifically - more of just a general nod to the past. And I would have loved some more references to the historical events of the time too - how the war was impacting on them in particular - there were a few hints of family dramas, but this was very much a story about their current, more immediate crisis.

I think that might have been the problem, in that I was expecting so much and it just felt liked it lagged in a few areas. The story of adolescents stranded on a desert island isn't necessarily a new one, but the mention of it still promises so much drama and tension. Unfortunately, I didn't really get too much of this here. There are incredibly dramatic and sometimes tragic incidents, but I just wanted more emotion and build up. They seemed to just...happen. I've read a few books recently that have used a diary format to tell a story and I'm starting to think that this might be my problem - a lot of the immediacy of the events has been sacrificed to keep this method authentic and I don't think it really works for me as a reader.

That said, there are still some very surprising, unusual and memorable developments, including one rather beautiful, evocative encounter with a stranger, and Bonnie is an engaging guide who is fully aware of her own shortcomings as well as those of her companions. 

In some ways, this is a brilliant, original idea for a YA and the sheer nature of the girls' predicament kept me turning the pages until the end. But this didn't really work for me as a historical novel, or a particularly thrilling one.

Thursday 3 October 2013

My YA Confessions #4 - Giving up is hard to do...

I have feelings. Mixed ones. And they're made even more complicated by the fact that I feel guilty about having them in the first place.

Yes, I'm talking about giving up on books before the end.

I'm thinking I shouldn't have even used the words 'giving up..' in the title of this post - it sounds so negative and defeatist, when I generally don't think I'm doing anything wrong. Or am I? Reading is for enjoyment, pure and simple (unless you count those years of enforced reading lists) and when a books fails to grip I'm surely more than justified in leaving it be and moving onto something else. So why do I feel so guilty?

It recently began thinking about this a lot more because it happened to me with a book by new author. I had read a lot of excellent things about this title and I loved the sound of the premise. But halfway through and I was floundering - it felt repetitive, I was bored with the characters, I really didn't give a rat's arse about any of it anymore. It wasn't the worse book I'd ever read by any means, but it just was not for me at that particular moment in time. And I felt even more guilty about abandoning it than I would have done jumping ship from a title by someone who has sold millions of copies. Should I have given a new author a fair crack of the whip? (gosh there's a lot of questions in this post - I do apologise). I guess the same does for reviewing books by new authors too - I'm always more reluctant to outright criticise them, although I'm guessing that a review on my teeny-tiny blog won't affect their sales too much. But I have no such qualms about being critical of more famous books.

Actually, I always have a few qualms about this sort of thing generally, but that's book blogging for you.

Let's just take a moment to appreciate the word 'qualms'. QUALMS.

Anyway, I think another reason for my guilt stems from being in the midst of attempting to write a book myself. I've only just come to appreciate the amount of time, blood, sweat and tears that goes into the process and to not give a book a decent go shot seems unfair to these efforts.

Does the standing of the author affect your decision on whether to finish a book or not, or do you think we should treat all titles the same?

Have you gone back to a book you previously struggled with and been pleasantly surprised?

Let me know you thoughts on this one...

Wednesday 25 September 2013

YA REVIEW - 'Pantomime', Laura Lam (Strange Chemistry, 2013)

R. H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass—remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone—are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimaera is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide. Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star. But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Pantomime (Pantomime, #1)Oh my, oh my. I remember reading a lot of glowing reviews about this one when it was first released so I feel rather stupid for only getting around to picking it up now. I've recently been in one of those mini-reading slumps. My current book was dragging me down. You know when you're ploughing your way through but really not enjoying it and every time you pretend you haven't seen it lying around, waiting to be finished, the guilt eats away at you as you reach over for the remote control and watch some mind numbing sitcom repeat that you could recite in your sleep because you've seen it so many times before?

Yeah that. This state of affairs scares me. It makes me think that I'm going off books. It makes reading feel like a chore. It is a bad business.

Which is why I chose to jump ship and start something completely different. And this one could definitely be filed under different. Or unique. Or unlike anything I've read before.You get the idea.

It's pretty special.

I'm the first to admit that I struggle with fantasy sometimes. I think it's a time thing - with books that paint a particularly strong picture, I need to be completely absorbed  fairly early on so they give me absolutely no choice - I HAVE to ignore everything else -  until I've turned the last page. Otherwise it's just not happening. I have distractions (kids etc), that will pull me off the sofa and then my relationship with that book will never be the same again and we'll probably revert to the state of affairs detailed above.

Hello book slump.

But you might have already guessed that this didn't happen with Pantomime. As well as reading those great reviews a few months back, I was also reminded about this title when I went to a seminar on LGBT characters and themes in YA. I'm afraid on this particular subject, that's all I'm going to say in relation to this book for fear of the spoiler demon striking me down with a bolt of lightening, but I can tell you that it not only manages to portray this issue in a non 'issuey' way but also does something completely unique with it.

I can't really say much else about the story - the synopsis above does a much better job of it than my garbled attempt would - but as with any book that I adore, it's the writing and the characters that are pretty much perfect here. The stories and journeys of Micah and Gene are moving, intriguing, passionate, teaming with sexual tension and heartbreaking in the best and worst possible ways. The world of the circus and Ellada is rich with gorgeous imagery, detail and intriguing supporting characters and it's one I can't wait to get back to when the sequel comes out next year.

So put aside your life for a bit and get taken over.

Monday 23 September 2013


This is the first mini review-type round up that I've done. I've avoided them up until now because I'd rather just write a full review to do a book justice. However, over the summer, my reading habits became so erratic and disorganised that I'm left with no choice - if I don't write down something about these books now, then there will be no words written down about them at all, and that would be a shame. I don't post about every book I read, but I I do try to review the ones that I think I have an opinion on, good or bad, and these definitely come under that category. You might start seeing a few more of these posts from me in the future...

We Can Be Heroes - Catherine Bruton (Egmont UK, 2011)

We Can Be HeroesI had a lot to say about this one, but it's been a while since I finished it and as time goes by, it becomes a bit more difficult to articulate all those feelings in blog form. But in short, I loved it. It's so refreshing when a book manages to explore 'issues' without making it obvious that it's exploring the 'issues' - when the story and the characters take precedence over the 'issues' but never belittling their importance in the process. This deals with the after-effects of 9/11 in a bittersweet way - an interesting take on grief and present-day attitudes to race and religion with a authentic and utterly convincing voice. My only criticism is that it was a bit too long, but other than that, highly recommended for slightly younger readers.

The 5th Estate - Rick Yancey (Penguin, 2013)

The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave, #1)This is the problem with reading books that get a lot of great reviews - am I just setting myself up for disappointment? It's not that I didn't enjoy this one - it was an engrossing read, but I was expecting so much more. I don't read a lot of sci-fi, so in some ways, I don't think I'm the right person to judge, but some of the dialogue here was woeful. Think Starship Troopers, but with extra cheese. I liked the main character, Cassie and her story. That was, until a romantic element was introduced and just undermined the whole thing. He smelt of woodsmoke and chocolate. That says it all really. But my main problem was with the whole premise - as far as I could see, there was a far easier way to solve the whole 5th Wave thing than with the actual 5th Wave. I might continue with this series, I might not.

Hollow Pike - James Dawson (Indigo, 2012)

Hollow PikeReally enjoyed this one. In theory, I love mysteries. I grew up reading them. But for some reason, I've always been a bit weary about YA mysteries or ghost stories. Perhaps because there's nothing worse than a disappointing ending. But this one was more than satisfactory. Much more, in fact. Great characters, although I would have loved a bit more of Kitty, Delilah and Jack and I didn't have a clue what was going to happen next. Had a real Scream feel to proceedings, which in no bad thing in my opinion.

Monday 9 September 2013

YA REVIEW - 'Tomorrow, When The War Began', John Marsden (Quercus, 2011) (first published 1993)

When Ellie and her friends return from a camping trip in the Australian bush, they find things hideously wrong — their families are gone. Gradually they begin to comprehend that their country has been invaded and everyone in their town has been taken prisoner. As the reality of the situation hits them, they must make a decision — run and hide, give themselves up and be with their families, or fight back. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Tomorrow When the War Began (Tomorrow, #1)
I can't believe I'm saying this but I'd completely forgotten about John Marsden. Ridiculous, I know. The first book I'd read of his was when I was living in Brisbane, near a local library stocked to the hilt with titles from this Australian YA genius, so I had my pick of all the beautiful words. His contemporary stuff (ok, it's not strictly speaking up-to-the-minute contemporary) rocked me to my very core, making it even more astonishing that he'd fallen off my radar over the last 18 months. So when I saw the Kindle edition of probably his most famous book (is this his most famous book? Any Aussies out there, please feel free to correct me) on offer, all the feels came flooding back. I was surely in for a guaranteed gripping read, wasn't I? Well...

I was a bit disappointed with this one to be honest. It pains me to admit it, but there were times when it became a bit of an effort. How is this possible from such a brilliant wordsmith? And a brilliant wordsmith doing dystopian? Sure, there was plenty of the fantastic trademark prose peppered across the chapters, but I felt so let down by how this story panned out. Choosing to write in a diary format didn't really help with the development of the plot and the characters. We do get to know Ellie really well, and I loved Ellie - so self-assured and confident and comfortable in her own skin - but with such a large cast, most of the others blended into the back ground, especially the girls. We're given scant outlines of their personalities, but shown very little evidence of them in action, especially the best friend Corrie. The boys were slightly better developed, but I never felt a connection or empathy with any of them. Kind of a weakness in a story which uses a strong group dynamic as its base.

Another disadvantage of using Ellie's diary to convey the action was that I was left with no sense of tension or danger. For example, at one point Ellie is writing down how Robyn recounted her escape from the soldiers. A fairly dramatic incident you might imagine - and yet their in no drama whatsoever, because we know Robyn is safe because she is there telling the story! And sometimes, the whole thing felt a bit like I was reading a Bear Grylls-style survival handbook - pages and pages of detailed dialogue describing what they were planning to do, their contingency plans if something went awry, what they did, what they shouldn't do, what they might do but probably don't have time to do.....etc etc. Not exactly snappy.

And then the romance - I just didn't get it. It came out of nowhere and what might have been a fairly promising love triangle (and I'm not usually a fan of love triangles) was dispensed with rather quickly, which left me wondering why he even bothered with it in the first place.

But my main problem was that I just didn't buy it. Any of it. Would they really be so clueless about an impending war? Why would there parents be happy for them to disappear off camping if such a war was looming? And then once the war started, they still didn't have a clue who the invaders were? Really? Perhaps all these questions are answered in the other books in the series. I'm still not a hundred percent sure whether I'll be picking them up to find out.

Friday 6 September 2013

Obligatory Bloglovin Post

Two posts in one day is unheard of, I know, but I just thought I'd let you know that you can now follow me on Bloglovin...

<a href="">Follow my blog with Bloglovin</a>

And now, for your trouble, here's a picture...

Past on Paper: 1910s YA REVIEW - 'A Gathering Light', Jennifer Donnelly (Bloomsbury, 2003)

Torn between a loyalty to her grief-stricken, struggling family, her first experience of romance and a burning desire to be a writer, a sad event forces Mattie to piece together a local mystery whilst making an important decision about her future.

I've been thinking a little too much about how I approach this feature - am I going to focus more on their historical context or just how good the story is? Unless I have easy access to a time machine, I'm not really in a position to judge their historical accuracy. Is this even important when reviewing book? Surely whether or not it's a gripping read should matter the most. You might have already gathered that I'm still a bit undecided about all of this. Maybe I should just get on and review the book...

Well, I'm a bit late to the party on this one. Ten years late to be accurate. Jo told me to read it ages ago, but I'd been putting it of for some reason. This is always the way when I'm faced with an 'acclaimed' book - am I just setting myself up for inevitable disappointed? If I don't enjoy it as much as I feel I'm supposed to, does this mean I'm not getting it I'm being a bit thick? Or maybe I was just putting this one off because it has a bit of a boring cover. Probably a mixture of all of the above. God, I really need to stop asking all these questions and just get on with it.

I was definitely mulling over this a little too much, because it turns out there was no reason to worry whatsoever...

A Gathering LightSo here we are in the 1910s, in the US, in a place and period I know nothing about. The fact that whether I did or not is completely irrelevant is testament to just how fantastic this book is. With a historical novel, I think it can maybe go in one of two directions - building a story around a famous incident and having that dramatically impact on the characters and plot, or having the story just 'sitting' on its setting, absorbing attitudes and conventions of the time, but never being completely dictated by them. This book definitely falls into the latter camp - when we were introduced to Mattie and her surroundings, I was initially a bit wary that this was going to be overshadowed by ISSUES - attitudes towards women and race, for example - but it manages to explore these (which it should) without the brilliant central story getting lost at all. This is about Mattie and how she comes to make an important decision whilst being pulled in many different directions - a familiar YA set up and skillfully told with the perfect balance of plot, place, and prose. I was initially more intrigued by the real-life murder mystery element, but that's not what this book is about at all, rather it's used as a device to push Matt's story along and very beautifully it does it too.

I remained on the ladder, looking at the figurine in my hand. You're wrong, Aunt Josie, I thought. It's not pride I'm feeling. It's another sin. Worse than all the other ones, which are immediate, violent, and hot. This one sits inside you quietly and eats you from the inside out like the trichina worms the pigs get. It's the Eight Deadly Sin. The one God left out. Hope.

The time shift method to a little while to get used to, but once all the pieces fall into place, this is an unusual, mind-blowing bit of story-telling. I highly recommend it whether you're after some cracking historical fiction or not.

Monday 2 September 2013

Farewell Skins...My Thoughts on the Final Series

I haven't written this yet (obviously) but I'm going to go ahead and say that this will probably contain many, many spoilers so if you haven't seen any of Skins series 7 yet, I would go and watch it first. Or not, it's up to you. If you like spoilers, then reading this post might help you make up you mind whether you want to watch it or not. Anyway, the choice is yours...

Many moons ago (about 18 months or so), I wrote a post just before series 6 was screened about how much I love Skins and how it's once of the few things that makes me go a bit fangirly. My original point still applies. I'm definitely not it's target audience, but I do enjoy and appreciate good writing for and about teenagers, and Skins has always come under this general YA-ish umbrella. In fact, it was this TV show and not a book that first got me back into reading and wanting to write YA, so I hold it in great affection. When I first heard the details of this final series, I was intrigued. Perhaps a bit excited. Ok, very excited. I mean, Cook was back. COOK. My favourite of all the characters. And Cassie...oh, like,WOW...

One of the great things about Skins is that it always tries new things, and part of it's charm is that it doesn't always pull it off, but when it does, it's pretty much guaranteed I'll being watching it on repeat for years and years to come. So is the magic back? Well....

Cassie (Hannah Murray), Effy (Kaya Scoderlario) & Cook (Jack O'Connell) in 'Skins'

I saw plenty of stuff on twitter about how much people hated these episodes because they weren't 'Skins' and I guess by that they meant they weren't about going out on the lash, having inappropriate sex and odd but brilliant song numbers. Ok, all this was a large part of Skins, but this only worked because the great writing. So these were just as watchable because of the same reasons, yes? Erm perhaps not.

I'm all for depressing drama. I love a good Channel 4 grim-fest as much as the next person and these were certainly bleak in places. But a lot of the time I was just left wondering why they'd bothered. Skins was great at cliffhangers, but why bring these characters back if you're not going answer any questions? Just leave it at the excellent cliffhangers and be done with it. Effy's story in particular annoyed me. She was such a key part of the programme with some particularly dramatic story lines but to have no mention of them whatsoever just felt like they were cutting off their nose to spite there face. Ok, so people move on with their lives and change etc etc, but put into that character's context that doesn't necessarily mean it will make a more interesting story. And since when has Skins ever been about realism? (Hello Series 4). The weird inclusion of Naomi and Emily was just that. Weird. Ok, there's no reason why Effy and Naomi wouldn't become good friends after a certain period of time, but there's no reason why they would either. These characters had very little back story together and the cynical bit of my brain was left with the impression they they were only included to satisfy the legion of fans who would have rioted if they weren't. And let's not even get started on the story. Stock markets? Stock markets are boring. My opinion of them hasn't changed after watching these episodes.

And again with Cassie's story, it was all very pretty and they'd done a convincing job of evolving this character but it was just all a bit... why should I be interested in this story? She is doing nothing interesting. This does not interest me.

Cook's episodes were a better, mainly because something actually happened, but again, it just didn't pull me in like it used to. Saying that, there was one genuinely shocking, quite heart-breaking moment here that nearly made up for having to suffer the now-traditional inclusion of a Rubbish Skins Gangster with Hard to Pin Down Accent (see also series 3 and 6). Seriously, the Andrex puppy would have been scarier. It didn't help that I'd watched the excellent Southcliffe (also featuring a few Skins faces) just before seeing the last ever episode and this was an absolute masterclass in ramping up the tension. Even the most-nail biting of dramas would have looked laid back in comparison.

So am I glad they bought back Skins in this particular way? I would say on the whole, no. Although, one of the great things about Skins is it's willingness to try something different, and for that it should be applauded. Perhaps going over old ground would have been a mistake too. Or perhaps my expectations were too high. If I was watching these as standalone dramas, maybe I would have been more blown away.

For all it's faults, I'm going to miss Skins, but part of me is glad it's ended. So whatever future programmes are going to fill its rather sizeable boots, lets hope they're just as brave, memorable and fantastic as Skins was in it's heyday.

All together now...

Monday 12 August 2013

Past on Paper - Interview With Lydia Syson, Author of 'A World Between Us'

Well, hello there.

It's been a while.

I won't go into a long and boring explanation as to why I haven't posted anything in an age, mainly because it's a bit long and boring. But the main reason there's been nothing here for the last month involved a four year old, a cup of milk and the keyboard of my old laptop (RIP old laptop). But I'm back! With a replacement laptop! And because I've been gone so long, I've got an extra special treat for you...

You may remember me introducing my new (well, it was new then) feature, Past on Paper. I'm going to be posting about YA books set in the twentieth century, for no particular reason other than I've recently loved quite a lot of this sort of historical fiction. You may also remember a review I did for A World Between Us, and that I liked it a lot. More than a lot. Not only was it a great story superbly written, but it centred around a period of history that I'm particularly interested in - the Spanish Civil War - as well as being the first overtly 'political' YA novel that I'd encountered, very much appealing to the politics nerd in me. So I thought I'd ask the author, Lydia Syson, for her thoughts on YA historical fiction, politics in YA novels and other things of great interest...

-          How would you define ‘historical’ fiction? Can it be anything up to contemporary or do you think a certain amount of time has to have passed?

I think it’s less a question of the passing of time than the passing of a particular world – which was why I felt able to include Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love in my Guardian Book Club historical top ten.  I’ve read other definitions that say 50 years must have passed (isn’t that also what turns old furniture into an antique?) or the writer can’t have been alive at the time of the setting.  I’m not terribly bothered by strict definitions.  In fact one of the reasons I particularly like writing YA fiction is its lack of concern for genre boundaries and strict definitions.  And I’m horribly aware from my own childhood experience that labels can be as a terrible turn-off.  Actually lots of my favourites were time slip books, or slightly alternative history.  Not that I would have known how to label them then.

The historical novels that I find most interesting are those actually propelled by specific events or a particular zeitgeist.  And place is as important to me as time. I get frustrated and annoyed by fiction that is merely vaguely historical and uses the past as decoration. 

-          What came first – a desire to write a YA book or a desire to write a book about the Spanish Civil War? What inspired you to marry the two together?

The first thing was having children, and sharing books with them.  Years ago my daughter suggested that I write a novel for children while I was waiting to hear from publishers about an historical biography I was hoping to write for adults.  I finally started it in the gap between delivery and publication of Doctor of Love.  This first novel was set in the eighteenth century, and I’m definitely planning to return to it one day.  The idea for writing ‘A World Between Us’ came from a later conversation with my daughter.  It seemed a perfect subject for a YA readership – world-changing events, commitment, passion, tragedy, romance, and betrayal, full of contemporary resonance.

-          Your story is centred around an event that isn’t widely known about – was this a conscious decision?

A World Between UsVery much so, though it was a somewhat risky one.  I was shocked to discover from my teenage daughter that most of her friends knew nothing at all about the Spanish Civil War.  I was also rather amazed to find nobody had already written the kind of book I had in mind – a novel full of the passions of the period that would arouse the interest of younger people, but offer a new perspective on the war too, something informed by the work of post-Cold War, post-Franco historians that used newly available archive resources and also addressed the question of women’s involvement in the war, and yet was completely accessible. Actually, put like that, I suppose it’s easier to understand why it hadn’t been done.  Another problem is that most children’s publishers seemed very bound to the curriculum when it comes to historical fiction, or wanted some sort of ‘history plus…’(fantasy/ghost etc) and of course I’d started writing at the height of the YA vampires and dystopia obsession. But once I’d become aware of the gap, I did feel a responsibility to fill it.  It was definitely a challenge.

-          As I teenager, I was aware that being interested in politics was a bit rare for someone of my age – what sort of feedback have you had from teenagers who have read A World Between Us in this respect?

I was a bit worried at first that young people today would find it hard to identify with that level of idealism and political commitment.  But I kept reminding myself of the fact that you’re never more open to new ideas and influences than when you are in your teens and early twenties.  Too many older people dismiss contemporary teenagers as self-obsessed social media addicts with no interest in the wider world.  I don’t think that’s true or fair.  School groups I’ve spoken to are very quick to see the parallels between the British Union of Fascists and far right groups in Britain today like the English Defence League and the British National Party.

This week I asked a large audience from a wide range of schools how they felt about the balance between romance and politics in A World Between Us. They were overwhelmingly more interested in the political aspects of the book, and said they’d like to see more politics in children’s fiction.  I was always determined not to shy away from the word communism, and was very pleased when one reader told me how much it had meant to her to find a communist character in a novel for the first time. I wanted to convey exactly why communism was so attractive to so many people all over the world in the 1930s, and why joining the Party seemed to them the only way to oppose fascism at the time.  But I think there are enough hints in the book to suggest the direction communism was taking.  

My impression is that the economic crisis and the ensuing debates about global capitalism are now reviving many teenagers’ interest in politics.  But it’s something that’s always going to fluctuate. I became a teenager in 1979, just after Thatcher was elected, and I think we were a very political generation. And of course it wasn’t rare at all for a teenager to be interested in the 1930s, when politics was on the street and in your face and much harder to avoid than it is today.

-          When writing a story around a significant historical event, how important is the balance between educating and entertaining a reader? Do you think the story has to be even more powerful in order to match the drama of the historical backdrop?

That’s a very good point.  Of course I want readers to come away having learned something – but I don’t want them ever to feel ‘educated’ or worse still, lectured.  And I certainly don’t want to tell them what to think about events.  It’s really important that the historical background is so much a part of the fabric of the novel that readers absorb information in passing, almost unconsciously.  Recognition of that fact might come later.  I suppose it’s a less a case of competing claims than making sure that the drama of the story comes naturally from the drama of the history – so that the past is never merely a backdrop.  I try to convey the atmosphere and dilemmas of a particular situation, and above all what it was like for the individuals caught up in it. 

My own starting point was that this had to be a book that anyone could read, however much or however little they already knew.  Of course I can’t help hoping that reading ‘A World Between Us’ might ignite an interest, even a passion for the subject, and make readers want to explore further – and there are lots of suggestions for that in the enhanced iBook edition and on my website – but it might be the only book on the Spanish Civil War that some people ever read. I think by the end of the book most people will have a pretty good sense of the sweep of events, what the war was all about and how it fits into twentieth century history.  It’s definitely education by stealth though – I don’t think it’s the job of historical fiction to lecture or hector.

-          How important a role do you think political themes play in YA fiction in general?

More than most publishers like to let on, perhaps.  I do think that it’s unusual for YA books on political subjects to address party politics in quite the way ‘A World Between Us’ does, but that’s partly to do with what makes a good story.  If you take a slightly broader perspective of what is ‘political’, there are ever increasing numbers of YA novels that come under that category – even The Hunger Games, arguably, if you think in terms of totalitarianism and individual freedom.  Amnesty International has a very interesting project about using fiction to teach human rights:
In DarknessI’ve recently been hugely impressed by Nick Lake’s remarkable novel In Darkness, set in Haiti.  It weaves together the story of Toussaint l’Ouverture, who led the slave revolt that briefly freed his country in the late 18th century, with that of Shorty, a boy in Port au Prince trapped under the rubble after the 2010 earthquake. I’m also looking forward to reading William Sutcliffe’s The Wall this summer.  Politics can be more or less overt in YA fiction, but you’ll definitely find them there when you start looking.  Think, for example, of Anna Perera’s Guantanamo Boy (more topical than ever), Mal Peet’s Life: an Exploded Diagram (the Cuban Missile crisis as a background to a rural coming-of-age story) or Jenny Downham’s You Against Me, which addresses sexual (and indeed class) politics quite brilliantly. Miriam Halahmy and Sarah Crossan offer different insights into immigration, racism, and asylum. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s book The Unforgotten Coat may have been aimed at younger readers, I think it’s as must-read for everyone!  Then of course there are environmental politics – Carl Hiaasen is very good on that, as is Gill Lewis, for slightly younger readers.  
What all these books have in common is that they open readers’ eyes and help them to think about the world in a different way. This seems to me the real value of YA literature, which doesn’t suffer from genre policing in quite the same way as adult fiction. It’s exciting and rewarding as a writer because – as long as you can persuade a publisher - you really can do what you like with it.
-          Would you ever consider writing about any other time periods, or even contemporary, in the future?

That Burning SummerDefinitely.  One of the things I loved about being a radio producer was flitting about – making a programme about Bohemia one month, the history of America on screen the next. I’d hate to get stuck in just one period.  I suppose I am more wary of contemporary settings, as they can date so much more quickly.  But I’m not ruling anything out.
That Burning Summer comes out in October.  This is set in England in the summer of 1940, right underneath the Battle of Britain, on a part of the coast so close to France that you could hear the guns across the channel.  In a sense it’s about events following on from those of A World Between Us – but everything has shifted again. The main characters are a Polish fighter pilot, who has already witnessed the invasions of his own country and France, a teenage girl who shelters him, and her younger brother who is obsessed with a set of rules that the government has issued: ‘If the Invader Comes’.  This book is moody and atmospheric, and much more confined in than A World Between Us in terms of characters, time and place, but it’s full of echoes and foreshadowing, evoking past, future and the wider world.  Not party politics, but not unpolitical. 
I’m not quite ready to talk about the book I hope to write next, but I have a feeling that A World Between Us fans will be very excited by it. And I’m certainly excited by the prospect of researching and writing it, and raring to go.

-          Are there any tips you would give to anyone thinking about writing historical YA fiction?

Total immersion. Live and breathe your period.  Dream it.  Bore your friends and family about it.  Use all your senses and everything at your disposal – especially sound archives and films, if it’s recent enough.  But if it isn’t, novels and plays written at the time you’re writing about will give you a great sense of voice and vocabulary.  Though having said that, it’s really important to get the balance right.  You want it to read convincingly to the modern ear without falling into pastiche.

Well, I'd like to say an enormous thanks to Lydia for yet more brilliant words. I, for one am ridiculously excited about That Burning Summer and the as-yet-undisclosed book that I can't wait to hear more about.

So what are your thoughts on politics in YA fiction? Does it play more of an important role than you first realised? Is young adult fiction a good place for political themes? (very much so I reckon)

Let me pick your brains people...