London’s Burning


I’ve been taking a break from genre fiction after a bit of a dystopian overdose, so when I picked this one up I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about going back there. Happily, Burn Mark can hold its  own in these increasingly crowded ranks. The premise is intriguing, set in a alternative version of modern London where ‘the burning times’  of 17th century England are vividly remembered and the descendants of those long-ago witches and witchfinders are still locked in an antagonistic, but symbiotic,  relationship.

The story revolves round a pair of 15-year-olds, Glory, the down-at-heel descendant of a long line of famous witches and Lucas who has been groomed to succeed his father, a powerful and influential Witchfinder. When they both get the Fae that marks them out as witches it is an expected and much-wanted occurrence for Glory, but a source of horror, confusion and shame for Lucas. Thrown together as unexpected allies in the fight against corruption in high places, they discover they have more in common than they could have guessed.

Burn Mark is slow to get started, but by the time I was half way through I was thoroughly gripped. I liked the way Powell has used the historical background to give depth to her alternative reality. The large cast of secondary characters are well-drawn and convincing and the central pair of Glory and Lucas have enough hinterland to make them feel like proper teenagers. Straddling the genre boundary between dystopia and thriller with a bit of history thrown into the mix, and with a point of view that switches equally between the male and female protagonists, Burn Mark should appeal to a fairly wide cross-section of readers in the 12-15 age group. Health warning though: the novel opens with a rather gruesome depiction of a witch-burning, so take care about recommending it to very sensitive children.

Burn Mark – Laura Powell, Bloomsbury, £6.99


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Everyday genius

“Even if you were green and had a beard and a male appendage between your legs. Even if your eyebrows were orange and you had a mole covering your entire cheek and a nose that poked me in the eye every time I kissed you. Even if you weighed seven hundred pounds and had hair the size of a Doberman under your arms. Even then, I would love you.”

When you fall in love, who are you really falling in love with? People like to believe they fall in love with what’s on the inside of a person, but how would it be if all the externals were different every time you met? For most of us, that’s just an interesting topic to muse about, but it’s of more than academic interest  for A. Why? Because every morning for 16 years,  A has woken up encased in a different body and forced to inhabit the life of another stranger for just one day. Then one day, A wakes up in the body of a boy named Justin and falls in love, for the very first time, with Justin’s girlfriend Rhiannon. Suddenly, all the rules A has created to keep safe, are thrown out the window. Nothing matters but finding Rhiannon again… every day.

Handled by the wrong writer this storyline has huge potential for slapstick comedy, but you can put all thoughts of Freaky Friday out of your head because in the hands of Levithan Every Day is a nuanced and thoughtful exploration of what makes a person who they are. A experiences life in the bodies of 16-year-olds of every shape, size, race and gender and the sharply-detailed vignettes of their lives are one of the best things about the book.

There are a couple of potential pitfalls with Leviathan’s insistent harping on the love is blind theme: A’s pursuit of Rhiannon can come across as overly stalkerish at times, while the emphasis on genderless nature of true love comes close to crossing the line into full-on preachiness. But the quality of the writing manages to circumvent these hazards and the story resolution, which I was a bit worried about as the last page started to loom, was adroitly handled.

I first came across David Levithan’s writing through Will Grayson, Will Grayson, his brilliantly funny collaboration with John Green. Both writers are part of a zeitgeist in the US that are bringing LGBT-friendly teen fiction to a wider audience in a way that is just not happening in the UK at the moment (more of this in another post soon), so while it’s a shame that Levithan is not yet as well known in the UK as Green is, hopefully that will change when Electric Monkey brings Every Day out here in paperback later this year. Meanwhile, if you want to splurge a tenner on a hardback I can’t think of a better book to choose.

Every Day, David Levithan, Alfred A Knopf, £11.49

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A question of perfection

Amid the frenzy surrounding the many dystopian, fantasy and alternate reality novels swamping the young adult market at the moment it would be all too easy to overlook The 10pm Question, an understated but very nearly perfect contemporary novel from the New Zealand writer Kate de Goldi.

The hero of the novel, in every sense of the word, is 12-year-old Frankie Parsons, the youngest member of a warm, funny, unconventional family.  Frankie struggles with anxiety, the cause of which, we gradually come to understand, is his mother, who has issues of her own to contend  with.

Every night at exactly 10pm, Frankie goes into his mother’s room,  interrupting the rereading  one of  her favourite Russian novels to ask her a question about his latest health anxiety. And every night she reassures him that it’s unlikely that  he has caught Hepatitis from Seamus Kearney’s brother, or that he has an undiagnosed hole in his heart like Solly Napier’s cousin.  He goes to bed reassured, but he is never entirely free of the ‘rodent voice… thin and whining and the perpetual bearer of unpalatable facts’.

Still, with the uncritical support of his best friend Gigs, Frankie manages to keep his feelings pretty well under control, until a girl called Sydney breezes into his life on what he rapidly and unhappily realises is a wind of change.  Sydney, it turns out, is very good at asking questions and Frankie soon finds himself ducking and diving to prevent her asking the questions that he just isn’t ready to face the answers to.

What sets this book on a plane above most ‘issue novels’ is that the characters are so surely drawn, so individual and believable that it is they, rather than the focus on mental health, that drives the story.  Frankie’s dad, his brother and his sister and best of all his three card-playing great-aunts are the sort of fully-rounded people who could step right out of the story and into your own family and even his cat, The Fat Controller, is more lifelike than the humans in most novels.

One the best things about The 10pm Question is the way it ends. Mostly, books like this are spoiled by an inept resolution, caused either by the writer’s compulsion to tidy all the loose threads, or  by their inability to draw the strands of the narrative together in a convincing way, but the ending of this book is as perfect, understated and elegant as the rest of it.

The 10pm Question could be enjoyed by anyone from 10 to adult and would be a wonderful novel to share with a Y7 or Y8 class. In fact, next time I get to choose a set of KS3 class novels, it is going to be the only name on the shortlist.

The 10pm Question,  Kate de Goldi, Templar Publishing, £6.99

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Deep breaths

With Breathe, Sarah Crossan has taken the now-familiar dystopian format and injected a more explicitly eco twist. Set in the not too distant future, on what is still recognisably Earth, it explores what happens when ecological catastrophe means that the air we breathe because the most precious and sought after of all commodities.

Right now, with so many dystopian titles out there now, it is getting more difficult for an author to stand out from the pack. Crossan achieves that not so much be her characterisation and plotting, we’ll  come back to those in a minute, but through the way in which she manages to entwine some very relevant questions around  current global environmental policies and the way in which 21st century big business  operates  into the plot in a teen-friendly way.  The consequences of global warming are vividly depicted and should lead to some interesting conversations about eco-awareness.

Breathe features the now-familiar tropes of YA dystopian fiction: the love triangle (two girls and a boy this time), the oppressive government with a hidden agenda, a rebel band of outcasts who know too much, and the feisty, beautiful-but-doesn’t-know-it teenage girl, here named Alina. However, rather than adopting the standard dystfic tactic of writing the novel from Alina’s point of view, Crossan uses first person narrative, shifting round the different members of the protagonistic triad, to good effect to give more rounded portraits of the supporting characters.

Breathe got off to a bit of a slow start for me, and I found that familiarity with conventions of the genre made it a little too predictable, but it is an enjoyable read and the cliffhanger ending left me with high hopes that the sequel  will prove even better. I would have no hesitation in recommending it to an 11-14 year-old who has already read The Hunger Games, Divergent or The Carbon Diaries and is looking for a well-written eco-thriller or dystopian title.

Breathe, Sarah Crossan, Bloomsbury, £6.99

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VIII scores X out of X

There are some periods of history which have been so thoroughly mined by writers of historical fiction that there would appear to be nothing new left to say. So when someone recommended that I read VIII, my initial response was ‘Must I read yet another novel about the Tudors?’. Thank goodness I did. It may be a crowded marketplace, but VIII is different.
For a start it is narrated by Henry himself. The novel opens during the Perkin Warbeck rebellion and we are plunged into the confusion and terror of the young Hal as he is dragged from his bed in the middle of the night to be taken to the safety of the Tower of London. The way in which Castor uses this scene to establish the historical context without falling into the trap of clumsy exposition is admirable. She cleverly links the young Hal’s recognition of his mother’s uncertainties about the fate of her brothers with his own doubts about his role as the overlooked second son so that when he begins to be haunted by visions of a tortured young boy it seems natural rather than supernatural. One of the puzzles of Henry VIII is how he developed from Tudor golden boy into monstrous tyrant. Because Castor uses the device of the wraith to connect the troubled recent past, Hal’s own suppressed doubts about the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty, and his ambiguous position as the despised second son who becomes the heir barely tolerated by his father, his eventual descent into monstrous madness seems not only natural but inevitable.
The novel spends considerably longer on Henry’s early life, giving an intimate portrait of his relationship with his parents, his older brother Arthur and his secondhand bride, Catherine of Aragon. The closely observed realistic detail of Tudor life, particularly in the first half of the book, is one of its greatest strengths and means that as the story gathers momentum, galloping from one abandoned wife to the next driven by Hal’s spiralling madness, the reader is rooted in time and place sufficiently well to withstand the furious pace.
Using the first person point of view means VIII is not event driven and makes transition from glorious boy to tyrant psychologically convincing. It also means that the novel can be boy-oriented without defaulting to the swords and slashing mode that seems to characterise much historical fiction aimed at boys.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to pupils from Year 7 right through to A-Level, and although the c-word is not always a popular commendation among writers of YA fiction, this is very definitely a novel that adults will enjoy too. Castor’s next book will explore the contrasting characters of Henry’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. I can’t wait to read it.

VIII by HM Castor is published by Templar Publishing

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Filed under H M Castor, TheWideWideWorld, VIII, YA historical fiction

Crewel spins an enchanted web

A couple of years ago you couldn’t go into the YA section of a bookshop without coming slap up against a dedicated Dark Romance wall with its glowering shelves of Twilite wannabes. (And don’t even get me started on the repackaging of Jane Eyre as a Dark Romance title.) Now, the buzz is all around  dystopia, with the runaway success of The Hunger Games and Divergent fuelling a boom in disfunctional heroines on a mission to save the world.  I was really excited when Crewel arrived in the post a couple of days ago, as there has been so much hype surrounding it, but I really expect it to surpass Collins and Roth. Well, I was wrong.

Although Crewel serves up many of the familiar dystopian tropes that readers will be familiar from the Hunger Games, Divergent,  et al; a spiky heroine Adelice, who needs to conceal her unusual powers, a technocratic world controlled by a secretive and powerful elite, a love triangle… the resulting novel is considerably more than the sum of its parts.

Crewel’s underlying theme, like that of the Hunger Games, is taken from Greek mythology. Where Collins used the Theseus story to underpin her novel, Albin’s plot echoes the ancient myth of the Moirai, the three fates who spin the thread of human life and decide when to bring it to an end. Born on the highly regimented world of Arras (think Polonius for a clue to the plot twist), Adelice is chosen to be a Spinster, one of the sequestered female elite who weaves the fabric that holds their world together. Torn from her horrified family, she struggles against the sinister Guild Ambassador Cormac Patton, finding help in unexpected places as she attempts to piece together what is really happening beneath the surface of Arras.

Alongside the inevitable romance, there is a strong feminist strand to the book which will appeal to its target readership. Adelice is a heroine very much in the mould of Katniss Everdeen and although character delineation in the book is totally subservient to the demands of the action, the contrast between her inner vulnerability and tough exterior readily engages the reader’s sympathy.

Ultimately, however, it is  the detail of Albin’s invented world and quality of her writing that lift the whole novel well above the pedestrian and comfortably wins it a place in my top five dystopian titles. Crewel is a real pageturner, I read the whole thing in a single sitting and I’ll be waiting impatiently for the next instalment to find out how Albin moves the action on from the inevitable cliffhanger ending.

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Filed under Crewel, dystopian novels, Gennifer Albin

The Wide Wide Web

It started out as a list of YA books on my PGCE course wiki last year. A few people thought it was useful, so I decided to retrieve it and maybe post it online somewhere as a resource for other teachers. Then I started categorising. Historical books needed a seperate page. What about recent titles? Wouldn’t some links be good?
Now I’ve got a website. I didn’t quite plan that. I published it online last week and some helpful people on Mumsnet and the TES forums critiqued it a bit for me. There is still lots to do on it, but I’m hoping it will evolve into a useful reference point for English teachers looking for YA fiction resources. There is so much to do when you are teaching that keeping up with new fiction often slips way down the list, but I know from experience how being able to share pupil’s enthusiasms for the books they are reading can transform your relationship. When a child comes up to me and says ‘Miss, I really enjoyed that book you told me about’ that makes my day.
Not long before I decided to build the website, I was in a secondhand bookshop in Barnstaple, poking around in odd volumes of forgotten 19th century fiction to see if I could find an Anthony Trollope I hadn’t read yet. I like them for train journeys – there’s nothing like knowing you have 600 pages of 7pt type on onionskin paper in your pocket in case of unexpected delays. Especially on the Barnstaple to Exeter line where sheep on the track can hold you up for ages. Anyway, I didn’t find any Trollope that day, but I did find The Wide Wide World – a sentimental epic that sold more copies in its day than any other American novel bar Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I had to buy it. It was pretty much unreadable, but that’s not the point. Owning it was a link with my favourite literary heroine from childhood, Jo March, who I remember crying over it in Aunt March’s house in Little Women. So when I found the Wide Wide World domain name was available, I snapped it up. Because for teenagers that is what fiction is, a way into the wide wide world outside their own experience. Books are ‘magic casements, opening on the foam of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn’. As an English teacher, my job is to point the way to those windows.

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A blog of my own…

Journalists call them marmalade droppers, stories whose appearance in your morning newspaper startles you into losing your grip on your breakfast. I had one not so long ago when I read that Martin Amis reckoned that only a ‘serious brain injury’ would cause him to write children’s fiction, confining him as it necessarily would to write ‘at a lower register than what I can write’. Really, Martin?

The assumption that children, in general, are less discriminating consumers of fiction than adults is fairly widespread, but my own experience as both a parent and a teacher tells me otherwise. OK, there is plenty of dross written for children, although I would argue that even the worst of the manufactured series, Rainbow Fairies say or the equestrian adventures allegedly written by ‘celebrity’ author Katie Price, are no worse than some of the tripe that their elders happily elevate to the top of the bestseller lists (50 shades of unreadable, anyone?)

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been reading more and more YA fiction to the point where I’ve come to prefer much of it to most recent fiction written for adults. Writers like Patrick Ness, Jennifer Donnelly and John Green are leading a new wave of really innovative thoughtful young adult novels that don’t pull their punches or make assumptions about the level of linguistic or emotional complexity teenagers are capable of dealing with. I loved Donnelly’s Revolution, despite my reservations about the timeslip dream sequence at the very end: the character of Andi was so strongly drawn and her pain so vivid that it more than compensated for any weaknesses in the structure of the novel. Equally, John Green’s The Fault in our Stars provided another heroine, Hazel, for whom quirky and feisty are adjectives far too banal to come anywhere near being good enough to describe. This blog is mainly a place for me to write about the books I read and try to counter those who, like Amis, think that writing for a younger age group entails checking your artistic integrity in at the door. Go away, read this year’s stunning Carnegie winner A Monster Calls, and then tell me it isn’t the best book you’ve read this year. Just don’t drop your marmalade on it.

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Filed under Jennifer Donnelly, John Green, Patrick Ness