Tremendous Things AND Worst. Holiday. Ever.

Tremendous Things by Susin Nielsen

Worst. Holiday. Ever. by Charlie Higson

Books of the Week: 18 July 2021

Cover design by Jack Noel

Illustrated by Warwick Johnson-Cadwell

 

Now that the temperature here is registering 30 degrees celsius and there are only a few days of term left, here are two great reads that feature holidays.

In Tremendous Things we are back in familiar Susin Nielsen territory with loving families, quirky friends and a central character who is self-conscious, awkward and sympathetic. Wilbur recounts his life of what he sees as an agonising list of failures and embarrassments, before a French exchange student called Charlie lands in his life and things start to look up. Charlie is gorgeous, self-confident and sophisticated and Wilbur is smitten, but can he get her to look past his eccentric mums (who he calls The Mumps), his 85 year old best friend Sal and his dachshund Templeton who has some pretty unappealing habits? When Charlie returns to France, Wilbur’s friends persuade him to undergo a ‘Queer Eye’ type transformation and, in the romantic setting of Paris, set him up to try and persuade her to view him in a different light.

Worst. Holiday. Ever. is a departure from Charlie Higson’s action-packed adventures like Young Bond and The Enemy series. Stan is an ordinary boy who doesn’t have to deal with zombies or super-villains. He is, however, worrying about all the things he hopes he never has to do:

  1. Bungee jumping
  2. Anything where you have to use a parachute
  3. Dancing
  4. Dancing in public
  5. Going on Strictly Come Dancing
  6. White-water rafting
  7. Fire-eating
  8. Alligator wrestling
  9. Kissing
  10. Going on holiday with people you don’t know
  11. Octopuses

The problem is that he is going to have to do number 10 and it may even involve number 11. Felix in his class was meant to be going on holiday with his best friend Archie, but Archie broke his leg and everyone else was booked up. In desperation, Felix invites Stan and Stan panics and accepts. Now Stan is stuck in a villa in Italy with a motley collection of Felix’s family and friends and feeling very out of his depth. There’s Felix’s distant and slightly scary dad, a group of intimidating girls, a man who spends his entire day on the internet and another who is never seen without a glass of wine. Stan is not only worried about disgracing himself but, when the news from home is less than reassuring, he wonders if he will be able to cope at all.

Charlie Higson conjures up a believable cast of characters that are alternately worrying, touching and hilarious and a holiday situation that we can all imagine ourselves experiencing. This is, in my view, his best. book. ever.

 

On Midnight Beach AND The Great Godden

On Midnight Beach by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick

The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff

Books of the Week: 30 May 2021

Floating figure by Robert Fiszer. Other images by Shutterstock.

Photograph [unknown]

Since retiring in December I have spent time catching up on all the books aimed at adults that I hadn’t got round to reading when I was at work. Although I have read about thirty adult books since December 2020, I’m glad to say that books for young people are slowly edging their way back on to my to-be-read pile.

Here are two books set during long, hot summers in the hope that we might get some sunshine and holiday time in which to read them.

Both have seaside settings, feature first love and have characters called Kit, but the beaches, the relationships and the Kits are all very different.

In The Great Godden a big, happy, middle-class family prepares to spend their usual summer at the seaside in their periwinkle-blue beach house as they have done for years. Just down the beach is their father’s younger cousin Hope and her long-time boyfriend Mal, beloved by all the family. Hope’s godmother is away filming and asks if her sons, Kit and Hugo, can come from LA to spend the summer with them. Hugo turns out to be surly and awkward, but Kit is something else – handsome, tanned, charismatic and charming. The entire family is captivated. The scene is set for a one-idyllic-summer-when-I-fell-in-love-and-everything-changed. What we get, thanks to the perceptive and observant narrator, who is the eldest member of the family at about 17 or 18, is something a lot more interesting. Beneath the family meals, board games and fun, are undercurrents that eddy about, altering and re-altering our sympathies and perceptions. Once you reach the end of this short and intriguing story, you will want to turn to the beginning and re-read it. The Great Godden was shortlisted for the 2021 YA Book Prize.

The beach in On Midnight Beach is one belonging to a small fishing village on the coast of Donegal. It is the summer of 1976 when the temperatures are soaring and the young people of the village of Carrig Cove want to spend their days lounging by the sea. Emer has problems escaping from her work in the family shop, but when a dolphin is seen swimming in the bay she and her friend Fee creep out at night with Dog Cullen and his friend Kit to swim in the sea alongside it. They name the dolphin Rinn and it soon becomes a tourist attraction to everyone living around the bay. But before long, the situation inflames rivalries between the young people of Carrig Cove and those who live in the bigger town of Ross, and raids and fights are the result. Emer, who is falling in love with local hero Dog Cullen, is worried about his safety and about how the clashes over Rinn are getting out of control: ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have named him,’ I said. ‘We claimed a wild thing and lost it in the same breath.’

The book is based on an Irish legend called, in English, The Cattle Raid of Cooley and a look at a synopsis of this shows how cleverly the author has created modern versions of the characters and events. However, you don’t need to have read the legend to enjoy this tale of love, rivalry, friendship and the power of the past to create bitterness and division in the present.

On Midnight Beach is currently shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, the winner of which will be announced on 16 June.

The Dark is Rising AND A Child’s Christmas in Wales

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The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper and A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

Books of the Week: 13 December 2020

Illustration by Joe McLaren

Illustration by Edward Ardizzone

In a wintry Buckinghamshire village, Will Stanton is waiting impatiently for his birthday the next day. Christmas is not far off and he is hoping for a crisp covering of snow. When he and his brother visit a nearby farm to fetch hay for their rabbits, they notice a throng of unusually noisy rooks that appear to be as spooked as the boys’ pet rabbits were when they fed them earlier. In addition to an encounter with a strange homeless-man, these signs make Will feel uneasy and threatened. When he shares this with Mr Dawson, the farmer, he is told ‘The Walker is abroad … And this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.’ If you suspect that this means we are in for a tale of the magical and fantastical, you would be right. Will discovers he is no ordinary eleven year old, but one of the the Old Ones who must bear the burden of fighting the powers of Darkness throughout history.

This is the second book in The Dark is Rising sequence and I have chosen it because it is a landmark in fantasy writing for young people, because it is set at Christmas and because it is a wonderfully atmospheric read. Susan Cooper conjures a landscape that is drenched in history and the power of myth and folk magic, with a force of darkness that controls the natural world and threatens harm to ordinary people. Will may have his powers, but he feels isolated from his family and everyday life by his newfound knowledge. The whole story keeps us in a state of persistent dread. Although the first book in the sequence is Over Sea, Under Stone, it won’t spoil the experience if you read The Dark is Rising first and then go back to that one. The others are Greenwich, The Grey King and Silver on the Tree. In some of these the action moves to Wales, the setting of my next choice.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales is more a very short story than a book, but reminds me of growing up in Wales. I’ve chosen it for the humour and rich language. Who could resist rolling descriptions such as this:

Years and years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the colour of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlours and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor-car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills barebacked, it snowed and it snowed.

These are my final book choices as the Librarian of King Edward VI School because I will be retiring at Christmas after thirteen years in the job. It has been a privilege and pleasure to share books and reading with so many wonderful students and colleagues over the years. This blog will still be here to search for recommendations, but will of course no longer have an association with the School and the pictures and logo will all have changed by the end of this week.

Grief Angels

Grief Angels by David Owen

Book of the Week: 6 December 2020

Cover design by Leo Nickolls

A book about dealing with grief and the changing nature of friendships.

Duncan is taking medication to help him deal with depression. Despite being friends with Matt, Lorenzo and Saeed for what seems like forever, he can’t bring himself to confide in them. When new-boy Owen joins their school, Duncan is curious about why he has moved schools in the last term before GCSEs and why he keeps to his own company so much. We discover, as soon as we hear Owen’s voice as narrator, that he recently lost his father after a heart attack. He is not only haunted by grief, but keeps seeing a flock of other-worldly birds circling over him when he goes outside – something he understandably feels he can’t share with anyone else. Do these birds actually exist or are they creatures from another dimension sent to transport him to a different reality?

The strength of this book is the way it deals with the initially reluctant but growing friendship between Owen and Duncan and the changing dynamic of their relationships with other people in their lives. The banter between the group of school friends, often crude, funny and rivalrous, is convincing but doesn’t shy away from the deeper undercurrents going on under the surface.

David Owen acknowledges his debt to Skellig by David Almond, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Eren by Simon P. Clark.

The book has some similarities too with November 15th’s book of the week – The Wolf Road by Richard Lambert.

Bloom

Bloom by Kenneth Oppel

Book of the Week: 29 November 2020

 

Illustration by M.S. Corley

‘Seth gazed out the window. Below, the Vancouver airport looked normal enough, until he noticed the sinkholes in the runways. A jet jutted out of a huge crater, its left wing snapped against the tarmac. Over neighbourhoods, Seth saw streets turned into canyons by the tall black grass. Roadblocks were everywhere, pit-plant holes in the parks and golf courses. Charred sinkholes in the asphalt and sidewalks. Hardly anyone outside. Even from up here, he could see pollen glittering in the air.’

World-wide havoc is being wreaked by disturbingly destructive alien plants that destroy crops, block out the light and threaten human life. On Salt Spring Island, three teenagers: Anya, who is allergic to ‘everything’, Petra, who has a rare allergy to water, and Seth, who is a foster child with mysterious scars that he tries to keep hidden, are the only people who are not only unaffected, but whose health seems to improve. Can they play a role in defeating this threat to life on the planet?

This is a wonderfully detailed creation of a catastrophe, aspects of which might sound familiar to us in the present pandemic. There are  action-packed sequences of horrific battles with these monster plants and gruesome descriptions of those who fall foul of them. The botanical details are well-researched too. Every time I checked some unlikely-sounding fact, it turned out to be true. This is the first in a trilogy, with ‘Hatch’ due in the autumn and ‘Thrive’ in summer 2021.

If you would like to read more books featuring scary plants, try ‘Boy in the Tower’ by Polly Ho-Yen or the classic ‘Day of the Triffids’ by John Wyndham.

Kenneth Oppel has written has written a variety of books. The following are all in the Library: ‘The Boundless’, ‘Every Hidden Thing’, ‘Half Brother’, ‘This Dark Endeavour’, ‘Such Wicked Intent’ and my personal favourite, ‘The Nest’.

If you enjoy books about alien threats to life on Earth, try books by Mark Walden, Pittacus Lore, Rick Yancey and Virginia Bergin. Here is a list I made for Year 8 about alien invasions.

 

A Night Divided

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Book of the Week: 22 November 2020

Cover art by Tim O’Brien

It is Sunday August 13th1961 when Gerta, her brother Fritz and their mother wake in their Berlin home to see barbed wire fences dividing them from, not only West Berlin, but from Gerta’s father and older brother Dominic who had been visiting the West for a couple of nights. The fence is being guarded by the Grenztruppen, the border police, who carry rifles and are not facing the supposed enemy of the West, but instead stopping those in East Berlin from escaping communist rule.

At first, the family’s main worry is separation. Then, because Gerta’s father is considered a dissident, the Stasi (the secret police) bug their flat and the family arouse the suspicion of neighbours and friends. Gerta and Fritz long to escape. Are they prepared to risk being shot and how will they cross the Wall and the Death Strip to reach the other side and freedom?

This book is fictional, but is based on true stories from those who lived with the Berlin Wall for twenty-eight years and those who escaped. It provides a vivid picture of what it must have been like to live in an anxious and oppressed society where the secret police had huge powers and so many people were informants. The author points out that there was one police officer for every166 citizens, whereas the Gestapo had one officer for every 2,000 citizens and the KGB one for every 5830 people. The book provides a valuable history lesson in the form of a tense thriller.

If you would like to read more fiction with this setting, try ‘Sektion 20’ by Paul Dowswell. Year 8 are looking at politics in literature with particular reference to George Orwell, so here is my reading list on that theme:

The Wolf Road

The Wolf Road by Richard Lambert

Book of the Week: 15 November 2020

Illustration by Holly Ovenden

The Wolf Road is a powerful and painful exploration of a boy’s grief after his parents are killed in a car crash and he has to live with his prickly-natured grandmother in the wilds of the Lake District.

Lucas is convinced a wolf caused the car crash by stepping into the path of his parents’ car. Once he is in his grandmother’s cottage he believes the wolf is shadowing him as well as killing the neighbouring farmer’s sheep. Lucas cannot concentrate at school and is too angry to respond to those people who try to help him or form a relationship with him. Nothing in this book is cosy or easily resolved. Just like the short, vivid depictions of the natural world that surrounds Lucas, everything is raw and messy and wild. The bullies in the story are believable and chilling.

Some books that share similar themes include:

 

Three Hours

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

Book of the Week: 8 November 2020

Photography by Getty Images

Prepare to be gripped!

A gunman’s bullet hits Mr Marr, the Headmaster, and, as he falls, two sixth formers drag him into the library, perform first aid and barricade the door with books. They listen in fear as the click of the shooter’s footsteps stops outside the entrance to the room. In another part of the school, students are hiding under seats in the theatre and a teacher in the pottery studio is attempting to stay calm. Mr Forbright, the Deputy Head, is alone in the Head’s office struggling to take charge and warn the staff.

From page one we are catapulted into an identifiable, credible and terrifying situation which plays out from multiple viewpoints, including those of anxious parents, and students who are sadly familiar with snipers and bombs. Fourteen-year-old Rafi has protected his brother on the perilous journey from Syria to Britain where he thought they had found sanctuary in a rural school in Somerset. No one knows the identity of the killer, but in the outside world a police psychiatrist is doing her best to discover who he is.

Whilst this all works brilliantly as a page-turning thriller, it is so much more than that. We get a glimpse into the souls of those under siege and listen to their thoughts and feelings as they undergo an experience that should only exist in our worst nightmares.

Suitable for older readers and grown-ups.

 

The Short Knife

The Short Knife by Elen Caldecott

Book of the Week: 1 November 2020

Illustration by Miko Maciaszek

In this week’s book, we find ourselves in a Britain of darkness and confusion. The Romans left some years before and the invading Saxons are an ever-present danger, as Mai and her family are about to discover. When a visitation from Saxon strangers to their family farm results in Mai, her father and her sister, Haf, seeking sanctuary with Gwrtheyrn and his band of Britons in the Welsh hills, a tense, terrible and tragic series of events is set in motion.

This is a book where you can feel the hunger, smell the rot and wonder at the toughness and bravery of Mai who must try to survive in a brutal and alien environment. Expect plenty of tension and action expressed in some wonderfully lyrical writing.

If you enjoy historical adventures by writers like Rosemary Sutcliffe, or Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King then this is a must-read.

This is the 300th Book of the Week, which I started in January 2012 with This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel. For the first few years, the books were just displayed in the Library, until November 2014 when I started writing online reviews. In January 2015 the blog moved to this platform with the first choice being I Predict a Riot by Catherine Bruton. As much as I love judging book covers for their design (and I do always try to credit designers for their work) you can’t judge the contents of a book by its cover, as the old saying goes, which is why I started writing about the contents. We all need to find out a bit about a book’s plot before we decide to read it it – hence this blog and accompanying links on Twitter. If anyone has discovered a good read via this blog, then I’m happy. Endless thanks go to all the wonderful authors who write for young people and the often lovely acknowledgements they provide on social media.

Here in the Real World

Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker

Book of the Week: 11 October 2020

Cover illustration by Jon Klassen


A book for anyone who has ever felt different, left-out or misunderstood.

Ware is happy in a world of his own imagining, but when his grandmother has a fall and his parents need him taken care of for the summer, he rebels and skips attendance at the community centre chose by them, to spend his days in the grounds of the ruined church next door. It is here that he meets the fierce Jolene who is planting a garden in old snack cans and who treats the place as her private kingdom. After a brief power struggle, they pool their talent and start to transform the waste ground and the disused building; but the ‘real world’ begins to encroach on their refuge and they may be powerless to stop it.

This has all the charm and conviction of Sara Pennypacker’s book Pax and would be a good choice if you like books such as Liar and Spy or Wonder.