Friday, 1 October 2010

I'm the King of the Castle

Author: Susan Hill
Publisher: Penguin Decades
Published: 1st April 2010 (Originally 1970)
RRP: £8.99

  This is the story of a boy named Edmund Hooper who lives in a grand old house with his widowed father and an old collection of moths.  Mrs Kingshaw, a divorcee, is employed to live with them as a house keeper and brings her son Charles with her.  The boys are made to spend time with each other by their parents but they instantly take a dislike to each other.  Hooper intimidates Kingshaw and belittles him constantly, even Kingshaw's plan of escaping the bullying is ruined when Hooper follows him into the woods.  They get lost, Hooper nearly dies and Kingshaw becomes more confident in who is, however when they are found everything reverts back to normal with Hooper dominating him.  Their parents get closer and are oblivious to the torment happening under their noses until it's too late.

  The blurb of the book describes the story as 'a chilling portrayal of childhood, cruelty and persecution, of parental blindness and of our own ambivalence to what are supposed to be the happiest days of our lives.'  I think that sounds like quite a gripping storyline.  Yes, the book certainly does explore the relationship between the two boys in great depth.  Yes, we are given valuable insights in to the minds of each of the children to help deepen our understanding of the cruelty going on.  Yes, the parents are too wrapped up in their own blossoming relationship to contemplate the effect on their children.  Yes, the mother does come off looking particularly poor.  But...the book was just not interesting.

  What I found particularly boring about this book was that nothing really happened.  I don't feel that the bullying that went on was particularly intense, it was just a lot of boys calling each other babies.  I got that the whole experience in real like for a child like Kingshaw would've been intense and horrific, but this is story-telling, you've got to grip your reader and it just wasn't full-on enough.  On the whole the book was a series of incidents, most of which felt insignificant because I just didn't care about any of the characters at all.  All the way through I was just thinking 'What now?' and tapping my foot impatiently counting down the pages.  I can imagine, because of the amount of speech, that this book would be better performed on stage as a play.  It may appeal to those who want to read about realistic scenarios but I want escapism, something completely apart from everyday experiences.

Rating: 2/10

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Children of Dynmouth

Author: William Trevor
Publisher: Penguin Decades
Published: 1st April 2010 (First Published 1976)
RRP: £8.99

  Dynmouth is a dull seaside town on the south coast of England full of seemingly mundane characters going about their monotonous daily business.  Except Timothy Gedge.  Timothy Gedge, a lonely teenager, likes to watch what the adults of the town are up to.  He knows all of their secrets.  Determined to become famous and enter the Easter Fete 'Spot the Talent' competition he uses his knowledge to manipulate the adults and children around him to achieve his goal, without any remorse for his actions.

  Originally written in 1976 I can imagine that this book raised a few eyebrows and I think it still achieves that. The book tackles many difficult themes; infidelity, homosexuality, murder, suicide, secrets and the damage life has imposed on a teenage boy.  Cleverly written, it feels like a film with each scene being seen through the eyes of a different character, this enables you to feel the effects Timothy's actions have on the people around him. The story unravels at a gentle pace much like the pace of life in this quiet town and feels as though it will reach a huge climax, maintaining suspense throughout.  There are no hard-hitting action scenes in the book, instead the interest lies in the manipulation and creepiness of Timothy.

  I did enjoy this book, it was macabre and gripping.  Having a child as the central character, achieving all this destruction I found interesting; instead of being horrifying, I just found it sad.  In the penultimate chapter Mr Featherstone states "His eyes were the eyes of the battered, exceot that noone had ever battered Timothy Gedge...Existence had battered him."  Although the character of Timothy was strange, I did feel great pity towards him, an unwanted child, neglected of attention, determined not to work in the sandpaper factory and had developed distance from people.  The book was really thought-provoking and I would recommend people give it a go.  It's not action-packed but it is definitely full of intrigue.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The British Museum is Falling Down

Author: David Lodge
Publisher: Penguin Decades
Date: 1st April 2010
RRP: £8.99

  This story, originally written and set in the 1960s, follows a day in the life of Adam Appleby, a practising Catholic studing for his Literature PhD.  He is happily married to his wife of just over three years and because of the Catholic churches stance on contraception already has three children.  He wakes anxious that his wife might be expecting their fourth child, all the signs seem to be pointing that way despite their obsessive use of thermometers and charts to avoid such an event (and to kill the remaining romance of their marriage).  He leaves desperately unhappy on his clapped-out scooter to the Museum Reading Room to work on his thesis.  The day doesn't go well, in fact it goes terribly with a lack of motivation, fire alarms, a man-hunt, an explosion, failed job offers and a test on his marriage. 

  The book really delves into the thoughts and feelings of Adam throughout this day and as the book progresses you begin to feel a great affinity towards him and pity his lack of good fortune.  There are plenty of in-jokes which make you feel part of his exclusive club and some great laugh-out-loud moments.  David Lodge is clearly a very intelligent writer, references to literature are woven throughout the story and quotes about the British Museum add humour to the start of every chapter.  Interestingly the role of narrator isn't consistent throughout and suddenly you are cast into the shoes of Adam and experiencing his day as him rather as an uninvolved witness. 

  What was great about this book was how great it felt to laugh at this unfortunate character despite my conscious telling me he deserved more of my pity.  The story was like a trampoline, with Adam experiencing joyful highs, immediately followed by crashing lows which just added to the pathetic-ness of him.  My favourite section of the book was the epilogue, where we are suddenly transported into the mind of his wife in the middle of the night.  It feels great to finally get to explore her character because during the rest of the book we are only concerned with whether or not she is pregnant again.  It ends with a three-page sentence, a final joke since Adam's thesis was on the use of long sentences in literature.  This is clever humour, to the extent that at times I felt I shouldn't be enjoying this much because by know means am I a literary boff, but nonetheless the story is so truly encapsulating it is definitely worth a go.
Rating 8/10

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Author: Oliver Jeffers
Publisher: Harper Collins Children's Books
RRP: £10.99 (Hardback)

'Henry loved books.  But not like you and I love books, no.  Not quite...'

  This is the story of Henry, a boy obsessed with eating books.  He soon discovered that the more books he ate the smarter he got.  He ate a book about goldfish and then knew how to care for his pet.  Soon he became exceedingly clever.  But he kept on eating and eating and eating.  Soon enough he realises eating books probably wasn't that good for him after all and things suddenly take a turn for the worse...don't worry though there's a happy ending.

  This book is uniquely illustrated using a range of paper textures throughout.  Behind each painting, text from all different types of books is traceable, it really adds to the book-mad theme of the story.  The illustrations are simply designed but beautifully executed in a combination of paint and pencil line.  The characters themselves have very expressionate faces which add an extra depth to the humour of the story.  The text appears to be typed using a typewriter, again adding to the overall style and charm of the book. A wonderful disclaimer on the back and a big chomp taken out of the back cover really make this book stand out from the norm.

  This is definitely the best Oliver Jeffers book available, it's witty, individual and has a good message to children.  It stresses the need for time and care when reading to fully appreciate what's written in front of you, rushing gets you nowhere and can often leave you confused.  A real stroke of genius, this book not only promotes a love of books but gives useful guidance and food for thought (haha!)  in a fun and exciting way. This is a must-read for everyone out there, young and old alike.

Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Creature of the Night

Author: Kate Thompson
Publisher: Definitions
RRP: £6.99

  Aimed at teen readers this is the story of Bobby who is forced to move from Dublin by his mother to the countryside to avoid debt collectors and to stop Bobby getting into even more trouble.  At only fourteen Bobby was part of a gang who would cause mayhem on the streets of Dublin, robbing people, stealing and burning cars and getting stoned.  He is convinced that life in the countryside is not for him despite finding the farm equipment quite fun and tries at all costs to return to his old friends.  But they've moved on, things aren't the same and when he lands one of his so-called friends in prison the rest turn their back on him.  Life too in the countryside turns pear-shaped when his little brother starts to talk about a tiny old lady who visits at night through the dog-flap, convinced she's a fairy.  Things get more bizarre culminating in the discovery of a gruesome murder.

  This isn't a light-hearted story by any means.  It follows the journey of a troubled family in a difficult time in their life but as a reader you feel great empathy towards the characters; you feel the loneliness of Bobby and sympathise with his young mother.  As the book progresses you learn that Bobby's mother was only fourteen herself when she had him, the age he is now and he begins to realise the struggles she must have had trying to raise him.  He is baffled by the trust people in the country put in him and although he keeps letting them down they don't give up on him, a lovely sentiment although unfortunately quite unrealistic.

  This is a book of two stories; one about the transformation in the life of Bobby, righting his wrongs and learning new skills, the other about the dark superstitions of the countryside.  I don't believe the two halves have been gelled successfully.  To me it feels as though both halves have not been finished.  The murder remains a mystery and in the epilogue we whizz to the future and find out he becomes a mechanic when a page previously he was still stealing money from his family.  Personally I think this should exist as two entirely separate books, I don't feel that the stories compliment each other or add any depth.  I also think the book will date terribly, lots of cultural references and slang that will probably be appealing to youths now will quickly become outdated.  

Rating: 5/10

Tuesday, 14 September 2010


Author/Illustrator: David Wiesner
Publisher:  Clarion Books
RRP: £5.99

  This is a picture book of very few words...twelve in fact.  The words in this book exist only to tell the time, the rest of the story is told through dazzling and humorous images.  The story itself begins before the inner title page, upon opening the book a sequence of images shows how frogs relaxing on their lily pads begin to levitate.  The rest of the story follows the frogs' journey as they fly around town on their lily pads.  Along the way they startle a man having a midnight snack, get caught in washing on a line and watch T.V in the house of a sleeping elderly lady.  As the night begins to fade and day breaks however their lily pads gentle fall back to land and the frogs hop off to the nearest rivers, lakes and ponds.  When the town awakes they are left wondering how on earth all these lily pads ended scattered around.  The following Tuesday night brings an even greater surprise...

The action is captured in hues of green and blue beautifully depicting not only the light at that time but also the mystery and magic of the story.  Every frog is unique and able to express a variety of facial expressions which greatly amplifies the humour of the tale.  It is easy to get sucked into the images with the amount of detail that Wiesner has included.  More notably what sets this book apart is the way images are laid out on the page.  Wiesner uses a range of comic book style boxes to sequence events and larger pictures are painted from a variety of interesting angles that help you see the action differently.

  This book won the 1992 Caldecott Medal and it is clear from it's uniqueness and imagination why that is the case.  The book has a lot of scope for exploration, it doesn't have to be read conventionally, children can study individual pictures, the book can even be read backwards.  I tend to prefer books with more text although I imagine if text were to be added to this book some, if not all, of the magic would be lost.  Having said that books to me contain words.  Without words it's art.  Art can tell stories, but art is never as great when it has been printed in a book.  It needs to be seen face-to-face to fully appreciate it.

Rating: 8/10

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Chrysalids

Author: John Wyndham
Publisher: Penguin Decades
RRP: £8.99

  David has a special talent.  It's a secret and, as far as he's aware only he and seven others can do it.  If the community were to find out, he would be outlawed...or worse.  David (the narrator of the story) lives on a farm owned by his God-fearing parents in a post-nuclear age where any abnormalities are not tolerated.  He discovers his ability to communicate telepathically using 'thought-shapes' and is terrified of his father and the community finding out.  When they do, he has no choice but to flee with others with the same ability into the fringes where he receives some unexpected information.

  The book feels contemporary in the way it is written, however the subject matter is very much of the era.  Written in the 1950s fears of nuclear attack were rife and this book excellently explores some of the consequences of such action and its impact on humanity.  Although the 'normal' people within the book believe they are doing God's work chasing down deviations, however little is known of the true image of the 'Old People' (people in existence before the nuclear attack).  This results in monstrous actions and atrocities in the way they carry out their beliefs to an extent which makes them far worse than the deviations they seek to destroy. 

  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the narrative was fantastically gripping and the way the action gradually rolled out kept me wanting more.  I did feel that at some points the action moved a little too fast and I wanted more information and detail about events such as the battle between the spider man and David's father.  I think this could have been a pinnacle moment in the story but instead it was washed over.  This could be seen as a backhanded compliment, because had I not been as gripped, I probably wouldn't be bothered about getting more from the book.  Although the character of David was developed fully I did feel that some of the other characters didn't feel too real to me.  This is disappointing particularly within the book David explains how they way they use thought-shapes enables them to know and understand more about each other, this wasn't maximised.  This was a great book, exciting and easy to read with such a fascinating storyline, definitely one to add to your to-read list.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, 11 September 2010

In Search of the Thunder Dragon

Authors and Illustrators: Sophie and Romio Shrestha
Publisher: Mandala Publishing Group
RRP: £11.99

  This is the tale of a girl named Amber (based on the daughter of the authors) who takes a journey to Bhutan.  She meets her cousin and together they listen to the tales of their grandfather.  He tells them of the dragons who create the thunder up in the sky and the children are determined to find them.  Along the way they meet the oldest Monk in Bhutan, a flying tigress and the dragons themselves.  They ride on the backs of the dragons as they create the thunder for the land below.

  Bhutan is a tiny Himalayan kingdom with a strong heritage and a rich Buddhist way of life.  This book is beautifully illustrated with art based on traditional Bhutanese style and captures some of the mysticism of the folklore and religion of the country.  Each image is wonderfully detailed and there are hidden translucent dragons peeking out from the edge of each page (you'll need to catch the light to see them).  The book captures the Bhutanese way of life fantastically and gives you a good insight into this unique culture.  Although the text itself contains important cultural references such as the flying tigress (the hidden form of the wife of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche), in my opinion it's not particularly well written.  Some of the sentences feel clunky and overlong, possibly as a result of trying to add more description than is actually necessary.  At times this detracts from the otherwise delightful storyline.  This is such a shame, especially when the images are so clear.  What is useful though, particularly as it is set in such a little-known place, the final page has some useful information about the country.

  This book gives a useful insight into another culture far different from my own.  The mythical adventure is mesmerising but equally not as inspiring as I feel it should be.  It is the only picture book from Bhutan I could find when studying the country with my class, and although not perfect, the images themselves reveal a lot about the country they are from.  I really want to visit this country, it has such a rich culture of music, dance, art and peace...maybe one day!

Rating: 6/10

Friday, 10 September 2010

The Rabbit Problem

Author: Emily Gravett
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books
RRP: £12.99 (Hardcover)

  Follow the journey of two rabbits throughout the course of a year as they do what rabbits do best...increase the population to almost breaking point.  The pair live in Fibonacci's field and each month their numbers multiply following the famous sequence and leave the with a range of seasonal dilemmas- from running out of food, to over-crowding witness how these clever bunnies deal with their daily battles.   

  The book is beautifully presented with astonishingly detailed illustrations and quirky little trinkets to explore on each page, including recipes, birth certificates and more!  Witticisms are hidden on every page and it had me chuckling more and more with every page turn. The dilemmas faced by the rabbits get more extreme until the final page which reveals a fabulous pop-up which had me in hysterics.  What is fantastic about this book is although the plot is simple it is not constructed in the "Once Upon A Time..." way, instead you explore the story from the evidence on the page, details in the calendar and from the actions of the rabbits in the drawings.  It is completely interactive and the reader is completely drawn into it.  I think this method of storytelling will really appeal to children as it enables them to get carried away and is more of a novelty than other 'normal' books.

  I bought the hardback version for a friend who is obsessed with bunnies and although I haven't seen the paperback version in real life the front cover at least is not as grabbing.  I'm also not sure how the pop up would work with paperback, or if it is in fact included, I can't see how it would withstand the obvious attraction and use it would receive.  I love the fact that this story is based on a mathematical sequence, how often does that happen?  A great tool for the classroom but also an enchanting book for children and adults of all ages.  I know my friend went all gooey when she saw it!

Rating: 9/10

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

Author: Angela Carter
Publisher: Penguin Decades
RRP: £8.99

      This is a surrealist novel written in the 1970s about Desiderio, a man working for the Minister of a South American country who is given a secret mission to kill Doctor Hoffman a crazed scientist who has been reaping havoc on the capital city.  Doctor Hoffman makes dreams realities (but not in a good way) using metaphysics and his desire machines, the capital city has been transformed into a place where time doesn’t exist and the land is covered in obscure flora and fauna.  There is a snag however, Desiderio is in love with Albertina, the daughter of Doctor Hoffman and ultimately has to decide whether to give in his desires or fulfil his mission.

      Having never read any surrealist literature before I didn’t really know what to expect so I read the blurb and it seemed quite an exciting plot, so I thought I’d give it a go.  I was instantly struck by the amount of imagery in the book, the dreamlike world was full of strange and fantastical creatures all described with great care and attention.  I found this great at first but soon got tired of the interruptions to the plot and just wanted a bit more action.  When I began reading I found the whole concept intriguing but I soon became tired of the monotonous plot line, the character merely had one sexual encounter and moved to another community of outlawed people, learnt their language and had another sexual encounter and so on.  Although when I reached the end of the book I understood why the sex scenes were necessary I personally found them repulsive (some waaaay more than others).  Equally I felt there was a strong feminist undercurrent in these sections of the books with women being used as objects of desire often to their detriment; something I’m not sure has particular resonance today.  I also was really bored of plants oozing their strong perfume everywhere which is all they seemed to do.

      I do think the book is technically excellent, the use of language is admirable and the idea is original and had great potential, I just don’t fell this was maximised.  This is a book for those who are looking to do some profound thinking, I on the other hand don’t want to have to analyse a book to get even somewhere near its meaning.  Disappointing.

Rating: 4/10

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Wolves in the Walls

Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Dave McKean
Publisher: Bloomsbury
RRP: £5.99

    Lucy hears noises coming from the walls of her house and her claims that wolves are living in the walls are quashed by the other members of her family.  That is until wolves do suddenly burst from the walls of their home and take over.  The family are forced to flee to the bottom of the garden and Lucy tries to come up with a plan to get back their house. 

      This is a picture book like few others.  Aimed at older readers the images are dark and sinister and the plot gradually builds a sense of imminent dread which is suddenly released with a barrage of humour.  The art works within the book are stunning, a blend of collage, paint, photography and drawing create an eerie and unique feel to the book.  There are lots of hidden details etched on the walls of the house which add another dimension to the images created.  The storyline is highly original and the references, jokes and familiar family characters all add to the appeal of older readers of all abilities.  The character of Lucy is strong willed and relentless, children I have read the book with find it funny how submissive and weak her parents are portrayed.  Although there are some notable features of common picture books, such as the repetitive phrases and the use of font size to add emphasis, this is no fairytale.  There is no knight in shining armour.  Instead the book screams to me “If you want something, go get it!”

    I have read this book with several classes of children and every time it has been a huge hit.  I have great fun building up the suspense and horror elements and really going to town with the humour, the kids all end up enthralled and/or in hysterics.  Some reluctant readers have even asked if they could borrow it to read themselves.  This in itself speaks volumes.  Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean have completed several books together and although this is my favourite, they are all well worth exploring.

Rating: 10/10

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Wuthering Heights

Author: Emily Bronte
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Published: 7th February 2008

  I first read this book in my early teens and although at this age I found it a little hard to get to grips with, I was immediately drawn by the mood that is created in the atmospheric Yorkshire moors.  Since reading the book again (and again and again and again) I have found much more to offer than the mere solemnity of the setting.  The book is the diary kept by Mr Lockwood who arrives at Thrushcross Grange and ventures to neighbouring Wuthering Heights to meet his landlord Heathcliff.  A storm results in him getting ill and being bedridden in Thrushcross Grange and the maid Nelly proceeds to tell the story of Heathcliff and how he came to become such an abrasive character.   Essentially it is a twisted love story in which the wild youths of Heathcliff and Catherine become lovers, separated by their own stubbornness.  

  Although written over 150 years ago, I don’t believe it has dated.  It contains much of what we see in soaps on television today; love, lust, violence, alcoholism, grief, abuse and death and remains relevant to many people’s lives.  Although Heathcliff and Catherine are not the stereotypical romantic couple and are repulsive and dislikeable in many of their actions, I feel they are easy to relate to because they come to represent those dark parts of ourselves which we often try to hide.  In fact, as the story progresses, you begin to feel great empathy with the characters, particularly at the death of Catherine where the heartbreak and turmoil that Heathcliff is left feeling becomes almost grotesque in its extremity.   I believe it is impossible to be disappointed with this book, the characters feel so real, from the aggression of Heathcliff and Earnshaw to the humour provided by Joseph and his strong Yorkshire accent and the dramatic story line grips you from page one.
Rating: 10/10