Sunday, 17 August 2014

New Beginnings

I accept it's been an exponentially long time since I wrote on this blog. I had considered giving it up entirely, as I now work in a large trade publisher of children's and YA fiction, it seemed a slight conflict of interest. But more and more I can't help get annoyed at how few books are brought into the UK market from other publishers. So I'm re-starting this blog to focus purely on translated children's books.

I've mentioned in some reviews that only about 3% of all books published in the UK are translated from a different language. Every time I do read a translated work, it makes me wonder what else I am missing out on because there are so many books that haven't made it into our market.

The sad fact is, it's not that publishers don't want to publish translated books. They do - most of them would absolutely love to. But it's very expensive, and as margins in publishing continue to dwindle, books that don't make sense economically won't make it past the board. We try to make as much money from one book as possible (this money, of course, is shared with authors/illustrators), and the best way to guarantee that is through rights.

When a book is published in the UK from a UK author, the publisher will acquire certain rights (translation, film, audio, digital, etc). This gives the publisher an opportunity to increase sales and revenue on a single title for both themselves and the author. These rights deals are often the most lucrative, and it's in all parties' interest to see these rights sold. Rights sales can even make up for poor sales within the UK market, although it's unlikely for a book to do well in different markets if it can't do well in its own.

Now we come to the translated book, where a publisher is buying the rights from another market in order to publish the title. The publisher won't get all of those extra rights - they may have certain permissions from the original publisher for things like an audio or digital edition, but the money then has to be split between even more parties (original publisher, original author, original agent, English publisher, English translator...)

Economically, the translated book is a risk. You have to rely on physical sales of the book and can't  back it up with any rights sales. And sadly it is these simple economies that prevent most publishers from taking a step into getting more titles translated into English.

It is my hope to one day see that 3% closer to 5%, if not higher. The fact that there were midnight queues just this week for the latest Murakami book show that there is an interest in translated fiction. Or perhaps those people didn't care it was translated - they just recognise a good author and a good story, despite it being originally written in a different language.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Smart by Kim Slater

If there's one thing YA books are good at, it's trying to get people talking about things that are considered taboo. At the moment, there's a big push to get people talking more freely about mental health and ridding the stigmas that go with it. So while some people may pick up Smart and think "not another autistic kid solving crimes", you really should be thinking, "why not have another autistic kid solving crimes?" Yes, we already have The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which I enjoyed. But it doesn't mean that there shouldn't be another book about an autistic teen discovering a mystery and trying to solve it. Especially when they're good at it.

Kieran Woods is autistic teen living in an abusive situation. His step-father and step-brother are abusive to Kieran and especially to Kieran's mother. He has no friends at school, and outside of school he only really has a homeless woman, Jean, to talk to. And when Kieran finds a body in the river and discovers it was Jean's friend, he is convinced that it is more than just an accident. Considering it's Kieran's dream to be a journalist and report on crimes, this seems like the perfect opportunity for him to prove he can solve the mystery.

With the increase of characters with mental health issues in YA literature, I wouldn't be surprised in even more characters with autism entering the scene because they are fantastically complex and have so much to offer a story. If there's anything Smart shows us, it's that even though someone may have a different way of thinking, it's not wrong and it certainly has its strengths. Kieran may have trouble understanding how to relate to other people, but he demonstrates the capacity to learn as well as being very clever and talented.

After reading Smart, I was intrigued by Kieran's ability to notice details and accurately draw them. So I did a quick Google search on autistic artists, which was fascinating. While autism is so often shown as a disability in modern society, it also appears provide some with superior abilities of memorization and noticing minute details. This is certainly the case of Kieran, and also what makes him an ideal detective in Smart. It's painful to see how Kieran is treated, but heartwarming when people realise what he is capable of and how he doesn't hold the prejudices against other people as most of us might do. Smart leaves you with the hope that this realisation will extend beyond Kieran and will soon become a part of everyday life.

Smart by Kim Slater is published on 5th June by Macmillan Children's Books.

Monday, 21 April 2014

A Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

Murder is never pretty, but sometimes reading a murder mystery is pure delight. A Murder Most Unladylike is everything you love about a mystery complimented with regulatory bun breaks and many nods to the great Sherlock Holmes. Deepdean School for Girls is a setting worthy of any story, but is what really gives this mystery its charm and excitement.

Hazel Wong joins leagues with Daisy Wells to set up a secret detective agency, with Daisy as President and Hazel as Secretary. Naturally, it is Hazel who narrates our story, a similarity shared with Dr. Watson that is often noted by Daisy. But Daisy and Hazel don't exactly see eye to eye on much. Daisy is strong-willed and certain that she knows everything that goes on at Deepdean, so when Hazel discovers their teacher Miss Bell dead in the Gym, Daisy is set that their detective agency must crack the case.

The girls then begin to count their facts and suspects, cleverly using their gossiping school mates and regular interaction with teachers to gather even more information. The trouble is, they not only have numerous people with a motive, the body disappeared within minutes meaning they also have to prove the murder actually took place.

This is a great detective story, with enough twists and turns to keep you on your toes and never sure of who to really suspect. Daisy and Hazel have disagreeing suspicions throughout the case, putting a strain on their detecting as well as their friendship, with Hazel regularly looking back as to how they even became friends in the first place.

Highly recommended for anyone who loves a mystery or perhaps for a middle-grade reader looking to experience their very first detective story. This Wells and Wong mystery will not disappoint, and will hopefully be followed up by many more soon.

A Murder Most Unladylike publishes June 5th by Random House Children's Publishers.

Trouble by Non Pratt

YA readers are rather accustomed to having a story centralised around a relationship that characters want to happen, but doesn't always work out. In Trouble, we're presented with a different scenario, in which Hannah doesn't seem to have a single problem getting any guy that she wants (to an extent). What she wasn't ready for was what can happen afterwards.

The most well-known teen pregnancy story from the past few years is the film Juno. If you loved Juno, you'll be just as much in love with Trouble. While Trouble shares a similar funny yet poignant look at how a teen copes with pregnancy, the similarities end there.

Hannah is 15 and far more focussed on her social life than she is with her school work. But everything gets thrown to the wall when she discovers she's pregnant. She knows who the father is, but she's too afraid to tell anyone. And the fact her mother works in a health clinic constantly dealing with teen pregnancies doesn't make matters any easier for Hannah. But that's when Aaron steps in - a new boy at school who has no real interest in socialising with anyone, yet finds himself drawn to Hannah.

Aaron befriends Hannah and then agrees to say he's the father of the baby in order to keep her from getting into a stickier situation. It's not an easy friendship for either of them. While Hannah's struggles are more obvious, there is still the fact that she is unable to tell anyone who the real father is. What she doesn't expect is that Aaron carries just as many problems of his own, none of which he's willing to share with her.

Trouble may provide an insight into teen pregnancy, but its strength is in showing how a real friendship works through every difficulty, even the most extreme. It's a reminder that the people we surround ourselves with should be the ones we can turn to when everything goes wrong.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Dark Wild by Piers Torday

When my NetGalley request for this title was approved, I squealed with excitement. The Dark Wild follows the highly-acclaimed The Last Wild, which I've already expressed my love for in this post, and I've been looking forward to reading more ever since. For your own sake, if you haven't read The Last Wild and you want to, perhaps you should be doing that rather than reading this. 

The Dark Wild picks up right where we left Kester, but now he finds himself facing problems bigger than he could imagine. Polly has disappeared after confessing she holds a secret that could bring down Facto, leaving Kester desperate to find her. In his search for Polly he soon discovers another Wild, and another Wildness - a Dark Wildness who wants nothing but to destroy all humans. And Kester, with his ability to talk to all animals, lands right in the middle of everything. 

For those of you who have read The Last Wild, this sequel will certainly not disappoint. Torday hasn't lost the pace, charm or humour, and The Dark Wild will keep you gripped to the point that you'll possibly miss your lunch (I did...). The animals are fantastic, with distinct voices and characters that you can understand why Kester is so attached and protective of them. You may never look at a cockroach or a rat the same way ever again. 

The Dark Wild is a spectacular adventure, bringing far more elements to the story and leaving you hungry for the final installment. Published by Quercus, The Dark Wild is available from 27th March. You can read extracts from both books on the website: The Last Wild

Thursday, 20 March 2014

The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss

I've had trouble writing this review. I kept coming back to it over the past week because I wasn't able to figure out what to say. It's a complex book with a not so happy topic, and I didn't want to write anything to make you think it's overly depressing and put you off reading it. In fact, I'll put the recommendation here first: read this book.

The Year of the Rat focuses on the first year after Pearl's mother dies in childbirth, but the baby (which Pearl henceforth calls the Rat) survives. Pearl and her step-father, who is the biological father of the Rat, are then left to deal with the situation: both grieving and taking care of a new baby.

While really it's no one's fault, it is a situation where one could easily place blame or feel guilt. Pearl, struggling with the loss of her mother, retreats into herself. Her best friend can't possibly understand, her step-father seems more concerned about his new child, and all Pearl can do is blame the Rat for causing the whole horrible mess. She seems to emotionally flit between different stages of grief depending on her situation: Pearl is clearly depressed, but she is also angry with her new sister to the point of such hatred that you begin to wonder if she'll ever warm to the baby.

What I loved most about this book is that while it was very much focused on an unhappy topic, it manages to maintain some humour. Despite her depression, Pearl can be funny in her own way. It really comes out during the exchanges she has/remembers with her mother. I think her mother's character is what makes this story, even though the story is clearly based around her absence, everyone else is focused on various traits of Pearl's mother as they begin to cope with her death.

As already mentioned, I highly recommend The Year of the Rat. This is a strong debut from a very talented author, looking at how people cope with grief and depression while life continues around them. It's an emotional but worthwhile journey complimented by superb writing.

The Year of the Rat publishes on 24th April by Simon & Schuster.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

I will admit that I have never read an entire book written in verse before. Not necessarily by choice, but I simply never found myself with that sort of book in my hands. I also haven’t read a lot of poetry outside of university. All that considered, one might even wonder how I managed to find myself reading The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan, which is written entirely in poems.

First, let me get this out of my system: despite my lack of regularly reading it, I have a real respect for poetry. It requires a certain mastery of language, an understanding that there is no need to be verbose to illustrate a scene. One of the best books I ever read was written by someone known as a poet, not a novelist, but it was his use of language that made the novel really stand out. (But this review isn't about that title - so it shall remain nameless.)

I was in love with The Weight of Water within a few pages. Along with the gorgeous simplicity of a verse, it was the concept of taking moment within someone's life and capturing it in a few stanzas. Each poem shows a meaningful part of Kasienka's story as she is uprooted from her home in Poland and settles in Coventry with her mother as they search for her father. But the text flows so well from one poem to another that it doesn't seem any different from reading a prose book. In fact, it's one of the most enjoyable reads I've had recently. 

As a Pole recently moved to England, Kasienka faces many problems: being the new girl in school, being a foreigner, having a father who has run away from his family - and a mother unwilling to give up her search for him. Each poem is told from her perspective as she struggles with her new life, but she soon finds a break from her troubles through swimming. 

Despite the simplicity of the text, The Weight of Water provides complex characters and plot, with a young girl trying to figure out who she is under incredibly difficult circumstances. It is an impressive work, so beautifully different from many other books for middle grade readers. I highly recommend getting a copy, having a read and just enjoying its impressive structure.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

If you haven't heard of Matthew Quick, you will have heard of Silver Linings Playbook, the film based on his book of the same name. His recently-published Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock has some similar elements in that it focuses on a character that is suffering from psychological trauma. The real difference, though, is how Leonard Peacock chooses to deal with it.

While the story is mostly linear, present-day Leonard is continually focussing on the past as a way to explain his behaviour. It is his 18th birthday, and he has decided to kill himself, but not until after he's given the four people who mean something to him a small goodbye gift. Then he's going to kill Asher Beal before turning the gun on himself. As he acts through his plan, he looks back on how each of those four people has come to be what he considers a friend, with his thoughts interspersed by letters he has written to himself from the future.

At the onset, it's all rather disturbing, particularly if you are aware of just how often shootings happen in America, or just how easy it can be for teens to get access to guns. Leonard never expresses the desire to kill anyone other than Asher and himself, but you never know. Yet during the whole book you get the sense that Leonard doesn't really want to go through with it. He thinks he is really giving everyone the signs to show something is not right with him; he wants someone to notice. He wants people to pay attention to him. The problem is that no one is ever there to notice, as his mother spends most of her time away from home leaving Leonard essentially living by himself.

Despite his obvious faults, Leonard is a likable character. He's funny, thoughtful and even charming at times. This may seem out of sync with the dark things going on in his head, but it does go to show how complex we are as humans, and how most people only get to see a small side of any individual. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is a great example of a teenager who feels ostracized by everyone around him, and how he has attempted to rationalise extreme behaviour in reaction to feeling so alone, but can't quite let go as easily as he would like to.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Echo Boy by Matt Haig

From the moment I started Echo Boy, I didn't want to put it down. And that was annoying, because I had a very busy week, so my sleep has suffered a bit. But the joy of reading this book was worth those lost hours of sleep. 

Echo Boy takes place in the future - not so distant that it seems impossibly far away, but long enough that it's possible and believable. In This future, the planet has been ravaged by extreme weather. Most of the UK is underwater, but despite these seemingly severe problems, humans have adapted amazingly well by developing new technologies. Houses are built on stilts, transport is on elevated magrails, and lifespan has improved immensely. The most noticeable technological advancements, though, are the Echos (Enhanced Computerised Humanoid Organisms): biological machines made of flesh and blood like a human, but still very robotic in manner. They have no ability to feel emotions or even disobey commands. But aside from these cognitive differences, they are more life-like than any other machinery that has ever existed. While many people in this world see the technological developments as a benefit to society, there are just as many people who are concerned and even scared for the future of humanity as these machines become increasingly intelligent.

Audrey's father is one of those who is strongly against the new technologies, actively writing about and protesting against developments. Yet it's his brother and Audrey's uncle, Alex Castle, who is at the helm of the all-powerful Castle Industries, driving these technological developments. And it's when Audrey ends up in her uncle's home that she meets Daniel - an Echo who doesn't seem quite right. His stare isn't blank like other Echos, and he seems to keep trying to tell her something.

What impressed me most with Echo Boy was Haig's desire to work out what it truly means to be human, and at what point is something classified as being "alive". Haig has a real understanding of how humans feel and portray emotion, and also how confusing certain feelings can be, particularly when they go against all logic. This is a book that you can really get into and enjoy, even though it may leave you asking much bigger questions. Echo Boy is a gripping read, not just for the need to find out what will happen, but discovering why everything else has. 

Echo Boy is published on March 27th by Bodley Head, a division of Random House Children's Publishers

Friday, 28 February 2014

When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan

A few weeks ago the Telegraph published an article centred around When Mr Dog Bites, questioning whether children's books should come with recommended reader age warnings. You can read the article here, and the response of Bloomsbury Publishing Director Rebecca McNally here. It began a fascinating debate on social networks, prompting a lot of strong views. The reason for the language and some sexual discussion is quite obvious: the story is being narrated by a 16-year-old boy with Tourette's. I truly enjoyed the debate about profanity in children's books, and I do believe authors and editors only include it when it is truthful and necessary to the character and story. But if you want to read more about those debates, feel free to follow the links above. Needless to say, it was all this discussion that led to me reading the book, wanting to know what the fuss was about.

Dylan Mint is a likable character who, despite his Tourette's, isn't really all that different from other kids his age. He wants to have sex with the prettiest girl in his school, he wants to make sure his best friend is happy, and he wants his dad to come home from the war. But Dylan knows he is different, he knows he's at a school for people with disabilities, and he is all too aware of his own struggle with Tourette's. He tries to control it, but sometimes he can't and that's when "Mr Dog" comes out. He doesn't like his Tourette's, is embarrassed and apologetic to others for it, and then he hears the doctor say he's going to die in March. This springs Dylan to take action on making sure he does everything he really wants before March, leading to hilarious results and shocking discoveries.

There was one scene in When Mr Dog Bites that upset me, and not from the profanity, but due to how "normal" kids treated Dylan just because of his disability. They took advantage of him, and they wanted to exploit his Tourette's, his embarrassment, for their own amusement. It disturbed me because I saw the exact same thing happen many times while growing up. The school system I went to was different from Dylan's in that it was inclusive of children with mental and physical disabilities. They were in classes with all other children up until a certain age, and while they eventually were separated from us to attend their own classes, they were very much a part of our school and a part of the school's social events. I remember watching, horrified, as a group of teenage boys pushed a boy with mental disabilities to shout words he didn't understand, then laughing hysterically at the result. It was awful to experience in real life, and reading it from Dylan's perspective just made it more obvious as to how some people actually think it's funny when someone else has a disability, particularly one like Dylan's where he'll lose control and shout curse words. It's a type of bullying, and one I felt was addressed in the book particularly well.

When Mr Dog Bites is a book that doesn't just captivate and entertain, but really makes you think. Should someone like Dylan be treated any differently because of his condition? Does treating him differently make things better or worse for him? Would a more inclusive environment for teens with mental disabilities help them, or maybe even help other people understand the problems they face any better? Sure there's more swearing in this book than a standard YA novel, but to focus on that would be to miss the point. In a time where we're finally beginning to openly discuss mental health it's great to have a character like Dylan Mint who is able to face the demon that is his Tourette's and not let it ruin his life. He sets his goals at the beginning of the book and he doesn't give up. Like anyone else, Dylan may have his faults, but he seems to accept them in a way that is truly admirable.

As clearly stated on the back of the book, this isn't for younger readers. You can purchase When Mr Dog Bites from Bloomsbury here.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Last Wild by Piers Torday

I have to admit that when I picked up a copy of The Last Wild I didn't know anything about it. I do not know how I had missed it for so long, and I'm rather ashamed I did. The reason I did pick it up was for two simple lines on the back of the book: 
1. There is a flock of excited pigeons in his bedroom. 
2. They are talking to him.
I wondered what pigeons would say if they could talk, so I bought the book with no other expectations.

Kester is a boy living inside a quarantine zone. The world outside has become dangerous due to the Red Eye virus that has run rampant and killed out all the wildlife - except the animals known as vermin (pigeons, rats, cockroaches). Contact with any animal is avoided, in case they are carrying the deadly Red Eye. But soon Kester, who hasn't been able to speak for years, discovers he can communicate with the pigeons and even the cockroach who help him make a dramatic escape back into the quarantine zone. And it's here that Kester learns the truth: not all of the animals have died. There are only a few left, and their numbers are dwindling as they are ravaged by the disease. But they now have a human who they can talk to, who they can convince to help them find a cure for the Red Eye, so that the last remaining wild can be saved.

Rather amusingly, I had been trying to avoid dystopian books for a while. After The Hunger Games, it seemed like there were too many showing up on the market with very little to offer. So I'm incredibly pleased I wasn't aware this was a dystopian book, otherwise I would not have picked it up, and I would have missed out on a brilliant story.

This is a great book for readers who are interested in dystopian fiction, but perhaps not old enough to get into the more popular YA titles of this genre or want to avoid the ones that are particularly dark. That's not to say those who enjoy the YA titles won't enjoy The Last Wild - in fact, they may find it a refreshing take on dystopias. With adventure and hints at fantasy, this book is a great read with a strong message about the importance of wildlife and nature. Kester is a fascinating lead character who will appeal to both boys and girls. The animals who accompany him are equally fantastic and quite comical at times.

The Last Wild has just been listed on the Waterstones Children's Book of the Year shortlist, and its sequel, The Dark Wild, is due out at the beginning of April. So it's time to start reading it if you haven't already. You can buy The Last Wild from Quercus books here.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

Have you ever found a book that is just so beautiful you don't really care what it's about? Because that's how I felt the moment I saw the illustrations of Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault, translated from French by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou. It's great to see such a gorgeous graphic novel that not only appeals to girls, but addresses the issues that so many find they deal with during adolescence: self-esteem and physical appearance.

Helene has not had it easy at school. All of her former friends have abandoned her, and now entertain themselves by writing insults about Helene on the bathroom walls, or saying it out loud when they know she can hear. Their attacks on her appearance make Helene incredibly self-conscious, to the point she believes everything they say about her. It's a heartbreaking story seeing how a young girl can allow unkind and untrue words to alter her view of herself as well as the world around her. But Helene finds some relief in reading Jane Eyre, seeing how Jane grew up to be a beautiful intelligent woman, despite being a lonely orphan in her youth. As the bullying continues, it's not shocking to see how Helene retreats further into herself, and she begins to think that while Jane Eyre might have been lucky, it won't be true for herself.

This is a poignant story showing a different side of the person being bullied. We are introduced not to the typical victim who feels they are constantly being wronged, but one who actually believes what her tormentors say is true. Even if you cannot empathise with Helene, you may begin to realise that what you say to others really can affect how they view themselves. At least, I hope this is what young girls will take away from this story, and I think that providing it in a graphic novel format will potentially appeal to those girls who might not generally read. The illustrations provide the real sense of isolation that Helene experiences, with the sparing use of colour bringing the hope she initially lacks.

Walker Books have clearly put a lot of thought into the production of this book, getting the design spot on. Their close attention to matching the cover and the end papers to the colours of the illustrations really brings the whole book together in a spectacular presentation. (The copy I bought also had a fantastic fresh from the printer smell!) It's worth owning this title if not for the illustrations but for reminder of how much our words can mean to someone. This is a lesson that unfortunately seems to be reiterated to children and teens, but here, rather than being said it is shown through the emotion-provoking illustrations. If only there were more graphic novels as impressive and appealing to young girls as this one!
You can buy Jane, the Fox and Me directly from Walker Books on their website here.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Darcy Burdock: Hi So Much by Laura Dockrill

If you've not been introduced to the world of Darcy Burdock, now is the time to change that. With the second book in the series, Hi So Much., due to be published on February 27th, Darcy Burdock is rapidly becoming the "it" girl in tween fiction. She's funny, she's creative, and she's what some might call overly-dramatic (but isn't that all tween girls?). I can see so much of my ten-year-old self in her, and I'm sure everyone will be able to relate to Darcy in one way or another.

I first saw Laura Dockrill during a talk at the British Library about children's literature, and it was her enthusiasm about books, especially those she read during her childhood, that really made her stand out. (Okay, her neon pink tights may have helped with that as well.) She was such a fascinating speaker that it only made sense to check out her work, which is how I was introduced to Darcy Burdock.

The books are written from Darcy's point of view, in Darcy's manner of speaking and way of thinking. It can take some getting used to, but it's worth it as Dockrill has perfectly captured youth in this character. Darcy is made more interesting by her ability to write creative stories that relate to her life and even provides illustrations. It's a difficult feat for an author to have a character who writes, and also include the character's stories within a book, but with Darcy it only seems natural and necessary.

In the second installment, Hi So Much sees Darcy enter the Big School, where everything is different. It encompasses the difficulties of the tween age: whether or not you can be best friends with a member of the opposite sex, how to cope with life when tragedy strikes, and how there are always people you can depend on, even when you don't expect it. But most importantly, even with all the ups and down dramas of Darcy's life, her reaction is realistic of a ten-year-old. You can only sympathise with all her pains and take pleasure in her joys. The book is, quite simply, a really fun read.

What I truly loved about this book was how many people in Darcy's life would suggest she write, be it to cope with something or simply because they recognise a talent. There was no one ever pushing her too much or telling her not to, which is a wonderful reminder of how much a child can thrive if their interests are supported and they aren't regularly running into negativity. I feel any child reading about Darcy will not only appreciate everything she experiences, but also be inspired to be creative in some way. At least, this is what I can only hope, because I know that if I had read this as a ten-year-old girl, I would have wanted to be best friends with Darcy, and also wanted to write stories of my own.

Darcy Burdock: Hi So Much. publishes on the 27th of February. Buy now direct from Random House here.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

A House Without Mirrors by Mårten Sandén

I have already confessed once to enjoying a good translated book. I should also now confess that I am rapidly becoming obsessed with Pushkin Press's children's list. A House Without Mirrors is the second Pushkin Press book I've read, and it certainly won't be the last.

The story is told from the perspective of the 11-year-old Thomasine, who lives in a large house with her relatives and her dying great-aunt Henrietta. Her father spends the majority of his time caring for the elderly woman, while her aunt and uncle seem to be more interested in how to split the inheritance once Henrietta does die. Thomasine's cousins have their faults as well: vanity, shyness and trouble-making.

With a slight nod to Narnia, the children discover a wardrobe where all the mirrors in the house were hidden. Yet when they step inside, rather than being taken to another world, they are transported to another time in a mirror image of the same house.

The story is supplemented with beautiful illustrations by Moa Schulman. The style of the book itself may appear to be aimed at younger children, and while they can certainly enjoy the story, an older child and certainly an adult can appreciate the difficulty of love and grief that Thomasine and her family experience.

Translated from Swedish by Karin Altenberg and published by Pushkin Press, Mårten Sandén's A House Without Mirrors is not one to be missed. It is a fascinating look at how we all have an inner struggle, and what could happen if we only face it.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Tinder by Sally Gardner

Perhaps I'm lucky that I didn't read many fairy tales as a child. Aside from seeing the Disney versions, I never bothered with them. With two older sisters and TV shows that always referred to classic literature, I was too fixated on reading above my level by the age of 10, and completely missed out on tween and YA books. A degree in English literature got all of those classics out of my system (well, maybe not all of them), and now I've been able to rediscover the joys of fairy tales.

The funny thing about most fairy tales, though, is that they can be dark, morbid and even disturbing. Most of us are aware that the original classic fairy tales have been subjected to modern reworks that make them what Disney would classify as child-friendly. Sometimes they are scary, but it's rare to encounter one now that doesn't have a happy ending. 

Then comes Tinder, Sally Gardner's fairy tale based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Tinderbox. It has everything an older reader, YA or adult, could possibly want to cleanse happily-ever-after from the system: chivalry, magic, werewolves, violence, seduction and deception. The story begins shortly after our protagonist Otto escapes the horrors of war, and while recovering he meets the beautiful red-haired Safire. Once she disappears, he knows he will do anything to find and marry her. But his quest takes him to dark and mysterious places, to the land of the werewolves, where he is suddenly entangled in the magic and curses that surround Safire's family.

This book is a great read, made particularly wonderful with illustrations by David Roberts. The gorgeous design and sparing use of colour (only black, white and red), make this haunting story worth owning - even if only to look at the pictures. The design is what drew me in, and I picked it up not knowing what to expect. The story itself did surprise me: this is very much not a children's fairy tale, especially with being quite frank about Otto wanting to sleep with Safire. At the end of the book Gardner points out that she wishes there were more illustrated books published for an older audience. I certainly share the sentiment, and I hope to see more books of this nature and quality in the future. 

Monday, 3 February 2014

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

When I first saw the cover for Eleanor & Park I wasn’t sure it was for me. It’s not that I’m put off by romance; I just tend not to pick up a book that is purely based around a relationship. But I bought it on impulse due to the Waterstones “buy one get one half off” dilemma that I almost always have in Waterstones. The title had just been given a Printz Honor Award so it was fresh in my mind at the book shop the other week, and I’m pleased to say this wasn’t like any other teen romance title I’ve read before. In fact, it’s one of the most refreshing.

Eleanor has just arrived at a new school. She’s moved back in with her mother and step-father after being kicked out of their house previously. She’s chubby, has flaming red hair and a strange sense of style due to being restricted to thrift-shop buys and hand-me-downs. She is not the sort of person who you would expect to be a love interest, but that’s what happen when Park lets her sit with him on the bus. At first, Park isn’t too sure about Eleanor, and she doesn’t seem too fond of him. But when he notices her reading his comic books during their bus ride, they start to interact more, and eventually have a conversation.

This book is possibly the best I’ve read in capturing how it really feels to be a teenager falling in love for the first time. It’s awkward, it’s exciting and everything suddenly seems so different. Just holding someone’s hand is shocking and thrilling, but eventually not enough. The story is split to follow both Eleanor and Park’s perspectives. And while their relationship drives the story forward, the horrors of Eleanor’s family slowly unravel and start to affect every aspect of her life, even when she tries to keep them separate.

This is an incredibly touching story and well worth all the praise it’s received. It is easy to forget how you felt with your first love, but also amazing how easily those feelings come back when reading this book. (I admit to having several moments of grinning and feeling like a giddy teenager again.) Rainbow Rowell has done an incredibly job with Eleanor & Park, giving us a well-written story that perfectly displays the emotions and struggles of both teenage love and difficult family life.

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell

After looking at Chris Riddell as an illustrator recently, I thought it would be fun to look at him as an author as well, especially as he has now been named the writer in residence at Book Trust. I have to say, I’m thrilled with Book Trust’s choice and recognition of Chris Riddell’s immense talent as both an author and illustrator. And he quite rightly won the Costa Children’s Book prize of 2013 for his brilliantly clever Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse.

Goth Girl is clearly written for adults to enjoy as they read to their children. It is a gothic novel written for children, but the text has many puns, references to literary works, characters as well as parodies to keep adults amused as well.

The story itself is about Ada Goth, the daughter of famous poet Lord Goth, who seems to want little to do with his daughter since her mother died. They live in Ghastly-Gorm Hall where Ada has no friends and very little social interaction with anyone, until the day when the ghost of a mouse appears in her bedroom. As Ada tries to determine why the mouse was killed in a trap, she begins to encounter the other children who are working within her house, and together they discover a disturbing plan for Lord Goth’s annual indoor hunt.  

The plot itself is rather simple, but the book’s charm comes from the wittiness of the text and drawings. Like all of his work as an illustrator, Chris Riddell allows his illustrations to provide another element to the story, rather than treating them as supplementary. It is more obvious in this book where he has been both author and illustrator, where he is fully in control of the world he has created. It’s beautiful, clever and is certain to make you at least grin at all the clever references and plays on words.

Pan Macmillan have put a lot of love into producing this title, not holding back on the production value. The purple sprayed edges, hardback binding and ribbon marker are enticing and just a preview of the quality of the illustrations inside. It’s wonderful to see a book that is high quality in both production and content be recognised by Costa, and it’s even better to see Book Trust bringing an author/illustrator in as their writer in residence. There will be another Goth Girl title, and I look forward to seeing what Chris Riddell brings us next.   

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Fortunately, the Milk... by Neil Gaiman

Kurt Vonnegut (author of Slaughterhouse Five) once set a list of eight rules for creative writing. I won’t bother with them all here (you can easily find them in a Google search if you’re so intrigued), but there was always one that stood out to me. And this is the one rule that Neil Gaiman has taken to a new level in Fortunately, the Milk...:
Kurt Vonnegut’s rule of writing #3 – Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
In the case of this story, it’s two children who want milk for their cereal, and their dad is sent out to get some. But the shop is only just down the road, and he is gone for seemingly forever. What has held him up? On his return his answer includes no less than aliens, dinosaurs, vampires, pirates and a volcano god. Not to forget the ponies as well. Every good story needs some ponies.

Of course it’s a seemingly simple task that then becomes pure fantastic silliness. The children don’t seem to be buying their father’s story, and why would they? A time-travelling stegosaurus could not possibly be real…

But Chris Riddell’s illustrations are what make the silly story become amazing and real. There are illustrations on practically every page, giving life to the seeming absurdities, cleverly adding even more elements to the tale. This is the sort of story that doesn't just deserve to be illustrated, but needs to be when you have someone as talented and creative as Riddell to do the job.

The book itself is a very quick read. It can be done in one sitting. In fact, I’d recommend it to be. Just leave it for a day when you have the time to properly enjoy it. 

Fortunately, the Milk... is published by Bloomsbury Books and available from most book retailers. 

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Wonder by RJ Palacio

Many times when I see a book heavily publicised I become critical. It's not that I suddenly assume a book will be bad, because I want it to be good. I want all books to be good. I've just had a few bad experiences that have made me skeptical (namely Twilight; I didn't even bother with Fifty Shades). But I couldn't help being intrigued by the cover of Wonder. For what it's worth: I always judge a book by its cover. I work in publishing, and I know how important a cover is to the success of a book. If it's not done properly on the outside, I can only fear how good it can be on the inside. So, I picked up Wonder on a whim. It was heavily publicised in my local Waterstones, but I really liked the cover design and thought it worth a read.

Our protagonist, August (Auggie), has severe facial deformity, and at the age of 10 is about to go to school for the very first time. He is anything but oblivious to his condition - the way people look at him on the street, the way people treat him differently - he knows why, but is still able to sometimes see the funny side of his situation.

Once Auggie starts school, the inevitable happens: bullying. Not just your standard name-calling bullying, but more complex forms that are not outright classified as bullying, but still result in emotional damage.There are the kids who pretend to be helpful just to make themselves look better, and those who are friendly, but give into the peer pressure of making fun of Auggie when he's not around.

The beauty of this book, though, is not just how Auggie is affected by his condition and situation, but how everyone in his life is affected and how they see him. Along with Auggie's point of view, we hear from his sister, his friends, his sister's boyfriend, his sister's friend. Put together they show the complexity that surrounds someone who has a difficult life merely because he looks different to everyone else.

Not making a pun on the title, this book has a real It's a Wonderful Life feel to it, when coming to the end you realise how one person's life can touch so many others. It is also the ideal book dealing with the problem of bullying. There are many people who believe that because Auggie is different that it is okay to make fun of him, or okay to assume he has been given special treatment. But there are so many others who choose to be kind, choose to try to understand what he is going through. And in the end, even some of the bullies have a change to change their ways.

My sister is a children's librarian who believes this book should be taught in every school. I would agree, but I also wouldn't hold back from recommending it to people of any age. I told my mother to read it, who in turn told my grandmother to read it. Wonder is a touching story, funny, well-written and above all with an important message. That is, while it is perfectly okay to judge a book by its cover (because there is control over what a book looks like):

It's a lesson that sadly keeps needing to be taught, but RJ Palacio has done a magnificent job in showing how important it is to be kind.

Wonder is published by Bodley Head Childrens Books, part of Penguin Random House. You can buy the book here.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt

When I did my degree in Literature, most books I read were written by what we came to call the DWM. That is, Dead White Men. My classes were 90% American and English literature, and the books probably 90% DWM authors. At the time, I didn't question it. We were reading what was considered to be classics, and I enjoyed most of the books.

But a few years ago a friend confessed that his girlfriend was annoyed with him for constantly reading DWM. Why wasn't he bothering with female authors? So he spent an entire year trying to read nothing but female authors. I can't say I ever went as far as that, but I did become more aware of not just what, but who I was reading. I am certain there are many people who might agree more women writers need to be taught at schools. On the plus side, I think they are very well represented in modern publishing. Glancing at my bookshelves now, I'd say I've a pretty good male-female balance.

My real concern with reading, though, is that very few people read books in translation. Possibly worse, UK and US publishers seem more keen to export their own authors rather than finding great works of world literature. So many people will say that reading offers an expanded view of the world, but I find it hard to agree with that when most of us only read from a select geographical region.

That's not to say great works of foreign literature don't make it into English. There has recently been a surge of interest around Scandinavian stories thanks to Steig Larsson. Many classics come from outside the English-speaking world as well. But I still feel most English-speaking publishers are interested in selling, rather than buying, foreign rights.

And this is when I discovered Pushkin Press, who only publish books in translation. There was a book in Waterstones that kept catching my eye. The cover was gorgeous, and it was so much fatter than all the other books on the children's shelves surrounding it. A story about a knight on a quest isn't usually the first thing I go for, but I found I couldn't resist any longer.

The Letter for the King was originally written in Dutch by Tonke Dragt in 1962. She's considered to be one of the greatest Dutch writers for children, yet I would guess most of us outside the Dutch-speaking world wouldn't have heard of her. A shame, really.

The Letter for the King is fantastic. It is written in an older, more simple language than is used in most books today, but has so much charm. Tiuri, our would-be knight had he not been charged with an urgent task of delivering a letter, is a wonderful protagonist for children. His thoughts are simple, easy to understand, yet he is intelligent, brave and incredibly loyal to his task. Throughout his quest to deliver a letter to a king of a neighbouring kingdom, he encounters many people who offer to help him, and many times his trust in others becomes a misfortune in his tale. There are enemies lurking, willing to kill the young man in order to steal the letter.

Despite its hefty length for a children's book (460 pages), The Letter for the King is an exhilarating read with some lovely illustrations by the author. Each step of Tiuri's journey brings another adventure, another danger, and another friend who shows that often there is more good than evil in the world.

I commend Pushkin Press for finding books to translate and publish in English, and I can't wait to see more of what Pushkin bring into the English market. They've done a fantastic job with The Letter for the King, and I would highly recommend this title to anyone wanting a bit of old-fashioned chivalry and adventure.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I was introduced to Patrick Ness's work through World Book Night, when a friend gave me The Knife of Never Letting Go (part 1 in the Chaos Walking trilogy). I loved it, and the whole trilogy, which led me on to read more of Ness. The title I was most looking forward to was A Monster Calls, and for good reason.

There are a few editions you can find of this title. I ended up getting the illustrated edition, because if there is an illustrated edition of anything, that tends to be what I go for. Illustrated by the incredibly talented Jim Kay (who has just been commissioned to illustrate the Harry Potter series), this is a title where you absolutely must get the illustrated edition to fully appreciate the beauty of the story.

As clearly detailed in the forward of the book, Ness was given an original idea by the late Sibohan Dowd, who unfortunately died before she was able to write the story. Simply put, the story is about a teenage boy, Conor, struggling with everyday life while his mother battles terminal cancer. He awakens one night from a recurring nightmare, only to find a monster outside his bedroom window. The monster continues to visit Conor, pushing the boy to come to terms with his mother's situation.

The book itself is short, but Ness is masterful with his writing, putting so much into each scene, each character, you feel he accomplishes so much in 200 pages. It's funny, tender and heartbreaking, with Kay's ink illustrations setting a perfect mood for the text. There is far more I could say about this amazing book, but I don't want to spoil it for anyone. Just do yourself a favour and make sure you get the illustrated edition.

You can purchase the illustrated paperback from publisher Walker Books here: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness