Category Archives: Reading

Jonathan Unleashed

Meg Rosoff’s Jonathan reminds me a lot of God. That’s God as in There Is No Dog. Or Justin from Just in Case. Young and adorable and a little useless.

Meg Rosoff, Jonathan Unleashed

Here, in Meg’s new novel Jonathan Unleashed, There Are Two Dogs, and thank goodness for that! Don’t know where Jonathan, or the reader, would be without them. Persevering with that dreadful funeral in celadon, most likely. Sorry, I meant wedding. A real-real wedding – of colour – to Jonathan’s long term girlfriend Julie, who is so wrong for him that it’s hard to know where to start.

And here’s the thing. You know when your favourite author changes genre? To the kind that you like the least. To me adult novels are full of angsty and weird ‘adults’ who worry about their relationship[s] throughout a whole book, with a bit of careers and sex thrown in. (When there could be ficticious wars and under-age sex between cousins. The odd wizard, maybe.)

So, Jonathan Unleashed is about an angsty young man, who is rather weird (his girlfriend points out, ‘you used to be less weird’), and who worries about this proposed funeral – pardon, wedding – to Julie, and about his job, and the dogs, with a bit of sex thrown in.

And you know what? It’s simply wonderful! I could read it again, and again. It’s only marginally more adult than the fairly adult YA novels Meg has written so far. It’s still as crazy, very New York, very Meg Rosoff, lots of dogs. How could you not love it?

Poor Jonathan works in marketing, writing the most soul-destroying lines to sell useless stuff. He lives in a flat that seems to be too good to be true (there is a reason for that) and then his brother moves abroad, leaving his two dogs Dante and Sissy with Jonathan.

He worries about them. That they might not be happy. Perhaps they are depressed? A bit of canine weltschmerz? He takes them to the vet, Dr Clare, to discuss the likelihood of this and whether they might one day rip a small child’s face off.

Now, that is as far from their minds as these dogs go. They have an agenda. They can tell Jonathan needs help, and they are prepared to provide it. They are not hypochondriacs. They know what they are doing. When professional wedding planner Julie suggests this funeral – sorry, wedding – for her and Jonathan, those dogs need to take action.

There is a French coffeeshop woman who is very lovely, there is Dr Clare, and there is Greeley, the uncertainly sexed new PA at work. Who’s it going to be, and can anything be done before Jonathan goes crazier still? I mean, you can’t have a hero going round speaking funny (even if it is stress-induced).

Limpopo gleam.

When you feel stupidly neurotic, it’s refreshing and reassuring to meet someone who’s got it worse.

Blimp. Pork toff.

A Dark Trade

Mary Hooper, A Dark Trade

Mary Hooper has done what she does so well, which is to take the tales of poor servant girls in the past, and put them in a book that anyone can read. So often this kind of story only comes as an old, fat classic of 500 pages or more, and with small print to boot. Thank you to Barrington Stoke who understand that everyone would want to read this.

In A Dark Trade we meet orphan Gina, who at 16 is ready to leave the cruel orphanage and go to work. In her case a seemingly lovely big house in London in the mid-1800s. But of course it doesn’t work out like that. Big houses, however beautiful, come with their own problems, and in this case it’s a young master with the wrong idea of what a girl servant is for.

Gina makes a run for it, and disguises herself as a boy. But it’s the usual fire and frying pan scenario, and she is no better off as a male shop assistant.

Mary occasionally lets a book end less well than you’d hoped for, so I wasn’t sure what she might have up her sleeve this time. Read the book and find out!

Wildwitch Wildfire

My first Lene Kaaberbøl book, but possibly not my last. Wildwitch Wildfire is book no. 1  in what looks like a series about Clara, who is small and shy and completely normal, until the day she is attacked by a – very large – black cat.

Lene Kaaberbøl, Wildwitch Wildfire

She becomes quite ill, and she discovers things about herself and her family. And then she ends up living with an aunt, who is a bit of a witch, and whose task it is to make Clara a fully fledged witch herself.

It seems to be less of the evil witch stuff (apart from the kind of evil you need in a book) and more a case of living in harmony with wildlife. To do good things; to fight what is bad.

Our heroine proves much more resourceful than she expects to be, and she is very brave when she has to be.

And that cat? Well…

(Translated from Danish by Charlotte Barslund, and illustrated by Rohan Eason.)

Knights of the Borrowed Dark

What do they put in the Irish water to cause so many fantastic, funny, fantasy thrillers to be written? The latest person to put his brand new debut novel in my way is Dave Rudden, and much as I hate it when books are described as being the next Derek Landy or Eoin Colfer (Neil Gaiman, Rick Riordan…), in this case it’s pretty accurate. Of course, it remains to be seen if Dave can keep his Knight of the Borrowed Dark going, but I have faith. (He’s awfully young, too. Sickening.)

Denizen Hardwick is a hero to compete with the best of them. A 13-year-old orphan with no knowledge whatsoever of his origins, he is described as small and nothing special. Nice enough, and with a collection of different frowns. Until one day someone turns up at the children’s home [a place that can be decribed as ‘nice. Sort of a bleak, hopeless charm about it.’] in the west of Ireland to collect him. Someone rather unusual.

Dave Rudden, Knights of the Borrowed Dark

It’s a bit Harry Potter, but the point about this is that it’s what we readers like. It works. Apparently there is an organisation of Knights, who fight dark monsters, the Tenebrous. They are unknown and anonymous, suffering badly while doing their duty to save us ordinary humans. And with Denizen it’s as if he was born to it.

He still makes mistakes. Serious ones at that. But he wants to work for the greater good, and if that means fighting creepy monsters, then he will do it. Leaving his best friend behind in the orphanage, Denizen meets an aunt he didn’t know he had. He meets others, who all belong to the Knights. This work is neither easy nor safe, but someone has to do it.

Intelligently written, with plenty of fun, and some nice humour. What more could I want? The next book in the trilogy, obviously. This first one will be published in April, so make a note in your diaries.

(Denizen likes books. And how can you not adore a boy who has read The Politics of Renaissance Italy?)

RED 10 Book Award 2015

As I was hinting earlier, I made it to Falkirk and its 10th book award, with badge and everything (And yes, I know it says 2015. They do these things out of sync.) I rather expected to just make my way in unnoticed, and having been before, I’d know where to go. But superwoman Yvonne Manning who runs this show, was there to welcome me, give me my badge and tell me I had to have a cup of tea. (Once she’d turned her back, I was able to ignore the tea.)

RED awards Falkirk, Keren David and Lari Don

I found all four shortlisted authors – Gill Arbuthnott, Keren David, Lari Don and Ria Frances – in the lounge part of fth, and chatted to Keren and Lari, who repeatedly checked with me whether I knew the other one. Introduced myself to Gill, and we decided we had actually spoken before. I even ended up talking to the Provost, who’s at the end of his second five year stint of provosting and attending book awards. Agents Lindsey Fraser and Kathryn Ross had braved Gertrude to be there for their authors.

When it was time, Yvonne started things off, wearing tartan tights and red skirt and a special RED 10 t-shirt. Red noses were found under chairs and prizes handed out and more prizes promised. Ten schools in nine other countries had been sent the shortlisted books to read, and some of their comments were read out.

RED awards Falkirk, Ria Frances

And then, it was time for the dramatised presentations of the books, by the schools who had taken part. This involved the accidental dropping of a baby on its head (it was ‘only’ a baby doll). Much hilarity ensued and later I witnessed the doll actually being autographed…

The prizes for the best reviews were handed out, the overall winner’s review was read aloud, Yvonne swirled round in her magic red coat and Provost Reid hitched up his trouser legs to show us his red socks. So it was all quite serious stuff.

RED awards Falkirk

We had a coffee break (you need this when the award takes all day to be awarded). We discussed lukewarm hot drinks (don’t ask!), I let Lari use my very tiny Swiss Army scissors, and I returned to my seat to find the school behind me having ‘spilled’ their drinks on my row of seats. I think we can assume a good time was being had by all.

RED awards Falkirk, Keren David

The authors’ turn to entertain came next. They each had three minutes to say something profound. Gill said she made her character Jess to act braver than she was. Keren mentioned that she’d had a completely different end in mind for Salvage. Ria’s book got written at night, when she suffered from insomnia, and she told us about Albert Göring, who was a better guy than his brother. Lari explained how surprised she was to find herself writing a YA book, which she’d never expected to do.

We had a second round of dramatised books, and I decided on the spot that the one for Mind Blind was by far the best, and it had a lovely cardboard van for kidnapping characters in. There was at least one flying potato and an amusing kelpie.

To celebrate the past nine winners of the RED award, some schools had made designs for a quilt, which was then practically singlehandedly sewn by Anne Ngabia from Grangemouth High. The very beautiful quilt was held up for us to see by two extremely unreliable stagehands,  while Anne told us about the batch of 3000 books she has just packaged up for Kenya, and how helpful we’d all been. (You’re welcome.)

RED awards Falkirk, Anne Ngabia

Lunch came next, and I managed to sit with and chat to Keren and the Provost, with Lari and her agents joining us after a bit. I believe Lindsey had a dog to walk first. I learned a lot about Falkirk, and politics, from Provost Reid who, while proud of his town, could understand why my first time (in 1973) I took one look at the place and left again.

RED awards Falkirk, Ria Frances

After they’d eaten, the authors had books to sign, with long queues snaking in front of them. Even the Provost queued up.

RED awards Falkirk, Gill Arbuthnott and Provost Reid

RED awards Falkirk, Gill Arbuthnott

More prizes. Prize for best dramatisation, prizes for best red clothes. Apparently someone even wore red contact lenses. My favourite was the boy in the red tutu, but the Cat in the Hat girl was very well turned out too.

RED awards Falkirk

RED awards Falkirk

Q&A followed, with a rapid pace for questions, very ably controlled by two teachers (I think) with a nice line in comments about the pupils. Gill wants her readers sleepless as they wonder how the characters will fare, and she couldn’t give up writing. It would be like giving up eating. Ria started her career with some early praise from a teacher at school, and Lari says she absolutely must edit what she’s written. Keren reckons the first draft has to be rubbish or it can’t be edited to become really good. The beginning matters more than the ending. As for weird questions from other readers, Gill said she wants to be a cat, while Ria once went dressed as a mermaid, and Keren got asked what hair products she uses…

Getting closer to the big moment, but first Yvonne had to be thanked, so she ran away. (She is a bit crazy like that.) Provost Reid entered in his official – Father Christmas style – outfit, red all over, and flowers had to be handed over to Barbara Davidson who made the prize, and the press photographer also got flowers, and as the Provost waved the large red envelope around, he thanked the ‘shy and retiring’ Yvonne for her hard work. Organised stamping from the audience.

And a bit more stamping. And the winner is: Lari Don, for Mind Blind. (Very worthy, if I may say so.)

RED awards Falkirk, Provost Reid, Lari Don, Gill Arbuthnott, Ria Frances and Keren David

Lari’s unprepared speech was admirably short and sweet, just the way we want it. Before the authors were spirited away, there was a lot of posing for photographs, with the prize, and the Provost, and the little red cardboard van.

RED awards Falkirk

I got on my broom and headed home.

Queen of the Silver Arrow

Caroline Lawrence has written a story to inspire girls that they can do more. Admittedly, the cover features a beautiful girl with a bow and arrow, and I understand that recent films (and the books behind them) have made bows and arrows the thing to have. But why not?

Caroline Lawrence, Queen of the Silver Arrow

This re-working of Virgil’s The Aeneid for Barrington Stoke tells the story of Camilla, who is the Queen of the Silver Arrow. Her father, who’s a King, brought her up in the woods where he fled with his baby daughter, and she learns to be of service to the Goddess Diana.

Camilla’s story becomes well known in the neighbourhood, and Acca who is the same age, dreams of being like her, and so do some of the rich girls in town. Eventually they all meet and Camilla trains the girls to be warriors, something that becomes necessary when the Trojans arrive.

Violent and bloody in parts, it’s still a beautiful piece of history (it was real, wasn’t it?), and as I said, very inspiring for girls. It needn’t all be about getting married. Or at least not without doing something worthwhile first.

Sometimes we all want to be like an Amazon, although perhaps stopping short at baring a breast.

More of Me

Kathryn Evans’ debut, More of Me, is as marvellous a story as I had hoped for. The concept is very slightly off-putting, to be honest, but it makes perfect sense when you read the book, and it is of the unputdownable kind. You might want to give it a go.

Teva is 16 and has a best friend and a boyfriend and she likes school. At home she has her mum, as well as a dozen copies of herself. Every year a new Teva emerges from the ‘old’ Teva’s body, looking the same, but a year older. The discarded Tevas remain at home, staying the age they were when they were the ‘real’ live Teva.

Fifteen is really angry with her successor, who has her life, her best friend and her boyfriend. For the earlier versions of Teva, it’s been longer and they are used to it. But the new Teva is determined she will not be a victim to this annual change into someone else. She wants to stay alive and out there, enjoying the boyfriend Fifteen found and fell for.

Kathryn Evans, More of Me

This kind of plot nearly does your head in. Is it real? How can it be? Is Teva crazy? Is her mum crazy? And whatever the answer is, how can this end well? In fact, how can there be an end, with Teva after Teva emerging?

The answer wasn’t what I’d imagined, even though any imagining was quite difficult. But the concept is both fascinating and has a lot of reality about it. I’m not the same person I was at ten or 46 or whatever. We change, while still being mainly the same as we were. I’m just grateful I don’t have a few dozen younger Bookwitches hanging around, giving me attitude.