25 May 2009

Book of the Week (15): “Creature of the Night” by Kate Thompson

Creature of the Night is one of those great books that you start reading because you think it is going to be about one thing – and you finish reading because it’s actually about something else.

Don’t be fooled by the blurb: yes, there’s a spooky cottage where a young girl was supposedly murdered; yes, the last tenant of the cottage mysteriously disappeared and yes, something that is definitely not a dog is using the dog flap to get into the house at night. Yet despite the real scariness that Thompson invokes, this is not a classic ghost / fairy story, and Robbie is a city boy: hoodie, delinquent and gang-member. It is his story that really grips, his unknowing and very gradual transformation as he is forced to go and live in the country, away from his Dublin-based friends. By the end of the book you are willing him to make the right decision and stay there.

Creature of the Night
is a fantastic read and thoroughly deserves its place on this year’s Carnegie shortlist. This is a gritty and realistic novel, with bad language and drug references – hence unsuitable for younger readers.

Recommended by Laura Hutchings

• Kate Thompson is a fascinating writer; if you liked the slightly other-worldly aspect of this book, try her The New Policeman. If you liked the grittiness, try The Beguilers.
• The 2009 Carnegie list is great. Try Kevin Brooks’s Black Rabbit Summer – another book about how experiences change you. It’s a tougher read, but well worth it. Or try another Irish writer on list – Siobhan Dowd with Bog Child.
• Kevin Brooks’s Road of the Dead is another book that blends the mystical and the gritty.

19 May 2009

Book of the Week (14): "The Ant Colony" by Jenny Valentine

When you observe ants, they always seem to be busy, going somewhere, looking for something. They are small, yet when they pull together they can achieve unbelievable things like carrying food that is more than twice their weight. Not many people bother observing ants, but Max is obsessed with them. That’s only one of the things that Sam remembers about Max during the long nights after Sam runs away from his small village and moves into 33 Georgiana Street in London's Camden Town.

As the blurb on the cover of Jenny Valentine’s new novel points out, the other tenants in Sam’s building are similar to ants, each scurrying off with their own business to take care of, apart from old Isabel that is, who makes everybody else’s business her own. Seventeen-year-old Sam soon finds that hiding from his terrible past is not as easy as he thought, especially after he is recruited to entertain and befriend Bohemia, a ten year old neglected by her unreliable single mother. It seems unlikely that lizard-face Steve, grungy Mick, old Isabel, self obsessed Cherry and Sam and Bohemia will ever stray from their own paths and unite for a common goal, but the book isn’t called The Ant Colony for nothing.

The characters in the novel are very lonely people, many with secrets to hide, yet they manage to reach out and create relationships beyond their own, often shocking, circumstances. Sam and Bo’s stories are intertwined with the other tenants’ to create a clever and well-paced plot as secrets are unravelled one by one. As with her previous novels, Finding Violet Park and Broken Soup, Jenny Valentine sends out a life-affirming message about hope and how eventually, like ants, we all depend on one another.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

• There are a lot of books about people running away from something or someone – that 'someone' quite often being themselves. One fast-paced option is Julia Donaldson’s Running on the Cracks, a thriller with a cast of unforgettable characters and a deep, dark secret.
• In Kate Thompson’s Creature of the Night Bobby’s mum is running away, taking her family with her, but is the country any safer than the city?
Girl, Missing by Sophie McKenzie is about a girl running away from her foster parents – people who might have actually kidnapped her as a baby – in order to find out about her true self and the secrets of her past.

16 May 2009

Hay Fever

I can't believe it's that time of year again. Yes, the wonderful Hay Festival is upon us again, and with it 'Hay Fever', its equally wonderful children's programme.

I'm delighted to be chairing three events this year, which are as follows:

  • Saturday 23rd May at 2:30pm in the Oxfam Studio: Julia Donaldson and Jenny Valentine, talking about teen reads;
  • Tuesday 26th May at 1pm on the Dream Stage: John Fardell and Tanya Landman talking about writing crime for children; and
  • Thursday 28th May at 2:30pm in the Barclays Wealth Pavilion: Michael Morpurgo and Jamila Gavin talking about the stories they've written for Free, a new anthology commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Fun! (A lot of extra reading to add to the already tottering pile tho'...)

Other children's/teen writers I'm looking forward to seeing at this Hay Fever include...

Patrick Ness, Philip Ardagh, Cressida Cowell, Caroline Lawrence, Shaun Tan, Jackie Morris, Julia Golding, David Gilman, Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell, Celia Rees, Jo Nadin, Sally Gardner, Ed Vere and Roger McGough! And Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz, Jeremy Strong, Andy Stanton! And Cornelia Funke! And more...

Do hope to see you there.


PS Not really within the UBG remit, but (while I'm plugging events) just to mention I'm also speaking twice more at festivals in the next couple of months: talking about translation on June 20th in the London Review of Books 'World Literature Weekend' in the British Museum; and about The Oxford Guide to Literary Britain and Ireland at the Ways with Words festival in Dartington on July 12th. (In case anyone's interested...)

15 May 2009

Book of the Week (13): “Brother William’s Year: A Monk at Westminster Abbey” by Jan Pancheri

Jan Pancheri is a woman to be envied. Not only is she a talented artist but she is also Head Gardener at Westminster Abbey. She has illustrated other children’s books, but this one is about a subject so close to her heart, both as an artist, an employee of the Abbey and a gardener, that joy shines from every page.

Brother William is also the gardener at Westminster Abbey, but whereas Jan Pancheri, as the 2009 gardener, deals with tourists and schools and the difficulties of keeping gardens in our age of pollution, William lives in 1383 – and his difficulties are all about the rigours of being a monk, of producing enough food to feed his community and not falling asleep in matins. As we follow his year we find out about Benedictine life, about how the Abbey worked from day-to-day and most importantly, how the progression from Winter through Spring, Summer, Autumn and back to Winter shaped lives that were deeply in touch with nature.

This book is a luminous delight – the story is told simply, accessible enough for young readers yet interesting and amusing for anyone of any age. I suspect that Frances Lincoln, the publishers, see this as being for children aged between 5 and 10 – but I think it is perfect for anyone interested in picture books, gardening or simply understanding how our lives used to be guided by the seasons.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

• For good independent readers interested in monks and fast-paced stories, try Cherith Baldry’s Abbey Mysteries – start with The Buried Cross. The abbey involved is the one at Glastonbury.
• Or for more detail about a monk’s life, try Life in a Medieval Abbey by Tony McAleavy.
• Frances Lincoln publish some wonderful books that help kids to understand other lives – try the A Child’s Day series. Each one focuses on real child and simply follows a day in their lives. My favourites are Boushra's Day by Khaled El Dash (Egypt) and Iina Marja's Day by Jaakko Alatalo (Lapland) but try and read them all – I am!

04 May 2009

Book of the Week (12): “The Ask and the Answer” by Patrick Ness

[NB Spoiler alert – don’t read this recommendation if you haven’t yet read The Knife of Never Letting Go!]

One of the most anticipated teen novels of the year (at least on my list) is out next week. The second volume of the ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy is, in my opinion, even better then the first, The Knife of Never Letting Go, winner of both the 2008 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the 2008 Booktrust Teenage Prize. The trilogy follows the adventures of Todd, an illiterate teenage boy living on an alien planet where a virus has infected all the men so that their thoughts can be heard (referred to as The Noise).

The first volume ended on a serious cliff-hanger – Todd, having escaped from Prentisetown, and chased by the Mayor’s army, finally arrives at Haven, the dying Viola in his arms, only to discover that, well, it isn’t a haven at all. The Ask and the Answer picks up from this point to deliver a gripping, fast-paced maze-like page turner full of surprising twists and turns. All this without neglecting to stir up some thought provoking questions such as what is the price of resisting evil – can one really stay uncontaminated? Where does justice end and terror begin? Can every action be justified in the name of love?

The novel switches between two voices and two points of view, who describe candidly the violent consequences of the struggle for ultimate power between the Mayor and the opposing, mainly female, resistance group The Answer. Unlike many fantasy novels, in The Ask and the Answer the boundaries between good and evil are blurred, which makes it so much more relevant in the context of the slices of real life that we are exposed to on the news every day.

Can’t wait for volume three!

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban is a fantastic novel set 2000 years after a nuclear war, in which a boy is also forced to set out on a dangerous journey. Ridley tells his story in the garbled language of the future, and it is up to the reader to decipher what is really going on – fascinating stuff.
  • Feed by M.T. Anderson is also set in a dystopian America controlled by huge corporations, in which teenagers are implanted with an advanced version of the internet in their brain, and so are constantly bombarded by useless information.