Archive for March, 2013

This is an odd little gem of a book.

It is a debut novel by Sarah Crossan written in verse – free verse – rather than prose; but deals with the realities of a very credible modern situation. As such, the disjunct between a contemporary situation and the language does parallel the disjunction and disconnection of a smart girl in a foreign culture.

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Kasienka is a thirteen year-old Polish girl and has migrated to England. There is therefore the whole political, European Union element to it. Particularly in the descriptions of the building into which Kasienka and her mother move. It is an immigration ghetto, populated by a range of immigrants to the UK living in tiny single-room, single-bed flats.

The political difficulties that immigration control poses to domestic populations – and the pangs it causes various political parties in the UK – is played out on a small-scale in Kasienka’s school where she is alternately isolated from and victimised by Clair, the school bully. There is no fight, no violence, no confrontation but a more insidious campaign of

“the looks
The smirks, the eye rolling”

As a teacher, the book is eye-opening in the way that little acts – possibly done for the beat of reasons, such as entering Kasienka in Year 7, grouping of children in class activities – can become devastating. As Kasienka reads Sylvia Plath, it becomes clear just how insidious and appalling the effects of this snide bullying can be.

And a romance helps to pull Kasienka through – the first funny, poignant false starts and misunderstandings of first love. William, who Kasienka meets at the swimming pool, is no charging knight to rescue Kasienka but his presence gives her hope to be herself.

And, beneath all this, is the tragedy of Kasienka’s parents: her father having fled to Coventry – of all places in the country, why Coventry? – her mother and Kasienka have followed. Once they have found Tata, Kasienka’s father, there is a beautiful phrase: that

Together they are tuneless;
The sounds they make are ugly,
Like knives being sharpened
Against stone.

Written in verse, there isn’t the depth or development that you’d expect in a novel. It is a brief read. A read where individual lines resonate and chime. And Kasienka is a truly compelling narrator: clever, funny and strong beneath the desperation.

I personally didn’t feel the poetry: it didn’t seem to add anything having it in verse as opposed to prose. The novel was very pared down and poignant and much of Sarah Crossan’s writing was beautiful and, yes, lyrical. But prose can be l

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This is my second foray into Marcus Sedgwick’s writing: White Crow, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal a couple of years ago was the other.

And this is by far superior, more beautiful, more powerful, more poignant.

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This book is shortlisted for the Cilip Carnegie 2013 and tells the tales of Eric and Merle. Tales. Tales of eternal, death-defying love and – above all – the sacrifices we make for those we love; the love of husband-and-wife, lovers, parents-and-children, siblings. Sometimes, Eric and Merle are the protagonists of the story, sometimes they are protagonists of stories within the main story.

It is also a book of tales about tales and the power of stories: written in reverse chronology, tales become stories become myths sustaining and echoing and paralleling each other. There are obvious echoes here of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell in both the cycling of the narratives and the celebration of narrative.

Each individual tale has strengths – some in my opinion are stronger than others. Oddly, the opening and framing narrative of Eric Seven visiting Blessed Isle as a journalist investigating rumours of unnaturally long lives, was the weakest of the seven tales. The writing – in present tense – was languid and relaxed and there was some beautiful phrases. The island is

beautiful. It’s so beautiful, it takes his breath away. It’s not spectacular, it’s not jaw dropping, it’s simply a lovely sight, that makes his heart glad that such places exist. The greys and browns of the rocks, the trees and the wild grass, the sea, waiting for him and only for him; the place is utterly deserted, he can see neither people nor houses.

And when swimming with Merle, Eric

wonders if a few moments of utter and total joy can be worth a lifetime of struggle.
Maybe, he thinks. Maybe, if they’re the right moments.

Beautiful.

However, in my view, it is the second half of the book that becomes much more powerful which, oddly, coincides with a shift to the past tense and the story The Painter which opens with these gorgeous lines

On the girl’s seventh birthday, her finest present was not the new smock, nor the carved wooden hare, though she loved those two things very much.
The best thing was not a thing at all, but a permission.

Wow!

From this tale onwards, Sedgwick moves his narratives up a gear. There are so many elements of the fairy tale in this one – dragons and stolen apples; of the ghost story in The Unquiet Grave which is, in my opinion the most beautifully crafted ghost story I have ever read and the strongest of these seven tales; of the gothic in The Vampire.

The Vampire has an undeniable power to it and it seems that Sedgwick embraces Norse alliterative literature in his own writing as he describes how

The feast flew. Soared into the night like a ravening bird, like a fire flame, like the spread of a plague, a party as wild as the night outside was long.

As a final comment, celebrating the power of language, there is one moment, a small moment, in The Vampire when a Viking skald sings the song of their voyage and Sedgwick says

his tools were words; those mysterious gifts from the gods , and while most men merely learned how to use them, Leif was one of those wizards who had learned the secret of how to make magic with them.

There are a lot of books from my past creeping onto the silver screen. Books that I read long long loooooong before Hollywood thought to cash in.

Books that I don’t want people to think that I read after the film!

Life of Pi

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Atonement

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Cloud Atlas

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The Invention of Hugo Cabret

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It’s that time of year again: the Cilip Carnegie Medal Shortlist has been announced!

It is genuinely one of the highlights of my year! I reserve the Easter holidays to reading as many as I possibly can of the list. I mean, we do shadow the Carnegie Medal in our school and I like to have a heads-up on the kids’ reading before the trawl and trundle of the GCSE form filling begins, but I love these books!

The Carnegie and Booker prizes punctuate my year!

I am still waiting for one book to win both. The quality of writing for young adults and the power of some of the topics – World War Two seems to be a recurring theme last year and this – is amazing.

Anyway, this year I am approaching the Carnegie blind: unlike last year when I had read and loved and wept with A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, this year all the books are new to me. And so far I know nothing but their names.

My starting point will be Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood, the strapline for which is “What would you sacrifice for someone you’ve loved for ever?”

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I enjoyed Sedgwick’s interplay between the present and past in the previous Carnegie nominated book White Crow as well as his macabre and sinister subjects. Looking at the cover here, the blood red colour and the focal point of the knife, I’m expecting something similarly dark and Gothic.

The we have Sarah Crossan’s The Weight of Water which is a beautifully evocative title.

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I’m not getting much from the front cover: there seems to be a journey… I’m reserving judgement!

Next in the list is A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle. I’ve only read Doyle’s adult fiction: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and The Commitments but he has a wonderful ear for dialogue and character so looking forward to this one.

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But, I’m sorry Roddy, I do not like the cover! I don’t like the yellow; I don’t like the twirly framing.

Maggot Moon comes next on the list, by Sally Gardner. Now, this title I dislike- it reminds me too too much of Button Moon or Sailor Moon and I feel prejudiced! But look at the front cover:

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How wonderful and intriguing is that? Is the lettering in a cyrillic style – will this be an account of the Russian’s Sputnik Programme? How will the lettering become significant? Is it a book about letters? The heterochromia of the boy; the ladder between the boy and the moon; the maggotiness of the moon! Very intrigued! Probably my second read… if I can get this: currently unable to get it on my ebook, which is where all the others currently reside.

We continue with In Darkness by Nick Lake:

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It looks to me post-colonial, African… a decent evocative title.

Now we come to Wonder by R J Palacio, the only author here to eschew his own name! This one looks good!

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Now this makes me feel bad: what have I been doing throughout this? Judging books. By their covers!

Next we come to a very young looking book: A Boy and A Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton. Looking at this, I feel that Pip, young Daisy P, may be the intended audience. The cover is beautiful but I’m thinking at the very younger end of the Carnegie audience:

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I love the Japanese feel to the cover and the immediate recourse to a cup of tea to prevent oncoming disaster! Also not one I’ve been able to download yet.

Finally, but by no means least, we have Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

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Again we’re looking perhaps World War Two setting; again the covers suggest a challenging and emotional read.