Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock [YA fiction]

The Smell of Other People's Houses 
By Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock 
Faber & Faber, 2016
ISBN 9780571314959

Reading this book took me travelling to another place, so very different from the places I've lived and a big bold character in itself - Alaska is the mighty force behind each of the four teens whose stories we hear - Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank, taking turns as the story progresses, moving through the seasons, as we see their lives change, and draw closer to each other. Pretty much everyone is from a background of poverty and often violence.

Ruth and her younger sister live with their strict Catholic grandmother (whose house smells like judgement), a harsh unforgiving woman. Ruth is drawn to rich-kid Ray (he smells of cedar) which leads to her own downfall and road of self-discovery. 

Dora's father is abusive and mother a drunk. She escapes and moves to live with the family of Dumpling and Lily (who are also friends with Ruth and her sister).

Alyce loves ballet, but her parents are divorced and she spends every summer helping her dad on his boat, right at the time she should be auditioning to get into ballet school. Her loyalty is something else. She doesn't even want to tell him because she knows how important the fishing season is to him.

Hank and his two brothers run away from home and their abusive step-father. They stow away on a boat, but their journey brings more trouble, but also a very touching tale related to their father's death at sea.

Selma doesn't have her own chapters, but is one of the characters I found most memorable. She is adopted and doesn't know where she came from, but her story has a satisfying conclusion and she provides a great lesson in how to be a friend in need.

These characters and this place will stay with me a long time. Their strength and tenderness in spite of their various challenges.


Saturday, 29 April 2017

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson [Intermediate fiction]

The Goldfish Boy
By Lisa Thompson
Scholastic Press, 2017
ISBN 9781338053920

Matthew has OCD issues and spends most of his life upstairs in his bedroom, looking out over the neighbours in their dead-end street. He has a number of coping mechanisms - he cleans incessantly, and scrubs his hands until they are sore and bleeding. He also counts, with a particular worry about number ten-plus-three. 

When his neighbour Mr Charles, brings his grandchildren, Casey, the eldest, and Teddy. When they see Matthew in the window of his bedroom Casey starts calling him 'goldfish boy'. One day Matthew sees Teddy in the front garden touching the roses. That's the last time anyone sees Teddy, the little boy has disappeared without a trace.

Matthew does have one ally, Melody, who knows Matthew from school, and comes knocking on the door asking for help. In spite of knowing the problems he has with going outside, Melody actually gets him out the door. They have suspicions about who might have taken Teddy and start investigating themselves.

This was a great mixture of seeing into the life of Matthew, with his many issues, and a really good mystery. The street is full of interesting, diverse characters we get to know as the novel progresses. But it's Goldfish Boy himself, who is the teller of the story, who is the star.

Friday, 28 April 2017

House Arrest by K.A. Holt [Verse novel | Intermediate fiction]

House Arrest
By K.A. Holt
Chronicle Books, 2015
ISBN 9781452134772

Timothy (12) is under house arrest after stealing a wallet and using the credit card to pay for medicine for his sick baby brother, Levi. The book is in the form of the court-ordered journal which he has to write as a condition of his house arrest, if he doesn't comply he's warned repeatedly that he'll be "sent to 'juvie' so fast it'll make your head spin". 

It's written in blank verse, which is perfect for the voice of this boy, who is not a bad boy, just desperate. There are a couple of people in authority who he sees regularly - Mrs Bainbridge, his psychologist, and James the probation officer. They both read and respond to his journal. He doesn't hesitate to tell them in very clear terms just what his life has been like. 

Timothy shares all the details of Levi's health issues, which he's suffered since he was born. Levi has a 'trach' - a tube in his neck through which he breathes. It often gets clogged, or infected, and he's often so bad that he has to go back to the hospital. And he needs medication which costs a lot.
The stress of Levi's illness has also led to his father leaving, another sad burden for Timothy.

Other important people in his life are his best friend Jose and his family, and the nurses who come to the house to help with Levi. One nurse is wonderful, but can't do more hours, so is replaced when funding is available for more assistance, but the new nurse doesn't have the caring attitude and adds to the stress of the situation.

There's not a happy ending, but the Timothy we know at the end knows more about himself, and the world he lives in, and what's important to him, and the price he's prepared to pay for that.

Definitely a heartbreaker that stays with you long after the last page is read.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee [Intermediate fiction]

Maybe a Fox
By Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee
Walker Books, 2016
ISBN 9781406372892
When you open the pages of this book you enter a small and very beautiful world. A rural Vermont winter, two sisters - Sylvie (12) and Jules (11), talk of their mother who died suddenly some years before. They have small mementos of her, and a large collection of rocks which Jules in particular is very attached to. Sylvie's obsession is running, determined to run faster and faster, though never quite explaining why. Their father has set rules about where they are allowed to go - not out of earshot of the house, and never to the slip, where the Whippoorwill River disappears under the ground. But in spite of the rules, the girls have been casting 'wish rocks' (special stones with wishes written on them) into the slip for a long time. On the first snowy day of the story, the girls are getting ready for school, but Sylvie is determined to put another rock into the slip and runs fast to do so... and never returns.

The sadness is unbearable for father and daughter who have already lost a wife/mother, and now daughter/sister. The father's manner with his daughters throughout is gentle, patient, full of sadness, but also ever-loving.

The other thread of the story follows a fox cub, a girl with two brothers. I loved learning about what their lives are like - born deep underground, sleeping close together, investigating the world above when they are old enough. The mother fox knows her daughter, Senna, is different, she is a 'kennen' - an animal with a special purpose, linked in spirit to another. When she hears Jules crying out for Sylvie, Senna is irresistibly drawn to her and together they have a mission to accomplish.

Three other characters have important roles - Sam is best friends with the two girls, with his own great wish to see a catamount. He is also younger brother to Elk, who comes home from fighting in Afghanistan, but without his life-long friend Zeke, and seems to be permanently mourning his loss, cutting him off from Sam. Zeke's mother, with her own sadness, helps with minding Jules after the disaster, a comforting motherly figure, but one who doesn't always keep a close eye on Jules. 

As Jules works through her grief she decides on a path of action, one that requires going outside of the boundaries of the restricted area her father has allowed her to be in, searching for a mysterious place. 

There is sorrow, danger, curiosity and courage too, and a spiritual element as real as any other that brings the story to a tear-inducing climax. Sadness seems to emanate from every page, but there is also the constant of the strong bonds between sisters, father-daughter, brothers, friends, fox sister and brother, fox and girl. 
Beautifully written by this award-winning duo. i'm trying to find out more about how they did this; it can't have been easy to write together, but they have created an exceptional novel I'd recommend for 10+.

I also have to give a mention to the irresistible cover, and occasional chapter heading illustrations of rocks, the work of Robert Farkas. 

Watch the beautiful book trailer:

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Lonesome When You Go Blog Tour with Saradha Koirala

Lonesome When You Go Blog Tour - Day Two
Some musical questions for Saradha Koirala

Saradha's recent YA novel, Lonesome When You Go, published by Makaro Press, is all about a teenager called Paige who plays in a band that makes it in to Rockquest, and plays in an orchestra on the side. It's a great story (which I'll review later)
and I enjoyed meeting Saradha at the Storylines Margaret Mahy Lecture and Awards Day on Sunday, where she picked up a Notable Book award for her book.

CB: Do you play bass, as your character Paige does? Did you try out the rock and classical routes?
SK: I started playing music when my dad sent me a violin for my sixth birthday. It was a half-sized violin, which was too big for tiny me, so we had to find a quarter-sized instrument to get me started on! I has lessons for many years and then when I was 14 I took up double bass. I actually got kind of good at that and passed a grade 5 practical exam. Throughout school I always played classical - in the orchestra and chamber music competitions - but in sixth form my brother asked me to play bass guitar in a rock band and... Well, it was an awesome year and the seed for Lonesome was sown! 

CB: I think you've been part of a number of bands. What were they called and how did you come up with the names? 
SK: I wish I had a better answer to this! All the bands I've played in had terrible names and I have no idea how we came up with them! Except for the high school band, which was an eleventh-hour decision as we walked around town brainstorming before our first gig.-
I'll blame the collective mood of late 90s/early 2000s for the slightly emo, faux philosophical tone to the following (incomplete) list of band names:
* Indomenio 
* Defective Chaos
* Zen Cortex
* Porn
* Tangle of Leads (actually that one's pretty good)

CB: What music did you listen to when you were writing your book? Or do you need silence to focus on your writing?
SK: I listened to a lot of the music that's discussed in the book around the time of writing, but I do prefer to write in silence. To really be able to hear Paige's voice in my head and keep that as consistent as possible, I just have to go in there and shut out all other noises.

CB: When I checked in to your Spotify playlist for Lonesome When You Go I realised that it is, of course the title of a great Bob Dylan song. I know you also write poetry and I wonder if Dylan has been an influence on your writing - in poetry and prose, as well as song writing?
SK: Dylan has definitely influenced me and I think he's a truly great poet and storyteller. I listened to him a lot in my early twenties and although no good writing from me ever came out of that time, he became a bit of a soundtrack to my inner thoughts, constant journalling and hopelessly romantic view of the world. 
I ain't no song writer, but put a guitar in my hands and I'll almost definitely belt you out a Dylan song!

CB:Any words of wisdom for teens getting involved in the music world? How to survive? How to deal with success or failure - both equally difficult I think.

SK: I see the musical world as a hugely difficult place to be successful in in the way most people would like, but I do know several people who make it work for themselves. I think like all art you need to be creating it because you absolutely love it or have a deep and desperate compulsion towards it. That way measures of success and failure are based less on external judgement and you're always striving to create, create more and create better. That's how I feel about writing, anyway. 

Stops on the blog tour still to come are:
5 April • Eirlys Hunter
6 April • Sarah Forster
7 April • Zac McCallum

You can get teaching notes for the book too, if you fancy teaching it at secondary school:

Saturday, 25 March 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (Intermediate fiction)

The Girl Who Drank the Moon
By Kelly Barnhill
Algonquin Young Readers
ISBN 9781616205676

The people of the Protectorate live sad lives. Each year the elders take the youngest child to be sacrificed to the witch of the forest, believing that if they don't do this dreadful things will befall them.

Xan is a witch, but not a bad one. She lives in the forest and each year takes the abandoned baby, and finds it a good home in the Free Cities, where they go on to live happy lives. 

When the story commences a baby is taken, but not without the mother becoming quite mad with grief at losing her child, resulting in her being kept in the tower where the town's nuns, also their elite fighting force, live, led by Sister Ignatia, who is definitely not what she appears to be. 

When Xan takes the baby through the forest, instead of feeding her starlight, as she usually does, she accidentally gives her moonlight, a far more potent substance which causes the child to become 'enmagicked'. Xan names her Luna and keeps her as her own grandchild. When it becomes obvious her magic is completely out of control she casts a spell that prevents Luna remembering anything about magic, until she turns 13.

As this time approaches Xan becomes weaker and knows death is near but must go and fetch the next baby. In the meantime the mad mother, who seems to have a deal of magic herself, escapes and heads to the forest determined to find her child. A carpenter from the town also heads that way, determined to kill the witch, as it is his own child who will be sacrificed next. 

Luna is discovering her magic and the land itself is in turmoil as a volcano rumbles and threatens destruction. Most dangerous is the sorrow-eater who intends to destroy them all.

A marvellously magical modern fairy tale, at once full of traditional features, including a very chatty tiny dragon, but also brilliantly original ideas - I loved the paper magic - folded birds which come to life and are both beautiful and with the power to scar and destroy.

This novel won the 2017 Newbery Medal, which had other fine contenders such as Lauren Wolk's Wolf Hollow, another favourite read this year.


NY Times Review
School Library Journal discussion between Kelly Barnhill and Adam Gidwitz, author of one of the Newbery Honor books - The Inquisitor's Tale

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Ghost by Jason Reynolds [Intermediate fiction]

By Jason Reynolds
Simon & Schuster, 2016
  • ISBN 9781481450157

    • Castle Cranshaw has a tough life. His mother works long hours at the hospital to make ends meet, and they live in a rough part of town. His father is absent because he's in jail after attempting to shoot Castle and his mother. 

    • On his way home from school one day he spots some kids running races. He sits and watches, particularly paying attention to a boy in fancy running clothes who seems to be the fastest of the bunch. He thinks he's a pretty fast runner himself so decides to race outside the track - in his jeans and rough shoes, and manages to win. The coach convinces Castle - who tells Coach his name is Ghost - that he should join their team. Takes Ghost home in his taxi and talks the mother into giving permission, thus committing Ghost to training after school every day - as long as he stays out of trouble and gets his school work done, or he'll be out.

    • Staying out of trouble is hard for Ghost, who usually reacts violently to people giving him a hard time. When he lands in trouble the very next day he gets in trouble he gets the school to call his 'uncle' - the coach, to come and bail him out. Ghost makes some really bad decisions, and you can see why when you follow his way of thinking. But as the story evolves you see him slowly learning new ways, learning to keep his cool sometimes.

    • The other kids on the team are also filled out as the story progresses, providing diversity not just ethnically, but economically, and each with their own challenges. There are some personality clashes but Coach, and his deputy, keep them all working so hard they slowly become a team, rather than competitors. Coach is my favourite character, with his equal measures of understanding and discipline. We (and Ghost) understand him a lot better when he finally tells his own story, not to different from Ghost's. The 

    • Athletics is a sport that's not often featured in fiction. I've been reading a lot of basketball novels, and some soccer, but I like how the athletics is both powerfully individual, but also a team.

      The writing is rich and real, great characters who ring true and have you on their side, even when they do dumb stuff. Ghost was short-listed for the National Book Awards and he's had a clutch of awards for other books including the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for new talent for When I Was the Greatest, and Kirkus Award for As Brave As You, which was also a Times Book of the Year. Ghost is first in a series and I'm very much looking forward to reading the next. I'll be ordering in a bunch of Reynolds' books for my Intermediate school library too.

    Jason Reynolds website can be found here.

    Saturday, 11 March 2017

    This is Not a Picture Book by Sergio Ruzzier (Picture Book)

    This is Not a Picture Book
    By Sergio Ruzzier
    Chronicle Books, 2016
    ISBN 9781452129075

    What a clever piece of metafiction this little gem is, with surprise layers only discovered after reading the book, then investigating it thoroughly, turning it over, finally understanding how it works. But this understanding is not necessary for enjoyment of it, with it scute little duckling and bug characters celebrating books.

    I mean, just look at that front cover, grey text under the title and cover illustration, that doesn't make sense if you just look at it like this, you don't realise until it's been read front to back that the story inside the book, is being told here on the cover.

    Open those covers and you see the front end-papers, also full of lines of grey text - here's a sample:
    "Rsdwo ear os cfuidiftl." Eehtr ewer so myan sordw he idnd't knwo the gimanen fo, tle anoel ohw to crenoopun mhet
    We'll come back to this later.

    Rules are broken, we have two double-page spreads of story before we get to the title page - Duckling finds a book, but there are only words in it, something he's never come across before, then the title "This is not a picture book!"
    Bug arrives a few pages later and asks if Duckling can read it, Duckling isn't sure - Duckling and Bug stand in white space but there's a log across a chasm to a coloured world with odd looking things in it - the perfect visual depiction of the learning-to-read experience. it all looks foreign until you gain some understanding. As they move on the pictures reflect their discoveries.
    Words are so difficult
    Wait! I know some of these words...

    "Some are very sad"

    "There are wild words..."

    ... and so on, the wonder of words celebrated with quirky watercolour illustrations rich with emotion, humour and communicate the joy of making pictures in your head when you read an un-illustrated text. Which brings me back to those mysterious end papers, resolved when you get to the back of the book to find the whole story written in text, now in perfectly readable English, and we realise that t the front pages echo the experience of the beginning reader who might only recognise a few of the words.

    So clever and so simple all at once. And then there's my favourite illustration near the end - a gorgeous  bookshelf stretching the width of the duckling's bedroom, loaded with books - picture books and otherwise no doubt.

    Tuesday, 7 March 2017

    Highly Illogical Behaviour by John Corey Whaley (YA fiction)

    Highly Illogical Behaviour
    By John Corey Whaley
    Dial Books | Penguin Random House, 2016
    ISBN 9780525428183

    Solomon Reed is 16 years old, and he is an agoraphobic - he doesn't go outside... ever. His last outdoor experience was outside his junior high school when he just couldn't take it any more, stripped off his clothes and sat in the fountain.

    Lisa Praytor is 17, and intent upon getting into  a particular university to study psychology, but needs to win a scholarship to pay for it. The scholarship requires that she write an essay about her personal experience with mental illness. She saw Solomon in the fountain that day. She knows he hasn't been outside since then. She decides she's going to fix him.

    Solomon has an excellent family, parents who support him however they can, at least they all get along, though they do wonder if he will ever get on with his life like other child-turned-adult could be expected to do. He also has a terrific grandmother who's inclined to say it as it is. She's a great character in her own right, not just in her support of Sol. She's a real estate agent and not the grandmotherly type at all. When Sol tells her that he misses the water she's in action immediately, organising for a pool to be built in the back yard.

    Then there's Lisa's boyfriend Clark. A wholesome young man who isn't at all interested in having sex with her, though she's very keen and worries that he's not. He loves his home town, being part of a big family, and doesn't understand Lisa's desire to escape. He's not too thrilled when she starts spending a lot of time with Sol, after he surprisingly says she can come and visit him at home. They are instant friends, but it's even better when Clark starts coming over too. He and Sol have a lot in common, including a passion for Star Trek. (Sol and his dad even did up the garage to look like a holodeck, which becomes quite a focal point late in the book.)

    I loved seeing everyone's relationships developing, never quite sure how Sol will react to any changes. We see him make progress, but never enough to be 'normal'. I don't want to reveal any more of the story, just to introduce you to the intriguing cast that I so enjoyed.

    I've always been quite intrigued by people who take an extreme option to save their mental health - like becoming a selective mute (read Annabel Pitcher's YA novel Silence is goldfish), or never going outside like Solomon. What measures do the rest of us take to save our sanity? 

    This YA novel has an empathetic focus on mental health issues, and sexuality, in a fresh genuine manner. From award-winner author John Corey Whaley, who you can read more about here.

    Tuesday, 28 February 2017

    The Wild Robot by Peter Brown [Junior Fiction]

    The Wild Robot
    By Peter Brown
    Little Brown & Company
    ISBN 9780316381994

    We wonder if our jobs will be taken over by robots one day, and reassure ourselves that they are just machines - it is our human-ness that makes us superior to machines. But this clever novel has another take, a robot that becomes more sensitive and responsive during its life, until we empathise with her, just as we would for a human character.

    The story begins on an uninhabited island. A ship has sunk and amongst the cargo that has drifted towards the island are five crates, each containing a robot. All are smashed on the rocks apart from one. Some otters discover it and while investigating one presses the button on the back of the robot's head, thus activating her - ROZZUM Unit 7134 or Roz.

    Her systems are very efficient. She cleans herself, maintains her systems and takes in information wherever she finds it. She has strong survival instincts which make her avoid danger and take care of herself in the hostile environment, identifying the different animals, and approaching them in a friendly way, eventually winning some of them over. She undergoes the biggest transformation when she becomes a mother to an orphaned gosling who she calls Brightbill. Her new animal friends help her build a house and grow a garden. She becomes friend to all and they in turn help her.

    She is a marvellous character, her logic always leading her in the direction of doing good rather than harm. I particularly loved when she decided she needed to camoflage herself and would stick flowers and suchlike all over herself with mud, and the way her behaviour became wild and uninhibited.

    Her manufacturers try to retrieve her and say she is 'defective', but is there something wrong with her or has she modified her own systems to ensure her survival? I don't want to give away more of this fabulous story, just to say it's one of my favourite reads of the past year. I also think it would make a great read-aloud for a classroom or at home.

    There are occasional illustrations in Peter Brown's distinctive graphic style, seen also in his excellent picture books. I particularly love Mr Tiger Goes Wild which I've been reading to classes at the intermediate school where I am librarian. Mr Tiger and the other residents of his town (all usually-wild animals) are dressed in Victorian garb and behave in a suitably proper manner, but Mr Tiger is sick of always wearing, doing and saying the right thing and progressively gets wilder until he has to head out to the wilderness, which he loves at first, but then finds he is lonely and goes back to town, to find that others have decided to make some changes too, making life much happier for all. His tidy geometric shapes that make up the illustrations, are made organic by the texture and colour used, and the storytelling is perfectly timed.

    My Teacher is a Monster is another favourite - a child meets his teacher in the park and is so intimidated by her that he thinks she is a monster, but as he gets to know her the pictures show her changing from a monster into a kind lady.

    You can find Peter Brown's website here where there are some great activities and merchandise linked with his books.

    8-11 years