Sunday, 7 February 2016

Anticipating the Carnegie Longlist

The CILIP Carnegie Medal is always the highlight of my reading year. The nominations, the longlist, the shortlist and that anticipation for the announcement of the eventual winner. In fact I would go as far to say that it shapes my entire reading year. Every time I finish reading a book for children or young adults I ask myself if it is Carnegie quality.

Despite reading what I thought was a phenomenal number of books last year, only 29 of these were among those 90ish nominated for the 2016 prize. I'm certain that I have yet to read some of the absolutely amazing books that will no doubt end up being longlisted and shortlisted, nevertheless, I have attempted to pull together my own personal favourites from those I did read in time for the unveiling of the official longlist on Tuesday 16th February.

These are the 15 titles I've selected for my own longlist.

Sunday, 31 January 2016


2016 Classics Challenge

I've not read many classics. English Literature at school almost put me off them for life. The torment of reading set texts as a class differed so massively from the solitary, pleasurable experience of reading books of my own choosing at home. At school we read s l o w l y. A book would be dragged out over several months. I'd endure listening to other class members taking it in turns to read a page aloud. We'd stop every few pages to discuss what was happening, why it was happening, how the characters were behaving, why they were behaving that way. Then we'd have to regurgitate all that analysis into a 1000 word essay. In fact several essays, looking at different aspects of the same text. The whole procedure was painful for me from beginning to end. I dropped Eng Lit as soon as I was able.

Compare that to what happened at home. I'd been an avid reader from the moment I discovered Enid Blyton at about the age of eight. I borrowed stacks of books from the library on a regular basis. I perused the shelves at leisure and picked whatever took my fancy. I'd whip through a book in days, desperate to keep on turning those pages to find out what happened next. If I didn't like a book after a chapter or so, I put it down. I re-read books up to three or four times if I wanted to. I gobbled up series of books, stand-alones and trilogies. My parents never told me what I could or couldn't read nor what I should read. I explored at my own pace. It was utterly wonderful. It made me a reader, a lover of books.

So, I've always associated classics with that horrible experience at school, which is why I've pretty much avoided them. But now I realise that maybe it wasn't the actual books that were the problem but the way in which they were taught, and possibly I wasn't mature enough or intellectually ready for those particular books at that time.

I have dabbled a little in adulthood. I read my first Austen as part of a book group a few years ago and I re-read To Kill A Mockingbird (I first read it at school) and really enjoyed both. I've also read East of Eden by John Steinbeck which I rate as one of my favourite books of all time. I'm yet to try a Dickens or a Bronte and I won't even begin to list the children's classics of which I am ignorant!

I'm jumping into the Classics Challenge with an open mind and a willingness to shake off the past and try a variety of classics.

My first selection was something short to get me started by an author I've already read and loved: The Red Pony by John Steinbeck.

It was beautifully written with well drawn characters. It was more of a connection of short stories than a novel. We see snapshots of Jody, a ten year old boy who lives on a ranch with his strict father Carl, his mother and wise ranch hand Billy. He yearns for his own pony but experiences hope, elation, disappointment, anger and grief in the course of 100 pages.  I did enjoy reading it but feel that it is probably a classic because of the reputation of the author rather than the merits of the book itself. I'd recommend it to people who read books for feelings rather than plot.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying

Well, I confess, reading this book has not changed my life as the title suggests, but I did find it hugely entertaining to read. I'm not sure it was meant to be 'entertaining' as such but I found Marie Kondo's style of writing quite hilarious at times. The lady struck me as quite an odd character, claiming she devoured housekeeping magazines from the age of five and devoted most of her childhood to finding the perfect method of tidying her belongings.

She's now perfected her method and shared it with the world. 

As someone who constantly struggles to keep a tidy house and with a husband and three children who seem to drop things wherever they like and expect someone else (me) to pick them up, I was interested to see what she had to say on the subject. Some of her advice I've taken on board, some of it not.

One thing I did find useful was her approach to organising clothes and I've adopted it. Folding and storing vertically rather than stacking items on top of each other makes optimum use of your drawer space. By rearranging my clothes this way I've freed up several drawers to use as storage for things that tend to lie around the bedroom making it look messy. An improvement!

I was a little dubious about some of her other claims though. Apparently I'm not allowed to throw away clutter belonging to other people. This is a great shame as most of the mess is caused by the other four residents of the house. According to Kondo, once I start tidying my belongings the others will naturally follow suit and sort out their own affairs, without any nagging by me. If that happens I truly will be able to say that the book has magically changed my life!

Friday, 15 January 2016

Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

Recently on Twitter, book journalist Anna James (@acaseforbooks) asked what peoples core taste in books was and if they could express it in only one tweet. My reply was “Beautifully written with complex, flawed characters who show us what it is to be human.” Later the same day I picked up Unbecoming by Jenny Downham to read, not realising that I had pretty much summed up the book in a tweet just a few hours earlier.

Unbecoming tells the story of three generations of women from one family: grandmother Mary who is suffering from dementia, mother Caroline, a struggling single parent with a son with learning difficulties and daughter/granddaughter Katie who at 17 is wrestling with her emerging sexuality. We also have a glimpse into the life of Pat, Mary’s deceased older sister who raised Caroline for most of her childhood.

The narrative skips between the present day and back to the fifties when Mary gave birth to Caroline plus various points in between. It’s a hefty book at 437 pages but it flows beautifully and reads easily.

All the adult characters have major flaws. Mary is promiscuous, selfish and unreliable.  Pat is dull, too sensible and judgemental. Caroline is unforgiving, over protective of her children and a control freak. 

What was remarkable about this book was that each character so was sympathetically written that you could love each woman for who they were and forgive all their imperfections.  It was clear to see how circumstances and clashes of personality created the heart-breaking situation in the family and no single person, despite their shortcomings, was to blame.

A key part of the story and one that resonated heavily with me was when Katie was contemplating what makes a perfect mother. I won’t spoil what is said but gosh I could relate to it! Both from the teen point of view and now as a mother myself. None of us is perfect but we strive to do what we feel is right at the time.

This was a gorgeous book which has shot straight to the top of my list of Carnegie contenders for 2017.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Sophie Someone by Hayley Long

Hayley Long presents us with Sophie Someone, or Sophie Nieuwenleven as she introduces herself in the first few pages. But Sophie has just found that she is not who she thinks she is and she’s finding the discovery incredibly difficult to digest. So she embarks on a written account of how her past caught up with her. It’s a confession if you like, to her best friend Comet. 

To ease the telling she’s made up her own special language, substituting alternative words for everyday objects.

It sounds a little disconcerting, I know. I was a little sceptical myself at first, wondering if it would make it awkward to read. However, it was an absolute delight. The play on words became at times wry observations about the world around us, for example replacing the word ‘computer’ with ‘companion’, and referring to a certain newspaper as the ‘Daily Malice’. At other times, the word choices were genuinely comical like ‘baldy bruiser’ for ‘baby brother’.

Despite telling a difficult story it was never overly emotional or depressing. Sophie Someone is a book that talks of self-acceptance, forgiveness and offers hope in an uncertain world.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Sometimes you don't need pages and pages and pages to tell a story. Sometimes fewer words speak loudest of all. Orbiting Jupiter is one such story. It's a slight book told with a light touch but there is a weight to the emotional punch at the end.

When 14 year old Joseph joins Jack's family as a foster child he’s silent and aloof. He’s been removed from his father’s abusive home after almost killing a teacher. And he has a 3 month old daughter called Jupiter who he’s never met.

Jack befriends Joseph and he slowly thaws and warms to life on the farm, milking the cows and opening up to his new family about his past.  His history is devastating but we see the power of friendship in this book, how sympathy and human connection can transform someone.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

2015 Reading Roundup

I've posted my best reads of 2015 but I wanted to do an additional post to highlight some of the other excellent books I read over the year. I'll share a few of my reading stats and then highlight some of my favourites in particular categories.

Total books read: 82
Rated 5 stars: 15
Rated 4 stars: 36
Rated 3 stars: 20
Rated 2 stars: 11
Rated 0 stars (Did not finish): 9

YA books read: 67
Adult books read: 15

Best book of short stories
13 Chairs by Dave Shelton. Excellent differentiation of voice in this book. And it gave me a massive lump in my throat.

Best book in a series
Half Bad/Half Wild by Sally Green. Can't wait for Half Lost.

Best book by a debut author
Birdy by Jess Vallance. A twisted friendship that kept me hooked.

Best page turner
Monsters by Emerald Fennell. The most disturbing book I read this year. I Just had to find out where it was going.

Best world-building
Railhead by Philip Reeve. Imaginative book with a gripping storyline.

Biggest disappointment
The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Love his other stuff, horribly disappointed with this one.

Best 2016 release already read
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt. Slight and tender. Loved it.

Most anticipated book of 2016
How Not to Disappear by Clare Furniss. Loved Year of the Rat, can't wait for this one.

Most beautifully written
The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. So wonderful I kept tweeting quotes.

Best diverse book
Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley. Engrossing historical LGBT romance.

Most loathsome character
Papa S from Seed by Lisa Heathfield. Brilliant book, hideous character. Gave me the heebie-jeebies!

Favourite character
Teddy from A God in Ruins. I loved him. I could have married him.