Silence Is Goldfish by Annabel Pitcher – A Book Review

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Silence is Goldfish by Annabel Pitcher was sent to me by the Amazon Vine programme in exchange for my honest review.

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I loved Annabel Pitcher’s debut novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece. It was strong, new fiction with a fresh authorial voice that really made her stand out. She wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects and she did it superbly well. I had hoped for more of the same with this, her third book.

I haven’t read her second book yet, by the way, but Ketchup Clouds is on my list, and despite not having enjoyed Silence is Goldfish half as much as My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, I am still fully intending to read it.

So, Silence is Goldfish.

It just didn’t work for me. Pitcher still writes great, strong prose that packs an emotional punch. In this book we are introduced to Tess, a fifteen, almost sixteen year old, who when confronted with difficult truths about her family, cannot find the words to express herself. So, instead she turns to muteness and makes it her power. By not speaking out, she finds that she can express herself in ways that have a surprising impact on her family and friends, and it give her unexpected strength.

So, all this is great, except for three things that I found really didn’t gel.

Firstly, Tess herself. For the most part I really liked her. I liked the fact that she was complicated as a person. I like the fact that she was prickly and difficult and sometimes downright unlikeable. I enjoy characters who are more than just a cardboard cut out to propel a particular emotion or message, and Tess is complex.  On the other hand I found that some of the things about her just did not ring true for me. I am referring in particular to her vivid imaginings about her potential new father. They just seemed so babyish from a girl like Tess who has clearly gone through a lot, and in other parts of the book and in her conversations with her friend Isobel, shows that she is quite savvy.

I realise that this fantasising is desperate wish fulfilment on Tess’ part, but I thought she tried to cling onto the fiction long after the truth was clear for everyone to see, and it made her less believable for me. Her narrative arc is all over the place. Some of the time Tess reads like a 12 year old, others more like a 17 year old. It’s like Pitcher was having trouble deciding what kind of person Tess should be and ricochets between two extremes, never really reconciling them. A girl who fails to run away and confides in a plastic torch, but who goes out to the pub drinking and is clearly up to speed in terms of teen sex, thanks to the chats we see her having with Isobel, is one messed up kid. Maybe that’s what Pitcher wants to portray, a child/woman teetering on the edge of discovering herself, but it just didn’t read like this to me.

Secondly, I found Tess’ parents tricky too. Her mother is like a cypher, and at times borders on the non-existent, and yet it seems to me that the small parts of the book in which she does get to partake, that she would not be either so dumb about Tess’ situation or so passive in the face of what’s going on both with Tess and with her relationship with Tess’ dad. As for Tess’ dad,  he was my absolute breaking point in this book. I could not understand how either Tess or her mum could love a man who is so weak, narcissistic and such a liar. He may have good points that outweigh his almost abusive treatment of Tess in particular, but these are so few, and come so late on in the book that he just could not redeem himself for me. His micro management of Tess also makes his willingness to let her go out drinking in a pub at one point in the book somewhat unlikely, and this soured things for me in terms of believability.

Thirdly, the goldfish convention really didn’t work for me either. It was, at times, just too surreal. It adds an element of ridiculousness that I found undermined the serious messages Pitcher was trying to get across. It’s a clumsy, ill conceived narrative device that just didn’t work for me at all. It would have been more believable for me if she had talked to a diary, even though it’s cliched.

I think this whole book would have worked better if Tess had been portrayed as being younger. It would have explained some of the fantasising and the talking to inanimate objects and babyish relationship with her parents. As it is, it’s almost like two books welded together, one which comes across as a Jacqueline Wilson type novel, and one which is an Annabel Pitcher novel struggling to get out from under the wreckage.

It has flashes of greatness, but it’s a bit of a mess. Nevertheless, I suspect fans will enjoy it, and it would make a great book for girls aged 12-15.

Songs About a Girl by Chris Russell – A Book Review

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Songs About a Girl by Chris Russell was sent to me by the Amazon Vine review programme in exchange for my honest opinion.

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I’d already been told by a friend of mine who had read this that she loved it, and she thought I might too. I’m glad to say she was right.

It isn’t the usual kind of thing I love, I have to say. It’s very readable, not too thinky, quite whatever the teen version of chick lit is, full of improbable plot lines and ridiculously far fetched romances, but nevertheless it struck a chord. It reminded me very strongly of the books I used to love myself as a teenage girl, and transported me right back to those times when I had my favourites and read and re-read them over and over again. It has all the things in I would have looked for in a book back then. It has a strong female character who is a bit of an outcast, misunderstood but loyal, artistic and slightly suffering for her art. It has gorgeous boys in it, that tear the heroine’s heart in two having to choose between them. It has drama. It has high octane excitement. It’s just teenage girl wish fulfilment writ large.

Charlie is a sixteen year old girl who loves taking photos and is considered to be an outsider geek at school. She lives with her dad after her mum died when she was very young. Her mother’s memory haunts the book and her back story is part of the unsolved mystery of this book, which will hopefully be resolved in the second book of the trilogy, due out in 2017.

Charlie’s life is transformed when she gets a message from an ex school mate, who just happens to be one of the hottest boys in the hottest boy band on the planet. He remembers her from school and wonders if she wants to come and take pictures of the band for their fan page. As you do.

Charlie, after some hesitation, says yes, and what unfolds is a page turning romantically complex story with a darkly mysterious sub plot that lifts the book out of the ordinary and makes it super compelling.

Recommended for girls aged 11 and up.

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett – A Book Review

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Interesting Times is the seventeenth book in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. My son, Oscar and I are reading our way through the series. Well, he’s reading them to me, and Interesting Times has taken us through our summer holidays, just in time for him to start Maskerade as he goes back to school.

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Interesting Times was mis-remembered by me as the book about starting the newspaper (this is in fact, The Truth), so I was quite surprised as he started reading, to find that it is in fact, the novel about Rincewind, the luggage and them being reunited with Twoflower, the young man from the Agatean Empire that Rincewind acts as a tour guide for in the first two books of the series (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic).

In this book, Rincewind is sent, by magical means, to the Agatean Empire in order to secure peace between its leaders and Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh Morpork. Rincewind, as is the norm, manages to cause absolute chaos on his travels and nearly dies on a number of occasions, before being sent off to his next adventure which comes a few books down the line in The Last Continent.

The book is a thinly veiled pastiche on the Chinese/Japanese feudal empire and its politics. It is, more specifically, a kind of oriental mash up and satirises everything from Chinese communism and the Red Army, to nightingale floors and beyond.

The book doesn’t quite work for me. I think that by this time, the Rincewind character is getting a bit repetitive. The reunion with Twoflower is quite touching and this time, Twoflower is given more dignity and is less of a bumbling tourist, but you get the sense that Pratchett is going through the motions a bit here. Some of it works well, some less so, and some of it is pretty heavy handed.

Having said that, Pratchett at his worst is always better than a lot of other writers, and there are, as ever, some laugh out loud moments and some absolute gems of lines and ideas.

As ever, the book is really suitable for teenagers who will get more of the jokes.

Boing Boing by Alexander McCall Smith – A Book Review

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Boing Boing is a Picture Squirrel picture book, written by Alexander McCall Smith and published by Barrington Stoke, who sent me this book for review purposes.

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Picture Squirrels are a recent imprint by Barrington Stoke after the success of their books for older children. These, as the name suggests, are picture books, aimed at the early years market, up to the age of five. As with Barrington Stoke’s Little Gem books, they are made to be dyslexia friendly, with clear font, lots of space between words and around the lines of text, and gorgeous, rich illustrations, in this case by Zoe Persico.

Alexander McCall Smith is probably best known by adult readers for his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, among many other books, but he has also been prolific in recent years, in terms of his output for children. His children’s books bear the same hallmark as his books for adults with gentle, feel good humour and uplifting stories that make you glad you read them.

Boing Boing tells the story of Springy Jane, so called because as a baby she doesn’t so much learn to walk as to bounce. Her bouncing career reaches a peak when she learns to help her neighbours and community with everything from the more mundane, day to day tasks, to helping out in far more dramatic situations.

Will Springy Jane manage when her springs seize up after a watery rescue?

Of course.

This is a lovely, optimistic story with fabulously energetic illustrations by Zoe Persico that perfectly complement the text. It’s a fun book to share and would be lovely as a bed time story or something to share at nursery or in an early years classroom environment.

Grandpa Was An Astronaut by Jonathan Meres – A Book Review

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Grandpa Was An Astronaut by Jonathan Meres was sent to me by my favourite children’s publisher, Barrington Stoke, for review.

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This book is one of Barrington Stoke’s Little Gem series, which of all the series of books they do, is probably my favourite. The size is perfect for smaller hands to hold, the quality is beautiful, the attention to detail is a joy, with wonderful end pages, lovely quizzes for children on the inside covers and perfect, gorgeous illustrations by Hannah Coulson. I love them so much I would like larger versions on my wall. They have a wonderful, vintage feel to them.

The story is about a young boy called Sherman who lives with his mum and his dog, Luna, at the seaside. Sherman loves being outdoors and spending time in nature, but most of all he loves space, and sharing his thoughts about space with his grandpa, who used to be an astronaut.

The story focuses on a day that Sherman spends with his grandpa. Sherman’s grandpa spends a whole afternoon playing with Sherman and they go to space, in much the same way that Baby Bear goes to space in Jill Murphy’s classic story, Whatever Next? It has the same lovely, whimsical qualities as Whatever Next? But there is a poignant element to this story that children probably won’t pick up on, but I certainly did. I found myself rather teary by the end of the story.

This is a lovely story for independent readers aged between 5-8, both boys and girls, or a lovely story to share at bed time with younger children or less confident readers. The book has Barrington Stoke’s special dyslexia friendly font and easy to manage chapters, making it perfect for transitional readers and those who struggle with more text rich books.

You can read the first chapter on Barrington Stoke’s website.

 

 

The Serpent’s Shadow by Rick Riordan – A Book Review

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I finally got round to finishing The Serpent’s Shadow, the last in the Kane Chronicles trilogy by Rick Riordan. My son and I have been reading it together for months, but he finally decided I was too slow for him, and zipped ahead and finished it himself, which meant I got to read at my own pace, and I zipped off and finished it too.

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It’s kind of sad that this really does herald the end of our reading time together. I just can’t keep up with him any more. It is brilliant that his hunger to finish books outpaces me, and he has had his head in a book for most of the summer holidays already, which is wonderful. I’ve offered to read stuff to him, but like his sisters before him, he is ready to go much faster than I can speak the lines, and fair play to him.

So, let’s leave my maudlin’ moment behind and focus on the book. I have to say that I didn’t love The Kane Chronicles: The Red Pyramid,  The Throne of Fire and The Serpent’s Shadow, as much as the Percy Jackson series. I’m not quite sure what it was about them that didn’t quite gel. Perhaps it’s the turn and turn about narratives of Carter and Sadie and the whole premise that this is being read into a tape machine that I found a bit off putting. It might be that I just don’t warm to the Egyptian Gods as much. Whatever it was, the series didn’t grip me, or my children as much as his other work.

Having said that, it’s still good stuff. The same things that make the Jackson books good, work here too. You have fast paced adventure, snappy dialogue, humour and a dark edge to the story that keeps you reading on. Some of the characters are excellent. I particularly loved Bast the cat goddess, Bes the dwarf god, Khufu the baboon and the albino crocodile, Philip of Macedonia. If these characters made an appearance the chapter was made. Sadly they were bit players for the most part in this book. I really liked the character of Walt and it was good to see him come out strongly in this last book.

I am told, by my son, who is still outreading me, that the Kanes hook up with Percy in future books. I look forward to reading about them.

This book is suitable for boys and girls aged 10 and up. The Egyptian names and terms take a while to get used to, although there is a short glossary at the back of the book, and this book is not a standalone. You do need to have read the other two books in the series first for this to make any sense at all.

 

King Flashypants and the Evil Emperor by Andy Riley – A Review

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Amazon Vine gave me the chance to review Andy Riley’s new book: King Flashypants and the Evil Emperor. It looked like just the sort of book my son would love, so I snapped their hand off.

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It is, for those of you who read this kind of thing, in much the same vein as the Mr. Gum books by Andy Stanton, and the Stinkbomb & Ketchup Face stories by John Dougherty. It was particularly reminiscent of the Stinkbomb & Ketchup Face stories.

The book is great for the reluctant or transitional reader. It has simple, easy to read chapters, larger than average font and lots of white space on the page. There are tons of cartoon style illustrations to break up the texts and lots of nice jokes and ideas in the illustrations, also by Andy Riley.

The story is about Edwin, a young king who rules his small kingdom with compassion, a lack of sense and an enormous amount of free chocolate. His subjects all love him until the day the money, and consequently the chocolate runs out. They depose Edwin with the help of the evil Emperor Nurbison, who rules the kingdom next door.  It is up to Edwin to reclaim his country and save his people.

The book is funny and fast paced. It’s a dream to read alone or to share with children, and they will love all the characters of which there are a lot of stand outs, who will hopefully become regulars as the series progresses. I particularly liked Jill, the grown up lady who actually runs the country for Edwin, and Emperor Nurbison and his patented evil laugh.

Brilliant for 7-12 year olds. Particularly recommended for boys and reluctant readers. The story is a stand alone adventure, but there is the promise of more to come at the end of the book. It is to be hoped they continue. They’d make a valuable addition to a primary school library or reading corner.

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett – A Book Review

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Soul Music is the sixteenth novel in the Terry Pratchett Discworld Series, and the latest that my son has finished reading to me as we work our way through the lot.

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I remember loving Soul Music when it first came out, but on re-reading I am not so enamoured as I was, although Oscar absolutely loved it. He loved it so much in fact that his usual ten pages became fifty yesterday as he insisted on finishing it, because he wanted to know what happened at the end.

Soul Music is about rock ‘n’ roll reinvented for the Disc as ‘Music With Rocks In’.  In this book though there are really two stories. The first of which deals with what happens when Pratchett time slips the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll through a Discworld sensibility and manages to create an entire mountain of puns and sly allusions to our own understanding of it as possible. The second is his furthering of the story and character of Death, by introducing Death’s grand-daughter, Susan to us.

To me, the two stories do not make particularly happy bedfellows on re-reading. The narratives are at times, rather clumsily bolted together to make a whole, but when you think about the magnificence of Susan in Hog Father, this is tame stuff in comparison and you feel that the story of Death trying to forget, and Albert trying to save him, and Susan coming to an awakening of her unusual birth right, would have made a much better story on its own.

Oscar loved it though, and that’s what matters. He particularly enjoyed all the terrible jokes, and was delighted that the wizards make a memorable return in this book. He was particularly happy about the Librarian creating a magical low ride motorbike in the basement of the Unseen University.

This is everything you would expect from the Discworld, it’s just a bit less polished than normal, but enjoyable nonetheless. It is recommended for teens, and I would, as always, suggest that you start at the beginning of the series if you want to get the true magnificence of what comes later, as part of what makes these books so enjoyable is tracing all the references to previous adventures as you build on your vast knowledge of the Discworld.

 

Born Scared by Kevin Brooks – A Review

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Amazon Vine offered me the latest novel by Carnegie Medal winner, Kevin Brooks to review a few weeks ago. After reading and being traumatised by The Bunker Diary, I was somewhat hesitant. Then I pulled myself together and said yes. I didn’t enjoy The Bunker Diary, but I admit that it was a compelling read and every teenager I’ve spoken to who has read it, including my thirteen year old, loved it. I decided to give him another go.

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Born Scared is a very different kettle of fish to The Bunker Diary. It is still quite a traumatic read, but the difference in this book for me, was the very real sense of hope in the book, something I found missing in The Bunker Diary and which was one of the reasons I found it so hard to finish.

In this book we meet Elliot. Elliot is a teenage boy who is absolutely terrified of almost everything, to such an extent that he is a lock in in his own house. Elliot narrates the novel, and according to Elliot, he has been this way since birth. Elliot believes that he remembers his birth, and that he also remembers his twin sister, Ellamay, who died an hour after they were born. Elliot believes that Ellamay is still with him, and his conversations with her litter the book.

The action in the book takes place over the course of one, traumatic day. Elliot, thanks to a mess up at the local pharmacy is almost out of the anti-anxiety drugs which are one of the only things that make his life, such as it is, liveable. His mother, not wanting to leave him, asks a friend to pick them up for her. When the friend doesn’t arrive, his mother sets out in a snow storm to retrieve them. It is when she doesn’t come back that Elliot has to take action.

This is an extraordinary book in many ways. It’s tense and absorbing and I piled through it in a couple of hours. What makes it extraordinary in my opinion is the way that Brooks handles the character of Elliot. There are no excuses or rationalisations of Elliot’s behaviour. There are no neat explanations, we are just dumped right in the middle of Elliot’s world and his mind is our filter for the whole novel.

Elliot is forced outside of his comfort zone with spectacular results, as are several other characters in the book, who may be considered normal. Brooks pushes them all to the edge and then over, and the book is littered with stories of how people behave in extreme situations.

What I thought was particularly effective was the fact that although the action of the story is completed so that the novel ends neatly, there is no sense of what happens to each of the characters afterwards, and how what they experience on this intense day, shapes them in the future, and I really wanted to know.

The book would be suitable for the pre-teen market, unlike The Bunker Diaries, because although there are episodes of violence they are not too extreme, and are resolved within the plot. I’d recommend it for children aged 10 and up. It would work for both boys and girls.

 

Replica by Lauren Oliver – A Book Review

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Amazon Vine offered me the chance to review the book Replica by Lauren Oliver a few weeks ago. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it, but my thirteen year old daughter, Tallulah, is a big fan of Oliver’s books and insisted that I give it a go, mainly so that she can read it after me. I complied.

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It is easier in the long run.

Replica, I thought, would not be a book I enjoyed. It’s a dystopian fantasy book set in America’s future. It deals with the idea of cloning, genetic experimentation and what exactly makes a human being human. It all sounded a bit sterile to me.

In actual fact, Replica far exceeded my expectations and I ended up finishing it over two days.

It’s a book with a quirk, something I’m also generally not keen on. The book is split into two halves. You can read whichever half you like first, as each is roughly the same story told by two separate protagonists, Lyra and Gemma. One half is supposed to be the ‘human’ point of view, the other that of the ‘clone’, but it becomes apparent as you read on that there are a few surprises in store, both for the characters and the reader.

Oliver takes a subject that could be quite dry and clinical and injects it with a real sense of approachability and humanity. The characters are appealing and complex. I liked the fact that neither girl was perfect, each had flaws and vulnerabilities, that at times made them a bit unlikeable, but at the same time, more understandable. Gradually, as the narratives progress you start to build a really well developed, deep understanding of both the young women protagonists, and actually come to care for them and root for them to succeed.

Although the story is complete, there are hints that it may not be entirely finished, and I found myself wishing that Oliver would write more, and quickly.

The books are clearly aimed at the teenage girl market, but I think that there are some parts of the books that, if marketed correctly, would sell them to boys too, particularly if they are interested in this genre. The book is tautly plotted, well thought out and really exciting to read.