Counting Stars – review

25 Aug

counting starsTimes have changed in YA bookland. Counting Stars, by Keris Stainton, reads more like a Lisa Jewell adult novel to me – and that’s a compliment. I’m quite sure there will be many young adults who will enjoy indulging in the multi-character, layered plot. It’s kind of like Friends in book form – and in fact, the TV show is referenced once or twice.

We’re in Liverpool, in a house share. New girl Anna has finally escaped her stifling home life on the promise of a shiny new job at a theatre. Circumstances bring her to the house which is already home to a range of interesting people: Alfie, the handsome workaholic; Molly, the ditzy vulnerable one; Nina, the outgoing girl who’s got herself into an abusive relationship; Sean, the gorgeous gay one who almost ends up in a whole heap of trouble.

It’s a lot of fun – although I admit that it took me a while to get into the book because I’m not good with big casts and I lose track of who’s who. Once I’d figured it out though, I really enjoyed the story. It’s warm and funny and witty, and very adult in tone – the references to sex and swearing are frequent and casual, just as they are in real life. And the characters all being over 18 meant that we aren’t actually dealing with a lot of teenage angst but we’re more focused on young professionals trying to navigate their way in the big wide world for the first time: jobs, relationships, mistakes and all.

Anna is our main protagonist, and she has a side hobby that none of her new housemates knows about: vlogging. It gives her confidence, putting on a new persona, and she sometimes talks about the people she’s living with now. It’s not really a spoiler to say that at some point in the book, this hobby is exposed, and Anna has to face up to some awkward moments. I actually felt that this part was less traumatic than it might have been. Like in Della Says OMG!, Keris’s first novel, I think the protagonist gets off pretty lightly. I’d have dropped Anna off a much higher emotional cliff, I think – but maybe that’s just my natural evil side coming out ;-)

Counting Stars is a great read and I’m so glad I took it on holiday with me last week. I can see an enthusiastic blogger creating a ‘Which Counting Stars Character Are You?’ because there is that temptation to identify with one or other of the five! As for which one am I? Well, that’d be telling :-)

Counting Stars is out on 3rd September, published by Hot Key.

PS. The bit with the Furby is genius.

The Secrets of Sam & Sam – review

3 Aug

sam and samI love the Pea series by my author pal Susie Day, so I was really keen to read THE SECRETS OF SAM & SAM, a spin-off book featuring the twins who live next door to Pea’s family. The twins are both called Sam: one is female, one male – and they live with their two mums; a lesbian couple. So far, so diverse, but as with many really good books, the ‘diversity’ of the situation is not the actual story. Sam and Sam may struggle to some extent with identity (well, she does on and off, preferring to be ‘Sammie’ for most of this book, which does help the reader to work out which is speaking) but actually they’re facing two very different but common fears. Their school is taking all of Class 6 to Treetops Outdoors Activity Centre, one of those aerial adventure park places, where they’ll have a marvellous time canoeing, doing archery, and jumping off very high places holding onto zipwires. Such fun! Or is it?

Boy Sam is frightened of heights. He thinks he might actually manage OK at Treetops because he has a kind and understanding teacher – but then he discovers she won’t be coming, and suddenly a drastic Plan is needed to save him from the terrors of the rope bridges and certain death from fear. His solution to this is both brilliant and achingly funny – and involves a lot of cheese.

Sammie, meanwhile, is a superb creation – that very real young girl who honestly believes she’s a great friend and totally worth hanging out with, and thus unable to comprehend why her best friend has suddenly become her ex-best friend, and the girl she’s bunking with at Treetops is terrified of her. I confess that Sammie was my favourite because I love a character who is totally self-deluded whilst trying to be well-meaning. And she’s dealing with that biggest of all issues: what is this growing-up thing and how can I get out of it?

The mums, meanwhile, are keeping their own secret. What it is, we don’t find out until very late in the book, but it has to do with clearing out the attic and a discovery of brand new baby toys. Suffice it to say, Susie is much too clever an author to make it easy for her reader!

There are some really wonderful sections in this book. I particularly loved the extracts from Mum K’s book, which is an extended case study of the twins. Sam and Sammie find these pages (surely most unwise of Mum K to leave them where they could be found) and Sammie helpfully annotates them. Some of her comments made me snort with laughter. Poor Sam, however, develops a terrible inferiority complex when he discovers that Mum K thinks of him as a ‘sidekick’ rather than a hero – and since Sam is working on a comic about a superhero called Captain Samazing, this is rather a blow to his confidence.

I confess that I missed the warm anarchy of the Llewellyn family: Pea, Clover, Tinkerbell and Wuffly, and some of my favourite sections of this book were when they showed up in cameo roles. S&S is quite a long book, and although it held my attention all the way through, I wasn’t as breathless with the plot as I have been with the Pea books. Having said that, Sam and Sammie are very different characters with a very different family, and as such the book does demand a different pace. Certainly I wasn’t disappointed by the ending, which rattles along at breakneck speed (almost literally – hah! Spoilers ;-) ) and involves a Bad House, glowing eyes, and a terrifying storm.

Special mention to the rather fab front cover, which should appeal to both boys and girls, and the witty illustrations throughout by the hugely talented Aaron Blecha.

If you have an 8-12 year old who likes any of the following: painting dogs green, rope ladders, mysteries, arguments, cheese, Lego, comics, secrets, pets, javelins – OR you have an 8-12 year old who has concerns or fears along the lines of high places, other people’s secrets, or how to keep your friends – then I guarantee they’ll find something to like in THE SECRETS OF SAM & SAM, out now and published by Red Fox, an imprint of Penguin Random House. You can read a cool Q&A with Susie on her website, in which she explains a bit about her fantastic new book.

And I want to see TINY ROBOT UNICORN FRIENDS. Spin off animation please, Susie :-)

Under three minutes of YALC amazingness!

3 Aug

I’ve just watched this wonderful video by the clever and fab bloggers at We Love This Book. I think it gives a fantastic flavour of what was a really wonderful weekend – enjoy!

Summer Story Makers at the Story Museum

30 Jul

I’ve just got back from a full day’s creative writing workshop at the fabulous Story Museum in Oxford, with thirteen 8-12-year-olds – and it was BRILLIANT. We did story starters (trying to identify which are real book titles and which are made up is HARD!), asking the endless questions that start WHAT IF…? (…buildings had brains? Air and water swapped over? Humans lived forever?), drama games to create character, plotting and story arcs – and front cover design, if there was time. Whew! Here’s the day, in pictures…

The Long Room - a haven for creative thinking!

The Long Room – a haven for creative thinking!

I had the strangest feeling I was being watched...

I had the strangest feeling I was being watched…

Storytelling throne. Beautiful!

Storytelling throne. Beautiful!

I was a LITTLE alarmed by what was written on the flipchart when I arrived...an omen, perhaps?!

I was a LITTLE alarmed by what was written on the flipchart when I arrived…an omen, perhaps?!

At the end of the day, the table was a little more cluttered...

At the end of the day, the table was a little more cluttered…

A story about a boy who accidentally finds himself in Girl Land...The girls, rather taken aback by his appearance and worried he will be slain, make him drink a magic potion that turns him into a girl...but he's deeply unhappy about this!

A story about a boy who accidentally finds himself in Girl Land…The girls, rather taken aback by his appearance and worried he will be slain, make him drink a magic potion that turns him into a girl…but he’s deeply unhappy about this!

Mellisa is on a boring shopping trip with her mother, when the lift she's in takes her on a terrifying plunge into the depths of Hell...

Mellisa is on a boring shopping trip with her mother, when the lift she’s in takes her on a terrifying plunge into the depths of Hell…

Escape from Bone Castle, typed onto computer by me on behalf of a boy who finds handwriting difficult because his brain is going too fast for his fingers!

Escape from Bone Castle, typed onto computer by me on behalf of a boy who finds handwriting difficult because his brain is going too fast for his fingers!

A Life of Running - a cracking title - with character description and story arc plan

A Life of Running – a cracking title – with character description and story arc plan

A terrifyingly gory story about a man who returns home to find his brother's remains spread across a willow tree...

A terrifyingly gory story about a man who returns home to find his brother’s remains spread across a willow tree…

...though the plotting of the story proved easier than the actual writing, as many writers have found!

…though the plotting of the story proved easier than the actual writing, as many writers have found!

BB falls down a well. First, she is nearly rescued by bucket (but it breaks), then by a man on a rope - but he falls in too! How will they escape?! Great demonstration of rising tension!

BB falls down a well. First, she is nearly rescued by bucket (but it breaks), then by a man on a rope – but he falls in too! How will they escape?! Great demonstration of rising tension!

Disaster Day. Poor Tom Jones. He thought he was just going to go to the cinema...

Disaster Day. Poor Tom Jones. He thought he was just going to go to the cinema…

We were occasionally joined by a helpful mascot

We were occasionally joined by a helpful mascot

...or a wooden puppet

…or a wooden puppet

Many thanks to the Story Museum staff for inviting me in to be part of the Summer Story Makers week – and most importantly, thank you to the KIDS who tried everything with enthusiasm and some fantastic results! Maybe some writers of the future there, who knows…?

If YOUR child is keen on writing, there may still be spaces left for next week’s Story Makers course – and I’ll be doing my thing again next Thursday. You can sign them up for a full five days (they get to do illustration and animation and printing and all KINDS of awesomeness!) or pick and choose which days. Just go to the Story Museum website to find out more!

I’m A Girl – review

28 Jul

im a girlSomeone at Bloomsbury has really got the measure of me. I can’t otherwise explain the fact that they sent me a picture book (which I don’t normally review) all about challenging gender stereotypes.

I’M A GIRL! by Yasmeen Ismail is probably the most outwardly feminist picture book I’ve ever read – and I love it. The blue donkey* (I initially thought it was a rabbit, but someone on Twitter pointed out my mistake – not Yasmeen, she was far too polite to say! Apologies. I am clearly terrible at identifying animals. Not that it really matters what she is) in the book is a girl – but she likes to win, she likes to race, she likes to be loud, she likes to splash – and she’s constantly mistaken for a boy. Because, gosh, girls don’t do all those things, do they? And she’s blue, and wears shorts and a string of beads, so that’s confusing for anyone, right? To use a popular acronym, FFS. Which is what this girl would say, if it weren’t a picture book.

I particularly love the section where she is about to win a race, and an onlooker says, ‘Mummy, look. He’s going to win.’ She stops dead before the finish line in order to shout…

DSC_0163-2Thus, naturally, losing the race – but MAKING HER POINT.

And that’s what this book is about, making the point that girls are loud, like to ride scooters really fast, like to jump into swimming pools, like to read facts…

DSC_0164-2

and like to play with dolls. GIRL does not equal a set of conditions, and shouldn’t. At the end of the book, the female donkey meets a male lion, who wears a grass skirt and shakes maracas and proudly proclaims ‘I’m a BOY!’ just to prove that actually, boys are just as at risk of this stupid stereotyping as girls.

I’m making the book sound all worthy and morally important, which of course it is, but it’s also a beautiful, fun story, with stunningly bright and cheerful (and anarchic) illustrations. It reminded me of finger-painting (I mean, it’s way more sophisticated than that) and there’s lots of white space so that the illustrations really zing off the page.

Teachers, get this for your KS1 and Reception classes. Parents, get this for your kids (girls AND boys). Anyone who cares about equality and moving forward and helping to make our society better for everyone, spread the word. I’M A GIRL! can help to change the world. Whilst brightening it with stunning colours and fab pictures at the same time.

I’M A GIRL! will be published by Bloomsbury on 13th August

*edited to add: Yasmeen has told me, quite definitively, that the blue animal is an AARDVARK. Though she much enjoys people guessing and getting it wrong ;-) So there! :-)

In Another Life – review

28 Jul

In Another LifeI am being thoroughly spoilt by books at the moment. I love a good contemporary YA, with issues galore and preferably some kind of impending doom that’s resolved in some way at the end. That possibly says a lot about me! But IN ANOTHER LIFE by Laura Jarratt ticks all the boxes for me, and here’s why:

  • The book opens with the best ever inciting incident (I’m planning a story-writing workshop at the moment, so this is a phrase I’m very familiar with!): a text from a missing sister. “I need you. Please come. And of course, the sister does, getting on a plane to England with her father, leaving behind her mother and chronically sick brother.
  • The voice is very strong. Hannah, the protagonist, talks directly to her missing sister Jenny in second person. “The hotel room. You’re still missing. There it is: that sudden sick feeling in my stomach every time I think of you now. It’s always there beneath everything.” Second person can be a tricky thing to pull off, but Laura sensibly uses it sparingly and thus to great effect. Hannah’s voice throughout is great – not too ‘teenage’ and mainly in present tense (apart from flashbacks)
  • The plot. Damn, I really, REALLY wanted to know what happened to Jenny. Where is she? Why is she sending cryptic texts to her sister instead of just coming home? Is she trapped? Is she mixed up in something she can’t handle? The texts suggest she’s investigating something – some dark secret – to do with their family. But what on earth could it be? And should we mistrust Hannah and Jenny’s parents? Is Hannah in danger too? And then ANOTHER girl goes missing too – a friend of Jenny’s. WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON? I was honestly gripped. Sophie McKenzie does this too. Dammit, these authors can plot and they know how to keep the tension sky-high
  • Romance. But a decent one, a realistic one. Hannah falls for Harry, the boy who flies hawks and eagles as a job. Jenny has been working as an au pair on an English estate, and Harry is a young member of staff. He’s not good at the small talk, but then neither is Hannah. “Some girls like the quiet ones who don’t have to fill every second with how great they are. And those girls might not even know they like that until they meet someone like Harry.” Hannah is awkward around boys, but Harry is awkward around girls too, so once they figure out they don’t have to follow convention, everything becomes easier. And all the time, Hannah knows that when Jenny is found, she’ll be going home to the States, and will have to leave Harry behind. But like any strong attraction, that’s not enough to stop her falling head over heels for him
  • A good ending. By which I mean everything is properly tied up, and you’re not left feeling it’s a cop-out. It’s hard to do this well and still make everything feel realistic, but let me tell you this – it’s pretty chilling. There are Big Secrets, and Hidden Insanity, and Heartbreak, and Hope, and that’s ALL I’ll say on the matter

It’s not quite perfect for me. For one, we don’t get to meet the kids Jenny was looking after, and I feel this is a missed opportunity. I can see they’d add more characters into the cast, but equally, Jenny’s job was to look after them, and Hannah and her father stay on the estate – so how come they don’t feature in the scenes? My second issue concerns something Hannah does towards the end of the book. I can’t say what it is, but it’s monumentally stupid, and in that moment I didn’t believe it. At that stage of the book, when we know Hannah so well – I just didn’t believe it. I know why it’s there, and as a plot device it’s absolutely necessary, but…I still don’t think she’d do it!

Minor quibbles aside, this is a really gripping, heart-thumping read that challenges the reader to attempt to stay one step ahead of the characters (unlikely!) and contains a couple of really wonderful teenage characters. And now I want my own hawk.

IN ANOTHER LIFE  is published by Electric Monkey and is out now.

Still Falling – review

26 Jul

Sometimes you come across an author who writes such fantastic stuff that you really wonder why on earth they’re not on all the awards lists ever, or being interviewed by the Guardian, or appearing on Top YA lists everywhere. EDEN by Joanna Nadin made me feel like this – and Sheena Wilkinson’s STILL FALLING has done it to me again.

I’ve read one of Sheena’s other books – the wonderful GROUNDED – and I absolutely begged her for a copy of her latest when we met up at the Scattered Authors’ retreat recently. I have a huge pile of To Read books at the moment, but Sheena’s went straight to the top because I knew I’d like it. And I did.

still fallingSTILL FALLING is the story of Luke and Esther. He’s epileptic and in a new foster home. She’s unhappy with her body (what teenage girl isn’t?) and thinks she’s unattractive, trying to come to terms with the fact that she’s lost her Christian faith (curiously, in much the same way I did at the same age) whilst her parents are still quite devout.

They meet. There are fireworks. It’s that teenage intensity, with everything that comes with it. And that’s it, basically – except that that is everything to a really well-written book about teenagers. I love good characterisation. Characterisation – and naturally developing events – carry a book through, for me. And Luke and Esther are just perfect creations. I particularly liked Esther, a kind, sensible girl, with her head screwed on right, as we’d say, and a good heart. But being a teenager is crazy in so many ways, and even someone with a decent background and some brains can get messed up easily.

The story is told in alternating perspectives: Luke and Esther have their own voices. And when we see inside Luke’s head, we see some very dark places indeed. There’s a voice that speaks to him from the darkness – a voice that refers to things that Luke doesn’t want to think about. Things that if other people knew, Luke fears his life would come crashing down for good. And that makes him mistrust not just other people, but himself as well. Because if you’re trying to lie to yourself, how can you be sure you’re not lying to everyone about everything?

STILL FALLING is – I was going to say ‘gritty’ but what does that even mean, anyway? – real. It is the sort of book that grabs you and drags you along, and makes you care horribly about the people involved and wish so very hard that things will turn out OK, because Sheena is such a good writer that you know as a reader that real life isn’t about happy endings. And so you have to keep reading, because you can’t be sure that Luke and Esther are going to come through this.

Sheena – just so you know – I thought the ending was exactly right!

STILL FALLING is out now, published by little Island, and if you like your books full of the best and worst of humanity but with a real warmth running through them, you should love this.

Video interviews from YALC: in which I prat about and pull a lot of faces

24 Jul

As promised, here are the two videos taken by Michelle from Fluttering Butterflies. In the first, I am interviewed about my favourite recent book and my greatest fear – and in the second, I videobomb Liz Kessler’s interview (completely unplanned, of course…!) Thanks to Michelle and to Liz for being such good sports about the whole thing!

Lots of Stuff: Charney retreat, UKLA awards and YALC!

24 Jul

AAARGH school holidays have started and my time is DISAPPEARING and loads of brilliant Stuff has been happening, and there is NO TIME to blog about any of it!! And I have DEADLINES!

So, here’s my quick round-up of the past three weeks:

Charney retreat with the Scattered Authors’ Society

I love Charney. I think this is my fourth time on retreat there with the SAS, and each time I come home feeling uplifted and re-energised.

There was music in the evenings

There was music in the evenings

There was a fiendish quiz (my team came second by HALF A POINT!!)

There was a fiendish quiz (my team came second by HALF A POINT!!)

John Dougherty sang my Editing Song to an appreciative group of listeners

John Dougherty and I sang my Editing Song to an understanding and appreciative group of listeners

Me and one of my bestest author buddies, John Dougherty

Me and one of my bestest author buddies, John Dougherty

There were sessions on how a book is financed (truly fascinating, and yet terrifying), creating characters, short story writing, desert island books and troubleshooting your book. For the third year running, I made everyone look ridiculous at my improvised comedy session. And I also took some author photos for others again this year – will put them in a separate post! Thanks so much to Sheena Wilkinson and Lee Weatherly for organising – roll on next year!

UKLA Book Awards

To my great pride, Looking at the Stars was shortlisted for this fantastic award in the 11-16 category. The UKLA awards are selected by teachers up and down the country, and they deliberately look for books they can use in the class room as class readers; those books that cover issues and styles of writing that can be discussed and explored with experienced staff. I didn’t win (Every Day by David Levithan did), but it was an immense honour just to be there, and my great thanks to the UKLA team for making me so very welcome.

I got all glammed up to go

I got all glammed up to go

It was fab to meet GR Gemin and Clare Furniss!

It was fab to meet GR Gemin and Clare Furniss!

And I was UBER happy to meet the hugely talented and thoroughly nice John Hegley, who was entertaining the teachers, students and authors in the evening after the ceremony!

And I was UBER happy to meet the hugely talented and thoroughly nice John Hegley, who was entertaining the teachers, students and authors in the evening after the ceremony!

YALC

The Young Adult Literature Convention is in its second year, and you can read my report of last year’s here. This year was SO much better – not so stiflingly hot, more space, more publishing stalls, more STUFF than you could shake a stick at – and loads and loads of really passionate people, from bloggers to authors and everyone in between. I had an absolute whale of a time.

I was dressed in my ELECTRIGIRL t shirt and new mixtape skirt - dress for comfort is my advice!

I was dressed in my ELECTRIGIRL t shirt and new mixtape skirt – dress for comfort is my advice!

Look, it's Cleopatra! Otherwise known as Lucy Coats, bigging up her brand new book CLEO

Look, it’s Cleopatra! Otherwise known as Lucy Coats, bigging up her brand new book CLEO

There was a very nice seating area where you could just relax and read a book

There was a very nice seating area where you could just relax and read a book

and there were loads of bloggers - with me, Keris Stainton and Liz Kessler in the middle of the blogger sandwich

and there were loads of bloggers – with me, Keris Stainton and Liz Kessler in the middle of the blogger sandwich

Five Disney Princesses and Flynn Rider turned up too

Five Disney Princesses and Flynn Rider turned up too

Me with my fab new editor at Piccadilly, Tilda Johnson

Me with my fab new editor at Piccadilly, Tilda Johnson

Charlie Higson explains how his Young Bond books would have been even more violent if his son had had his way!

Charlie Higson explains how his Young Bond books would have been even more violent if his son had had his way!

Ex-Children's Laureate and all-round superwoman Malorie Blackman

Ex-Children’s Laureate and all-round superwoman Malorie Blackman

Lucy, Keris, Liz and Lee Weatherly in the audience for the Feminism in YA panel

Lucy, Keris, Liz and Lee Weatherly in the audience for the Feminism in YA panel

Lee and Liz

Lee and Liz

Liz is interviewed by Fluttering Butterflies blogger Michelle - more later!

Liz is interviewed by Fluttering Butterflies blogger Michelle – more later!

Down the pub with Chitra Soundar and Carnegie Medal winner Tanya Landman

Down the pub with Chitra Soundar and Carnegie Medal winner Tanya Landman

Natasha Farrant, me and Clare Furniss

Natasha Farrant, me and Clare Furniss

The moment Liz Kessler is told that two girls in her signing queue have just met and asked each other out - directly after the LGBT in YA panel. ALL THE SMILES.

The moment Liz Kessler is told that two girls in her signing queue have just met and asked each other out – directly after the LGBT in YA panel. ALL THE SMILES.

And the lovely Michelle from Fluttering Butterflies blog took video footage, not just of Liz but of me too – and they’re VERY funny. I’ll post those separately because they are worth their own blog posts!

Today I am trying to cram three days’ worth of work (and emails!) into one day, and am thrilled (and relieved) to report that I have just hit ‘SEND’ on the first draft of ELECTRIGIRL 2, which is due to be published in August of next year – yes!! OUP has commissioned a second ELECTRIGIRL book, and I COULDN’T be happier about it!

But NOW I have to get on with some Very Important Planning because I’m due to run some creative writing workshops for 8-12s at the Story Museum and I am FIZZING with ideas that I need to trap on paper!

Wheeeee!!

Only We Know – review

17 Jul

only we knowI was keen to read ONLY WE KNOW by Simon Packham because a) he used to blog for Girls Heart Books and I never got around to reading anything of his (and I really do try to read stuff by bloggers who help me run the site!) and b) it’s published by Piccadilly Press, who are publishing my book A LIBRARY OF LEMONS next May.

I like the cover, first off. Not entirely sure about the background colour (which is brighter in real life than on-screen), but the caterpillar/butterfly images are very apt, and it’s nice and simple and in-keeping with current cover trends. The central character is Lauren. She and her family have just moved house, and it seems that Lauren was the reason for the move, but we don’t know why. Her younger sister Tilda won’t talk to her, and again we don’t know why. Her parents are over-protective and say things like, ‘We don’t want THAT happening again’ – but we don’t know why.

There’s a lot we don’t know, and it’s to Simon’s credit that I kept reading because it takes a VERY long time to get any answers (do not fear! This is a book where everything is explained, thank goodness!) which means that you spend about 90% of the book trying to guess what’s happened before. And boy, did I guess wrong. Persistently. Which is also to Simon’s credit. Looking back, there were just about enough clues, but I think I might have questioned one or two reactions as unrealistic. I can’t say which, because I can’t spoiler the book! But by the time you find out Lauren’s secret, a number of things have happened – some good, some bad – and you really DO want her to succeed and have nice relationships and find love and all that.

The tricky thing about reviewing this book is that I can’t actually mention The Secret. Which is a bit of a pain, really, because The Secret puts this book into a certain really important category of books. If any school librarians would like to know just WHY I think they should have this book in their school library, please leave your email address below and I shall explain in a private message!

But trust me, it’s good to see a book like this, and we do need more of them. Kudos to Simon for writing a wholly enjoyable story with a great concept.

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