‘Turtles all the Way Down’ John Green

Despite the shrinking budget I had decided to buy 2 copies of this in hardback, which I almost never do.  I thought the students would be fighting over the copies, but not so far.  I have had a mixed response myself to John Green’s writing – loved ‘Paper Towns’ ‘The fault in our Stars’ less so, but ‘Turtles all the way down’ was a very thoughtful read.

Our narrator is Aza.  She has many of the teen traits you’d expect from any self-respecting teen novel.  She has lost a parent under sudden and tragic circumstances, she finds being at school tricky and has only one close friend, and she suffers from a complex mental health issue.  At the start of the book, Aza and her friend discover the news that a local, super-wealthy businessman has gone missing.  He is father to two teen children, who are now left in the care of their paid staff.  Aza had spent some summer camps years before with the oldest son, and with Daisy they make contact again and do a little investigating – partly for the huge reward, but also because of the connection Aza and Davis have.  It does feel, for much of the book, that Aza and Davis have a real chance of a blossoming romance, and the scenes together I think will really appeal to teen readers as feeling true and real.  However, for Aza, many of the simple, day to day activities most take for granted are fraught with danger because of her mental health issues.  This for me was a real strength of the book.  There is a lot of ‘issues’ based fiction around.  Aza’s condition is complex, but through the way it is written I certainly felt I had a much greater understanding of what might be going on in the head of someone suffering from something similar.  There is a scene towards the end where she tries to describe what it’s like and how it affects her to Davis, which I thought was rather wonderfully drawn.  I gather that in this novel Green wanted to try to chronicle the kind of mental illness he suffers from himself, which may well go far in explaining that, for me, these were the most powerful passages.  I suspect it will just be a matter of time before this title really takes off in my school

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‘Grave Matter’ Juno Dawson

A modern gothic tale of love, obsession and knowing when to do the right thing, ‘Grave Matter’ is a masterly tale from a fantastic writer.  Published by Barrington Stoke in their distinctive, dyslexia-friendly style this story follows Samuel, who is utterly immersed in the grief of the death of his girlfriend in an accident.  Consumed by this grief, he seeks a way to bring Eliza back, but at a huge cost to himself and those around him.  The spell he casts works, and Eliza has returned, but from this point he knows that nothing is right, although he desperately wants it to be.  When Eliza returned, something evil slipped through with her, and is threatening Samuel’s family.  Sam is faced with the terrible realisation that only he can sort this out, but in doing so he has to let Eliza go.  Beautifully told to appeal to the most reluctant of readers, this is a story of depth, emotion and compassion.

‘La Belle Sauvage’ Philip Pullman

It’s really never been in any doubt that Philip Pullman is a master storyteller, and I was intrigued when I heard he was bringing out another book to go alongside the His Dark Materials trilogy.  ‘La Belle Sauvage’ has been described very cleverly as an ‘equal’ in terms of the series, and that is exactly right I think.  This title takes us right back to the very beginning, when the baby, Lyra, has just been born.  With mysterious groups determined to find her, she is hidden in a nunnery on the edge of Oxford.  Our main characters in this story are Malcolm, son of The Trout inkeeper, and Alice, a complex and dour girl.  With the forces gathering, a flood of biblical proportions hits the land, and Malcolm & Alice are forced to flee with Lyra in Malcolm’s beloved boat ‘La Belle Sauvage’.  Pursued by the enigmatic Bonneville and his disturbing daemon, Malcolm and Alice face a huge journey to take Lyra to her father in London, where they hope she can be protected.

The flood and journey are so vividly described that I spent a couple of days feeling that I was wading waist-deep in flood water myself.  Malcolm and Alice have to contend with the practicalities of travelling with a small baby, keeping her clean, fed and warm in the deluge, as well as coming across fairies and almost mythological places.  Their relationship develops from initial distrust to something more confusing for them both through their shared experiences.

I have read much about Pullman’s feelings on religion and his hope to reclaim joy and positivity.  This book pitches dark, adult forces against the practicality of children living in the real world.  In case you weren’t aware, ‘The Trout Inn’ really does exist, and I have walked to it from Oxford, and had a lovely lunch there!  It is also close to the ruins of an old abbey, and being able to picture these scenes in my head gave the book even more impact for me.  This is the first of 3 titles, and I can’t wait for the next one to be published.

‘Letters to the Lost’ Brigid Kemmerer

Told in alternating voices, ‘Letters to the Lost’ has all the elements of ‘the usual’ teen story, but the writing takes it, in my opinion, above the average for this genre.  Juliet’s mother has died, and she finds some kind of consolation in continuing to write letters to her, leaving them by her gravestone.  Declan is the local ‘bad boy’, serving a time of community service mowing the grass in the cemetery.  Without realising that they actually know each other, they start to communicate, first in notes, and then online.  Both have suffered huge loss, and find some comfort in the understanding of someone feeling a similar pain.

Their connection grows steadily and is at the same time painful and cathartic.  Declan is very much the misunderstood, still waters run deep character.  With only one close friend, the fantastically drawn Rev, he plays the role of a hard nut to the point where most people are scared of him, but keeping his confusion and sensitivity very close.  His terribly difficult relationship with his mother & stepfather is developed well, and the reader really does feel deeply for both characters.  However, just like real people, both Juliet and Declan are flawed.  Their uncertainties and sensitivities threaten to destroy the connection they have forged – portrayed so realistically.  With a thread of burgeoning romance, the book has a satisfying conclusion.

The pace is really well-judged – detail enough to develop some great characters and situations, yet pacy enough to keep it moving and keep the reader interested.  This is sure to go down well with our students!

‘The Pearl Thief’ Elizabeth Wein

I have been completely, and unexpectedly entranced by this book!  Set in a fascinating period (1930s) with elements of social observation, a little light romance, a family tragedy and even a murder mystery – it really does have everything!

‘The Pearl Thief’ is narrated by privileged Julie Beaufort-Stuart , otherwise known as Lady Julia.  Her family is packing up their ancestral home and estate after it had to be sold to cover her Grandfather’s debts following his recent death.  The story takes place during the last summer the family is staying there, packing up treasures to sell at auction, including items in a collection of ancient pieces.  An archivist connected to the collection goes missing and is assumed to have been murdered, and Julia herself is knocked senseless and left with almost no memory of who might have done it. Fingers start to point at a family of travellers who have had connections to the estate for centuries.  Julia is determined to prove their innocence.

Trying to befriend Ellen, the daughter of the travellers, Julia is awash with mixed emotions, as she is constantly drawn to the acerbic girl.  Gradually memories start to return and, with her brothers’ help, the tale begins to unfold.

I just loved the mix of period atmosphere, along with the mystery gradually unfolding.  Freshwater pearls from the rivers on the estate are a complex reminder of better times, but also a draw for the greedy, and their theft is at the heart of the mystery.

This title is billed as a prequel to ‘Code Name Verity’, but reads perfectly well without having read the other title.  I loved the voice of the narrator, who turns sixteen during the story, but longs to be seen as a sophisticated woman.  She is wise, bold and naive at the same time.  She also has a self-assurance that her family position gives her, despite their poverty.  All the women in the book are portrayed fondly and as independent characters, coping with the tragedy in their own very practical and individual ways.  The ‘tinker’ family (Scottish travellers) are drawn with sensitivity, being as much a part of the estate as Julia’s family.  The suspicion of them shown by others rings very true and is unpleasant to read.

Although a mystery at heart, this is a tale of coming of age and exploring privilege and stereotyping.  I don’t think this will appeal widely to our students, but a few names spring to mind who I shall recommend this to and I am confident that sophisticated readers will also love it.

‘The Inventory – Iron Fist’ Andy Briggs

A few years ago I watched a TV programme called ‘Warehouse 13’.  It was based on a secret warehouse that contained incredible objects with amazing and generally dangerous powers.  I loved every programme in the series!  ‘Iron Fist’ seems to be very solidly based on this (no idea if the author saw the series as well).  The basic premis is almost identical.  Dev lives an isolated life on a farm, just him and his uncle responsible for caretaking an extraordinary collection of items far too dangerous to be in the wider world.  Dev is allowed to go to school, but his geekiness means he has no friends.  After a disastrous incident at a party, Dev finds two people from school have come to the farm – one is the biggest bully, and the other a girl Dev has known from afar for a long time.  These three unlikely allies are thrown together when the security of the inventory is threatened, and the only way to come out of it alive will be for them to work together.

I found it took me a little while to get into the book.  The first few chapters swapped between Dev as narrator and The Collector (evil genius out to take over the world….).  Once I’d worked out who was who I was hooked.  Andy Briggs has let his imagination run riot with the possibilities of secret gadgets and the pacy action kept me reading on.  Yes, it’s a total take-off of Warehouse 13 with young people, and there’s a certain amount of predictability, but students will love the action and the brilliant tech!

‘Word Nerd’ Susin Nielsen

This was one of those books that you just know from the first words is going to be fantastic!  ‘Word Nerd’ is a mostly light, funny, observant read.  It has immensely likeable characters, and comes across as sincere and real.

Ambrose has a tough time at school.  He doesn’t really seem to fit in anywhere,  he and his mum have moved around quite a lot following the sudden death of his father before he was born.  They are, at the same time, very close, but at times can drive each other mad – pretty realistic I’d say!  Mum is very overprotective, although it isn’t hard to see where that stems from, and they generally live a pretty quiet life, enjoying regular games of scrabble in the evenings.  Following a horrible incident with 3 bullies in school, Ambrose’s Mum decides home schooling is the only answer.  Having more time at home, Ambrose meets his landlord and neighbour’s son, Cosmo, who has just been released from prison and is trying hard to stay out of trouble.  The only thing they have in common is a love of scrabble, and by devious means Ambrose persuades Cosmo they should join a local scrabble club – knowing that if his Mum found out he was spending time with the ex-con and leaving the house he’d be in serious trouble.

From this small deception, adventure ensues.  Ambrose is blunt with Cosmo – asking the questions everyone else is too scared to ask, but in many unlikely ways they end up helping each other to move on with their lives in new ways.  I particularly enjoyed Ambrose’s clumsy matchmaking efforts when Cosmo falls for Amanda who runs the scrabble group.

This was a very quick book to read.  It was down to earth, and I can see it being enjoyed by a wide variety of students – I loved it!