The Secrets of Sam and Sam : Susie Day

The Secrets of Sam and SamThe Secrets of Sam and Sam by Susie Day

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m going to start this review by talking about another book. Stay with me, there’s a reason for this.

I nominated Pea’s Book of Big Dreams by Day as my pick for the Carnegie last year. The Carnegie, for those of you who don’t know it, is a big and wonderful award for children’s literature in the United Kingdom. One of the big bonuses about being a member of CILIP is that I get to pick a book. Pea’s Book of Big Dreams was my pick for last year. I chose it because, really, it’s perfect.

And I rather suspect that The Secrets of Sam and Sam might be right up there for my pick for this year.

Day is so good. Seriously. Her books are just a constant joy of humour, of emotion, of life and of living and of siblings. She’s one of my epochal authors; a writer who can give you heart and soul and Cover Important Things and biscuits and just wrap it all up in a perfect little package of just proper good bookishness. I want to cry, really, because I’ve literally just finished this book (one, which I dropped everything to read) and I want to start it all over again.

I love her books. I love The Secrets of Sam and Sam so much.

I love it because it is a coming of age story in a family that is full of adults that are not perfect, children who are trying to figure out who they are, and drooly occasionally-green dogs. Sam and Sam have previously appeared in the very wonderful Pea Books and this is their solo adventure. The Sams have two mums, one occasionally-green dog, biscuits and secrets. Lots of secrets. Growing up is hard. Sam is struggling to come to terms with hummus and heights, whilst his sister Sammie is navigating the whole deep water that is best friends in year six. Everything around them is changing and it’s time for some secrets to be told, others to be kept and basically I love this book, I love what Day does, I love that she gets that moment when you suddenly realise that you’ve become somebody but now (thank you hormones and teenager-ness) you have to be somebody else and you’re not really sure who that somebody else does. I love that her books tell you so wholeheartedly that it’s okay to be different, that it’s okay to be who you are and that yes, that journey is complicated, but you’ll get there eventually and it’ll be okay.

I’m babbling. I love this book. I was excited about it the moment I heard about it, and now I’m just rapturously in love with it. Just, I say, just. I don’t think anything could quite coherently express my admiration for the work of Day at this point.

(TL:DR? Book good. Read book).

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Fire Colour One : Jenny Valentine

Fire Colour OneFire Colour One by Jenny Valentine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Books like Fire Colour One make me realise the inadequacy of my rating scheme. So let’s make a pact for the duration of this review: ratings do not exist. This is a book which, quite fittingly, flares and fades and sometimes – just when you find that point of stillness at the heart of the flame – this book gives you something quite wonderful. A book of contradictions? No. I think more a book that swells and lives in a way that is quite extraordinary but equally – complex.

Oh. I start and stop with this review. I am full of fragments. Perhaps then, it would be best to examine each of them on their own merit and hope that that brings some structure together for my thoughts on Fire Colour One.

One: the cover design is beautiful. Genuinely so. It is a book that pulsates with colour and life. This book looks so beautiful. It is exuberant and enticing and unusual.

Two: plot. Narrative. Story. Character. Fire Colour One has something of the Du Maurier about it; that sort of complex story of darkness and family and secrets and lies. It is a story that took me a long time to pin down – and as you can see by this review, I’m still in that process. But: Fire Colour One is life. Death. Moments of connection with family and friends and realising who and what you are going to be.

Three: Sometimes, I think, stories like this are some of the hardest to pin down from a reader’s space. I described it once as there being books which need to be read and books which don’t. Books which have a space for the reader, which need to be read in order to exist and books that do not.
And with a book like this, with its story of Iris who starts fires, her best friend who lives Art and Iris’ mother who loves and does not love, and her father who has days left to live and to rediscover the daughter he thought he’d lost, there are moments when this book does not need you. That is both a comment on the quality of life within Valentine’s narrative; the rich lyricism of her paragraphs, but also a comment on reading itself: I am a selfish reader. I want my reading to matter. It is sometimes complicated to marry that perspective to texts which are so resolutely alive without being read.

Four: Ratings. Good. Bad. Fire Colour One is an intriguingly complex experience; edible, joyful paragraphs, wild lines, and yet I struggled with it at times. It is a slow, fast read. It took me a few attempts to ‘get’ it; and I don’t think I have, yet.

Five: It is a book that feels like new space for both Valentine and young adult literature and that I welcome most hugely. This feels like a statement album book, a concept piece, a marker on the world, and I wonder (and can’t wait) as to what’s coming next.

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Black Dove, White Raven : Elizabeth Wein

Black Dove, White RavenBlack Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I read into this, and slid myself into yet another one of Wein’s richly textured and imagined landscapes, I was thinking about how I felt about her work. One of the words that sung out to me then and still does now, is the idea of trust. Following the great heights of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, I trust Wein so much. I would go with her wherever she wanted to go.

And so to two women, stunt pilots and mothers, and their children Em and Teo. Black Dove, White Raven. Teo’s mother is killed during an accident and so Em’s mother, the wild and vivid Rhoda, decides to take him to Ethiopia. A country where he won’t be discriminated against because of the colour of his skin. A country where Em won’t be discriminated against because of her gender. A country where this family can live in peace.

But then war, and the end of all good things.

Black Dove, White Raven is a difficult book to rate and talk about for me primarily because of how it swings on that last rapid and intense third of its story. Before then, it is slow. It is rich and coloured and beautifully written but oh, in the same breath, it is so slow and heavy and dense. Structurally, it’s told in a patchwork of stories and voices, and there’s an odd sense of disconnect between all of them which impacted heavily upon my reading. I was not invested.

But then, in that last third, then I was. So much. It’s here that Wein slides into doing what she does best and bringing all these strands that have been laid beforehand into play and she does so with great ease and great skill. Her canvas, I think, is upheaval. It is emotions and tension and love and loss and hope. And I would have welcomed more space being trimmed for that movement, for that great crashing of chords at the end of the piece.

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Arsenic for Tea : Robin Stevens

Arsenic for Tea (Wells and Wong, #2)Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was a little in awe of Stevens’ debut in this series, the rather glorious and as good as Christmas Murder Most Unladylike, and so when Arsenic For Tea came onto NetGalley, I did a tiny shriek of joy. And by tiny, I mean rather substantial.

Arsenic For Tea is a joy. A multi-layered sandwich cake of joy. There’s really very little else to be said other than this book is gorgeous and it’s something rather special.

It is the second in the Wells and Wong series; Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, schoolgirl detectives, are at Daisy’s house for the holiday and as it’s Daisy’s birthday, the whole family and a couple of extras are invited along for a birthday tea of splendid proportions. However – it’s a birthday party that somebody won’t see the end of.

A closed house mystery; a party of people, all with their reasons for doing the deed, stuck in the house together due to bad weather. Somebody has something to confess – and it’s down to the Detective Society to solve their second case before something very bad happens.

Glorious, really, a book where the stakes are high and the mystery wraps around them a little tighter with each step taken. Daisy and Hazel remain a delight (Hazel’s little revealing one-liners are a joy), and the supporting cast remains ineffably perfect (Lord Hastings – Daisy’s father, Felix and Miss Alston all provide particular highs).

Sometimes, with a second book in a series, there’s always that risk of ‘second book syndrome’. Will it be as good? Will you still like it as much as you did the first time round? Will the characters have grown or will it be a pale rehash of the first?

Arsenic For Tea feels stronger, somehow, and deeper too. It’s glorious and worth cancelling everything for. Stevens feels like she’s settled more into her groove and that groove is producing stylish, charming, witty and delightful stories. I am a fan of this series and a fan of her work and I think this is again a title that feels a little bit like Christmas.

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Department 19 – Zero Hour : Will Hill

Zero Hour (Department 19, #4)Zero Hour by Will Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This wildly vivid and intense addition to the Zero Hour series by Will Hill basically re-defines nerve-shredding.

Department 19 is standing against the darkness. The problem is that the thin red line that they provide is getting thinner by the day and now that the Big Bad is making itself known, things are getting very scary indeed. It’s time for Department 19 to face Zero Hour.

Zero Hour is part four of a series and whilst there are elements of the plot and characters which won’t make much sense if you’ve not read the others, I have to applaud Hill’s skill in making this book accessible to new readers. He weaves in detail and backstory so solidly and never once resorts to the great and awkward technique of “So what did you do last Summer?” “Well, thank you for asking mysterious stranger, this is exactly what I did.”

Mythology wise this is good and great stuff. It’s a dark weaving of tapestry; of blood sodden story and painful pasts and it all just fits. What Hill does with his Big Bad in this book is just perfectly awful. He fits. It works. There’s very little to say other than this book features one of the darkest characters I’ve ever read in young adult literature and yet I couldn’t not read him. I wanted to. I was bound to those pages and did the terribly cliche thing of sort of forgetting to breathe just a little.

One thing to quickly note is that there are some intensely graphic moments of violence in this book. They are all really well handled (I’m oddly amused by my turn of phrase there), and it’s a credit to Hill that they all feel part of this text and not gratuitous nor sensationalist in anyway. The violence in this book is narratorially (that’s not a word but go with me?) and textually deserved. As ever my suggestion is if working with children or recommending this to them, read the book and trust your instincts in how you handle this and work with this book.

What I love about books like this is when they remember that despite all the strangeness, the weirdness, the werewolves and the vampires, is that underneath it all, people are people. Still. Always. Hill gets that, I think, and his people are joyous. Idiotic. Brave. Loving. Passionate. Real.

Every time I think back to Zero Hour, I just exhale a little bit and go “Ooof. That was a good book.”

My thanks to HarperCollins for letting me have a look at this via NetGalley.

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Belzhar : Meg Wolitzer

BelzharBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s difficult for me this book, and it’s one that I’ve put aside for a good few days before writing this review. My feelings are complicated and I hope to understand the complexities and tensions of that response through this review.

So, let’s begin at the beginning. Belzhar appealed to me greatly through the premise: the heroine, Jam Gallahue, has experienced the grievous death of her boyfriend and as a result has been sent to study at a somewhat alternative boarding school. The Wooden Barn is part therapy, part school, and is a place for teens to deal with what has happened in their lives. Whilst at this school, Jam is asked to join a special English class where they will be studying Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’. As part of this class, each inhabitant is given a journal where they need to write their thoughts and it is the journal that ultimately provides Jam with a ticket to ‘Belzhar’ – a place where she can be with her boyfriend once more.

Complicated, yes, but I think this narrative works. I think it works better if you have read some Sylvia Plath, I think you gain some thickness to the allusions in Wolitzer’s text and the great impact of Plath herself, but I do think it works well by itself. There are some moments whereby you do require a healthy suspension of cynicism and I think this is perhaps something missing in the packaging of the book. It’s not a novel of hard and definite edges and don’t expect that upon going in. What it is is a book of softness, of grey, pained edges, and of misty spaces where things can be something both good can be bad.

That’s what Belzhar does well, that graceful smudging of space and reality and of truth and heartbreak, but I think it struggles a little in holding its own voice. In situating the novel so firmly amidst the experience of the Bell Jar and of Plath’s work in general, I think it loses a little bit of its own identity. Whilst that is a gloriously metatextual thing at one point (and something that I rather admire), it’s not something that I feel helps Belzhar. Even that title makes me wince a little bit, the allusions of it, the artfulness of it. It doesn’t feel right for what this book is.

Remember where I said my feelings about it were complicated? I hope that you’re getting that as I circle back and forth in this review and try to figure out where I stand. And that’s something I try to do with every book I review. I try to see a space for it. I try to think of the readers I’d recommend this for and where I’d shelve it in the library. And here’s the thing. I do see a place for this book, I see it in that space where people are reading Plath and want more, in that space where people are discovering their own voices and wanting to define and redefine them. And that’s a good thing. That’s a great thing, really, but it’s a limiting thing in the same breath. There’s a tension in that statement, because it rules out a whole host of other readers for me.

I think that’s the thing about Belzhar. There are such tensions in this book and whilst some of them are tensions that I’m rather spectacularly admiring of, they are tensions nonetheless which require acknowledging and some sort of attempt at understanding. But again, after saying that, I think of that metatextual edge of Belzhar, of that self-referential nature of it, and I think I am rather in admiration of it. I’m not sure I like it though. I’m not sure of that at all.

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Boy In The Tower : Polly Ho-Yen

Boy In The TowerBoy In The Tower by Polly Ho-Yen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Boy In The Tower appealed to me mainly through that instantly evocative title. It’s a rich one that, and one which speaks a lot about the instant power of titles. Note the lack of a ‘The’. It’s not The Boy In The Tower. It’s ‘Boy’. And I liked that. That sort of ‘woah, wait, this could be any boy’ feel in this tower. That sort of global tension of the title straight away, before I’ve even read the book.

So what to make of Boy In The Tower? If I were to tell you that it’s reminiscent of Attack The Block, and War of the Worlds then that would sum it up well. It is the debut novel of Ho-Yen and it is, I think a book that is not without issues, but it is also a book that made me devour it and realise how much I loved it. It’s a contradictory experience, so I think what I’m going to do now is tell you more about this dreamy, odd, almost fairy-tale book and what it does (and by the way, what it does, it does really well).

Ade lives at the top of a tower block. And he loves it, he really does, because he can see the world spilt out beneath him and remind himself that he’s part of this world. He needs to do this last part, because his mother’s ill. She spends most days sleeping now, and doesn’t go outside. It’s not safe. And when the strange triffid-esque plants (nicknamed Bluchers) appear, and the towers around them start to fall down, the world becomes very unsafe. Everyone starts to leave. Ade’s best friend leaves, but Ade can’t. He won’t abandon his mother. He can’t. And so we begin on this story of seige, with plants that can bring a tower block down and kill, and a boy who thinks he’s very much alone.

It’s a brilliant premise and once Ho-Yen hits her stride, it’s delivered with a strong and rich skill that bodes very well. I found the first third of the story a little difficult and ‘scene-setting-y’ (so not a word, but you know what I mean) but when the story kicks into gear, it kicks in high and hard and fast.

I loved this book when it worked and in a way I loved it even when it didn’t fully grab me. Ho-Yen’s strengths, for me, lie in people and the dynamics of character and relationship. And it’s when those relationships are placed in immediate and vivid peril, that she shines.

I’d recommend this for confident readers starting to hunger for something big and tense but still within their reach. I’d also maybe read this as a lead in towards authors like Jules Verne or HG Wells.

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