Wednesday 31 July 2013

Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green & David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green & David Levithan
Published by Penguin

One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, teenager Will Grayson crosses paths with ... Will Grayson! Two teens with the same name who run in two very different circles suddenly find their lives going in new and unexpected directions. Culminating in epic turns-of-heart on both of their parts, they team up to produce the most fabulous musical ever to grace the high-school stage.
 I've had this on my Kindle for a while, but having seen Jo's (Once Upon a Bookcase's) great blog post on Will Grayson, Will Grayson, I thought I'd leap on her coattails a little and mark the end of LGBT month. The book discusses homosexuality in a way that some teens may be able to relate to.

The story is told from the perspectives of both Will Graysons, with alternating chapters. The first is written by John Green, and Will is a somewhat awkward teen, dealing with life by deciding not to care. I loved John Green's The Fault in our Stars, and his writing voice was really clear in his version of Will Grayson. David Levithan writes the second Will. I haven't read David Levithan before, so I couldn't compare his chapters to anything else. I originally found his chapters a little disconcerting though - they were written without capital letters. The plots that unfold in his chapters about Isaac, however, were really imaginative and I found them really interesting.

The two Wills are linked by a character called Tiny, who is the first Will's best friend. His name is ironic, and he's described to be really large, in all senses of the word. He's extremely flamboyant, and is said to go through love interests really quickly. Throughout the book he organises a play called Tiny Dancer, which is performed at the end of the book. There were vulnerabilities and flaws about Tiny that made the book more realistic for me - who doesn't have a friend that forgets about you a bit when they have a new love?! Even though he's portrayed as totally over the top, he's still likeable.

It was a really interesting plot, and the two writers worked really well together. I think Will Grayson, Will Grayson managed to mix the obviously fictional/over-the-top with the subtly realistic, the effect of which I really liked. There was only one thing I wasn't a fan of, though, which was how the second Will Grayson describes Tiny when he's supposed to 'like' him. To be honest, it's probably just me being a little too sensitive about weight issues, but likening your boyfriend to the size of a state of America is not something I appreciated, even if it is supposed to be true. The second Will isn't the nicest of characters, which is why I don't rate it higher.

Monday 22 July 2013

Nosy Crow

I haven't mentioned it yet, but not long after getting back from holiday, I joined the Nosy Crow Crew! Nosy Crow is a really creative children's publisher, and I love what I've read of them so far. My reviews of their stuff will always be completely honest, but it just means I'll be talking a bit more about any of their books/apps that I love the look of or have read.

Little Red Riding Hood, app

As you may have guessed, this app tells the story of Little Red Riding Hood; the difference is, though, that it can be tailored to your child's reading needs. The app can read all the writing to them, or they have the option to read it themselves, with an option for how long the text stays on the page: slow, medium or fast. Once you've ticked your option, the story begins. The story will appear at the bottom, and you can click on the characters to see what they say. Quite often they'll set you a task - the first one is for Red/the player to pack the basket she'll be taking to her grandma's. You then press the arrow to move on. This is brilliant and kept Caitlin engaged, although one thing I will say is that it's not all that quick to load the activity, so sometimes I'd press the arrow to move on and end up skipping the activity. It's easy to go back though.

There's then a map you can go onto to select the route Red should take to get to grandma's. Again, it took a small amount of time to figure out I had to use the map (as otherwise Red just walks, with nothing happening). As you can see from the picture, there are a series of pictures you can click on to walk through on your route. Two items found from your journey will be used in Red's subsequent fight with the wolf. I thought this was an excellent idea, and Caitlin loved doing things like picking up all the daisies to put into the basket.

Everything's voiced by children (even the adults), which I'm not sure Caitlin noticed but probably made it more appealing. The whole app is a brilliant way to tell the story, not only for children, but for adults too. When I first bought it, I spent ages going through all the possible scenarios and finding out just what I could do. It's also one of Caitlin's favourites, and I'm looking forward to showing her the (award-winning!) Nosy Crow Cinderella app I bought recently.

I'd highly recommend Little Red Riding Hood, although a some supervision is probably needed at the beginning to make sure the child doesn't miss anything.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

Divergent, by Veronica Roth
Published by Katherine Tegen Books

She turns to face the future in a world that's falling apart.
For sixteen-year-old Tris, the world changes in a heartbeat when she is forced to make a terrible choice. Turning her back on her family, Tris ventures out, alone, determined to find out where she truly belongs. Shocked by the brutality of her new life, Tris can trust no one. And yet she is drawn to a boy who seems to both threaten and protect her. The hardest choices may yet lie ahead...
Wow. Wow. Just, wow. That was brilliant. I've read many blog posts that say how good Divergent is, but it's still taken me this long to read it. I've just finished it, and the effect is like any of the greatest books: I feel as though I've been taken on the biggest, fastest rollercoaster, then been dragged through a hedge backwards, and I've got the biggest grin on my face. There'll be quite some book hangover tomorrow.

At the age of sixteen, every teenager must choose a faction in which to live the rest of their lives. Tris (or Beatrice) can choose to stay with her family in Abnegation, which values selflessness above all else, or choose one of the other four and go it alone. However, where for most teenagers it's a simple choice, Tris thinks differently to other people, and this makes her life dangerous. She's divergent.

I found Tris to be a really relatable character. Strong as hell, obviously - which YA protagonist isn't, nowadays?! Plus, while it was obvious to see who was good and who was bad, there were flaws even in the good characters that made the relationships really realistic. I must admit, it took me a while to see the appeal of Dauntless, a faction that values bravery, but there's so much action, and I was rooting for Tris the whole way.

Plus, if anyone regularly reads my blog, they'll know I hate all sorts of insta-love and romance in YA in general. BUT... The relationship between Tris and Four was really well written, with a lot of build up. Some of Tris's fears about it are also shown, which again made everything so much more realistic.

Everything that happened in the book was so vivid, I can easily imagine what the film will be like when it comes out next year. Tris is being played by Shailene Woodley, who is also going to be playing Hazel in The Fault in our Stars, so the actress has a lot to live up to! Four is being played by Theo James, and while he wasn't what I was expecting, phwoar! 'Nuff said.

Read the book. Read it. Go on! As for me, I'll be buying Insurgent as soon as I press the publish button.

Friday 12 July 2013

Billy and Monster's New Neighbor has a Secret, by David Chuka

Billy and Monster's New Neighbor has a Secret (The Fantastic Adventures of Billy and Monster #4), by David Chuka 
Published by Pen-n-a-Pad Publishing

Discover the interesting neighbours who live on Billy's street, like Mr Forgetful, Miss Squeaky and Mr GrumpDaddy, who has been banned from the local butchers. Why? Because he always gives them grief when he goes to get beef!
Also revealed is Billy's new neighbour Sally... who has a secret. 
Having been to the London Book Fair earlier this year, I was approached by David Chuka to review his latest book. It has taken me a while to run it past Caitlin and Lewis, but it definitely went down well as a bedtime story.

 The book is aimed at 4-8 year olds, which fits Caitlin and almost Lewis, who is 4 at the end of this month. I think the lower age recommendation fits well, as there were a couple of bits Lewis didn't understand at the beginning. He didn't get that mums have names (other than Mum), and that other people might get that name wrong. Plus, when the book discussed neighbours 'from number [x]', he asked, without fail, "what's number?". Caitlin, who's 5, got it though so I think that's purely age, and it didn't affect his enjoyment of the book.

I read this book just before their bedtime, so I could get the kids to settle down. For most of the book, this was quite successful. I managed to get their opinion on Billy and Sally's fight - Caitlin said Billy was at fault and Lewis thought Sally was in the wrong, so no surprises there! I got some really funny looks from my sister-in-law when I started voicing all the burps, farts and eye-watering smells, but the kids loved it! This was the point where they got a little rowdy, trying to join in, haha!

Even though it was fourth in the series, it was the first I/we'd read of David Chuka's books, and I definitely think we'll be reading more!

Saturday 6 July 2013

Weekend Walkthrough: And in the Morning, by John Wilson

And in the Morning, by John Wilson
Published by Kids Can Press

Jim Hay is fifteen, thinks war is a glorious adventure, and cannot wait for his turn to fight. But as his father boldly marches off to battle in August 1914, Jim must be content to record his thoughts and dreams in his journal.
All too quickly, however, Jim's simple life begins to unravel. His father is killed in action, his mother suffers a breakdown, and when he does at last join up, it is as much to find a refuge as it is to seek glory.
What Jim discovers in the trenches of France is enough to dispel any romantic view of the war. Soon his longing for adventure is replaced by a basic need to survive, and the final tragic outcome is one he never could have imagined. 

As well as looking for a book I could review for the Weekend Walkthrough, this book appealed to me for selfish reasons. When I was in sixth form, my English class had to write a transformation from one type of literature into another, and I decided to turn Wilfred Owen's poem Dulce et Decorum Est into a series of letters. You can read it here if you like, although I make no promises that it will be up to anyone's standards! I've gone off topic a bit, but the blurb made me think of what I wrote. Dulce et Decorum Est is my favourite poem ever - it's so full of power and poignancy - and I hoped that this book could channel that somewhat.

And in the Morning is presented originally as a diary, and then as a mix up of diary entries and letters to Jim's sweetheart, Anne. At the beginning, Jim is incredibly naive, and has been swept up in the glory and hype surrounding the First World War. He can't wait to go. It's only Anne, and to some extent his best friend Iain, that come close to making him aware of war's many negatives. The story goes through personal events for Jim before eventually, he and Iain lie about their ages and go to war.

I can't say I was overly impressed, unfortunately. Whether it is just because of what came to my mind when reading the blurb, or something else, I found the story really one-sided. I guess that's the danger with diaries/letters! It also seemed very much means as an educational book rather than something to read and get lost in. I felt a slight fondness for Jim and Anne and felt a little bit sad/happy when the occasion called for it, but that was about it. I think John Wilson tried to cover all bases in giving the picture of WWI, even including news snippets, but there wasn't enough feeling there. It'll be a great book for homework, but it doesn't induce the emotions it had the potential to.

* * * * * * * * * *

The causes of World War I are a little complicated, so I'll try to keep things simple. Tensions were high between Austria-Hungary (then made up of several countries) and Serbia, to the point where both countries were looking for a reason to go to war between themselves. On 28th June 1914, Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a member of a Serbian secret society - the Black Hand. While this website mentions that nobody really cared about the death of Ferdinand, it was the spark Austria-Hungary needed to start war with Serbia. Being really simplistic here, it then became about whose 'side' certain countries were on. The most notable were: Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy, who formed the Triple Alliance, and the Triple Entente (or Allies), on Serbia's side, formed of Great Britain, France and Russia.

When the war started in 1914, a shorter period of service was brought in, so that men could serve for "three years, or the duration of the war, whichever the longer." Men between 18 and 38 could join up, although they had to be taller than 5' 3'', and could only be sent overseas from the age of 19. However, in this book and Mudlark, there was a very lax attitude to ages, in which young faces were sometimes ignored and ages not checked in order to achieve the numbers expected. In And in the Morning, there is mention of a 14-year-old boy giving his age as 16 and being told to "go for a walk round the block and come back when you're 19." There's also a 16-year-old character, Albert, whose mum finds out about his enlistment and brings his birth certificate to the base in order to drag him back home.

According to this website, 80,000 men were identified as having shell shock, as it was known back then (it's now nearer to what we'd call post-traumatic stress disorder). The disorientation and shock of being bombed (and possibly injured), mixed in with other atrocities, meant that some men were 'wounded in mind'. There was little sympathy for those afflicted with this, and if a man was caught 'deserting' his post, even if it was only as a result of shell shock, or because he was cold and wanted to get warm, it was possible he could be court martialled.

Particularly at the beginning of the war, if he was found guilty of deserting, the sentence was often death. Twelve of his peers would be called in to form a firing squad. The soldier would be tied and blindfolded, with something placed over his heart as a target. Each of the twelve peers would fire their gun - it was said to be less damaging for them this way, since nobody would know who had shot the fatal bullet at, if not their friend, their colleague.

According to this website, 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed, with none of them receiving posthumous pardons or appearing on war memorials until a ruling overturned this in 2006.

It may be worthwhile to note that the Second Boer War had only finished 12 years before the First World War. In the Boer War, a common strategy was to ride horses into battle - a cavalry attack. It was therefore likely, according to this website, that most senior military personnel believed it was the most effective way of fighting. However, trench warfare became predominant throughout WWI, rendering horses ineffective.

Trenches are deep ditches formed in lines. They were deep enough for soldiers to stand in, although as the Germans were the first to dig, they usually got the higher ground. This meant that Allied soldiers often spend a lot of time in flooded trenches. See this blog post for more information. Trenches would then be protected with sandbags (to absorb explosions and gunfire) and barbed wire (to stop enemies passing). The strip of land between the trenches of both sides was known as No Man's Land, as stepping foot onto it usually meant certain death. It's usually a sign of attrition now - which was General Haig's preferred way of doing things. It basically meant to wear down the other side until it was weakened through loss of soldiers.

Unfortunately, this went both ways. Other methods of killing (other than guns) were tanks, used for the first time, and poison gas such as chlorine, which clung to and eroded any moist parts of the body (so nose, eyes, mouth, and ultimately, lungs).

Propaganda and censorship
Propaganda was used by the government to get as much of the general public as possible on side, as well as tight-lipped about information, so spies could not report anything of use back to their countries. Famous examples are of posters and illustrations urging people to do their bit for the war effort and enlist, like the one pictured.

A vast amount of poetry was generated by soldiers fighting in World War I, much of which is still studied in schools. There's even mention of it in And in the Morning, a poem of which is below, by Isaac Rosenberg. Firstly though, I thought I'd include Dulce et Decorum Est, as I mentioned it earlier and it's the one that, for me, is the most evocative poem I've ever read, although it's not mentioned in the book. The title was taken from the Latin saying 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori', which meant 'It is sweet and meet [right] to die for one's country'.

Dulce et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen - (this website explains its unclear terms well)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Returning, We Hear the Larks, by Isaac Rosenberg
Sombre the night is.
And though we have lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.

Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp -
On a little safe sleep.

But hark! Joy - joy - strange joy.
Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering on our upturned list'ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song -
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man's dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl's dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

ACID, by Emma Pass

ACID, by Emma Pass
Published by Random House Children's Publishing

ACID - the most brutal police force in history. They rule with an iron fist. They see everything. They know everything. They locked me away for life.
My crime? They say I murdered my parents. I was fifteen years old.
My name is Jenna Strong. 
Firstly, thank you very much to Totally Random Books for sending me a copy of this - I won a competition, woohoo! Plus I owe another thank you since this book saved my life a bit on holiday. I've already mentioned that my Kindle broke a week in, and this was the only paperback in my suitcase.

It was for that reason that I was hoping the book would be fairly mediocre. I could take my time, ration the pages and make it last for as long as possible. Did that happen? Nope. The book was full of twists and, while I could guess some of the events before they were about to happen, I was completely surprised a few times by some unexpected turns. I finished it in a couple of days, and then managed to get my friend to read it in exchange for her Kindle - she enjoyed it too!

Firstly, I really liked Jenna Strong. She's a really strong character - one that readers might want to be, without being infallible. She more than managed to hold her own as the only girl (let alone teenaged) in a male prison, after all. While there is a love interest in the story and it was pretty instalove-ish, it wasn't overwhelming and (other than the events surrounding how they met/got on) I found Jenna's feelings on the matter to be fairly realistic at times. Also, within the book there are newspaper reports and different types of media scattered throughout, so as to give different perspectives and tease a little about what was about to come Jenna's way. I loved that!

To me, ACID was a contemporary, young adult version of 1984. Now, I know I've made a similar comparison recently (with Uglies), and it's not something I intend on doing often, but let me explain. While the government (also the police force, known as ACID) can't watch the doings of the population through a telescreen, they can make sure citizens watch their news updates for at least 5 hours a day, give people a LifePartner (a compulsory arranged marriage based on compatibility) and make sure those who step out of line are informed upon and punished. Every person must have an identity card - which they use in a similar way to London's Oyster, but to pay for anything - and a komm, which I pictured like the below, from Doctor Who. It's like a heavily censored mobile phone/internet device. While there are obviously differences between the two books, do you see what I mean?!

I've read a fair few reviews of this book on Goodreads and other blogs, and note that a few of them mention the number of plot holes. Thinking back to when I was reading the book, I can see a couple but for me at the time, I didn't much care. The pace and events were fast and exciting enough for me to stay interested and not question things too much. Plus, as far as I know it was the same for my friend - the only thing she picked up on that jarred her was the use of the first person present tense. If you like dystopias, definitely give this one a try!