Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

These are not worth separate blog posts: same basic book written in the same basic style about the same basic themes. 

Which sounds terribly dismissive but shouldn’t: as a self-confessed language geek who’s alert to the absurdity and beauty of our mongrel mother tongue, these books were a delightful treat.and a little like talking to myself or being a student in my own class. If that is the case, they’re lucky students!

The Etymologicon – as you might expect – cherry picks words with interesting etymologies, generally as a result of English’s tendency to beg, borrow, steal words from other languages, and then invent, twist and warp original meanings through metaphor, misunderstandings and imaginative leaps.

Short bite-sized chapters link one word to the next as we explore farts, peters and petards; rolling stones and guns; salt and soldiering; Nazis and Big Bangs and little feisty dogs.

It is a coffee table book, to dip into and out of, to turn to a (possibly bemused, patient or disgruntled) friend and say “Oh, did you know…?”

The written equivalent of watching an episode of QI. In fact, I have a feeling some of the tidbits in the book were familiar, possibly because they had been covered in QI!

The Elements of Eloquence is really the same thing, applied to rhetoric and a range of rhetorical devices. In fact, very many of them are the techniques I use and teach regularly. Generally without the Greek names attached!
As a writer, I was pleased by  opening anecdote which recounted how Forsyth turned round his writer wife to ask her what would have helped her in the style guides she’d read, only to hear the reply that she’d never read any. Writers read books, not guides. Which isn’t to say that the techniques covered aren’t valid, useful or real. But, steeped in writing, you feel them rather than learn them. 

Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy learning them and seeing the examples that Forsyth has dredged from literature. I’m not sure I have the capacity to turn the perfect phrase yet, though!

Did I learn anything from these books? Yes, although not of a huge practical applicability.

Did I enjoy the witty and erudite and sometimes scatological style? Yes.

Fun, smart and witty. What’s not to love.

This is the first of my reviews of this year’s CILIP Carnegie Medal nominees. Well, my second. Patrick Ness’ More Than This I read back in August – see here for my review – six months before the shortlist was announced. And to be honest, it will take some beating!

Anyway, this is my first knowing CILIP Carnegie read. 

And I must say I enjoyed it thoroughly! I don’t think it’s a winner but a great read. I mean, fairytales, wolves, witches, werepeople, cross dressing. And a slightly underused hen. What’s not to like? 

   Fairytales and mythology have continued to inspire writers and are enjoying a revival with Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Susanna Clarke, Helene Wecker, Ali Smith, Ali Shaw, Erin Morgenstern and the ubiquitous Disney – who would watch Frozen when you could read The Girl With Glass Feet? So, in this environment, expectations are high for Tinder. Heady company, Ms Gardner!

And the opening lines do not disappoint. 

Once in a time of war, when I was a soldier in the Imperial Army, I saw Death walking. He wore upon his skull a withered crown of white bone twisted with green hawthorn. His skeleton was shrouded with a tattered cloak of gold and, in his wake, stood the ghosts of my comrades newly plucked, half-lived, from life. Many I knew by name. 

  Based on the first fairy tale Hans Christian Anderson’s wrote, The Tinderbox, Tinder‘s narrator is Otto Hundebiss, a common soldier drafted into the Imperial Army during the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. Following the slaughter of his compatriots, Otto drifts into a fairytale world of hidden castles, unruly princesses and fearsome werewolves. Following the structure of the original take, Otto has to face three trials in order to retrieve a mysterious tinderbox, keeping the riches he finds there. Instead of returning it to its owner, he keeps the tinderbox, causing her to be killed. In a nearby town, he discovers that the tinderbox grants him the power to summon monstrous werewolves. 

The language of the novel maintains the sparseness and occasional lyricism of the classic fairytale. There’s not the depth of character or psychology you might expect: Otto never becomes more than a cipher for the traumatised child soldier, the common man struggling against social inequalities, or sexual maturing. He doesn’t work as a character, even though Gardner does toss us flashbacks to the horrors that Otto has experienced. But that’s all okay because this is, at the end of the day, a fairy tale. 

The illustrations in the book by David Roberts are also worth a mention: they are gorgeous! Simply gorgeous. Stylised and unreal but gorgeous. 


 The novel certainly holds the imagination with the quality of an hallucination or a dream and a similar logic. Gardner has said that the novel was inspired by the experiences of returned soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan and of child soldiers in Rwanda as well as the Thirty Years War. For me, these real world parallels were mere echoes – although parents may want to exercise caution as the fate of Otto’s sister becomes clear as well as the fate of the daughter of a neighbouring farm. It is perhaps here that the more modern conflicts and our outrage at the use of rape as a weapon of war become most patent. 

Anthony Horowitz, for me as an English teacher is almost synonymous with his teenage spy Alex Rider. Although probably with fewer helicopters, assassins and explosions. And more writing. The series is a very boy friendly, speedily paced series of novels which are one out go-to series for reluctant boy-readers. So it was with some surprise and not a little interest that I discovered, on reading the afterword essay following The House Of Silk, that his career includes Midsomer Murders, Agatha Christie and Foyle’s War.

Apparently, this is the first officially sanctioned new Holmes novel – sanctioned by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. And what is clear from reading it is that Horowitz knows his Holmes! Knows him well! So well he even includes a quiz at the end of his afterword. I got 6 / 10. Could do better. He also includes frequent references to other novels and short stories: The Red Headed League. The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans. These are all explicit and fleeting, nothing which would put off a newcomer to Holmes but a pleasing nod to the canon for those readers familiar with it.

Horowitz’ tone and structure is also pretty authentic. I mean, I don’t profess to be a Holmes expert, but the familiarity of the opening scene – Holmes at 221b Baker Street astounding Watson with his deductions as we await a fateful knock at the door – takes you straight back to The Hound of The Baskervilles. Similarly, the length of time spent without Holmes, his disappearance from the narrative, the intertwining of two apparently unrelated plots, the time devoted to other characters giving their own stories in their own voices all felt delightfully familiar. In fact, if anything, characters seemed to be falling over themselves to tell their stories.

I usually don’t worry too much about spoilers but a Holmes novel does require a certain delicacy, I suppose. So let’s instead look at some of the ingredients Horowitz has added to his mix: an art dealer haunted by a vengeful figure from America; a corpse discovered in a hotel room; the Baker Street Irregulars and a charitable school; and, of course, the eponymous House of Silk. We also have the familiar cast: Lestrade, Mycroft and Mrs Hudson. And a mysterious nighttime assignation with an unnamed yet urbane criminal figure. As Horowitz’ sequel is named Moriarty, I think we can make certain assumptions!

These last few years have been golden ones for Holmes fans: BBC’s Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is a delight; Robert Downey Jr’s films are fun. Horowitz’ Holmes, though, does seem far closer to Jeremy Brett than his more modern counterparts. I have to say that, in my head, some of Holmes’ dialogue was read in Brett’s lugubrious tones. Stiller, calmer than the somewhat frenetic Messrs Cumberbatch and Downey. Maybe hearing Brett’s voice intone Holmes’ words is a tribute to Horowitz’ writing; maybe it just reveals how impressionable my mind was when, as a child, I saw Brett in The Hound of The Baskervilles.

So, returning to Horowitz, I thoroughly enjoyed this. It was, possibly, a little too self-conscious of its place as part of the canon and maybe a little too reverential. But perhaps that is the nature of all pastiches: without that reverence for the source material it would become a novel featuring Sherlock Holmes rather than a Sherlock Holmes novel.

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes novels, it transpires that a lost Holmes short story has been discovered in Selkirk, Scotland, written to raise money for a bridge. See here for the full report.


Many things about being a teacher vex me: longer hours than the public realise, pay, governmental meddling. Paperwork. Ofsted. As a teacher of English though, the lack of imagination in exam boards’ choices for set texts is pretty high on the vexing-list. Really, Of Mice And Men, again? An Inspector Calls as modern drama? Don’t get me wrong, both are great books. But there is an embarrassment when parents point out they read the same book in their generation. As did some grandparents!

So, for me, I avoid the familiar and, if I can, try to teach at least one fresh book a year. Last year, it was The Woman In Black by Susan Hill; this year, Mister Pip. Admittedly, it’s not completely “fresh”: I’d read it when it was nominated for the Man Booker in 2007. But it has stayed with me, the child’s voice of the narrator, the somehow ephemeral Mister Watts. The island.

Mister Pip Is set on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Near Australia. Now, going back to exam text lists, that is a different culture. 1930s America in contrast seems altogether too familiar! Lloyd Jones, literally, takes us to the other side of the world.

2015/01/img_6581-0.png And this island is gorgeous! Do a quick Google image search. You’ll find images like these.


And in the middle of the island – the heart of the island – is a vast ugly scar of a copper mine.

The copper mine and its white owners became the subject of criticism, strikes and eventually rebellion in the 1990s and it is into that conflict which Jones plunges us.


We only see the conflict (and indeed the island) through the prism of Matilda’s eyes, a young girl in a village around which threat of the civil war rages. We only see the conflict as it touches on the villagers’ lives: the embargo which means they run out of fuel for generators; the exodus of whites which leads to the closure of the village school; occasional helicopters and gunfire in the jungle; visits by both the rebels and the redskin troops trying to eliminate them. The conflict circles the village, eddies around it, and becomes increasingly threatening until the truly horrific atrocities committed in the final chapters. All the more brutal for the simplicity and directness of the narration.

The war, however, is but a backdrop to the novel: the heart of this novel is the character of Mister Watt, the last white man on the island who declined his opportunity to leave it. Who re-opened the school after the blockade. Who read Dickens’ Great Expectations to a schoolroom of teenage kids. Who wheels his wife around the village on a cart, whilst wearing a red clown nose. Who may be an heroic or a sympathetic or a pathetic character. Or all three. Who clashes with Dolores, Matilda’s mother, about, well, everything!

There is some criticism of the book on Goodreads that Mr Watts is painted as the great white hero, using the great white novel, to save the souls of the helpless aboriginal children. People are uncomfortable that there’s a colonial arrogance in the portrayal of Mr Watts. Perhaps we are meant to be uncomfortable about that. Perhaps the irony of the conflict between the value of the bible versus Great Expectations, both of which symbolise the white colonial presence is intended. Maybe we as white readers are complicit in the ills which befall the inhabitants of this island.

But those criticisms, in my view, miss the point almost entirely. It’s not the fact the it’s Great Expectations that saves the children, it is the power of story. Including the stories, folk tales and jungle knowledge of the villagers. Mr Watts’ final seven day performance to the rebels of his story which stitches elements of fantasy, his own autobiography. Great Expectations and local stories is the absurd, touching, bright gem.

Mr Watts is no imperial or colonial hero: he is an actor who only succeeds in his various roles because his audience has the capacity and imagination to permit him to succeed.

And Lloyd Jones prepares and preempts the final twist to Mr Watts’ story and character beautifully.

Anyway, to sum up, this is s gorgeous novel about the power of story, the strength of ordinary people to endure. It is about identity, about mothers, about love. And told through the lips of a remarkable narrative voice in Matilda.

Thank goodness it’s found its way onto the GCSE set text list… Until the new exams hit us and exam boards revert back to reliable classics!

Some books just blow you away.

This one is absolutely in that category. One of those books that I struggle to find an adjective to describe the experience of reading it. Astonishing. Scintillating. Experimental. Complex. Extraordinarily sensuous.

I can understand why many people might not like it. It is written in a non-linear way – using one of its own symbols, that of a shuffled pack of cards. It plays with and explores the whole nature of truth, deception, self-deception and the playing of and creation of roles. Focussing primarily on teenage girls, their self-creation is at the heart of the novel.

The dialogue is, at times, realistic and utterly convincing; at other times, it is deliberately unrealistic and crafted. As an example, this is the Saxophone Teacher’s monologue to a prospective parent:

I require of all my students that they are downy and pubescent, pimpled with sullen mistrust, and boiling away with private fury and ardour and uncertainty and gloom … If I am to teach your daughter, you darling hopeless and inadequate mother, she must be moody and bewildered and awkward and dissatisfied and wrong.

With that ringing in my ears, as a teacher, I realise that I’ve been doing Parents’ Evenings all wrong!

This language is beautiful! Unnatural, poetic and calling attention to itself. But beautiful.

Rather like The Luminaries, the focus Catton has on playing with narrative structures and registers of language could have come across as somewhat self-congratulatory and, let’s face it, pretentious. But it doesn’t come across in that way for me. It is witty, unsettling and refreshing. It is one of those books that I felt giddy reading.


The plot revolves around two creative processes: the saxophone lessons offered by the unnamed Saxophone Teacher to three female students in preparation for a recital; and the local Drama Academy First Year drama performance. What links these two strands together is the revelation and response to a sexual relationship between a male teacher, Mr Saladin, at the local school and one of his female pupils, Victoria. The Saxophone Teacher teaches Isolde, Victoria’s sister – and how telling is it that the first we hear of the relationship is as an excuse for not having practised and Isolde’s obviously rehearsed recitation of it – and the students of the Drama Academy appropriate the story – or a version of it – as the focus of their drama.

Now that relationship in itself is a deeply difficult topic! It would have been easy to be preachy and demonise the teacher – Mr Saladin – as the Daily Mail article attached here does; but it is equally dangerous and offensive not to acknowledge the vulnerability of the children in those relationships.

Catton’s response is to leave that relationship in the background and only to discuss it through the prism of another person’s point of view: the girl’s parents and sister, her friends, the school’s counselling sessions, newspaper reports. By the end of the book, I’m no clearer as to that relationship: was he predatory, did she have a naive crush taken too far, was she a Lolita or was it just a stupid chaotic complicated human mess? We as the reader are excluded from that taboo relationship as completely as Victoria’s friends and family are. And as a result, we indulge in and share and are therefore complicit with the same rumour-mongering and gossip that the characters do.

It is also not the source of the novel’s sensuality: that comes through the writing and the relationships that surround the Saxophone Teacher and her pupils, especially Isolde and Julia. The language often lingers on tiny erotic details: the soft notched hollow of a collarbone, the down on her cheeks, glowing soft pink in the slanting light, the feathered lobe of an ear, a hand that snakes down the saxophone and trails around the edge of the bell. This sort of language pervades the book and, taken in isolation, looks perhaps a little too obvious, a little over-Freudian but within the context of the language of the book works brilliantly.


We are seduced by the beauty and poetry of the Saxophone Teacher’s language through this book. Her playfulness and sensuality and pleasure in her art and the artifices of others was deeply attractive. She, however, has her own agenda as well and, as she guides and moulds her students she becomes far more sinister than Mr Saladin did, reliving and voyeuristically or vicariously using the girls she taught to recreate her own relationships from the past. Her sensuality and language tempts and moulds us as readers and we simultaneously complicit in wanting her students to get together and are horrified by her machinations and sympathetic to her own needs and pain which she has suffered.

She is an extraordinary character.

Even more remarkably, Catton was a mere 22 years old when she wrote this as a debut novel. The heady, sensual self-discovery she describes had an authenticity that an older writer may not have achieved; but, to exhibit the control and self-awareness and sheer confidence we see here, in an author of that age, is exceptional.


This book had been on my to-read list since it was listed for The Booker Prize. The copy I had was electronic and just stopped about 20 pages in… And I never got round to replacing it.

Until it cropped up whilst I was browsing on Audible.

This was a perfect book for an audio file: not only is it a first person narrative which is always going to work best on audio, the voice of the narrator is the key to this book. Initially, the infantile voice of the five year old narrator was off putting but that was quickly overcome by the purity and innocence of his narrative voice. That voice was created through the hyper extension of grammatical rules and the omission of articles in sentences (which had the effect of personifying almost every element of his environment, presumably filling the social void caused by his isolation). There were one or two moments when I did question the authenticity of the voice: he discusses minus numbers within the opening chapters which jarred a little. Do five year olds have a concept of negative numbers? Really?

For those who’ve not come across this wonderful novel, the narrator Jack is five years old and it’s his birthday which opens the book. Throughout those five years, he believed the world to be comprised of the 11 foot square cell in which he and his mother had been incarcerated by an abductor. In fact, Jack’s mother had been abducted seven years previously and Jack was the product of the sexual abuse she suffered through that time. The appalling abuse suffered is mediated for us through Jack’s eyes: Donoghue strikes a very sensitive balance between her reader’s need to understand and her narrator’s innocent lack of understanding. We know what the noises Jack hears mean when Jack has no idea.

In the opening chapters, I was not sure in what direction she was taking us. Was this going to be a bleak tale of the destruction of innocence and hope (not unlike the 2014 Carnegie Medal winning The Bunker Diaries)? When Jack and his mother managed to escape perhaps a third of the way through the book I was genuinely elated at their freedom but continued to dread what might be in store for them in the last five hours of recording. I did genuinely pause my listening for a couple of days!

The story, I suppose, progressed in a fairly predictable manner in that the difficulties faced post-escape were just as traumatic as the horrors of the capture. The media. Lawyers. Police. These institutions all play their role in constructing a narrative around the abduction for their own ends. I loved the moments in the book where Jack was watching snippets of the media coverage of his own escape: stories within stories within stories, none of which were narrated with any degree of reliability.

It really is a remarkable book, purely through the voice of Jack. There’s a strength and beauty to the power of humanity to persevere despite the horrors we experience. It is, unlike The Bunker Diaries, a very optimistic and hopeful read.


I do not generally choose war books. In all honesty, had I come across this book with this cover in a shop or library I would probably have skipped over it. I like Susan Hill; I dislike war. I am particularly hesitant about The Great War novels written recently: I’m uncomfortable with the glorification of war which can appear; and equally uncomfortable with the indelicate emphasis on the gore and violence; and no more comfortable with a romanticised vision of the war. And I worry that, with the centenary, we may get a lot more of it.

So, no, to sum up, this is not a book that I would have selected naturally.

Which goes to show how our preconceptions can mislead us: this is a powerfully moving book about friendship and love within war. It is not about war.

We get a snapshot of John Hilliard’s life between his recuperation from one leg injury until he returns to the front line and sustains another leg injury. The first injury is relatively minor and sends Hilliard home to recuperate; the second is significantly more serious and sends him back to England for the rest of the war. During this period, Hilliard is introduced to Lieutenant David Barton, a new and innocent officer in the army, and the friendship, the relationship – and, yes, the love – between these two is the heart of the novel.

Reviews on Goodreads – and, it appears from Hill’s afterword to the novel, many comments since the book’s publication – seem unduly obsessed with these men’s relationship as a homosexual one. It saddens me that some people think that that’s even worth considering! It wouldn’t change the depth of feeling those two men had for one another; it wouldn’t alter the beauty of their relationship; it wouldn’t vary the strength that each man drew from the other. I happily recognise it as a form of love – and the Greeks knew that the emotions we call love encompass a range of varied and different forms. And – seriously – if we accept that theirs is a loving friendship or a loving relationship, all this fuss is about what physical and sexual acts may have occurred between two men who – and here’s the important bit – never existed!

So yes, these men love each other. They meet in unassuming but reasonably peaceful conditions in a rest camp away from the frontline. Truths are told which have been repressed before. Intimacies forged. The coldness of Hilliard’s family is replaced by the warmth of Barton’s.

Love is returned to over and over in the novel: Hilliard’s love for his sister is warmly and tenderly described as a memory and her transformation into a coldly formal wife is as heart breaking in its way as his love for Barton is heart warming.

But ultimately and inevitably the war re-asserts itself: Barton is exposed to increasing levels of death and destruction; his innocence and good nature, which had thawed Hilliard’s weariness, is tested and tarred by the increasing violence he witnesses as they are moved closer to the front line.

The story also explores the power of writing: Hilliard’s inclusion in the correspondence between Barton and his family and their sharing of books at the front helped to forge their intimacy to such an extent that, on his visit to Barton’s home, Hilliard had a beautiful sense of returning home which contrasted beautifully with the sense of exclusion and alienation Hill creates when he stays at his own parents’ house in the opening pages.

This is not, however, an easy book to read. The first few pages recounting Hilliard’s final day of recuperation follow a convoluted chronology as the past (occasionally distant and occasionally recent) intrude upon the present. Whilst this lends a lyrical dimension to the writing which I loved, it doesn’t aid reading – although the sense of Hilliard as being ripped out of time and adrift was absolutely effective.

The other issue which might put some readers off is the extent to which this novel relies on dialogue. The narrative descriptions are effective but relatively sparse (in marked contrast to Hill’s gothic novel The Woman In Black). Dialogue is – as I say to my students – really hard to make authentic and Hill succeeds in the vast majority of the novel but there are the occasional overly philosophical expository moments which aren’t out of keeping with the characters but felt perhaps a tad forced. It’s no surprise that the reason I did pick it up is because it’s on the AS English Language and Literature course in their spoken language unit!

In any event, this is a deeply moving and tragically painful book. As it acquired its name from the Wilfred Owen poem of the same name, here it is!

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which Titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall;
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “Here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said the other, “Save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something has been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”

Miniature review due to absence of Internet and wifi. In fact, only now possible because phone can – sometimes – get some reception…

Somewhat uncomfortably, I finished reading this book this morning. At about 7:30. As my 12 week old daughter lay asleep in my arms. It made the final chapter particularly unnerving!

This is so much better than the Daniel Radcliffe film! A much more evocative style, a much more effectively chilling tale and a far more engaging protagonist! Sorry, Radcliffe, but no!

As a teacher, Hill is ideal as a conscious and deliberate writer who has very carefully constructed, crafted and perhaps at times contrived and overwrought her writing to recreate the style of the nineteenth century Gothic genre and Arthur Kipps’ voice. The opening paragraph running like this

It was nine-thirty on Christmas Eve. As I crossed the long entrance hall of Monk’s Piece on my way from the dining room, where we had just enjoyed the first of the happy festive meals, towards the drawing room and the fire around which my family were now assembled, I paused and then, as I often do in the course of an evening, went to the front door, opened it and stepped outside.

contains almost every grammatical structure a GCSE student needs: simple and complex and compound constructions; dependent clauses embedded with subordinate clauses; prepositional phrases; subordinating and co-ordinating conjunctions. It is a grammar geek smorgasbord! And a useful ‘hunt-the-main-verb’ teaching tool!

The main plot is followed by the film broadly (although Arthur Kipps’ family circumstances are butchered by the film): as a politely and hopeful member of a firm of solicitors, Arthur is sent to attend the funeral and organise the papers of Mrs Drablow of Eel Marsh House in a distant northern town. A woman in black appears at the funeral and Hill masterfully ratchets up the tension in a series of escalatingly horrific incidents.

Hill is a masterful writer. Her settings are wonderful and descriptions fantastic but it is the control she demonstrates which make her so powerful. At no point does she sacrifice atmosphere for gore; nor tension for explication.


This is an odd little gem of a book.

It is a debut novel by Sarah Crossan written in verse – free verse – rather than prose; but deals with the realities of a very credible modern situation. As such, the disjunct between a contemporary situation and the language does parallel the disjunction and disconnection of a smart girl in a foreign culture.


Kasienka is a thirteen year-old Polish girl and has migrated to England. There is therefore the whole political, European Union element to it. Particularly in the descriptions of the building into which Kasienka and her mother move. It is an immigration ghetto, populated by a range of immigrants to the UK living in tiny single-room, single-bed flats.

The political difficulties that immigration control poses to domestic populations – and the pangs it causes various political parties in the UK – is played out on a small-scale in Kasienka’s school where she is alternately isolated from and victimised by Clair, the school bully. There is no fight, no violence, no confrontation but a more insidious campaign of

“the looks
The smirks, the eye rolling”

As a teacher, the book is eye-opening in the way that little acts – possibly done for the beat of reasons, such as entering Kasienka in Year 7, grouping of children in class activities – can become devastating. As Kasienka reads Sylvia Plath, it becomes clear just how insidious and appalling the effects of this snide bullying can be.

And a romance helps to pull Kasienka through – the first funny, poignant false starts and misunderstandings of first love. William, who Kasienka meets at the swimming pool, is no charging knight to rescue Kasienka but his presence gives her hope to be herself.

And, beneath all this, is the tragedy of Kasienka’s parents: her father having fled to Coventry – of all places in the country, why Coventry? – her mother and Kasienka have followed. Once they have found Tata, Kasienka’s father, there is a beautiful phrase: that

Together they are tuneless;
The sounds they make are ugly,
Like knives being sharpened
Against stone.

Written in verse, there isn’t the depth or development that you’d expect in a novel. It is a brief read. A read where individual lines resonate and chime. And Kasienka is a truly compelling narrator: clever, funny and strong beneath the desperation.

I personally didn’t feel the poetry: it didn’t seem to add anything having it in verse as opposed to prose. The novel was very pared down and poignant and much of Sarah Crossan’s writing was beautiful and, yes, lyrical. But prose can be l


It’s that time of year again: the Cilip Carnegie Medal Shortlist has been announced!

It is genuinely one of the highlights of my year! I reserve the Easter holidays to reading as many as I possibly can of the list. I mean, we do shadow the Carnegie Medal in our school and I like to have a heads-up on the kids’ reading before the trawl and trundle of the GCSE form filling begins, but I love these books!

The Carnegie and Booker prizes punctuate my year!

I am still waiting for one book to win both. The quality of writing for young adults and the power of some of the topics – World War Two seems to be a recurring theme last year and this – is amazing.

Anyway, this year I am approaching the Carnegie blind: unlike last year when I had read and loved and wept with A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, this year all the books are new to me. And so far I know nothing but their names.

My starting point will be Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood, the strapline for which is “What would you sacrifice for someone you’ve loved for ever?”


I enjoyed Sedgwick’s interplay between the present and past in the previous Carnegie nominated book White Crow as well as his macabre and sinister subjects. Looking at the cover here, the blood red colour and the focal point of the knife, I’m expecting something similarly dark and Gothic.

The we have Sarah Crossan’s The Weight of Water which is a beautifully evocative title.


I’m not getting much from the front cover: there seems to be a journey… I’m reserving judgement!

Next in the list is A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle. I’ve only read Doyle’s adult fiction: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and The Commitments but he has a wonderful ear for dialogue and character so looking forward to this one.


But, I’m sorry Roddy, I do not like the cover! I don’t like the yellow; I don’t like the twirly framing.

Maggot Moon comes next on the list, by Sally Gardner. Now, this title I dislike- it reminds me too too much of Button Moon or Sailor Moon and I feel prejudiced! But look at the front cover:


How wonderful and intriguing is that? Is the lettering in a cyrillic style – will this be an account of the Russian’s Sputnik Programme? How will the lettering become significant? Is it a book about letters? The heterochromia of the boy; the ladder between the boy and the moon; the maggotiness of the moon! Very intrigued! Probably my second read… if I can get this: currently unable to get it on my ebook, which is where all the others currently reside.

We continue with In Darkness by Nick Lake:

in darkness

It looks to me post-colonial, African… a decent evocative title.

Now we come to Wonder by R J Palacio, the only author here to eschew his own name! This one looks good!

wonder wonder 3

Now this makes me feel bad: what have I been doing throughout this? Judging books. By their covers!

Next we come to a very young looking book: A Boy and A Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton. Looking at this, I feel that Pip, young Daisy P, may be the intended audience. The cover is beautiful but I’m thinking at the very younger end of the Carnegie audience:

boy bear boat

I love the Japanese feel to the cover and the immediate recourse to a cup of tea to prevent oncoming disaster! Also not one I’ve been able to download yet.

Finally, but by no means least, we have Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

verity%20cvr17 code name verity

Again we’re looking perhaps World War Two setting; again the covers suggest a challenging and emotional read.