Midwinterblood

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And so I have finished the final book on the Carnegie Medal Shortlist!

Midwinterblood is essentially a seven part narrative spanning from a time unknown (before the 10th century) to the near future 2073 with a golden thread running through the novel linking each story together. It focuses on a ritual sacrifice on the island of Blessed in 2073 and works backwards to the sacrifice of a King on the same island ten centuries earlier. On his death the King declares he will love his Queen for seven lives and each part of the novel tells the story of a different reincarnation of Eirikr and Melle, or Eric and Merle as they become known over time, and how they find one another in each life.

I realise I probably make Midwinterblood sound much more confusing than it actually is, but it is a fairly complex, yet enjoyable narrative. I loved how in each section Eric and Merle’s lives and their relationship is slightly different; from sibling relationships, to an old man who is rescued by a young girl to a girl whose family is reunited due to the actions of a man she has never met. Each story shows a new aspect of their relationship and each is heart warming and portrays how love can prevail and appear in the most unlikely of circumstances. Eric and Merle aren’t the only characters who reoccur and it was always interesting to try and work out how and why these other characters reappear. Undoubtedly by favourite part of the story was set in 1944 as it was unexpected and beautifully touching how Eric and Merle were connected.

Now for the most important question; do I think Midwinterblood is a winner? I have now read all eight books on the Carnegie Medal Shortlist and I am pleased that I have completed the Shortlist and all reviews before the winner is announced tomorrow. I still want Code Name Verity to win as it was my personal favourite and I LOVE wartime stories, but I have a feeling it won’t. If it is going to be beaten by any book I hope it is Midwinterblood as it is an original and clever story which held my attention and I just loved how all parts of the story were subtly connected and that each section gave us a deeper insight into the characters and yet the whole truth was not revealed until we had learnt were it all began. However I have a feeling Wonder might just sneak in and win it as it deals with issues that are more relevant to teenagers today. I say this and I could be completely wrong…I will have to wait until tomorrow!

The Weight of Water

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The Weight of Water is told from the perspective of twelve year old Kasienka, a Polish girl who has moved to Britain with her mother in search of her missing father. Her mother is desperate in her quest to find her missing husband and provides little support for Kasienka as she adapts to life in Coventry and the various dramas teenage girls go through at school, from boys to bitchy girls. One of the few things that makes Kasienka’s life bearable is her passion for swimming and this allows her to excel and to find happiness in her new life.

The Weight of Water is the seventh book I have read for the Carnegie Medal Award and I read it in a few hours over the course of this afternoon. There has been one other book on the Shortlist that I have read as quickly (A Boy and a Bear in a Boat),but this one was far easier to read and engage with. Kasienka was an endearing character with a clear narrative voice, therefore it was easy to warm to her from the opening page and this remained throughout the course of the book. Crossan was able to clearly portray the difficulties facing modern teenage girls, such as friendship issues and boys, and capture how these troubles can be multiplied when moving to not only a new school, but a new country.

Overall I would say it was an enjoyable and easy read, but I can’t say it will be one that will stay with me forever as it is very much a teenage book and somewhat simplistic in its narrative. It is interesting in that it offers a perspective on life as a newcomer to Britain and how this can be a trying time for a teenage girl, but it wasn’t stand out for me personally. It was a welcome break from my Classics Club Spin, Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat

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A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton is the sixth book on the Carnegie Medal Shortlist (which means yay two more to go and then I can decide on my winner). Shockingly it does exactly what it says in the title; it is about a boy and a bear in a boat. The boy is taking a journey and the bear is his captain. We never really find out where they are going and at times it seems as though the bear is very lost, but they persist on their way, encountering sea monsters, strange island/rocks and a ghostly ship.

And that is about it! Nothing else really seems to happen; they travel along in the Harriet and the boy moans a lot; they lose the Harriet and the boy moans and is sorry for the loss; they find the Harriet and then they lose it again. Do they ever get to wherever it is they are going? No. Do we ever find out where they are going? No. Do we even learn why on earth the boy willingly got in to a boat with a talking bear? No. So really I was left with so many more questions than I like at the end of a book, particularly a children’s book.

I read the majority of this book last night as I went to bed early and I was very conscious of the fact I needed to finish it by Friday ready to discuss with my small enrichment class. The benefit of this is that I stormed through it, as I think if I had kept dipping in to it I would have lost interest. It also made me think about the purpose/message of the book and for me it seems to be the idea that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. The boy moans about being on the Harriet yet he misses it when it is gone and he feels the same about the presence of the bear in places. It also shows how you need to be adaptable when striving for your goal as many obstacles will get in your way, yet if you persevere you will get there. Whilst these are admirable messages to include in a book, I’m not sure they will be easily identified by the eight year old target audience. Of course the writer might not have included these themes and it is me over thinking it, but never mind.

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Do I think A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is a winner? Sadly not. It is a (and I hate to use this word) nice story, but it was hardly memorable in my eyes and began to get a bit tedious in places. I am hoping the next two reads; Midwinterblood and The Weight of Water will offer some form of competition as at the moment I think there is only one possible winner and unfortunately I don’t think it will be my favourite Code Name Verity.

Code Name Verity

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Never judge a book by its cover or by the blurb alone. However I already knew the second I saw this book that it would be one of my favourites on the Carnegie Medal Shortlist 2013. I’m a sucker for a war story.

Code Name Verity begins from the perspective of Julie, although we don’t learn her name until much later in the novel. Julie has been captured by the Gestapo in France; she made the fatal mistake of looking the wrong way before crossing the road and was nearly hit by a van, which instantly reminded me of the scene in The Great Escape where the escapees respond to the Nazis in English thus giving themselves away. Julie is well aware that she doesn’t have long to live and is prolonging her life by telling the Gestapo all that she knows about the British War Effort. She has been tortured. She has been bribed. She promises she is telling the truth.

Julie was flown into France by her best friend, Maddie, who had to crash land her plane after they were hit on the way into the country. Throughout her writing we learn a lot about Maddie’s life and now her Julie became such good friends despite coming from entirely opposite backgrounds; one is a Scottish aristocrat and the other a Jewish girl raised by Grandparents who own a motorbike shop in the North of England. We switch to Maddie’s story when Julie is coming to the end of her narrative and paper supply and it is here that the major plot twists of the novel occur.

The Guardian are quoted on the back of the book cover saying that Code Name Verity is a ‘female adventure story’ and I certainly agree with this. I felt a slight lull in the story about half way through Julie’s story, but her story is vital to the twists and turns offered in Maddie’s narrative and made the novel what it was; an exciting, thrilling female adventure story. I loved how all the loose ends were tied up and brought together in an unexpected way and I found myself unable to put it down during the final pages (although I had to to liberate a spider from my housemate’s bedroom, or should that be the other way round?).

Now I have finished it I am keen to do some research into the Nazi Occupation of France as it is something I know little about. I am also pretty interested in finding out more about female pilots and double agents as I imagine it will make for some exciting reading. Too often we forget about the work women did in the military during both wars and I love the untold stories. I also have a bit of a craving for an Operation Mincemeat style spy story. I do love it when I am inspired to read and discover more from just one book I have enjoyed.

Code Name Verity is the fifth book I have read from the 2013 Carnegie Medal Shortlist. It is my favourite one so far but mainly because I love war stories in general so this was always going to be an enjoyable read for me. Do I think it is a winner? That is a tough question. For me so far it is, however I am bias due to my preference of the genre. If I was to take my personal view out of it, I think Wonder is still the most likely winner at the moment due to the topic that is the focus of the narrative. Code Name Verity is definitely my favourite so I’ll keep my fingers crossed for it!

Maggot Moon

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Maggot Moon tells the story of Standish Treadwell, a boy who is labelled as ‘stupid’ because he can’t read or write very well and ‘strange’ because of his different coloured eyes; one is blue and one is brown. Standish lives with his Grandfather, Gramps, in Zone Seven, in a dystopian version of 1956. Imagine Nazi Germany had won the Second World War and their totalitarian reign had gone to the extreme. Since his parents mysteriously disappeared, Gramps and Standish are the only people living on their desolated and destroyed street. Until one night a new family move in and their actions impact dramatically on Standish’s life and the future of the Motherland.

In an attempt to convince their enemies that they are the stronger nation, the Motherland is competing in the race to land man on the moon and they are gearing up to broadcast this triumph to the world and prove they are the more dominant and fearsome nation. But all is not as it seems and Standish is determined to show the world the evil and treacherous nature of the Motherland.

To begin with I found Maggot Moon slightly confusing. I really wasn’t sure what was happening or even what planet we were on; all the space talk threw me a little. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Standish talks about the Motherland and the Mother Language. And then it all clicked into place. 1956, talk of the war helped me untangle the mystery. However one thing I was sure about from the start was my appreciation of Standish’s language.

Standish readily admits that he is not clever, he has a reading age of 4, and according to the Motherland’s rules shouldn’t even be at his school. However this makes his description of people and the world around him fantastic. Gardner has littered the pages with similes and metaphors, which held my interest when I was too confused to understand what was happening.

‘Mr Gunnell wasn’t tall but his muscles were made out of old army tanks with well-oiled army-tank arms.’

‘Her hair a construction of steel wire’

I love how you can tell so much about the character just from one line of concise description. This matter of fact simplicity, whilst great to read when creating a picture of certain characters, is eerily haunting when Standish describes the horrific events he witnesses, most specifically the murder of a classmate at the hands of his teacher. I was literally sat in shock turning the pages. How can he be so matter of fact? But then I guess if you live in a society where violence and dominance rule in a reign of terror you become desensitised to such acts.

Overall, I enjoyed Maggot Moon. Standish was a likeable, imaginative and incredibly brave character, ready to stand up for what he believes and save those he loves regardless of the consequences. I don’t think it is a winner, but I certainly enjoyed it and would recommend it.

Maggot Moon is the fourth book I have read for the Carnegie Medal Award. Our enrichment club started this week and our first meeting focused on handing out the schedule for upcoming weeks, so we are all aware of when we will be discussing each book and looking at the Carnegie Medal website and our own page on there. The winner is announced the middle of June, so we will be discussing two books every fortnight, giving the students the opportunity to read one or both books ready for the meeting. I am definitely looking forward to hearing their views on some of the books, and for the time being I will be keeping my opinions on them quiet as I want to hear what they say before I mention whether I enjoyed a book or not. I am quite looking forward to running the enrichment, but at the moment I am seriously missing adult books!

In Darkness

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Shorty is a fifteen year old gangster, rolling with older boys and policing ‘The Site’, a run down, fenced in, poverty stricken area of his city. The boys are playing at being gangsters, listening to rap music and daydreaming about becoming famous rappers, carrying guns and promoting violence. But they can do this because no one seems to care what poor, disillusioned black children are doing in the slums in Haiti. Or at least no one seems to really care until the earthquake hits.

Suddenly, Shorty’s world is plunged into darkness and he is imprisoned in a tomb of rubble, rotting corpses and rats. It is here that Shorty begins to recount his story and the events that led him to this darkness. We learn about his missing twin sister, the fate of his father and how he coped with life in ‘The Site’. There is a strong culture of voodoo and black magic in ‘The Site’ with many believing the bones of the dead, pwn stones and calling the spirits of the dead will save them from a gruesome death. This belief opens the door for a parallel narrative that as many strong connections to Shorty’s story. The parallel narrative recounts the life of Touissant, a black slave in Haiti in the 1700s. The slaves are rebelling against their white French plantation owners and beginning to gain their rights and freedoms. Both narratives have strong links to black magic culture and the both stories move towards a point where the narratives become one.

In Darkness is the third book I have read for the Carnegie Medal Award and my school book club (although the first meeting isn’t until Friday, I just wanted a head start). Personally, I did not like this novel at all. I found it confusing to follow to begin with as it was flicking between many time periods and talking about voodoo and magic and things I know little about. Even when I figured out what was happening I still didn’t become enthralled in the book. In fact last night when I knew I wanted to finish it I was constantly watching my % counter on the Kindle waiting for the end. Yes it is an interesting choice of subject and I can almost see why it was shortlisted, but for me it was not an engaging story and I found it really difficult to relate to the characters and the narrative. I know very little about the Haitian earthquake and I think this will be a similar situation with the students in the book club, and as far as my recollection of school history goes, Haiti isn’t a place that is mentioned or studied in relation to the slave trade. I appreciate that it is important to give voices to those who haven’t had an opportunity to tell their story, and I applaud Lake for doing that, but for me this doesn’t achieve that in the most memorable or exciting way. Sadly not a winner in my eyes…which probably means the students will love it as that is sod’s law.

Wonder

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Wonder tells the story of ten year old August Pullman’s first year at school. Up until this point August has been home schooled by his mother and has had very little to do with children of his own age. Like all students starting a new school August is nervous, but unlike most students, August was born with a facial deformity and attending a new school and meeting new people is incredibly daunting, mainly because he knows just how they will react, and just how they will judge him purely on his appearance.

I’m really not sure where to begin with this novel. I did thoroughly enjoy it, although it took a while for me to become fully engaged in the story. It is certainly an interesting topic to discuss and I felt that on the whole Palacio handled the narrative in a sophisticated, yet believable way. Yes, August faces prejudice on a daily basis, and some of the behaviour of those around him is shocking, but Palacio also discusses the impact on August’s family and how they cope with the attitudes of others.

I did have difficulty gaining interest in the story to begin with, despite the fact that August is a likeable character. No, what made me truly engaged in this story was the narratives of other characters. The story isn’t just told from August’s perspective, although the majority of it is, we also hear from: Via, his sister, Justin, her boyfriend, Miranda, her childhood friend and August’s friends, Summer and Jack. It was interesting to read their take on different events and to fully realise that there are two sides to every story, regardless of what one might think. I particularly liked Via’s narrative. As August’s older sister it is clear that she had to sacrifice a lot so that her parents could look after August, take him to various operations and generally protect him from the brutality of the outside world. Yes, you feel sympathy for August because of how people react/treat him, but I also feel sympathy for Via, who has spent a lot of her childhood on the sidelines, and is now struggling with adolescent on top of this.

The one thing I didn’t like, in fact I hated, and this is the English teacher coming out in me again, was Justin’s narrative. The big reason was the use of punctuation, oh yes my old bugbear, but it drives me insane. Justin’s narrative has virtually no punctuation, there are the occasional full stops, but these are not followed by capital letters, and there are no speech marks, making it difficult to follow who was talking. I don’t know what Palacio was trying to achieve with this as for me it didn’t even seem fitting with Justin’s character. He came across as an intelligent boy with an interest in music and theatre, so why the complete lack of correct punctuation. I truly believe that children/teenagers subconsciously learn a lot about spelling, punctuation and grammar through reading, so finding poor examples of it in young adult fiction really annoys me. I don’t care if the author is trying to capture the voice of youth, I don’t think there is any need for it.

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Wonder is on the Carnegie Medal Shortlist and is the second book I have read for my school enrichment shadowing the prize. Do I think it is a winner? Possibly. I would certainly place it over A Greyhound of a Girl, which is the other book I have read so far. It deals with a challenging subject and leaves a lasting impression on the importance of kindness and accepting people for who they are. It is this that suggests to me it could be a possible winner…watch this space!

A Greyhound of a Girl

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It’s that time of year again! Last year at my placement school they had a reading group shadowing The Carnegie Medal Awards, with students encouraged to read the books on the Shortlist and vote for a favourite before the winner was officially announced. It happened towards the end of my teacher training, and although I was able to take part, I was not able to play a significant role in the shadowing programme. This year I am running an after school enrichment shadowing The Carnegie Medal, which I am a little excited about, therefore I thought it a good idea to get started on the Shortlist (for the Shortlist follow this handy little link

And so to the first book…

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…Roddy Doyle’s A Greyhound of a Girl. This book was not what I expected, completely reinforcing the whole never judge a book by its cover and I put this down to the blurb.

Mother and daughters heading off on a car journey.
One of them dead,
One of them dying,
One of them driving,
One of them just beginning

In my mind this suggested a car accident of some kind and I expected the narrative to focus on the aftermath of this. How wrong I was?

Mary is 12, on the cusp of becoming a teenager, but not quite there yet. Her best friend has just moved away and her Grandmother, Emer, is dying in hospital. On her way home from school one day Mary meets Tansy, a lady who on first appearance seems to be old, but is actually quite young; it is her clothes that make her seem so much older. Tansy seems to know Mary’s Grandmother, although she doesn’t mention how, only that she has come to let Emer know ‘it will be grand.’

To begin with I wasn’t sure about this book. The main reason, and this just proves that I am an obsessive English teacher, was the over use of punctuation marks whenever Scarlett, Mary’s mum, was talking. This sounds like a ridiculous reason to be uncertain I know, but having marked book after book after book of students who think it is fine to end every sentence with an exclamation mark I do find this somewhat irritating. Luckily for Doyle he soon justifies this overuse:

“What happened to the !!!s?” said Mary.
“What?”
“The !!!s,” said Mary.
“Oh,” said her mother. “They seem to fall out of me whenever I go into that hospital.”

So I did a slight U-Turn and decided this was a clever way of over emphasising a character’s emotions, perhaps not necessary in an adult’s book, but I imagine it is helpful to those who struggle with reading and inference. Once I had overcome this little niggle, I was able to enjoy the book and the journey it took me on. It gives a great insight into the attitudes of different generations of women within a family and their relationships with one another. I come from a family made up predominantly of women, and this has become more apparent due to various family issues over the past 18 months, so this style of narrative certainly struck a chord with me. It really highlighted the importance of strong relationships between women, especially mothers and daughters, something I was not expecting from a male author, but then shame on me for stereotyping. I liked the ghostly element of the novel, and I can clearly see how superstitions ease the minds of those dealing with difficult situations.

Do I think it is a winner? It is hard to tell having only read the one book from the Shortlist, but I certainly think it is a worthwhile read.