Blog 22

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

“They killed my mother. They took our magic. They tried to bury us. Now we rise.”

This is one of a flurry of books I have read over the last month and it’s one of my favourites. Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel is a stunning story set in a fictitious part of west Africa and is inspired by west African culture and heritage. I was quickly drawn into this fantasy world and, from chapter one, it is clear that this is a world of devastating violence, embittered by hatred and fear. It seems utterly relevant for our world today and yet seems intrinsically linked to the past.

At the heart of the novel are three voices: Zélie, Amari, and Inan. Zélie is the lively daughter of a fisherman whose mother has been killed by the powerful ruling regime. She is fiercely independent, strong and has her mother’s magic. Yes, this is a story of magic but not Harry Potter wand waving magic. It is the magic of the spirit, grounded in the earth and the gods that give that magic to chosen individuals. But the magic has been lost. Destroyed by the despotic King Saran who has tried to kill all those who are touched by the gods, Zélie is the key to the return of magic to the kingdom but can she do it and who will stand in her way? Zélie is a fabulous leading character, she has all the traits needed for a hero but she also has the self doubts of a 16 year old confronted by her first feelings of love and desire (this was so beautifully written, it took me back to my own teenage years!).

Amari and Inan are the daughter and son of King Saran. Amari is the rebellious one, although she is also a virtual prisoner of her father’s ideological hatred. She is unable to think or be herself and lacks any confidence. Her growth throughout the story is crucial to Zélie’s progress and she is, at times, really annoying and at other times the saviour of the tale. Her voice brings balance to the violence and hatred, as she is often measured in amongst the chaos that surrounds our leading characters. Inan on the other hand … Is he a hero? Is he an antihero? Is he the villain of the piece? Early on, Inan’s secret is revealed (I am not telling you what it is!) and as a reader you are variously drawn to him as he falls for Zélie, and she for him, and then hating him as he seems to betray both himself and everyone else. As I rushed towards the end of this compelling story, I didn’t know whether I trusted him or not and whether I liked him or not! Adeyemi leaves it open to the reader to decide and that is one of the joys of this text, it doesn’t necessarily give us everything we expect.

This is one big fat book. But it doesn’t feel like it when you get going. It’s quite hard to put down. There’s some terrible scenes of violence that are in no way gratuitous but demonstrate what happens when you keep people afraid of their own shadows. People and children die. No punches are spared. Some of those that are killed shocked me to the core, but I can see how vital they are to expose the regime and give Zélie the courage to bring about a change. I can’t wait for the next instalment … as I didn’t want this one to end!

Who should Read this book?

This is a book for probably 14+, year 9 and onwards. It is a book to inspire and the characters will appeal to both genders. I think there is a great deal you could do with this as a class text for year 9. It has so many opportunities to discuss African heritage, culture and beliefs. But the real opportunity is to talk about difference. Why do we treat people differently based on race, gender, culture etc? I would definitely pair this with some poetry of people like Ben Zephaniah, or to look at some of the GCSE poetry, like ‘Nothing’s Changed’ or ‘Limbo’.  As writers, I think anyone playing with multiple voices should read this, and if anyone tells you that only two voices are acceptable… show them this!

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2lXp502

Blog 18

This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada

“My darling girl, if you are reading this, it means I am dead. I know you want to grieve, but there is something that I need you to do.”

I chose to read this after it was on the nominated list for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. It’s a Young Adult novel, although I think any adult would love this. Set in a dystopian future, where a lethal virus is gradually killing off the human race, we find a young girl Catarina living a life in an isolated cabin with her father and his assistant, Dax. Why are they living in this splendid isolation? Well it appears that Cartaxus, an organisation that sounds rather too close to being Sky television for my liking, with a number of sinister divisions attached to it is trying to prevent the virus from spreading. But it’s not just a case of giving everyone an injection, oh no, in this dystopian future every single person on the planet has a panel in their arm that controls their bodies. This panel is connected to a series of wires that travel through the body focused on key organs, bones and the brain. It’s incredibly powerful and the technology … it’s been created by Cartaxus.

Now, if you are not a sci-fi fan, it really doesn’t matter. It’s the relationships and how each individual is connected that makes this such a compelling read. Catarina’s life is ripped apart. Firstly, her father and Dax are abducted by Cartaxus and she is left to fend for herself. She could choose to go into a bunker run by Cartaxus, where she will be safe until a vaccine is found. But her father has told her to stay away from them. So, she is surviving on her own out in the wilderness with a network of friends. Food is scarce and the virus is getting closer all the time. She then finds herself at the mercy of a young man who has come to take her to a lab in Canada to unlock the cure for the virus stored inside her. He is from Cartaxus. Does she trust him or kill him?

Catarina is a strong young woman of 16 or 17. She is a fighter and a survivor. At times, she is broken by the lies she seems to face from everyone, even those she thought loved her. She’s bright too, she can hack the code that is running the panels in people’s bodies and the code that seems to control every bit of technology she is surrounded by. Her relationship with Cole, the young man who abducts her is complex and again full of twists and turns. She saves him as much as he saves her. This is the strength of the story: she’s clear thinking in dangerous situations, she does the right thing even when she knows it is bad for her, and she is capable of killing, if it’s in the interests of the safety of mankind. Pretty amazing qualities for our leading lady. Cole is attractive and very much made of the stuff of heroes but he’s also vulnerable and needs Catarina.

I couldn’t put this book down. The more I read, the more I was drawn into this world and I went running after every red herring Suvada could throw at me! Although I did guess the twist in the tale towards the end (Thank goodness! I was beginning to feel like I’d never read another novel!). The door has been left open for the next book and I am looking forward to it’s release and seeing what will happen to the virus … and I still need to understand the pigeon poem because I still don’t quite get it. So feel free to enlighten me, if you can.

Who should read this book?

Well I would recommend this for any teenager who enjoyed the Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. It’s not exactly the same genre but the recognisable strong characters would appeal to those who have read that. It’s definitely a book for aged 14+ and would be a very interesting addition to school libraries or classrooms. I’d definitely want to talk to students about what they see in their future. How would they feel about being controlled by say Rupert Murdoch or a pharmaceutical company like GSK? Would they allow a company to implant technology in them, if it meant they could be instantly healed? The discussions would be good. You could create some great opportunities for writing to argue too.

Well worth reading!

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2HOVnmT

Blog 15

Thornhill by Pam Smy

“I have spent days and days in bed. I can’t face school. I don’t want to see anyone. I can’t even read.”

I have never read a book like this. I was so stunned at the end that I had to take a break from writing a blog about it, to absorb the message and the story. This is not a book for the faint hearted.

There are two narratives in this wonderful novel about two teenage girls who live 30 or so years apart. Mary’s story is told through her diary from 1982 and it is a hard hitting read. She is persistently bullied by the girls she lives with at Thornhill and is repeatedly ignored and left to struggle on her own. And I don’t think we should hide behind the fact that places like Thornhill, where young girls who are struggling to be fostered are living. They existed in the 1980s and I am not convinced they don’t exist today.  I was so drawn into Mary’s existence that at every turn, when an adult turns up in Mary’s life, I wanted them to rescue her. It astonished me that she could be so overlooked for being quiet or mute. Thornhill itself echoes her despondent existence; she is isolated at the top of the house. When the summer’s stifling heat takes over her room and she is desperate to breathe, you feel the house is as much a trap as a home. But Mary doesn’t want to leave. It’s the only home she’s known. Her relationship with the bully made me weep, as time and time again she falls for the nasty, vicious tricks that are played on her.

The other story is Ella’s, set in 2017. It’s beautifully illustrated and it’s a long time since I have had to read pictures to understand a narrative. They’re black and white and reflect Ella’s lonely and rather dark life. She can see Thornhill from her bedroom window and it’s derelict and overgrown. However, she climbs through a gap in the fence drawn to the place by a figure she sees in the garden. Sadly just like Mary, she is alone as her father is never there and her mother is absent. However, she builds a relationship with Mary which is beautifully conceived and shown through the delicate images. I was entranced and even though we don’t hear Ella speak, you can feel her sadness and loneliness.

I don’t want to say much else, as this is a text that everyone should read. It demonstrates the power a bully can have over a young person. How they control the person they are bullying and those around them. It reveals the incredibly difficult circumstances some children are forced to live in, through no fault of their own. And, sadly, it also shows how easy it is for us, as adults, to firstly, ignore the problem but secondly, to just not listen and ask the right questions. I know there are kids out there that I worked with, where often I could not get to the bottom of the issue they were facing, until I found the right question. Sometimes that might have been as simple as asking, “Are you okay?”.

I am so impressed by a book that uses illustration, as powerfully as it uses the written word. I can see why this is on the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize Shortlist for 2018 and I am still feeling incredibly moved. Go and read it, would be my advice.

Who should read this book?

I think this is a fantastic book to discuss with teenagers. There is so much here that many of them face. Definitely recommended for 13+ or Year 9 and up. It confronts some difficult issues. Bullying is such a challenging issue to resolve. It takes a great deal of bravery for a young person to speak up. In terms of teaching, I think you could read some of the diary entries in this and talk about emotion and how it’s conveyed so quickly. It has great mastery of the diary form and a bit of textual analysis would open plenty of opportunities for discussion. In terms of form, what a wonderful text to use with A-level English Language students to discuss how texts are created and how they create meaning. For English Literature students, I would sit this alongside other gothic texts and compare them … might be a good NEA opportunity here.

Still thinking about the messages and meaning … truly powerful.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2EZz4dR