Thursday, 30 June 2011

Thirty Words for Thirty Bucks

To celebrate my birthday on June 30th I'm hosting a MINI REVIEW CONTEST. Review a book in 30 words or less. All the reviews will be published on this blog, and the best one will receive the prize of a THIRTY DOLLAR AMAZON VOUCHER.

Please take part in the 'Review On a Post-It Contest' and pass on the link to friends and students. Come back to admire and comment on the entries. The winner will be announced in the first week of August.

The closing date is July 30th. If you have a blog, please add the button, by pasting the HTML BELOW into a gadget. Thank you!

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Monday, 27 June 2011

The Number One Place in the World, Floating Islands, and Armies of Wild Cows.

The new best place - or places - in the world, for this year at least are The Azores. There's something about islands, about archipelagos, that really catches the imagination. For me, I think part of it is the idea of self-contained, miniature worlds isolated, all by themselves, away from it all. Rachel Neumeier takes this a step forward in 'The Floating Islands,' an amazing young adults book that I'm reading. It's set, unsurprisingly on a small nation of floating islands. She manages the the world creation perfectly, interpreting it through the eyes of Trei, a fourteen-year-old orphan, arriving in the islands to live with his uncle. He decides he wants to join the flyers, men who defend the islands and travel between them on massive wings, constructed from borrowed feathers.

The Azores are the kind of place you can imagine housing dragons, like The Floating Islands. But actually, besides the hordes of frogs I wrote about here, the best Terceira can offer is a race of fearsome wild cattle. They evolved in the wild hills of the centre of the islands, and led the islanders to build weird structures, like really narrow, deep doorways, by the side of roads. These were so, if you got menaced by the wild cows, you could hide in them!

Once the cattle were famed because, when the island was attacked by Spanish warships, the islanders herded a thousand of the savage beasts straight at the Spaniards. The soldiers who didn't get flattened jumped back on their boats and didn't return! Now, sadly, the cattle are mainly used for these street bullfights.

Travelling through the centre of the island we saw the bulls, three or four to a special, spacious pasture, building themselves up for their exertions. They're kept there, far away from the dairy cattle, because if they could get to them they would cause all kinds of aggro. The dairy cattle meanwhile, produce some of the most amazing butter and cheese I've ever tasted in my life...

The Floating Islands have amazing stepping stones across empty air, and magic-hung stair cases. Terceira can't match those, but it does have astonishing volcanic chambers like the one on the left.

There are also weird, jet black, spiky volcanic shore lines, like the one below at Biscoitos framing a country cliff in the distance. The black stone also criss crosses the island in millions of black walls, that section it up into tiny fields, used to house the other, friendly cows, and protect the vines from the Atlantic winds. In the summer, the black walls heat up and keep the vines warm all night, like growing the grapes in an amazing volcanic outdoor incubator.

The people of the Azores are also slightly different, their lives a bit magical. They talk to every stranger they come across, unabashed, about the charm of life on an island. I asked the owner of our local bar about crime. He shrugged and said 'It's not really a problem, there are two people who might steal something, and we know who they both are, so...'

The Azores are actually so astonishing that to me, they were only fractionally less amazing than The Floating Islands. And Terceira isn't even the best one, next Pico and Faial...

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Kate Middleton was picked on, living in hotels, and Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy

It's like living in a hotel with all your friends. Without your parents, but possibly with loads of magic furniture, secret passages and midnight feasts. No wonder boarding schools are a complete fixture of young adults books and children's stories. From Enid Blyton, through Harry Potter, to Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy.

This last is a great read. It starts slow, and is weirdly like the second in a series, with loads of flashbacks and explaining what has just happened to get our heroes in their current, very dodgy situation. In the middle it sags a bit, there's a lot of explaining how vampire school works, and messing around with red herrings and clues to the twists and turns and smashes and bangs that come at the end. Because of this the third act works very well, and also hooks the reader right in for the sequel.

In all fairness though, boarding school can be scary. Your parents aren't there to take care of you, and there's nowhere you can hide, as shown in the clip above. Mead's boarding school often has more in common with Kate Middleton being (possibly) picked on. There's lots of being ostracized and kept to your room. There are no midnight feasts, though some midnight boozing that I don't think they went in for at St Claire's... The lack of secret passages, given that the school has hundreds of years of vampire history is a serious lack, only just made up for by using fires in the bathroom to distract teachers and sneak into each others dorms. That old trick.

Children's stories are full of plots that allow kids to run their own lives without adults seeming to interfere. In fiction they go on for months, gigantifying the fun that real life kids get from a few hours of freedom. I remember the first time I went away on a school trip, staying in a hostel in London. We stayed up all night eating chocolate digestives and sneaking in and out of each others rooms. It was spectacular. Exhausting and excellent. If Kate Middleton had that kind of fun once a term, then it might have been worth the being picked on. And that's before considering that boarding school was the first step on the road to Buckingham Palace.

I doubt we've seen the last of the boarding school story, if for no other reason than I'm writing one...

Friday, 17 June 2011

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop is a lovely idea from the crazy-for-books blog. It ties together lots of different book blogs over the weekend. Please go and have a look at some of the other blogs involved. The question this week is 'How many books do you have in your to-read-list?'

For me, this is tricky. I have fifteen books on my goodreads list...

Jdfield's to-read book montage

City of Bones
A Great and Terrible Beauty
The Maze Runner
The Hunger Games
Jacob Have I Loved
Island of the Blue Dolphins
The Other Side of the Island
Never After
A Brief History of Montmaray

Jdfield's favorite books »


then there are the books on the bedroom floor, the books about Ukraine I should read for a story I'm writing, and the books about King Arthur I've got for another story, and all the free books I've got stacked up on my Kindle...

Too many books, not enough time...

Friday, 10 June 2011

Magic Wardrobes, Running into Walls and 'The Iron King' by Julie Kagawa

Who doesn't want to find a door into another world? I reckon I know where they are...
I'm half way through the brilliant 'Iron King' by Julie Kagawa, a young adults book about a girl called Meghan Chase who discovers her connection with another dimension, known as Faery Land. The first time she goes there she accesses it through the back of a closet. Remind you of anything?
What is it about going through the back of wardrobes and finding magical worlds? In fact, why the massive appeal of all the other doors into enchanted worlds that you read about in children's stories? Rabbit holes, trapdoors, or this one, so appealing that real people injure themselves trying to go through it...

The Iron King is a great read, which employs all the classic ideas of magical worlds. Dwarves living in hollow trees, cats appearing and disappearing, and dragons eating you up. For me, though, the charm is the idea of the portals, or 'trods' offering an escape from harsh reality to something entirely charming. There's a reason of course, why such things only exist in children's books. As adults, we know there are no magic doorways leading to enchanted worlds. But maybe we're wrong.
Last year I travelled to Damascus. I went through a doorway in a cold and rainy London and emerged at 2am into 90 degree heat. The road from the airport was lined with parked cars and picnicking families. I wound through the silent, shuttered alleys of Damascus old town to a hotel with a sparkling fountain in a tiled courtyard. Exactly like a magical world.
More recently there was the Azores, enchanted in a completely different way.
So if you're looking for a trod, a magical wardrobe, or an otherworldly doorway, look no further than the arrivals door of an airport in an exotic destination. You can only go through it one way, as is the case with all magical portals, and who knows what you may find on the other side.
If you're really luckyyou might emerge into a land like arrivals at this Cuban airport. If it's not a magical world I don't know what is.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Teenage Losers, Vampires, Nigella Lawson, and Amanda Hocking's 'My Blood Approves.'

In 'My Blood Approves,' seventeen year old Alice Bonham falls in with a family of vampires. The first half of the book is mainly about when is she going to realise they're vampires, and then it's all about which of them will she devote herself to, and how will a possible vampire life conflict with her human life and her family.

The plot is neatly built up, and you want to know what happens next. The book's great strength, I think, is the authenticity of the teenage voice. The moods, the turns of phrase and the pop culture seem to me to be absolutely dead on.

The thing that bugs me about this is the thing that bugs me about other vampire stories: Why are teenage vampires so amazing? Why are they always beautiful, cool, smart, fearless, and supremely athletic. And I reckon it's some kind of wish fulfillment. As a teenager, school can be a complete jungle and I think writers get a lot of success with vampires, because they've invented the 'Superteenager.' Readers visualise these beings and think 'if only that was me, if only somebody bit me and I became a hero.' Vampires even have the 'not bothered' quality that teens admire. They're amazing, but they don't even care. Edward Cullen and his family are prime examples. I suppose stories with amazing teenage vampires are the ones that sell, but I'm still looking for the story with the vampire who never gets asked to the prom, or gets his lunch money stolen.

This is because teenage readers are continually being let down. It's not possible to be a school prince or princess by being a vampire. The message I wish writers would give them is one I got from Nigella Lawson. 'It's not possible to be a 'superteenager' but don't worry. You'll get through it, and then you'll be brilliant.

I was terrible at being a teenager. I didn't get any of it. I always looked two years younger than I was, I was scared of the opposite sex, I liked answering questions in class, I didn't know what was fashionable, I wasn't interested in music or other teenager interests, I had a stupid haircut... (I could go on). And for years afterwards, as I learned how to make life work, I was regretful that I had messed up my schooldays. And then Nigella spoke to me. Or rather, I read a quote of hers in a newspaper article, where she described herself as something like 'not very good at being a schoolgirl' (I can't remember her exact words, if you track it down please let me know). And that was actually no big deal, she was much better at being older. My proof is the video above. Look at her. She is a marvel of decadent food and downright sauciness. The ten seconds of Wham is just a bonus...

So there it is, my message to Alice Bonham and all the teenage losers out there, courtesy of Nigella Lawson: You don't survive teenage years by becoming a vampire. You do it by just waiting. I know it seems like forever, but in fact it's not that long and you get far more mileage out of being a Superadult than a Superteenager. Pass it on.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Review: Leviathan

So, I have to preface this with the information that ever since I can remember I've been obsessed with the natural world. Recently my focus has been whales. I based an entire holiday around it (see more of my adventure here)and I wrote a novel of my own all about them (The Water Book.)
Given all of this, I was predisposed to love Leviathan. If you have any kind of magpie mind you'll find something to spark your interest here. It's crammed with astonishing facts about beasts that are already fascinating. There is great harshness, too. The narrative is structured around the history of man's interaction with whales, and it hasn't been nice...
My problem with this book is also it's greatest strength. The magnificence and otherworldliness of whales is astonishingly hard to line into words, but Hoare manages this. One phrase of his describing a humpback as a 'barnacled angel' I thought really lovely.
But he goes too far, and is too personal. Often its frustrating and intrusive and I felt the urge to snap at him to back out of the story. He's less interesting than the whales, unsuprisingly, but doesn't seem aware of this.
And the photos are grainy and black and white. A bit of colour and gloss would have been nice.
Still, though, Leviathan gets 5 stars, because I'm unashamedly biased. And I think everybody should read it. Everybody in the world needs to know more about these largest inhabitants of the world ever, and how mysterious their comings and goings are in the entirely unknown and secret depths and wastes of the ocean. Because they're amazing, and it's time we started being a bit nicer to them...