Posted in children's fiction, contemporary, review

The Thing About Jellyfish – Ali Benjamin

“Some hearts beat only about 412 million times. Which might sound like a lot. But the truth is, it barely gets you twelve years.”

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Blurb: “After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy must have been a rare jellyfish sting–things don’t just happen for no reason. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory–even if it means traveling the globe, alone.”

I stumbled across The Thing About Jellyfish in my local library and picked it up because it sounded familiar. After reading the blurb, flicking through it and reading the first page it became clear that this odd sense of familiarity was misplaced. However, the first page captivated my attention, so I checked it out and set off on a new adventure.

The story follows a twelve year old girl called Suzy who finds out her best friend, Franny, has died. The cause of death doesn’t make sense to Suzy as her friend was an incredibly good swimmer so she struggles to understand how drowning could be the cause. Through a school trip to an aquarium she learns about jellyfish and comes to believe that one type in particular was the real culprit. She starts learning everything she can about jellyfish and looks into experts who can help prove her theory to be correct.

Back when I read The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak, I was completely overwhelmed with emotions and ever since then I’ve said I didn’t think I’d find a book that would match when I experienced when reading that. Dear reader, I think I’ve finally found some competition. The writing style in The Thing About Jellyfish is utterly beautiful and has a sense of broken innocence that feels like listening to the story of a real person.

This is a story that anyone who’s experienced loss can relate to. Death is a horrible thing that we’d rather not think about until we have to face it head-on, and when that happens it’s very hard to accept. Suzy is unable to believe that her best friend could drown when she was such a good swimmer and refuses to accept that sometimes things just happen. She stops talking after hearing the news and isolates herself which almost makes it easier for her to work on her new obsession. She wants to find a reason that fits better than the one she’s been given and it’s honestly heartbreaking to read. Here you have a twelve year old girl faced with the reality of her own mortality for the first time.

The format flits between past and present and in the former scenes the reader starts to build up a picture of the friendship Suzy and Franny share. These aspects showcase the difficulty of growing up and it’s where Suzy starts to appear as a bad person at times. It’s a struggle to support her actions but this is makes her flawed and just adds more humanity to her character.

I didn’t expect to learn so much about Jellyfish but, as the title suggests, the book is littered with all the different facts that Suzy learns on her quest for the truth.

The Thing About Jellyfish is fundamentally a story about grief, loss and how to cope with it. Oh, and of course Jellyfish.

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Posted in children's fiction, fantasy, review, Uncategorized

The King Of Average – Gary Schwartz

“No one had any cause to give James a second thought and that’s the way he liked it.”

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Blurb: “James isn’t the world’s greatest kid, but he’s not the worst, either: he’s average! When he decides to become the most average kid who ever lived, James is transported to another world where he meets Mayor Culpa, a well-dressed talking Scapegoat who recruits him to become the new King of Average.”

*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

The story follows a boy called James who is completely average. His grades are average, his aspirations are average, his life is average; even his name is average. His mother hates that he will never achieve great things, but James has other ideas: he will be the most average person that’s ever lived.  This leads him into the Realm Of Possibility where his adventures with a scapegoat, an optimist, and a pessimist take him on a quest to be the new King of Average.

This world is so cleverly put together. From the Kingdom of Average to Dullsville, to the Sea of Self Doubt and Disappointment Bay, it’s practically impossible not to laugh out loud or crack a smile at some of the witty inclusions to the world. James constantly fights with himself over doing things to help others that may violate the conduct of being average and reaches points in the narrative he has to tackle what the right course of action is based on what he’s seeking.

What I really love about this story is James approach to perceptions of himself. His mother is quite mean to him and he could take that to heart in a bad way but instead he chooses to embrace himself and sets out to be the best at being… well… not the best and I think that’s a wonderful message to give to children.

I only wish this had been a bit longer because the transition from the “real world” to the Realm of Possibility was far too quick. James’ average life is set up and before you have a chance to find your feet you’ve already moved on.

Overall, this is a fun, light read that’s bought to put a smile on your face.

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Posted in review, young adult

Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“Another secret of the universe: sometimes pain was like a storm that comes out of nowhere. The clearest summer could end in a downpour, could end in lightning and thunder.”

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Blurb: “Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime.”

I’m a firm believer that you can learn a lot about someone by their favourite books. After all, they are favourites for a reason. For a few years I’ve watched a booktuber by the name of renontheroad whose favourite book is this one. Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe is not short of its critical acclaim with four in total including the Stonewall Book Award for LGBT fiction and the Michael L. Printz Award.

The story follows a Mexican-American boy called Aristotle who lives in El Paso in the eighties. He is obsessed with the world and everything it has to offer; he wants to know all the secrets of the universe. Struggling to adapt to life without his brother – who is shunned by the family – the endless possibilities of the future and finding his identity and footing in the world. Aristotle meets a boy called Dante at a swimming pool and their friendship blossoms from there.

This book is a slow burn and more about taking the time to reflect on the small things in life. Meaning plays a very big role in the story as it’s something that Aristotle is constantly searching for. While it felt almost tedious, it could be said that the sluggish pace is reflective of real life; not everything is eventful all the time. Another aspect of the story that incorporates this is the romance. Like most real-life relationships it slowly builds up and, as the story is narrated from Aristotle’s point of view, there aren’t any real indications of his feelings for Dante apart from him speaking more often about him. He doesn’t really notice and process his feelings until it’s pointed out to him.

The writing style is poetic but borders almost on pretentious at times. Aristotle is so fascinated by the world and almost resentful of Dante at times by how satisfied he is with his life.

I listened to the audiobook version because it was narrated by Lin Manuel Miranda and I think this took away from my enjoyment. As a narrator, he didn’t do a good enough job of differentiating between the voices so it was hard to tell which was speech and Aristotle’s internal thoughts. I wonder if I might have had a better experience by reading the book rather than listening to it.

A book that held a lot of promise but was ultimately a let-down for me.

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Posted in book event, discussion

The Creakers Book Signing | Tom Fletcher

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When I saw that Tom Fletcher was going to be doing a signing for his new book The Creakers and that he was coming to Leeds again, I breathed a massive sigh of relief on many levels. After the disaster at W.H.Smiths last year, I was overjoyed to see that the event would be taking place at Waterstones.  I’ve been pushing myself to go to more events on my own because I’m sick of missing out on things because I have no one to go with. So I bought a solo ticket and when the day rolled around, took an adventure out in the big city on my own.

I will continue to sing the praises of Waterstones Leeds when it comes to their event organisation. This was the third book signing I’ve attended there and honestly, every single one of them has been so painless. The signing was due to start at 4pm but an hour before that the staff were already exchanging tickets for wristbands and allowing people up to the top floor – which they’d blocked off for the signing – to wait. I was given my copy of The Creakers which I essentially preordered when I bought my ticket, and I was given a handful of sweets to munch on while I waited.

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Everything was so painless and smooth that it didn’t even feel like I waited the total of an hour and 45 minutes to meet Tom. He was lovely as usual and I asked him if he was excited for Christmas (to which he said “a lot” – He’s a very big fan of the season) and told him about how my cousin’s little girl is really enjoying his book.

And just like that it was over. It was fleeting and wonderful and now I finally have a copy of the book. So I better buckle down and start reading!

Posted in children's fiction, contemporary, review

928 Miles From Home – Kim Slater

“Daydreaming is cool because you don’t have to work out a fool proof plan of how you’re going to do stuff or wrestle with the problems that might come up. You can just flash-forward to the good bits.”

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Blurb: “Fourteen year old Calum Brooks has big dreams. One day, he’ll escape this boring life and write movies, proper ones, with massive budgets and A-list stars. For now though, he’s stuck coping alone while his dad works away, writing scripts in his head and trying to stay ‘in’ with his gang of mates at school, who don’t like new kids, especially foreign ones. But when his father invites his new Polish girlfriend and her son, Sergei, to move in, Calum’s life is turned upside down. He’s actually sharing a room with ‘the enemy’! How’s he going to explain that to his mates?”

Calum Brooks loves writing screenplays but he never puts them down on paper. He lives on a tiny estate in Nottingham where nothing interesting every happens so thinks his dreams of becoming a screenwriter for those big blockbuster movies are a waste of time. At school, he’s fallen in with the wrong crowd and while he doesn’t actively take part in the bullying, he still stands back and watches. The common recipient of the taunts from his friends is a polish boy called Sergi. But when Sergi and his mother move into Calum’s home, things are about to take a turn.

Calum is a character I think anyone can relate to at some point in their lives. We’ve all been brought up knowing what is right and wrong, that bullying is unacceptable and what to do if we see if happening. In theory, that seems obvious and easy to do. But in reality, it can be a lot harder to find your voice. Calums friends are the school bullies and, while he claims he doesn’t actively bully anyone, he stands back and watches while the group dish out unwanted attention to unsuspecting students. While he acknowledges that he knows this behaviour isn’t right, he’s afraid of speaking up in case that attention falls on him.

Kim Slater has always made an effort to slip important topics into the narratives of her stories: her previous book A Seven Letter Word features the protagonist’s friend being the victim of islamophobia. 928 Miles From Home takes into account our current political climate which at first I thought might be too heavy for a children’s book but quickly realised it makes perfect sense to include. The popular victim of choice is a boy called Sergi who is polish. He receives all manner of stereotypical hate that can be expected and with experiencing this and listening to stories from his own father, believes that people like Sergi are here sponging off society. It can get very intense to read at times but that’s the point of it: it needs to make an impact.

A character I didn’t expect to see play as much of a role as she did is Amelia who lives on a narrowboat. She and her family move around a lot on her boat and settle in places for a period of time before they are moved on. As Calum starts to build an unwilling friendship with her, his racial biases start to merge when he makes comments about Sergi that are interchangeable with her life and doesn’t understand why she takes some of them to heart as she’s “different to Sergi.”

It is the range of the characters that really are what make this story so amazing to read, mainly because a lot of them exist today and I can even identify some of them in my own life. It highlights the importance of educating yourself, not taking things at face value, and that not saying anything can be just as harmful as being the one doing it.

The narrative flits between prose and short screenplays with the latter being used to showcase hypothetical situations or events in the way Calum believe they took place. This shows hi creativity and adds the undertone of him not believing he’s good enough.

There are so many different elements to this story in addition to the ones I’ve focused on and it just leaves me in awe with every book Kim slater writes.

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Posted in contemporary, review, young adult

Goodbye Perfect – Sara Barnard

“I could lie and say I suspected something, or that it all makes sense now, but I didn’t, and it doesn’t. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.”

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Blurb: “Eden McKinley knows she can’t count on much in this world, but she can depend on Bonnie, her solid, steady, straight-A best friend. So it’s a bit of a surprise when Bonnie runs away with the boyfriend Eden knows nothing about five days before the start of their GCSEs. Especially when the police arrive on her doorstep and Eden finds out that the boyfriend is actually their music teacher, Mr Cohn.”

*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

The story follows fifteen year old Eden Rose McKinley who is faced with a dilemma when her best friend, Bonnie, runs off with her boyfriend… who turns out to be their teacher. She is secretly communicating with her friend and lies to the police in order to protect her friend. But lies can only take someone so far.

To say that Goodbye Perfect is an intense read would be an understatement. From the moment Eden first gets in touch with Bonnie after her disappearance, I was willing with everything in me that she would do the right thing. Eden has an unwavering loyalty to her friend and also a naivety that comes with being fifteen years old: Bonnie claims that she “loves” Mr Cohen and Eden doesn’t see any reason to question that. She is aware it’s serious because the police are involved, but doesn’t understand why it requires a police investigation and media frenzy.

The aspect of media frenzy was a perfect opportunity to take a stab at how the media choses to respond in certain scenarios. Bonnie is quickly labelled a “good” girl which Eden, who grew up in a foster home, is  quick to latch on to, explaining how if she was in Bonnie’s position, there would be a much more negative response than to the smiling pictures of her best friend splattered across the front of newspapers.

This book gets straight into the plot and opens with the police arriving at Eden’s house to interview her and the other backstory elements are littered throughout.  This worked well as the lull periods in the investigation were padded out with insights into their friendship and “conversations that took on a different meaning after she left” which really showed how the sign were there, if only Eden had known what to look for.

This story terrified and baffled me in equal measure because I couldn’t believe what I was reading, but then I remembered this is not entirely fictional. There have been many stories like this emerging in the media. It’s really happening. And that made it all the more difficult to stomach.

Goodbye Perfect is an utterly brilliant cat-and-mouse story that tests how far one girl will go to keep a secret.

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