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Far From the Tree by Robin Benway - Review

Friday, March 30, 2018

Where did I get it? Amazon, I bought it on Kindle a few weeks ago when it was only 99p. 

What's it about? It starts with Grace, who is sixteen and who has just had a baby. She called the baby Peach in her own head, and has given her up for adoption. She's grieving very hard for Peach, even though she thinks she made the right decision, and as an adopted child herself it makes her think about her own birth family. 

Her parents have information about Grace's younger sister, Maya. Maya is fifteen, and a lesbian. She has a girlfriend, Claire, and a younger sister, Lauren. Maya's family looks good from the outside, but inside it's falling apart. Her parents row all the time and her mum is drinking a lot. Maya feels like she doesn't fit into her family and is desperate to fit in somewhere. 

The girls discover they have an older brother, Joaquin. He is mixed race and has lived his whole life in the foster system. He is currently living with Mark and Linda, who want to adopt him, but Joaquin keeps pushing them away. 

Each of the siblings is struggling to cope in one way or another. Grace goes back to school but is bullied for having a baby, but she meets a new boy who doesn't know her past. Joaquin has a girlfriend but has just broken up with her. He has weekly therapy and is trying to sort things out even though he's about to age out of the foster system. Maya is pushing people away and also trying her best. And then, to top it all off, Grace wants to try to trace their birth mother too. 

I feel like there were loads of positives in this book. I liked the frank look at adoption and the pros and cons of it. I liked that therapy was shown in a positive light. I liked that all of Maya's family accepted that she was gay without stressing about it. I liked how real the new siblings were with each other, in both good ways and bad. I liked the families each of the siblings had, in their imperfect ways. I liked how Grace was grieving for Peach even while believing she did the right thing - I think this is something which a lot of adults struggle with so to see a teen struggling with it felt like it was really important and well done. 

The book has chapters from the point of view of each of Grace, Joaquin, and Maya. I liked that a lot because it gave us the opportunity to see into each of their heads. 

Some things were a little bit too perfect, like Grace's new friend Rafe, but I even liked those bits in the context of the book as a whole. It's really good, I would definitely read other books by the same author. 

What age range is it for? Let's say 15+ 

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? Yes, Maya is. 

Are any main characters people of colour? Yes, it's a big part of Joaquin's story. 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? I think there is some mental health stuff going on, sure, but it's not really spelt out. Maya's mum is an alcoholic and this could potentially be triggering. 

Is there any sex stuff? No, although it is mentioned because obviously Grace had sex with Peach's dad. It's not explicit. 

Are drugs mentioned or used? There's one use of marijuana, I liked how this was done a lot. 

Is there any talk of death? A little, but not much and nothing explicit. 

Are there swear words? Very few, they're very judiciously used 

What criticisms do I have? As I said, some things are a little bit too perfect, but in all they're easy to look past. 

Would I recommend the book? Yes 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? It was near the front of the carousel on my Kindle, nothing more than that! 

What other books is it like? It has a bit of the same feel as Paper Butterflies by Lisa Heathfield, but is far less distressing than that 

How many stars? Four out of five. 

Northern YA Lit Festival!

Monday, March 26, 2018

On Saturday I went to the first Northern YA Festival, held in Preston at one of the university buildings. I was so happy when I first heard of this festival, being held in the north, so I knew I had to go. I booked tickets way back in January and booked for Lee to come with me. He hasn't been to anything like this before, but I hoped he would enjoy himself and he also packed his Nintendo Switch in case he got bored.

We set off bright and early on Saturday morning as I wasn't wholly sure how long it would take to get there and find parking. The first panel wasn't until 11am, and we actually managed to get there just before 10! We parked the car and went into the building. There was already a little queue, so we joined it. We were let in just after 10 and were immediately given a very cute tote bag - all book conferences include tote bags and I'm always very happy with them! I use them afterwards for crochet projects and in the supermarket, so they don't go unused.

The whole conference took place in one room. At the back there were some tables for signing, and some stalls. There was someone selling book themed cupcakes, and one stall which was selling books published by UCLan university itself. There was another publisher stall which was giving away two books each as well as a bunch of bookish postcards, stickers, badges, all of that stuff. I picked up a couple of books and Lee picked up a couple for my friend, who had wanted to go to the conference but couldn't due to illness. I bought a couple of books at the UCLan stall. I had some Christmas money left over and let's just say I didn't come home with much of it! There was also a Waterstones stall, where I bought more books, and Taken Moons were there selling their lovely candles! I think the number of stalls was just right for the number of people that were there.

The first panel was Getting Into Publishing and it was really interesting. Anna Day, who wrote The Fandom, was the only author I was familiar with, but they were all really interesting and I enjoyed the panel. I thought the panel leader was especially good, he directed the panel really well.

Then it was lunchtime so Lee and I headed across the road to eat. We were going to go to Subway but it was packed, so we went two doors down to a falafel place. It was SUCH good food, I really enjoyed it. We went back to the venue and spoke to a few people before the Feminism in YA panel started. I thought it was a good panel too. I love Annabel Pitcher, we've met a couple of times before and I like her books. It was really nice to hear Katherine Webber, too. In the signings afterwards I gave them some of my business cards with my blog address on, since I've reviewed some of their books recently. I have to say that the signing queues were really well organised and moved quickly, which was great.

The next event was Alwyn Hamilton in conversation about her books. I haven't read any of hers and they're not my usual genre, so Lee and I sat at the back and he played on his Switch for a bit. I was texting a friend a bit but I was paying attention too, and Alwyn came across really well, very interesting and passionate about her books. I enjoyed this bit more than I thought I would! I didn't think I owned any of her books, but I think I do have Rebel of the Sands somewhere, I'll have to find it!

The last event was Holly Black in conversation about her books. I have read a lot about her stuff and although again it's not my usual genre, I like the sound of The Cruel Prince so I bought it at the conference. I also got a bunch of swag to go with it, including a really gorgeous tarot style card. Holly was really engaging too and I liked this panel even though I was getting really tired by this point! Fortunately I was near to the front of the signing queue for Holly, so once I'd spoken to her Lee and I were ready to go. It wasn't even half past five!

We got home safely and ordered a takeaway, then decided to watch Star Wars. I was so tired as I always am after conferences, but I thought it was really well done. I have a few comments, like I would have liked more booksellers, and maybe a breakout room, but honestly it was really well done to say it was the first one. I hope there'll be another one next year as I'll definitely go!

I took quite a few photos:

Lee and I waiting in the queue

The book themed cupcakes! Can you see your favourite? I actually bought some of the other flavoured ones she had - the mint ones and the chocolate orange ones were really delicious so I'm sure these were too

Getting ready for the first panel

Anna Day and Teri Terry in the signings afterwards. Anna was very nice!

The frankly amazing falafel I had for lunch. 

The Feminism in YA panel. Laura Steven introduced the panel but didn't stay on it, but her book sounded interesting so I bought it too 

The signing queue towards the end - it was much bigger than this at one point

Alwyn Hamilton - this was taken from the very back of the seating so apologies for quality! She was wearing the most amazing jumpsuit

These are all the books I gt signed. I already owned four of these so took them along, but I bought the others

Lee stole the Patrick Ness poster off the wall at the very end of the event when someone was beginning to remove them

Lee picked up Moxie and How To Bee for my friend, for free. The free ones I chose were A Sky Painted Gold and No Fixed Address, they both looked really interesting. Pillars of Light and Cold Bath Street were both published by UCLan's in house publisher, they were £5 each and I was intrigued by them. The Jacqueline Wilson book is like some kind of fanzine, and it was a whole pound! So I had to have it. Oh, and David Massey had a stall too, his books were all £5 each too. I bought these two as they sounded interesting, he signed them for me.

Finally, here's all the bookish swag I picked up. I love the stickers, and the Fangirl postcard is definitely going on my wall. I divided some of this with my friend, she's a teacher so she likes the chapter samplers as they're useful for students. I hope she likes it all!

A Spoonful of Murder by Robin Stevens - Review

Sunday, March 18, 2018

I was still in need of something easy to read, so I picked up the latest Wells and Wong novel. I had it on pre-order and it arrived a couple of weeks ago. First of all I think the blue green colour is absolutely gorgeous; I love how all of these books are such bright, attractive colours.

At the beginning of the book, we're at Deepdean with Daisy and Hazel again. It's only a few weeks into the term after the events of Mistletoe and Murder, but Hazel gets a phone call from her dad in Hong Kong telling her that her grandfather has died and that she should return to Hong Kong for the mourning.

She asks if Daisy can go with her and the two set off on the boat, which takes an astounding thirty days. I would LOVE for there to be a mystery set on the boat - maybe even on the way back from this trip! Anyway, in Hong Kong all of Hazel's relatives are waiting in her childhood home - her dad, who we met in a previous book, her mother June, her father's second wife Jie Jie, Hazel's sisters Rose and May, and a new addition to the family, Teddy. Hazel is blindsided by the arrival of a baby brother and feels quite uncomfortable about him.

But then Teddy is kidnapped, a maid is murdered, and Hazel is not only a witness but also a suspect! Can she and Daisy navigate the different rules of Hong Kong life to work out the truth?

It's no secret that I love these books, I think they're perfect middle grade books and a really gorgeous addition to children's literature. I think they're perfect for fans of Enid Blyton and such like - they're a little bit dangerous and extremely intriguing, and they have such a brilliant setting and such likeable heroes. I really liked the switch to Hong Kong as we got more of a look at Hazel's home life, as well as at what things matter to her. I thought that a reader unfamiliar with Hong Kong would also understand a lot of the customs and traditions even though they would be different to what a reader might be used to. I'm pretty sure, for instance, that previous settings like at Daisy's house or on the Orient Express wouldn't be familiar to modern readers either, but they're done in such a way as to be accessible and I think that's lovely.

As an adult reader it's easy to pick up some flaws in the book, but if I was ten years old I know I would be all over these books like a rash, and honestly they are just so cute that I would forgive them a lot. I can't wait to see where we meet Hazel and Daisy next!

The Princess and the Suffragette by Holly Webb - Review

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

I have been having some personal issues which mean that I haven't been able to read like I normally would, I've just not got the head space for it. I had started a book, but had to put it down because I just couldn't follow what was happening. Then I came across this book in a pile of books and realised I really wanted to read it, so I did. It was just exactly what I needed, I really liked it!

It's a sequel to A Little Princess, which was a book I loved when I was younger. I had a whole set of classic novels and although I liked a lot of them this was the one I really loved and read more than once. So when I saw this sequel was coming out to coincide with the centenary of some women getting the vote, I knew I wanted to read it. I was lucky enough to get it for Christmas through a swap.

I love the cover, first of all, in the Suffragette colours of purple and green. I also really like that I got the hardback, it feels like a really nice edition that will look lovely on the bookshelf.

So, the story focusses on Lottie, who we met in A Little Princess. She's very little in that book, but in the beginning of this she's about to turn eleven. She is pretty miserable at Miss Minchin's school, and seems to always be in bother with Miss Minchin. She ends up getting friendly with Sally, a new maid in the school, who is a Suffragette herself. Lottie, looking for something else in her life, begins to get interested in the movement too, and in the process finds out some things about her own life.

It's an easy book, suitable for any child who liked A Little Princess. The language isn't as difficult, and there are definite modern nods, meaning it is perhaps easier to read. Lottie is a likeable character and I would like to read more about her - she's definitely got a lot about her. I liked her relationship with Sally as well as the things which kept them apart.

There's some violence in the book, but not much and it isn't graphic, but it could be a good way to talk about the Suffragettes and Emily Davison in particular. I really liked the way it was done from a little girl's point of view.

All in all, I enjoyed this and am giving it four out of five.

Reading Difficult Books

Monday, March 12, 2018

I saw a tweet the other day from a parent wondering if The Handmaid's Tale was suitable for their teen, and I wanted to write a little bit about teens reading difficult books like that.

Firstly, of course, I believe that anyone can read anything, if they feel they're at a level to deal with the story contained within. Adult books don't have to be for adults and teen books don't have to be solely for teens. I believe staunchly in giving trigger warnings, because I want readers to be fully aware of what kind of content they might encounter. Triggers can be literally anything, but the main ones can be around mental illness, self harm, suicide, death, substance abuse, and so on. I try to always warn for this kind of thing, which is why I do reviews in the way that I do.

For me, one of the great things about Young Adult is that so many different types of stories are represented. Of course, there is still a long way to go, but things have come on so far in just twenty years. When I was a teenager, I went straight from reading Sweet Valley High and Babysitter's Club to stealing Maeve Binchy novels from my mum. They probably weren't the most suitable books for me, which is why I'm glad that YA novels exist. They deal with difficult subjects like sex and abuse, like coming out, like bad families, like any kind of subject you can think of. Kids are often dealing with hard things, and deserve to see that reflected back at them. I know that if I had been able to relate to characters in books when I was (especially) a younger teen, I wouldn't have felt so alone. I believe that it's often good to have pages in books with lists of where to find help and advice on the issues contained within. There's so much information out there these days, and not all of it is good or useful.

Often I read a book that is ostensibly for adults but I think it is suitable for teens, so I try to review it in such a way here so that teens would know whether it is suitable for them. I trust teenagers, I trust that by and large they know what they can cope with and aren't stupid. Of course, most teenagers in school are taught books that are supposedly for adults but which have themes they can understand. For instance, no one is arguing that To Kill A Mockingbird is a YA novel, but it's often taught to teenagers for exams.

I first read The Handmaid's Tale when I was about fifteen. I read 1984 first, which I'd heard about because bands I liked talked about it in interviews. (I love musicians talking about books they like, I think it's one of the best ways to get teens into reading). Then I think a teacher heard us talking about 1984 and recommended The Handmaid's Tale as being similar. They definitely have similar themes and ideologies, but the sexual violence in The Handmaid's Tale make it a harder read for me. I was so shocked at the rape scenes (with the Commander and Serena and Offred... it isn't often referred to as rape but I believe in calling it what it is... Offred doesn't have the freedom to say no, so she isn't consenting to what happens...) and even now find those very hard to read (or indeed watch, as I've seen most of the recent TV series with Elisabeth Moss).

I didn't fully understand the book, and I think a lot of that was because I didn't fully understand the political context behind it. I didn't know then what I know now about evangelical Christianity and especially its place in the United States. I think if your teen was going to read the book, it would be important to give some of this context, especially in the light of more recent events like the Trump government. I can think of a hundred books that might need some context giving, even YA ones. For instance, wouldn't it be good to give a reader not familiar with the Black Lives Matter movement some information about that as they were reading The Hate U Give? Of course some teens will be familiar with it, but for those who aren't I feel like good information would be important.

I also think that telling a teen that they can ask you anything about a book is important too. They might need context, they might need information, they might be worried about some part of themselves or their lives that they've seen reflected on the page.

Basically, I think that involved parenting is helpful for teenagers, but that mostly, teens can be trusted to read difficult books, and that they deserve to have safe spaces to ask for more information if they want it. What do you think?

My copy of The Handmaid's Tale is this edition, I "borrowed" it from 6th form college and never gave it back. It's annotated by a previous student and I love to read their notes alongside the text!

Taken Moons Candles - Review

Friday, March 9, 2018

A few weeks ago all the bookish people I follow on Twitter were abuzz about a tiny company called Taken Moons which sells bookish inspired candles. Now, I am a huge fan of candles. I nearly always have one burning on my desk, I buy Yankee Candle ones at Christmas and from outlets, and I pick up others from little gift shops throughout the year. I love all different kinds of scents but my favourites are sweet, citrusy flavours (there's a Yankee Candle one called Star Anise and Orange which I LOVE - I think it's perfect for winter). I also like supporting small businesses, so I thought I would treat myself to a candle.

There's a bunch of different flavours to choose from on the Etsy shop, but I went with "Just and Loyal" for two reasons. One, I liked the scent of "honeysuckle and green tea" and two, I am supposedly a Hufflepuff and I like being both just and loyal! I don't think the price is bad - I would pay £8 for a similarly sized candle in a gift shop.

So, I ordered, and then I waited, and then I realised that I hadn't received the candle so I messaged the shop. The owner and maker of the candles is called Rebecca like me and honestly she couldn't have been nicer. She apologised profusely for the parcel going missing in the post, and said she'd pop a replacement in the post for me immediately. This was slightly scuppered by the snow, but again she messaged me to apologise which I totally understood as I hadn't left the house either! I appreciated that she had kept me informed, though.

Anyway, the candle arrived today, nicely and safely parcelled up. The jar was full to the brim, which is nice. I lit it straight away. It's soy wax, which you might care about although I don't, but I do keep more of an eye on my soy candles as I find they burn a bit different to paraffin or beeswax and often need to be sheltered from any draught. The fragrance is great - I definitely get the honey sweetness with a bit of that grass scent of green tea underneath. It has a nice "throw", too - meaning you don't have to be close to the candle to get the smell.

Since my first parcel had gone missing, Rebecca had included a voucher for me for free postage if I wanted to buy another candle, and I have to say that I'm so impressed with Taken Moons that I think I'll definitely get another! Now, which one...?

The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu - Review

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Where did I get it? I requested it on Netgalley, so thank you very much to Hachette Children's Group because I really wanted to read this book! I've read two books of Jen's previously and really enjoyed them, so I was keen to read this too. It was published in the United States in 2014, but is only just being published here in the UK. I hope that means a whole new audience for it! 

What's it about? It's set in a small town in Texas called Healy, where there are three thousand people and where everyone knows everyone's business. There's a girl called Alice Franklin, and everyone knows two things about her: firstly, that she slept with Brandon and Tommy at the same time at a party at the end of the summer, and that she was sending texts to Brandon a few weeks later when he is driving in a fatal car crash. Everyone knows those things are true, right? That's why no one is talking to Alice anymore and why she's started coming to school in a huge grey sweatshirt. 

The book is told from the points of view of four people. Firstly there's Elaine, who is a super popular girl in school and who hates Alice because Alice made out with Brandon even though Elaine is pretty sure Brandon belonged to her. Then there's Kelsie, who was Alice's best friend until all of this happened, and who remembers being an outsider in Flint and doesn't want to go back to that. Kelsie had some really awful stuff happen to her, which was one of the best bits of the book (and it's a good book!). There's Josh, Brandon's best friend, who was with him at the time of the crash and who ended up injured. Lastly there's Kurt, who is the resident school geek, and who was Brandon's next door neighbour. He has a huge crush on Alice, and is the only person in the school who will talk to her.

I know Jen is a high school teacher and I think it really shows. She writes beautiful and beautifully flawed teenagers who are really realistic and who do really stupid things, but Jen makes us understand why they do these things. From an adult point of view I was often thinking "Oh, love, please just use your words and sort this out", but teenagers don't have adult brains yet and they're often surviving a lot and just trying to get through life. If I was a teenager I think I would totally understand why these teens made a lot of these decisions. I think Jen has such a talent here. I liked how we got the full story of what happened to Alice bit by bit, and that we could only see the full story because we read so many points of view. Each teen didn't have the full story and probably wouldn't ever know it, so had their own prejudices and point of view. 

I loved the depiction of small town life, I think Jen brought that alive really well and made me think a lot about small towns and the politics and people that co-exist in them. 

There's a lot of political stuff in the book but without it being overtly so. There's a lot about sex, and sexual assault, and slut shaming, all done really well and in ways that I would hope make readers think. Jen is one of my favourite authors at the moment and I'm pretty sure that's partly due to the fact I follow her on Twitter and see her political opinions there. This book definitely deserves to be read. 

What age range is it for? 14+

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? No 

Are any main characters people of colour? No, I don't think so

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? No

Is there any sex stuff? Yes, it's not graphic but be warned for descriptions of sexual assault and slut shaming 

Are drugs mentioned or used? I don't think so? 

Is there any talk of death? Yes but again it's not graphic

Are there swear words? Very few 

What criticisms do I have? You know, almost none. Like I said, as an adult I just wanted to make the teenagers just talk to each other and sort things out, but I appreciate that teenagers often exist in little cliques that rarely cross paths. I actually thought the book was too short! I would've liked more of it! 

Would I recommend the book? Absolutely 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? I just couldn't wait after getting it approved 

What other books is it like? It's a bit like Wing Jones, which i read recently, and it's a lot like Moxie, also by this author, especially in its depiction of high school. I guess teaching in one is really good for writing!

How many stars? Four out of five, nine out of ten! 

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