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Final reviews of 2016 part 3

And finally...some extras for the more sophisticated older readers in 12-16, 16-19 and Poetry

Gallagher, Brian. Arrivals. The O'Brien Press. 2016, pp240,978 1 84717 720 9       

In Canada in 1928, three children form a secret club. They are Mike, whose father is the janitor at an exclusive boarding school, ArrivalsWilson, whose father is a wealthy businessman and Lucy, a member of the Ojibwe people who live on a nearby reserve. Although their backgrounds are very different they are united by a love of adventure- and the summer in which the novel is set brings them a mystery to solve which endangers their lives. They discover that the father of the school bully, Moose Packham, who enjoys making Wilson’s life a misery is involved in criminal activities. When Lucy witnesses him murder a man the three friends have to work quickly to bring him to justice. The story is seen through the eyes of Mike’s granddaughter Ciara who is left a letter revealing the events of the past. The social divisions of the time are clearly presented and the novel will appeal to readers who enjoy mystery and adventure.

Sandra Bennett

Grisham, John. The Scandal (Theodore Boone)Hodder, 2016 ,pp240, £12.99. 978 1 444 76341 6

Theodore Boone, the ‘only kid lawyer in town’ is back! This time, he’s directly affected by a marking scandal in one of the district’s schools where a group of five teachers set out to improve their pupils’ chances at high school by erasing their incorrect answers on a standardised test. Theodore’s friend April is angry when she discovers the scandal as both she and Theo have missed out on the Honors program by one mark. However, Theo can see that this is a moral ‘grey area’ – he doesn’t believe the teachers were motivated by money, simply a desire to help their pupils. This throws up an ethical dilemma that the reader is also invited to engage in: should the teachers be prosecuted as criminals?

John Grisham undoubtedly knows his stuff when it comes to courtroom drama. It’s nice to see a teenager who’s not a secret agent or a superhero, who instead grapples with ordinary things such as school tests, packing for scout trips, and dealing with a morose best friend. However, the book lacks a certain excitement because of this and some of the dialogue is a bit clunky – “I feel perfectly rotten”, says April at one point, in a throwback to Enid Blyton!

Theo wangles his way into courts and is privy to verdicts before anyone else, which allows him to see more than you might expect in the world of the courtroom, but this requires a certain suspension of belief that seems at odds with the book’s realistic setting. The bits that jar most are those that are told from other characters perspectives, such as dropping us into the head of guilty teacher Geneva Hull rather unexpectedly. Grisham would have done better to keep the reader in Theo’s head as much as possible, as he is an engaging character that boys in particular will like.

Despite these minor quibbles, it is undoubtedly a page-turner, and fans of the series will be quick to snap it up.

 Ciara Murray

Jonsberg, Barry. Pandora Jones Admission. Allen & Unwin, 2016 pp312, £5.99. 978174331 811 9

It’s been a while since the announcement that “dystopia is the new vampire”, but the appetite for dark trilogies featuring teens under duress shows no sign of abating. This first title in the Pandora Jones trilogy begins with sixteen-year-old Pandora witnessing a virus kill off 99.9% of the global population, including her family. She wakes in hospital, to learn that the few survivors have been gathered into The School, a quasi-military installation cut off from the rest of the world. But her memory is full of gaps: what has really happened? Pandora’s dreams hint at an unknown past; someone dies in mysterious circumstances; and six students are sent on a mission into hostile jungle, where they bond as a team as they practise their survival skills

I struggled to believe in the post-apocalyptic setting of The School (no worse than a tough boarding school): food seems plentiful (though unappetising), teen romances progress, Hamlet is studied in class. Although she sometimes smells a rat, Pandora’s revelation of the truth (or is it?) doesn’t strike until the final two pages, ensuring the book ends on a cliffhanger. Teenaged readers who have enjoyed The Hunger Games andThe Maze Runner could be guided to this book – but they might just guess the end before Pandora does.

Anna Quick

Muchamore, Robert. New Guard(Cherub) Hodder, 2016, pp320, £12.99. 978 1 444 91412 2             

Fast-paced from start to finish, with an abundance of thrills and the return of much-loved former agents, this final explosive Cherubchapter in the CHERUB series will not disappoint Muchamore’s fans.  ‘New Guard’ starts off on a slow burn, with a mission based in a children’s home where the Sharma twins are hoping to recruit new agents, but by the time we return to Cherub campus to see James Adams set up in his office as mission controller, the pace of the action increases, and I was turning pages at quite a rate!

James Adams and Ryan Sharma must set up one final mission for the Cherub agents, meaning that readers will get to see the comic interaction between the now-retired agents Lauren, Bruce, Kyle and Kerry and the ‘new kids on the block’. This is especially good in their training sessions, when the oldies take on the newbies (couldn’t help rooting for the oldies!) Muchamore’s dialogue is one of the real strengths of the book, it zips back and forth and has a ring of authenticity. The last mission, set in Iraq, is well-written and pacy with lots of great action sequences: explosions, helicopters, gunfights, etc. I also liked that Muchamore made reference to the emotional impact of engaging in a warzone.

Although many who read this book will be CHERUB afficianados, it’s worth noting that it is possible to start the series with this book, as Muchamore gives enough character information and background so that even newcomers to the series (like me!) can get stuck in to what is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Some swearing, mild sexual references and violence, as you might expect from a Muchamore book, but nothing too graphic.

Ciara Murray

Pons, Lele and De la Cruz,Melissa, Surviving High School. Simon & Schuster, 2016 pp272, £7.99. 978 1 4711 4775 3            

Lele Pons is an internet superstar, having millions of followers on a variety of platforms.  She shot to fame on Vine, a video site where short action loops are posted.  So if is safe to assume that she has a certain amount of influence over a significant number of teenagers.  Her book, co -written with Melissa de la Cruz, bestselling YA writer, is billed as a ‘semi-autobiographical’ account of moving to a new high school at 16.   Lele narrates in the story in present tense cataloguing the difficulties of moving from a small private Catholic school to the much larger and diverse Miami High.  Initially, Lele finds it difficult to make friends and essentially only seems to from three real relationships over the year:  with an academic student, a new student from Belgium (who also is a crush/short term boyfriend) and a ‘mean-girl’ type.  Her profile amongst the rest of the student body rises as the popularity of her Vines grows.   There are some moments of reflection on being an awkward teen, becoming famous and relationships.  The style is upbeat, with some quick witted asides and the story rattles along.

However, the book seemed confused – part autobiography, self-help, comedy or coming of age story – for me it was trying to do too many things and lacked clarity.  I also found the constant references to her looks, financial gain and fame somewhat off putting.  The underlying theme was less inspirational and more shallow self-promotion.  Suitable for KS4 readers.

 Sam Sinclair

 Cocks, Peter. Shadow Box (Eddie Savage)Walker.2016,  pp336, £7.99 978 1 4063 3431 9 

Not having read the first two books in this series (Long Reach and Body Blow), it took some time to engage with this, and constant references to previous plot lines were slightly distracting. Peter Cocks has written extensively for television, and was a Shadow Boxregular TV performer in the 1990’s: he also co-authors with crime writer Mark Billingham under the pseudonym Will Peterson.

Shadow Box tells the continued story of Eddie Savage, the 19 year old undercover security agent battling against drug-runners, IRA terrorists and Russian mafia bosses. The violence, strong language and constant references to sex and drugs would certainly preclude this as a logical follow-on to Cherub devotees, at least until some level of maturity has been reached. Set mainly in London and New York via Stoke-on-Trent, there are plenty of plot twists and double-crosses to endure, and some historical and political references that might need some background research, but this will prove an enjoyable read for those looking for a gritty, hard-hitting thriller in the style of Ludlum and Alex Ryder. Walker books are marketing this as 14+ years, but I would be careful who I would lend this to.  

Stephen King

Breeze Jean Binta. The Verandah Poems. Bloodaxe Books, 2016, pp72, £9.95 978 1 78037 285 3

In this collection ‘the Third World Girl’ takes us back to her home in Jamaica  - ‘no Kingston/this is countryside Jamaica’ - where we sit with her on her verandah, in sight not only of the Caribbean sea but also of three bars from which football can be seen on television screens, and who ‘take it in turn/day and night/to play loud enough/for the entire village’, making it unnecessary for Breezethe inhabitants to play music on their own verandahs.  The collection begins with a poem stating ‘next week is New Year’s Eve’ and ends with a poem called ‘New Year’s Eve’ , while in between these two dates, during which we also celebrate Christmas on the verandah, people, some strangers, some not, pass by the verandah, stopping to talk.  Sometimes, they discuss current events – ‘Yuh really tink it right/for Scotland to ask for freedom? /We did/and look where it got we’.  One man stops by looking for work:  ‘I could clean your car, mam/no car sir/I could scour your awnings/we do that ourselves’, and then stays to tell his story, leaving in the end with ‘my last fifty dollars’.  We watch the 2014 World Cup, or, at least, the reactions of the young men in the bar across the road:  ‘bodies leap from the verandah/on to the edge of the road/stopping traffic for a moment/and Brazil has scored’.  Breakfast is served on the verandah, the sun goes down on it, a rainbow shines over it and we remember a birth in one of the rooms behind it.  The verandah is central to the collection, an image of home, warmth and belonging, although at two o’clock one morning ‘the distant sultry sound of reggae/dubs the night/and the music is broken by screams’ and ‘the verandah feels unsafe’:  ‘young men are going mad they say....they say it’s no more ganja/young men have turned to crack’.  Elsewhere, however, the presence of young men carrying babies and shopping is recorded, as ‘young men have become new men/no longer do they feel/these duties are for women’.  This is a beautiful collection which creates a cumulative atmosphere which rewards reading the poems in sequence, while the inclusion of photographs of the poet with, presumably, family and friends gives the book the feel of a family album, intimate, warm and inviting. 

Frank Startup

Stoddart,Greta. Alive Alive O. Bloodaxe, 2015, pp64, £9.95 978 1780371511        

The theme of this collection is mortality, bereavement, responses to the prospect of our own deaths and those of others.  The tone, however, is neither morbid nor depressing.  It is more exploratory, and a variety of styles and subject matters approach the topic from different angles.  The opening poem, ‘Curtain’, uses the analogy of an actor working her way backstage, away from the spotlights, by feeling along the pleats of the stage curtain ‘keen to get back/to where you were before your entrance’ in a comforting metaphor which extends to include others ‘in their dressing room, peeling off the layers’.    Elsewhere, however, the possibility that death is ‘a slow slowing/ down to a slippery quick frantic dark then/a stop’ is considered, the question of what it must be like to die examined in clear, inventive poetic imagery.

Some poems deal with the loss of others, sometimes those close to us, as in the beautiful ‘Turning Earth’ presented rather in the form of a litany, which perfectly catches the devastating realisation that ‘you/who were so complicatedly here/are now so simply gone’, an economy of expression which contains a wealth of meaning.  There is warmth in the image of the dead as ‘Stars’, and some surprising humour, as in ‘ICU’ where ‘The nurse who’s just turned off the machine/walks out with such a sorry little smile/I want to stop her and say/’Hey, I was watching that!’

Loss is all around us, in the ‘Voicemail’ sent to wish a happy new year to someone for whom ‘there’d be no year/or month or even a week’, and, even more poignantly, in the sight of ‘our house from the train’ and the secrets it holds for the observer.  Images from painting recur: the deathbed scene in which ‘one frame/glances off many-angled now’, or in ‘Skull and Hourglass’, with its overtones of the Vanitas, and people held, caught in a moment in time.

The diversity of subjects includes, in narrative style, reflections on a swimming pool lifeguard, seen on his stool at the baths or driven past in the street, heading, on his new bike, ‘to the A28, the Little Chef, the lorry’, as well as thoughts on a dead lamb in a field and, with a wonderfully accumulating sense of horror, a slow gathering of spiders on a bathroom floor.

The poetry is clear, uncluttered and uses imagery which illuminates subject matter and carries a real punch. 

Frank Startup

Woodburn, Shirlene. An Advanced Students' Guide to Edward Baugh's Poetry.LMH Publishing, 2015, pp80, £6.99 978 976 8245 29 8             

More likely to be an introduction than a guide for most UK students this slim book leads the student through Baugh’s persona, poetic style and themes. Born in 1936, Baugh is best known as a Jamaican academic and Derek Walcott expert. He also has three volumes of his own poetry published: A Tale from the Rain Forest (1988), It was Singing (2000) and Black Sand (2013). Woodward’s study guide looks at Baugh’s oeuvre in a general but quite detailed way with, obviously, plenty of textual reference. What it doesn’t do is tooffer in depth analyses of specific poems. Any British student encountering and wanting/needing to study Baugh’s poetry for the first time will find plenty of useful starting points here for independent individual thought and response. A level students or first year undergraduates, for example, may find the references to different critical perspectives useful and enlightening.The tone, though is a bit stilted in the rather tortured American academic style. And yet, the glossary is oddly elementary (do “advanced”students really need to be told that Kingston is the capital of Jamaica or that a sonnet is a poem with fourteen lines?)  Some of the suggested tasks are dispiritingly banal too.

Susan Elkin

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