If you like John Green, you’ll Love…..

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A couple of years ago I was given a copy of ‘Looking For a Alaska’ at around the time I first began hearing about John Green (the mega popular author in the states who would do the same over here). As a bookseller, I often hear about ‘the next big thing’ but the hype was convincing so I dove straight into ‘Looking for Alaska’ and after finishing it in a day, I was certainly convinced.  Over a couple of years Green has gone from a relatively unknown over here but, no doubt thanks to Green himself and his dedicated Nerdfighter’s online, he now has a British publisher (thank you Penguin!). In ‘The Fault In Our Stars’, he has a gem of a novel that has broken the Teen label and crossed over into general Fiction arguably reaching an even bigger fanbase than ever before. Green has done a lot of good for YA fiction and continues to be one of my favourite authors in the genre but one of the questions I get asked a lot at the moment is ‘What have you got that’s similar to John Green’, so I thought I’d put together a list of books for those asking ‘what next?’ So if you like John Green why not try….

1) Hate List By Jennifer Brown

Like most of us, there are people Valerie isn’t particularly fond of so when she jokingly makes The Hate List with her boyfriend Nick, she doesn’t expect him to open fire on the people she’s helped name.  Yes, it’s dark and serious but it’s a powerful and compulsive read.

 2) Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Clay is haunted by ex-classmate Hannah who manages to distribute a tape from beyond the grave implicating her classmates in her recent suicide. As dark as the subject matter is, it’s a compelling and original read.

3) 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

The Ultimate Travel Guide! When Ginny’s favourite Aunt dies, she leaves her some cash, a series of letters and a ticket to London where Ginny begins her journey of self discovery and independence. Not convinced yet!?! Firstly, follow Johnson on Twitter (she’s hilarious!) then get an introduction to her in the short story collection ‘Let It Snow’ which features Green.

4) The Catastrophic History of You and Me by Jess Rothenberg

Brie is dead but for some reason she can’t seem to move on. At first she thinks it’s because she needs to get revenge on her ex-boyfriend and ex-best-friend but hurting them doesn’t help. Don’t worry, it’s not all grim with a sprinkling of humour and potential love interest to lighten things up.

5) The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart

The story of Ruby Oliver who, after boyfriend Jackson (no.13) dumps her, begins to lose the plot. We follow Ruby and her shrink as she works her way through a list of 15 guys important to her and how it helps her regain control. Some serious topics discussed but over all very entertaining.

 6) Perks of being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Geeky, awkward yet lovable Charlie kinda reminds me of Miles from ‘Looking for Alaska’. All Charlie wants to do is navigate through High School unscathed but a combination of his weird family, a teacher who singles him out because of his intelligence and well meaning but bonkers friends Patrick and Sam, mean that Charlie will have to step out of the shadows and embrace the limelight or at least an accidental lead role in a small town production of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’. Every generation has its coming of age novel, this has got to be the noughties edition!

 7) If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Mia literally has everything going for her until one day a terrible car crash tears apart her perfect world. Trapped in a coma, the book follows Mia going over the accident and trying to make sense of just how much her life will change but she needs to make a decision, is this new life worth fighting for?

8) The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

For me, Sarah Dessen is like Jacqueline Wilson for an ever so slightly older audience – she’s great at writing about topics that affect various teens. If you’re new to Dessen, ‘The Truth About Forever’ is a good place to start. Macy just doesn’t want to deal with her father’s death so instead she tries to make her life perfect to convince everyone that she’s coping just fine (maybe she can convince herself too…). But with the chance to hang round with a new group of friends and away from her old life, Macy begins to face both her grief and her future.

9) Before I Die by Jenny Downham

Filmed as ‘Now is Good’, think of a British ‘ The Fault In Our Stars’. Tess only has a couple of months to live but she’s determined to live fast and hard, not pausing to think about the consequences or, with some things she gets up to, the legality of her actions. At some point though, she has to slow down and mentally prepare herself and her family and friends for the inevitable.

10) Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Love the concept of this – three stories for the price of one, Cath’s story, her fan-fiction and the original novels they are based upon. Arriving on campus Wren decides she wants independence, Cath however doesn’t feel safe without her sister. The only place Cath feels secure is online, where her alter-ego Magi-Cath has a global following writing alternate Simon Snow fiction (think Harry Potter meets Twilight meets Game of Thrones). Wren’s betrayal turns out to be a blessing in disguise as Cath’s new roomate Reagan along with Levi are determined to stop Cath spending her Uni years hiding behind her laptop. The only problem is Cath also has to satisfy her fans by finishing her story before the official publication of the final Simon Snow novel.

11) Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn

As festive as tinsel, mince pies and dodgy gifts from old relatives. Okay, slightly cheating here with two authors, one book but ‘Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares’ does give you a chance to try out two authors at the same time.  As a format, this book is a brilliant idea with Cohn and Levithan picking up alternate chapters to give each character a distinct voice and it must be successful as it’s not the first time these two authors have teamed up – remember Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (book or film!)?  I’m sure that any Green fan will be aware of Levithan from Will Grayson, Will Grayson, but much like Green, Levithan was hugely popular America long before he really began to get recognition in the UK, perhaps he could be just as big as Green here in the next few years.

The sincerest form of flattery?

So, this week I have been reading two books which are best described as ‘written in the style of’…..

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First I read Sebastian Faulks’ homage to P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells and I have to say it compares very well, in my eyes, to the work of the master. Without resorting to being a mere parody Faulks seems to have captured the voices of both Bertie Wooster and Jeeves – there are some cracking one-liners in here – and the plot is suitably complex.  Interestingly we see a slightly more mature Wooster – there are fleeting discussions of the General Strike, the suffrage movement and the Great War – and I felt that, at the end, he would settle into married life quite well.  My only disappointment is that Fry and Laurie (whose voices I could hear in my head the whole time) are unlikely to reprise their roles to film this episode.

I decided to follow this up with Mansfield Revisited, by Joan Aiken, which is a reissue of a book I first read many years ago.

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I am a great lover of Jane Austen’s work and Mansfield Park is probably my favourite Austen novel.  I admire Fanny Price’s strength of character, but was always charmed by the Crawfords – luckily they play a major role in this story (even if Fanny is sent off to the West Indies in the opening chapters). I have read a number of sequels to Austen novels and. frankly, most of them have been very disappointing.  Mostly because they don’t get the language right – too modern, too ‘sexy’ or just too stiff – but occasionally because the plots are so far removed from the originals. I also found that I was comparing them unfavourably with Joan Aiken’s efforts.

The tone of both of these books seem to me to be absolutely spot on. It is obvious that the authors are great lovers of their subject. Sebastian Faulks describes a scene from Wodehouse’s The Mating Season as his ‘favourite in the whole canon of English literature’ and Joan Aiken wrote a number of Austen-based stories, including  a completion of the unfinished novel The Watsons.  It is rather lovely to think of authors being fans, just like us.

Jane

 

Astronomy Photographer of the Year – Collection 2

Astronomy Photohrapher of the Year 2013 Collection 2

Astronomy Photohrapher of the Year 2013 Collection 2

We are all used to seeing in the newspapers and magazines, the stunning pictures of the heavens that come down from the professional observatories, planetary space probes and the orbiting Hubble telescope. What is not always widely recognized is that with advances in telescope, digital camera capabilities, and image processing software, the amateur astronomer community is capable of producing photographs that rival them and in artistic and creative merit, often surpass them. I even do a modest bit of astrophotography myself, whenever we get a clear night here up in the Pennines…

Physicist, Astronomer and occasional guitar player Brian May provides the foreword to this wonderful collection of images, which are drawn from the shortlisted and winning photographs from the Royal Greenwich Observatory’s annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.

A coffee-table layout book, the nearly 200 images inside are grouped into themes, following the themes of the competition. So we have Solar System, People and Space, Young photographers, Earth and Space etc. All the images are taken by amateurs, and the book starts wonderfully with Earth and Space – views of the sky over spectacular earth landscapes. My personal favourites here are David Kingham’s stunning image of the Perseid meteor shower over Snowy Range, Wyoming, and the awesome view of the aurora over northern Norway by Tommy Richardsen. Alas, when I went to Norway in 2007, the sun was quiet and there was no aurora to be seen – well, there’s always a next time!

Each picture has two captions – an introduction by the photographer themselves, a personal anecdote of how they chose and took the picture and their feelings at the time, and then an additional scientific background caption.

The Deep Sky section of the book is really the Olympics of astrophotography, and it’s here the pictures for me lift from merely beautiful to absolutely mind-blowing.  To take the images of the Centaurus-A deep field, or the Fornax galaxy cluster, or the Horsehead nebula, it’s not enough to hold the camera shutter open for a few minutes – hooked up to a telescope, these comprise tens of hours of exposure time, over dozens of nights. Then dozens more nights processing them together in the digital darkroom, to create pictures that no human eye could ever see unaided, the light that set out on it’s journey to us millions of years ago.

This is followed by another lovely chapter called “People and Space” – where the photos include people in creative and original ways. So among many others we have Dinyan Fu’s image from Yunnan, China, of the Moon falling into a sea of clouds, watched by a lone silhouetted observer, looking like the last person on Earth.

The final chapter looks to the future by introducing the best work by young astrophotographers under 16 years of age, and from the showing here, the hobby is going to be in good hands long after I’ve hung my own camera up on the peg for good! This would make a great birthday or Christmas present book for anyone into photography or space.

Astronomy Photographer of the Year – Collection 2 (HarperCollins)

How Exciting

The list of books for World Book Night 2014 has just been released.  I have participated in the last two, giving away The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde and Pratchett & Gaiman’s Good Omens, and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The only difficult part is choosing which of this fantastic list I would like to be giving away this time.

Which would you choose?

Gideon Smith & the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett

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This was my first foray into the world of Steampunk – a type of science-fiction with a heavy dose of Victoriana and often featuring a real mix of the futuristic and, as the name suggests, the steam powered – and, based on this book it won’t be my last!

Our hero is a young fisherman living on the Yorkshire coast who is an avid reader of a ‘penny dreadful’ and the exploits of Captain Lucian Trigger. When his father disappears under mysterious circumstances Gideon decides that only a hero like the Captain can save the day. He heads for London, joining up with Maria – the Mechanical Girl – on the way and falls into the most fantastical turn of events.  In the true spirit of the ‘penny dreadful’ genre we meet a huge array of characters (including Bram Stoker, Einstein’s dad, Jack the Ripper and Queen Victoria herself) and have some rip-roaring adventures. We meet vampires, mummies, shadowy government agents, dirty old men, feisty women, sky-pirates and journalists. Since the author is a newspaperman himself I found it amusing that one of my favourite characters is a foul-mouthed hack (of the fat sweaty variety). Although there is an awful lot in the story I found it a pretty gripping read – well-written and pacy.

We also finish the book with new ideas on what makes a real hero – overcoming fears seems more important than being fearless – and a sense that there are more stories to come.  I, for one, am looking forward to the next outing for Gideon Smith.

Jane

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

Since the available reading time leading up to our November book group meeting included Hallowe’en we decided, as has now become traditional, to try and ready something nearer the spooky end of the spectrum. We considered a number of titles, including Dracula and (my favourite) The Monk, but decided to try Shirley Jackson’s classic of American Gothic fiction.

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At our meeting last night (over lattes, hot chocolate and cake – its a tough job but someone has to do it) we discussed whether this was, in fact a ‘spooky’ story or not. Our overall opinion seemed to be that there was a strong element of suspense but that it may not be totally appropriate to see the narrator, Merricat, as being involved in witchcraft. She has so many habits which seem to be the coping mechanisms of an OCD sufferer – although they do seem to largely vanish by the end of the book.

The story involves two sisters, orphaned by a poisoning incident for which the older sister was tried and acquitted, living with an invalid uncle on the outskirts of an increasingly hostile village. Only the narrator, Merricat, visits the village although these visits stop with the arrival of a cousin, Charles. The older sister, Constance, seems to be about the only sympathetic character in the whole book – you do feel fairly sure that she couldn’t possibly be a murderer.

Overall I enjoyed the book and will probably try more Shirley Jackson – I am told that the Haunting of Hill House is well worth reading. I am not generally a horror fan but, when it is well-written and full of suspense rather than gratuitous gore, I will happily give it a try.

Jane

1485 and All That

I’ve been a little quiet this week as I have been reading lots and lots of history – I am currently heavily steeped in the Wars of the Roses and the Tudors both as fiction and non-fiction. Rather than posting for each book I shall do a bit of a round-up – maybe even a bit of the old ‘compare and contrast’ which I remember from my school days…

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In terms of fiction I have been fairly firmly in the Wars of the Roses having read both Conn Iggulden’s Stormbird, and The Forbidden Queen by Anne O’Brien – the former is the first in a new series by a master of historical fiction and the latter is more of a historical romance. I enjoyed both – the Iggulden is not my usual genre, being more of an adventure story (as befits the author of the Dangerous Book for Boys), but it had a good tight plot featuring English longbowmen and a shadowy spymaster. As always the history seemed pretty accurate (and, as I said earlier I have been reading lots of straight history on the period too) and I will certainly be looking forward to seeing how the series develops. The latter book covers the relationship between Owen Tudor and Katherine de Valois, the widow of Henry V and grandmother of Henry Tudor and was more familiar ground to me. I enjoy historical fiction generally, even though I usually know what is going to happen, and maybe this is because I am a big fan of an ‘unhappy ending’. In this book we certainly end badly as our heroine is, at the last, confined to a nunnery (where she was to die in poverty) and parted from both her lover and her children.

In terms of non-fiction titles I have been split between pre- and post-1485 – including The Plantagenets by Dan Jones and The King’s Grave by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones for the pre-Tudor period. The Plantagents covers the period from Henry II to Henry IV ( nearly 250 years) and shows how the foundations of the Wars of the Roses were laid.

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The King’s Grave is more focussed – covering Richard III’s short reign, ending with his death at the Battle of Bosworth and the rise of the Tudor dynasty – and also covers the recent discovery of his body under a carpark in Leicester. The first book gives a good broad view of how mediaeval monarchy developed yet goes into enough detail to show the various characters involved. The second contrasts the archaeological dig to recover the remains of the last king of England to die on the battlefield with a reappraisal of his life. In fact, the main aim seems to be an attempt to convince the reader that the Tudors grossly maligned Richard III – I was largely convinced although I do feel that the authors, who are both Riccardians through and through, were maybe a touch too harsh on Henry Tudor. If Richard’s supression of his enemies was justified by his firm belief that he was the rightful king surely the same should apply to Henry?

I have also read two histories of the Tudors – one by Leanda de Lisle and the other by Peter Ackroyd – which despite covering much of the same material I found very different from each other. The former is a history of the entire family, starting with Owen Tudor, and covering the whole family tree and its links to the thrones of Scotland and continental Europe. It is particularly interesting, to me, for the way it covers the female angle – including Elizabeth of York, Margaret Beaufort and the sisters of Henry VIII as well as the better known Tudor Queens. Ackroyd’s book, on the other hand was far more concerned with ecclesiastical and political history. It was generally well-written and gave some good insights into the way that Europe, at the start of Henry VIII’s reign, was suddenly in the control of the three young kings of England, France and Spain. However, it wasn’t nearly as satisfying to me – aside from the fact that women in the Tudor period, aside from Elizabeth I and Mary, were sidelined to a great extent I spent the whole of the first few chapters feeling let down by the fact that the book started with the reign of Henry VIII. I felt that this was taking things out of context although I do realise that the religious conflicts were the main focus and these did, indeed, start with Henry VIII. Maybe I just felt that I didn’t get to know any of the individuals in this telling of the story. Or maybe I was peeved that although a King’s actions could be described as making changes ‘piece by piece so that no one could contemplate or guess the finished design; that was the reason it worked’ a Queen is called ‘hesitant and indecisive’….

And my next adventures in history? I think I need to start on World War One – this could take a while….

Jane