Book Review: Traction City / The Teacher’s Tales of Terror

2017 is the first year since I became aware of the event’s existence that my children did not return from school on World Book Day eagerly clutching either their choice of book or a voucher to be exchanged at a bookshop. My youngest is now in sixth form and is presumably no longer a part of the target demographic.

Recently, however, he has urged me to read a series of books that the rest of my family have already enjoyed – the Predator Cities Quartet by Philip Reeve. Having posted the reviews for these over the past few weeks I decided to pick up an associated, former World Book Day publication to see how it slotted into the fantasy world.

Traction City is a short story set in a time shortly before the first book in the quartet. London is on the move and a young boy, Smiff, is creeping through the city’s bowels searching for dropped or discarded items that may be saleable. Instead he finds a dead body. Smiff then witnesses a violent attack on the outlaw men who roam this abandoned area. A tall, human like figure with glowing green eyes allows the boy to escape. Despite his aversion to the police, a terrified Smiff reports what he has seen. He finds a sympathetic ear in Sergeant Anders.

Anders rarely has much to do during his shifts at the lower level police station where he was assigned when his home town was eaten by London. This evening, however, he has a prisoner to process. A young girl has flown in and been apprehended carrying a small amount of explosive. Her shabby airship is named the Jenny Haniver.

There follows a chase, the discovery of body parts, and a run-in with the Guild of Engineers. As ever in this series, where a potential weapon exists, all sides vie to harness its power for their cause, whatever the cost to the wider population.

This was an interesting add-on but was not as compelling as the excellent quartet. I will now need to decide if I wish to read the prequel trilogy starting with Fever Crumb. These are set around the time cities first started to move.

As with many of the World Book Day offerings, a second story is included on the flip side of the book. In this case it is an addition to Chris Priestley’s chilling Tales of Terror, not a series I am familiar with.

The Teacher’s Tales of Terror is appropriately set in a school on World Book Day. A supply teacher has been called in to cover for an ill colleague. The head teacher is pleased to note that Mr Munro, the rather austere looking gentleman who presents himself for this role, has got into the spirit of things and dressed for the chosen theme, celebrating a Victorian heritage.

Mr Munro soon takes control of his rather unruly class and informs them that his lesson will be to read them some stories. What follows are a series of deliciously creepy tales. These are short and spine tingling but not too scary.

The denouement was unexpected and added an extra dimension to the overall story arc. This was an engaging, nicely constructed, and satisfying read.

Book Review: Kindred Spirits

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Kindred Spirits, by Rainbow Rowell, tells the story of eighteen year old Elena, an avid Star Wars fan, who decides to spend four days queuing outside her local cinema to be a part of like minded fans’ anticipation of the opening night of ‘The Force Awakens’. What she had not counted on was that she would be one of only three people willing to go through this experience now that cinema tickets may be bought in advance on line.

Elena has read about the camaraderie of the cinema line, has joined a Facebook group where fans posted pictures and anecdotes about previous lines. When her mother reluctantly drops her off and she joins the two other guys, Troy and Gabe, she discovers what she had believed was the full story was in fact edited highlights of a mind numbingly boring few days. A mutual love of Star Wars may not be enough to generate a bonding with these strangers, especially when one of them appears to have already judged and found her wanting.

As Elena does her best to cope with the cold, the monotony of sitting on the street, and the need to pee in the night when no toilet is available, she tries to engage Troy and Gabe with quizzes and selfies which she posts on social media. She is creating her own edited highlights. When the time comes to tell her story one suspects that this is what she will relate.

The humour and lightness of the writing make this sixty page story engaging and enjoyable to read. There are hat tips to what makes a friendship, how we see others and ourselves, how we wish to be reported. The need to validate personal choices, not to be seen to have been foolish, predates the curation of lives on line.

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World Book Day is something of a misnomer as the event runs on different days around the world. UNESCO designated 23 April as an appropriate date for the annual celebration.

The day

“is an opportunity to recognise the power of books to change our lives for the better and to support books and those who produce them. […] Literacy is the door to knowledge, essential to individual self-esteem and empowerment. Books, in all forms, play an essential role here.”

In the UK and Ireland World Book Day falls on the first Thursday in March, the date chosen to avoid clashing with Easter. As well as book related events organised by schools and libraries, all school children are offered a free book or voucher for a book such as the one reviewed here.

Book Review: Spot the Difference

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Spot the Difference, by Juno Dawson, is an exclusive World Book Day story aimed at key stage three. The language used and topics addressed would also make it suitable for confident younger readers. At less than one hundred pages long it is a quick read.

The protagonist, Avery, is in Year 10 (around fifteen years old) and suffers from severe acne. She has learned to keep her head down but this has not prevented the A listers in her year naming her ‘Pizzaface’. She looks at their clear skin and shiny hair with envy even though she recognises how mean minded they are.

When a new drug becomes available her mother finally agrees to allow her to try medication in an attempt to cure her complaint. Suddenly she is comfortable with her looks. The transformation is noticed and she starts to receive positive attention from the A listers, but at what cost?

The author addresses the way society regards those who do not conform to a prescribed appearance and how this makes both the conformists and those who do match up to an accepted standard feel. It is not just those who fail to cultivate a certain look who suffer abuse, sometimes as subtle as constant advice on how to ‘improve’, but also those with physical disabilities which they cannot change.

In so few pages this story scratches the surface of a complex problem that is prevalent in every social setting but is hot housed in schools where children have no choice but to spend so much of their time. No easy answers are offered as none exist.

What is suggested is a wider recognition that beneath even the shiniest surface there is darkness. Tempting though it may be to paper over, to hide the cracks, it is these which let in the light by which all may learn.

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World Book Day is something of a misnomer as the event runs on different days around the world. UNESCO designated 23 April as an appropriate date for the annual celebration.

The day

“is an opportunity to recognise the power of books to change our lives for the better and to support books and those who produce them. […] Literacy is the door to knowledge, essential to individual self-esteem and empowerment. Books, in all forms, play an essential role here.”

In the UK and Ireland World Book Day falls on the first Thursday in March, the date chosen to avoid clashing with Easter. As well as book related events organised by schools and libraries, all school children are offered a free book or voucher for a book such as the one reviewed here.

Book Review: Killing the Dead

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Killing the Dead, by Marcus Sedgwick, is one of this year’s World Book Day £1 books for young adults. Having read and enjoyed The Ghosts of Heaven I noted the spiral on the cover and was eager to get hold of a copy before bookshops sold out. These specially produced offerings are only available for a short time.

Set in an exclusive girls’ boarding school in the nineteen-sixties the story explores the aftermath of a pupil’s apparent suicide. Like the four stories in The Ghosts of Heaven it contains references to spirals and suggestions of superstition. The writing is taut with undercurrents of mystery and unanswered questions. The atmosphere evoked is spooky in places but always believable.

At just over 100 pages this book can be quickly read but is a complete and thought provoking tale. Within the confines of dormitory life what impact does one girl’s actions have on others? What secrets do they keep? While teachers continue to believe that the beautiful and clever are good how can those who go unnoticed survive the casual cruelty inflicted by the entitled? The denouement brings home how lonely and difficult life can be for those who do not fit within society’s view of that which one should admire and to which one should aspire.

This is the third book that I have read by the author and cements my admiration for his style of writing. He spins a compelling tale that is hard to put down.

“The most important person in this story is the one you will never meet. She is gone and yet she lingers, in the memories of those who knew her and lived with her. This is how the dead survive; they live in our memories, and some of the times that is a good thing and beautiful, and other times it is not good, and then the dead are like a virus in the blood, an infection of the mind. Then, although we might wish to get rid of them forever, we cannot. We might even wish to kill them, but that is a mighty and nigh impossible thing, for killing the dead is very hard to do.”

Celebrating the pleasure of reading

Today is World Book Day in the UK and Ireland. Do other countries take part? Perhaps it has an aspirational nomenclature. It is certainly an event that it would be good to see celebrated widely.

When my children were younger their school asked them to dress up as their favourite book character. Not being a skilled seamstress I would encourage my brood to choose a character who wore clothes resembling those they possessed. My son once went as Arthur Dent which he particularly enjoyed.

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Schools often invite an author to visit and talk to their pupils. These days I am looking at these visits from the other side as my author friends mention the places they have been invited to attend in order to inspire the next generation of readers and writers. I hope that the children treat them kindly.

All under 18s are given a token which enables them to pick up a free book produced specially for the occasion. These contain an original story, often from a series which is popular with young readers. My children still have a number of these books in their collections.

I love the idea of World Book Day with its emphasis on encouraging all children to read. It is an inclusive event which aims to share the pleasure that books can bring.

Next month I will be joining in with another initiative which aims to share the literary love with adults. World Book Night gives away a range of books which have been specially selected for the occasion. Having been accepted as a volunteer I will be giving away Chickenfeed by Minette Walters at my local train station.

I derive so much pleasure from reading and am eager to encourage others to discover that joy. As has been said of children but is equally applicable to adults:

There is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who have not found the right book.

Give me books made of paper

Today is World Book Day. I am fortunate to have parents who brought me up in a house full of books, who instilled in me a love of reading and introduced me to the stories that shaped my life. A book is the closest thing I know to a Tardis; a simple object that can go unnoticed by so many, which contains entire worlds, transports the reader through time and space, enables them to experience previously unimagined lives and places.

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” (Jorge Luis Borges) 

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I fulfilled an ambition when I created a library in my home last year. This is where I write, surrounded by my books, cocooned and comforted by their presence.

“In a good book room you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.” (Mark Twain)

Libraries and book shops are my oasis in the stressful battlefields of town centres, places of peace and security away from the busy shoppers who jostle and intimidate. Buying a book that I have not yet read excites me as I contemplate the possibilities that it offers. A book is an undemanding friend, there when desired but willing to wait until the reader is ready to offer the time it deserves.

“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” (Ursula K. Le Guin)

All of my books are of the old fashioned kind; I do not own an eReader. When the Kindle started to gain in popularity a few of the ladies in my book group purchased one; it just didn’t appeal to me.

I heard tales of them inexplicably freezing on a page, never to come back to life; or frying in the sun whilst on holiday. I even read of one reader whose electronic copy of a book vanished overnight when a dispute over a seller’s right to provide the work ended with all those sold being remotely removed from the devices that had received the download. I had never envisaged these problems; my concern had been how I could lend this type of book to a friend.

I like physical books. I like to hold them, carry them around, leave them on tables inviting me to dip in. I feel an affinity with books that I cannot explain but is akin to love. When I sit in my library at home I feel at peace.

“Picking five favourite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.” (Neil Gaiman)

There are times, however, when I question my decision not to purchase an electronic device. These times are increasing in regularity as I get to know, on line, authors who have poured their heart and soul into a work of fiction that will not be physically printed. I could download the fruits of their labours at very little cost, sometimes even for free.

So why do I not just go out and buy myself an eReader, even if I only use it for works that are not available in any other way?

Just before Christmas I offered to be a beta reader for an aspiring author that I knew only via Twitter. His novel was described as ‘ideal for anyone who enjoys Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones!.’  This sounded like good reading for the Christmas period, and I enjoy reviewing books so looked forward to providing feedback. I received my download and sat myself down, ready and willing to immerse myself in his world. I discovered that my reading habits do not suit the electronic medium.

The story was compelling, full of characters that I wished to get to know. My problem was that, as I progressed, I could not see how far I had read, how far I still had to go. I could not nurse the book lovingly as I paused to consider the plot, or idly flick through the pages as I answered a query when disturbed. I realised that this was how I enjoyed reading, that I engaged with the physical form of my reading matter. Sure, I could check electronic numbers, bookmark, even make notes as I went along, but it wasn’t the same. Reading on a screen was computer time, not my means of escape to another world.

I failed as a beta reader, which is a useful lesson for me to learn. It is unfortunate that, in acquiring this knowledge, I let the writer down. I know that he found other beta readers, but I felt bad for making an offer that I could not fulfil.

Yesterday evening I was excited to read that he has completed his work and today, World Book Day, he becomes a published author. You can buy his book here Salvation eBook: AMC: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store, go check it out. I hope that many people choose to download his book and enjoy what he has created.

He is not the first author that I have taken an interest in only to find that I cannot read the results of their labours in the form of my choosing. One did offer paperback copies to order but at a price that I was unwilling to pay, and therin lies the rub. Physical books cost so much more to produce and distribute. They require a significant volume of sales if they are to be economically viable.

If ebooks encourage others to read more then, in my view, they are a good thing. I can see the attraction of being able to carry a library of books around in such a small device, particularly when travelling. I realise that I tested my ability to read a book on a screen using a computer, albeit a portable one that fits in my handbag, rather than a dedicated reader. Nevertheless, for me, I desire a book made of paper.

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On World Book Day let us enjoy and celebrate books, in whatever form we choose to read them. I will be finding time for Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood’. What will you be reading?

“I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.” (J.K. Rowling) 

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Poem by Bo Burnham