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    Review: Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray

    From GoodReads:

    It’s not really kidnapping, is it? He’d have to be alive for it to be proper kidnapping.’ Kenny, Sim and Blake are about to embark on a remarkable journey of friendship. Stealing the urn containing the ashes of their best friend Ross, they set out from Cleethorpes on the east coast to travel the 261 miles to the tiny hamlet of Ross in Dumfries and Galloway. After a depressing and dispiriting funeral they feel taking Ross to Ross will be a fitting memorial for a 15 year-old boy who changed all their lives through his friendship. Little do they realise just how much Ross can still affect life for them even though he’s now dead. Drawing on personal experience Keith Gray has written an extraordinary novel about friendship, loss and suicide, and about the good things that may be waiting just out of sight around the corner …

    Review:

    I’ve been meaning to read something by Keith Gray for a while now, so when earlier in the year I noticed the Rep in Birmingham was putting on a performance of Ostrich Boys I had to go – especially as the ticket was only £5.  This in turn made me want to read the novel it was based on before I went and I’m glad I did (the play was fab though).

    The story centres around three boys dealing with the death of their friend Ross and decide to honour his wish to visit a town which shared his name so Ross would be in Ross.  Along the way they come to terms with the news Ross’s death might not have been an accident and their guilt towards how they each individually treated him in his last few days – from girlfriends, to bullies and lost things.

    This really was a wonderful book.  It sounds so cliched but it dealt superbly with some really heavy subjects which sadly aren’t all that uncommon amongst teenagers.  The reaction to the news that Ross might have committed suicide, both anger and quiet understanding, is so well played out that at no point does it feel patronising which it could so easily have been.  The understanding and portrayal of how the nature of friendship groups change after a big event and the loss of one friend rings painfully true and the depiction of teenage boys feels entirely realistic – like hearing the story of a friend’s little brother.  This novel is wonderful –  I read it in less than a day and relished every minute of it.

    My copy suggests this might not be suitable for younger readers, but I disagree.  I think this book does a fine job of showing how unaware and well hidden other peoples emotional states can be and explaining the confusion and anger of those left behind.  The main characters might all be boys, but I fail to believe that anyone wouldn’t be touched by this book.  Beautifully bittersweet.

    Books, Online stuff

    A social media book club (no really)

    Wednesday was an interesting day for me; in the morning I went to a social media book club held by two of the students from Birmingham City University’s MA in social media and in the evening was the Birmingham Skeptics in The Pub discussion by Michael Marshall on How PR came to rule modern journalism (more about the latter in another post I think).  Wow that was a long sentence.

    I pitched up to the Social media book club (or #masocialmedia book club on twitter) after Alina and Grace, the organisers, turned up to my book club last month and invited me along.  Sadly the short notice on getting the book and two trips meant I didn’t get to finish the book, but I made a good way through the book of choice; Making Is Connecting by David Gaunlett.

    I don’t think it would be fair of me to try and explain what the book is about as I didn’t finish it, but the longer version of the title is a good place to start ‘Making is Connecting: The Social Meaning of Creativity, from DIY and Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0’.  I thought the parts of the book I read were pretty interesting, although very optimistic and could’ve done with being a little more sceptical at times.  I sort of waffled through something about Apple and approving/rejecting apps and some issues it got into trouble with that I read a while back, which in hindsight the MA social media students were probably in a better position to talk about than me!

    Was interesting to see how a non-fiction book club could work.  Seemed everyone (apart from me) read the whole book, with each chapter being given to someone to focus on and lead the discussion, which I think worked superbly and really gave a sense of interaction with everyone.  I’m thinking of nicking the idea for my book club, but I’m not sure they’d be overly keen on homework!

    Books

    Review: Velvet by Mary Hooper

    VelvetVelvet is a laundress in a Victorian steam laundry. With both her mother and father dead, she is an orphan and has to rely upon her own wits to make a living. The laundry’s work is back-breaking and Velvet is desperate to create a better life for herself. Then Velvet is noticed by Madame Savoya, a famed medium, who asks Velvet to come to work for her. Velvet is dazzled at first by the young yet beautifully dressed and bejewelled Madame. But soon Velvet realises that Madame Savoya is not all that she says she is, and Velvet’s very life is in danger. (From Amazon.co.uk)

    I’ve always thought I disliked historical fiction, but Velvet really changed my mind. Having won a set of Mary Hooper’s historical young adult novels from Wondrous Reads (sadly seems to be defunct) I figured I should at least give them a go and I’m glad I did.

    The interweaving of historical fact with a fascinating fictional tale was superb. I hate unnecessary description and thankfully this book doesn’t suffer from it.  The author doesn’t dilute the story with boring unnecessary history, rather keeping everything relevant whilst still being descriptive enough to evoke a great tale of Victorian/Edwardian Britain.  There’s some informative notes at the back for readers wanting to know more about the history, with more details about one of the characters, Amelia Dyer, who was a real-life baby farmer during the time the novel was set.  Velvet’s level of scepticism about the ways of mediumship was also a real pleasure to read in a genre which seems to be a bit obsessed with the paranormal at the moment.  Not that I don’t like a bit of paranormal in my novels, but it was really refreshing to have a character that questioned what was going on.

    The book is well paced and all of the characters are relatable, from the main characters to the peripheral ones visiting the Madame for spiritual guidance.  I really liked Velvet herself, whose growth from humdrum laundress to personal maid of a famous medium is handled well. Velvet’s childhood friend Charlie is also another fascinating character and Lizzie, a fellow worker from the laundry, provides a good level for the difference in Velvet’s situation.

    All in all a thoroughly enjoyable book and one I might be recommending to the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub!  I was pleasantly surprised by this novel and looking forward to reading more of Mary Hooper’s novels.

    Birmingham, Books, Online stuff

    My thoughts on Library Camp 2011

    I felt a bit of a fraud on Saturday morning turning up to Library Camp, an unconference for librarians, until I realised that I had actually spent some time looking after a library.  And I made cake, which actually seemed to be more of a prerequisite for attendance than a library career.  Thankfully everyone was so utterly delightful that I think as long as you are passionate about libraries and had cake you were greeted with welcomed arms.

    Photo of part of the timetable by smilylibrarian from flikr

    The first part of the unconference was the pitching for sessions, duly written on post-it-notes, groups and organised into sessions.  It’s a shame we could only go to five, but when the disappointing thing is too many interesting sessions you know you’re on to a good thing.  Thankfully lots of people tweeted throughout the day so it was possible to catch up on other discussion and people have subsequently blogged their thoughts on them too (like this one from Jennifer Yellin).

    It’s hard to pick favourites, but I really enjoyed the two on advertising and what libraries can learn from retail, which isn’t surprising given that I work in communications and marketing.  Bums on Seats made some really good notes on these two sessions.  The retail session seemed to focus on a lot of practical things that could be done in libraries – displays and books facing outwards, although the idea of having books in categories seemed to split opinion.  Personally I think opening times are one of the biggest barriers to people using the library – something which I mentioned on twitter and seemed to get some good responses.  The last session on advertising was the one I understood the best, having experience in public sector marketing and it seems that some of the problems the librarians found were similar, if not worse, to those I found in the NHS.  Sadly it sounded like the will to market was there, but with little support from their corporate communications teams (one team has to email tweets to the webmaster which are frequently changed and lose meaning)

    The other notable session I sat in on was one on Shared Reading  A group of about ten of us read a short story about a father and son, paused at relevant places, which provoked some really unexpected and strong emotional reactions.  I’m not entirely sure I can convey how powerful and moving this session was, but when a 45 minute session with a group of strangers nearly brings you to tears you might get the idea.  I’m determined to learn more.

    Discussions at lunch about further education libraries, children’s development and a whole raft of bookish talk were really interesting.  Plus I was given a free book by the lovely @JennySarahJones which I found out about thanks to the power of twitter!

    So what did I learn

    • Library folk are some of the nicest people ever and really like their cake.
    • Following a hashtag (#libcampuk11) on tweetdeck when its updated fairly regularly is rubbish, the twitter app was a lot more useful.
    • The cola cupcakes recipe from Hummingbird Bakery book was actually a hit – people even tweeted me to say so!
    • If the people at libcampUK11 are anything to go by, so long as the current government doesn’t completely chop the library budget to shreds, the future of libraries are in good hands.

    Initially I wasn’t sure how interesting I’d find the day or how useful I’d be, but in the end I left Library Camp inspired and hopeful – and determined to use the library more.  A big thanks to those that organised the event and to those in attendance for providing me with some really interesting ideas.

    Books

    Three is no longer the magic number? Rumours of the loss of 3-for-2

    The rumours of Waterstones stopping the ‘3 for 2’ deal had been floating around since the sale of the company and the appointment of James Daunt as managing director, but it looks like they may have finally come to fruition if the article today on The Bookseller today is correct.

    I’ve got mixed feelings about this.  Frequently I’ve been into Waterstones wanting one or maybe two books and come out with a third because, well, it’s free isn’t it?  But more recently the ‘3 for 2’ deal has actually worked in Waterstones favour with me.

    Incident one: I wanted to try out Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series.  Looking at the prices for the first three, Amazon online and Waterstones in-store ‘3 for 2’ were about the same price.  Plus getting them from Waterstones meant I didn’t have to wait ages for them to arrive by post nor suffer the fear that they might use a courier company that I have had numerous incidents with (once I was on the phone to Amazon for an hour to try and get my books, due to some stubbornness on my part and an excellent customer services rep).  Waterstones won without a doubt.

    Incident two: I’d just finished Delirum by Lauren Oliver and was in the mood for another young adult dystopian tale.  I asked for recommendations and rather than buy one book I came out with a ‘3 for 2’ plus another one I picked up at the counter.  Waterstones got two more sales from me and I got a free book, win all round.

    These aren’t the only instances, I’ve frequently end up buying more books that I would’ve because the ‘3 for 2’ had enticed me in.  I can say without a doubt that had it not been there, Amazon would’ve been my pick for the Gallagher Girls books.

    That said, when Boarders was open in Birmingham I frequently ended up with a third book I didn’t want because trying to tell the staff that you didn’t want a free third book seemed akin to telling them you killed puppies for pleasure.  It became easier to pick up a free third book and donate it to the charity shop or just not buy more than one book.  So I guess in those circumstances the books really were devalued.

    Plus, there is, of course, always that issue that the tables of ‘3 for 2’ books were always a bit obvious.  It stopped me looking through the shelves to find something published not quite so recently and not having the buying power behind it of whatever teenager-vampire-ghost-angel-love-story was being released that week.  If the tables of ‘3 for 2’ no longer exist, then maybe other books will get a look in.

    I’m really interested to see what Waterstones do in terms of promotions next, if the ‘3 for 2’ really dies disappear.  Half price books sucker me in and I’ve been known to wander around a few stores on release day to take up this offer, so maybe that’s something that might stick around…but it’s not often than the books I tend to read (YA edging away from paranormal romance) get included in this offer.

    Aside from the promotional elements, I’m hoping that this means Waterstones will start focusing on what it can offer above and beyond online algorithms – personal service.  I’ve had mixed experiences of going in and asking for recommendations; a couple of times I’ve come out with more books than I meant to because of the enthusiasm of the bookseller, other times I’ve wondered if they even read.

    But hopefully if the tables of ‘3 for 2’ really do disappear, it’ll mean a wider range of books get a look in, with more enticing tales that might not have the publishing powerhouse behind them, but rather a bookseller with a genuine love for that tale and wants others to see it.  Still, if it’s true then I’m going to miss being able to justify coming home with lots of books because they were part of a deal, but looking forward to seeing what comes next.

    Books

    Review: Delirum by Lauren Oliver

    Cover of Delirium by Lauren Oliver

    Delirium
    by Lauren Oliver
    Published in the UK in February 2011 (Hardback) and August 2011 (paperback)

    Set in a world where love is considered a disease and the population are cured of it when they reach adulthood, Lena is counting down the days until she is cured and will forget the pain of her mother’s suicide.  That is until Alex comes along and everything changes.

    I have to admit I’ve been waiting for this book to come out in paperback ever since I read the plot summary.  I adore dystopian fiction and I loved the idea of a world in which love is a curable disease.  Yes, the idea itself was fairly brilliant, but the way it was executed really was something.  Lena is a superb main character and to see her understand the beauty of love is truly heart-warming.

    I was so gripped that about two thirds of the way through I had to put the book down for a few days because I just could not conceive of a way it would end well (unless the author was a real wimp and thankfully she isn’t) and I wasn’t sure I could face it.  This book will get to you in the heart-aching kind of way that makes you think you’ve read a truly great piece of fiction.  Read it, read it now.  Probably my favourite book of the year.