Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Saga of Erik the Viking.

This book received a lukwarm 6/10 from the majority of the group. Those who enjoyed it appreciated the fact that each chapter could be enjoyed as a short story. Perhaps this is the clue to the more general response. This type of narrative structure is unusual, and perhaps less satisfying than the usual 3 part  structure. It probably works best read aloud, a chapter at a time.

The saga style is a fireside style, an odyssey. Each story passed down by word of mouth, gaining embellishments with each retelling. In my view Terry Jones captures this with an authentic voice.

The group explored this idea, of adding descriptive details to a basic narrative. This would be well developed through games exploring the storytelling style.

The Court Painter's Apprentice

This blog is the collaborative work of the young adult fiction bookclub.

"The group agreed that 'The Court Painter's Apprentice' was not necessarily a bad read. It was short and easy going. However, our group found the length of the book a problem. Characters felt underdeveloped and many potential storylines were cut off and unexplored.

The writer likes to cut to the chase, for a younger reader that style is perfect, but for our group the lack of detail was disappointing. That's not to say the description was poor, it was evocative and sensuous, particularly the description of the activity of painting.

The book really lost its appeal when the writer developed the supernatural elements, where the artists power became more than that of the skill of depiction.

Overall the book was given a 6/10."

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The Memory Cage

Only a very small group this month, so not a very broad spectrum of opinion to represent.

Overall the book was considered an average read, which contradicts every review currently on amazon. Cynical bunch or what?

The story was felt to be too obviously constructed, and the narrative implausible and unconvincing. There were groans about a 'Hollywood Ending'.

Given the big themes of adoption, ageing, war, and the impact of the past on the present, we might have expected a meatier read. But in this case the author's light touch makes the themes accessible to a younger audience. The principle relationship between the grandfather and Alex is very worthwhile, but we felt the cast of characters around them were generally painted too lightly.


Tuesday, 12 March 2013


This was a popular and easy to read novel, enjoyed by the whole of the older group.

The story of 'Auggie' tackles an unusual subject with a light touch. 'Auggie' is a child born with a severe facial disfigurement: 'I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.'

At the age of 10 having been home educated to accommodate  numerous surgeries on his face, his parents agree he should try school.

The story covers this transition time, and is told through a number of child narrators, including Auggie, his big sister, and the children who befriend him.

This is a clever narrative device, allowing multiple perspectives.

However, our group felt there were too many voices, saying similar things. We enjoyed older sister Via's story, which was touching and unexpected, but the other narratives were less revealing.

One thing we disagreed with the author about was the need to keep the voices to the children. There was a strong feeling that the headteacher, Mr Tushman, should have been given a few chapters, and the group were nauseated by his lack of intervention in Auggie's terrible experiences. He fulfilled our impression of head teachers as omnipotent figures who appear to know everything, but do nothing.

I asked the group to think about the main theme of the book, which they judged to be 'kindness'. They felt this a relatively small theme, and this ultimately, a small story, in that Auggie's struggle is not a tragedy. The safety net of his loving family making everything possible for him, despite the prejudice of a few people.

Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes.

This month's book was a roaring success amongst all but one of the children. There was great appreciation for the characters, and plot lines, despite it's great length. Those of us who were less impressed found that despite an initially gripping start, we began to switch off as the plot became more fantastical.

There was some debate about the conclusion to the book, and relief that the ending was disclosed, thus eliminating the possibility of a sequel. Have I mentioned before that generally we dislike sequels? That said an idea for a story surrounding Sir Tode and the hag did seem like an interesting spin off adventure...?

Anyhow it seemed ironic that having spent the last session exploring the labyrinth; an exercise in sensory theatre carried out blindfolded, we now had a book about a blind boy-thief from which to launch another creative session.

I felt this called for some more games of the sensory kind. So, we tried listening intensely with our eyes closed, and did some work on creating scenes from the book using sensory techniques.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Noah Barleywater runs away.

Our latest book ‘Noah Barleywater runs away’ by John Boyne, tells the story of a boy coming to terms with his mother’s terminal illness. He runs away and finds himself on a fantastical journey, where trees and dogs talk. He enters a magical toy shop where the owner reveals much about life and love and death, and helps Noah decide to return home.

I completed reading the book at the same time as I was involved in devising a piece of labyrinth theatre at ‘The People’s History Museum’. Fired up by my latest experience, it seemed obvious that this book would make the perfect labyrinth. The challenge was how to make and perform this in our 1 hour session.....
To assist with the process I sent each family the following homework.

I would like each child to think about any event or moment in the book that sticks in their imagination. Could they describe that moment to a blindfolded person by simply handing them something to touch, smell, taste, or by making sounds? For example, early on in the story Noah plucks 3 apples from a tree, and takes a bite from one. I might offer the person in the blindfold a juicy apple to smell, and feel, and taste, to illustrate this moment from the story. 

In the session I followed a simple plan. We warmed up by playing some games encouraging us to coordinate our actions, then we played a sort of ‘blind man’s bluff’ where we sampled our sensory ideas brought in from home (these were brilliant and thoughtful), and learnt how to guide someone in a blindfold through a space. We ran out of time here, but the enthusiasm for the game was very exciting, and it helped us ‘write’ the labyrinth. A couple of themes dominated, so we grouped people accordingly, and then we linked the groups with smaller narrative details, and we had our journey.

A quick run through and we were ready to perform.

The journey went like this:

The blindfold person enters the space, led gently.
There is the sound of feet on gravel.
He is brought to rest and given an apple.
The journey continues.
There is the sound of someone reading a newspaper.
He is brought to rest.
There is the sound of birdsong, and a rippling stream.
He is offered tree branches, which appear and disappear as he gropes for them.
He continues his journey and is followed by the musical sounds of a funfair.
The sounds fade away.
An energetic dachshund leaps at him, playfully rubbing against him, while panting and ‘woofing’.
He is brought to rest and seated.
There is the sound of mechanical things whirring and ticking, the ‘clack’ of wood, a smooth wooden toy car to hold and play with.
Mysterious voices, muttering about the ‘unusual stranger’.
A bell interrupts the scene, and he is led away.
Brought to rest, he is given a box. After investigation, he open's the box, and discovers a medal on a ribbon inside.
The box is replaced with an apple, and he is led through a door, returned to home, and the beginning of his journey.

This was a really creative session. The children devised a wonderful journey, and took the responsibility  of caring for the person experiencing the labyrinth really seriously. The parents who took the journey into the labyrinth enjoyed it, and were delightfully cooperative and playful participants.
As a means of exploring a story this technique has loads of potential....


At the beginning of each meeting I ask the older group to award marks out of 10 for the book under discussion. The highest award for Kai-ro was 7/10, the lowest, 3/10. This was an indication that there were no real passions about this book, one way or the other.

We picked apart those responses a little further, and found disappointment, and a lack of empathy.

The disappointment came from the moment the Egyptian God's were introduced into the storyline. The opening chapters succeeded in creating suspense, in a vividly described post apocalyptic world. We were gripped by the plight of Stretch, searching for his father, in this cruel place, where survival is hard, and danger is real. And then it got a bit weird.

Even for those who were carried along by the plot, there emerged a lack of empathy with the main character which we felt may have been a major factor in the book receiving this lukewarm response. As the character became dominated by the God who inhabited his head, his actions became more those of the God, and he became unlikeable. For all but one of the group this was very problematic.

And once again, as the book headed towards its final chapter it was apparent that the main crisis of the opening pages, the disappearance of Stretch's father, was to remain open, unresolved. Did the group think this was open ended as stories often are, for them to write their own outcome? No. In their view this was an opportunity for a sequel. Groans all round.

Note to Publishers: We don't like sequels.

Thursday, 10 January 2013


This was a meaty read for our younger group, but was one which was largely appreciated. The humour particularly appealed to them. An excellent review can be read here.

If you follow this blog you will gather that the younger group are not a discussion group, and we try and explore ideas provoked by the book we have read. For this session I wanted to open up the narrative structure, which in many respects follows an archetypal 'hero' journey, through the wannabe hero character 'Henwyn'.

I presented the group with a crime scene. The outline of a body taped to the floor, and scattered around it items to be collected and judged as evidence of the life and fate of the victim. The only certain fact was that the body was that of a hero; he carried an identity card for membership to the 'hero's club'.

The kids gathered and bagged the evidence, scrutinised each item thoroughly, then selected their own narratives for the character, based on these objects.

The Last Wolf.

I was very unsure of how the older group would react to this book when I read it. As a short story it is overwhelmingly about plot. A lot happens in a very few pages. As a result it lacks the texture of descriptive detail and character which I like in a book.

However, the groups feeling ranged so much (from 'dull' to 'brilliant') that a really good discussion was possible, and they helped me to appreciate the books qualities.

The group agreed that the story is very exciting, or at least they agreed that it had the elements of a great plot. There were however doubts about the pre-story, and whether this was necessary.

The book begins with a grandfather recovering from illness, being led to the internet by his granddaughter. Here he begins internet based research into his family history, which produces an unexpected letter from the seventeenth century, and an ancestor he knew nothing about. The letter from the past forms the narrative for the rest of the book.

The ancestors story involves many plot twists and close shaves. It touches on historical fact, but provides very little in the way of historical texture. Even the language of this letter from the past fails to do much for setting the scene.

We made comparison with  'Chains' which was another historical novel read by the group, and was beautiful and rich in descriptive detail. We concluded that the short story form, had imposed some limitations on style in Morpurgo's book. We even wondered whether the story would have been better told by the wolf? Some of the group laughed this off because Morpurgo had used that stylistic device in Warhorse, and of course the wolf only shared part of the boy's story....

I would have suggested that perhaps this book is better suited to a younger audience, but those within the group who enjoyed it demonstrate once again that this reading lark is complex, and that sometimes a good story is just a good story, without need of frills or flourishes, or a massive page count.