Wednesday, November 13, 2013

This blog is inactive

Sorry folks, but I can't find the time or motivation to keep this blog going at the moment. It's not as if this blog was massively well viewed anyway.

I'll leave it alive but don't hold your breath...

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Libraries Give Us Power

I know what you’re thinking, when you see that title. You think I’m going to tell you all about how the library is fantastic, and that you should all visit your local one to satisfy your intellectual curiosity.

Well, people, that’s my job. My role in school is to instill a love of reading, to give you a guiding hand on your independent learning endeavours. So yes, there is going to be some of that: it’s inevitable.

But as I enter my third year, and our newly opened library does too (I guess you could say I was part of the deal), it seems like a good time to reflect on the position of the library in the school. No, I don’t mean that in a “what is our five year plan for the library” sort of way. I mean it in a different way entirely…

 This past summer I spent four weeks volunteering in Uganda. I was teaching at St Andrews Primary school in Bwebajja, near the capital city Kampala. Before I went out there, I knew it was going to be an eye opener, and believe me it was the furthest out of my comfort zone I have ever been. I’m a reasonably well travelled guy: I’ve set foot in every continent bar South America, totalling 21 different countries in all. But Uganda – with its dusty roads, corrugated iron shacks on every street corner and electricity and running water that was erratic at best and non-existent at worst – stood apart as a truly unique experience.

Ever since returning, there hasn’t been a day where I haven’t thought about Uganda. I got to see a lot of the country: going on safari to Murchison Falls National Park was a real highlight. But the one thing I miss more than anything is the children from the school.

These children have nothing. Those who lived on the school site stayed in unbelievably dark, damp and cramped conditions, in most cases sleeping two to a bed on a triple bunk. There is no state education system in Uganda, so in a sense they’re actually much better off than the 60% or so of children who can’t afford to go to school. But this doesn't mean they’re wealthy. On one day during my last week, the Principal (with great reluctance) sent all those who hadn’t paid their fees home. The net result was I had about ten students out of the usual forty five in my class.

 Yet, while they have more cause to complain than most, they were always so happy. Not once did I see a child feeling sorry for themselves. What I did see were children who were endlessly eager to learn, constantly asking me questions that ranged from where I’m from to who Socrates was. It really was an inspiring, humbling thing to witness.

 So what has this all got to do with the library, and how you use it? It may sound so very hackneyed, but it’s made me grateful for what I’ve got. We should all be grateful to have such a well-resourced library that unlocks the doors of knowledge to those who are curious and brave enough to find the key. We had to scrape by on a few of each core text book in St Andrews, which often meant painstakingly copying whole pages on to blackboards. Those children who were asking me about Socrates and the UK don’t have the option to find the answers in the library, or to simply use Google.

 “Libraries gave us power”, sang the Manic Street Preachers back in 1996. They still can, and I urge you all to use yours to empower you, especially when there are so many people around the world who are unable to access one.

This post first appeared at

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Back from Uganda

So yeah, I'm back. Uganda was astonishing. A real powerful experience. I will blog properly about it once my thoughts are gathered. In the mean time, I'd like to show off my updated travel map. I've now been to 10% of the world!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Book Review - The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

Billed as Room meets Lord of the Flies, Brooks' The Bunker Diary is the seemingly straightforward tale of Linus, a teenage runaway fooled in to the back of a van, subsequently chloroformed and imprisoned in a nuclear bunker. Initially alone, he's soon joined by several others, ranging from a nine year old girl to an overweight businessman, also kidnapped against their will. Forced to coexist in order to survive, the group finds themselves at the mercy of some particularly nasty mind games, and tensions soon begin to pull them apart. Do they have any hope of escape?

Ever since bursting on to the scene with Martyn Pig, Brooks has claimed his rightful place as the King of Grit in the YA world, and The Bunker Diary is, without doubt, his most shattering and harrowing tale yet. Renowned for putting ordinary people in extremely brutal situations, Brooks is not the author to read if you're looking for light hearted escapism, and he'll be the last to apologise for that. 

As with all of his protagonists, Linus is a well drawn, well rounded character who is ostensibly sympathetic but possesses enough flaws - gradually revealed as the tale unravels - to make him a suitable hero for a novel where very little is black and white. But the other characters of this claustrophobic thriller all get the right amount of screen time to ensure they come across with the right amount of depth and complexity too. The concept may be somewhat derivative, but Brooks' unflinching, warts-and-all focus on the psychological relationships, through the wary eyes of Linus, make this a compelling tale in its own right.

On the surface, The Bunker Diary may seem like a nasty, unpleasant little tale, particularly if you are of a queasy disposition. This is certainly not a suitable read for younger teens, but then as a writer who deals with edgy, challenging and hard hitting themes, Brooks never was. However, scratch the surface, deal with the fact that bad things happen to good people, and put any notions of Hollywood happy endings aside, and you will be rewarded with a tense, gripping and thought provoking read. For it is the philosophical aspects that Brooks explores, challenging us to reassess our beliefs through his dark plots, which make him one of the best YA writers around today for me.

Sunday, June 30, 2013


It's fair to say I've given a masterclass in how not to blog this past month, what with letting my blog go fallow for so long. There are good reasons I assure you:

  • Uganda. I'm preparing for it and this has taken up much time and energy. So much paperwork, so many inoculations, so many things to pack (and not just for myself). It's less than two weeks away, and it will be the experience of a lifetime, so that has to be more important than blogging.
  • Work. Yeah, OK, so we all have day jobs and the like. But business has been picking up in work lately to the extent I'm pretty knackered most evenings. It's good though, as getting an assistant librarian in to help me after being a one man band has meant I've been able to take more stuff on and help around the school a lot more. Teachers are starting to realise this, slowly...
  • Writing. Yeah, that's still happening you know! I was close to finishing the first draft of my latest, when I realised I needed to get rid of one of the characters, so have been painstakingly going back through the draft and, lo and behold, picked up on some stuff that needs changing. This is going OK, and I'll hopefully get it done by the time I go to Uganda so that when I get back I'll start the business of second drafting then. Out in Uganda, the plan is to begin work on the next one...although there are at least three competing ideas for what the next one is.
  • My birthday! I turned the ripe old age of 30 recently. Rather than swim with the dolphins, I elected to shred my nerves instead by watching the Lions narrowly pip Australia in the first test. The series is now all square. So another nail biter to 'enjoy' next weekend then...

That's that folks. I'm hoping to review another YA book soon so, lucky you, two blog posts within a week. Then I guess it's one more post on Uganda and this blog will fall silent once more. But thanks to those of you who are still showing an interest: and there are more of you doing that than I expected, according to my stats...

Monday, May 27, 2013

Dystopia and Disturbia

Photo Courtesy of Liqueur Felix

Last year, the YA author Saci Lloyd wrote a piece for the Guardian website, examining why dystopias are so popular among teenagers right now. To summarise, she argued that dystopias offer us a lens through which to critically examine contemporary society, so that we are in a position to make better choices for our future. The gloomy future ahead of most young people now (spiraling tuition fees, recession, climate change), she argues, is driving them toward dystopian fiction as a means of making sense of a crazy world, and hopefully thinking of how they can avoid such a fate. Being a dystopian author herself (see The Carbon Diaries and Momentum), you wouldn't expect her to say anything else I suppose... 

But she has an excellent point, and the fact remains that dystopia is still popular with young people a year and a half on from her piece being written. I pinched the title for this blog post from our school's reading challenge: the month of March is dedicated to all things dystopian. The kids can't get enough of it.

Recently, I did a talk for the school's "Lit Soc", which is an after school society organised by one of the English teachers. It seemed to make sense to me to discuss dystopias. I can't upload the presentation to here, unfortunately, but the main points are:

  1. Dystopias came about as a backlash against the idea of uninhibited progress being automatically a Very Good Thing. The term 'Utopia' was coined by Thomas More, in his book of the same name, written during the Renaissance. He assumed society would progress evermore until we reached an ideal Utopia. Dystopian writers don't see it that way. They argue that irresponsible, unreflective use of science and technology can make our lives worse not better. They have a deep seated wariness of 'progress' in the classic sense of the word.
  2. They do indeed reflect and critique contemporary society. To go back to Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, for example, it is clear that this is a satire of Stalinist Russia. Fast forward to The Hunger Games, and we can see a deep unease about reality TV going to its mad, violent conclusion, plus the 'hyperreality' prism through which digital media, TV etc makes us experience as 'reality'.
  3. The issue of individual rights and freedom colliding with collective state interests comes up again and again. In Brave New World, John the Savage sees the artificial society that's been created, in which everyone is pre-programmed to be happy with their lot, for what it is and demands 'the right to be unhappy', for to do so is to be human. Another example is Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, which robs Alex, the MC, of his free will by making him physically unable to commit or think about the acts of violence which have got him apprehended in the first place. 
I ended things with a rhetorical flourish, of course, by quoting the great George Orwell. He was talking about 1984, but I believe what he says applies to dystopias as a whole:

"The moral to be drawn from this dangerous, nightmare situation is a simple one. Don't let it happen. It depends on you."

So whilst I can't claim to be an expert on dystopian fiction (and no, I don't write it, which is the first thing many people assume when I tell them I'm a YA author), it's apparent to me that, whilst there may be a bit too much of it around right now, it remains a very important genre. Let's hope quality dystopian fiction keeps coming out, reminding us to stay vigilant, and to offer us that crucial lens through which to evaluate today's world.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Book Review: A Boy And A Bear In A Boat by Dave Shelton

Of all the Carnegie shortlisted books, A Boy and A Bear in a Boat is the one aimed at the youngest audience. It is a deceptively simple tale and the nuts and bolts of the plot are pretty much covered by the title. It’s the sort of book that reviewers would say raises a smile, call ‘charming’ or ‘quirky’ and then not even contemplate garlanding with the highest accolades. Yet there is more to Dave Shelton’s tale than this. As young an audience as this is aimed at, it is arguably the most philosophical and unpretentiously wise of the books on this year’s shortlist.

No, I haven’t gone off my rocker I assure you. The reason this works so well is because it is truly unique in being so unconventional, yet warm, gentle and engaging with it. The novel is essentially a two hander between its titular characters, but names are never revealed. The bear is a masterpiece of deadpan surrealism: depicted in such mundane, humanist terms that not once does it at all seem unusual he’s a talking bear, never mind rowing a boat. Where are they supposed to be sailing to? Hardly seems to matter: the boy simply asks to be taken to the ‘other side’ when he gets on board…

This isn’t quite Waiting for Godot. Stuff does happen as they sail across the ocean blue. But, for me, the incidents in themselves are very much of secondary importance, dramatic as some of them seem to be. What is most important is their experiences, shared (they’re together on a boat in an endless stretch of sea) or otherwise (they both react to this in rather different ways). The setting is key, but only in so far as it allows the book to explore just exactly what life is, what it means and how we should live it.

I apologise if that sounds trite, but these are issues that philosophers grapple with, and this is very much a philosophical novel. And yes, it is one for both its intended audience and readers in general to appreciate. Trust me: read it and all will become clear. In wilfully jettisoning plotting conventions, yet weaving a compelling tale all the same, this book succeeds in having a strong head and a sturdy heart. To not put too fine a point on it, Shelton has achieved something rather remarkable.