Review policy

Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Seasonal reading 4: The Thirteen Days of Christmas

Image: LibraryThing.com

In vaguely 17th Century England, the Kitson children (Prudence, James and Christopher) live with their widower father and grown up sister Annaple. Annaple is a distressingly poor cook, but in all other ways mix of the romantic and the bossy. The children try to use her romantic nature to advise the wealthy merchant Francis Vere to woo her; however his initial romantic idea (a partridge in a pear tree) pleases her so much on Christmas Day that he doesn't stop there, and since he is used to buying in bulk the family is soon inundated with livestock and their produce, threatened by the mayor with fines for blocking traffic and are the talk of the town.

This is a fantastic short historical novel. My copy (published 1977) has lovely illustrations by the wonderful Shirley Hughes. The most recent edition is illustrated by Hilda Offen; I haven't seen it, and while her illustrations are not to my taste, the charm of the story would not deter me from buying it. The delight of this story is not just the imaginative explanation of the origin of the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, but also the inclusion of Christmas traditions and carols such as The Dancing Day carol and Here We Come A-Wassailing. It would be a wonderful book to read to children 7+, a chapter a night from 23rd December (the first chapter is on the Feast of St Nicholas, 6th December, but then there is a gap until Christmas Eve) with the final chapter on The Feast of Three Kings, 6th January, so is a perfect Seasonal Read! If you don't know the wonderful Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band carol albums, they would be be the perfect accompaniment to reading this book. You can find them all on Spotify.

I hope you've enjoyed my seasonal reading suggestions. What are yours?

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Seasonal reading 3: Wintersmith

Image: fantasticfiction.co.uk

I have already explained how much I enjoy Tiffany Aching books. Until I decided to re-read it as a "seasonal read", Wintersmith  it wasn't one of my favourite Discworld witch  books. However, reading it at Christmas time, with memories of the last two snowy winters still fresh, has made me reconsider this point of view.


Tiffany Aching is now nearly thirteen years old. She is living with the 113-year-old Miss Treason, learning witchcraft from her. Miss Treason is different from the very diligent Miss Level, who was Tiffany's teacher in A Hat Full of Sky, who demonstrated a Discworld witch's role- a combination of vet, social worker and district nurse. Miss Treason, by view of her great age and the remoteness of her steading (area a witch is responsible for) is all those things, but also has a role in maintaining law and order and mediating disputes. In order to do this, Tiffany learns, she relies a great deal on "boffo" (show business) as much as on her skill.


Tiffany is a good apprentice to Miss Treason, but she is still a young girl. She and Miss Treason fly into the woods (Miss Treason seeing through Tiffany's eyes since her own no longer work) to the Dark Morris (performed without music to bring in Winter) she joins in, despite being told not to. By doing this, she attracts the attention of the Wintersmith, the Elemental personifying winter. He confuses Tiffany with the personification of summer, the Summer Lady- they only ever meet at the dance, and of course can never be together. His obsession with Tiffany has terrible consequences, as he goes to greater and greater extremes to impress her. Finally, when the snow and ice threaten the Downlands and Tiffany's family's sheep, she knows that she must confront him. With the help of the Nac Mac Feegles (small, blue, vaguely Scottish pictsies renowned for their fighting and drinking skills) and Roland, son of the baron local to the Aching family farm, she must return the seasons to their natural places.


On re-reading Wintersmith, I was struck by Pratchett's assertion of the importance of Story. Of course stories  about the stealing of Summer by Winter and the need to placate Winter to bring back the Sun are behind so many winter and light festival traditions (lights on trees, the Yule log and so on). In the Classical tradition there are several stories that Wintersmith echoes: Orpheus and Eurydice, Persephone and Hades. In the confusion of  Summer Lady with Tiffany,  she is sent a Horn of Plenty which dispenses food (ham sandwiches and live chickens, as this is what the wishers ask for!)

Image: Livia as Ceres, the Corn Goddess with Horn of Plenty (Louvre)

There is also, through the Witches (Miss Treason, Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax, Miss Tick and Letice Earwig, as well as the young witches Annagramma Hawkin, Petulia Gristle, Dimity Hubbub and Lucy Warbeck), the consideration of the importance of the stories that we tell ourselves, constructing our own narratives, and respecting the stories of each other. Through doing this we can treat each other with more respect and understanding. Tiffany's exasperation with Annagramma as she understands the narrative Annagramma constructs of herself, and frustration at Granny Weatherwax's manipulation of her and others lessens, and we can see her growing maturity. The final novel in the arc so far, I Shall Wear Midnight, is one of the finest children/ Young Adult novels I have ever read. I sincerely hope that Tiffany appears in further Discworld novels. This is a funny, thought-provoking read, perfect for cold weather. I'd recommend it for readers 10+, and it would be great to read to children 8+.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Seasonal reading 2: Grimble at Christmas

Image: childrensbookshop.com

Sir Clement Freud, chef, theatre impressario (he launched the Royal Court Theatre Club, a cabaret club, which later became the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London), journalist, Liberal MP, TV and radio personality and raconteur, wrote two short children's books; Grimble and Grimble at Christmas. Richard wrote about Grimble in his guest post here; and I will write about the very funny second story today.

Grimble's parents are very vague (they forgot to give him a first name, they're not sure when his birthday is, so he is "about 10", and will often forget to tell him they're going away, so he has to look after himself), and in this story he is convinced that they have forgotten about Christmas. Grimble plots to make enough money so that he can buy presents, a tree and, most importantly, Christmas dinner for himself and his family. Grimble sets himself up in a toast-making and delivering business, delivers Christmas trees and is even sent a pound note by his aunt (Grimble at Christmas was published in 1974!), but just when all seems lost, he receives a wonderful Christmas surprise from an unexpected source.

I first encountered this book 20 years ago, as an adult. It was a childhood favourite of a friend of my sisters, who gave it to her. This is very definitely a much-loved second hand copy; priced 10p, it is very creased and the pages are yellowed. Children's books very often migrate to my bookshelves from my family's, and I read it, giggling. This is a very funny book, with Freud's dry wit and love of food evident on every page. It is only 5 chapters long, and would be a wonderful book to read to children 7+ in the run-up to Christmas. Children 8+ would enjoy reading it themselves, but may need prices of items explained (for example, a loaf costing 6p!)

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Seasonal reading 1: Winter Holiday, by Arthur Ransome



I loved the Swallows and Amazons series of books as a child. The Swallows (John, Susan, Titty and Roger) and Amazons (Ruth- known as Nancy- and Peggy) are the protagonists of the first two books, Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale, are middle-class children who attend boarding school, and the books are the stories of their summer holidays in the Lake District. Their adventures sailing on the lake and on the fells are sanctioned by Nancy and Peggy's mother, Mrs Blackett, and the Swallows' mother Mrs Walker is reassured by the famously sanguine telegram from Captain Walker, the children's father- BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN. The children are initially at war with, then aided and abetted by, the Amazon's Uncle Jim, known by the children as Captain Flint, since they spent Swallows and Amazons being pirates.

The fourth novel in the chronology of books, though the third set on a lake inspired by Coniston Water, it is the first appearance of the D's, Dick and Dorothea Callum, who are spending the last week of their Christmas holiday on Dixon's farm. Mrs Dixon was their mother's nanny. The children's parents are going abroad on their father's first foreign posting. The children have no experience of sailing, but are experienced skaters; Dick's main interest is in Science and at the point the story opens, he is involved with astronomy. Dorothea is extremely imaginative, a keen reader and storywriter (though in a less irritating way than the unfortunately-named Titty). They become friends with the Swallows and Amazons, making an igloo from an abandoned hut, cooking out of doors and skating on the beck. The children know that a great freeze is forecast; they are re-imagining the landscape as Polar explorers and lament the fact that they will be returning to school before it comes.

A reprieve from return to school comes when Nancy develops mumps. Since the children must remain in quarantine for a month to ensure that they are free from infection before returning to school, Peggy moves to Holly Hawe farm with the Swallows (Mrs Walker and baby Brigit is in Malta with their naval Captain father) and they invent ways to communicate with Nancy via coded pictures and symbols on flags. On a trip to High Greenland (a snow covered fell) they find a sheep nearly dying, trapped on a narrow ridge. Dick (using his knowledge of gravity and pulleys) rescues it with help from Titty, Roger and Dorothea, and in gratitude Mr Dixon and Silas, his shepherd, makes them a sledge. He becomes very involved in their exploits, giving them sheepskins and rabbit skins to make hats and mittens with. The final adventure of the story, when the less knowledgeable Ds misread a signal from Nancy and set off alone in a snow blizzard, is truly thrilling. It is also gratifying for more bookish readers that Dorothea's romantic, storytelling feeling of what is fitting for explorers to do leads to their rescue.

Image: conistonwildlife.org.uk

This is a wonderful seasonal re-read. The wintry landscape is well evoked, it's beauties and dangers are evident. Many 1930s children's stories make the contemporary reader cringe (witness @knownasbowman's tweeting his reading of Biggles novels), but I was relieved that this wasn't the case with Winter Holiday. The children are middle class and attend boarding school, but Ransome portrays the Dixons, Silas and the other Cumbrian people, and their dialects, that the children encounter with respect. In particular I enjoyed the way that Mr Dixon and Silas enters into the polar explorer spirit with the Ds, so that they can join in the exploration on equal terms. A few years ago papers on Ransome's time in Russia reporting for the radical Daily News on the revolution and the Bolshevik government were released. MI5 considered his reports unduly sympathetic, although his politics remain unclear. However if he did have left wing sympathies it may explain this book's freedom from contemporary class prejudice (though I remember some condescending attitudes in Coot Club- perhaps more recent re-readers can enlighten me?). All in all, curl up with this book if you are 9+ and enjoy with hot chocolate, looking through the window at the cold outside. I think it would be a great read-aloud to 7+ as well.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Under the sea

Image: jwwaterhouse.com
Mermaids are fascinating. They seem to symbolise both the seductive beauty and danger of the sea, the borderline nature (or liminality) of the coast- of the earth but moulded by water; and also our human condition: do we belong to the natural, animal world, or are we separate? Stories of love between humans and merpeople can be the ultimate in doomed love; how can people who live in different elements ever marry? It's a compelling story, that has been told and retold since Homer's Odyssey.

Image: Waterstones.com


I have read two books recently that retell (in different ways) Matthew Arnold's The Forsaken Merman. Firstly, Liz Kessler's The Tail of Emily Windsnap. Emily lives on a boat in a seaside town with her mother. Despite them living so close to the sea, her mother has never allowed Emily to learn to swim. During a swimming lesson, Emily finds out why: as soon as she hits the water, her legs fuse to a tail, and she becomes a mermaid! Believing that her mother is terrified of water, she doesn't tell her of her discovery; instead she puts her new tail to the test, swimming further and making a new friend. However, she discovers that merpeople are forbidden to have contact with humans, and that her mother is being betrayed dreadfully by someone who has a reason to keep it that way... A great, fun read.

Image: Waterstones.com
The EDGE: Rivets series is an exciting-looking range of books for readers who are not yet ready for the challenge of sustained reading that novels for readers 8+ can present. Katherine Langrish, a writer I really admire, has retold the story of the Forsaken Merman from the point of view of Mara, the daughter of the merman and Margaret, the human woman who has left her family and returned to land. Mara journeys to find her mother and bring her back. Told in simple yet beautiful language, it's a compelling read. Highly recommended.

I'd recommend both books for 8+,  Forsaken particularly for children who enjoy stories but find reading quite daunting. And the title of this post? The jaunty song from Disney's The Little Mermaid, of course!

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Doing the Time Warp

I recently came across this blogpost by @Miss_Alaynius this week (via the very lovely tweeter and blogger @PrincessofVP), and it sent me to revisit Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.

Image: amazon.co.uk
Widely regarded as a classic (John Rowe Townsend termed it a "masterpiece" in his book Written for Children) it was one of CILIP's Carnegie Medal top ten , chosen to celebrate the Carnegie Medal's 70 years' celebration. The novel won the medal in 1958.

Tom's brother Peter has measles, so Tom is sent to stay with his childless aunt and uncle. They live in a large house now converted into flats, and Tom is disappointed to learn that there is no garden that he could play in alone- since he is in quarantine he can't mix with other children. Mrs Bartholomew, who owns the house, lives upstairs, but a grandfather clock remains on the landing from before the house conversion, as it is screwed to the wall. The clock still keeps good time, but is prone to strike hours at random. His aunt and uncle are kind, but his aunt is inclined to fuss and his uncle is rather pedantic. Due to his lack of exercise, since he is not allowed to play outside, Tom finds it hard to sleep, and when he hears the clock striking thirteen he gets up to investigate. Rationalising his disobedience to his aunt and uncle by explaining to himself that a thirteenth hour is not a real hour, Tom slips outside and discovers not a back yard with bins, but a sunlit garden with children playing: the house before it was converted to flats. Here he meets an unhappy, lonely little girl named Hatty wearing odd clothes, who becomes his friend. Tom returns every night to play with her, but strangely she seems to be growing up much faster than him, eventually becoming a young woman, and in my favourite section, it is no longer summer, but winter with a frozen river. Tom and Hatty skate to Ely and climb the cathedral tower, something he had been unable to do on his journey to his aunt and uncle. When the mystery is solved at the end of the book, there is a connection between the emotional states of Tom and Hatty; two children feeling isolated and misunderstood, longing for a friend, and the clock and its motto connects them both.

This beautifully written book is more than just a time-slip adventure; it is also a meditation on the nature of time and memory. An angel on the grandfather clock is holding a Bible with the motto "Time no Longer", which Tom and Hatty learn is from the Book of Revelations. Re-reading Tom's Midnight Garden has made me reflect on other books with time-slip and time travel themes. I have already written about Charlotte Sometimes, a book that I find profoundly disquieting. The History Keepers: The Storm Begins by Damien Dibben is a much more straightforward adventure story, and highly enjoyable it is.

Image: thehistorykeepers.com

Fifteen year old Jake Djones lives with his mother and father in Greenwich, where they run a bathroom fitting business. The firm isn't very successful, so Jake is surprised when they are called away suddenly on business, but very concerned when they don't return at the appointed time. Then Jake is kidnapped by a mysterious man dressed in a morning suit and top hat, and he discovers that his parents, and missing brother, are secret time travelling agents whose job is to protect history from rogue agents who would manipulate it for their own ends. Jake must travel through time to join them, rescue his parents, who have become trapped in history, and thwart the plot that the rogue agents are hatching.

This book has had favourable comparisons with Harry Potter, since it has a young hero and an action packed plot. For me this is overstating it a bit; it is certainly engrossing and a page turner, but it lacks the world building of Harry Potter. I couldn't imagine the History Keeper's HQ at Mont St Michel, the ship or the rogue agent's castle as well as I can Hogwarts. However, maybe this will come with later books. I would say that The Storm Begins is likely to appeal to fans of Charlie Higson's Young James Bond, Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider or Mark Walden's H.I.V.E. series.

I knew Mary Hoffman from her wonderful Amazing Grace picture books, rightly staples of UK classrooms, but was unaware of her books for older readers, until I spotted the cover of Stravaganza: City of Masks in a charity shop.

Image: maryhoffman.co.uk




The first in a series partly set in present day Islington and partly in an alternate version of renaissance Italy (Talia), the book opens with fifteen-year-old Lucien, who has cancer. His father buys him a beautiful notebook to write in as his throat is too sore to speak. His father tells him about Venice, where the notebook originated. Lucien falls asleep holding the notebook, and wakes up in Bellezza, an alternate version of Vanice. He discovers that he is a Stravagante, a time traveller, who can travel through the possession of a talisman: his notebook. 

In Bellezza Lucien is not ill. His dark curls, which fell out through his cancer treatment, have grown back. He becomes involved in the intrigue of Bellezza, through friendship with a girl named Arianna, Rodolfo, the advisor to the Duchessa who rules the city state of Bellezza, and the Duchessa herself, under threat from the powerful di Chimini family. His life in Bellezza, with Arianna, increasingly seems more "real" than his life in London. This wonderful book is very similar in many ways to Tom's Midnight Garden in theme- an unhappy child or young person can be transported to another time by means of an object connecting their two worlds. 

I would recommend Tom's Midnight Garden to confident readers of 8+, though it works well as a read-aloud to 7+. The History Keepers and Stravaganza are aimed at older readers: 10+, though Stravaganza's thematically may be more suited to 12+. 



Sunday, 27 November 2011

Liebster blog award


Thank you for author Katherine Langrish, whose Troll Blood I have just blogged about. She has given me a Liebster award, which is for blogs with fewer than 200 followers. Thank you Katherine! Her wonderful blog is Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, and do check out her Fairy Tale Reflections, which has made me think of myths and traditional tales again.


On receipt of the award, the recipient must:


1. Thank the giver and link back to the blogger who gave it to you .
2. Reveal your top 5 picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.
3. Copy and paste the award on your blog (tick).
4. Hope that the people you’ve sent the award to forward it to their five favourite bloggers.



So, without further ado, here are some of my favourite blogs:


Hef's kitchen. Delicious and easy to follow vegetarian and vegan recipes. I recommend the tikka paneer, even for the unreformed carnivores!


Ramblings of a Tactless Blonde Claire, the no longer blonde, writes funny, sweet and entertaining episodes from her shoe-loving, child-wrangling life. Lovely.


Did You Ever Stop To Think And Forget To Start Again? Wonderful, thoughtful posts on children's literature and a fellow Chalet School fan. The most recent post has introduced me to the crazy world of Chalet School fan fiction and fill in novels. Crikey!


Okey Dokey Pig in a Pokey, the amazing adventures of the wonderful Tracy who did what many of us dream of doing: put her every day life on hold (in her 40s) and went to Malta, trained as a scuba instructor and is now embarking on a new career! inspiring.


Treasury Islands, a fascinating blog on children's literature, nursery rhymes and other related topics.


Happy reading, and thanks again, Katherine!

Friday, 25 November 2011

Norse Code

I love books with maps, don't you? My dad to me every night before I was 11, and I remember three map- filled readings: C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons and sequels, and J.R.R. Tolkein's Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings series, with its fabulous maps of Middle Earth.

Image: fanpop.com
Just about the only thing that could improve Robin McKinley's amazing The Blue Sword would be a map of Damar, so the reader could follow Harry's journey with her.

By some kind of cultural serendipity, as the Guardian has pointed out, several Viking- inspired cultural events and book releases are happening, and I have recently read some amazing books inspired by Vikings, all of which involve journeys and have wonderful maps at the front.

Image: katherinelangrish.com

The very wonderful children of the Big Green Bookshop book club chose the final book in Katherine Langrish's Troll series (published both separately and in one volume as West Of The Moon), Troll Blood. Orphaned Peer Ulfsson has been taken in by his friend Hilde's family, after his adventures with trolls in the first two books has left him without a guardian or a home. One day a Viking ship arrives in the harbour, and the captain, Gunnar, his vain son Harald Silkenhair and Gunnar's strange wife Astrid come to Hilde's house. Hilde is desperate to accompany Astrid on the voyage, and Peer is desperate to be with Hilde, so they (and the house troll, the Nis- similar to a British Hob or Brownie) sail for Vinland. However, Gunnar is haunted by the man he has killed, Harald's temper is becoming more uncontrollable, and what is Astrid's secret?

Katherine Langrish draws on both Norse and Native American mythology to create a wonderful, exciting read. It helps to have read the first two books, but Peer and Hilde's characters develop further in this story, and the setting away from Trollsvik and Troll Fell mean that new readers and old fans of the series are on more of an even footing. It also has a glossary of Norse and Native American mythology and terms.The book club loved this book, and so did I.

Image: waterstones.com

I have recently discovered Kevin Crossley-Holland (I wrote about Arthur: The Seeing Stone here). This is the enthralling story of teenage Solveig, who in 1036 follows her father, the Viking mercenary Halfdan, who has travelled to Miklagard (Istanbul) to become one of the guards of Greek Empress Zoe. This is a time of transition for the Norse people, where the religion of the old Gods is being overtaken by Christianity, and this is one of the challenges that Solveig must face. Interestingly Kevin Crossley-Holland doesn't choose to disguise Solveig as a boy to avoid the inevitable dangers of a teenage girl travelling alone; Solveig must fend off unwelcome attentions; luckily she is protected by both the kindness of fellow travellers and her own intelligence (and as she pays her way by carving ornaments and jewellery, she has a sharp knife with her). Incidentally, The History Girls blog has a great series on crossdressing in historical fiction. I was totally involved in following Solveig's journey from Scandinavia through Russia to Istanbul, and every step of the way wondering whether she would arrive and how, when getting there, she would find her father. This is a magical book, just as good as the Arthur trilogy, and I can't wait to meet Solveig again in the sequel. Reading the story in the afterword of Kevin finding the rune Halfdan in the great church of Hagia Sophia is breathtaking as well.

Image: runemarks.co.uk
"Five hundred years after the End of the World, and the goblins had been at the cellar again..." is one of my favourite opening lines of books I have recently read. (My all-time favourites include "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day" and "I am writing this sitting in the kitchen sink"- if you know which books these come from, comment below, and add your own!) In the opening chapter of Runemarks by Joanne Harris, (best selling author of Chocolat and very entertaining tweeter) 14 year old Maddy is in a cellar. In her post- Ragnarok world (Ragnarok in Norse mythology meaning the end of the world, death of the Gods and rebirth of the world) dreaming, imagination and magic are suspect, mention of the Old Gods is forbidden and a new, puritanical religion, with knowledge confined to a select few, holds sway. Maddy has a mark in the shape of a rune on her hand; the people in her town call it a ruin-mark, a sign of being a witch. Then Maddy meets the traveller One-Eye, who teaches her to use her runemark to cast "glams", or spells. One-Eye, who is Odin much weakened by Ragnarok, involves Maddy in a quest which leads her to meet Loki and other Norse Gods, goblins and race against time to save the world from a second Ragnarok.

Where this books differs from the other in this post is that it is set in a fantasy world, albeit one that strongly resembles Yorkshire, and I enjoyed the incongruity of a Tolkeinesque fantasy without the High Fantasy "Forswear to be my foe, Magrin son of Bagrin" dialogue. Like the incomparable Terry Pratchett, Joanne Harris is able to make fantasy humorous without forgoing satisfying world-building and storytelling. Three great maps, a glossary and character list added to the enjoyment of this book for me.

 I was given AS Byatt's Ragnarok for my birthday, but unfortunately work pressure being what it is I haven't had time to finish it yet: more serendipitous Norse mythology reworking for me to enjoy.

I would recommend Troll Blood to 9+, Bracelet of Bones to 12+ and Runemarks to 11+.

It was the first anniversary of this blog on 12th November. Thanks for reading, and for all the encouragement fellow bloggers and commenters have given me.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Two dancing schools

My parents bought me this beautiful edition of Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes for my birthday in September:

Image: Waterstones.com
This is the 75th anniversary edition, with cover and slip cover designed by Cath Kidston. Some of the original illustrations, by Ruth Gervais, are reproduced on full pages, bordered and backed by Kidston's designs. It is a beautiful edition of the classic book, and I would say a great present for a Cath Kidston fan, a lover of children's fiction or a very careful 8-12 year old reader!

Re-reading the familiar story of the three Fossil sisters, adopted by Great Uncle Matthew (GUM)  and his niece, Sylvia (who the girls call Garnie), I was struck by the school-story aspect of it. Whilst Pauline, Petrova and Posy have lessons at home from their lodgers, Dr Jakes and Dr Smith, they also attend the Children's Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. Ballet Shoes was published in 1936, in an era when Elinor M Brent-Dyer's The Chalet School, Elsie J. Oxenham's The Abbey Girls and Dorita Fairlie Bruce's Dimsie series were at the height of their popularity, and the themes of fitting in, finding one's place in society and honour that are common in school stories can also be found in Ballet Shoes.

Image: nosycrow.com

I was very excited to learn that theatre critic Lyn Gardner had written a children's book, the first of a series. Published by the wonderful Nosy Crow, it is the story of Olivia and her little sister Eel, who are the daughters of an actress and a circus high wire walker. Following their mother's death, their father leaves them with their grandmother, who runs a stage school. This is a school in the full sense of the word- the pupils study the usual school curriculum as well as acting, dancing and singing.

Eel and Olivia make a dramatic entrance, as Eel ruins spoilt Katie Wilkes- Cox's performance at a school show, and Katie becomes Olivia's enemy. And to add to Olivia's woes, her grandmother has refused to allow circus skills, where Olivia shines, in the school's curriculum. She struggles to find her place and fit in, until her surreptitious practicing of wire walking in school leads to her making friends, and regaining her honour when Katie makes false accusations against her. It's a fun read, and I can imagine 9+ readers enjoying it, and looking forward to reading the others in the series.

School story fans would do well to read Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?, the blog of Chalet School fan, er... @chaletfan, and Practically Marzipan, the blog of @actuallyaisha, who is re-reading and writing about the amazing Marlowe books by Antonia Forest.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Fighting Fantasy

Today's post is a guest post. Philip Bell is a writer, publisher, father of two, fighting fantasy fan, and author of several independently published children’s books including Jack and Boo’s Bucket of Treasures, Jack and Boo’s Wild Wood and Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day, published by Beachy Books (http://www.beachybooks.com/). Follow him on Twitter @beachybooks



Before embarking on your adventure to read this blog post, you must first determine your own strengths and weaknesses. You have in your possession a sword and a backpack containing provisions (food and drink) for the read. Use the Adventure Sheet to determine your skill, stamina and luck. If you encounter any spelling errors you may slay the author. If you want to escape at any time you will have to Test your Luck, but you may get flicked on the ear as you run away into the forest. Now read on brave adventurer. Turn to 8.

8
I first encountered The Forest of Doom while leafing through a book club catalogue in primary school, when I was enchanted by the title cover showing a hissing, lizard-like SHAPESHIFTER, stepping over a mossy log in Darkwood Forest, finger curling, ready for battle. I remember the excitement when my teacher announced the book had arrived and handed it to me at the end of the school day. When I got home and started reading, my mind was opened to an engrossing new reading experience called Fighting Fantasy, in which YOU (I) are (was) the hero! Turn to 235.

235
The Forest of Doom was actually the third in the Fighting Fantasy series of books, the debut adventure being The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, published  a year earlier in 1982 by Puffin, and the first book in what was to become a highly successful series, created and written by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Turn to 76.

76
The ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro, barely just on sale at the time, had only started to hint at the interactive possibilities of the video games that would come after them, so Fighting Fantasy books were fairly mind blowing, especially considering they were simple books – but with a difference. They were not presented as a linear narrative, but as a multiple choice adventure game in book form, made up of numbered paragraphs of story, detailing various scenarios that could be played out, depending on what you – the reader – chose to do or was your fate at the roll of a dice. Effectively they were role-playing adventures and the interactive element made them highly engaging to me as a child. No longer was I a passive reader of a story, frustrated by a plot I wanted to change or character I wanted to kill (a writer in the making?). At last, I could choose my own adventure. The addiction continued through childhood and I avidly read all the Fighting Fantasy books I could and eagerly awaited new titles – a particular favourite being The Creature of Havoc, where I soon discovered, to my delight, that I was playing a monster! Turn to 171.

171
So what has all this got to do with anything? Well, while browsing in a charity shop with my son not long ago we happened across an original tatty copy of The Forest of Doom. It was exchanged immediately for a few gold coins and on the way home I eagerly prepared my son for an incredible experience. He’s getting to be a confident reader at 7, but needed some help with setting it all up. This involves rolling dice to create the attributes for your “hero” of SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK, furnishing yourself with gold coins and, following successful navigation of the establishing story pages, equipping oneself with magical items to use on your adventure, such as, Nose Filters, a Net of Entanglement and the Headband of Concentration – genuine Fighting Fantasy items that would also be useful to any parent of young children. Turn to 98.

98
And so my son and I played out the adventure together, entering forest paths and encountering creatures and puzzles on our way. It wasn’t good for bedtime reading – far too exciting and besides, we’d lose the dice in the bed covers - so it became great father-son bonding time on the sofa at the weekend, me reading passages (with all voices for the creatures) and my son eager to fight any foe in battles, decided upon by rolling dice and adding or subtracting various attributes to establish who had hit who and how much damage was inflicted. Initially, without hindsight, my son always chose to fight in preference to running or peaceful trade – what hope humanity!? If anything, it’s a very enjoyable maths workout and I wondered if any teachers have used a Fighting Fantasy book to enhance a lesson? Turn to 130.

130
To my surprise I discovered it was actually harder than I’d remembered because, after several attempts, we found ourselves viciously slaughtered by various creatures after failing to win battles or left for dead because we didn’t have the correct magic potion. And like an unsaved computer game, if you die in a choose your own adventure you have to go back to the start and try again, this time choosing different paths, which does mean occasionally having to read the same passages out again. I began to tire of this, however my son seemed to enjoy the repetition and prior knowledge of the encounter ahead – for example, knowing when the SHAPESHIFTER on the cover, would shapeshift and start a fight so we could avoid it. Turn to 231.


231
We found the key to success was mapping. There are many compass directions - go east, go west (life is peaceful there), go north, etc, that can get you rapidly lost. Having said this, you cannot ever get entirely stuck, unlike a computer game, because you’ll either end up dead or eventually get to the end of the story – although not always with the items you needed to complete your quest. Turn to 139.

139
At this point I must confess to resorting to what all Fighting Fantasy players must have done, at least once – cheat. This involves keeping your finger in the page you are on, before you turn to the numbered section to determine the outcome of your decision or action. I’m sure the creators knew people might do this because often you’d get to another short paragraph – usually something about continuing eastwards, and then a jump... Turn to 59.
59
To another section of narrative summary...Turn to 360.

360
Until you found out the trail you were on would lead to certain doom.  And so, like all those years ago a new generation has discovered the magic of Fighting Fantasy. Of course now you can get video games and even iPad versions, but I urge you to try the original before you’re spoilt by computer controlled dice rolls.

And what of our own adventure? My son and I are technically still stuck in Darkwood Forest, our story virtually paused, with about 10 yellow post-it notes stuck in the pages, a reward on the turn of each page, or certain death. Turn to 400.

400
You emerge, tired, hungry and victorious after reading this blog post. Now fortified with knowledge of the magic of Fighting Fantasy and the urge to seek out a paperback copy for yourself or your child, and then to roll some dice and choose your own adventure, one where YOU are the hero!




Thank you Philip! Please see my review of Philp's Jack and Boo's Bucket of Treasures here; his most recent book, Jack and Boo's Snowy Day, is going to be the Christmas present of some small people in my life!


Sunday, 6 November 2011

What should Louise Mensch read?

Louise Mensch, Conservative MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire and best selling novelist of bodice ripping romance novels under her maiden name, Louise Bagshawe, tweeted her appreciation for the renowned children's/ Young Adult historical novelist Rosemary Sutcliff back in August.



I got into a Twitter conversation with Mensch back then, in which I made very briefly the points I intend to make in this post. In light of what seems to be the thrust of education policy in English and History in the English and Welsh National Curriculum review, I feel that they are still valid three months later.

When I was a child, an avid reader from the age of seven, I read pretty omnivorously, "good" and "bad" books with as I remember it little restriction apart from what was available in my class book corner and local library. Sutcliff was a favourite, as was Geoffrey Trease, Barbara Willard, Cynthia Harnett and especially Leon Garfield. These were established, although still active, writers in the 1970s, when I, and Louise Mensch, were at Primary school. I can't now remember whether an adult suggested that I read these authors (although my mum, who was a teacher, had Barbara Willard's Mantlemass series and Cynthia Harnett's The Wool-Pack on the book shelves), but I read them, and still re-read them with a great deal of enjoyment. I particularly admire Garfield's Gothic creepiness and Sutcliff's unwillingness to let her protagonists off easily in their moral and spiritual dilemmas.

Where I disagree with Mensch is in her assertion that "you don't get children's books like that anymore", which may be a throw away comment, but could also be indicative of a certain political thrust, which I will come to later. So I would like to respectfully suggest some reading to her, as I promised in August. Better late than never!


Image: readingmatters.co.uk
Kevin Crossley-Holland is an author I have shamefully only just encountered, through his wonderful new novel Bracelet of Bones. I picked up a copy of The Seeing Stone, the first in his Arthur trilogy, and I was entranced. First published in 2000, it is the story of 13 year old Arthur de Caldicot, growing up in the Marches between England and Wales in 1199. It is also, via Arthur's "seeing stone", a lump of obsidian, the story of Arthur, son of King Uther and Ygerna, wife of Gorlois of Tintagel, that Arthur de Caldicot can see played out in the stone. Their stories start to reflect each other, and it is through the example of the boy king Arthur in the stone that Arthur de Caldicot comes to terms with conflicts in his own life. The book is beautifully written in the first person, with some chapters less than a page and some longer, but all separated by mediaeval woodcuts. Wonderful.

Image: berliedoherty.com


I first encountered Berlie Doherty during my PGCE; her first novel How Green You Are! was recommended reading. Treason (2011) is the story of Will Montague. In the first harrowing scene, his brother is drowned, although Will is saved by his father. Will's guilt at surviving, knowing that Matthew was his father's favourite son, colours the whole book and explains a good deal about his motivations. Will's family has remained Catholic after Henry VIII cedes from the Catholic church to marry Anne Boleyn; however through his father's sister, Aunt Carew, they have powerful connections. Red-haired Will is offered a place at Hampton Court, as baby Prince Edward's page, but Percy Howard, relative of the powerful Duke of Norfolk, is furious that he was not offered the role and vows to bring Will and his family down. Then his father is denounced as a traitor for not renouncing his Catholic faith, and Will is in terrible danger. With the help of a poor boy called Nick, he must save his father, but who can he trust?
Again written in the first person, this is a  more conventionally structured novel; however the historical background is beautifully evoked, the characters are well drawn (in particular the bloated, ageing, quixotic Henry and ambitious Aunt Carew), and Will is a realistic child hero. I loved the unusually sympathetic portrayal of Anne of Cleves, and a very clever foreshadowing of Katherine Howard's fate.
Highly recommended.
Image: pennydolan.com

Penny Dolan is another new author to me. A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E (2011) starts when Mouse is a toddler. He is growing up in an English country house, looked after by his loving nanny, until his parents are presumed drowned after a shipwreck. Then his uncle Scrope, an unsuccessful gambler, looks jealously at the presumed heir, and Mouse, too young to know his own identity, is taken to live on a farm with the faithful Hanny. However, even here he is not safe; tracked down by the sinister Button, who has a hold over Scrope via his gambling debts, and Mouse is sent to Murkstone Hall, a cross between Dicken's Dotheboys Hall and Hodgson Burnett's Miss Minchin's Seminary. Here Mouse is in turn bullied, neglected and finally set to work in the kitchens, before he escapes and eventually makes his way to an unnamed city, where he finally learns who he is.
This wonderful story is told both in the first person and through a narrator, from a number of perspectives. As Mouse journeys from Murkstone Hall to the City, he falls in with a number of characters: a tramp, a Punch and Judy man, and in the city, two costume makers and their nieces, and Mr Nick Tick, a watch and clock maker. Even the very minor characters feel three-dimensional and they have a purpose in the story. At 449 pages, this is a big book (although not huge on the the Rowling scale), but the chapters are relatively short, and the shifting perspectives retain the reader's interest.
The reason that I thought again about Louise Mensch's tweets was firstly her appearance on UK comedy news programme Have I Got News For You, but also today this news in the Telegraph, which seems to suggest encouragement for state schools to teach more "traditional" texts. I feel that the report is a little disingenuous; after all, there are a number of texts that appear on both lists (Of Mice and Men, hated by me at school, Skellig and Great Expectations), but also the state school list to me seems more varied and interesting (maybe I'm missing the point here!) However, what I would like to point out to Louise Mensch and to the Conservative commentators urging more "classics" on school children is that in the 80s, when I was at Secondary school, A Kestrel for a Knave, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies were considered too "modern", and schools were urged to teach Austen and Dickens. Everything "classic" was "modern" once. Older texts are not necessarily always better than newer texts, and it is foolish to assume, without having read newer books, that they are. I hope that Louise Mensch enjoys these books!
All are suitable for 9-14, although 7 or 8 year olds may enjoy Treason and A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. read aloud.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Spooky reads for Hallowe'en

Image: scholastic.co.uk

This lovely book for 3-5 year olds is a great autumnal read for children that may be too little to enjoy the scary side of Hallowe'en. Cat, Squirrel and Duck live together in a house, making pumpkin soup every day. They each have their own jobs to do, following the same routine, but one day Duck wants a go at stirring the soup, which is Squirrel's job. So a squabble ensues, and Duck runs away. Squirrel and Cat regret that they didn't take turns, and set out to find him. This is a gorgeous book that won the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration, and would be a great read after making and eating pumpkin soup from the indides of Hallowe'en lanterns! And here's a nice easy pumpkin soup recipe that children could help with!

Image: nosycrow.com


Another lovely book for younger readers is Tracey Corderoy's Hubble Bubble Granny Trouble. With beautiful illustrations in purple, mauve and grey by Joe Berger, this rhyming picture book is told in the first person by a little girl whose granny is a little bit different. She eats gloopy soup, she has bats, cats and frogs as pets, and wears a pointed hat. The little girl is embarrassed by her granny, especially when while helping out at school, Granny accidentally makes the teacher's trousers disappear! The little girl persuades her granny to change her image and look more like a stereotypical granny. However, on seeing how sad her granny is, she changes her mind. I loved this book; it is affectionate, funny and works beautifully with the illustrations. Highly recommended for 3-7: younger children will love it read to them, and older readers will enjoy reading it to themselves.


Image: amazon.co.uk

The late and wonderful Diana Wynne Jones'  posthumous Earwig and the Witch is the story of a little girl named Earwig who is happily living in an orphanage; happily because she is able to control the staff and all the children. One day however, a strange couple come and take her home with them; living in a suburban house is Bella Yaga, a witch, who has taken Earwig in to be her servant. With the help of Thomas, a talking cat, Earwig manages to take control of this household as well, and all ends well. Marion Lindsay's quirky illustrations fit beautifully with the slightly sardonic prose; all in all a fantastic book for 7-9 year olds. I loved it.

I adore all Jones' books, but a special book for me is Charmed Life, as it was the first I read. Published in 1977, I think I first read it a year later.

Image: leemac.freeserve.co.uk
Everyone says that Gwendolen Chant is a witch of exceptional ability. She and her brother Eric (known as Cat) survive the steamboat accident in which her parents die: Gwendolen because witches can't drown, and Cat because he is holding on to Gwendolen. Initially the children are looked after by a local witch, but after Gwendolen writes to Chrestomanci (a very powerful enchanter who controls the misuse of magic in the parallel universes in which this series of novels is set) they go to live at Chrestomanci castle. It is here that Gwendolen, who has initially seemed to be arrogant and bossy, is shown to be malevolent and, once we learn the source of her magical powers, positively evil. One scene is particularly chilling, being reminiscent of the triumph of the White Witch over Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I make absolutely no apologies for including two Diana Wynne Jones' books in this post; she is an astoundingly good writer for children and young people, and I hope that (unlike Joan Aiken, sadly) her death doesn't mean that she falls out of the public eye again. It's a wonderful book for readers of roughly 8-13. Neil Gaiman wrote in his blog after Jones' death that she is a great writer to read aloud.

Image: witchchild.com
At the end of the English Civil War, Mary sees her grandmother hanged as a witch. A strange woman rescues her, and buys her a passage on a ship heading to the New World with a puritan community. Along the way, Mary keeps a diary which she sews into a patchwork quilt, as she starts to realise that in New England she has not found freedom of belief or expression that the pilgrim fathers were seeking. The juxtaposition of a very repressive Christian community alongside the Shamanistic Native American people leads to fear and suspicion, but finally it is jealousy that leads to accusations and danger for Mary and the family sheltering her. This is a wonderful book by a brilliant writer of historical fiction for young people. Highly recommended for readers of 12+.

Are you reading anything special for Hallowe'en? If you're going to buy a book for you or for your children, maybe you'd like to add one for a class of school children in Africa? Pelican Post is a wonderful new charity sending hand-picked books to African schools (a far better idea than bulk donations of completely unsuitable texts), at the moment books written in English that are culturally appropriate. I'm sending Akimbo and the Elephants to a school in Zambia (a great book by Alexander McCall Smith about a boy who is the son of a ranger on a nature preserve). I heard about this charity from Zoe from Playing By The Book; read an interview with the founder here.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Books to encourage reluctant readers


I've been asked several times recently by parents how to encourage children to read, and I thought I'd expand on this in something longer than a 140 character tweet or quick chat after lectures at University! I hope you find this helpful.

1. Continue to read to your children, even after they can read competently for themselves. Children's language comprehension skills often develop in advance of their ability to decipher words on the page; so they enjoy hearing adults or older siblings read books they can't yet read for themselves. From hearing stories read aloud they develop understanding of how books and stories work, and it can encourage them to persevere with reading.

2. Take your children to the library, and encourage them to choose anything that looks interesting. Allowing them to select fairly freely from the children's section will allow them to develop their taste and improve their ability to choose books that are likely to interest them. If they choose books that are a bit too difficult, you can read them with the child; if too easy this is fine- it will improve their confidence. Talk to the children's librarian if you can, and look out for story time, holiday reading clubs and other events which may encourage your child.

3. Allow your child to see you choosing books for yourself in the library, and read in front of your child. That is far more valuable on a day to day basis than seeing Premiership footballers read! This is particularly important for dads, as schools can be such feminised places. Allowing them to see reading as something that is enjoyable and a pleasure in itself rather than something stressful, can encourage them to read other than when they have to.

4. Series of books can be very comforting for child readers. I was a reluctant reader until I was about 7, but latched on to Enid Blyton's Secret Seven; I realised pretty quickly that they were pretty much all the same, but this was reassuring. Astrosaurs- space travelling dinosaurs- are great for 6-8 year olds, the glorious Mr Gum for 7-9-ish year olds (and 40-something University lecturers; I really can't read them on public transport due to loud cackles), and of course for older children there are a plethora of series. I particularly like Artemis Fowl, and Caroline Lawrence's Western Mysteries looks fantastic. I've written before about how Harry Potter got reluctant readers- particularly boys- reading in my classroom.

5. All reading is good reading. Comics and annuals- including those based on popular TV programmes and sport- were devoured in my classroom by children often reluctant to read books. The forthcoming Phoenix looks very exciting, and Bayard's comics that Zoe blogged about on Playing By The Book. There are some fantastic graphic novels for children too, like the Baker Street Irregulars by Tony Lee and Dan Boultwood, for 10-12 year olds. Since comics and graphic novels don't feel or look like graded readers from school, it removes one of the barriers for children reluctant to read.

6. Have a look at the Guardian's Children's Books site if you haven't already, with your children. There are podcasts and video clips of authors talking about their books and book reviews by children of children's books. There are competitions to win books as well! For older children, sites like Walker Books' Undercover Reads is great: book trailers and author information, which is also posted on YouTube.

7. Allow a space for reading. I'm the kind of person who could read in a whirlwind, but some children need a space with no distractions. Maybe an evening a week with no telly or computer, where the whole family reads?

8. Audiobooks can be a great support. Libraries again can be a great source. Some children enjoy listening to the audiobook alongside reading the book, while some may like listening to the story first then reading the book. Knowing the storyline allows children to make sense of the text, and if they enjoy the story, it will encourage them to persevere.

9. Collections of short, related stories can be more manageable than a novel. For younger children, Horrid Henry or Penny Dreadful are great, with lots of pictures to break up the text. For older children, Horowitz Horror and Geraldine McCaughrean's wonderful retelling of myths and legends are great reads.

10. Tap into their interests. Sport? Tom Palmer and Helena Pielichaty write great football and rugby stories for boys and girls. History? Well, the Horrible Histories and Philip Ardagh's fascinating historical list books. Sharks, dinosaurs, space, trucks, ballet, gardening, cookery... there are some amazing non fiction books out there. The Wonderwise Science-related picture books are great. Baking from a simple cookery books or following instructions to make something from a craft book can show children the purpose of reading for information.

Finally, apps and ebooks may or may not have an impact- but I have no experience of them, so I can't comment from experience. Nosy Crow's Cinderella app looks great, and I am quite excited about the possibilities of the Choose Your Own Adventure app- the original books were huge favourites with Y3 and 4 boys. In my experience this is the age that children may start to be reluctant to read independently, but spotting the furtive groups of boys huddling in the corners of playground swapping books was a delight in the 90s!

I hope that this is helpful! If you have any tips, please do post them.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Ada Lovelace Day


Image: en.wikipedia.org

7th October was Ada Lovelace Day. Lovelace (1815- 1852) was the only legitimate child of the poet George, 6th Baron Byron, and his wife Anna Isabella (known as Annabella) Milbanke, nicknamed by her husband "the Princess of Parallelograms" due to her love of science and mathematics. Ada's parents had a very unhappy marriage and they separated a month after her birth. Unusually for the time Ada was brought up by her mother, and her father made no attempt to enforce his legal parental right. Ada had no relationship with him.

Annabella was obsessed with educating out what she saw as Ada's possible inheritance of Byron's instability and madness, and she did this by focusing Ada's education on "rational" subjects such as mathematics and logic. Through Mary Somerville , who taught her mathematics, Ada met Charles Babbage, the creator of the "analytical engine"; a machine designed to analyse mathematical formulae. Ada translated an Italian article on the engine and added notes to it. She wrote an alogarithm for the machine to compute Bernoulli numbers (although the machine was not completed during her lifetime) and is therefore considered the world's first computer programmer.


Image: fantasticfiction.co.uk
This made me think about a book I read many years ago as a young teacher: Hacker, by Malorie Blackman, probably best known for her astonishing Noughts and Crosses series, but also the author of some great picture books, books for younger readers and novels for older children.

Hacker opens with Vicky and the rest of her Year 8 class (including her adopted brother Gib and his annoying friend Chaucy) waiting to take a Maths exam. Inside the exam hall Vicky notices several people cheating, including her friend Maggie. Vicky has a programmable calculator, and writes a programme to work out interior and exterior angles and areas of shapes. Unfortunately since she finishes her exam in 20 minutes instead of two hours, her teacher assumes that she is the hacker that stole the Maths exam. She is given a letter by the head teacher to take home.

However, on returning home, she and Gib discover that something far more serious than cheating at an exam is concerning her parents. Her dad has been accused of transferring one million pounds from the bank where he works to his own account. Vicky and Gib set out to prove his innocence by hacking into the bank; however this puts Vicky in terrible danger from the real thief.

I loved this book. Not only is it a thrilling adventure, but Vicky and Gib's relationship is very believable, as is the ebb and flow of "tween" friendships. Vicky is mixed race, as is her adopted dad, and the detail of her darker skin making her feel as though she doesn't quite belong to the rest of her family rings very true. Identity and ethnicity are not the most important aspects of this book, but it is great to see that the problems needing to be solved in this story. And as children pick up the ideas of "girls' subjects" and "boys' subjects" so early, it is very positive to have a book aimed at 8+ featuring a girl computer programmer! It is unfortunate that the computing aspects of this book have dated, but I would hope that the thriller plotline and believable characters would carry young readers through.

This book is a good one for teaching Primary children about Ada Lovelace and her importance in the history of computing.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

About a Girl

The Bookseller recently reported what seems to be a downturn in sales of titles by top selling women authors, which was reported in The Guardian as "the death of chick lit". At the same time, it seems that children's books are outperforming adult fiction, which is good news for children's book week. So what is there for girls to read ? Well, I recently read three books that teenage girls should enjoy.

Image: bookdepository.co.uk
Lauren Laverne, BBC 6Music DJ, TV presenter and erstwhile indie pop star with Kenickie, (and they were as much fun to see live as they look!) writes about 15 year old Candy Caine, who lives in a small seaside town. She and her best friend Holly hang out in the cafe/ record shop The Bluebird eyeing up the gorgeous Dan, and hatch plans to rid Candy's glamorous mum of her boring fiance and to find Candy's birth father- could he really be 90s indie star Nathan Oxblood? To placate Candy, her mum and Ray buy her a battered old cherry red Gibson SG guitar, and when Candy strums a B chord, out pops a supernatural being called Clarence B Major, to assist her. Candy and Holly form their band, the Broken Biscuits, and their plan for finding Candy's dad comes together. It's very funny book, encapsulating embarrassing teenage party behaviour, feisty octogenarian Gladys, and lots of music references (as you'd expect from Lauren's encyclopedic knowledge). One rainy day I'll make a playlist! Here's Lauren talking about her "indie fairy tale". I've passed a copy on to a friend's 13 year old bass playing daughter, who loved it as well. I can't wait for the sequel, although of course Lauren has been rather busy with baby no. 2... but come on, Lauren, please!

Image: Jessieheartsnyc.wordpress.com
I read Keris Stainton's Jessie Hearts NYC while commuting. This is always dangerous; fine on my way ti work since it is at the train's final destination, but more tricky on my way home, and I nearly ended up in North Essex on more than one occasion. This is an interesting book. English Jessie and her best friend Emma head to New York to visit Jessie's playwright mum, hoping to forget her awful ex boyfriend. New Yorker Finn is in love with his best friend's girlfriend, but also needs to find a way to tell his dad that he doesn't want to study business at University and go into his firm. Jessie and Finn could be perfect for each other; as long as they get to meet... This book has three protagonists: Jessie, Finn and New York City itself. I loved it; the city is evoked perfectly, and the dynamics (between Jessie and her mum, Jessie and Emma, Finn and his family, Finn and Scott, Finn and Sam, Scott's girlfriend) are pitch perfect. Keris very kindly sent me a copy of the book, but this is my honest impression of it. Here is one of favourite New York- related songs: Belle and Sebastian's Piazza New York Catcher. Incidentally, also one of the best gigs I've ever been to!

Image: thebookpeople.co.uk
It's a truth universally acknowledged that many teenage girls dream not of becoming a footballer or rock musician themselve, but becoming a WAG (wife and girlfriend) of one. Michelle Gayle should know; she was married to footballer turned pundit Mark Bright (although having played Hettie on EastEnders and been a pop star it could be argued that he was the BAH- boyfriend and husband).  Her novel Pride and Premiership is about seventeen and a half year old Remy Bennet and her gorgeous older sister Malibu, who are both beauticians working in the same salon. Malibu has devised a WAG's charter, which includes such gems as "Pretend you don't know he's a footballer" and "Never dispute a thing his mum says"- since all footballers worship their mums. Written as Remy's diary, the book charts her meeting with footballer Robbie Wilkins (he doesn't play for a premiership team, but he's gorgeous) and her relationship with him. Can she trust him on a lads' holiday to Ayia Napa? has he really broken up with his ex girlfriend? Can she believe his excuses for not contacting her for long periods? And is Malibu following her own rules? It's a fun read, more Bridget Jones than Pride and Prejudice; Remy's voice is believeable, and Michelle Gayle workshopped the novel with a number of groups of girls; perhaps for me this is where it doesn't quite work: the message overpowers the medium. It feels a little contrived. However, I really rooted for Remy and found myself willing her to dump Robbie and believe in herself more in parts of the novel. Here is a clip of Michelle reading from Pride and Premiership.

I'd recommend all these books for 14+. They're fabulous! The title of this post is from one of my favourite Nirvana songs.