Review policy

I am very happy to review any novel that fits in with the theme of this blog: novels aimed at 9-14 year olds, preferably with a fantasy/ speculative world setting. However, I will make clear in the review that I was sent the book by the publisher and I will write my honest opinion. Please feel free to contact me via Twitter or Facebook, or fantasticreads at gmail dot com.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Farewell to Diana Wynne Jones

The death of Diana Wynne Jones was announced yesterday. Her fans can't have been entirely shocked, as she has been having treatment for cancer for two years, and in August she had decided to discontinue with her chemotherapy.

Diana Wynne Jones was born in 1934 in London. The family was evacuated to her father's family in Wales, then to the Lake District and to York, and after the war ended, the family moved to Essex. Her childhood was not a happy one; she describes her mother as unloving and her father as mean, but she was very close to her sisters, Professor Isobel Armstrong, and Ursula, an actress. Jones wrote over 50 books, and won the Guardian Children's Book Prize in 1977 for Charmed Life, amongst other awards.


I first read and loved Charmed Life in the late 70s, but my favourite of the novels is Howl's Moving Castle. Sophie Hatter lives in Market Chipping in the land of Ingary, where fairy tale conventions (such as witches, seven league boots and spells) are accepted in an otherwise ordinary market town.

Sophie is the eldest of three daughter of a prosperous milliner. Her mother died after giving birth to Lettie, the second daughter. Mr Hatter married one of his shop assistants and had another daughter, Martha. In fairy tale, this should make Sophie and Letty the Ugly Sisters, but in fact they are pretty and despite usual childhood squabbles the girls get on well together and with their step mother.

Unfortunately the expectation of Ingary is that, in line with fairy tale norms, Sophie and Lettie will fail with any endeavour they undertake, only for Martha to succeed. Lettie rails against this unfairness, but Sophie is the sensible older sister, well accustomed to looking after her sisters. Lettie is considered the beauty, Martha is considered intelligent, and Sophie is dutiful and good at sewing. When their father dies, leaving far less money than expected and the girls have to leave school, Lettie is placed in an apprenticeship with a Cesari's bakery, and Martha with Annabel Fairfax, the witch. Sophie feels this is only right; Lettie being the second sister and unlikely to make any success, she is better off being in a place where she can marry an apprentice and live happily ever after. Martha on the other hand can learn a useful trade and meet influential people who will help her seek her fortune. However the girls decide to switch places, a fact which becomes significant later in the book.

Sophie is to stay at the hat shop and eventually take over, and since she knows she will not have adventures, she settles down to learn the hat business, and since she is bored and lonely, she imagines little stories about the hats and tells them. However, she becomes discontented and loses her temper with a customer, who unfortunately is the Witch of the Waste. The Witch puts a spell on her, turning her into an old woman, and not wanting to alarm her family she runs away.

Sophie sees the Wizard Howl's castle moving towards her. Howl has a reputation of literally stealing girls' hearts- he is heartless. Sophie however feels that, as an old woman, she is not at risk of hurt from him and she goes to the castle as a caretaker. The castle is powered by a fire-demon, Calcifer, also under a spell, and the real work is done by Michael, the apprentice.

There are two repeating themes throughout the novel. One is that people are truly not what they seem; Sophie, Howl, Calcifer, Martha and Lettie are just some of the characters whose appearance or natures are changed by spells (there are others, but they are significant to the plot.) Both Sophie and Howl must learn each others' true natures in order to save each other. The second is common to many of Jones' novels: doors and openings to other lands. Howl's castle has four doors, opening to Kingsbury, the capital of Ingary, one to Porthaven, by the sea, one to Market Chipping, one to Wales (where Howl is Howel Jenkins) and one is the front door.

Sophie is a very loveable character. Initially diffident and lacking in self confidence, her transformation into an old woman shows that she is in fact tenacious, courageous and loving. This is in contrast to Howl, who cares little for convention and the opinions of others, but is finally willing to put himself in danger for the people he loves.

This is a funny, entertaining novel. It was adapted by Studio Ghibli into an anime film, which takes most of the central themes of the book but of course is not a totally faithful adaptation: some characters are conflated and some plot aspects are omitted. The novel for me is far more satisfying.

Diana Wynne Jones was a highly influential novelist. She was at Oxford at the same time as some other incredible children's fantasy writers: Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Penelope Lively, and was taught by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein. However, she published her first novel 10 or more years after the rest of her generation, which may explain why, although she had a great deal of critical success, she was never as widely read as the others. After the publishing phenomenon of Harry Potter, Jones' books, many of which were out of print, were reissued. She was very gracious about the debt Rowling owed to her, but her lack of acknowledgement. Neil Gaiman wrote about his great friend, who he was very open about crediting, here.

I wrote about another of Jones' books, Witch Week, here.

Edit: The Guardian has now posted an obituary on its website.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Hand in Gove


Michael Gove has been inspired by a Charter School in Harlem, New York, to say that State educated children should read 50 books a year once they are at Secondary school. In my opinion there should be the space in the curriculum (at both Primary and Secondary school) to read more, but I am not in favour of proscribed book lists, and it seems that the revised National Curriculum for England and Wales may have booklists.

I was thinking about my own reading when I was 11. I have a diary from that age, where I listed some of what I had read over the past year. The list included:

Smash Hits magazine
Jackie magazine
Carrie by Stephen King
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
Strangers at Snowfell by Malcolm Saville
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkein (I read this in English lessons, much to my disgust since I had read it before with my dad)
The Otterbury Incident by C Day-Lewis (this was in English lessons at school. I hated it and have never read it since)
Emily by Jilly Cooper
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
Watership Down by Richard Adams- I had been to see the film
Tarka The Otter by Henry Williamson (Another read at school- I got in trouble for reading ahead of the class)
The King of the Barbareens by Janet Hitchman (This may have been a school read. I remember nothing about it except the title)

As you can see, quite a variety, and like many young readers I switched from approved "literature" to material adults would have tolerated (magazines) to books that would have been considered too unchallenging (The Little White Horse) to books that definitely would not have been approved- Jilly Cooper and Stephen King.

I was tormented at school with A Kestrel For A Knave by Barry Hines. It is undoubtedly a brilliant book, but it meant absolutely nothing to my classmates and I growing up North West of London in the early '80s. Unbelievably I don't think my teacher made any links between Billy's situation growing up in a mining town in Yorkshire in the 1960s and the closure of the mines in the early '80s. I don't remember watching the film at school. However, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, from the Deep South of USA in the 1960s, resonated with me, growing up in an area painted with swastikas and National Front slogans following the riots in many inner city areas in the 1980s. (I am not suggesting that the Home Counties were like Alabama, of course, but the central message of respect for difference translated to the late 70s/ early 80s, when skinhead attacks and black football players being greeted with monkey noises and bananas thrown at them were common).

If the list is going to be a suggestion of the range of books children and young people should encounter at schools, as an entitlement, then I am in favour of this- what I have omited from my list is the inexplicable number of Westerns and Steinbeck we read in my second year at Secondary school (I remember Shane, The Red Pony, The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, mostly because I loathed them and have never willingly read or watched a Western since); I was miserable in English Literature that year. Young people should be entitled to be introduced to Western and American literary classics, but also poetry and literature from other countries, biography and autobigraphy, diaries and letters, realist and fantasy novels, modern drama. And crucially, schools should be free to choose the texts that are most appropriate to their students and their situation.

Parents also have responsibility for their children's reading development, ensuring that they belong to the library and are allowed to choose books for themselves. Of course, parents need to model reading behaviour as well. However, children and young people must also be allowed free rein to read what they like. If this includes blogs, magazines, intructions for games, comics and graphic novels, song lyrics, Justin Bieber's autobiography, supernatural romances- does this count in Gove's opinion? Maybe given some adults' aversion to reading we should be impressed if they're reading anything at all.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Strange Little Girl


I recently re-read Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer. First published in 1969, I read this first aged about 11 or 12 at Secondary school. Regular readers will remember that it is one of the 10 books I recommended to Martin Amis.

13 year old Charlotte Makepeace arrives at boarding school for the first time. She is taken out of a line of waiting girls and to a dormitory, where she is the first to arrive. Encouraged to choose a bed, she takes the one nearest the window with distinctive wheels. Charlotte struggles to fit in at school; she is withdrawn and misses her sister Emma. One night she falls asleep and wakes up over 40 years earlier, in 1918 (The book is set in 1963), where she is addressed as Clare Moby and has a little sister Emily. Initially able to time-slip between 1963 and 1918, Charlotte becomes stuck in 1918 when Clare and Emily are moved from boarding at the same school to go to lodge with Miss Agnes Chisel Brown and her obnoxious parents.

I have enjoyed this book for over 30 years. I think that the mark of a truly great novel is that it can enjoyed on different levels- as a child I liked the time-travel/ ghost story elements (and as I have said before I loved school stories). Reading it when older, I am struck by how confused Charlotte is; if teachers and schoolmates can't tell that she isn't Clare, then is she really Charlotte? She stares at mirrors (and is reprimanded for vanity) trying to remember whether it is her face or Clare's. She agonises over the differences in personality between herself and Clare. Her relationship (or Clare's) with Emily is strained.

In 1985, for no reason that I can tell, Farmer revised Charlotte Sometimes and changed the ending. I only have the Red Fox edition above, but am on the hunt for a pre-1985 edition that I have lost or given away; I remember the ending being much more downbeat than the modern one.

I have discovered Penelope Farmer's blog, sadly not updated since last year. In it she tells the story of her meeting Robert Smith from The Cure. It's a good read.

I have learnt from Wikipedia (yes, I know, not the most reliable source) that Charlotte Sometimes is the third in a trilogy about Charlotte and her sister Emma. The other two novels are The Summer Birds and Emma in Winter, both sadly out of print.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

How High The Moon?

According to 12-year-old Bob De Billier, Winnipeg is so flat that "you can see your dog running away for three days". Bob and his 10 year old sister, Marie-Claire (known as The Rat), live there with their dad. Bob has just finised elementary school, he has a crush on his exchange student teacher from Venezuela, and he has plans for the summer holiday with his "Native" friend Little Joe. Then the first day of their holiday, their father dies, and their lives change.

Marie Claire is the impetus behind the siblings'  decision not to report their father's death to the authorities (The Rat is afraid that they will be separated and put in homes with the "goddamn paedophiles" that their father has warned them against) but to travel across Canada to New York, to find their long-lost "drug dealer" uncle. Along the way they encounter hustlers, a smuggler, the latest New York rap star, and eventually a "goddamn paedophile", but not where it might be expected.

The story is narrated by Bob, but The Rat is the star. She is in the fine tradition of sparky pre-teen heroines such as Neil Gaiman's Coraline, but she is no archetype- a rap-and-Sinatra loving, mocha-addicted, snobbish proud Winnipegger, who has visions of the future and is suffering increasingly frequent and severe seizures. The Rat's voice is entirely her own; a story-teller, myth-weaver, who talks Bob into trouble and then both of them out of it, and along the way spell-binding New York Irish doormen, an insurance fraudster and a rapper (amongst others) into her crazy plans, she is enchanting. She makes a story which could be mawkish or entirely unbelievable funny and touching rather than overly sentimental.

Gregory Hughes, who could be a fictional character himself (a 50 year old Liverpudlian currently resident in Vancouver, he has been a deep sea diver, a bicycle courier and spent some time homeless, and has lived in Reykjavik, Toronto and New York, amongst other places) beat Charlie Higson and former winner Marcus Sedgewick to the Booktrust Teenage Fiction Prize for 2010 with this, his first novel. It's a great read, highly recommended for anyone 11+. My only minor quibble is the ending- it isn't a conventional happy ending and the novel is all the better for that, but as a children's book Hughes has made it hopeful, but I felt it disrupted the rhythm of the narrative. However, I enjoyed it so much I chose it as the book I would bookcross for World Book Day (I wrote about it here).

I heard this  in my head often when reading the text- I imagined The Rat singing it with her dad while he made pancakes in the kitchen.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Graveyard Book


When you first saw the book, what did you think it was going to be like?

When I first picked the book up I thought it would be quite scary by the title and the picture of Bod and Silas in the graveyard. Also when I went to Waterstones to buy it, the cashier at the desk told me that I would really enjoy it so that made me want to read it even more, and now I want to read it again!

Was there anything you liked about this book?

Yes, there were quite a few things I really liked such as, when Bod leaves the graveyard and when Scarlett and Bod go though the trouble of the sleer. The reason I enjoyed these bits was because of the description ;it really helped me paint a picture in my head.

Was there anything you disliked?

Yes, I didn’t really like the bit about the dance that only alive people and dead people can dance; it didn’t really excite me much.

Was there anything that puzzled you?

Yes, the thing that really puzzled me was Silas, my dad and I thought that maybe Silas was a vampire because he had no reflection, he lives in the dark and he isn’t dead or alive

Were there any puzzles - any connections that you noticed?

Yes, when I read The Graveyard book I thought that some bits were a bit like Coraline although I have only seen the film and also I thought the beginning was also like Anthony Horowitz’s “Horowitz Horror.”

Which character interested you the most?

I think probably Bod because he is so brave and I would like to be as brave as him

If the author asked you what could be improved in the story, what would you say?

I can’t really think of anything that could be improved. In fact I think it is so perfect that I chose to go to school on world book day as Silas. I have already recommended it to my friends.

Charlotte Ramsay (age 10)

Thursday, 3 March 2011

World Book Day

Last night I was lucky enough to go to the very swanky offices of Slaughter and May in the City of London, to hear Anthony Horowitz give the Sir Simon Hornby Memorial Lecture for the National Literacy Trust on World Book "Eve". In a typically iconoclastic address, Horowitz posited that we are not having the "right debate" about library closures. While making it clear that he does not support the closure of "a single library anywhere", he pointed out that not only are adult borrowing figures at an all-time low, but the most borrowed adult author is James Patterson, the unfeasibly prolific author who has just signed a contract to produce 17 novels in 3 years; a feat he achieves by working largely with co-authors who write the first draft of his novels. Horowitz suggests that the Public Lending Right is not aimed at such writers; so perhaps there should be a mechanism for successful writers to pay it into the public purse to support literacy.

Horowitz was equally bracing on World Book Night (Saturday 5th March), which he felt could be in danger of being simply "nice, bookish people giving books to nice, bookish people". I was excited about the idea of World Book Night- registering to give away 48 of your favourite book- until I saw the titles. Now, these are some wonderful books, don't get me wrong- but my particular interest is in children/ young adult titles, and only Pullman's Northern Lights and two "crossover" novels: Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Yann Martell's The Life Of Pi are listed. I've read all of these, and loved them, but they are already best sellers and well known. I wanted to use the occasion to metaphorically grab someone by the collar and in the style of the Ancient Mariner, rant on about an amazing title that I had read recently and loved. Then I read this, by Nicola Morgan.

Coincidentally, 6th March, the day after World Book Night, is the third birthday of the totally wonderful Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. It is my local bookshop. Wood Green is in Haringey, North London. It is a borough where 22% of children- close to 1 in 4- grow up in severe poverty (i.e. where the weekly income is less than £134 for a single-parent family with one child or £240 for a two-parent family). Wood Green High Road has a number of closing down (or closed down) shops, pound shops, charity shops and chain stores: not the environment where you might expect to find an independent bookshop.  It is however very close to the more well-heeled parts of North London, such as Muswell Hill or Highgate, both of which have excellent independent bookshops that I had visited regularly. Crouch End (a far wealthier area) lost Prospero's Books last year.

Waterstone's Wood Green closed down with 9 days notice in 2007 (replaced, predictably, by a chainstore selling cheap clothes), and Tim and Simon, former Waterstone's employees, opened their shop in 2008. It's a great, friendly place to buy books, and is a truly community bookshop- it holds quizzes, book groups, baby and toddler storytimes, a board games afternoon on Sundays... I could go on. I have seen Carl Barat, former Libertine, playing live there; I met Phill Jupitus there, as the Tottenham Choir sang carols in the shop on one of the snowiest Saturdays of the year.

And then came this blogpost. It seemed that we'd become a little complacent and had got used to the shop being there. So I decided that on World Book Day I would give a book as Nicola Morgan suggested, since I'll be at a birthday party on World Book Night (although my present will be books, bought at the Big Green Bookshop- family and friends, please get used to this!) I bought the breathtaking Unhooking The Moon from the shop:
I registered it with Bookcrossing.com, then I wrote a note, explaining that it was a gift. I slipped a 10% discount leaflet for the bookshop inside, hoping that it will encourage someone not familiar with the shop to visit. I went to Caffe Latino, an independent coffee shop in Wood Green (where one of Big Green Bookshop's book groups meet), and had a latte. I was planning to leave the book on the table:
But instead I decided to leave it in the newspaper rack:

I hope that one of the many customers in the caffe will pick it up and take it home for their children, or maybe read it themselves and enjoy it. It's a marvellous read. And they'll visit the bookshop and support it.

Anthony Horowitz believes that independent bookshops are vital for children's literacy, as are school libraries, with properly qualified librarians. Please consider donating a few pounds to Literacy Trust, who do vital work in promoting literacy in schools but have lost 100% of its government funding (£1 million). Please use your local independent bookshop, or if buying from Amazon, click on the new from tab and buy from an independent bookshop. Because if we don't use them, they won't survive. Buy fewer books, but from independent shops, and use your library more.

Zoe from Playing By The Book is organising a book donation scheme for Christchurch families who have lost everything in the New Zealand earthquake. This seems to me to be a great way to help- I'm sure you can remember as a child the devastation of losing a favourite toy or book. It must be so much worse to lose them all. Please have a look, and contact Zoe if you'd like to help.