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.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr

Review by Liam R, age 6, and Claire R (Mum).

Liam - I think this book is very funny. One of my favourite parts is when Wolf tries to plant normal objects in the garden to make them grow, but he doesn't realise that a piece of a ladder won't grow into a big ladder! That made me laugh very hard.  I liked the chapter where Wolf thought he was invisible, because he was doing lots of silly things and thought no one could see him.  The Wolf does lots of silly things and is very naughty but I really liked him.

I read some of the book by myself and sometimes Mum read it to me. I'm going to take the book to show my teacher when I go back to school.

I think that other boys and girls should read this book as I think they will really like it.  I really enjoyed waiting to see if Polly would get eaten up by the Wolf.


Claire -
This book has been a pleasure to read with both of the boys (aged 6 and 9).  I like to read aloud to Liam and he always enjoys listening to stories where there are opportunities to bring the story characters to life with interesting voices and Wolf is definitely one of those characters!

The book is split into lots of short stories for easy reading and while each one carries a similar theme of whether Wolf will ever catch Polly, the content is imaginative and varied as he tries every trick in the book.  While Wolf is the 'baddie' of the stories, the way the stories are written make him seem very human and quite endearing at times and adds to the charm - Liam found himself wanting Wolf to catch Polly before the end of the book!

All in all a highly recommended read both for children, and for parents. I can guarantee that this book will be a favourite to go back to over the next few years.

And the winner is...

LiveOtherwise! Congratulations, please email me your postal address to fantasticreads at gmail.com and I'll put the prize in the post as soon as possible. Hope you like it!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Prince of Mists by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, trans Lucia Graves

This post is my response to the Mostly Reading YA Translation Month.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon is most well known, of course, for The Shadow of the Wind, also translated by Lucia Graves, but his first four books were Young Adult novels. The Prince of Mists was his first novel, published in 1993, followed by The Midnight Palace (1994), Las Luces de Septiembre (The Lights of September, yet to have an English edition, 1995) and Marina (also yet to have an English edition, 1999). The Prince Of Mists was published in English by Orion in 2010.

13- year-old Max Carver lives in an unnamed city. One day in the early summer of 1943, his father, a watch maker, comes home and announces to the family that they are moving to the coast. On arrival at their new home, his younger sister Irina insists on adopting a stray cat she finds at the station, and Max notices that the station clock appears to be going backwards. The new house also seems to have a strange atmosphere: it hasn't been lived in since the former occupants' son, Jacob Fleischmann, had drowned in 1932.
Not long after the family arrive, Irina has an accident that results in coma, and she and the parents have a long hospital stay. Max, his older sister Alicia and their friend Roland discover that the sinister Prince of Mists has a terrible grievance against the Finkelsteins and is out for revenge.
This is a fast paced, absorbing read, atmospherically set on what I assume is the Northern Spanish coast (there is mention of the channel and trade with Northern Europe via the sea). Some aspects don't quite hang together for me: it wasn't entirely clear what the Prince's powers were, where he came from and why, for example, and the purpose of the backwards-running clocks- but there are some terrifying moving statues. As a debut, it is impressive, and I can't wait to read Ruiz Zafon's other Young Adult reads.
Graves' translation is excellent. It is exactly as a good translation should be, in that it is unobtrusive and naturalistically rendered. An article on her childhood and life in Majorca with her father, poet Robert Graves, can be found here.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

London Bookfair 2011

Monday 11th April to Wednesday 13th April was London Bookfair at Earl's Court Exhibition Centre. It''s a great opportunity to go and see what's out there in the world of books, what will be released and some interesting new marketing.


This alarmed me terribly, until a friend told me that former WAG (this stands for Wives and Girlfriends, as the partners of sportsmen are termed; funnily enough the partners of Paula Radcliffe and Victoria Pendleton are not called HABs) Michelle Gayle- yes, Hattie from EastEnders- has run a lot of workshops with teenage girls to try to raise their aspirations beyond marrying a rich man. I downloaded the first chapter from here: http://www.prideandpremiership.co.uk/ and it strikes me as being a version of Bridget Jones Diary rather than Pride and Prejudice. It is being released on mobile phone; you can receive it by texting Pride to 60300. I think that this is an interesting marketing move, likely to appeal to the teenage girls that this book is aimed at.

I am only sorry that my rather poor iPhone photo of this beautiful picture book from Tara Books can't do it justice. While publishers are creating books that feel this good, I cannot see eReaders taking off for young children. The paper is glossy and thick, and the cover is cloth, and feel wonderful as well as looking beautiful. I can imagine creating some fabulous artwork with children based on the illustrations. The Sacred Banana Leaf is a trickster tale from Indonesia (other famous tricksters are Anansi from the Caribbean and West Africa, Clever Tortoise, also from West Africa, or Br'er Rabbit from southern USA). Have a look inside- the illustrations are beautiful, in a style of painting from South East India, where Tara Books is based. Another book by the same author, Nathan Kumar Scott, is Mangoes and Bananas. Zoe from Playing By The Book introduced me to Tara Books, and in her excellent blogpost about another of Tara's books, Do! All of these books are highly recommended. You can order direct from Tara, or from Amazon. Or I'll bet your local bookshop would order them for you.


I was really pleased to see that Walker Books is reissuing Berlie Doherty's  Classic Fairy Tales. It is richly illustrated by Jane Ray, and goes back to the original versions of the tales (Grimm, Anderson, Afanashev etc) rather than the Disney versions that many children consider the "correct" versions. Of course, the Grimm tales are from the oral tradition so are subject to change from country to country, but the original versions were much less "pretty" than the stories children hear today. This book is glorious and a real investment for parents or teachers- children will love it and want to hear or read it again and again. Berlie Doherty is a wonderful writer; she has won the Carnegie medal twice (for Dear Nobody and Granny Was A Buffer Girl, the story of several generations of a Sheffield family). My personal favourite of her work is Children of Winter, about the Derbyshire village of Eyam, which in 1666 cut itself off from the outside world when a traveller to the village infected it with plague. It was dramatised by BBC radio; listen out for it on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

While wandering about I came across an Australian Publishers stand, where this caught my eye:

This book was nominated for a number of children's awards in Australia, and received good reviews, but unfortunately hasn't got a UK publisher. I've ordered it from Australia (gulp) and will report back. I'm intrigued by another use of social media by children's/ Young Adult publishers (Pride and Premiership has its own Facebook page, for example)- the Youtube trailer. I think that this is fabulous- it builds anticipation and interest the way film and TV trailers do. I think it would be brilliant to have children in school making trailers for their favourite books- much more interesting than writing a book review!

Finally, I got a couple of uncorrected proofs from a kind lady at Frances Lincoln (there were far fewer freebies than I remember from previous visits!): Too Much Trouble by Tom Avery, which was the winner of the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices award in 2010. It's the story of Emmanuel and his brother Prince, who escape from a war torn central African country to London, but don't find a safe haven and are soon lost and alone on the streets of London, and The Rabbit Girl by Mary Arrigan, which is set in present day London and wartime Lake District and looks intriguing.

After all this, it was lovely to meet Zoe from Playing By The Book, and we staggered to Drummond Street, behind Euston Station, under the weight of book catalogues and had a delicious vegetarian curry at the venerable Ravi Shankar bhel poori house. A superb day out.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Tiffany Aching- an appreciation

I have long been a fan of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. I think that as a fully realised alternate universe, it works brilliantly. Fantasy novels, particularly comic ones, must have their own internal logic, and the rules can be broken, but not so much that it breaks the reader's belief in it. Pratchett does this with incredible skill.

Longterm fans of Discworld will remember that in Discworld, according to Equal Rites, girls are witches and boys are wizards, and there are no exceptions. Boy wizards go to Ankh Morph to the Unseen University, and girl witches are apprenticed to another witch. Witch magic (despite the best efforts of Mrs Letice Earwig to "professionalise" it) is practical, focussing on healing, animal husbandry and looking after the sick, poor, elderly and unfortunate.

Tiffany Aching, in The Wee Free Men, first of her series, is nine years old. She lives on The Chalk, her family are sheep farmers and she is still mourning the death of Granny Aching, a formidable woman and well-respected shepherd. Tiffany is a very intelligent girl, largely ignored in her numerous family since she is capable and trustworthy. She is a very good dairymaid. She has read all the books her family have (a yearly almanac, a book of fairy tales, The Flowers of the Chalk, Diseases of Sheep and a dictionary which she has read from beginning to end since nobody told that this is not how a dictionary is used. Hence she has an excellent vocabulary but often pronounces words wrongly.)

The book of fairy tales came in handy, as she recognises Jenny Green Teeth and defeats her at the beginning of The Wee Free Men in a particularly ruthless way. This attracts the attention of both the Nac Mac Feegles, a gang of disreputable, vaguely Scottish "Pictsies" (thrown out of Fairyland for drunkenness, thieving and fighting), and Miss Perspicacia Tick, an itinerant witch finder (to recruit young witches) and teacher. Teachers in Discworld are like travelling showpeople- they turn up in a village, set up a showground and teach in return for food. However they are regularly chased from villages at dusk, for fear of chicken-stealing. Tiffany is too young at 9 to be apprenticed, but she travels to Fairyland to rescue her little brother Wentworth and on the way, also the Baron's son Roland, thereby also attracting the attention of Granny Weatherwax.

The four novels following Tiffany's adventures ( The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full Of Sky, Wintersmith and I Shall Wear Midnight) revisit her every two years: she is 11 in A Hat Full Of Sky, apprenticed to Miss Level and encountering some delightful other young witches, 13 in Wintersmith and 15 in I Shall Wear Midnight. One of the joys of Pratchett's novels are the names- to my mind he is on a par with Dickens in that respect. Annagramma Hawkin, Petulia Gristle, Dimity Hubbub and Gertruder Tiring are fabulous names. Another is the re-encountering of characters from other Discworld novels: Granny Weatherwax, Mrs Earwig, the Nac Mac Feegles and the Wintersmith are recurring characters. I would argue that rather than "adult" and "juvenile" novels, all Pratchett's novels can be enjoyed by all ages; readers who are more sophisticated and widely-read in the fantasy genre can enjoy the parody aspects, while less experienced readers enjoy the humour, characters and absurdities of Discworld.

Pratchett has a great deal of respect for his female characters, both young and old; Tiffany is a great female hero (not just an honorary boy as many female heroes in children's fiction tend to be), her thought processes are particularly interesting. What might be termed her "metacognition" (reflecting upon her thoughts, then reflecting upon her reflection) is particularly interesting and would be a fascinating basis for thinking skills lessons with 10-14 year olds. I find his commentary on fairy tales in The Wee Free Men interesting as well- the treatment of women considered witches in fairy tales, on The Chalk and in 17th century Europe and North America is a theme of the novels.

Finally, Pratchett brings aspects of both "high" and "low" culture  into the novels: part of Fairyland is a representation of Richard Dadd's The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke (minus a Nac Mac Feegle making an obscene gesture, of course!) which can be seen at Tate Britain. While searching for the Tate link, I came across this Queen song that I had never heard. One of my favourite exchanges in the novel, perhaps a comment on our present popular culture, is this one between Tiffany and Miss Tick:

"...Are you listening?"
"Yes," said Tiffany.
"Good. Now... if you trust in yourself..."
"Yes?"
"... and you believe in your dreams..."
"Yes?"
"... and follow your star..." Miss Tick went on.
"Yes?"
"...you'll still get beaten by people who spend their time working hard and learning things and weren't so lazy. Goodbye."

There is now an illustrated version of The Wee Free Men, which I will be looking out for (my copy is a very bashed Random House copy). I'm a little concerned, as I have my own idea of Tiffany's (very ordinary) appearance, but the jacket looks great:

Terry Pratchett won the Carnegie Medal for The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. A full list of his children's fiction can be found here. His novels have frequently been dramatised on BBC Radio 4, and available as audiobooks (Mort is particularly good). One of the great things about these novels is that, in an era with increasing polarisation of the genders in publishers' marketing (I've written more about this here) is that they are enjoyed by both boys and girls; any upper Primary teacher will tell you how hard it is to interest boys in reading novels with a girl protagonist, but Pratchett can do it. I take my pointy hat off to him for that alone.