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.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Very quick update

On February 22nd this year, Christchurch, New Zealand suffered a huge earthquake. In the aftermath, two friends on Twitter got chatting: Zoe from Playing by the Book and Bronwyn from Day 1 Every Pen In The House Ran Out Of Ink. Zoe lives near Birmingham, UK and Bronwyn is in Christchurch, New Zealand. Zoe wanted to know what she could do, something practical to help families. And there Books for Christchurch was born.

I signed up to help, and was sent the details of a family with two children, Josh and Charlotte. I sent the children three books, Comet in Moominland, The Wee Free Men and The Cat Who Liked The Rain. I also sent the parents a thriller.

Books have always been a refuge and a solace for me in times of difficulty and sadness. I once had to leave a place I was living very quickly, and packed my books but left clothes and other personal possessions. I imagine that children would find the loss of favourite books and toys possibly more difficult than the loss of or serious damage to their homes.

I didn't expect to hear from the family, knowing that they must have hundreds of things to do. However, yesterday I received a beautiful card from the parents, and these from the children:
The Moomins card is from Josh, and the rainbow from Charlotte. The parents have said how much the children enjoyed the books, and have started to read all the Moomin books, that they were a distraction from the events of the earthquake. The parents have now started to re-read the Discworld books as well. This has made me so happy, and I think has shown me how great social media is: the events in other parts of the world are made real to me by putting me into contact with people living through experiences and allowing me to "hear" their voices.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Kat, irrepressible

The author, Stephanie Burgis, very kindly arranged for me to be sent the uncorrected proof of A Tangle of Magicks, but this post reflects my true opinions of her novels.



Burgis has set her novels in a Regency England where magic exists, but is considered highly improper. A group known as the Guardians regulate the use of magic, protecting society from malicious or harmful use; the starting point of the first novel is that the protagonist (and narrator), 12 year old Kat Stephenson, discovers that she is a member of the Guardians, and her older sister, Angeline is a witch. This proves to be a serious embarrassment to the family since the eldest Miss Stephenson, Elissa, has bowed (with some enjoyment of her martyrdom, as Kat sardonically notes) to pressure to repair the family's finances since their brother Charles has gambled much of it away and her country parson father has almost bankrupted himself paying the creditors. Their stepmother is unsympathetic to any hint of romanticism in the girls' views of marriage, being firmly of the opinion that Elissa must do her duty. Kat decides that it is down to her to save her sister, but how?

However, Kat's antagonism towards her fellow guardians, who are disparaging of her dead mother, leads to her powers being uncontrolled; in addition Angeline has found her mother's magic books and has cast a spell calling her "true love" to her, who proves to be a young man called Frederick Carlyle who inconveniently follows her about proposing to her, and then the family is invited to a country house party full of the best Society people where Elissa is to meet the man she is to marry.

This was a great, fun read which made me giggle on public transport. If I say it is for me a mix of Georgette Heyer and Diana Wynne Jones, I do not mean that it is derivative (and indeed, I love both of these writers). It mixes a Regency romance with rakes, snobbish dowagers, highwaymen and impecunious, beautiful young women with Wynne Jones' use of magic both to unsettle characters and illuminate their true selves.



The second in the series (due out in August- see Stephanie read the opening here) starts dramatically at Elissa's wedding, where Angeline and Kat are bridesmaids and Frederick is the best man. Kat's impetuousness has resulted in her causing offence to a very poweful Society lady, who decides that Frederick's mother should know what kind of family he is getting involved with, and Mrs Carlyle arrives to save her son. She is a marvelous creation; dramatic, rude and great fun.

With Frederick and Angeline's engagement broken, and the scandal created at Elissa's wedding, the Stephensons set off for Bath to stay with Kat's stepmother's relations, the Wingates. During her stay Kat encounters the head of the Guardians, her putative Guardian tutor, Mr Gregson and becomes friendly with Lucy Wingate. There is development of some of the characters who stayed in the background in the first book, such as Charles and the Rev Stphenson, and I felt that Stepmama becomes a rather more sympathetic character: as Fay Weldon has pointed out in her Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, failure to attract a comfortably off husband was a serious issue for a young woman in Regency England. Women who did not marry were not able to have a profession (Austen herself earned very little from her novels), and they would become a burden on their families.

I really enjoyed these books, and am looking forward to the release of the third next summer. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of the loving yet exasperated relationship that can exist between sisters, and the invocation of Sulis Minerva at the Roman baths in the second novel through the hi-jinks of some Cambridge students was particularly striking. Highly recommended to 9+.

Edit: If you like the sound of A Tangle of Magicks and you live in the UK, enter a competition on Facebook to win it.

Friday, 13 May 2011

"The finding is in me, and the finding finds a way".

This is now my third post concerning Russell Hoban, but I make no promises about no more! He is such a versatile and imaginative writer for both adults and children, and his books for children, as I have said before, are no less poetic and complex than his adult novels, and indeed contain many of the same tropes.

The title of this post comes from The Sea-Thing Child (1972), unknown to me until it was recommended by Marjorie from Paper Tigers
It was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal for Patrick Benson's illustrations, which work perfectly with the text. The story is of the sea-thing child's arrival on the beach as a "little draggled heap of fright", his interactions with other sea and beach-dwelling creatures and his growth and development until at last he is able to return to the life he was born to have.

The illustrations do exactly what they should in good picture books- they work both in tandem with and independently from the text, which is beautiful, poetic and thought provoking as you would expect a Hoban book to be. With each of the Child's interactions with the other creatures (a fiddler crab, an eel, an albatross) Benson's illustrations show that he is growing up, although Hoban does not explicitly state that he is doing this. This is a gorgeous book, and I thoroughly recommend it, perhaps to read to a child who has a lot of fears or anxieties about changing circumstances. It is quite long for a picture book, and has some fairly challenging vocabulary, so I would recommend it for 6+ as a book to read to children or 8+ as a book for children to read alone. Sadly it is out of print.


How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen (1974) was absolutely one of my family's favourite books when my sisters and I were children. It is the riotously funny story of Tom, a boy who "liked to fool around". Sadly, Tom lived with his Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, a lady who "took no nonsense from anyone. Where she walked the flowers drooped, and when she sang the trees all shivered", who has no truck with fooling around. She brings Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen to sort him out by beating him at the games womble, muck and sneedball. All these games prove to be organised forms of the fooling around that Tom does every day, and he wins all of them. Captain Najork however is consoled by Miss Fidget Wonkham-Strong, and Tom advertises for a new aunt.

Gloriously illustrated by Quentin Blake, this story doesn't have the rhymes and songs that are in The Sea-Thing Child and Bread and Jam for Frances (and his other children's books, and famously, Riddley Walker). However, the inventive use of language is everywhere- in character names (the aunt that Tom gets through advertising is Bundlejoy Cosysweet), names of the games and in the food Tom is given by Miss Fidget Wonkham-Strong: "eat your mutton and your cabbage-and-potato-sog", which entered our family lexicon. Again, sadly, this book is out of print; snap it up if you see it at a reasonable price, or maybe your library will have it.

Finally, another of my childhood favourites:

 Bread and Jam for Frances (1964) is the story of an exhuberant little badger (there is a series) who decides that she doesn't want to eat anything but bread and jam. Apparently at the age of 3 or 4 I refused to eat anything but peanut butter and toast; I'm not sure whether my parents found this book around the same time. The Frances books are charmingly illustrated by Hoban's then-wife Lillian; Frances’ facial expressions and physicality are particularly enjoyable. Frances, in a move that many parents will recognise, decides that she doesn’t like eating anything except bread and jam, because she knows how it tastes, knows she likes it and therefore always gets what she likes to eat. Mother and Father Badger are wise parents and give into her, while talking about how delicious their breaded cutlets, spaghetti and meatballs and poached eggs are. Eventually Frances becomes tired of her bread and jam (and a little envious of her friend Albert’s exotic packed lunches) and eats up all her spaghetti and meatballs.

Hoban’s children’s books are remarkable for distilling the “truth” of the story to one sentence: from The Sea-Thing Child, the title of this post, which could almost be a line from Riddley Walker; from How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen: “Maybe that will teach you not to fool around with a boy who knows how to fool around”. From Bread and Jam for Frances, it is “...I think it’s nice that there are all different kinds of lunches and breakfasts and dinners and snacks”.

Frances’ little rhymes and songs are a joy; in this book they are all about food; to an egg she sings:
            I do not like the way you slide
            I do not like your soft inside
            I do not like your lots of ways
            And I could do for many days
            Without eggs.

Again, sadly, these books seem to be out of print, but they are classics in the USA. They’re readily available second hand, and I think children of 3 or 4 upwards would love them as much as I did.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Other Countries

As a child, one of my favourite TV programmes was Jackanory. Incredibly, in the 1970s 15 minutes of primetime children's TV was not cartoons or drama, but an adult (often a respected actor) reading a story to children, supported with illustrations. One of my favourites was Bernard Cribbins reading Arabel's Raven by Joan Aiken, a prolific, gifted and witty author of novels and stories both for children and adults (Jane Austen fans, I suggest you investigate both her Austen novels and historical fiction; in Aiken captures Austen's detatchment and sardonic tone far better than the rather sugary sequels written by Emma Tennant; and fans of both Austen and zombies: this is just brilliant; almost as good as Jane Slayre).



The Wolves series contains some of her best known work. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was Aiken's first full length novel. Set in an imagined history where James II was not defeated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the Stewart dynasty is still on the throne in the early 19th century. James III is on the throne, and Britain is threatened both by wolves who have migrated through the newly-opened Channel Tunnel and by rogue Hanoverians who want to establish "Bonnie Prince Georgie" on the throne.

This first novel introduces some characters that reoccur in later novels (Simon, Miss Slighcarp, Mr Grimshaw) but is very much a stand alone novel. I far prefer the novels featuring Dido Twite: Black Hearts in Battersea, Nightbirds on Nantucket, The Stolen Lake, The Cuckoo Tree and Dido and Pa. Dido is around 8 years old in the first novel: neglected by her appalling family, who it transpires are wicked Hanoverian revolutionaries, Simon (an art student lodging with the family) takes care of her, at first reluctantly, then with a certain amount of affection. Dido then rescues Simon, and as Aiken explains, she initially meant her to drown. However there were anguished letters from children, so she allowed Dido to be picked up by a whaler and taken to Nantucket, where she encounters Miss Slighcarp, the evil governess from the first novel.

Dido is a great child character, who becomes a protagonist in the later books. She has a difficult childhood and an interestingly ambiguous moral sense Black Hearts in Battersea, but develops into a resourceful, brave hero figure. As novelist and critic Amanda Craig explains in this BBC Radio 4 interview following Aiken's death, without Dido there would be no Lyra, and I would suggest, no Mosca.



Mosca is the protagonist of the fantastically mysterious Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night. Set in an alternative historical period known as the Fractured Realm (which struck me as being 18th Century, imagining an England where after the Civil War the Republican Protectorate had not lasted, and the land is locked in an ongoing war between the monarchists and parliamentarians. In this struggle the Guilds have become the de facto power of the country, and the system of government is of city states nominally ruled over by their own Duke or Duchess, with their own patron "saints", the Beloved.

Mosca is the daughter of Quilliam Mye, a writer. She was born on the day of Goodman  Palptittle (the Beloved known as "He who keeps flies out of jam"). Names are very important in the Fractured Realm, as is propitiating the Beloved. She is an author brought up by her mill-owning aunt and uncle. At the time the books starts she is 12, and printed works that are not created by the Guild of Scriveners has been outlawed. All her father's books have been burnt, and perhaps because of this Mosca is drawn to interesting words. She is drawn to a verbose conman, Eponymous Clent, and after accidentally burning down her uncle's mill, rescues him from the stocks and escapes in the company of a vicious goose. Of course, she becomes embroiled with highwaymen, the Guild wars, spying and gun-smuggling.

Mosca is slightly older than Dido, and is another resourceful, brave heroine. Eponymous Clent is a very unreliable mentor figure, and the reader does not get the impression that she is ever truely safe. In comparison, Simon is a wholly good character and the reader feels that he will come to Dido's rescue until the end of Black Hearts in Battersea.

The use of alternative history is very interesting. There is a fascinating section on it through the amazing To The Best Of Our Knowledge programme via Wisconsin Public Radio (oh the joy of the internet!), where authors consider the internal logic of such histories- if one aspect of history is changed, how does it affect others? Hardinge's alternate history may seem far-fetched until one considers the city states of pre-late 19th Century Italy, the intrigues, assassinations, guilds and political alliances and marriages; and in early 19th Century there were incredible progresses in technology; balloon launches were a popular attractions and the first proposals for channel tunnels were indeed made during that era.

The delight of both of these books for me is not only the characters of Mosca and Dido and the fast paced adventurous plots, but also the inventive language both authors use, with elements of thieves' cant, Dickensian low-life characters and of course the authors' own inventiveness. The names are wonderful in both novels as well- again, with some of the joy of Dickens. All in all, both novels are highly recommended- Aiken's to 8 +, Hardinge's may need a reader with a little more stamina. I imagine that both would be a joy to read aloud- I've read The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase to 7 and 8 year olds who loved it. I'm really looking forward to reading the sequel to Fly By Night: Twilight Robbery (Fly Trap in the US).

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Fairies, Gods and Gadgets


Anyone watching commercial TV in the UK recently may have noticed something that seems a new phenomenon to me- books being advertised almost like films. I've noticed the new Jodi Picoult and James Patterson ones, and another one with a girl running through the forest, then being found tied up in a shed- but I can't remember the author. Interestingly, I think this is an area that may have crossed over from pre-teen and young adult books, which as I noted in my post about the London Bookfair, are being promoted in social media: Walker Books have even set up a blog for their trailers.

Eoin Colfer, the author of Artemis Fowl, uses social media in an excellent way. http://www.artemisfowl.co.uk/  was originally designed as though it was the blog of the teenage master criminal. His website and that of Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson books,  have games, computer wall paper, quizzes, trailers, author interviews- a whole world of gadgets and consumables to collect.

Colfer and Riordan are both regularly included in lists of authors that will engage boys in reading, and despite my misgivings about firstly, problematising boys' literacy (surely telling boys that boys don't like reading will only make them believe reading is girly?) and secondly, genderising books into "boys" and "girls" books, they are certainly authors that I would be recommending to any boys asking me which books they should read.

Artemis Fowl (2001) has been described by author Eoin Colfer as "Die Hard with fairies". Artemis is a 12 year old boy, son of Artemis Fowl Snr, an Irish criminal. He is a criminal genius, who has after significant research has established that fairy people exist, and decides to kidnap one in order to extort fairy gold from them. The fairy he kidnaps is Captain Holly Short of the Lower Elements Police Reconnaisance (LEPRecon). He holds her at Fowl Manor, and the LEPRecon unit lead by Commander Julius Root and supported by a technical wizard centaur called Foaly and a flatulent kleptomaniac dwarf, Mulch Diggum, must break in and rescue her.

In Colfer's world, fairies (used for all magical peoples) are technically far in advance of humans. They travel underground by shuttles, can alter vision so humans can't see them (Artemis and his sidekick Butler know this, so they wear nightvision goggles), have high speed wings and a mini camera that can fit into a contact lens (an iris cam) and between the second and third book of the series, Artemis uses fairy technology from an LEP helmet that he has stolen to create the C Cube, which can piggyback on any computer platform, access any other device, play and record MP3 and video clips and double as a phone and computer.

During the series of novels the fairies and Artemis learn to work together rather than as adversaries, and Artemis becomes a more positive character- the early books were criticised amongst Christian parent and book blogs communities in the USA for "promoting" negative values. It appears to me that this is missing the point- Artemis is not a hero in these books despite being a protagonist. Holly is in fact the hero, and is by far the most positive character. (The books continued to be criticised by global warming/ environmental change deniers as the series continued, and of course Christians who believe that children should read no books about magic have never been in favour of them). The shared technology that Artemis developed enables the fairies to communicate with him, and for the teams to cooperate to save the fairy world, and Artemis' family, from oil developers, Russian mafia and the evil pixie genius Opal Koboi.

Rick Riordan wrote the Percy Jackson series of books (Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, 2005) about a boy who is constantly getting into trouble at school- strange things happen around him. He is dyslexic and has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and discovers after a calamitous incident on a school trip, he discovers that what is problematic in modern day New York is actually advantageous in his "real life"- he is a half blood, the son of Poseidon and his mortal mother. His struggles to read English are due to his brain being more receptive to Ancient Greek. His hyper-awareness is beneficial in battle. (Jackson's son is dyslexic and has ADHD, and was fascinated by Greek myths at the time he started to write the Percy Jackson books). Percy is taken to Camp Half Blood, where he finds that his friend Grover is in fact a satyr, and makes friends with Annabeth, the daughter of Athena. Together they must go on a quest to recover Zeus' lightning bolt, and return it to Mount Olympus, now located at the top of the Empire State Building.

While the Percy Jackson books don't have gadgets, they do have magical objects and weapons (Percy's sword which can transform into a pen, Annabeth's Yankees cap of invisibility, Grover's winged trainers). Percy also has special powers: he can attract water, communicate telepathically with water-dwelling creatures and foretells the future in dreams. Annabeth is highly intelligent, a great strategist and also has dreams that foretell the future. She has a strong sympathetic relationship with the Oracle. Grover the satyr can play pipes that summon nature (he plays dreadfully in the first book, but improves throughout the series), and the Panic call which invokes the god Pan.

All in all, I enjoyed both series, but I preferred Artemis. Riordan has noted his debt to J.K. Rowling, who in her turn was influenced by earlier authors such as Diana Wynne Jones and Eva Ibbotson, but in places I found the series pedestrian. The Artemis books seemed more original and inventive, and I found the Percy books' US-centrism to be grating and at times silly: witness that Mount Olympus has moved to New York City because it is the centre of Western civilisation- not a perception universally accepted.

Both series have been optioned for film adaptations, following in the wake of Potter-mania, although only Percy Jackson has made it to the screen so far. I haven't seen it, but the reviews were not promising (here is Juliette's from her great Pop Classics blog), and of course Mark Kermode was spectacularly scathing, suggesting a film title Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins as the next Potter- By-Numbers film. You can see a trailer for a spoof movie here.